Spring is here and summer is just around the corner. The weather is getting great for camping, and there’s nothing like the great outdoors. Forests, mountains, and lakes have the same ability to awe and calm today that they have always had, but in this Digital Age of constant connection, it’s even more imperative (and often necessary) to seek temporary solace and solitaire in nature.
For better or worse, modern technology has changed camping quite a bit. The tents, knives, and equipment we carry are lighter, sharper, and more durable than ever before. On the digital side of things, cell phones, GPS, and the Internet provide a wealth of information even out in the boonies, information that you could never pack out in years past.
Some campers and outdoorsmen shun technology altogether and stick to old-fashioned maps, compasses, and backcountry knowledge. Others willingly embrace technology on their trips because they can carry a small library of outdoors guides on a tablet, for example.
I fall somewhere in the middle. When I go camping or do anything outdoors, I carry my phone and maybe a tablet or e-reader with me, but use them minimally.
Regardless, we live in the 21st century, and if you’re planning a camping trip or outdoor excursion, you should consider taking advantage of technology to improve your trip. Below are some things you can do to make sure you and your devices make it into and out of the backcountry safely. If you click on a product link in this article and purchase something, I get a small tip at no cost to you. Much appreciated!
Turn devices off when not in use. Enjoy nature and leave the ‘Gram behind. Besides, if you’re lucky, you’ll be out of cell range anyway. If you want to take pictures, consider taking a camera specifically for the purpose, and share the pictures to social media when your trip is done. This will also help you re-enjoy the trip as you sift through your shots.
Solar chargers are also an option but you should be aware that solar power charges devices considerably slower than a battery bank will. Solar is also dependent on whether the sun is out, so if it’s a cloudy day, you won’t be able to charge your gear.
Consider buying a satellite phone. While I personally have no experience with this, if you know you’re going to be really out there (good for you!), you should consider acquiring a sat phone for your trip, as you will likely have no cell service. This would have been great on my recent trip through the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona, as my brother and I had no cell service for over twenty-four hours as we more or less traversed the entire upper-right quarter of the state. Get one in case of emergency.
At the very minimum, carry an old phone if you have one. Even if it no longer has a SIM card (meaning it’s not on a phone plan), you can still use it to dial 911 in case of an emergency. The caveat is that you still have to have service in order to call 911. That aside, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Use GPS, but take a map or atlas anyway. A couple years ago, my family took a trip to Fredericksburg, TX. We got as far as Cleburne (not very far) before the route went down to one lane under construction and traffic was backed up for miles. Both Google Maps and Apple Maps provided no alternate routes. Fortunately, I whipped out my trusty Texas map and cobbled together a new route that got us out of traffic and safely to Fredericksburg, where beer and brats awaited. It just goes to show that technology is not infallible.
You can buy a Rand McNally road atlas at Wal-Mart for under $10 that covers all states in the U.S. and all provinces in Canada, with an overview map of Mexico to boot. Also helpful are the Wal-Mart locations indexed in the front of the atlas. If you’re a AAA member, stop by your local office and pick up maps for the states you’ll be traveling through. And, when you get to wherever you’re going to stay, acquire local maps so you know your way around the surrounding area and trail or park maps so you don’t get lost while hiking.
If you have a tablet, load it up with outdoors books and guides. How do you know whether that berry is poisonous? How do you treat that kind of insect bite? What are you supposed to do, again, if you encounter a bear or mountain lion? With the right books at hand, the answers are just a few page swipes away.
If you have a tablet, such as an iPad, Samsung Galaxy, or Kindle Fire, you can easily and cheaply load your digital library up with great outdoor reference works. Yes, I agree that there is still no substitute for a real, tangible book, but when weight is an issue and you can’t feasibly pack out your entire library of outdoors guides, digital editions on your device of choice are a great alternative.
I suggest you download the free Amazon Kindle app and check out the following titles:
Also consider stocking up on some good, adventurous reads in case your hiking plans get washed out by a day of heavy rain. Again, nothing beats a hard copy, but a tablet loaded with e-books lightens your load considerably. Here are some of my favorites to get you started:
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (part of the five-book series called Brian’s Saga, aimed at young men but entertaining for adults as well)
Finally, keep your gadgets clean and dry! Dust, dirt, sand, water, and bugs are just a few things you might encounter out there, and while you are washable, your tech probably isn’t. Keep phones and tablets in water-resistant or waterproof pockets or containers, as these will also protect against dirt. I bought my brother and I each a Pelican 1060 Micro Case for keeping our phones dry while kayaking the Colorado River in Austin. It’s not a bad idea to use these whether you’re on the water or not.
With these tips in mind, you’ll be able to enjoy your trip and stay connected as need be. Just remember to take nothing but pictures and leaving nothing but footprints—and enjoy being outdoors, away from the Internet and social media!
So, who’s going where and what are you taking?
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On Wednesday morning, the morning after we conquered Angel’s Landing, we quickly made breakfast and then made tracks. Our destination for the day was Valley of Fire State Park near Overton, Nevada, just over two hours away (and one hour from Vegas, if we got the inkling!). I’d read good reviews about the place, with lots of incredible rock formations quite different from those in Zion or elsewhere in Utah.
We drove through the scenic towns along Utah Highway 9 before picking up Interstate 15 in St. George, traveling southwest towards the Arizona border. And let me tell you, I-15 through Arizona into Nevada may be one of the coolest highways I’ve ever traveled on. Canyon walls rise up on every side as the road winds among them, the strata coming out of the earth at odd angles. And, going south, it’s a fairly decent decline.
Coming out on the Nevada side, the terrain changes dramatically again. Green, wide-open plains are barriered by ridges of mountains. Somehow, it’s exactly how I pictured Nevada, at least this part.
And then we crossed the state line and saw the big casino. That was actually how we pictured Nevada.
After driving through several small, sunny Nevada communities, we arrived in Valley of Fire. I deposited our fee at the unmanned entrance and we drove in, not quite sure where to start.
We visited the visitor’s center (as visitors do) and were disappointed to find that park maps were only available for sale, and for more than we wanted to pay. So, we did what any twenty-first century tourists would do and took a picture of the map on display outside the gift shop, then headed back out to the truck. Along the way, a young German family held the door open for us as we exited. “Danke schön,” I said as we passed through. They laughed in surprise and looked at us. “Wir sprechen ein bisschen Deutsch,” I explained. We speak a little German. Always good to bolster our international relations.
Our first hike was called Mouse’s Tank, short and in-and-out. At fifty degrees and sunny, it felt great and we shed our unnecessary layers before starting out. The hike itself was all on sand between large rock formations on either side, and along the way we saw a fair amount of pictographs from times and people long gone. The trail terminated at a fairly large (for a desert) body of water, the Mouse’s Tank that gives the trail its namesake. We took some pictures and then hiked back, and I noticed one of the pictographs looked like ripples of the sea, perhaps an indicator to ancient passers-by that there was water nearby. It’s amazing how that sign has lasted so long, and how its meaning is still interpreted all these years later.
After Mouse’s Tank, we drove around the park a bit, marveling at the different colors of rocks, extensive sand dunes, and the like. We made it to the White Domes hike, a loop trail just a mile or so long but promising some excellent views. It did not disappoint. We also passed the remains of a hacienda used in the film The Professionals with Burt Lancaster. I later learned that other movies have been filmed in the park, including Elvis’s Viva Las Vegas and the original Total Recall for all the Mars scenes. It is indeed like Mars; it’s also a lot like Tatooine.
