Grand Staircase I: Sinners and Saviors

This is Part One of a three-part series.

Four years ago I wrapped up a meandering western road trip at Zion National Park. Its great red walls have called me back ever since, a magnetic pull that only two or three other places on earth have managed. And so, my hockey duties at an end, I set out to escape the bleak late Minnesota winter and head for the southwest. This time I aim for a taste of Zion’s surroundings, and rig up one of my normal sprawling itineraries: Vegas, some sand dunes, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, a trek across southern Utah fueled by Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner on John Wesley Powell. It is time for me to hit the road again, and to appreciate that stark beauty of the untamed West, to peel back a few layers obscured by life at a breakneck pace.

But first, I land for a night in Sin City. Las Vegas, more than ever, seems the logical end point of American popular culture. It is gaudy, escapist, and pulls everyone in to the same churning spectacle, a simulacrum of reality rather than reality itself. I arrive on a Saturday night and stay at an off-brand spinoff of the MGM Grand, a once-glamorous but now dated tower where my 26th-floor balcony gazes out at the glaring lights and less glaring parking garages of the Strip to the west and north. Circuits of the MGM Grand and New York New York across the street are spelunking expeditions through sprawling cave complexes, complete with stalagmites of gaming machines and stalactites of flashy signs inviting me into various restaurants, with rap pumping out of some and Mexican ballads out of others and a few crooners belting out reliable standbys. The clientele is more or less what I expected, with a certain emphasis on over-coiffed white boys and their busty counterparts, but on the whole Vegas strikes me as quite democratic: there is a bit of everyone here, the racial and age ratios probably not all that off from the county overall. I stroll about, enjoy the open container laws and muse to myself about who exactly takes their nine-year olds out on a stroll through this warren at midnight, and why religious mask-wearers would choose this of all places as a vacation destination. The world is a realm of mystery.

I am not the first person to see Vegas in this light. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown saw its radical Strip as a rebellion against the stark formalism of modern architecture. In Vegas the postmodern arose, a return to decoration and ornament, flamboyance and kitsch in search of meaning, however crass or overstated. As I flounder about the city the next morning through a series of misadventures, from a rental car swap-out to a quest to replace a phone charger that was not actually lost in addition to my planned grocery and camping fuel runs, I find myself more at peace with it than I did four years ago. Yes, it is an endless sprawling grid, but there are actual tall buildings and some nods to the landscape’s intricacies. Its homages to famous sites around the world, however tacky, do provide a sort of cosmopolitanism that is more accessible than the real kind without always being that much less authentic, whatever that word may mean. I enjoy the people-watching and revel in the whole spectacle, and can be one with that world, at least for a little while. Were it not for the slowly declining levels of the Colorado River and the impending western water wars fueled in no small part by its rapid growth, I might even have liked the place.

My phone flashes ominous warnings of bad traffic on I-15 north of Vegas. I watch with worry as my estimated travel time to my destination over the first 40 minutes of the drive stays exactly the same, and the landscape, a truly bleak sprawling desert dotted by mining operations along a highway choked with big rigs and RVs, does not give me warm feelings. To my relief, my Google guide diverts me off the freeway and send me on a 25-mile detour that merrily meanders up and down dry washes along the Virgin River just past Mesquite. I wave gleefully at the unmoving traffic on the interstate as I shoot past and rejoin the freeway in the Virgin River Gorge, clambering up toward the freedom of the Grand Staircase.

For most people who have heard of Colorado City, Arizona, it stands for the opposite of freedom, or at least a very tortured version of it. It is in this town and its Utah neighbor of Hildale that a breakaway cult named the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter-Day Saints, a sect that rejected the mainstream LDS’s abolition of polygamy, has been practicing plural marriage for decades. The cult has been subject to occasional government raids, the most famous coming first in 1953 and then in 2008, when church leader Warren Jeffs was imprisoned for rape and arranging child marriage. (Less famously, one of Jeffs’ spawn tried to relocate his harem to some land in my own backyard in Cook County, Minnesota, in 2019.) I have a visceral reaction as I drive through, my skin crawling at the sight of all these sprawling, fenced compounds, often with a dozen cars parked out front. While a few suggest some local money, many are in states of incompletion, either shabby disrepair or another stalled-out additions, the only sign of life a healthy number of boys shooting about on bikes. The girls are conspicuous in their absence.

