Trip to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Thanksgiving 1998, written Wednesday Evening, December 2, 1998

Al Miller

Summary: The trip was fantastic, much driving.  Shot 40 4x5 B&W negatives and 5 color transparencies.

Bush overlooking the White Rim.  Photo by John Romero.

I took this trip with a friend from work, John Romero. He invited me to Thanksgiving dinner at his family at his  parents home, which is in Rawlins, WYO.  I had mentioned the idea of this trip a couple of weeks ago, and his ears perked right up, and before I knew what was going on we had this trip all planned.  The idea was to meet in Rawlins for dinner, then leave his wife and kids there (she is also from Rawlins), drive to Utah to spend a few days, then go back to Rawlins, then home.  It might help to look at a map to understand the sheer folly of this adventure.

Wednesday evening I spent baking 3 apple pies to take to Thanksgiving dinner.  They were quite good if I do say so myself. (As Al gets hurt patting himself on the back).

I left home about 5:30 am Thursday morning, with dinner in Rawlins planned for 2:00, and the desire to be in or near Moab by 10:00. Plenty of time to take the scenic route.  Good CDs in the car.  Wad of money in pocket.  Beautifully crafted vintage Sinar Norma 4x5 camera and related gear filling the back seat.  One hundred sheets of 4x5 film on board.  Life is good.

Heading up Rist Canyon, to Stove Prairie, then to Poudre Canyon and over Cameron Pass, I drove west over the pass as the sun rose.  Going north from Walden, I turned off on a side road, that, according to the map, went in the general direction that I was interested in. When I go somewhere, I like to try to take roads I have never traveled.  What the map didn't say was whether it would be passable to a Saturn on Thanksgiving.  It wasn't, which I didn't discover until about 25 miles later.  But I did find some nice scenery along the way, and stopped to take some photographs, and found some quiet times.

After I backtracked to Cowdrey and rejoined the highway, I headed north to Encampment and took a side trip along the Battle Pass road, which I knew would be closed for the winter, but I was still ahead of schedule.

Eventually, I wound my way to Rawlins, and appeared at the Romero's doorstep at 1:59 pm, with all the Thanksgiving trappings waiting for me.  There was John, Joyce, their three kids, John's parents, sister, aunt, and 90-something grandmother.  Grandma was a real hoot, sharp and witty.  The food was good, and my pies were a hit, as was the novelty of a single guy who likes to bake.

After dinner, John's dad showed me around his house - he is an amateur fossil hunter and rock hound.  He likes to cut and polish rocks and has a huge collection of fossils, petrified wood and cool stones, and a nice shop in the basement for cutting and polishing stones.  Oh, he also makes silver turquoise jewelry.  For a living they run a communications business - installing and maintaining radios for the State and for private business.

At bit after 4:00 it was time to be back on the road, and we loaded John's gear into my car and headed into the Wyoming sunset.  The weather was predicted to be good for several days, and that looked like it would hold true.  We drove and talked well into the night, stopping only when absolutely necessary.  We took the Baggs road south from I80, to Craig, Colorado, and continued south to Meeker, then hit I70 at Rifle.  From there we went west, to Cisco, Utah, where a back road joins the Colorado River and eventually goes to Moab.  We stopped at the first campground, and at 10:00 were bedding down, warmed by a little companionship from uncle Jack Daniels, only 30 miles from Moab.

It was a cool, clear, night with a crescent moon and bright stars, and we were in a deep canyon.  I elected to sleep out of the tent, in a bivy bag, so I could watch the stars.  There was a meteor shower going on that night - I saw several dozen in two hours, emanating near the Pleiades.  Another fantastic sight was watching the moon set over the canyon wall as I lay motionless on the ground.  Eventually I fell fast asleep, and awoke to hearing John announce, at about 5:30, "Frost on the Pumpkin!"  It was cold.  The frost broke off my sleeping bag in sheets, but I was warm, except for my feet.  I got a thermometer out of the car, and it claimed 20 degrees.  The bottle of Jack Daniels on the picnic table was opaque with frost, but a sip of its contents had a nice warming effect.

John had never been to this part of the country before, and he seemed duly impressed by the canyon scenery and the quiet power of the Colorado River only a few feet away.  We loaded up the car and headed toward Moab, turning off for a few scenic detours and photo opportunities.  At one stop we met a nice young student couple from Fort Collins.  Later, we came across two quite attractive young women hitchhiking. We looked at the back seat, heaped with camera gear, knowing the trunk was jammed too.  Damn fine time to own a compact car!  Oh well, keep on driving.  We went to town and bought some food, charcoal, and firewood (well, I hate to admit this but a Duraflame log. Please don't tell anyone) then drove to Arches and staked out a campsite.

Al can't even light a Duraflame Log!  Photo by John Romero.

Much of the rest of the day we drove around Arches, looking for photographs and just enjoying the scenery.  We drove along the dirt Salt Valley road and found a nice spot for a hike.

