2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 5

Susan had implored me to hike something a little more challenging and less touristy than Wolfe Trail, which is the trail that leads to Delicate Arch. I decided to do it anyway. This was my first time out here and I wanted to see the big famous rock formation that they put on the license plates. Besides, I think Susan took me for a more experienced hiker than I really was, so I figured that taking her advice would only invite trouble.

In hindsight I’m glad I made this decision: about two weeks after I hiked Arches, a hiker named Aron Ralston, who was hiking alone in a remote Utah canyon not far from where I was, was forced to amputate his own arm with a dull knife when he became trapped under a boulder. Would that have happened to me? Probably not. Could it have? Why the hell not? Hiking alone in unfamiliar country is none too smart, so I decided to hold off on the serious stuff until I could come back with a friend. Today would just be sight-seeing.

I reached the trailhead and started hiking before dawn, making what I thought to be pretty good time up the moderately steep slickrock. I assume the the hike is an easy one for most hikers, but it was exercise enough for a flatlander schlub like me. Between the striking silence of Arches at dawn and my relatively poor conditioning, my beating heart and heavy breathing were the loudest things around as I covered the mile and a half and 480 vertical feet of the trail.

You first see Delicate Arch at the exact moment you think it’s not worth the trouble to get there. It sits down below you as you round a rock wall after a fairly steep climb. I got my first glimpse of it just as the first rays of morning sun cleared the La Sal Mountains. I was awestruck. By the Arch itself, sure, but also by the sudden appearance of a miles-wide vista of cliffs, dry washes, and valleys, the likes of which I’d never seen before. I marveled at treasures which had stood unmolested, uncommercialized, and unencroached upon for so long in a country that seems to make a special effort to molest, commercialize and encroach upon all that is beautiful. While in later years I would learn that things aren’t quite that simple, at the time I stood there transfixed.

I sat on a boulder overlooking Delicate Arch for perhaps an hour, completely alone, losing myself in thought as I watched the sunrise. Thoughts about scale. Perspective. About how easily and completely the city in which I live would be swallowed up in this immense landscape. About the insignificance of the things which bother me on a day-to-day basis. About how this landscape looked exactly the same is it does now before I was born and how it will remain unchanged long after I’ve worried myself into an early grave. About how little it would matter in the grand scheme of things if I never showed up at that new job next month. How easy it would be to simply stay here forever.

Most of all I just thought about how happy I was to be there that morning, thousands of miles from whatever it was that had bothered me so much in the last eighteen months. Life at that moment seemed impossibly simple and, for the first time in a long time, impossibly good. After a while, I realized that I had a big goofy grin on my face, which made me grin even wider. I started back down the trail before other hikers could intrude on the moment. I probably grinned all the way back to the car.

The original plan was to finish my hike early, grab a shower and some breakfast, and make the 420 miles to Ely, Nevada by late afternoon, staying there that night. Within an hour of leaving Moab, however, I realized that I needed to think bigger, or at least further, because US-50 across western Utah is an impossibly scenic – and practically empty – stretch of road.

Presented with roads like these, I put six Dylan cds in the changer, lashed the wheel and sped like mad over the deliciously interminable straightaways that cut through the Great Basin Desert.

I got to Ely far earlier in the afternoon than I figured I would. I’m glad I did, because one look around the place made me realize that it wasn’t where I wanted to stop for the night. Cold, gray, and dirty, Ely was a rather depressing way station. I stopped at the Hotel Nevada, the city’s main tourist attraction. Though it had a certain shambling grandeur about it from the street, its charms disappeared once you got inside and spied the rows of video poker machines and the Marlboro huffing, sweatsuit-wearing people plugging dollar after dollar into them. It seemed a wretched place, and I stayed only long enough to have a Coke, check my map, and pick up my official “Loneliest Road Passport,” which I was going to have stamped at each of the flyspeck towns along US-50 between Ely and Fernley.

