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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Zion and Bryce, July 2019 (Part 2)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

DAY 5: Zion – Bryce Canyon

We drove from Zion National Park to the town of Tropic, not far from the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park. On the way, we passed a sign for “Mossy Cave,” and I expressed interest in exploring it later: “If, as the name suggests, there is a ‘cave’ containing ‘moss’… I am all over that.”

At our AirBnB, we were greeted by Peggy, minding the inn while her (nearly blind) best friend attended her 50th high school reunion. I asked about nearby attractions.

“Well,” Peggy began, “there’s Mossy Cave, which I should tell you is neither ‘mossy’ nor a ‘cave’…”

A flash flood had trapped Peggy’s husband at their home in a nearby town. “Not that he minds,” she reassured us. “He’s got bourbon and the dog.”

One thing to know if you’re a first-time non-Mormon visitor to Utah: You will have difficulty finding booze. Cami, who likes her wine, was getting a bit cranky. Peggy told us that our best bet was the “liquor store” (her description) in the lobby of Ruby’s, a nearby hotel/truck stop/restaurant/gift shop/tourist destination. When we got there, we found it was more of a liquor “closet” than store, with a miniscule selection of wine, none of it good. Cami asked the woman behind the counter about one of the wines. “Well, of course, I wouldn’t know, because I don’t drink, but my supervisor says it’s very dry. I mean, she doesn’t drink either, but that’s what the distributor told her.”

We drove into Bryce Canyon National Park, stopped at the visitor’s center to look at the merch (again, excellent quality, but you’ll pay for it) and get hike suggestions from a ranger (delightfully enthusiastic). I was all jazzed up to catch an evening ranger program, but it had been canceled in lieu of a special event: Geology Fest! Rangers had set up displays and activities and there were a bunch of parents with their kids, and that made me happy.

It was too late to do any serious hiking, and a menacing electrical storm was crackling on the horizon, so we just drove along the rim of the canyon and stopped at several viewpoints to take pictures. First impressions: Hoodoos are truly, inexplicably alien and more vividly colorful than you would think possible.

Also… hoodoos are pretty much all you’re going to see at Bryce Canyon.

Angel’s Landing at Zion was 5,790 feet above sea level. Observation Point was almost a thousand feet higher, and I noticed the slightly increased pressure in my head and chest. The rim of Bryce Canyon was a minimum of 8,000 feet above sea level. Cami didn’t notice the difference, but I did. I had a slight, nagging headache the whole time, and sometimes felt mildly dizzy or disoriented. Nothing debilitating, but I knew I had to pay more attention and watch where I put my feet.

DAY 6: Bryce Canyon

Before the trip, as is my custom, I did an absurd amount of research. I bought books, ordered visitor’s packets, subscribed to newsletters, purchased National Park apps for my phone, joined related Facebook groups and more. Cami’s M.O., by contrast, was a bit more relaxed. As far as I could tell, it boiled down to, “ask the rangers for advice when we arrive,” and it turned out that her methodology worked pretty well (damn her). Based on the ranger’s suggestions (actually a National Park Service volunteer in this case), we planned a lengthy day of hiking that encompassed several of Bryce Canyon’s trails.

Because we are rebels who refuse to acknowledge the mindless customs of brainwashed sheeple, we started our day at Sunset Point. From there, we hiked to Sunrise Point (I know, crazy, but bear with me…), then down into the amphitheater on the Queen’s Garden Trail, and back up to the rim on the Wall Street branch of the Navajo Loop. Then we caught the shuttle to Bryce Point and hiked the upper part of the Peekaboo Loop, and back up to the rim on the Two Bridges branch of the Navajo Loop. Approximately 8 miles total, but a *lot* of elevation lost and gained. By the end of the day, we both felt that we had seen quite enough hoodoos for this trip, thank you very much.

Back at the AirBnB, Cami drank her wine while we watched SOMM, which is a documentary about people who know a lot about wine.

