Sunday in the Park
May 1, 2009
The "money shot," as photographers like to call it, would have been a picture of my low-slung Subaru sedan, four miles off the middle of the unpaved Burr Trail, perched precariously on a rock precipice. But I was still shaking too much to think of taking a photo. That climb was pretty dumb, because although my car is four-wheel drive, the clearance is not even as generous as, say, the Subaru wagon and Well, let me start from the beginning of the day
It had been years since I had gone down any part of the Burr Trail. My visits to the Boulder area had involved other hikes and pursuits over the years. This trip I wanted to go back to the heart of that wilderness scenery and take some photos and feel very small in a place of vastness. So last Wednesday I packed up some provisions and extra water and started down the road that said "Next services 75 miles." And then, after about 20 miles, came the sign that makes my heart sing: "Pavement ends." And not too long after that I was entering the southwestern corner of Capitol Reef Park a good 50 miles south of the visitor’s center.
I had driven past the creeks and the lush green trees growing out of slot canyons. Now it was just dirt roads and sheer cliffs. I drove for two hours without passing another car. Into the park maybe five miles or so, I headed down the Burr Trail Switchbacks, a one-lane road on rocky dirt with a grade so steep you want a gear lower than first to go down in. And there are no guardrails or precautionary barriers of any kind. If you are here, the assumption is, you better damn well know how to drive this.
The light was spectacular with fast-moving clouds changing the patterns on the rocks in an exhibit-like fashion. I was both exhausted and exhilarated when I reached the bottom. And feeling disproportionately fearless. So when a fork came in the road with a signpost that proclaimed it was about 30 miles to Bullfrog and Lake Powell, I realized I didn’t want to go that far (probably about two hours on the rutted road) but I would venture down a few miles to something called Hall’s Creek Overlook. The word Overlook denoted there would be something to see from a distance.
About ten miles down the road came the turnoff to Hall’s Creek Overlook which indicated it was another four miles. It was now around 1 p.m. and I thought I would stop at the overlook and have some lunch and take some shots. So I kept driving.
As I kept climbing the narrow one-lane path, the dirt road became crushed rock with sheer cliffs on either side. I realized the rock had become uneven slick rocks and then just rocks that I had to pick my way over as if I were guiding a mule. There was no place to turn around, of course, and backing down seemed as stupid as going forward. As I approached the summit I saw two white SUVs hugging the overlook. Hell, if they had made it, so could I.
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When I stepped out of my car, the first man, a Navajo, I think, with a long ponytail, sized up me and my car, and then he said, "Remind me never to buy a car from you." I gave a nervous little laugh and said something like, "That bad, huh?" And he replied, "Oh, your driving was amazing. You placed two wheels on each rock so you wouldn’t high center. I don’t know how you did that." I laughed again and admitted I didn’t know either.
An Asian man looked me and my car and sniffed and said, "Rental car, huh?" And I hurriedly said, "No, no, my own." He had nothing left to say to me after that. Then the Navajo said, "Watch out going down, that’s when you can really bottom out."
I grabbed my salami and cheese and sat on the edge of a cliff, high, high, high over a great canyon, a glorious canyon, even a grand canyon, and saw no creek at all. The sign said it was a mile beneath us and it might have been, years ago. And perhaps sitting on the edge of the cliff having lunch swinging my legs below me with no guardrails and the bottom a mile beneath me was a dumb thing to do too, but by then it seemed kinda normal for the day.
Days later I would enter Zion National Park from the east, just after I had made a stop in the great afternoon light and visited at famed Utah painter Maynard Dixon’s house. It was not really open to the public but was opening later that night for a private function. So the volunteers involved invited me to tour the grounds and the houses.
By Sunday morning I was again on the top of a rocky climb, but this time it been under my own personal steam, on the Emerald Pools Trail inside the park. The morning was breezy and sunny and spring feeling, filled with anticipation of the warmer days and more foliage to bloom. The waterfall sprayed a fine mist over my face as a reward for the climb. And I was reminded that being out in a national park or untamed wilderness is still my favorite way to spend a Sunday not in this Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.