But even in ground zero for a fundamentalist cult, there is hope, or at the very least some decent beer: the Edge of the World Brewery has been open here for a year and a half. The man next to me at the bar calls it a great environment, a heartfelt expression of relief at something his town needed. The man puts the salt in the phrase ‘salt of the earth,’ younger than I am but weathered beyond time, at times barely comprehensible through at thick accent. But yet he isn’t wrong about this being home: the man, improbably, has a brother down the bar who lives in Elk River, and up on the TV, the Minnesota Gophers punch their ticket to the Frozen Four. The man tells me the story of the time his teenage self, smoking weed out of a Red Bull can, gave Karl Malone a light when the Utah Jazz came through on some tour. I attempt to explain my profession, which is hard enough with people who have heard of what I do. We settle for a shared understanding of the value of infrastructure projects and call it a day.

I spend the night at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park some 15 miles east of Colorado City. The dunes here take on soft pink hues, the residue of the red cliffs marching down from Zion. The park is primarily a haven for ATVs and side-by-sides, which does not beget peace and quiet, but a stroll out across the sandy expanse toward the highest dune in sight brings a sort of reverie nonetheless. The wind whispers across them, a few loose grains pulled from the top and hissing some message, some deep secret lost amid the sands of time, ebbing and flowing in rhythmic currents.

I take off my shoes for the walk. The sand is cool to the touch, occasionally granting firm steps but otherwise just sifting away down either side of the dune, swiftly covered once again by the wind. I return at night as the stars emerge, and now it is all still; even the OHVs in the distance pause for a moment to drink it in. A car campground tucked in a juniper thicket is a peaceful home for the evening, and unlike the exasperated mother of Emerson and Clarity, two eager young cyclists in the neighboring campsite, I am able to settle in, free of any worries, chilled by the night desert air and happy to be traveling among people in all their complicated glory once again.

On my second full day, it is off to Zion, the canyon that has become my happy place. My initial goal was to hike Observation Point, the hipster Angels Landing, even higher and less crowded than the famed promontory that I summited the last time I was here. The main trail up from the canyon has been blocked by a rockfall for a few years now, but another access sweeps in from a resort to the east. Alas: a sign at the ranch tells me the road is impassable. “You will get stuck!” it announces, and I audible for a hike from the East Rim trailhead just inside the park boundary. While the eight-mile out-and-back I plod has none of the glamour of the rim views, it is quintessentially Zion in every other way: red and white rocks swirling in all directions, gnarled junipers, a deep gulch, the looming cliffs in the distance, and the now familiar coral sand beneath my feet. I am at home here.

This, however, is merely the warm-up. Immediately beyond the trailhead the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway becomes one of the most stunning roads I’ve ever driven, winding through rich red rock spackled with greenery, Zion’s hanging gardens becoming more and more ubiquitous along the way. Crowds cluster at each turn-out, and a pair of bighorn sheep prompt a freak-out just before the plunge through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. I was curious if Zion would hold up upon a second visit, but when its great red walls appear beyond the mouth of the tunnel, I almost choke up. Hardly my typical reaction to a landform.

My digs on night three are in the Zion Wildflower glampground some twelve miles beyond Springdale, Zion’s main gateway on the south end of the canyon. Covered wagons and yurts dot the hillside, though I settle for a well-appointed bungalow with two rockers out on its front porch. The place is new, having just opened in 2020, and an addition is already under construction further along the hill. It has a commanding view down the valley of the Virgin, and a drive into La Verkin for dinner takes me past a stunning interplay of sunlight and cloud and dust. I bond with the bro in the neighboring cabin, drink in some of the cool night air, and prepare my backpack for what I expect will be the highlight of this trip.

I enjoy the juxtapositions on my first third of my adventure: Vegas gaudiness and Colorado City reclusiveness, the simplicity of the sand dunes and the grandeur of Zion. Now, however, it is time to dive in, to leave behind any temporary friends and head deep into the lonely spaces of southern Utah.

Part 2 is here.