DAY 7: Scenic Byway 12 – Burr Trail – Capitol Reef

Over breakfast, Peggy urged us to drive up Scenic Byway 12, also known as “Highway 12 — A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway” (no, I am not making that up). Somewhere around the town of Boulder, she said, we should turn off on the Burr Trail. This is what has to say about the Burr Trail:

“Between Boulder and Bullfrog, this old cattle trail passes through the colorful landscape and slickrock canyons of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park, with striking backdrops of the Henry Mountains, Waterpocket Fold, and Circle Cliffs. The narrow, paved Burr Trail twists and winds between craggy, light-colored Navajo sandstone domes, the petrified remains of ancient sand dunes.”

All of that is 100% accurate, but the scenery does begin to all look the same after a while. After several miles on the (paved) Burr Trail, we were about to turn back when we noticed two other cars parked at the side of the road. Thinking it was a trailhead, we stopped. Instead, we found a small slot canyon concealed behind a stand of trees. The color in the narrow canyon was unreal – bright orange and deep purple, offset by a few lone bright green leafy trees. The sky was a jagged wedge of cloudless blue far above.

Back on A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway, we stopped at Kiva Koffee, built into the side of a canyon. They also have Kottages, which makes for an unfortunate acronym.

In the tiny town of Escalante, we stopped at a surprisingly well-stocked market in what was clearly a repurposed residential house. I purchased an expensive but delicious sandwich and other goodies.

“Who owns those sad abandoned houses across the road?” I asked the proprietor.

“I do,” she snapped. “That will be 23 dollars.”

Further north, we stopped at Capitol Reef National Park, which informs me was once called “Wayne Wonderland.” Based on the remaining hours of daylight, the ranger suggested we tackle the Grand Wash Trail, so that’s what we did.

On the first part of the trail, we were shadowed by a deer, who mostly remained concealed behind scrub brush and grass. Finally, he raised his head to reveal the demonic face and horns of a goat. Or something. Neither of us knew what we were looking at, but we referred to him as “DeerGoat” for the remainder of the trip. We also law a lot of lizards.

We hiked alone through weird, twisted walls of rock shot through with holes, like bubbles rising through taffy-like lava. Rocks and desert, sure, but still much different than the landscape at Zion or Bryce.

As the sun set, we headed back south on Scenic Byway 12.

Peggy had told us there were two places to eat in Boulder, UT: One was a five-star restaurant but very expensive, and the other was a perfectly adequate (if a little shabby) cafe. We only saw one restaurant, and it turned out to be the expensive one, but we were hungry and tired of trail mix and it was Cami’s turn to pay, so we decided to splurge.

Despite being situated in a remote town of 225 people, Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm “enjoys one of the highest Zagat ratings in Utah and was selected as a James Beard Award semifinalist in 2017 and 2018” (according to their website).

Without question, it was the best meal we had on our trip. It might have been one of the finest meals I’ve had in a restaurant, ever. Hell’s Backbone Grill is surrounded by an active farm, flowing water, wildflowers and trees. Much of the food is grown right there. They had a full bar and an interesting cocktail list (unlike any other restaurant we visited in Utah), with all kinds of herbal infusions. They displayed a Black Lives Matter poster in the window, a rarity in Utah. The hostess told us about her great-grandmother, who was in a polygamous marriage. Cami’s eyes grew wide.

While waiting for our food, we had a friendly conversation with an older couple at the table next to ours. The husband had broken his leg while hiking at Zion, so he was out of commission for the rest of the trip. His wife, with beautiful white hair, was a sharply intelligent ex-opera singer. We discussed the oddities of Utah, including the image of a beehive on every state highway sign. I knew that was a Mormon symbol, and tried to explain the meaning as I understood it. Immediately, a man from another table leaned over and interrupted. “It symbolizes our willingness to work together like bees in a hive toward the goal of a better society. Something larger than ourselves.”

Okay then.

On the drive back to Tropic, Cami chose the music, which meant lots of Dave Matthews and Styx. Occasionally, she would turn the volume down, and point: “Polygamist house. It’s so obvious.”

