|The Whole Enchilada||Wednesday, 16 Novemeber 2005|
|written by Teresa|
Waiting to see the dentist is always something of an unnerving experience and any distractions are welcome. Last year as I sat trying to ignore the high pitched squeal of a distant drill, I overheard a new member of staff being trained in the intricacies of the surgery's computerized appointment and record system. A perfectly staid explanation accompanied each new screen, the monotone teaching voice drawing attention to particular details, its soporific effect washing over me. Just as I, and I suspect the new employee, were losing interest, the tone suddenly changed, the cadence became animated and the old hand punched a final key whilst proudly announcing, "And here's the whole enchilada!" A bolt of energy suddenly connected with the newcomer who proceeded to repeat the gastronomic phrase at least three times in as many minutes, relishing the culinary reference, savouring the piquancy of the words, filling the air with a spicy aroma.
This long overdue log entry is my version of the whole enchilada: a whistle stop tour through the missing months at the end of 2004 when the log ground to a halt. I will be making copious use of that most helpful of teaching tools, the photograph, and keeping the text to a minimum, guided by my notes and memory.
November was an eventful month that started quietly enough with a meander across southwestern Wyoming and a few days at Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah-Colorado border. Many of the more remote campgrounds are closed in the winter months but those that are open are virtually deserted. We parked on the banks of the Colorado River, across from a stretch of multi-coloured strata that became almost luminescent in the late afternoon sun. Many trees had already succumbed to the desire to rest, their leaves strewn carelessly by the winds, but others held on tenaciously to their golden halos, creating an intermittent edging along the winding steel-grey ribbon of the river.
It is a perfect time of year to walk in this desert landscape, the heat of the summer months has passed and yet days of absolute clarity, sunshine and warmth remain, the landscape calling to be explored. The Sound of Silence Trail is just a couple of miles long, wending its way between the exposed faces of eroded blocks of rock and living up to its name, not even the wind managing to rustle the sparse vegetation.
No trip to the Monument is complete without a visit to see "The Bones" and Sinclair had been very patient up to this point. I suspect that he sometimes feels a bit like a dinosaur in fact, left behind by the ecological changes that reduced his ancestors to the remains on view at the Quarry Visitor Center. The afternoon light threw another layer of interest on the exposed strata and being mid-week, the place was virtually empty and largely silent. We eventually prized our green friend away and headed towards Glenwood Springs where we were due to stay with friends the following night.
As evening approached, we drove along a dirt track into a BLM area intending to stay there and be away early the next morning. Overnight the heavens opened, the narrow track turned into a quagmire and the minor detail of the ten foot drop off one side suddenly took on a whole new significance. Whatever Ford might have told us about their four wheel-drive trucks and whatever we had believed or hoped, was just not true when it came down to it. The camber of the track along with its slick muddy covering had us sliding dangerously sideways towards the drop off. I'm convinced that it was Sterling's amazing driving, coupled with a small miracle that kept us largely on the alleged road. We crept along until we realized that the gradient was about to increase significantly in a downhill direction and having walked ahead to see how the land lay we decided we just weren't going to make it out. After much discussion and failing any other option Sterling began to reverse back up the track. If going forward was difficult this was nothing short of madness and again Sterling's experience of mud and four wheel-drives probably kept us safe. Over an hour after we had set out we managed to return to the spot where we had been parked overnight, having traveled all of eight hundred feet in the escape attempt.
We resolved to sit it out; waiting either for the ground to dry, which was a stretch given that it was still pouring, or for the temperature to drop and the top layers freeze enough to give us traction. While we had plenty of food and fresh water, both our waste tanks were full and so we were thrown back to our camping roots. We dumped a small amount of grey water but clearly that was not an option with the black tank and so the shovel came out. Digging cat holes in the rain and snow is not the most pleasant past time on earth but on the bright side, the resultant cold derrière quickly warms up afterwards.
Overnight, luck was with us, the temperatures plummeted and we woke before dawn to the wonderful sight of frost. The ground was sufficiently frozen and the skidpan temporarily transformed back into a passable track. With tentative but steady progress we inched our way out: sighs of relief mixing with whoops of celebration as the front wheels hit the hard surface of the road that we had so glibly turned off thirty-six hours earlier.
A couple of days later we headed into Colorado National Monument and towards a bizarre brush with the law. Access from the Fruita side of the Park is via a steep winding road with a number of tunnels cut through the characteristic red sandstone of the area. We have traveled this route many times without incident and there are no warnings or heights given for the tunnels either at the entrance station or on the tunnels themselves. I'm sure you can tell where this is going; a couple of days into our stay we returned from a hike using a path that gave us a good vantage of the camper roof and realized that there was a large hole in the roof box. Closer inspection revealed the telltale red marks of the sandstone, the box being so removed from the cab of the truck that we had not realized we had hit the side of the tunnel on the way in. We went up to the visitor center to enquire whether there was any comeback only to be told by the friendly ranger that if we filed an incident report we would get a citation for not reporting the accident within twenty-four hours. Protestations that we had only just discovered the damage fell on deaf ears, as did our observations about the lack of warnings and heights on the tunnels. My opinion of National Park rangers still hasn't quite recovered and nor did the roof-box: four hundred dollars in the bin, the manufacturers unable to provide a replacement top.
