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UTAH AND ARIZONA: writhing rocks and red desert

It wasn't until I was past Las Vegas that I really felt the trip had begun. I stopped there long enough to videotape The Venitian and Paris, Paris for my sister and to see the new Aladdin (which is largely about full frontal women in harem outfits - kind of an upscale Hooters.) I spent the night in Mesquite, where the Casablanca Casino has a soothing mock oasis outside its entrance. In daylight, I saw that right behind its fake island and gurgling waters, across the road, were large red flows of rock, striated, sweeping masses. A herald of things to come.


Driving eastward into and through southern Utah is, above all, a slow crescendo of rock formations. Even before the border, they become eye-catching, individual in color and shape (this after miles of brown creosote-covered hills along the Mojave Desert.) Many are reddish, but just when one color seems to dominate, another - grey, dark brown, stark white - will appear . The shapes vary as well: sweeping flows, sentry-like banks, thick thumblike projections, wrinkled layers, grotesque profiles, crumpled piles of plates or boulders. Just when you feel like you've seen all the possibilities, new variations will appear. Then a relief of (comparative) space. Then more rocks, sometimes one or two, sometimes in a long, astounding series. And so it continues. But somehow, subtley, through all the ebbs and flows, the changing shapes become more magnificent, more compelling.

And that's LONG before you reach Monument Valley...

Meanwhile of course en route there actually are some towns:

  • St. George is right after the border. It's a pleasant enough little town (even if the local library did hit me up for a $1.00 for using their Internet access.) But I never did find out why they call themselves the 'Dixie' of Utah (nope, no Confederate flags.)
  • Kanab is promoted pretty heavily in the state's literature, but doesn't have much in the town itself. A lot of silent films were shot in the area and the town's businesses make reference to the fact. But the last remaining vestige of all that is a Western set outside town and the one person I asked wasn't very enthusiastic about it. The most interesting encounter I had there was with a man who runs a local photography store and is quite an expert on antique cameras and stereo photography.

From Kanab, I headed to Lake Powell, which is shared by Utah and Arizona.


I was a little surprised to find myself in Arizona, but in fact it's a pretty standard way of getting to the other side of southern Utah. It's easy enough to tell you're there: you suddenly see all this RED desert. Miles and miles of it. With, from time to time, a jagged rip, often with a trickle of water down its middle. Quite dramatic stuff. Less rocks along the way, but those that are there are often spectacular.

After a certain point, I began to see more rocks and less desert. Suddenly, off to my left, the lake appeared. Just as I was taking in this long gleaming expanse among all this arid land, Lone Rock appeared. Its name describes it well - Lone Rock is basically a small mesa, jutting out of the lake. The simplicity of that image doesn't begin to express its power. It's a glorious, primal thing to see.

Best of all - I thought - you can camp there, right on the beach, for $5. Enchanted with the idea of waking by a lake and looking up at that rock, I first drove off to Page to get some groceries. Page itself is a decent town of some size, but what really struck me about it was... the French people. Lots and lots of French people. Since my own relatives love rock and mountain climbing, I don't suppose this should have surprised me. As it was, they're all over that area of Utah, at least in August.

I got back to Lone Rock after dark. A bad idea, I quickly found. After violating a number of unwritten rules with the 'weekly' campers, I slunk off to my rightful place among the lowly 'dailies' and tried to put up my dome tent. In increasingly high winds. In sand.

Did you know that you need special stakes for sand? Oh yes. The normal ones REALLY don't do the job. Though they sink down far enough. Two of mine are lost forever in the Lone Rock sands.

Otherwise, even with the help of two (yep) French tourists, I was unable to fasten down my tent, which had become a huge hemispheric balloon.

Yielding to reason, I raced to get my tent packed up before the rain (louring nearby) came down. I almost made it....

Back in Page, I spotted a sign for a cheap motel - $39 a night. Stepping into what looked like a trailer, I found no one in the 'office', just numerous quotes from the Guide du Routier (an excellent French low-budget guidebook) recommending this and neighboring motels. Then I spotted a phone, with "Uncle Bill"'s number above it. Somewhat eerily, Uncle Bill immediately answered (I looked around for a camera. Nope.) Yes, he had a room. Shared bathroom and kitchen, if anyone else showed up.