We still felt worn out after Angel’s Landing the previous day, so we took it easy in Valley of Fire and did more driving and observing than actual hiking. Plus, being that we had to drive over two hours to get back to our camp in Zion, we were limited on time. The park is definitely something to check out, if only for its otherworldly terrain, if you find yourself in Vegas or the surrounding area; Lake Mead is also close by.
When we got back to camp, we ate dinner and then cracked open the Uinta Golden Spike (to put an end to our delayed gratification) while roasting s’mores by the campfire. We sat out until we ran out of chocolate and marshmallows and the weather started getting chilly. I crawled into my sleeping bag and journaled while Daniel played “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Denver through his phone. Then it got too cold for us to sit up, so we nestled ourselves inside our cocoons and turned the lights out.
It rained that night with strong winds and the temperature dropped to 29º F, the lowest it had been during our stay. Listening to the wind and rain outside while you’re warm and dry inside a tent is a very cool thing.
The next morning, we ate quickly again and packed up our camping gear. We decided to leave a day early and hit Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park on the way out, then re-enter Zion from the now-open east entrance on Highway 9 if we had time.
Let me tell you, packing up wet camping gear at 32º F with a fair morning wind is not a very cool thing.
Thankfully (perhaps miraculously), we got the tent zipped up with no problems. I lost my patience trying to fit one sleeping bag into its storage bag, so I threw it in the back of the cab with all the other gear. “We’ll sort it out when we get home,” I said, somewhat breaking my rule of keeping a neat and tidy backseat. “Let’s go.”
We drove into Springdale and intended to eat breakfast at Oscar’s Cafe, apparently one of the best places in town, but unfortunately they weren’t serving breakfast. We talked to the owner, a cool guy who recommended we try a place called MeMe’s across the street. We thanked him and told him we’d be sure to visit Oscar’s the next time we found ourselves in Springdale. (And, Lord willing, there will be a next time.)
MeMe’s turned out to be an excellent recommendation. We each ordered a breakfast crêpe with hollandaise sauce drizzled on top, and man was it good! For those who like a hearty, fancy, French-infused breakfast and gourmet coffee, this is the place. (Neither of us are coffee-drinkers, so I can’t speak to how great the coffee was. The water was, though!)
We said good-bye to Springdale, good-bye to Zion, and retraced our route to Highway 59 into Arizona. A couple hours later, we had driven completely around the large mass of rock that encapsulates Zion and the area around it, and found ourselves north of Kanab, UT on U.S. 89, looking for an entrance to Coral Pink Sand Dunes. The first one we came to was closed, but we drove on and found a second one further north, then drove many miles back south to actually get to the park.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes is not a very big park, but it’s something to see. Due to the area’s geography, many grains of sand from the desert (remember, we are technically in a desert, even though there are trees and such) accumulate in this one place. The signs at the park explain how this works; I can’t remember it all, but I found the topographical views of the terrain and explanations of how the grains are moved fascinating.
But, enough scientific stuff. We hiked out onto the sand and found ourselves again on Tatooine, or in a small Sahara. There weren’t too many other people out there, and it was incredibly quiet even despite the wind. We hiked up a dune, ran down (that was the easiest way to prevent our feet from sinking deep into the sand), and did it again. Daniel had me time him running to the top of a dune, and I think he misjudged how difficult it would be. For one thing, it was steep; for another, it required extra effort because sand moves and shifts when you stamp down on it with great force, like he was. If you want to get fit, start running up dunes.
After an hour or so, maybe even less (time becomes irrelevant in a desolate desert), we hiked back to Vader. It would have been more fun had we had some motorized vehicles with which to tear into the sand. Unfortunately, neither of us were old enough to rent them for a day (darn you, insurance!), so we merely talked about how great it would be to drive ATVs around in the sand. “Next time,” we said.
From there, we picked up Highway 9 again in the “town” of Mt. Carmel Junction and drove into Zion from the east side. This afforded a much different view of the park because, unlike the south entrance where you come in at the bottom of the canyon, the east entrance brings you in on top of everything, winding among the tall rocks.
We drove through the two old, narrow tunnels for the heck of it before parking and hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail, our last one in Zion. It is accurately labeled as a moderate trail, and didn’t seem to take as long as we thought it would. At the end, we were treated to a breathtaking view down into the canyon, another different perspective on the park.
On the hike back, a fellow hiker pointed out a family of bighorn sheep on the rocks far above us. I pulled out my long-range camera lens and zoomed in to get some shots, then offered it to others so they could see the young sheep close-up.
On the drive out of the park, we encountered something even better: bighorn sheep right alongside the road. We parked and Danger Dan jumped out with the camera to get all the best shots. And I would say that he did.
With one final stop for Daniel to play in the snow off the road, we left Zion for good and drove to Page, AZ for the night. We checked in at the Red Rock Inn, a wonderful, family-owned motel that more than exceeded our expectations: two separate rooms, each with a twin bed, for only $70. (I’m all about bang for my buck!) Our hostess provided us plenty of literature for things to do in and around Page; sadly, we would only be there overnight and wouldn’t have time to do much of anything. I didn’t realize there was as much to do there as there really is. Add this city to the list of places to return to!
We each showered—something we hadn’t done in five days—and, feeling cleaned up like cowboys might after many days on the trail, we moseyed on into town to rustle up some grub. We dined at the State 48 Tavern that night, a burger-and-beer kind of place that suited us just fine. We each ate the Cowboy Burger (because we’re cowboys, baby!—not really, but maybe), which more than sated us. Instead of drinking and hitting on the gals, we went back to our motel room and crashed for the night (because we’re Christian cowboys, baby!—yes, really, to that one).
At some point Sunday morning, as we dozed comfortably in our motel room at Goulding’s, we lost an hour to Daylight Savings Time. I had accounted for this by keeping us on Central Standard Time, so the lost hour would be a wash. That meant my watch was finally accurate for Mountain Daylight Time, and I didn’t have to keep subtracting an hour to figure out what time it really was.
Let’s talk a moment about time, relativity, and how Daylight Savings Time really screws things up. Traveling one time zone west when DST begins isn’t a big deal. People who stay in their time zone, however, lose an hour of sleep and have to get used to the sun rising and setting a whole hour later. We get that hour back later in the year, when most people either take advantage of an extra hour of sleep or an opportunity to watch a couple more episodes of The Office for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately, then people have to get used to an earlier sunrise and an evening that gets darker much earlier.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the state of Arizona does not observe DST. That’s right—the state is more or less in Mountain Standard during five months of the year and in Pacific Daylight the other seven.
And as if that weren’t bad enough, the Navajo Nation does observe DST. That means that, if you’re in the state of Arizona, but you’re within the Navajo Nation, you’re in DST.
Fortunately for us, this timey-wimey stuff didn’t throw us off too much or impact us too significantly. We woke up when we intended to and headed to the restaurant at Goulding’s for a continental breakfast: pancakes, eggs, sausage and bacon, fruit, and grits. I ordered us a side of frybread, a traditional Navajo dish, for the sake of trying something more cultural. (It tasted a lot like a funnel cake to me.)
We watched as the sun slowly rose over the eastern horizon, getting our first views of the monuments before us. They were purely incredible.
Our plan for the day was to do a driving tour through Monument Valley and then drive to Zion National Park immediately after. Like Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley is on tribal land and therefore belongs to the Navajo people. Also like Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley requires (rather expensive) tour guides for certain areas, but the self-guided driving tour costs only $20 per vehicle.
We crossed back into Arizona (but not into a different time zone) and rolled up to the ticket booth. An older, stoic Navajo man in sunglasses and a ball cap sat in the booth and was listening to Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar”. I nodded my head in agreement with his music choice as he took our money, handed us a map, and told us not to leave the marked trail. We thanked him and drove in.