I ran into a pretty major snowsqual at the first mountain pass ten miles west of Ely. When I could no longer see the road, I decided to turn around, head back into town, and assess my options. I found Ely’s public library, where I got online to check out weather and highway reports. The Nevada Department of Highways told me that it was smooth sailing all the way to Carson City, but the two inches of snow on my car told me differently. Just as I as about to play it safe, give up, and check into the depressing Hotel Nevada for the night, I overheard the librarian talking to some local about the roads. Seems the local was a truck driver who had just come over 50 from Reno, and by all appearances survived. I butted into their conversation, pleading Easterner, and asked whether I would make it through the squall I had just seen without snow chains, a St. Bernard, and a cask of brandy.

The trucker told me that I’d be fine this late in the Winter (silly me, I thought it was Spring) if I took it slow over the first two passes and did my best to follow a truck or someone else who could make some tracks for me. I followed his advice, waited for a truck to follow, and started back on the road. It was white knuckles for the first 20 miles, but after that I came down from the snow line and was cruising along at close to 100 m.p.h. again.


Loneliest Road

was quite impressive, though like most things, the less-publicized competition – that stretch of US-50 between Delta, Utah and Ely – was more impressive. Lonelier. Faster. Prettier. A man can get some serious driving done there. The most notable thing about this stretch of road was when I paid – gasp! – $2.50 a gallon for gas in the little town of Austin, which at the time was the highest price I’d ever seen in my life (my, how things change). 310 miles and four passport stamps later I rolled into Reno, where I lost $45 gambling without stepping foot in a casino.

My primary guide for the trip was a book called Road Trip USA by Jamie Jensen. While it’s a great book – I tend to read it more when I’m not travelling – I decided not to rely too much on it this trip. I used it to locate routes and sights, but for the most part found my own food and accommodations. Euphoric from a wonderful day on the road, however, I was in the mood to try something different, so I let Mr. Jensen guide me to some local color in the form of a motel he called “quaint” and “retro” and “charming” named “The Heart O’ Town.” This was a mistake.

From the street it looked, well, OK. It had a neat neon sign and didn’t look too seedy, so I figured what the hell. I went inside to ask for a room. The office – attached to the manager’s apartment – smelled like cabbage. An old lady came out and took my name, money (cash only, please) and gave me a room key. I was already starting to regret handing over my money and giving my real name, but after my Arches-euphoria, I decided that I could handle anything that day.

I walked up to my room and opened the door to see: a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. A TV from the Ford administration. A red velvet bedspread with multiple questionable stains. The stench of bug spray and (maybe) death. Before I let my bag hit the floor, I turned on my heel and walked out.

Back in the office, not wanting to insult the proprietor, I mumbled something about making a mistake or mixed up plans or something and meekly expressed my desire to get my money back and leave. The old lady wasn’t having it, though. No refunds. No way. Not possible. Because I was on a hiatus from practicing law – and thinking about maybe never going back to it – I had no stomach to argue my rights. It wasn’t a lot of money, and I was willing to leave it on the table. As I walked out, the old lady yelled encouragingly “you can keep the key until morning if you want! The room is yours all night!”

My exhaustion catching up with me, I decided to go Velveeta that night, so I got on the freeway, got off at Sparks, and checked into a suburban Cross Country Inn which sat next to an Outback Steakhouse. Ah, home! I soon realized that some Cal-Nevada girls’ high school volleyball tournament was in town, because the hotel lobby was filled with scores of tall and athletic sixteen year-old girls, most of them blond and most of them wearing bikinis as they made their way to the indoor pool. I wasn’t exactly tempted by the scene, but I was a five-days-unshaven and dusty dude wearing ratty clothes with full legal rights to a no-tell motel downtown all night, so I quickly separated myself from the surrounding nubility lest someone tried to have me arrested.

It took me a while to fall asleep that night. When I finally did, I dreamed of red rock canyons and empty roads.
Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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