Road Trippin'

December 2009

Let’s go get lost right here in the USA…

We borrow a truck for 10 days from our friends Karen and Hans in Ogden, near Salt Lake City in Utah. It’s November, it gets dark early and it’s freezing cold. The night before we leave, too much wine at 2am and looking for the loo in an unfamiliar pitch-dark house, I fall down the stairs into the basement: a sudden and shocking experience of stepping forward into an unexpected void. I manage to break some of the fall by slamming my arms sideways, but I am shaken up, find it hard to get back to sleep and wake in the morning feeling edgy and unsettled with bruised elbows and forearms. Driving out of Ogden later that day: in at the deep-end in control of a new vehicle in a foreign country in fading-light rush hour traffic. We very nearly crash into a pickup in front of us transporting metal rods that stick alarmingly far out of its flat bed.  With disaster suddenly swerved we are relieved to turn left away from the busy roads and go up and over a mountain pass.

Desert darkness: vast expanse, just us, a road map and a torch, few cars passing now. The town of Sunnyside to our left isn’t sunny, it’s dark and distant, like a mysterious mirage. Kai and Lilah are squeezed into the half seat behind, voicing the interactions between Snowy (small white terrier) and Totoro (off of My Neighbour Totoro): two soft toys they’ve got with them. Loaded with camping kit, food and warm clothes, we’re aiming for Goblin Valley State Park. Karen’s recommendation this: a plunge into the desert for the first night. After five hours we find the parking: a flatter area in a huge flat area, jagged desert mesas and pinnacles all around, discerned by the absence of stars in abstract cut out shapes. There’s no-one else here. We go driving off road looking for a place up against some cliffs to stop. The tracks get progressively worse, their definition down-graded as we lose ourselves. On the map, there is just nothing, just white paper. We stop and try hard to eat hot food, wrap up warm and attempt to get some sleep. I wished I hadn’t watched The Hills Have Eyes. The desert silence is so complete my subconscious fills in the blanks with all sorts of imagined noises. At first light I see we’re surrounded by menacing figures looming out of the dark, crazed and murderous freaks and zombies, but as the sun pops over the mountain ridge we all see their gradual transformation into pinnacles and stacks, like the gloopy late additions to beach holiday sandcastles and the growing light adds warmth and colour.

The complete silence allows us to hear a single bee approaching. He/she takes his/her time, flying past us, changes direction slightly, heading off over the rocks behind, still going, there he/she goes, we hold our breath to listen, going going gone. Starting at a beautiful autumnal cottonwood tree, we hike up Little Wild Horse canyon and down Bell Canyon, changing gradually out of our clothes as the day gets hotter, lost in the sponge cake layers of the sandstone of the San Rafael Swell. The walls of the slot canyons are so close in places we can reach our arms out and touch both sides at once. Within this complete silence we’re hyper aware of the sounds we make: our chatter and the clatter of dislodged pebbles at our feet, our breathing and sneezes, glugging swallows from our water bottles.

The next day we go through Boulder and Escalante, past the Henry Mountains, the last area in the US to be mapped. Boulder was only connected by road in the 1950s. In the 1860s the Mormon settlers explored this area, pushed out of other areas by religious persecution. These people were tough. They drove a road 60 miles down through some of the roughest terrain imaginable toward Lake Powell and blasted a route through a rock at the end. When confronted with a cliff, they drilled and blasted a series of diagonal holes in the sheer face, rammed tree trunks into the holes and built a road for their wagons on top using shrubbery. They arrived with all 240 wagons intact. We drove down some of this road stopping to visit a truly incredible place en route: The Dancehall Rock, a natural amphitheatre in a mini-Ayers Rock feature where the Mormons would dance and party in between their superhuman efforts. We saw no-one for hours. Once again out here the silence is so total you can hear the bones in your skull squeaking and can only imagine the sounds of fiddles and footsteps from long ago.

At Bryce Canyon we endure the coldest camp out of our lives: minus 16 degrees they tell us at the visitor centre the next day. We huddled around the hand drier in the ladies’ loo by the parking lot, waiting for the centre to open. We all slept through the night, wearing all our kit and huddling together like a litter of puppies. Our jerrycan of water froze solid, as did Kai’s boots so he couldn’t fit his feet in in the morning. It was all worth it though as Bryce Canyon was the most beautiful and colourful place any of us had seen, and the sprinkling of snow was like the icing on the cake. Orange, pink and yellow rock, green Ponderosa pine trees, blue blue sky and white snow. It’s like Pembrokeshire on steroids. We hike down into the canyon and back up, Kai and Lilah enjoying eating the snow. Kai even has some on a rice cake. “It’s actually quite a good snack”, he tells us.

From Monument Valley we drive east through Mexican Hat along Highway 163. We then hang a right and track off through wilderness again and fading light passing to the north of Hopi Lands and Navajo Nation. It’s getting dark and I’m alone with my young family in a foreign place. The evening feels wild, dark and scary, but we have a destination and a hope. We have joined SERVAS, a post-war non-profit organisation that by arranging hospitality exchanges aims to increase cross-cultural friendships and understanding. We have the contact details of a couple in Colorado and they have invited us to meet them in a gallery in Mancos this evening. We’re road-tired and headlight-dazzled by the time we pull into town in need of food and to stretch our legs. The gallery takes some finding and then, feeling like an instant and extraordinary transition, of the sort that is so common when travelling, we find ourselves standing in a bright, warm space, glasses of wine in hand, snacks moving around, being introduced by Tom and Sandy as “these are our friends from England.” It’s delightful and initially almost over-whelming, but everyone is so lovely and kind, they adore our children, want to find out all about us, and they are all fascinating to us too. Any anxiety we had about travelling with children has been swept aside in every country we’ve been to, especially here in the US.

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