For years, I have been dreaming about carving out a week and coming back here to explore the National Parks in this area. Family obligations kept me away until now... the week of the federal shutdown which is the week the parks went dark. Well, sorta. I have been to two parks so far and a third I will visit today. There are barricades across entrances to visitor centers and campgrounds and bathrooms. Which is all so silly. An older, lovely French woman, who is staying at my hotel, asked me "Aren't these public lands? Why is the public being kept out?" And of course there is no way to answer that without a dissertation on the hijacking of our government, by a handful of politicians, who have hijacked the Republican Party.
Folks have come here, this first week in October, because the colors are changing and the belching (tour) buses of summer have gone, mostly. The conversations in coffee shops and gas stations and in front of those barriers include cheerful acts of civil disobedience and peaceful protests... and just lifting the tape and sneaking in. There is a woman from New Hampshire also staying here and at breakfast she was telling me she was posting every day about the hikes she was still taking and exactly how she was getting into the parks and the wilderness area of Grand Staircase/Escalante. Which is where I am staying at one of my favorite places in the universe: Boulder Mountain Lodge with the heavenly Hell's Backbone Grill restaurant.
Right outside my door, the drive connects with the road which is the very start of the Burr Trail, the old cattle trail that connects eventually, after about 100 rough miles, to Bullfrog and Lake Powell and takes you through Capitol Reef National Park. The roads that provide the only way through are still open. The fine for stopping your car to take a photo right now, however, is $500. Which is both stupid and heartbreaking. Park Rangers love the parks. They work long hours in difficult conditions wanting guests to see all the special places that are tucked away in places of spectacular beauty. This week, at least one was in tears having to explain to foreign guests who were happy camping that they had to pack up and move out.
I did what I often do in cases like this. I practiced a bit of civil disobedience and I found another way. What is often overlooked is how much raw beauty lies just outside the parks. Take the Burr Trail, before you hit the park. There are slot canyons right off the road if you keep an eye out. You can park and walk into them and get Rosen sand in your shoes and shoot the aspens still spring-green and those turning yellow to orange. You can aim your camera at the glint of sunlight filtered by the leaves and showing off the ribbons of color in the red rock formations. And you act like a little kid and imagine all kinds of scenarios which would require you to hide out there for days on end.
Back on the road in no time at all you are in a world where time began. There are no structures or signs of humans for miles on end. Just giant, red rock walls that vibrate their warmth and their fierce strength. Their shapes mimic giants or body parts of giants and all alone you can easily get the giggles about rocks that have been shaped by water and wind. After driving for, say, 30 miles like this, you see the stone sign to Capitol Reef National Park and there are no signs or barricades and you drive (OK, I drove) right on through. And it felt a bit daring and then just silly and yes, I risked a $500 ticket and I took some photos. And then after a few minutes and a few miles, I turned around and drove back out. I didn't want to encounter a Park Ranger forced to deal with an idiot like me. But damn it the Parks belong to all of us.
The Boulder Mountain Lodge is situated on the edge of a bird refuge, surrounded by both open space and large swathes of cattle ranches. It is about as bucolic a setting as you could ask for. Folks come from all over to sit for a spell on the porch and watch the birds land and take off with zero mishaps. And the imposing red cliffs surround it all like full hugs from a big-breasted woman.
The food here is legendary as well. Two clever, wickedly-talented women have created an oasis for weary, hungry travelers. Using their own and local farmers' and ranchers' produce and animals, they turn simple foods into unforgettable feasts. "With a Measure of Grace" is the name of their first cookbook (the second will be out next fall). And there is a grace that is infused into every red sauce and lemony mashed potato and creamy, chocolate chili pot. Think about the book "Like Water for Chocolate" and you have a sense of the alchemy that takes place here.
All is not lost on this trip. I have walked for miles in solitude and joined in lively conversations with quite-perfect strangers from places around the world. I am taking photographs (which I once did for a living) and remembering how to see the play of light. And I have been made to feel small very, very small surrounded by towering, deep-red cliffs that stand like soldiers protecting this space from a crazy-busy, all-too-connected world. I have felt disconnected in a healthy sense. And I have inhaled quiet, so much quiet, that I could hear birds flap their wings and trees rustle their leaves and a lizard scurry over a flat rock in a dry creek bed.
It is good to recharge in such a vibrant, primitive area. I will continue my journey this Sunday shut out of the Park...
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.