Photographing Arches turned out to be much more difficult than I thought it would be.  To just sit there and watch the scenery is stunning, but when I try to visualize an image things get very complicated.  The forms are so complex, and the layers of depth so strong, that the landscape there poses a real challenge.  Much of the day we spend wandering around, with me feeling a bit frustrated about the whole affair.  Finally, about an hour before sunset I set up the camera along a trail at a spot where I found some nice, strong vertical fins of rock which I hope will make nice photographs.  I took several exposures from that spot, and seeing that the sky was becoming overcast as the sun began to get low, packed up and went back to the campground.

I had taken about 15 photographs that day, and each is a separate sheet of film that needs to be unloaded from its holder and stored in a box.  Then the film holder needs to be reloaded.  I decided to get started on that, and as soon as I got my hands in the dark bag and got to a point where I was committed to doing this chore the sun came out from behind the clouds, right on the horizon, in the most vivid, awe-inspiring, photogenic sunset you could ever hope to see.  Shit. The photographer's equivalent of the 30" Bass that got away.  People were standing around awestruck snapping pictures with their $75 point-and-shoot piece-of-shit APS cameras and here I am, thousands of dollars worth of gear sitting on a picnic table with my hands literally tied up loading sheets of film.

I finished reloading the film and John started the grill.  Don't buy generic match-light charcoal.  Eventually we did get our brats cooked, and they went well with a bottle of 1996 Rothschild Mouton Cadet Bordeaux.  I had to push the cork into the bottle, as I had forgotten the corkscrew and couldn't find my Swiss Army Knife.

John Romero - Photo by Al Miller

The weather that night was mostly cloudy, and much warmer - I don't think it got below 40 degrees.  We awoke early Saturday and drove to Canyonlands National Park to claim a campsite.  We got the same site I had stayed in during my 1988 trip!  We then drove to town for some more supplies, and then went for a bit of a scenic drive along the Colorado downstream from Moab, to Potash, then back to Canyonlands. We went to Upheaval Dome and hiked almost all the way along the south rim, which was probably somewhat over a mile, checking out the various viewpoints.  It was overcast, cool, and windy that day, but quite pleasant as long as we kept sheltered.  At one point we stopped for about half and hour, sitting at a point overlooking the western end of the Dome, with a wonderful view of the canyons.  We went back to the car and found a vantage point for some sunset photographs at one of the points overlooking the north rim of the canyon.  It was indeed a nice sunset, and I think I got some nice pictures.

That evening we ate canned chili warmed over another Duraflame log, the can opened with a rock and piece of climbing gear.  We had forgotten to bring a can opener and were too cheap to pay $4.00 for one at the store, when we both knew we had several at home.

John Opening the Chili - Photo by Al Miller

I decided to sleep in the tent that night, which was a good thing, as about midnight we got a nice rain shower. 

Sunday morning we got up before sunrise and drove to Dead Horse Point State Park and set up for more photographs.  There were some German tourists there who weren't afraid to express their opinion that it was a terrible morning for taking pictures as I set up my camera.

Germans on Mesa - Photo by John Romero

After spending about an hour at Dead Horse Point it was time to pack up and head home.  We did not have enough time to do this trip justice.  I really need to go back and spend several days at Arches, and also get down inside the Canyons to the White Rim - there has to be some wonderful photographs down there, and very few people ever go there.

Al and Camera - Photo by John Romero.

As we drove back to Rawlins we ran into every kind of weather - bright, warm sun, rain, driving snow, sleet, and fog.  Oh, and wind. Lots of wind.  We made good time, and got John to his in-laws at about 3:00.  I had been planning on driving straight home via I80 and I25, but at the last moment decided to backtrack to Baggs, Craig, and go home through Steamboat Springs and over Rabbit Ears pass, and camp somewhere along the way.  I was hoping that the weather we had earlier in the day might have left some fresh snow on the pass.

It got dark about the time I went through Baggs, and I remembered John telling me that the most deer he had ever seen was between Baggs and Craig.  I began to see deer, a lot of deer.  The mule deer in the west seem less likely to jump out in front of cars compared to the midwestern whitetails, but I do see a fair number of carcasses attracting ravens, magpies, and vultures along the roadside.  Well, you guessed it, about 5 miles before Craig I saw one jump in my peripheral vision and run right in front of the car.  I hit the brakes and just barely hit the deer's rear legs with the passenger side of the hood.  It flipped ass-over-tea-kettle into the ditch as I slid to a halt.  It got up, we looked at each other, both with a "What the fuck was that?!"  expression, and he ran away.  I got out - no damage to my car - and I think the deer was OK.

That was enough for the day, and I went straight the Holiday Inn at Craig, got a room, and then drove to K-Mart to buy some clean clothes, which I needed desperately, and got washed up and enjoyed a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant and went to bed.

Monday morning I got up, checked out, and was at work by noon.

Next:  Yosemite National Park, March, 1999.