A Horse With No Name
A scene from my favorite TV show features a montage of the main character speeding through the Southwestern desert, driving a yellow convertible and listening to the song “A Horse With No Name”. He’s a fucked-up, self-loathing and deeply depressed narcissist, but they say there’s nothing that the road can’t heal, and I’ve always thought a part of him finds what he’s looking for on that drive. Ever since I saw that, I’ve wanted to get myself out to that part of America and try it for myself. I know our multicolored camper van is a far cry from his Tesla Model S, but we made do - radio on, pedal to the floor.
Our first stop was Moab, Utah, where we did some actual horseback riding, though these guys had names (mine's was Snip). Our guide, Trace, was a seventh-generation Moabian, and knew the area like the back of his hand - he said the kids around here grow up learning the names of different rock formations the way they learn the ABCs. He told us a story about every movie or TV show that's ever been filmed here, including the time he was an extra for West World and almost met Jimmi Simpson. We asked him what his favorite part of living out here in the middle of nowhere was, and he answered with “I actually really love big cities.” It surprised me, until he continued, “without big cities, where else would all the people live?”
For a few moments that evening, we were the stars of our own country western, galloping through monuments and valleys that we'd only ever seen in movies. The setting sun made the red rocks look like they were on fire.
We planned a seven mile loop trail in Arches National Park for the next day, not fully understanding how much the 100+ degree weather would affect our stamina - we burned through our entire water supply about a third of the way in. We ended up shaving a mile off and spent the next couple hours in a McDonald's, nursing an iced coffee and enjoying that sweet industrial-strength air conditioner.
That evening we went to Dead Horse State Park, and managed a few minutes there before the rain really started to come down. Trace told us it'd been several weeks since the last rainfall; just our luck we arrive in the middle of a storm. We were about to head back towards our campsite when we saw a sign for Canyonlands a few miles west - we were tired and wet and hungry but it was too close to pass up, especially since our parks pass would get us in for free. We figured why the hell not, ignored the steady stream of cars heading out of the park, and made our way inside. It was getting dark, not just because the sun was setting, but because the storm was getting worse. We had our pick of scenic overlooks, it was deserted in there - we pulled into one and ate trail mix while listening to the rain and thunder claps, watching lightning dance across the sky above canyons outside our windshield. Dinner and a show, just for us.
Bryce Canyon was next, higher elevations brought cooler temperatures which we welcomed enthusiastically. We hiked a few miles as the sun was setting, and it ended up being my favorite in a long time. Walking among tall spires of orange rock that made me feel like I was in Mars, we learned later these are called "hoodoos" and spent the next hour thinking of weird puns about them. For the first time in a long while, we fell asleep comfortably under the covers instead of sprawled out and sweaty on top.
We were up again at dawn, we had a long drive to the Grand Canyon and I wanted to see the sunrise before we left. We weren’t at Bryce for too long, but we got in one good hike, a sunset, and a sunrise, and to me that’s always been enough.
Driving south was shades of dry yellow grass, purple cliffs, patches of green desert scrub. We bathed in sunscreen, Arizona has that sort of dry desert heat that burns and lingers under your skin long after you’ve left it. We stopped at Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon along the way, the latter has long had a place on my bucket list and I was happy to check it off. They say it’s impossible to take a bad photo at Antelope Canyon, but even the best pictures could never do it justice. We toured the Upper Canyon at noon, that’s when we heard the light beams would look their best. Peter kept casually referring to it as “Cantaloupe Onion” and it was making me slowly lose my mind.
It had been a while since we’d showered, but at our Grand Canyon campsite we splurged - two dollars for eight minutes in heaven. What I’d thought was a summer tan was a mixture of dirt and red dust clinging to the perpetual layer of sweat and sunscreen that coated our bodies, I watched it swirl down the drain at my feet.
The Canyon was immense - bigger and, well, grander than I’d remembered. We did a few miles hiking down and back inside the canyon, and spent the rest of the day walking along the rim, our necks permanently turned to one side as we tried to comprehend the sheer magnitude of what we were looking at. We heard thunder in the distance; it didn’t actually rain but it was enough to make most people retreat inside, we felt very alone in the best possible way. We hiked to an overlook on the edge, looking into the vastness that seemed to go on forever. We screamed out loud into it like they do in movies.
Our last stop for the week was Zion National Park, which had us retracing our steps a little as we headed back north into Utah. We weren’t planning on doing a sunrise hike, truth be told we didn’t really want to. I had heard good things about Angel’s Landing trail, our plan was to roll in around noon, hike, then have a leisurely morning before we hit the road the next day. But the storm seemed to be following us, the minute we started towards the trailhead, it began to pour. We said we’d fit it in the next day, we woke with the sun but the rain had washed out twenty-five feet of the trail and it was closed. I wanted to stay, we tried to rework the itinerary but the Park Ranger didn’t know when it’d be back open and we're on a schedule. We hiked another trail, a shorter one but one of the few that was open. We sat at the top for a while, we had time to kill. It’s a good thing we started early, it was almost deserted up there but after a while we looked down from our perch and saw a line forming, a crowd of hikers that looked as big as ants were headed towards us. We resolved to get ourselves back here someday, but that was our cue to go.
There’s no service out here, leaving the park we had to use an atlas for the first time in ages. The distance seems small when you can trace it with your finger, but we’ve been on the road for seven days now and our trip is nearly a third over. A week is hardly enough time to spend out here in this corner of America, but time is ticking and for now, we need to keep heading west.