Driving through New Mexico
We stumbled into a restaurant in Gallup, New Mexico the way a lost traveler crawls to an oasis in the desert. It felt like we had been driving for several days and nights. In reality it had been about 6 hours, but New Mexico has a way of stretching time so that you feel like you’ve been there an eternity.
The restaurant was a promising oasis. A live band played in the corner, and the menu boasted several vegetarian options. Warm yellow light glowed from the windows.
The cashier looked on as we debated the relative merits of ordering a bowl of tomato basil soup or a sandwich with pesto. We decided on half of each.
“We’ll have the veggie Panini and the tomato basil soup.”
“Oh, sorry, we can’t make that sandwich.”
We reconvened, deciding finally on another sandwich with the coveted pesto.
“We’ll have the Mediterranean melt, and a cup of soup.”
“Oh, are you looking for something with the pesto? That’s what we’re out of.”
Again we put our heads together. If we couldn’t have pesto at least we could still have the soup, and then just settle for a salad. Again, we stepped up to order. The cashier smirked at us from behind the register.
“Okay, we’ll have the tomato basil soup and a Caesar salad.”
“We can only make the house salad, is that okay?”
It was okay with us. We just wanted food as soon as possible.
“Sure, we’ll have the house salad and tomato basil soup.”
“We’re actually out of the tomato basil soup.”
We walked out.
Arches National Park
Finally, twenty minutes past midnight, we pulled into our tiny campsite and got ready for bed as fast as we could. Right before we went to sleep, we heard a knock at the door. A voice came through the window.
“It’s okay, it’s just the girl next door.”
Her name was Jay, and she just wanted to know the wifi password but she stayed and talked for a while. She recommended us a trail to hike the next day, and told us about her experiences at the park.
“I came here last year,” she said. “I was tent camping, and I meant to stay two weeks but I ended up staying five.”
Somehow having five spare weeks to spend in a national park didn’t mesh with our perception of adult life. What did this woman do for a living? We resolved to talk to her and find out the next day when it wasn’t 1:00 a.m. and we weren’t dog-tired. We didn’t see her again the next day, though.
We woke up at 8 the next morning and got ready for the day hike Jay had suggested.
We had been on the trail for maybe ten minutes when we came upon Landscape Arch, which definitely looks like it should not be standing. The sign near it described the last flaking event, where a huge chunk of the bottom of the arch fell, leaving it thinner and more improbable-looking than ever. Probably the holes in the sandstone had become saturated with water, the sign said, and the added weight caused the massive flake to crash to the ground. The flake story made me think about how someday the entire arch will collapse, and grateful that I got to see it.
After Landscape Arch the trail began to live up to it’s “difficult” rating; we scaled a huge fin of rock which jutted from the ground to a dizzying height, then followed stacked cairns along a narrow ridge and out over Fin Canyon. Beyond the canyon there was a wide grassland and the sugarcoated ridge of a mountain range. Little crispy dried flowers grew from tufts of white leaves on the sandy ground, and gnarled cedars twisted towards the sun with less and less success the higher up in elevation they grew.
When our comments on the landscape became increasingly food-related (i.e. “Wow, don’t those fins look like loaves of bread?”) we stopped under a pine tree and ate our avocado cheese sandwiches before continuing on our hike.
The trail led us past two more arches, each carved into the rock in improbable ways. Double O Arch was two holes in one huge slab of rock, both of which framed the landscape beyond. The last arch we saw on the way back was called Private Arch, and we had to trek back half a mile from the main trail, but it was so worth it. It hid behind two other fins, nestled in a nook that blocked all sound, even birds. It was so quiet that I could hear the hum that creeps in when there is nothing else to hear.
We finished the 7-mile hike at 4 p.m. and took a quick water break before our last adventure of the day. We were rested up by 5, and as the sun sank behind the mountains, we climbed up to Utah’s poster child, the Delicate Arch. Its lopsided shape adorns license plates, postcards, and pretty much every kitschy travel mug Utah offers, and we were appropriately excited.
The hike up to the arch was a strenuous uphill trek, made harder by the fading light, but the steady stream of people kept us on the right trail. As we neared the top of the rocky hills we were climbing, the crowd got thicker, and finally we crested the rock at the top and say the arch. It sat alone in a wide amphitheater of rock, silhouetted against a view of the plateau beyond. It seemed almost too perfect to exist. Along the walls of the amphitheater, photographers crouched every few feet, cameras poised and ready in a forest of tripods.
The saddest part of Delicate Arch came at the most beautiful time: when the setting sun fell on the face of the rock, painting it a glowing golden red. The people taking pictures near the arch were walking in for photos, when all of a sudden deafening shouts rained from all sides of the amphitheater. “Get away! Move! You had your chance for photos! Hey, red backpack, GET OUT!” It reminded me of a gladiator ring, the rabid crowd screaming down at the tiny people in the center. The little foreign woman with the red backpack shuffled away from the arch.
I’m a little conflicted about the yelling, because I know the tiny posing figures would have marred a flawless photography opportunity, but all I could think about was how their perception of this natural wonder would be colored by the rudeness they had experienced there.
Delicate Arch was beautiful, but somehow it felt off to me. The photo I Instagrammed showed me sitting in front of it, looking out as the sun fell on its curved shape. No one else was in the frame—no hint of the clamoring audience or the hapless tourists on all sides. But that wasn’t really what it was like at all.
The next morning we climbed to the Windows arches for sunrise, but when the sun rose over the mountains, it was sucked up immediately by a thick blanket of clouds. Still, the dawn light lit the plains and we saw two jackrabbits and everything glowed.