For $20, the self-guided trail is worth every penny. The road is unpaved, so it’s best to have a higher-clearance vehicle, or at least not a low-clearance one, and four-wheel drive is a must if it’s rained. I only engaged 4WD High for one brief ascent over some slick rock, but I probably didn’t even need to there. (We saw people driving the trail in all manner of sedans and crossovers that were likely not even all-wheel drive.)
The views are spectacular. The trail winds through the monuments and provides ample photo opportunities. Seeing the monuments from different angles is really incredible, too. This is what a lot of people think of when they think of the American West—John Wayne riding a horse through the towering formations. And for good reason: Monument Valley has been the site for dozens, if not hundreds, of movies. (Side note: Goulding’s does offer a “John Wayne” tour of the valley, but it is an all-day affair and costs a little money. If you’re a fan of The Duke, though, it might be worth it.)
We drove up to Artists’ Point, part of the trail where native artists sell their wares. A lone, elderly Navajo woman sat bundled in a blanket at a table with jewelry before her. We got out of the truck to take pictures of the view and wished her good morning.
A few minutes later, a white Chevy drove up and a middle-aged man got out. His name was Preston, and we learned that he had driven up to the point that morning to visit the woman, his mother. We introduced ourselves and told him where we were from, and then he proceeded to tell us more about Monument Valley and the Navajo way of life.
“See that metal tank down there?” he asked, pointing at a shiny object out in the distance. “I used to live there. Used to run to the road up there to catch the bus to go to school in the morning, then run back home in the evening.” He pointed farther off to the right. “Now I live out there.”
“See that mountain out there?” We nodded; Daniel had been wondering what mountain it was all morning. “That’s Blue Mountain. That’s up near Moab.”
He then explained some of the monuments and their names to us. “See that one over there? That’s a sleeping man—there’s his head at the left end, his feet at the right end, and his big belly in the middle!” We could see it—but we wouldn’t have without him pointing it out to us, just like with the other monuments.
After a bit more conversation, we bid Preston and his mother farewell, then hopped back into the truck and wrapped up our driving tour. It was another person we met, another interaction, that made the trip special.
Before hitting the road, we stopped to use the bathroom at The View, a resort inside the park with a view (go figure) of Monument Valley beyond. While there, we met a young Italian couple trying to take a selfie of themselves with a GoPro. This younger couple did speak English, so I offered to take their photo. Daniel pulled out his extraordinarily fake Texas accent when they asked where we were from, as if that would somehow impress them. Maybe it did, I don’t know. All I know is that they laughed. I think they thought it was funny, probably because he sounded like Joe Don Baker’s character from Tomorrow Never Dies.
I let Daniel take the reins as we drove out of Monument Valley back through Kayenta, and then picked up Arizona 98 towards Page. The route to Page is another example of how roads have to be built around the terrain in this part of the country, taking you way out of the way in order to get where you need to go. We did pass some interesting stuff to make the ride interesting, including what appeared to be an abandoned electric train and a granary of some kind with a chute that shot over the highway.
The landscape started changing again as we approached Page: fewer plants and rocks that showed greater signs of water erosion. We drove past tours in Antelope Canyon, one of the largest tourist attractions for the area. I had debated us taking a tour, but since we were trying to keep to our schedule and keep costs down (yeah, I know, nothing like road-tripping in a gas-guzzling truck!), we decided against it.
We stopped for gas at a Shell station just within the city limits. Still no cell service, and I had no idea what time zone we were supposed to be in because I didn’t know whether we were still on tribal land or not. Instead of a hidden bathroom, this gas station didn’t even have one: It was under construction, so port-a-potties sat outside instead. I won’t go into that experience, but I laughed at some of the funniest bathroom wall writing I’ve ever seen. Something written in Japanese was posted inside (don’t ask me why) and below that someone had written, “Oh no, Godzilla!”
We stopped to view the Glen Canyon Dam from a scenic overlook, then hiked out on the rocks to get even closer. I’d never seen any landscape quite like this: no flora around, just red rocks. It felt like a different planet.
We drove up to the dam, parked and walked across the bridge to get a good look up close, and then drove across and over into Utah, where I could finally be certain what time zone we were in. Shortly thereafter, we entered The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which I later learned is not only some of the most remote land in the continental U.S., but the last to be mapped as well. If only we’d had more time to stop and explore, but I guess that’s what the next trip is for…
My phone buzzed. So did Daniel’s. “Service!” he declared, and immediately began updating his Instagram, or Snapchat, or whatever the heck he uses.
I, trying to be the good son, called Mom and assured her that we were still alive. We talked for a bit before we lost service again in a more mountainous area, but we knew we’d pick it up again before too long.
Due to winter weather, the east entrance into Zion via State Highway 9 was closed, so we had to take a more indirect, circuitous route south from Kanab into Fredonia, AZ, and then back up towards Hurricane. Daniel nodded off and I pressed on behind a city truck from Cortez, CO. The sky was overcast, the road was smooth, and all was well.
I soon saw signs indicating a steep descent, and suddenly I was driving a switchback downhill overlooking the town of Hurricane, with a snow-capped peak in the distance. It was gorgeous. I woke Daniel up with an elbow and he gasped at the sight.
We continued our drive through the quaint little towns of Hurricane, La Verkin, and Rockville—oohing and aahing the whole way—until we arrived in Springdale, the town just outside Zion. Springdale serves tourists, no doubt about it; it has a unique small-town charm and a certain hipster vibe—but in a good way.
At the park entrance, I pulled up behind a guy in a Dodge truck with Nevada plates and we sat, waiting, for five minutes while he discoursed with the ranger at the fee booth. Meanwhile, cars in the other lane breezed through. Finally, we pulled up and I produced my credit card. “I’ve got a reservation, I just need a weekly pass,” I said.
The park ranger smiled and rang me up. “Thanks, buddy. You were easy to deal with,” he said, handing my card back. “The guy in front of you was a real hardball. You guys go have a great time, you hear?”
“Yes, sir!” We intended to obey those instructions.
We slept really well at the Best Western in Santa Rosa. We woke up the next morning, bright and early, and walked to the lobby for the complimentary breakfast. At 6 A.M. MST, the sun was already peaking over the horizon. Daniel commented on how calm and quiet the desert was, even in a town.
We helped ourselves to the bounteous, delicious breakfast as we watched the local news and people-watched other travelers. An older man with a thick Texas accent and a booming voice came into the lobby and asked the staff, “Do y’all know the road conditions going up to Pagosa? I’m trying to get to Pagosa and I don’t know what the road conditions are.”
“No, sir, but we can check for you,” said the man at the counter.
“Naw, that’s all right, I can do that myself. I’s just wonderin’ if you knew.”
He then grabbed a plate and loaded it up with breakfast items. Daniel was retrieving some sausage and eggs at the time, and the gentleman came up behind him. “Oh, excuse me,” Daniel said.
“Naw, don’t worry, bubba, I’s just goin’ to tell ya to leave the lid up for me, I’m right behind ya!” he declared to the whole room.
“Oh, well, there you go!” Daniel said as he stepped away.
“Thanks, pard!” The man placed some eggs on the plate and then left as Daniel returned to our table and we chuckled. He was evidently from far west Texas.
A minute later, he came back. “I got this food for my wife; she’s still in bed. She might appreciate a fork!” I think everyone in the lobby cracked up.
After we finished breakfast, we walked back to our motel room to pack our last things and then hit the road. We saw our cowboy friend again, but this time he was walking a little brown terrier and talking on the phone. “Yeah, I’m just out here in Santa Rosa, walking Bear!” he hollered. “I just got breakfast for Lori; she’s still in bed!”
