A view (from afar) of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
I arrived in Moab, UT, on Friday, September 25th. It was the start of my final week of travel. There was a feeling of heaviness hanging over me, an anticipation that soon I would have to return to my life quarantined in the city. This feeling was countered by the excitement of being in Southern Utah and about to visit four National Parks that appear in pictures to be nothing less than magic.
I was up pre-dawn on Saturday to get an early start into Arches National Park. It is one of the most popular National Parks in the country, and I understood that parking could be challenging if you delay your arrival. It also allowed me to catch the sunrise over the 2,000-foot red cliffs that towered above the Colorado River near the lodge where I was staying.
One cannot predict when Beauty will come for you. It can sneak up on you in the melody of a song or the lyric of a poem. It can come in a warm smile or the casual touch of a reassuring hand. You know it because its appearance has a momentary effect of paralysis. You simply cannot leave its presence until it is done with you. The sunrise that morning was so beautiful, so magnificent, that I could not walk away. Lost in the sight of the sun's coming—a daily happening, I remind myself, that I so rarely witness—that it delayed my departure for the park.
First glimpse of an immanent sunrise near Moab, UT.
Beauty arrives in a sunrise near Moab, UT.
Eventually, I did arrive at the trailhead for the most iconic arch in the park, Delicate Arch, and to my disappointment, the parking lot was already full. I had to take in a view of the arch from a distance, entrusting the zoom on my camera to bring me closer. I didn't linger but decided to move on and head to the Devil's Garden Trail, hoping that I would have better luck with parking there.
Good fortune awaited me as I did snag a parking place and quickly threw my daypack over my shoulders and set out for what would end up being about a 10-mile hike. Once away from the crowds, Devil's Garden Trail via Primitive Trail was exactly what I was looking for. The trail led past wind-sculpted stone arches and towering monoliths and provided a sense of mystery and wild wonder.
It was nice to have someone to experience the park with. It provides a different perspective. You notice things you would have missed. She said, "This is my favorite arch." I asked why, and she shared what she saw that I didn't, and my point of view changed. That is what a good travel companion does and why they are so hard to find. They do not divert attention from the experience but add to it and make it more rewarding. They give you a way of remembering a place that isn't based solely on one's own subjectivity.
Perhaps our conversation was too comfortable that we weren't paying enough attention. I watched helplessly as she took an awkward step on loose sand and fell to the ground. There was a popping sound, and I could tell immediately that she was in a great amount of discomfort. She grabbed her ankle and grimaced. I asked her if she was OK. "This happens sometimes. I have weak ankles," she replied.
I think more than being in pain, she was embarrassed. We were back on the main trail with significantly more foot traffic. The first park ranger we had seen all day appeared seemingly, almost magically, out of nowhere and asked if we needed to be evacuated. "We? Oh, I'm not—we're not. We just met 45 minutes ago." I thought to myself, then quickly determined that trying to explain wouldn't be helpful. I realized that anyone passing by was likely to assume we were together and that I would need to see this through to the end. She insisted that an evacuation wouldn't be necessary. She wrapped her ankle, slid her foot back into her boot, and climbed to her feet. Fortunately, we were less than a mile from the parking lot, and the trail at this point was fairly flat.
We took our time walking back. She required no assistance from me, but I stayed with her because I thought the company might take her mind off any physical pain. I asked her what she would have thought of me if I had left her on the trail. She said she wouldn't have blamed me, and we had a good laugh about how nutty the situation was.
When we got back to the parking lot, I gave her my number and told her that if her ankle got worse and she needed some help, she can give me a call.
I thought I'd never see her again, but in just a couple of days, I would be reminded that life is full of surprises.
A short walk down into the "Park Avenue" valley offers an immersive view of towering walls and monoliths.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
I bid adieu to the tiny house by the creek to continue by trek south to Durango, Colorado, but before leaving Montrose, I decided to check out Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It was a short drive outside of town, and I was curious to see what this park—which I had never heard of before—was all about. My only expectation was that there would be a canyon, and perhaps it would be black.
There is nothing that prepares a person for the sense of infinitude that comes when you first catch a glimpse of a deep place like Black Canyon. Your senses are overcome. Your eyes do not know how to communicate to the brain what it's perceiving. Your breath is held captive in your lungs until you remind yourself to exhale. In that spark, the brain sends a pulse through the body that makes the hair tingle on your arms and your spine shutter. The mind asks, "Is this real?"
Black Canyon provided this unexpected thrill. Though not as popular as other national parks, it is none-the-less a spectacle. I drove the rim, stopped at several overlooks, and put my camera to action.
I knew there was more to see at Black Canyon, but after a couple of hours, I felt I needed to get back on the road and continue onward.
It was a picture-perfect September day. Though not peak foliage, autumn's transformation had begun, which made for a colorful drive to Telluride, where I stopped for lunch. Telluride is postcard charming. Cornered by mountains to the north, east, and south the town felt isolated—maybe even protected—from the outside world. I understand why rich people want houses there and why vacationers flock there. I attempted to walk off my heavy lunch in the central village area before grabbing a cup of coffee and hitting the road again.