Road Trip Journal I: Minneapolis to Salt Lake City

(Preview post)

Day One: The All-American Road

My friend and I are on our way, ready to discover what we can of a country across two weeks. The trip begins with a gentle wind down the Minnesota River, through small towns whose names I know but which I’ve never seen. For the most part, they’re well-appointed, and we don’t pause to ponder them. We’ve seen a few Minnesota farms in our lives, and we’ll see more again before this trip is up. We plow on beneath a low sky, pick up I-90 in Worthington, and have lunch alongside a cornfield just past Sioux Falls.

In South Dakota, the twin ribbons of road undulate over rolling hills, slowly but steadily rising upward. One of the few pauses comes at the Missouri River, here wide enough to be a lake, and with an unnatural, greenish tinge. In time, the Badlands appear, the green grass falling away in cliffs and along buttes with such precision that it looks like they’ve been mined out of the plain. Ten thousand signs alert us to the presence of the Corn Palace and Wall Drug (we skip both), but just one sign gives any indication of the Pine Ridge reservation, which we skirt past. Just beyond these kitschy frontier towns lies one of the most destitute corners of America, a desolate and poverty-stricken zone where the future is as bleak as in any inner city. Drive down this highway, however, and you’d probably never know. Aircraft and helicopters buzz over us at the Ellsworth Air Force Base just outside of Rapid City, and after a bypass around the largest outpost in western South Dakota, we come to the Black Hills.

We climb into the hills, made dark by their scores of ponderosa pines. My first recollection, curiously enough, is of the Mexican highlands: dry pine forests, crowded winding roads, and an endless string of attempts at tourist attractions the entire way. These let up some when we enter the national forest, but there’s still a steady stream of them intermingled with signs warning us of bighorn sheep. Many of the attractions seem frozen in a different time to a couple of urbane city kids, but the culture that produced these roadside curiosities is alive and well beyond our limited cosmopolitan world. We eat it all up, too.

DSCF0012

We pitch our tent a short ways north of the main highway. Home for the night is the Sheridan Lake South National Forest Campground, just north of Hill City. It sits among the pines along a small lake, and its whispering breezes evoke the Boundary Waters for us Minnesotans, though the RVs just down the way are a new wrinkle. We set up our tent and head into Hill City for dinner. We pass a series of wineries; we’ll have time for wine later. Instead, we end up on its Old West main drag, and we dodge motorcycles (Sturgis is just north of here) for dinner at the Bumpin’ Buffalo, which has a fairly empty deck with a view of the town. Further underscoring the Mexican instinct, we’re serenaded by the cowboys singing about cerveza in mediocre Spanish at the Mangy Moose across the way. Satisfied, it’s on to Mount Rushmore.

We come at the mountain from the south, and get a profile view of George Washington before coming around to fork over a heap of cash to the National Park Service for the privilege to park. We head up an avenue of flags and concrete arches to behold the quartet of presidents, all gazing over the valley below. Rushmore is so legendary that it seems almost small to me upon first sight, but even from our considerable distance, it’s a marvel of sculpture and ambition. I now appreciate its remoteness, and what Gutzon Borglum and company went through to sculpt this into being. The site museum adds some background, and the short walk back out passes some six thousand or so boy scouts. Bruce Springsteen serenades us as we drive away.

DSCF0017

We swing south through the Hills toward the Crazy Horse memorial, still very much a work in progress; at $11 a person, we sheepishly snap a photo from a distance and instead drive on for a loop around Custer State Park. We work our way back up the Needles Highway, a narrow, sometimes precarious stretch of road that winds endlessly through the hills at a painstaking pace. Before long, however, we’re rewarded: the road climbs up into a forest of stone towers, culminating in the Cathedral Spires that support the ceiling of these hills. The view extends all the way back to the plain from which we came, the Badlands now illuminated in setting sun. The golden glow catches the top of the spires, and after every turn we’re compelled to stop again and jump out for another look. We inch through a few one-way tunnels, one of which is blocked up by some sheep; a whole herd of them dances down the mountainside, and we get a moment to admire their scraggly, shedding winter coats.