A few minutes later, as we were loading the truck, I heard his voice again. “Bear! Come here, Bear!” I guess Bear decided to go for a morning run.
From that point on, we joked about the funny west Texas man throughout the trip. Daniel even called me “bubba” for the whole trip and I called him “pard.” And there were more than a few cases when Daniel faked a Big Tex accent when talking to strangers just to see what their reactions would be.
It just goes to show that the things you do on trips are fun, but oftentimes it’s the people you meet who make travel even more memorable. We would meet a whole cast of interesting characters during our journey.
On the road again, we drove to Albuquerque, still with a high wind blowing straight into us. We decided to stop at a Wal-Mart there so Daniel could buy himself a real water bottle to replace the one he left behind. Also, I had read online (and made the mistake of mentioning to Daniel) that the house used in the TV show Breaking Bad was located in an Albuquerque neighborhood. Daniel, a fan of the show, got very excited and said we had to see it. So we did.
We bought the bottle at Wal-Mart after taking a bathroom break, then drove to the Walter White house. Since the show was filmed, the owners have erected a fence around the property, installed security cameras, and placed a sign out front indicating that “visitors” should take their photos from across the street and not disturb them. The house also has a new roof since, apparently, previous “visitors” threw pizzas onto the old one. (It’s a scene from the show, which I haven’t seen.)
After I took several photos of Daniel in front of the house (all from across the street, as the owners requested), I let him drive Vader for the first time on the trip. I navigated him back onto I-40 and we continued west to gas up in Gallup. The terrain is very interesting along this stretch of highway, and makes the BNSF trains look very small in comparison. Otherwise, there’s not much to see or do, so we kept listening to Daniel’s playlist of 70s and 80s hits while rolling on. We crossed the Continental Divide to Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” which, if you haven’t heard it before, you need to listen to immediately after reading this.
In Gallup, I gassed up the truck while Daniel went into the station to use the restroom. He couldn’t find the men’s room, so he grumbled his way over to the nearby Panda Express to do his business. I, having finished topping off the tank, walked into the gas station and asked the attendant if there was a men’s room. He handed me a piece of wood with a key attached and said it was on the side of the building, outside. I thanked him and used the secret bathroom that Daniel didn’t bother to ask about. (Though I will say that the bathroom in the Panda Express was probably better.)
With a full tank and empty bladders, I took the wheel and we drove north on U.S. 391, known as the Devil’s Highway because it used to be numbered U.S. 666. The reassuring part was that we’d only be on the Devil’s Highway for a short distance, as our route took us along New Mexico 264 into Arizona. I suggested we listen to “The Number of the Beast” by Iron Maiden during our short stint on this highway some thought to be cursed, but Daniel instead put on some Hall and Oates. Whatever.
We crossed into Arizona in the town of Window Rock and almost immediately the terrain changed again. It’s interesting to me how one can cross state lines and the geography changes so fast. It’s hard to explain how it changes; it just does. I could already tells that the Arizona desert, or badlands, looked different than those of New Mexico.
We also were officially in the Navajo Reservation, a sovereign nation within the United States. The land is owned by the Navajo tribe collectively and not by individuals. And it certainly did feel like we were in a different country.
For one, most of the vehicles on the road were older trucks. We saw many Navajo men shouldering packs and walking alongside the road. As we traveled, we’d encounter numerous hitchhikers. I can only assume that it’s a common occurrence on the Navajo land, and that it’s a courtesy for one man to give a ride to another. Even if we did want to help someone out (we didn’t), we didn’t have room in our packed-out half-ton.
We also noticed the more, shall we say, rustic way in which many of the people lived. Houses looked dilapidated. In fact, lots of things looked dilapidated on the Navajo land. Stray dogs and horses roamed about the desert land that was every man’s but no man’s.
The land itself though was beautiful.
We drove through the Navajo National Forest, reaching an elevation of 6,000 feet with snow on the ground on either side of us. We then descended significantly into a broad desert plain, with mesas stretching out all around us. I wished I were on a motorcycle, or driving a convertible. These were the quintessential American roads, and the scenery quintessential American West!
Oh, and we lost cell service the minute we crossed into Arizona and, thus, Navajo territory. More on that later.
We again headed north on U.S. 191 to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, AZ. The national monument is on Navajo land and therefore most of the hikes and trails require a Navajo guide, and a guide costs money. There is, however, one trail that is unguided, and therefore free: The White House Ruins trail. We gathered some information from the visitor center and then prepared for a hike to break up the driving.
As I waited for Daniel to finish up in the restroom, a whole fleet of Suburbans and Tahoes pulled into the parking lot. At first I thought some dignitary might be visiting—why else would these many vehicles roll in at once?
And then they parked, and then they got out. Italians, dozens of them.
The couples had evidently rented SUVs for an American West trip not too unlike our own. From the magnetic signs they had affixed to the vehicle doors, it appeared that they were either starting or ending in Las Vegas. They looked to be mostly couples, late thirties and up. They stood around and took pictures and chatted quickly amongst themselves.
I tried to strike up conversation with a man nearby. “Where are you from?” I asked, playing ignorant but trying to be pleasant.
He looked at me blankly for a few seconds. “Non capisco,” he said. I don’t understand.
I smiled and waved. “Well, have a good day then!” I said, even though he wouldn’t understand that either. I hoped he understood the intention behind it, at least.
Daniel and I started The White House Ruins hike after refilling our water bottles and grabbing some snacks. It would be about two hours total, and consisted of a six-hundred-foot descent into the canyon and then an ascent back up to the canyon rim. The main fixture of the trail is a small cluster of ancient homes, white houses, built in the recess of the canyon wall. Unlike Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and maybe other similar places, you cannot go up to these ruins and walk through them. They are fenced off, but you can admire them from a distance, as we did.
As we approached the ruins, an elderly couple advised us to use my long-range lens to view the pictographs on the canyon wall up close. As we switched out the lenses, a young Navajo (sales)man named Wilbert stopped us to explain his history, the history of his people, and the meanings of the different pictographs. He also explained that the different between a pictograph and a petroglyph is that a pictograph is painted on the rock (in this case, using a mixture of egg white, animal urine, and other ingredients) while a petroglyph is carved into the rock. He showed us this with the facsimile carvings he had made into sandstone, which he had on display in front of us.
“Wow, that’s some really great artwork,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said. “It’s my craft. It’s my art. It’s how I express myself, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said, a fellow artist. Knowing where the conversation was going, I took the initiative. “I take it you sell these?”
“Oh, yeah, you know, I sell these,” he said. Fresh meat.
“How much?” I pointed at one with the white houses and the glyphs carved into it.
“I usually sell this one for thirty.”
I looked at Daniel. “You want one?”
“Sure,” he said, reaching for his wallet.
He had two rocks with the white houses carved into them side-by-side. “How about those two for forty?” I said.
“Yeah, I can do that,” he said. He wrapped both pieces in newspaper and handed them to us as we passed him two twenties. “Thanks.”
“Thank you, Wilbert,” I said. “We appreciate you telling us more about the graphs and your people’s heritage.”
He wished us well, threw the remaining rocks into his backpack, and walked off to his home, somewhere in or on the canyon. I felt like Daniel and I each got a good deal—our first souvenirs for the trip—and Wilbert walked away with forty bucks he didn’t have that morning. Forty dollars for selling carved stones probably isn’t a bad way to make a living for someone in his way of life.
