Last Friday, the IP lawyer who runs ThePassiveVoice.com posted pictures from a recent trip to Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. They brought back a lot of memories. For several years in the late 1980s-1990s, the Red family spent the first two seeks of summer driving around the US and Canadian west. One of those years we focused on the Colorado Plateau, including the bits on the edges like Capitol Reef. Keep in mind, this was before mountain bikes led to an explosion in the number of people visiting places like Arches, Bryce, Zion, and other parks in Utah’s Color Country. It was also before many vehicles aside from pick-ups and Jeeps(TM) had real four-wheel drive. Mom had a Fore-Runner, one of the first in Amarillo, and at the time it had the highest clearance of stock vehicles. And boy did we make use of it!
So we headed west one year for the Colorado Plateau and Capitol Reef. We’d already started the practice of carrying jerry cans for water, jerry cans for fuel, food for at least two days, and other supplies with us, in addition to luggage. We used the USGS topo maps and Forest Service maps for navigation once we got away from the interstates, and had been to some interesting bits of the country. My sibling and I got used to jolting and jostling over “unimproved” or Forest Service roads, some of which even the ForeRunner couldn’t handle well. We scraped the skidplate a few times. And were stymied by snowbanks in June in the La Salle mountains, since Mom and Dad did not want to have to keep digging our way through.
So we came into Capitol Reef from the north, via Muley Twist Canyon, so named because the road doubled back and forth down a steep cliff. Some of the switchbacks were so tight that a mule could touch his nose to his tail as he rounded the corner. The reef is not a former coral reef, like the one that formed Carlsbad Caverns and certain parts of the Permian Basin, but a long, steep ridge, part of the larger formation called the Waterpocket Fold. It is a real block to traffic, as a reef hinders ships, thus the name. The colors – reds, whites, oranges – come from the many layers of sandstones and limestones, with some volcanic dustings, that were laid down under deserts, seas, and other varied environments. Navajo sandstone, Entrada sandstone, the Morrison Formation and Dakota shales are names familiar to students of the geology of the American West and extend from the Texas Panhandle far to the north and west. All these formerly horizontal layers were twisted and lifted during the Laramide Orogeny and the formation of the Colorado Plateau, with additional faulting as the basin and range province shifted east.
Translated into English, there are lots of really beautiful colored rocks, hoodoos, cool views, and not much water. Thus the Red family’s jerry cans with 5 gal of water and 5 gal of flavored water. Did I mention that this area is a desert, just way up in elevation? The four of us drank about 5-6 gallons a day, plus stuff with breakfast and supper.
We bounced and jounced down Muley Twist road and drove along a dirt track for several hours, we saw three cows, two of which were dead and mummified. One other vehicle had traveled the road since the last rain, and a few miles from pave, we encountered a ranch truck. The skies were hard blue, the color of lapis lazuli and the sign of the high desert in summer, before the monsoon. Sparse bunchgrasses and sagebrush, waterfat and other scrub held down the fine soil. And then the next day we hit the park proper.
The park ranger was rather taken aback when we checked in the next morning and got a map. Normal people don’t come into the park from that direction. And ForeRunners were still very rare at that time. He did approve of our water and fuel. The warning about getting stuck in the bentonite sections if it rained did not thrill Mom and Dad. Bentonite is a type of clay that turns slicker than pig-poo, or buttered glass, when it gets damp. The only thing would have been to sit and wait for the road to dry out again. Happily, we got past those without trouble. And as usual, we had the park to ourselves. Seriously. We saw one other vehicle the entire 8 hours we cruised the roads and hiked.
So it was a great day and a cool hike until we got to Cathedral Valley. We stopped at an overlook and left the ForeRunner running as we got out to look. The stereo began to play the next song on the tape, Ian Tyson’s “Claude Dallas.” The haunting steel guitar kicked in and the lyrics, “In the land the Spanish once had called the northern mystery/ Where rivers run and disappear and the mustang still lives free” began and the four of us all felt the same hair-on-the-neck-standing response. We didn’t linger.
I’d love to go back, and to see if it is still as lonely, beautiful, and quiet as I remember. I fear not. The world has changed, even within the Waterpocket Fold. But it’s a beautiful slice of the world, Capitol Reef and Utah’s Color Country.