Today was one of my late-start days. Clothes have to be washed sometime or other and, since I was next heading to no-man’s-land, the clothes had to be done; I was beginning to reek after camping for five days, the showers available only a trickle of tepid water. Arches National Park is smack dab in the desert region of Utah and without a lot of amenities; it being July, the desert was ‘h-o-t’ hot.
Driving into Moab late the night before, I had treated myself to a hot shower and a comfy bed at the Parker Inn Motel, a family-owned place that had laundry facilities. Next door was an old-timer’s kind of diner so the next morning while my clothes were washing, I ate a home-cooked breakfast of eggs, spicy sausage, home fries and fresh coffee - an experience of down-home gourmet heaven!
When you are on the road, it does not take long to pack up a car, especially when the car is a 1977 Fiat ragtop. There is only so much space. For some reason this morning, the trunk would not close. I was bent over moving stuff around, grumbling to myself and dropping sweat here and there when, all of a sudden, I screamed, popping up and clunking my head on the trunk’s lid; someone had grabbed my arm. The hand left my arm, went up to my head and began gently probing the clunked spot.
“Sorry to have scared you,” Julie said, chuckling at my vain attempts to swallow a slew of the nice versions of four-letter words that had sputtered from my mouth. “Let me take a look.”
Feeling like an idiot, I did as I was told; after all, Julie was a Park Ranger at Arches and they were trained in first aid. “You gave me a scare is all,” I said, laughing off my embarrassment.
“Are you off today?” I asked, noting that she was not in uniform.
“Not so you’d notice, but yep, I’m off,’ Julie jokingly responded, still probing my head.
I winced as she found the sore spot. “Not too bad of an egg – and no broken skin. You have got a hard head just like I figured,’ she said, leaning now against the Fiat. “You still plan to head on to Canyonlands today?”
Without waiting for my answer, Julie laughed and continued, “I guess getting stuck standing on top the toilet in a primitive bathroom during a flash flood thunderstorm is not your favorite memory of Arches, is it?” she asked. “But you made my day, Dody! Everyone in the group I was guiding got drenched but you walked out of that toilet high and dry, except for your boots!”
Laughing along, I replied, “It was crazy, having to scramble up on top of the toilet ‘cause the rain water kept sloshing in and rising! My big mistake was looking into the toilet – nothing down there but a big hole that held a ton of things I never wanted to see; I swear looking made the stench worse! The scary part was watching the water rise almost to the top of the toilet seat. I had visions of floating out in a sea of fecal matter!’
Julie caught her breath and then asked, “Hey, are you in a hurry to get to Canyonlands? It’s about a 3-4 hour drive from here but I think you would enjoy a side trip; it needs to be a surprise, though, and is about an hour and a half drive from here. You game?”
How could I say no to a surprise adventure? Julie was a Park Ranger so the odds of my being safe were pretty high, or so it seemed to me. “My time is my own,” I responded: “Point me in the right direction.” Not wanting to leave my car, packed with most everything I now owned, I added, “How about taking the Fiat, top-down-it?”
“Perfect! It’s going to be cooler up there,” Julie responded, pointing her finger towards the southeast. In the distance, I could barely make out what looked to be a small mountainous area rising out of the flat desert, one with tall trees, not the usual stubby juniper and pinyon trees found in the desert.
Curiosity escalating, I took stock of my lunch supplies and figured I had enough for us both. Julie helped me get the trunk organized so I could shut it and then we put down the top and headed south out of Moab. Turning east on a two-lane road, the traffic lessened; we stopped smelling car exhaust and got a breath of fresher air. After about ten miles, the traffic became next to nothing.
Riding with the top down in the desert does not seem like a good idea, usually. The Fiat, however, had no air conditioning; it did, though, have air – via windows when the sun was high in the sky and, via top-down when the sun was low like this morning. A hat helps; preferably one that can stay on the head when the wind blows. Julie and I had caps, pulled low.
The best part about an unknown adventure is going with someone who not only knows the territory but, also, knows the history of a place; the ecological history. I had been to a few of the ranger talks at Arches, one done by Julie. During this ride, though, I learned so much more.
100 million years of erosion by wind, rain and rivers that used to run through this area created Arches, a sculptured sandstone phenomenon. It boasts the greatest density of natural arches in the world – more than two-hundred. The arches were certainly eye-catching but it was the many spires and pinnacles and balanced rocks perched atop another that I found to be spectacular. Julie called the big stand-alone ones, “monoliths,” and said that many were like England’s Stonehenge, works from some lost culture. Her talk of these gave me shivers – the good kind.
Caught up in Julie’s passionate lecture, I was startled to feel a bit cooler. We had been tooling along a road that had very few ups and downs; now, we were definitely heading up and into a forest of tall pines. After being in a hot desert for the past six days, this cool was refreshing.
I was trying to see the detail on the pines, wondering if they were like the ones in Florida when Julie grabbed my arm – again – and squealed,
“Stop the car!”
“Stop the car!”
Jerking to a stop on the side of the road, I stared at Julie and blurted out, “What! Did I run over a snake or something? You got to go to the bathroom? Did you have to yell?”
“Get out!” she said, opening her door and getting out, jumping up and down. “You are going to love this, I promise! You didn’t go on my guided tour at Arches so you’re getting it now.”
“Well, okay then,” I said, stepping out of the Fiat but carefully looking around for snakes or – bears? “Do you have bears?” I asked, standing at the still open car door.
“No, silly – well, further up maybe, but you’re safe. Come over here to this tree,” Julie said.
Still cautious, I walked around the front of the Fiat and stood near Julie, arms outstretched as if to ask, ‘What?’
Laughing at my caution, she said, “Come over here, close your eyes and hug this tree. Come on – stop looking at me like I’m nuts! Hug the tree – right, like that. Now, take a big sniff. What do you smell?”
Trees – any trees – do something to me. I am a sucker for trees, even the dead ones. So I hugged this tall tree and sniffed: “Oh - my – gosh! It smells like vanilla pudding!” I chortled, opening my eyes and grinning at Julie. “This is amazing!”
“These are ponderosa pine trees, similar to other pines but unique in their vanilla pudding smell,” Julie said, hands on her hips, enjoying my amazement. “You will find these pines just off the desert areas where the elevation is above six or seven thousand feet. Ready to move on?” she asked. “Take a few more sniffs and let’s go. There are more wonders up ahead.”
Still grinning, I took some last sniffs and hopped back into the Fiat, eyes now wide open. We continued to climb, steadily. The ponderosa pines gave way to a variety of tall beech, plump firs and slender aspen trees – their species, of course, provided by Julie. Rounding a curve, I screeched to a halt – just in time.
Sheepishly, I looked at Julie and said, “I forgot.” Utah is a free range state and I had almost run smack into a small herd – seven cows were ambling from one side of the road to the next. Julie merely shrugged her shoulders and grinned.
We had been quiet the previous few miles, as I took in the drastic change in ecology from desert to mountain, and in temperature. I had come prepared, though, and took this unplanned stop to dig out a long sleeved pull-over for me and a windbreaker for Julie. She had forgotten her own. I could handle some cool on my legs wearing shorts but always needed something to tamp down the goose bumps on my arms.
“Not too much farther,” said Julie, “then we will have us a feast. Take the next left turn. The road is narrower and not as well maintained but the Fiat can make it.”
I laughed out loud at her words, ‘a feast;’ I had not made a grocery run before heading out on this adventure. All we would have was a few apples, carrots, some cheese on bread and the last of a box of Hi-Ho crackers – yeah, we’ll feast, I chuckled but kept it to myself. At least I had some of my ever-present stash of chocolate chip cookies. Utah markets had some fresh made ones that were delicious!
“Laugh all you want; you’ll see,” said Julie, an arrogant smirk on her face.
We had to stop several more times for cows as up and up we went. The higher we got, the cooler it became; with the top down on the Fiat, my long-sleeved pullover no longer kept me from shivering. Julie still looked comfortable though how she adjusted so well to the change from desert heat to mountain cool, I could not guess. The Fiat was in a bit of a struggle; second gear was the only way to keep her going. The condition of the gravel road was not too bad but we were now moving in constant switchbacks of 90-degree turns – I figured we were nearing the top.
The Fiat chugged its way up an even steeper incline on one switchback and I turned again into a 90-degree curve. Just as the car came out of the curve, we finally met level ground.
Julie yelled, “Surprise!” startling me enough that I stalled the Fiat, letting up on the accelerator but forgetting to engage the clutch.
“ What is – I started then gasped, “oh my,” staring open-mouthed at what lay before me. Julie jumped out of the car and came around to my side, pulling open the door and dragging on my arm, trying to get me out.
“I knew you would be surprised – don’t you just love it!” Waving her hands all around, Julie continued: “This is Trout Lake, a little piece of heaven in this neck of the woods.”
And it was heavenly. Mesmerized, I walked slowly towards the lake, following Julie – taking it all in – and, at the edge, looked down. Emerald was its color – like a painting. So clear and deep, the Trout Lake shimmered; I could see fish swimming around, way down deep.
Stunned into silence by my view of the brilliant shimmering blues in the lake, I was startled by a loud booming voice: “Hey, Julie – You are right timely. Who’s your friend?” My body stiffened as I turned and got accosted by a large rough-looking man who slapped his arms around Julie and me.
“What the – Julie?” I blurted out, starting to shake, thoughts scrambling everywhere. This is it, Dode – you are done for…just like in that movie, Deliverance. You’ve been set up – Run!
Yanking my body away, the big man stumbled backwards as I ducked under his arm to make a run for it. But, I didn’t make it; my right foot slipped on the bank and I almost tumbled into the lake. Somehow, Julie snatched my arm and pulled me towards her; gravity did the rest. I landed hard on the packed ground though, fortunately, not in the ice-cold lake.
Julie bent over laughing, trying to say something. I was not laughing, just trying to breathe. Finally catching her breath, Julie explained, “I’m sorry, Dody. I forget how mean-looking Dave can be out here in the wilderness; should have given you a warning. Are you okay?”
Ever the park ranger, she knelt down beside me, eyeing my arms and legs, looking for injuries. Every part could move; I was just sore and scraped – and deeply embarrassed.
“Dave, meet Dody. She’s a Florida gal who has got a taste for the desert. Been camping at Arches a few days and now heading on to Canyonlands. I got her to take a little side trip,” spoke up Julie.
To me, she said, “Dave is a back country guide out of Moab; he always looks this rough. But he’s a married man with kids – a big gruff gentle bear. His family comes up here to fish and feast; I come when I can. Luckily, today is both our days off.”
With that, Dave stepped over and reached out to help me up. “Not a nice way to meet anyone, though, but I’m glad you came. I guess my size and scruffy beard can look scary – ever had trout before?” Dave asked nonchalantly. Taking his hand, I stood up, shaking my head ‘no,’ still a bit stunned by it all.
Dave rattled on, ignoring my embarrassment, acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “Not many folks come up here; too many cattle to stumble into and a steep, narrow drive to boot. But this little lake has the best trout you will find anywhere.”
My mouth caught up with my brain as I found my manners and held out my hand again. “Hi, Dave – I’m a bit stunned by everything.” Turning towards the lake, I waved my hand around. “This lake and the trees - it is so beautiful; I feel as if I’m inside a painting.”
Disregarding my hand, Dave gave me a quick hug. “Every time I come up here, I feel the same way as you, Dody. Come and meet the family,” he said waving towards our right, “and we’ll put something on those scrapes.”
Upon our arrival, I had not noticed a small but tidy picnic area under the trees. Two grills were smoking away and the odor of burning pinyon and juniper wood sweetened the air – how could I not have smelled this? I wondered walking over and being introduced to Dave’s parents, wife and kids. Everyone was so nice and friendly, acting as if they had known me forever.
Dave’s wife, Kathy, had gotten out a first aid kit; my scrapes got taken care of quickly. “Everything is about ready,” Dave said when his dad, a man of few words, waved for us all to take a seat. We sat down at the tables, the food was blessed and talking ceased as we feasted on freshly caught trout cooked over juniper branches; they had been brought up from the desert. There was fresh corn and baked potatoes too.
I have eaten some good fish, being from Florida, but that trout was indescribable. Perhaps the word, ‘indescribable,’ fits for the entire experience. Here I am, a woman on a quest to ‘find herself;’ a bump on the head and a crash on the ground later, I’m eating lunch with strangers who treat me like family, beside a lake that was so strikingly beautiful it felt as if I was in a painting. This was surreal – an off-the-beaten-path adventure I will always cherish.
After hugs from these wonderful people, Julie and I got in the Fiat and made our way back down the mountain. Both of us were quiet – perhaps, Julie was as caught up as I in savoring the experience. We put up the ragtop just before leaving the ponderosa pine forest; I did take time for a few last sniffs and then we drove down onto the desert again.
I drove quickly, knowing that I still had a long drive ahead of me. As we neared Moab, Julie checked her watch and asked, “Want one more short adventure? I feel like I owe you one without any scary surprises.”
I laughed and said, “You already know my answer. It doesn’t take a lot to twist my arm when you use the word, ‘adventure’ … but what could top Trout Lake and Dave?”
She laughed and said, “Turn here.”
‘Here’ was a nondescript old paved road bordered by nothing but sparse grasses and rocky ground; none of the beautiful salmon-colored limestone formations found in Arches was anywhere to be seen. This area was barren. I could barely make out the town of Moab in the distance.
“Are you sure this goes somewhere?” I asked, a slightly put-off feeling creeping in. Julie is a ton of fun but her surprises have turned out to be a bit disconcerting. All I could see in the distance was heat, the way it creates a shimmering effect above the desert.
“Trust me,” Julie said, grinning at the frown that popped up on my face. “Sorry, Dody – couldn’t help ribbing you a little. I promise you will definitely be happy with this adventure.”
So I drove on – I am such a curious sucker reverberating in my brain. About a half-hour in, we passed a sign: Reservoir. I saw exactly one car, or more accurately, a jeep; it was parked very close to the shore of a shimmering body of water, one that was not beautiful, emerald in color; this was more of a drab dusky green. One small building with no windows was close by but absolutely no trees. This is weird played in my mind, my hands tightening on the steering wheel.
“What’s up with this?” I asked, a bit of hesitancy and concern in my voice. Had I read her wrong – had she really set me up this time? I wondered. Julie was grinning at me and squirming in her seat, looking like she had just served up the ultimate in vacation spots.
“Pull up real close so the rougher rocks don’t cut our feet,” she said. Just as I pulled up next to the jeep, Julie yelled, “Let’s go!” and gingerly stepped out of the car holding onto her day pack.
Startled again, I almost put the gear in reverse to tear out of there; but Karen appeared from around the side of the jeep wearing a bathing suit.
“Hey, Dody – what a great surprise to see you here,” she said. “Glad you’re up for a side trip – ready for a swim? Best water around – actually, the only one!”
Julie and Karin stood next to the Fiat, laughing good naturedly. “If you could see the look on your face,” Julie sputtered, “you would be laughing too. Bet you thought we had set you up for something bad! I had arranged to meet Karen here for a workout but our lunch went a little longer than I had figured. Knowing that you’re a swimmer, I figured I’d invite you instead of asking you to drop me off. A swim will do you good before you take off on that long ride ahead. Come on! Got your suit and some sun screen?”
With that, she slipped off clothes and shoes, a bathing suit underneath; then reached into her day pack and tossed me a bottle of sun screen. Julie had put some on while I was driving and I figured it was because of the hot sun. Silly me, I smiled – why not? So I turned off the car and stepped out.
They hit the water while I scrounged around in the trunk for my suit – a never-leave-home-without-it item. Hopping quickly into the passenger seat of the Fiat, I scrambled out of my clothes and into my Speedo then slathered on some sunscreen. There was no need to lock up the car; we were the only ones here.
Figuring that the water would be on the hot or tepid side, blasted by the incessant heat, I gingerly walked onto the half-sandy, half-rocky shore and cautiously stuck in my big toe – hot water swims are not refreshing. Sure enough, my big toe touched very warm water but it was not scorching. Julie and Karen were watching, though, so I walked in up to my knees.
“Wow!” I shouted then did a shallow dive, straight into the water. “It’s cool!” I yelled, surfacing near Julie and Karen. “This is amazing! How can it be so cool just below the surface?”
“This lake is fed by several very deep underground springs; the depth in the center of the reservoir is over thirty feet deep. Look how close to shore we are swimming – can you touch bottom?” Julie asked.
Amazingly, I could not even get down to bottom. “Most folks don’t come here to get wet for pleasure because it is so deep,” spoke up Karen. “There’s not much of a shallow area and, what there is, is pretty rocky. Julie and I come to swim laps. It’s quite safe as the water is tested often for bacteria and such. Plus, we never come alone. You ready to swim?”
We swam some laps, somehow without running into each other. Then we treaded water and I talked about living in Florida and the reason for my quest. They regaled me with hysterical tales of life as a Park Ranger. Karen looked up at the sun and guessed that it was around 2:00 p.m.
“You still heading on to Canyonlands today?” she asked.
“Yeah, I am and it’s time for me to hit the road,” I answered, knowing that I still needed to gas up and stop at a grocery.
Julie gave me directions back to State Road 191 and then onto County Road 211, the road that would get me to the Squaw Flats campground part of Canyonlands. She reminded me to get some ice for my little cooler and several gallons of water. Julie and I had already exchanged addresses so, after more apologies from Julie for all the surprises and hugs all around, I swam towards shore until my feet found the bottom and stood up.
Rocks dotted the partially sandy bottom so I carefully picked my way to shore. In thigh deep water, a piece of waving paper caught my eye, wedged under a small rock. I reached down and pulled up a $2 bill – an omen - I thought, shaking the water off the bill while walking to the car.
Changing back into my shorts and t-shirt, I put the $2 bill in my pocket – for luck – and sat down in the driver’s seat. Just as I was starting up the Fiat, a large raven flew in and settled himself atop Karen’s jeep. “Caw – caw – caw!” was his raucous call.
“Hope you don’t leave a gift on her car,” I said, grinning at a memory…a seagull had once gifted me atop my head.
Feeling rejuvenated, I waved goodbye to Julie and Karen; they were still treading water. Julie yelled something but I could not understand a word except, ‘….be….’ I waved again and tooted the horn. As I drove back down the old road that had seemingly led to nowhere special, it hit me that today had been a day of epiphany: take risks when the unknown beckons – an amazing adventure could be waiting just around the corner. But take stock, first, of the feeling in your gut.