We took pictures of the houses and rocks and then hiked back up the trail, some of the last people around as the sun began to drop lower to the west. We still had quite a bit of distance to cover before we reached our destination for the night: Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley.
Daniel fired up Vader the truck and we hit the road again. We passed lots of buttes, mesas, and other amazing (and strange) rock formations, wondering how they came to be the way they are. We also passed plenty of Navajo homesteads, some nestled beneath or into the rocks, others with grand views of the giants in their backyards. It is indeed a different country.
One thing about driving in the west is that routes are indirect by virtue. It’s impossible, or at least doggone expensive, to build roads over the incredible landscape that forms this part of America, so the roads wind around these amazing feats of nature for miles. Somewhere along the way to Kayenta, we got on the wrong road and wound up traveling much farther north than we intended to and had to double back southwest.
As the sun set, we decided to stop at the Pizza Wave restaurant in Kayenta, right next to the local Ace Hardware. Famished from the hike, Daniel wanted a large pizza and wings. We split the cost, and ate most of the king-sized pizza and twenty wings (ten mild for me, ten hot for him) alone in the back of the restaurant. (I’d managed to bust a plastic cup trying to put a lid on it, and spilled water everywhere. I figured we’d better just stay out of the way after that incident.)
And we still had no cell service.
As a habit, one of us tried to ping Mom and Dad every few hours just to let them know where we were. We’d been out of range all afternoon, and I kept thinking, “Maybe we’ll get service when we reach this place,” or “Maybe we’ll get service when we reach this town.” No such luck.
I let Daniel grab to-go boxes for the remaining food and I drove us the last twenty minutes or so to Monument Valley in the dark. It was only 7:30 P.M., but I was still apprehensive about driving on a lonely, two-lane desert highway. I just turned on my high beams and kept my speed reasonable.
We crossed into Utah for the first time and then took a left off U.S. 163 to get to Goulding’s Lodge. As we approached, Daniel leaned forward to look up. “Matthew, is that a cloud?”
I looked ahead of us in the darkness. “That’s no cloud—that’s a rock.”
Looming right ahead and above us in the parking lot was a towering butte, and Goulding’s is nestled right underneath it. Daniel freaked out in excitement. “Oh, man, that’s so scary!” (I don’t think he thought it was scary; I think he just didn’t know what to say when confronted with such a big hunk of rock.)
I parked in the wrong place, but we managed to find the lobby and walked inside to check in. “What’s the last name for the reservation?” the lady at the front asked.
“Baker,” I said.
“Matthew Baker?” the other lady at the front asked.
I was a bit surprised. “That’s me.”
“I just got off the phone with your mom!”
Apparently, Mom had been fairly worried about us since we hadn’t been able to communicate with her all afternoon. She called the lodge to see if I’d checked in, and they had just got off the phone with her.
“I’ll call her once we get to our room,” I assured the ladies at the front. “Thanks for letting me know.”
I didn’t even stop to take in the furnishings of our room; I went straight to the phone, not knowing what to expect. I dialed her number. I listened to the phone ring.
I heard her pick it up.
“Where have you been?”
Come to find out, she’d called police departments all along our route through the Navajo Reservation and even had the Arizona State Patrol on the lookout. She was reassured by the fact that they checked local hospitals for patients and we weren’t among them. But we were still MIA as far as she was concerned.
Also come to find out, there are only certain cell providers that have coverage in that part of Arizona and Utah. The things you learn.
I did my best to reassure her and to thank her for her concern, and then asked her to call off the cavalry. We’d do our best to communicate with her tomorrow, I said. I figured we’d have service when we made it to Page, AZ—at least I hoped we would.
Next time, I’ll just ask to use a gas station phone.
With that taken care of, we were both pretty tired. The motel room at Goulding’s was plain but well-furnished, and comfortable. We had a balcony looking out towards Monument Valley, and were assured that we would have a beautiful view of the monuments come sunrise.
We were too tired to do much else but shower and hit the hay. I kept thinking about Mom and her concern for us, how blessed we are to have a mother who cares about our safety on the road. I mean that in all seriousness. Maybe next time she wouldn’t have to alert local law enforcement, though.
I did feel a tinge of homesickness as I realized that Daniel and I, two brothers on a spring break trip, were the outliers at a place like Goulding’s. Middle-aged adults and retirees flocked to places like this, and here we were, two college dudes showing up to lower the median age. This was the kind of place Mom and Dad would love to stay, and I felt a sense of something—not guilt, but similar—that we were enjoying something that most people our age would never enjoy, and certainly would never appreciate, until they were thirty years down the road. Even then, I’m not sure if they’d enjoy or appreciate it. Heck, we hadn’t even seen the monuments in the daylight yet!
With those thoughts running through my mind, I slowly drifted off to sleep after a long and eventful day, a little warm, but not too hot in the motel room at Goulding’s Lodge, with a sleeping, ancient giant watching over me.
We closed the doors of Vader the truck for the final time as we sat in the driveway. I turned the key and the twin-turbocharged V6 roared to life, accompanied by the usual dinging: Fasten your seatbelts. I checked the load of gear piled up in the extended cab behind me. It looked stable enough, and I had decent visibility. We buckled in, I shifted to Drive, and we turned out of the driveway and onto the open road.
We got to the intersection with the main road and I realized I forgot my cold-weather coat.
After a u-turn, a dash into the house, and a final last good-bye to Dad, we strapped in and pulled out again, and this time, we didn’t come back.
Then, as we navigated the snaking highways of downtown Fort Worth with Eddie Money’s “Gimme Some Water” playing through the stereo, Daniel realized he forgot his water bottle. How ironic.
I woke up around 6:00 AM that morning and immediately got to work packing the final things on my list: toothbrush, toothpaste, pillow (I almost always travel with my own), and the like. Daniel woke up around the same time, ate breakfast, and went to school to take that exam that his crazy professor moved forward from after spring break.
Dad, operating at Mom’s behest, bought a us all a second breakfast from Chick-fil-A to eat before we left. I must say that trip planning and packing and loading do sap one’s energy, so I was more than happy to eat on a hobbit meal plan. We devoured the chicken minis and then saddled up.
Which brings us back to the Fort Worth traffic and Daniel forgetting his water bottle. Of all the things we brought, all the gear piled high in the extended cab and all the other camping gear and food in the truck bed, he had forgotten his water bottle. I wondered what else he might have forgotten.
We would find out before too long.
Our plan for Day 1 was to drive from DFW to Santa Rosa, NM, and spend the night at the Best Western Santa Rosa Inn. The original plan was to drive all the way to Albuquerque on Day 1, but due to our delayed departure from Daniel’s unexpected exam we had to shore things up a bit. Since Daniel had been up well after midnight studying for said exam and only had about four hours of sleep, I decided I would do all the driving on this first day and let him rest.
It’s hard to rest when you’re excited about a trip, though. We talked a lot and listened to his special trip playlist. The first song as we pulled out was “Hammer to Fall” by Queen, followed by “I Can’t Drive 55” as we hit the highway and proceeded to hit 75. Following that were some deep cuts from Eddie Money, such as the aforementioned “Gimme Some Water”, which I abused so much by singing at Daniel over the trip that I don’t think he’ll ever want to listen to it again.
Our first stop was the Love’s in Wichita Falls, just two hours down the road. We took this opportunity to empty our bladders and get Daniel some water (partly so he could quench his thirst and partly so I would stop repeating the “Gimme Some Water” refrain). On the way into the city we spotted our first international license plate: Quebec.
After a quick stop, we got back on the road and pressed on to Amarillo, where we planned to eat dinner. The drive from Wichita Falls to Amarillo is not a very exciting one, unless you count State Troopers pulling out to pull over speeding motorists exciting.