DSCF0038

It’s nearly dark by the time we’re back in camp, and we linger down by the water for a little while before we crash. The stars, no doubt, were pristine, but in midsummer the sunlight lingers until late, and between our exhaustion and a rising moon, we have no real chance to gaze upward. Day one is done, a complete rush into a West that, while still vast an empty and hauntingly beautiful, is no frontier. It’s now an attraction, with Custer and Crazy Horse, those best of old friends, together on road signs, directing us onward to the next attraction. The Black Hills are the ultimate road trip destination for a car-loving country, distinctly American in so many ways. Yes, it has a side to it that produces t-shirts of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump together on a Harley, but it also brings forth a simpler era and nostalgia for a family on the road together, off to see beauty and building some memory they’ll always have. A fitting start to our journey.

Day Two: Dispatch from Deseret

We’re on the road early again the next morning, passing back through the Black Hills before coming into the high plains of Wyoming. The Equality State (so called for its early provision of women’s suffrage) is, for much of its expanse, a vast tract of nothingness, and we spend the majority of our day traversing it. It starts out as high plains, with ranches here and there. We cruise down the desolate federal highways, the towns rarely more than highway junctions. It’s nothing but space, and I have newfound respect for the old natives who called it home and the settlers who crossed it without asphalt and air conditioning.

DSCF0059

The road southwest from Casper offers a little more scenery. State Highway 220 travels down a valley with the North Platte River at its start, weaving along the longest expanse of water we’ve seen since the Missouri. We have lunch at Independence Rock, the halfway point on the Oregon Trail, still covered in pioneer graffiti and evoking memories of cholera outbreaks in the old computer game. In time, we come to I-80, which for a stretch is even duller: gone are the layer cakes of colored rock, and we’re left with steady marches of empty green hills. A sudden squall beyond the Red Desert slows the endless convoys of trucks, and the downpour washes away the graveyard of bug guts on our windshield. We pass a few more vaguely familiar Oregon Trail locales: the Green River, Fort Bridger. To the south, the Uintas rise, their whitish peaks perhaps still bearing some snow. The land grows slowly greener, and we understand why the Mormons, in exodus on this very route a century and a half before, thought they might finally come to a promised land.

The engine protests some as we push up and down passes through the Wastach Mountains and snake past the ski slopes of Park City. After a twenty-mile descent, we’re in Salt Lake, our largest city since Minneapolis, suddenly teeming with late rush hour life. We check in at an Airbnb in the suburb of Bountiful, whose chief bounty is a neighboring oil refinery. Our host, a jovial Mormon ready with suggestions, tells us we can catch a Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsal in Temple Square. Intrigued, we head back into the city, though we’re distracted by the stunning state capitol first. Other capitols can match its size and grandeur, but few can equal its commanding position on a hill over the city, and its white-and-grey marble has a pristine quality absent from the sandier stone in the Midwest.

DSCF0099

We hike down the hill to Temple Square. It’s in the upper 90s, but dry enough that it feels nowhere near so hot. The Latter-Day Saints have built themselves a lush marvel of a plaza, and we slowly approach the temple along fountain-lined promenades, the archangel Moroni beckoning us in. Mormon elders are on hand to explain some history, and direct us to the concert hall, which is so overcrowded that a line has formed, and the coordination of the line leaves something to be desired. After a wait, we make it in and catch a few songs from the choir. They’re brilliant, as we’d expect, even amid the din of bored children and cell phones. When we emerge, the line for this mere rehearsal is wrapping around the square. Nonbelievers aren’t allowed inside the Mormon temples (of which there are just 50 or so worldwide), but a visitor’s center gives a few glimpses of the events inside. Famished, we leave the complex and past a statue of a perplexed Brigham Young gesturing toward the Zions Bank tower across the street.

DSCF0090

Salt Lake is built on the vast scale of cities of the West, with streets the width of eastern freeways and a rigid grid of numbered streets. Still, the space allows for innovation: there are bike lanes, a new light rail, and a fleet of pedicabs scurrying around downtown. It seems clean and orderly, as the LDS capital should be. Still, Salt Lake is surprisingly non-Mormon for Utah; many of its establishments could be anywhere, and we find a bustling brew pub to our liking for dinner. Day two closes with further examination of the Mormon faith, and a fair amount of respect on my part: they’ve built a remarkably strong institution that supports a distinctive way of life, but yet their integration with everyone around them remains impressive. Others who are in this world but aspire to ends beyond it have something to learn from the Latter-Day Saints, whatever we may think of their theology and nametags.

For now, though, it’s far too late already, and the wastes of Nevada await tomorrow. Onward to San Francisco.

(Part II)