“I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.” —Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
After waiting all these years, I’ll admit I was prepared for disappointment. I’ll admit I was prepared for teeming crowds of people pouring over paved pathways, dressed in flip flops, women wearing too much makeup, men wearing cargo shorts and polos, people unprepared with only one measly bottle of water, or no water at all. I was prepared for screaming children throwing tantrums, old couples feebly moving from car, to scenic overlook, back to the car again.
I was prepared for these things because these were the things I saw in Zion National Park. I watched people move through that park like it was Disney World. I watched park rangers and other staff coddle patrons into that sense of comfort and complacency. Come one, come all, we include everyone and anyone! Reverence for the natural world not necessary! Previous outdoor experience not required!
I was told that Arches National Park was called the windshield park, because it was designed in such a way that you could see everything from the safety of your air-conditioned car.
I was told the park had changed a lot since Ed Abbey was a park ranger there, and not to get my hopes up.
And at first, that is exactly how the park appeared.
At 10:00am, we found the last parking spot outside of Devil’s Garden. I waited in line for 15 minutes to use the bathroom before starting the hike. 20 other people and myself huddled around the map stationed at the entrance. We moved like syrup through the stream of people as we came upon the first arch, barely a mile down the path.
But then the trail turned to sand and something changed.
It was as if we were stepping into somewhere forbidden. People walked right up to the edge of the loosely packed sand path and peered down the trail, but seemed unable to take a step further.
The primitive trail creates a seven mile loop (eight if you take all of the detours) through canyons and cliffs, over slick rock, and down into washes. It is rated as “difficult” and I believe this classification is what keeps people from taking that first step into the sand.
But we were prepared, with 5 liters of water between the two of us, Clif Bars tucked into our backpacks and each carrying a small first aid kit. We had warm clothes, sunscreen, good hiking boots and thick socks to take us through a landscape that can be relentless.
It didn’t take long before the trail turned into slick rock, wound down into a wash, and took us straight into the canyons. The red walls rose up and beckoned us onward.
We picked our way through, passing the occasional hiker, but mostly the only sounds were our voices and the rush of wind whipping through the rocks.
We got lost twice, found our way back to the sagebrush dotted trail, and continued.
Most people come to Arches National Park for, well, the arches. And we saw plenty of them. But I was most captivated by the narrow canyons, the massive stonewalls that grew out of the ground and enveloped us. You could disappear from the world inside their long stretching fingers.
When we finally neared the end of the trail, we stood on a ridge that looked out over the vast Utah desert. The wind blew hard against our bodies, making it difficult to step forward, a force I didn’t want to resist, a hike I didn’t want to end. I felt the steady rock below my feet, and the force of the natural world breaking that steadiness down slowly, one grain of wind blown sand at a time, until in time, it too becomes an archway, a window into the desert, a hollowness that opens us up to the raw beauty of geology and time.