Daniel switched his playlist up and I was treated to–ugh–Ween. He mixed it up by throwing in some Mike Posner, but neither did much for me. Posner has some interesting arrangements, but Ween is just kind of weird and hard to take seriously. I will give them props for touching on so many different genres: One minute they sound like Motörhead, the next they sound like Stone Temple Pilots, and then after that they’re drawing influences from Ennio Morricone.
Around Childress, Daniel fell asleep. That enabled me to put on some music I wanted to listen to, namely Rush. I drove us onward as the dystopian-themed Grace Under Pressure album played at low volume, grooving to Geddy’s Steinberger bass lines and occasionally air-drumming (with one hand on the wheel!) to Neil’s fills.
As we neared Amarillo, Daniel woke up and I told him to find a place to eat, preferably somewhere right off the highway. We’d seen signs for The Big Texan Steak Ranch along the road for many miles, and I asked if he’d like to try it out. He agreed, so we set our course for an early steak dinner.
For those who don’t know, the unique thing about The Big Texan is its Texas King steak challenge. If you can eat a 72 oz. steak with sides and a salad within an hour, your meal is free. Like they say, everything’s bigger (and better) in Texas.
Neither of us were that hungry, but steak sounded good, so we whipped into the parking lot and sat down in the lodge-themed dining area underneath the mounted heads of bucks, bulls, and bears. We came in just before 4:00 PM, which meant that we could still order from the (cheaper) lunch menu. Talk about great timing! We each settled on a 9 oz. ribeye, me with a baked potato and green beans for sides, and Daniel with fried okra and, if I remember correctly, steak fries. We admired the taxidermal wonders around us and watched as a man sat at a table on a stage and attempted to devour The King Steak while waiting on our own steaks.
And what great steaks they were! Cooked medium, juicy and flavorful, chewy and succulent. My potato and beans were delicious, too. They even brought a jalapeño for each of us. I took a bite of mine and said, “This isn’t too bad!” I ate it easily.
Daniel, the guy who tries spicy peppers, took a bite of his and couldn’t handle the heat. “Do you want mine?” he asked. I thought he was wimping out on me.
He wasn’t. I took a bite and instantly regretted it. My sinuses started running, my eyes teared up, and my face flushed. I couldn’t drink enough water. It was that bad. Daniel laughed as I languished. And yes, I was too manly to ask for some milk.
After the jalapeño fiasco, we paid and hit the road again, pressing on all the way to Santa Rosa. We topped off the tank before we left Amarillo listening to “Amarillo by Morning” by George Strait (to whom I argued we should listen because, heck, we were in Texas!). I let George serenade us all the way to the New Mexican border as we drove past cattle, ranches, and wind turbines.
The landscape took a stark change as we approached the New Mexico. The ranches disappeared and suddenly there was rock and scrub brush on both sides of I-40. I noted that the wind started picking up, too. A few minutes later, we crossed into “The Land of Enchantment” and watched the sun set ahead of us.
It was the most unusual sunset I think either of us have ever seen. We indeed saw the sun for the first time all day, blazing directly in front of us and low on the horizon. Maybe it was the clouds, or the wind, or some other weather phenomenon, but the sky was colored all colors of the rainbow: purple on our left, orange and yellow in front, and even green on our right. I’d never seen a green sky before.
And the wind was intense. Daniel’s phone warned of wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour, I think. I slowed my speed a bit as I watched my gas mileage tumble on the truck’s trip computer. Driving Vader into the wind was like trying to slice cold butter with the rounded part of a spoon.
The sun fell below the horizon and left us on the dark desert highway, along with everyone else trying to reach Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, or Albuquerque at a reasonable hour. The miles went by fast even at a slower speed, and before we knew it we were in Santa Rosa, pulling into the Best Western off old Route 66.
It was our first time staying in a motel, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The lobby was clean and inviting. I checked in and drove around to our motel room, where we unloaded only the necessities for one night. Our motel room was fantastic, too: two queen beds, two sinks, and immaculate. And if we needed anything from Vader, he was parked right outside!
We settled in, which didn’t take long, and unwound. Daniel fired up the TV and watched basketball; I grabbed one of the books I’d brought with me, Armada by Ernest Cline, and read a few chapters while munching on a bagel topped with peanut butter and honey. Good stuff.
We showered and hit the hay early, because even though we’d gained an hour when we crossed into Mountain Time at the New Mexico border, we would lose that hour the next night due to Daylight Saving’s Time. We would soon find that time was relative, as Einstein might say, not only based on which state we were in but which part of which state we were in. I found it easiest to just assume we were already on Mountain Daylight Time and deal with any time-related issues later.
“Oh, dang it.” Daniel interrupted my thoughts as I finished up my journal entry for the day. “I brought the wrong pillow!”
Par for the course.
And, if you were wondering why there aren’t any pictures from this part of the trip, that’s because we switched out memory cards in my camera and the one from the first part of the trip has gone AWOL. I hope it’s somewhere in the truck, but I’ve yet to find it. For all I know it may have been found by housekeeping in the motel room. If so, I hope they enjoy pictures of US-287 and whatever else is on it!
In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
One month prior to spring break, Daniel and I sat down with our calendars and an atlas. We put our heads together and figured out where we could go for a week on the cheap.
The beach was an obvious choice. Unfortunately, the beach was an obvious choice. Everyone goes to the beach during spring break.
Going abroad wasn’t an option, because Daniel doesn’t have a passport (yet). Plus, the cost to get out of the United States is typically high, even though things might be cheaper once you do get out of the country.
We really didn’t want to take a “traditional” spring break trip, and we really wanted to go somewhere we’d never been before and do something we’d never done before. For both of us, that meant visiting a state we’d not yet crossed off the list.
I’m fond of the American West, so I started looking at places out that way that we could get to in two days or less on the road. Of course, they also needed to be interesting enough for me and entertaining enough for Daniel.
After a little research, I pointed at a spot in southwest Utah. “How about Zion National Park?”
We looked at pictures online and I looked at the trail reports on the National Park Service’s website. It didn’t take much convincing once Daniel saw the beauty of the area and how much there was to do there.
Little did we know how much there is to do out there.
With a location decided upon, we began to research transportation and lodging. Camping was an obvious choice due to how cheap it is to camp in a national park. Driving in my truck meant that we could go where we wanted and carry all the gear we needed, rather than try to stuff it into carry-ons and check bags on an airplane. (Plus, neither of us are old enough to affordably rent a car if we ever fly anywhere.)
One thing most people don’t know is that there are tons of places where it is free to camp across the United States. Much of the land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) is free to camp on with a fourteen-day maximum stay. For RVers, Wal-Marts and other large retailers tend to accommodate overnight “boondocking” in their parking lots. The website FreeCampsites.net has an interactive map with thousands of such free locations documented across the U.S.
With this in mind, our plan was to free-camp our way to Zion rather than stay in hotels. I picked out places for every night, including in Cibola National Forest outside Albuquerque and Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat, UT.
Our initial itinerary was to leave DFW early on Friday the 8th and drive to Albuquerque, and then drive to Zion on the 9th. We would stay in Zion until the 13th, when we would then drive to Monument Valley for a couple days before reversing our route and coming back home. We would be back on Saturday the 16th, which would give us one day to rest up before re-entering the “real world” (or a day of cushion in case something happened on the way back).
Then Mom and Dad stepped in and basically demanded that we get “real” lodging on our way.
And then one of Daniel’s professors moved an exam forward from after spring break to the day we were supposed to leave, which meant we wouldn’t get to leave until 11AM at the earliest.
At first, I felt like these two setbacks wrecked the plan, but strangely they helped solidify the itinerary. I decided to reverse the trip: we would drive to Monument Valley first since it was closer, then to Zion, and then back home. We could still travel a good distance on half of Friday and all of Saturday. And, blessedly, Daniel’s professor agreed to let him take the exam earlier that Friday the morning, meaning we could leave sooner than we otherwise could have.
Instead of staying in Albuquerque the first night, I booked a room at the Best Western in Santa Rosa, NM, and then a room at Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley for the next night. We then booked the South Campground for five nights in Zion (booking for the South Campground opens up only fourteen days in advance), and an AirBNB casita in Albuquerque for the trip back.
Whew! Everything did indeed fall into place.
Next, we had to get our gear together. We had most of the camping gear already: tent, Therm-A-Rests, mummy-style sleeping bags. We opted for a newer but smaller Coleman tent that Daniel used on a recent trip to Big Bend National Park, because the older Walrus tent that we had used in Missouri during the Great American Eclipse leaked in a great deluge even though I waterproofed it. Otherwise, we took the obvious camping and survival items: hiking boots, knives, many ways to start a fire, mylar blankets, rain ponchos, and the like.
I’ll pause the narrative a minute and note that I will occasionally hyperlink to Amazon pages for products that we used on this trip. These are affiliate links, meaning that if you buy the product through the link on this page, I get a small kickback from your purchase. Don’t feel obligated to buy anything at all, but if there’s something I write about that you would like to buy, I’d appreciate it if you did so through my link.
And with that PSA out of the way, back to the story.
Our camping in Zion would be primitive in the sense that there was no electric hookup or shower. A camp restroom and a spigot were thirty or so yards from our reserved campsite in the South Campground. We would be cooking our own meals, something we’d never really done before. And, we’d be doing it in what was likely to be cold, potentially wet weather.
Two weeks before we left, we drove to the closest Wal-Mart Supercenter and loaded up on canned goods: Campbell’s soups, green beans, spinach, tuna, you name it. We bought some of the cured “mystery meat” sausage, as well as crackers, trail mix, and cups of mandarin oranges and peaches.
For breakfast, we decided on grits, since neither of us like oatmeal. To prepare it all, I bought a Stanley cooking kit to complement a one-person cooking kit I already had.
We were going to eat and we were going to eat well.
For water, I purchased two Aqua-Tainers in anticipation of free-camping. It turns out that I didn’t need two (and probably not even one), but I went with the old rule of thumb that every person needs a gallon of water per day. With two people and at least seven days of travel, that would be fourteen gallons, exactly two Aqua-Tainers.
Due to concerns about the weather, I also bought us each a base layer and crampons for our hiking boots. For cleanliness, I bought some body wipes and dry shampoo (since manly men with flowing manes need to keep oil at bay, too), since we wouldn’t have access to a shower unless we paid $5 for four minutes in the nearby town of Springdale.
The day before we left, I got Vader the truck washed and waxed (so he would cut through the air better on the open road), then came home and loaded up what I could. I stored all the food in the two Plano containers that I carry around in Vader’s bed, and loaded the sleeping bags, cookware, and other miscellaneous things into the extended cab.
For campfire-building, Dad helped me pack some old wood that had been covered up in the backyard into a Rubbermaid container. All the camping gear was already stored in an old Action Packer container. I simply loaded these into the bed and pulled the tonneau cover shut. I also took the old Coleman camp stove and three cans of propane just in case.
And with that, we were pretty much ready. All that remained was for Daniel to take his exam, load up the last few things, and then hit the road the next day.
With spring break around the corner and no plans, Daniel and I put our heads together. Where could we go that would be exciting, affordable, and something that we’d never done before?
The beach was an option, but everyone does that over spring break. So was skiing, but that’s expensive.
Looking at the map and using my rudimentary knowledge of the American West and National Parks, I put together an itinerary and proposed a trip.
With approximately a week and a day to work with, I determined that we could drive to Zion National Park (near Springdale, UT), camp there, and use that as a base from which to explore the park and the surrounding area. Both on the way there and coming back we would be able to stop and do things along the way to break up long stretches of driving.
I ran the plan by Dan the Man, and he liked it. We would spend spring break in the American Southwest, specifically in Zion National Park.
It would be a trip unlike any we’d ever done before. We’d be camping five nights in Zion, cooking our own meals every morning and evening, and over a thousand miles away from our family, or really anyone who could help us if something went awry.
Initially, the plan was to drive about eight hours a day to get to Zion and camp every night during the whole trip to save money. Mom and Dad (thankfully) steered us away from that option due to the sheer amount of time and effort required to set up and break camp. It would quickly get old. Instead, we opted to stay at motels and AirBNBs along the way, and set up camp only once when we arrived in Zion.
We left DFW on Friday the 8th and drove to Santa Rosa, NM, and then from Santa Rosa to Monument Valley, UT on the 9th. On the 10th, we drove to Zion, and then stayed there through the morning of the 14th. From there, we started back home, stopping overnight in Page, AZ and then in Albuquerque, NM. We arrived back home on Saturday the 16th.
During our trip, we did the following:
Ate steaks at The Big Texan in Amarillo (no, we didn’t try the 72 oz. steak challenge)
Visited Walter White’s (Breaking Bad) house in Albuquerque
Hiked the White House Ruins trail in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle, AZ
Drove through Monument Valley, AZ/UT
Took lots of dam photos in Page, AZ
Tent-camped four nights in Zion National Park and weathered wind, rain, and frost
Conquered Angel’s Landing (1500 foot ascent with chains)
Walked through Valley of Fire State Park in Overton, NV
Climbed dunes in Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Kanab, UT
Saw mule deer and bighorn sheep in Zion
Checked out Horseshoe Bend outside Page, AZ
Walked around the rim of Meteor Crater near Winslow, AZ
Took the obligatory “standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” photos
Successfully resolved a check engine light in Albuquerque on the way back
Built three campfires
Made numerous s’mores
Drove almost 3,000 miles in Vader the truck
Made memories we’ll never forget!
Every evening before bed, I journaled the day’s events. Over the coming weeks, I’ll use that journal to help retell this epic trip, day by day, and all our escapades along the way. I’ll share the adventures (and some misadventures) that we got ourselves into, what we learned, and travel tips for those who wish to visit the amazing places that we did. I’ll also share plenty of the amazing photos that Daniel and I took along the way, because we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words (and, in some cases, ten-thousand words).
As far back as June, my family was already thinking about a Christmas vacation. Our last vacation was to the Texas Hill Country in August 2017, and for reasons I won’t get into our last vacation prior to that was in June 2013. As I mentioned in 2018: The Year in Review, 2018 was transitory not only for me but also for my whole family, so we didn’t have an opportunity to travel at all until after Christmas.
A few ideas were tossed out: Washington, D.C. Memphis, TN. Head south to a beach somewhere. (Being Texans, we didn’t really want to go north into the cold!)
We quickly decided that D.C. would make a better spring or summer trip, and also that most everyone else would be heading to a beach this time of year. With those narrowed down, it sounded like we were going to Memphis.
One of the main drivers for going to Memphis was Graceland, Elvis’s home there. Mom’s a big Elvis fan and wants to tour the house someday, and the fact that it would be decorated for Christmas made it more tantalizing to visit. Instead of listening to Elvis along the way (something we did on another family road trip!), Daniel and I joked about annoying Mom and Dad by playing Paul Simon’s Graceland album the whole way there.
