“The Closing Chapter of the Utah Trip Story,” or “The Lesson I Never Seem to Learn”

September 29th, 2007

So yes, the trip was wonderful. It was not, however, without incident. Our last day entailed a loooong drive home from Moab. Setting out from our hotel, I looked at the gas gauge (I can see you THINK you know where this is going, but oh, you have NO idea) … anyway, there was more than half a tank. Looking at the map, I saw that within an hour, we would be on major U.S. highways for the entire trip. (We would later learn that David took a peek at the gas gauge as well and had the same thought.)

So we drive along out of the boonies and onto I-70. Again, this is a MAJOR U.S. highway … with NO TOWNS on it. The only exits we pass are labeled Ranch Exits, which means they open onto rough, dirt roads that snake off into the Utah wilderness. We don’t worry until two hours into the trip, when the Gas Light comes on, and, looking at the map, we realize we are smack in the middle of NOTHINGNESS FOR MILES IN ALL DIRECTIONS. No need to panic: We have David’s GPS! GPS says the nearest gas station on I-70 is more than 45 miles away. We aren’t going to make that. BUT, says GPS, if we take the upcoming “Moore Cutoff” exit, we can be in the town of Emery in 17 miles. THIS we can do.

Here’s where I make my first poor decision. The options are these: [A] Pull over on I-70 and call AAA; wait an hour until a tow-truck brings us gas, or [B] Take an unknown dirt road into the hills of Utah with almost NO GAS in the tank.

“B” it is!

So we take Moore Cutoff. It is a dirt road. There are no other vehicles on it. Not one. We are nervous about being lost with no gas on this dirt road, so I am coasting down hills in Neutral.

Five miles into the road, we both lose cell phone service.

Eight miles into the road, we come over a hill, and I make my second poor decision. It is a split-second decision that goes like this: “Yikes! Those ruts in the mud at the bottom of this hill look very muddy. Mud is bad. But that gray stuff to the right of the ruts—that could be dry, right?”

Seconds later finds the Golfie stuck. In. The. Mud. People, I’m talking about some deep mud. Black Utah CLAY mud. It is up to the doors. It is up INTO the engine. “Sploogshe.” I can’t get the car to rock forward and back. We get out and, up to our shins in vacuum-sucking mud, attempt to push the car. No luck.

Did I mention it’s COLD? Did I mention we are eight to ten miles from the highway? Did I mention we are another eight to ten miles from the nearest TOWN? Did I mention there are NO OTHER CARS on this road?? How about that we haven’t eaten breakfast? Or that I am 18 weeks pregnant and can barely walk up the STAIRS IN MY HOUSE without feeling faint?

There is no point in belaboring these points, so David and I both get ready to hike the eight to ten miles into town. For me, this means grabbing a jacket, water, and some cereal bars. For David, this means loading himself up with his heavy camera gear and laptop bag, because all of these people we DON’T see driving down this road? Thieves. Thieves who are willing to slog through three feet of mud to boost our electronics. (I convinced him to put them back in the car, but poor David felt nervous the whole time about it. I think when faced with a situation this stressful, we all direct our anxieties to surprising places. I decided, of course, that the hike into town would cause severe damage to the fetus; my imagination was eating me alive.)

Before you go thinking we actually DID hike that eight to ten miles, let me introduce you to Dick Hancock, also known as The Man You Should All Ask God to Make Win the Lottery. Dick is a 72-year-old Ferron, Utah, resident. He smokes “Dean’s Lil Cigars.” And he likes to hunt Elk off Moore’s Cutoff.

Lucky thing number one is that David and I encounter Dick’s pickup just a quarter of a mile along the road.

Lucky thing number two is that Dick is NOT off hunting elk for hours, miles from his truck, but is dealing with a broken chain on his ATV, which has tracks instead of wheels, and which is stuck in the mud just a hundred feet or so down the trail. Dick is not a nice or not-nice guy. He is the kind of folks who just don’t think twice about helping a stranger. He’s not “happy” to do it, nor does it seem to put him out in any way. Two people arrive in front of him who are in a jam. What you do is, you help them; what else would you do, is Dick’s way of thinking.

Dick’s son, a wheelchair-bound also-hunter, is in the ATV, prepared to wait for Dick to fix the situation THEY are in. Dick’s on his way into town (Ferron, a little past Emery) to get another chain. I ask if he would mind carting one of us along, so we can get a tow truck.

“I dont know that there’s a tow truck IN town,” he says in his country accent. “But what’s your trouble?” I explain that we have a VW compact stuck in three feet of mud up the road.