It seemed as though maybe it was time to leave Colorado and besides which, the road into Utah always beckons. We arrived at Capitol Reef National Park to find large tracts of it closed by flood damage following a week of heavy rain. The skies had cleared by the time we arrived and the bright winter days that are so typical of this part of the country had returned. Snow covered mountains were visible in the distance and the various hues of red rock glowed in the winter sun. It's a wonderful time of year to visit: the campgrounds are virtually empty and the chances of meeting another person out on the trails are remote. There is a perfection of clear deep blue skies stretching as a backdrop to the reds and yellows of the sandstone with the dark green of twisted junipers producing oddly shaped exclamations across the landscape. No matter how much time we spend in Utah I never tire of this wonderful combination of colour and texture, of the shapes and formations of the canyon lands and the intricate effects of erosion on the rocks and sand. We lingered, waiting for the road out to the more remote primitive campground at Cedar Mesa to re-open. Staff in the Park could give us no definitive assurances as the road passed across private land but we decided to give it a whirl and see how it looked. As it turned out, the road was fine although the little campground had been vandalized: a vehicle had been used to drive into and then over various Junipers, splintering their trunks and branches and crushing the foliage. Such deliberate destruction always seems so much more unexpected out here than in the cities, even within the context of the powerful forces of weather and erosion that are so immediately evident in the landscape after the recent floods.
The end of November was fast approaching and we prepared to leave the camper in Salt Lake City as we flew to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving. It was something of a special visit: we were to spend the holiday itself with Sterling's grandma on her farm, sharing the delicious turkey feast and helping her husband Nubs clear the remnants of the old barn that had finally collapsed under the weight of its own age. We had a delightful couple of days slowly moving and stacking beams and siding, burning the wooden roof shingles and generally trying to clear the debris. Sterling's mum and her husband Von were along so the whole affair was a little like a barn raising but in reverse; more like razing to the ground. Whatever the correct terminology, it was great fun and my most enjoyable Thanksgiving to date.
The morning after we returned to Salt Lake, Sterling flew out again, this time to Denver for a week's work. It gave me the opportunity to head for Death Valley National Park. The journey out of Utah and across the wide-open expanses of Nevada was a delight, straight open roads stretching as far as the eye could distinguish, vanishing into an increasingly thin line before somehow melding with the landscape itself, off in the distance. I stopped the night on some BLM land in the back of beyond and was rewarded by the blush of dawn light casting elongated shadows across the silent land.
My preconceived ideas about Death Valley were dominated by notions of searing temperatures, shimmering heat waves rising from the baked salt flats and the discomfort of parched throats, all within the desolate unforgiving landscape so aptly named. I'm sure that in the height of summer these expectations would have been realistic but in early December the sun had only a gentle warmth, its light a diffuse presence and there was little danger of dehydration whilst out hiking. The expanse of salt flats played tricks with the mind although not brought about by delirium from lack of fluid. On a cloudy day, the white salts no longer twinkled like the false promise of water in the desert but appeared more like a thin layer of snow at the beginning of winter. From a distance the flats looked like an unbroken smooth expanse but on closer inspection the surface proved broken, craggy and sharp, even the color an illusion: close up it had a grey tinge.
Away from the Salt, the Park has many other faces. The sand dunes were perhaps the most surprising; soft full curves, steep convex slopes, shapes defined by sharp ridge lines and the late afternoon light throwing an aspect of shadows and tones, accentuating the beautiful geometry. It was a hard slog to the top, every last joule of energy sapped with each footfall, no momentum sustainable: on the steeper slopes a battle to maintain any headway as each step slipped backwards with the downward movement of the grains but still worth the effort, to sit in the silence on the warm sand and simply enjoy being there.
My week in this wonderful varied landscape was over and I was due in Las Vegas to pick Sterling up as he flew back from Denver. From the city of Sin, we meandered around Lake Mead and Lake Mohave for a little while, enjoying the perfect stillness of the water and it's crisp reflections of the surrounding desert before spending a few days amongst the cacti at White Tank Mountains Regional Park just outside Phoenix.
This was a most unexpected find, a forest of saguaros standing to attention amongst the sage bushes, their multiple arms raised in greeting, their density increasing on the foothills of the mountains. It was as though they were waving us goodbye as we left to catch a plane to England for the Holidays.
We are still in the U.K. as we post this in mid-November 2005. We've moved out of London to North Wales, to a small village called Llan Ffestiniog but hope to be back on the road traveling in the camper at some point.
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