Unfortunately, Mom decided that, aside from Graceland, there wasn’t much else we’d want to do in Memphis. Visiting a few blues bars and checking out Sun Records (Elvis’s record label) would be cool, but that was about it.
So, since we would be driving through the state or Arkansas to get to Tennessee, Mom started researching what we could do in The Natural State. She found Petit Jean State Park, booked two rooms in the park lodge (one for her and Dad, one for me and Daniel), and then told us about it.
Thankfully, we were all on board with the idea. A few days of hiking through the mountains and warming up by the lodge fire sounded pretty sweet. (Way to be proactive, Mom!)
Petit Jean is about an hour northwest of Little Rock, two hours east of Fort Smith, and just under six hours northeast of DFW. It’s also just north of the Ouachita National Forest, which we drove through to get there. The nearest “big” town is Morrilton, about twenty minutes away. It has both a Kroger and a Wal-Mart. (You’re never too far away from twenty-first century necessities when you need them.)
After opening presents on Christmas morning, we packed our bags that afternoon and left the following day. The drive, with stops, took about six-and-a-half hours, and would have taken longer had we stopped more than twice. We arrived just before sundown, so we had enough light to see where we were going on the winding two-lane roads up the mountain to the park.
We checked in at the Mather Lodge lobby, stopped by our cozy log cabin-style rooms to drop our gear off, and then ate dinner in the lodge dining room. We had the best seat in the house: Our table sat right before a panoramic window that looked out over the canyon and towards other mountains in the distance. We watched the sun set and twilight diminish as we noshed on hamburgers and quesadillas while marveling at the Canadian ponderosa pine fittings of the lodge.
The dinner menu also explained to me (the ever curious one) the origin of the name Petit Jean. Legend has it that a French explorer was going to leave his young fiancée to explore the Louisiana Territory (then called New France or La Louisiane française) in the eighteenth century. His fiancée didn’t want him to leave her, so she cut her hair short, disguised herself as a boy, and joined the voyage. The other voyagers nicknamed her “Petit Jean,” or “Little John” in English. Unfortunately, as they explored the Arkansas River Valley and established relations with the Native American tribe in the area, Petit Jean fell ill. As the explorer and his crew tried to aid her, they quickly discovered who she really was. She knew she would die soon, so she wanted to be buried atop one of the nearby high points where they had stood and looked out over the New World. When she passed away, her fiancé, his crew, and the tribe honored her request, and now, over two-hundred years later, the park bears her nickname.
It’s a tragic story, for sure, but is it true? I don’t know, but there is an overlook where you can view what people believe to be Petit Jean’s gravesite. Apparently a later explorer found a marker-like cluster of rocks that could only have been made by human hands, and appeared to corroborate the story. I’d like to believe that the tale is true, and that Petit Jean was the best little déguisuse this side of the Mississippi.
We spent the next three days hiking Petit Jean and exploring the vicinity nearby. Daniel and I hiked ten miles in three days, while Mom and Dad hiked just over eight. (There was a two-mile trail Daniel and I wanted to do that our parents didn’t, which accounts for the difference.) All the trails were excellent, but by far the most rewarding, and most popular, was the Cedar Falls trail to, well, Cedar Falls.
We also visited the nearby Museum of Automobiles, which housed a cool collection of classic cars, including one of Elvis’s Fords, one of JFK’s presidential Lincolns, and a DeLorean with under two-thousand miles on the odometer. This museum was not something I’d expect to find in rural Arkansas, but there it was, and it was totally worth visiting!
One evening, we ventured into Morrilton to try something different for dinner, rather than eating the lodge food again (which, don’t get me wrong, was excellent). We stopped at the highly-recommended Ortega’s for Mexican food, where I had the best and biggest portion of carne asada ever. Since we were there at night, though, we didn’t get to see much else of the town, but I hear it has some pretty, antiquated churches there that are worth checking out.
After hiking up and down hills and clambering over rocks all day, we enjoyed our evenings by the communal fireplace. We met people from all over the place: Arkansans (obviously), Missourians, Marylanders, Wisconsinites, and quite a few fellow Texans. I spent my time reading No Traveller Returns by Louis L’Amour, a book Mom gave me for Christmas, and one published posthumously by L’Amour’s son, Beau. Daniel and I also finished a five-hundred-piece puzzle of a country church in New England that someone had started before us. (When I say “finished,” I mean we put together all the pieces we had. There were about ten missing, but we called it a victory regardless.)
Despite temperatures in the thirties and forties, the cold didn’t really bother us. We came prepared, and found that we all enjoyed hiking in colder conditions than we do in warmer ones (because you don’t sweat as much in the cold!). Your body learns to adapt to the conditions and, as long as you keep moving, generates its own heat to keep you warm. It’s still crucial to stay hydrated, obviously.
We played in the mountains in Petit Jean for three days and all agreed that it was the perfect amount of time for everything we wanted to do. Even though we were ready to do something else, we hated to pack up and return home.
We will never forget our experiences in Petit Jean and hope to return one day. We found a handful of other places in the Arkansas River Valley and in the Ozarks that we hope to visit in the near future, including Mount Magazine, Mount Nebo, Devil’s Den, and the Buffalo River Valley.
Most importantly, we spent time together as a family, away from home, and in the great outdoors. We made great memories that we’ll never forget. That’s what travel should be all about: having unique experiences with those you love that you can cherish forever.
Today is the last day of the year, a day I usually spend taking stock of what I did over the duration of the year. 2018 was a year of transition, discovery, and personal development for me: transition, because I finished college and am now living in “the real world” to some extent; discovery, because I’ve realized more about myself and what I want (and most importantly, don’t want) out of life; and personal development, because I’ve learned a lot about a wide variety of things and am starting to make changes in how I live.
I’m not a statistician, but I like statistics. I use them to look back on the year and see how far I’ve come and what I’ve done. Here are some stats to summarize my 2018:
Where I started the year: Kansas City, Missouri
Where I will end the year: Arlington, Texas
Approximately 6,000 miles traveled on trips
29 full days spent away from home
48 books read
360 podcast episodes listened to
Approximately 100,000 words written
1 musical instrument built (a fretless bass guitar)
1 vehicle purchased (a Ford F-150)
Estimated 949,000 calories consumed (assuming average of 2,600 calories/day)
Estimated 3,000 push-ups performed (of different varieties)
Estimated 2,000 pull-ups performed
Approximately 15 miles hiked
365 days seized
A few weeks ago, I looked back and thought 2018 was a less-than-stellar year, especially in contrast to 2017, which I believe to be the best year of my life thus far. However, looking back now, and in light of these numbers, 2018 was a pretty good year. By good, I mean it was productive, enlightening, and somewhat adventurous.
What would have made the year better? It’s hard to say. A transitionary year such as this one sets me up for a new year that hopefully provides new and better opportunities for career and travel. I’ve learned from some mistakes and misfires of 2018 and don’t plan to repeat them in 2019. I’ve got a few new hobbies I’m hoping to explore, and some books I plan to write and publish. My brother and I may also (finally) release some music for the world to hear.
Spiritually-speaking, one goal in 2018 was to read through the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) translation by year’s end. That didn’t quite happen. I’m in the middle of Acts right now and slowly working my way through. I plan to finish the CSB up in the early part of 2019 and then spend the rest of the year doing book or topical studies that I’ve shirked in favor of plowing (ploughing?) through the Bible once per year for the last couple of years. I want to sit and savor God’s Word more than I want to breeze through it.
I won’t be staying up ’til midnight to ring in the new year. Instead, I’ll toast to 2018 with a Boddingtons Pub Ale at dinner, go to bed at my regular time, and enter 2019 feeling well-rested and refreshed.