I traveled south on U.S. 550, also known as the Million Dollar Highway, between the old mining towns of Ouray and Silverton. U.S. 550 is considered one of the most beautiful roads in America, and after driving it, I agree. I stopped in both Ouray and Silverton and at multiple turnouts along the way. The mountains in the San Juan Wilderness flaunted colors that I have not seen anywhere else, and the relics of the old mining railroad scattered along the way aroused my curiosity and imagination. Did the miners of the past feel the beauty of these hills, or did they only see what resources could be taken from them? Everyone needs to make a living, but just the same, everyone needs to feel alive. Is nature's purpose to pad the pocket or to heal the soul?
San Juan National Forest along the Million Dollar Highway. Railroad relics leave behind tracks of a bygone era.
A old mining house abandoned in the shadows of time.
I spent the night at a cozy bed and breakfast in Durango. It gave me not only a good night's sleep but also a boost of youthful invigoration as I was the only one there under the age of 60 (from what I could tell).
I arrived at Mesa Verde National Park mid-morning, keen to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had read in National Geographic about the cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans, so I could not pass on the opportunity to see the archeological sites with my own eyes. Due to COVID restrictions, visitors could not tour the dwellings, but I could still observe them from a distance and hike the trails around sites.
Cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans in Mesa Verde National Park. c. 1200-1300 CE
After my hike, I took an audio tour of the area, stopping at a dozen of the nearly 5,000 known archeological sites in the park. I could not help but ponder how wrong we got the native peoples of America. When we saw their arrows, headdresses, and rituals, we thought they were "primitive" or "savage." Yet, I look at the homes they built and the cliff dwellings they inhabited, and I see engineers and architects. For 700 years—long before European settlers arrived in the Americas—they lived, adapted, and survived in this harsh environment. The creativity and savviness of these people are astounding if we don't get hung up on cultural and worldview differences.
It still remains a mystery as to why the Ancestral Pueblo people left the area around 1300 CE. Some hypothesize that it was environmental changes that drove them away. Others say it may have been social conflict or political threats. I can't help but think that maybe they just wanted to move on. Perhaps they caught a bit of wanderlust. Or maybe it was that very universal and human hope for a better life somewhere new.
Petroglyphs tell the story of a past people who once lived and left their mark on the world.
A statue dedicated to the Ancestral Puebloans welcomes guests at the Mesa Verde National Park Visitors Center.
View from the Continental Divide on the Cottonwood Pass
I left Cheyenne on a Saturday and drove south into Colorado. I was starting week five of my journey, and I had been pretty much by myself up to this point. When Jen, a good friend of mine from my Boston days 15+ years ago, heard that I was on this road trip, she invited me to stay with her family in Evergreen, CO. After a month of conversing with strangers, I was very much looking forward to connecting with someone I knew.
It was a tad strange to be back in an urban area. Driving through Denver, I thought, "I remember this." The traffic, the noise, the pace of movement, it was all familiar. I stopped for lunch at an outdoor suburban brewery. College football played on the TV monitors as I downed a Hefeweizen and BBQ pork sandwich. How quickly the wild retreats when one re-enters the civilized world of shopping centers, parking lots, and microbreweries. I had both a feeling of comfort and loss. I missed the city-dwelling life before the pandemic—the ability to satisfy any taste of the palette, and the bustle of the city with its ample distractions. It felt good to be back; yet, as tempting as it was, there was also a part of me that wasn't ready to return. The wilderness wasn't done with me yet.
I enjoyed my time with Jen, her husband, and two kids and welcomed their generous hospitality. We drank lots of wine and laughed as we reminisced about the old days and how our lives (and the world) had changed since then. I couldn't help but think that I was peeking in on what my life could have been. Somewhere in the hypothetical multiverse, there is a version of my life where I am married, raising kids in a suburban neighborhood, in a beautiful place like this. This vision is not a bad one at all. There was an allure to it that made me wonder if I had made the right choices in my life. To be 41 years old, still single, still chasing something that I have yet to find. Why? What was it all for?
Hiking in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness
I stayed in Evergreen for a few days, then left on a Tuesday morning. From this point forward, I disconnect entirely from work, taking vacation days for the remainder of my trip. When I was planning this trip, a friend of mine from Colorado urged me to spend time in the state's southwest region. "You won't regret it," he promised. He was right.
I took the scenic 285 S toward Buena Vista, CO. Along the way, I listened to Thich Nhat Hanh's book Old Path White Clouds about the life of the Buddha or "the one who is awake." As my eyes followed the road ahead, I determined that my life had been void of two-lane highways for too long. If I never saw another freeway, I think I could be content.
In Buena Vista, I picked up the Cottonwood Pass (route 306) for a stunning drive that topped out at over 12,000 ft as it crossed the continental divide. I stopped several times for pictures, a stretch of the legs, and to simply pause and take in the vastness of the stoic landscape and the moodiness of the cloud-whipped sky.
I arrived in Crested Butte, an old mining village turned charming resort town, in the late afternoon and had lunch at a pub on Elk Avenue. I did a little shopping and then continued on to Montrose, where my creek-side "tiny home" Airbnb awaited me.