DAY 8: Cedar Breaks – Mammoth Cave

On our final day of hiking, we drove to Cedar Breaks National Monument, through deep forest and cattle grazing land. We had to stop the car several times to wait for slow-moving cows, who willfully ignored us, mooing defiantly. After a terse conversation with some JW’s hawking their abusive cult next to the Cedar Breaks visitor’s center, we hiked the short but beautiful Alpine Pond Trail. There is a canyon at Cedar Breaks, which looks very similar to Bryce, but the main attraction is the profusion of wildflowers – Scarlet Paintbrush, Colorado Columbine, Cinquefoil, Shootingstar. From the brochure: “A dynamic vista of colorful rock formations, bristlecone pine groves, and lush wildflower meadows awaits all who aspire to explore the crown of the Grand Staircase.”

Along the trail, we kept seeing these small buzzing dudes which Cami thought were hummingbirds and I insisted were some kind of mutant bee. Turns out they do exactly the same job as hummingbirds, with a similar elongated pokey-nose, but they were Sphinx Moths. We preferred to call them “bumblebirds” or “hummingbees.”

I had picked up a Visitor’s Guide at Cedar Breaks, and it listed a bunch of nearby attractions, including the promising-sounding Mammoth Cave. The directions were vague and brief, involving forest service roads, many of them unmarked. After a lengthy and confusing drive with several wrong turns, much back-tracking, and limited GPS reception, we found the parking lot. I had zero confidence that I would be able to find my way out to the highway again.

We were pretty sure this was the place, because there was an information board which said Mammoth Cave, but there were no clear directions telling us how to find the cave. We walked and walked, and eventually came to a deep canyon with a massive wall of fallen granite boulders. Was the entrance to the cave somewhere down there? I clambered down, but found nothing and scraped my knee. Walking back to the car, we met a group of teenage girls, who directed us to a disappointing hole in the ground.

Cami had no interest, but I climbed down into the cave, took two pictures, and climbed out. The cave passages go on for thousands of feet, but navigating them required crawling through mud, so I didn’t go far. Lucky for me it was our last day, because my pants and shoes were covered in foul-smelling muck.

On our way back to Bryce, we were stopped for road construction by a badass tattooed STOP/SLOW lady. She stopped at each car to chat, and laughed loudly while taking deep drags on a cigarette. When the road was finally clear, she yelled loudly, “GENTLEMEN, START… YOUR… ENGINES!” and dramatically flipped her sign to SLOW.

We had decided to spend our final night at the Bryce Canyon Lodge, which, in retrospect (no AC, no internet) was a mistake. Our AirBnB was perfect! Why didn’t we stay there for one more night? The one upside was watching the cute exchange students from all over the world who ran the lodge. They were young and vibrant and flirty with each other, and we felt certain that the lodge was a hotbed of illicit romantic drama after hours. But, I mean, come on – no internet?

DAY 9: Bryce Canyon – Las Vegas

We drove back to Las Vegas and spent the night at the Luxor. Cami bought us tickets to see the Cirque du Soleil Beatles show, LOVE, which was pretty awesome except for the unexpected KKK appearance (WTF, CdS?). Also, using “Blackbird” to accompany a slideshow of Black faces (something about the Civil Rights Era, I think) was a bit on-the-nose.

What else should I tell you?

I am eager to return to Zion, but I think I’ve seen enough of Bryce.

I cannot stress this enough: When traveling in Utah, BYOB.

Cami is a great traveling companion except for refusing to zero out the microwave. After I brought this infraction to her attention, I assumed she would modify her behavior accordingly. Instead, she started just setting the timer on every microwave to three seconds whether she was using it or not.

Why didn’t we visit Arches? Or Canyonlands? Or…? Next time.

Feel free to leave me angry and insulting comments telling what I left out or got wrong.

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  1. Every day I stand in front of people and say “We live in white supremacy”, but I must admit the word poop makes me very uncomfortable!

    As always, this was a joy to read. I suggest you access an additional talent of Cami’s besides the ability to identify the homes of polygamists and have her help you write a memoir.

  2. You didn’t visit Arches & Canyonlands because they are all the way on the other side of the state. Together with Moab and Hovenweep, they are worth at least a week — especially if you rent a bike for a day or two. Riding a bike there is great.

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