“Well, I can probably get you out of that,” he says.

And he DOES! He backs up his truck to the mud-hole, gets out a handy hook-and-cable thing, and just like that, the Golfie is FREE. Then Dick leads us into town, keeping an eye on us in case we run out of gas … which we DO, right in front of a GAS STATION, and right in front of Dick’s house (and I have now mentioned 50 percent of the buildings in Ferron, Utah).

Dick lends us a gas can, which David walks over to a pump and fills so we can drive the Golfie the few remaining feet to fuel. I put 50 bucks in Dick’s pickup and tell him there’s something in there for his troubles, because I don’t want him to think we aren’t grateful … and because I think I have never BEEN more grateful. To ANYONE. He argues with me a lot about it, and demands I go get it, etc. Even though I explain that he has saved us an incredible amount in towing fees, not to mention TIME, not to MENTION DEATH IN THE UTAH WILDERNESS, he is adamant. I get the feeling that for him, it’s like being given money to take out the trash. Does not compute. But I’ve hidden it well, in his cigarette pack, and I distract him with questions about elk meat and how he will get his son out of the mud and about the many cars and ATVs on his property. He shows me a backhoe.

“If I can’t get him out with the right chain, I’ll get him out with this,” he says.

Then he says, “There is one thing you can do for me, I guess. I’ve been meaning to sell this car, and if you know of anyone down there who might want a car like this, you could give them my number.” With this, he leads me to a tarp-closed carport. Inside is a 1973 Buick Riviera, maroon, MINT CONDITION, all original everything. Looks like it has been kept in this vault lovingly since its day of purchase. Dick explains that he bought the car as part of his retirement projects “To Do” list ten years ago. He says he has no idea what it’s worth, but, Readers, if you want a stunning 1970s-era car, please let me know!

Meanwhile, say a word of thanks, in whatever way you do that, for this man who saved us more than a lot of time. I don’t know how that hike into town would have gone.

Also, know for your own reference that it’s very STRESSFUL to drive the rest of the way on a long trip with a car that has thick mud in the engine. Your clutch might not be happy, and you might get a speeding ticket trying to make it to Vegas while mechanics are still open, only to decide to push it the rest of the way home and then pay to have your engine steam-cleaned, which will solve the problem but not alleviate the stress-knot in your gut that persists well into Friday as you blog about your mishap. It’s just one possibility.

I leave you with these:

The Golfie after Dick rescued her from the mud (this photo does not convey the DEPTH of the mud or the amount of it smashed into the front of the car, but you get the idea)

The Angel Elk Hunter Dick Hancock lending me a gas can

Yeah, I threw away these shoes at the gas station


May 7th, 2007

Some great terms: Drapery Formation · Twilight Zone · Karst · Ice Age · Mescalero Apache · Pod Formation · Guano Miner · Dark Zone · Steleothem · Bat Pup · Underground · Cave Cricket · Bell Canopy Formation · Flowstone · Stalactite · Drip · Stalagmite · Helicite · Guano Bucket · Aragonite Crystals · Echolocation · Prehistoric Coral Reef · Gypsum · Column · Wingspan · Cave Pearl · Roost · Canyon · Spiral · Salt Flat · Rattlesnake · Mexican Free-tailed Bat · Grotto · Calcite …

This weekend was our adventurous trip to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. We traveled with Sarah-Architect and Jeremy Sr., who had been before and were wonderful guides. Today I am aching from a lot of hiking around, but it was SO WORTH IT to see a completely different world underneath the one we see every day, one with insane formations—some of them 80 feet tall—sculpted over hundreds of thousands of years by water, all existing unseen in a surreal darkness until relatively recently. And to see thousands of bats spiral up from the cave at dusk to head out into the New Mexican desert-scape in search of moths. The cloud of them was seemingly endless and magically close overhead. Their little wings made a whisperish papery sound, and this was truly one of those inspirational nature moments in life. My imagination is fed fat by this whole experience.

We started our trip with a morning lantern tour of the Left Hand Tunnel. Why lanterns? Because this was how the caverns were first explored in the 1930s. Amazing. We took the elevator up from the Left Hand Tunnel, had some lunch, and then walked back in via the massive, natural entrance. Cave-swallows chirped, dove, and pooped overhead until we were out of the range of natural light and into the realm of the cave’s spectacular formations.

On Day 2, we trekked up a steep hillside trail to the entrance of Slaughter Canyon Cave (named after some guy whose last name was Slaughter). This cave is older and closer to the surface than the Main Cave, and our ranger-guide was spewing so much cave-knowledge, we were loaded up on facts. Although no bats have lived in this cave since it began actively dripping minerals into amazing formations, the floor of the cave is comprised of THIRTY FEET of prehistoric bat guano (poop). We were also treated to a special sight: 800-year-old charcoal and ocher drawings on the cave wall made by Mescalero Apache.

We finished our trip with lunch at Rattlesnake Springs and flew home exhausted and impressed.

I’ve posted my photos here.

Jeremy Sr. got some amazing shots of the cave’s formations, and I’ll give you the link when he’s posted his.

Since I highly recommend a trip like ours, here are some tips, aka …


Things we did that I’m glad we did …

- went while the bats were there (they migrate South for the winter, and although there are perks to visiting in the winter, like more water in the caves, you just don’t want to miss these bats)
- planned our trip VERY EARLY and ordered tickets online to the tours we wanted (even so, some of the tours had already sold out, months in advance)
- flew into El Paso via Southwest, rented a car from Avis, drove about 2 1/2 hours, and stayed two nights at the Days Inn in Carlsbad—all good situations
- started with the Left Hand Tunnel tour, a great introduction to the history of the caverns
- thought ahead before starting any tour or hike, because bathrooms and food are in many places not available; this is a park in the desert, and parts of it are more “tourist friendly” than others, which are more rugged—it’s a good idea to know (a) how long a tour will be, (b) how far/difficult of a drive and/or hike it is to get there, and (c) what facilities are/are not available once you arrive; there’s no eating inside the caves
- picked up a picnic lunch at Subway/Wal-Mart (styrofoam cooler) before heading to Slaughter Canyon, for example
- wore layers: It was 90 degrees on the surface and less than 60 degrees inside the caves
- wore good sneakers or other hiking shoes with grippy soles
- saw Rattlesnake Springs
- did some geocaches along the drive

Things I didn’t do that I wish I had done …

- invested in MUCH brighter headlamps
- gotten in better shape before going, so I wasn’t so sore
- gotten up early to watch the bats come back into the cave before sunrise
- gotten gas in Carlsbad before heading back to El Paso (brings new definition to the word “boonies”)

Other thoughts …

The Main Cave visitor center has a lunchy place, and the main cave entrance and tour is subtly lit, with moderately easy (although still steep and long) trails, and with the alternate option of taking an elevator directly down to the Big Room tour (fairly flat). Anything else you do will be more difficult. A disabled person or someone a bit older would definitely still enjoy the experience, via the elevator, of seeing the Big Room (about a two-hour tour). However, we saw a number of (TOO MANY) crying little-ones. Their cries echoed around the cave, affecting the experience of every single person there. They were cold, hungry, bored, and stuck, and they had long ago seen their attention spans expire. While I’m sure the first 15 minutes was magical for each of them, after that they likely wanted to run free and couldn’t, and these tours and trails are TOO LONG—and many of them MUCH too dangerous—for little kids. A liberal estimate for a minimum age for a kid who is actually going to (a) enjoy the experience and (b) be able to follow the many rules meant to preserve the cave is, in my humble opinion, ten. AT LEAST ten. If you want to show this amazing place to your kids, wait until they are old enough so it’s going to be FUN for them. The kids I saw who were about sixth-grade level had just enough patience and curiosity to be totally into it, and still had plenty of imagination to be bewondered. I overheard two little girls chatting before the bat show. They were discussing not Barbie, not video games, but echolocation, how cool is that for variety?

Was that a rant? Ug. Moving on …

Know right now that Carlsbad is a small, desert town. It has your typical fast food joints, a Chili’s, a Wal-Mart, a bunch of motels, and some ratty looking restaurants. El Paso is also a pretty small city. There is nothing between El Paso and Carlsbad. Don’t expect resources or “entertainment” of the city kind. Bring what you need, and be ready to enjoy moments of complete silence, to see stars overhead, and to really commune with nature.

That said, the Days Inn has free wi-fi and a pool. The margaritas at Chili’s are nice and big. Although we didn’t do the Living Desert “zoo,” many people recommended it. In case you need some evening or alternative things to do.

You can’t talk or take photos during the bats’ exodus from the cave at dusk, and your cell phone has to be turned off. Electronics can mess with the bats’ echolocation.

And now this computer is messing with MY echolocation. It was fantastic (and so needed) to get away from the city and spend a little time out in the quiet. Stevel was glad to get back to tasty food, but today I can’t help continuing to imagine a life without the traffic, competitive pushing, and noise. I’ll have to ease back into it. Maybe I just need a little jaunt to the Third Street Promenade for some shopping—you know, to remind me why I like calling this place Home. :)

Support our National Parks!


April 17th, 2007

Sunday we drove up to Las Vegas to see The Beatles “Love” Cirque du Soleil with Sarah-Architect and Jeremy Sr. Since Sr. was already in town for NAB, it was me, Stevel, and Sarah-Architect in the Golfie for the drive. All the way up to Vegas, Sarah-Architect and I shared our enthusiasm for the adventure (Steve contributed his ambivalence). Sarah-Architect had been to Vegas only once, and with family, so she was looking forward to an overnight of DEBAUCHERY. She had received a sign in the form of an unexpected $100 refund from her car insurance company and insisted repeatedly that we each put a quarter into the first slot machine we saw.

At the first slot machine, Stevel put in his dollar and won $37.50. WOOHOO! The first slot machine Sarah-Architect saw turned out to be broken.

I soon ditched my friends to shower and briefly enjoy our room in the MGM Grand West Wing. I just love this hotel, and a Sunday night stay is a great deal. Anyway, when I met up with Stevel and Sarah-Architect an hour later, they had had a couple of drinks; this exaggerated for them their senses of winning (Stevel had hit the slots-jackpot a few more times) and losing (Sarah-Architect was not “feeling the mojo”). We moved on to a DELICIOUS dinner at fin and then met up with Sr. for the show, which I cannot insist enough that you, dear reader, make an effort to get to Vegas to see. It was better than I could have imagined, and I could watch it again and again and again. Whether you love the Beatles, don’t care about the Beatles, love Vegas, loathe Vegas, whatever … you—whatever your age and entertainment bent—must see it!

On with our story …

After the show, we caffeinated and played some more slots. I won and lost and won and lost and came out ten bucks behind. Stevel slotted his way to low-roller happiness. Sarah-Architect lost almost half of her little refund.

In the morning, we breakfasted, said goodbyes to Sr., and hit the road in the Golfie. This time it was the four of us: Me, Stevel, Sarah-Architect, and Sarah-Architect’s streak of horrid luck:

12:30 p.m. We depart Vegas proper

12:45 p.m. We arrive at the outlet mall outside Vegas, where we spend nearly 30 minutes trying to figure out how to get from the parking lots to the stores we want to visit. In the stores, we find nothing—NOTHING!—to purchase. This is called An Omen.

1:45 p.m. The “Low Gas” light comes on, and the Golfie shrills its “LOW GAS!” indicator bell. Although we are passing the last of the exits on I-15 as we enter the desert, I pay it no mind. It’s 30 miles to Baker, and I know full well the Golfie can go up to 53 miles after the Low Gas indicator sounds.

1:45-2 p.m. It is strangley quiet inside the car.

2:00 p.m. Sarah-Architect says politely, “I don’t understand why we’re not getting gas.” This is called Foreshadowing. I say, “Are you both having anxiety about that? Is that why you’re so quiet? Because we are in great shape, no worries. I’ve got this.” This is called Hubris.

2:05 p.m. We encounter stopped traffic on I-15.

2:30 p.m. The backup continues. We are moving at an average speed of two miles an hour. There are no real exits until Baker. I have no idea how far “Low Gas” will take us in stop-and-idle traffic. Sarah-Architect has to pee bad enough that we are formulating plans for things she can pee in inside the car, there being no cover along the roadside in the desert.

3:30 p.m. We finally pass the former scene of an accident, which has been almost completely cleared from the road.

3:35 p.m. There is an exit with a ramshackle gas station, nothing else. Gas is $4.50 a gallon. This is called You Deserve It, Kristan. We buy 20 bucks worth. Sarah-Architect pees. I’m sure it’s not easy for her; she doesn’t use dirty potties. Or touch public doorknobs.

3:36-45 p.m. Sarah-Architect sanitizes her hands in the back seat with “Wet Ones.”

4 p.m. We arrive in Baker. We gas up affordably. Things are looking up. But speaking of looking up, we are sitting eating our greasy fried A&W burgers in a ramshackle fast-food joint with a gathering of toothless desert people when Sarah-Architect says she feels like something’s dripping on her. Milliseconds later, a gallon of brown water gushes from the ceiling an inch behind us. I jump up so fast I incur a serious bruise on my leg. We stand, stunned, looking at the brown pools on and around our seats. But we are so road-weary, we eventually just move to another table. Sarah-Architect throws away the top bun of her burger, in case it has been contaminated, and we finish eating. This is called Survival in the Desert. It is also called Acceptance that Luck is Beating the Crap Out of You Today.

4:25 p.m. We depart the A&W. I take a right onto the only road in Baker. I am watching for signs for which way I will need to go in order to get on I-15 SOUTH. But it turns out this road simply ENDS BY MERGING ONTO I-15 NORTH. We are headed back toward Vegas. This is called BITE ME, I-15 WITH YOUR LACKING DESERT EXITS!!!!

4:50 p.m. We pass Baker, again, now heading South.

5:20 p.m. We again encounter stopped traffic. Again, in the desert. Why does traffic want to stop in the desert? WHY!

5:20-6:05 p.m. We roll along at 4 miles an hour.

6:30 p.m. We finally encounter the outskirts of L.A. At least now the traffic issues HAVE A REASON.

7:30 p.m. We arrive in Santa Monica. A trip that should have taken a mere five hours has taken seven, not to mention its toll on our spirits, and the years it’s clipped off of the ends of our lives. We vow never to drive to Vegas again. This is called Crying on the Inside.

The Day I Accidentally Hiked NINE MILES

August 13th, 2005

I am here in gorgeous Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the National Poetry Slam. The slams have been exciting and fun. This is one lively, dorky crowd. Slammers like to PAR-TAY. Woo. I haven’t been too social this week, but I have been thoroughly entertained and inspired. Tonight is the finals in the competition, and it promises to be awesome.

Yesterday, my fellow road-trippers from Long Beach and I drove to the base of Sandia Peak to ride the world’s longest aerial tramway. The fantastic ride to the top included expansive views of the city of Albuquerque as well as of the mountain terrain below. We even spotted from the tram car the tiny speck of a bear struttin’ along in his wilderness.

At the top, we enjoyed the breathtaking view, cool temperatures and cloud mist. Ah. Nearby we spied a trailhead. As we embarked upon what we expected to be a mini-hikette, I glanced at the “map” of the trail, which indicated a loop. Perfect. We began casually walking, taking photos, enjoying the views. Soon I blazed ahead of my friends, ambitious to complete the loop. The trail got very rocky and downwardly steep, but I hiked on. It got mushy and damp, but I hiked on. After what seemed a long time, I began to wonder when the trail would curve. When it would, you know, loop. And also when it would head back UP toward the tram station. I encountered some people coming from the opposite direction, and they told me they had passed a fork not far back with a sign pointing the way to the upper tram station, so I forged on.

A few notes. Sadly, I was not dressed for much of a hike (although, thankfully, I had worn sneakers), and had no food or water. Blessedly, there was cell phone service on the mountain, and I was charged up. I called my friends to let them know I had gotten lost but was headed in the right direction now, and would be longer in getting back than planned. They had returned to the tram station and would wait.

Their wait would be longer than any of us imagined. I reached the fork the other hikers had mentioned. The sign read “2.8 miles to Upper Tram.” Ug. I had hiked quite far already. Since going back would involve what I estimated to be a similar distance, anyway (and UP the rocky slopes), I steered my feet as per the sign’s direction and forged on. The trail, however, kept going down. Down down down. And the cables of the tram-line were nowhere to be seen. Storm clouds rolled in. I didn’t encounter a soul in the way of other hikers. I thought about the bear.

I hiked on. After a long time, I encountered a new sign: “2.6 miles to Tramway Trail.” This went on. My friends talked to a ranger and gave me guidance by phone. I was clearly heading down the mountain to the LOWER tram station.

Anyway, I made it. I was sobbing and gagging, starving and dehydrated, but I made it. I went straight to my car, where I knew I had a gallon of water in the trunk. My next stop was the gift shop, where I bought a trail map to see where I had gone. I asked the cashier, how far of a hike from top tram station to bottom? Well, you already know the answer to that one.

I have to recognize my two travel companions, Noelle and Eitan, both of whom were stranded in boring tram stations with no way to get back to the poetry slam events for the many hours of my nitwitted exploration, and both of whom helped me by phone and then were such sights for sore eyes when I got back.

These travel companions are great car buddies, hotel room sharers and conversationalists. All of this on top of being two of the best poets I’ve known. We’re having a lot of laughs here in the high desert. And now is the part where I reveal on the Internet one secret about each that I’ve learned in rooming with them:

Eitan: Condition by Clairol 3-in-1 Extra Hold Mousse
Noelle: Pork rinds

And now I have to go tend to my incredibly aching muscles with an overdose of Ibuprofen. I’ll try to post some photos on bebo for those of you who have accounts. Meanwhile, take my advice. When the trail gets too rocky, do not hike on. Turn back, for the love of God.