Welcome to the "tiny house"
The next day I met up with another good friend of mine. I first met Becca eight years ago, when she led the trip I was on to Indonesia. We connected again a couple of years ago in Tanzania when she led my Mount Kilimanjaro trek.
I met Becca in Ridgeway, and we headed to the Blue Lakes trail in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness for a day of hiking and fly-fishing. Multiple times on the trail, the path would bend and open to a vista that stopped me in my track as I uttered, "My God." The beauty of these lofty mountains was enough to leave me nearly speechless.
Unlike my fly-fishing attempt in Wyoming, we each caught several fish and, as gently as possible, released them back to the lake. On the trail, we talked for hours about travel, faith, and social justice. We finished the day bouncing down the dirt road in her four-wheel-drive SUV singing 90s hits, then downing beer and pizza back in town. It was one of the best days of my entire trip.
I left Yellowstone on Labor Day, exiting the park's northeast corner at the Cooke City-Silver Gate near the Wyoming/Montana border. It was a quiet drive. I listened to Plato's Symposium on audiobook and made a few stops to hop out of the car and snap pictures of the bison herds hanging on the side of the road.
A grey ceiling of clouds appeared just outside of the park entrance, and the temperature began to drop. I was expecting a rainy journey to Billings, but the drive turned into more of an adventure than I anticipated.
I noticed most of the traffic, what little there was, turning right on Highway 296 and going around the mountain range that stood between me and my destination, but Google Maps had me staying on Highway 212, the scenic Bluetooth Highway and a more direct route. As I ascended the pass, a blanket of clouds swallowed the road with light rain to accompany it. The scenic byway was not scenic at all, as the only thing I could see through the fog's milky haze and the red glow from the taillight of the truck in front of me.
The temperature continued to drop, and the rain turned to snow as the road climbed past eight, nine, then 10,000 feet of elevation. It was one of those driving situations where there is nothing you can do except keep going. Just two weeks prior, I was driving through 110-degree heat; now, I'm in a whiteout snowstorm. Fortunately, after I reached the summit and began the descent, visibility improved.
I stopped for lunch in Red Lodge, Montana, with wet snow continuing to fall. I asked my waitress at the pizza parlor about the weather. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "It's September. It happens."
I arrived in Billings in a steady downpour. I tried to check into my Airbnb; however, I discovered, much to my surprise, that it was still occupied. I talked to the host, who said the previous guest had refused to check out, and he wasn't sure what to do. I ended up in a hotel that night and arranged to move on from Billings to my Airbnb in Sheridan, Wyoming, the next day.
My time in Sheridan, which was eight days in length, was my most prolonged stay in a single place for the trip's duration. I had a private bungalow that was attached to a quaint country home. The homey location was perfect for my needs, and it was refreshing to stay in one place for an extended period.
Hiking Tongue River Canyon in Bighorn National Forest near Sheridan, WY
My host in Sheridan was a friendly all-American family. Ben and Sarah were native Wyomingites with four kids from elementary to high school age and a pack of sled dogs they raise and race for sport. One evening, Ben invited me to join him when he fed the dogs, and I eagerly accepted. The dogs were full of energetic spirit, and it became apparent to me that these dogs lived for one thing: to run. I was envious of the wild simplicity of their lives; their purpose transparent, and their joy so pure.
Feeding time for the dog sled team
When I wasn't working, I explored the area. I perused the Western and American Indian art at the Brinton Museum. At King's Saddlery, I daydreamed about quitting my job and becoming a cowboy. I hiked the canyon trails in Bighorn National Forest.
While driving around Sheridan and the small towns surrounding it, I noticed something that piqued my curiosity. All of the schools in the area were immaculate, at least from the outside. One evening, I asked Ben about my observation. He said that all the public schools in Sheridan were Blue Ribbon schools. I asked him what drove the economy that allowed such investment in public education. "Energy," he said. The big energy companies have mined the area for decades, providing jobs and tax revenue to fund schools and infrastructure.
Living in Southern California for fifteen years, I've seen the impact of climate change: longer heat waves, less rain, snowmelt earlier in the spring, devastating wildfires that are becoming more and more frequent. California has resources to combat the negative impacts of a changing climate, but many places in the world do not. We hear about the wildfires in California (or Australia—those poor, cute koalas), but less about the extreme weather taking lives and ruining communities in the Philippines, Myanmar, or Pakistan. The human impact on the climate must be addressed.
However, my time in Sheridan reminded me that there is a human impact on both sides of the climate debate. The economies and livelihoods of many communities are dependent on current resources—coal, oil, gas—of energy consumption. These communities must be included, not excluded, in the climate change conversation and the transition to clean energy.
After my stay in Sheridan, I drove down to Cheyenne, where I stayed at an Airbnb that was more like a hippie hostel on a ranch. Upon arrival, I was instructed to enter the house, remove my shoes, spray myself with COVID spray, then make myself at home. The secret ingredients in the COVID repellent were moonshine, witch hazel, and essential oils. It was tongue in cheek, but I obliged. It was 2020, after all, and I was willing to try anything at this point.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES