I had slept, rolling over on the soft squishy lumps of dusty earth beneath my tent. It rained in the night and early am. As I packed my things, I wondered for the fourth or fifth time this trip, what those lumps of dirt were caused by, since I had first encountered them on the Uncompahgre Plateau. (Turns out years-old colonies of symbiotic fungus and bacteria living in cities of dirt!) I later felt guilty acting as a soldier of the apocalypse towards these delicate structures.
I dutifully soldiered up the incline in my tennis shoes, abandoning all hope of pedaling up the 6% grade, toward that point on the map I held with such hope and curiosity, the top of the hill called ‘Salvation Knoll’. Why such a spiritually pregnant name? Arriving at the top, plaques greeted me to sate my curiosity. The knoll was named by four scouts, sent by the Mormon community in Escalante ahead to find a route to Fort Montezuma, over previously uncharted terrain.
Their trip occurred in the middle of Winter and was expected to take 8 days, instead consuming 26. About 20 days in they had run out of food, and were lost in days of blizzards, without landmark, eating their last communal flap-jack Christmas day, they climbed the knoll, and were able with the height to spot the blue mountains 10 miles away, the landmark for their course. They arrived in Fort Montezuma safe and sound, and succeeding Mormon settlers of Blanding and Bluff, cut wagon trails into the very rock to mount canyon walls, and dutifully follow the instruction to settle the area.
A picture was included of the scouts, who were all in their forties at the time of the expedition. It occurred to me as strange that men so old would make such a taxing and dangerous trip in Winter. Wouldn’t younger men be physically more able, and comparatively more “expendable” to the community? I guess at the time, there was the good way, the bad way, and the Mormon way.
Down the hill, I crossed a small ridge into Natural Bridges National monument, for what would be one of the most impressive nature-days of my trip. I watched the video of the geology that makes these sandstone bridges possible: the ancient sand, packed and hardened with the residue of minerals, seeping with water through for eons. When the Colorado plateau, which covers the entire four corners region began to lift, the meandering s-curves of the river, felt more urgency to cut shorter paths through the switchbacks. As the rock continued to rise under the pressure beneath, only the top remained, and water erosion etched all bottom away.
There are three great arches in the park: Sipapu, Kachina and Owachomo.
Sipapu is the Hopi word for gateway, which they believed the spirits of the first humans entered through this arch. After viewing in person, I can see why, this massive stone expanse, higher than the National Capitol building stretches across the canyon and forms an almost round enclosure, that sure should be a portal to another dimension, even if it doesn’t work that way.
Along the hike I met an Australian woman and her friend who had stopped the previous day on the road to offer me water. Turns out she had cycled San Francisco to Virginia a few years before, and had high praise for the desolate stretches of Nevada before me. It was good to hear the positive outlook. I have been dreading the ‘loneliest highway in America’ like a child resents his peas and carrots before Ice Cream.
The canyon walls were immense and shapely, unlike anything I had ever seen. Eventually the massive girth of the Kachina bridge rose above me, so sudden in the turns of the canyon it surprised me. It was trully impressive to see, like the underbelly of some great horse, a horse great enough to swim the sea and climb mount Olympus.
After a long 3 miles, of increasingly rocky trail, the most exciting of all three was there in my view, the elegant, iconic Owanchomo bridge, stretched into the sky, unbelievably thin, like the impossible landscapes of dreams.
The wind picked up and fierce dark clouds rode closer in the sky. I hiked back to the road and knocked on the door of the nearest vehicle, where a cheerful Dutch family, parents, and adult children were making coffee.
They offered me a ride tot he top of the one-way road, where I could take a short walk back to the trailhead where I had left my bike. Talking with them and hearing vividly for the third time (first my co-worker Brian Lamb, second the 67 year-old cycling Dutch couple in Sargents, CO) how enthusiastic Dutch people were about bicycles, and how generally cheerful and friendly, My growing urge is to make it to the Netherlands as soon as I can for some quality bicycle touring.
I hated to leave, but the RV made quick time to the end of the road, and I stepped out in my rain-coat into the pouring rain, and headed for my bicycle. Now at the top above the canyon walls, in the rain, I could see hundreds of large and small waterfalls careening from the side of the canyon into its vast chasm, and felt deep within myself, the greatest joy I have ever experienced in pouring rain, grateful to be alive, in that specific place at that specific time, with weather I could never had expected to render the landscape so evanescently stunning.