Uncle Bill's is on a street with several other cheap hotels. His has a lovely garden (courtesy of his wife) in back of it, including a barbecue at the disposal of guests. Very sweet. Turns out he used to work on films with Fellini, Visconti, etc. in Rome (as an AD, I think.) Kind of colorful in a goateed way.

A pleasant night, and no other guest showed up. The next day I headed off to Monument Valley.


Before I left, a woman I know had camped out among the redwoods and was gushing about the experience. I responded that those and other natural features were our Notre Dame and Eiffel Tower. This part of my trip confirmed that opinion.

When I first went to Paris and SAW its monuments, I remember thinking "I've seen these all my life, in some form or other. But here they ARE, physical and real." It was like seeing a dream take physical form.

That's what it's like, seeing the most spectacular of these rock formations. We've all seen them, in Westerns and postcards and Ansel Adams photos. But actually standing in front of them, seeing them up close... It's the kind of experience that takes you right out of yourself.

Even before arriving at Monument Valley itself, the giants appear. Ghostly cathedrals, blind fortresses, fossilized trunks of unimaginable trees. At one spot in particular, two stand like titanic sentries to either side of the highway, half welcoming you, half daring you to proceed. After miles of this, you wonder how much more impressive Monument Valley can be.

The Valley is on the land of the Navajo Nation. You drive through two rows of ramshackle shops before paying the admission and driving up to the observation center. There, French and English compete with the chanting and drumming of young Navajo men (dressed in street clothes) somewhat half-heartedly singing for the tourists. A few exhibits explain what you're looking at. There is of course a gift shop.

From this island in the middle of the arid land, people stand at all sides and look out at the rocks. The monuments. Which is exactly what they look like. As if someone had picked up Notre Dame and a Norman castle and Winchester Cathedral and the Milan Duomo, blurred their forms beyond recognition and strewn them around the plain with contemptuous ease, leaving them there like left-over toys. In every direction, another titanic, astounding form.

The full admission includes a 17-mile drive around a very rough dirt road which comes much closer to each. But it takes two hours at the required speed, and I needed to get going north. So I skipped it this time.

On my way out, I stopped at the souvenir stands - lots of turquoise jewelry and fry bed. The latter is basically fried dough (and I doubt the Navajo originally had it with powdered sugar, which essentially transforms it into flat zepppole.) The Navajo there were nice enough, but about as enthusiastic as you'd expect people to be if they had to make their living off tourists.


I'd expected to stop at Mexican Hat, which looks reasonably big on a map. Oops... It's about ten buildings next to a small bridge. But the rock that gives it its name is worth a glance: a flat rock teeters on top of a round one, itself sitting at the top of a narrowing column.

The road north is narrow and unadorned (like most of the roads as you move West), though striking rock formations continue to appear. Also, because it's so far and so long, people tend to drive a little faster than the limit.

A bad habit to get into...

I stopped at Monticello, just before the far more popular Moab, got gas, headed the block and a half to the town limits... and saw flashing lights behind me. Genial, moustachioed, gray-haired sheriff. "Sir, you were going 49 in a 35-mile zone." Was I? In retrospect, I think I was just revving up for the 55 mph limit I saw in front of me. At any rate, turns out the town's 'menu' of fines starts at ONE mile over the limit.

Not a BIG fine ($40). But I still would love to know what percentage of Monticello's town revenues come from "law enforcement".

At any rate, it's probably good this happened towards the start of my trip. I got WAY more careful about small towns after that.

Moab is, visually, pretty well known. Its rock formations have been used in a number of movies (most recently "Mission Impossible II".) Apparently the town feels some ambivalence about its cinematic success. An article in the local paper discussed a controversy in the local chamber of commerce about how much energy to devote to the Moab 'Film Commision' (which was supposed to only require FIVE HOURS of the time of the person responsible.) The issue being that, popular as the place is with Hollywood, its success hasn't translated into widespread local employment.

Imagine that: not MELTING at the warmth of Hollywood's attention.

It was also interesting that someone had put out a CASTING CALL in Moab. For a Japanese commercial (for Marlboro, as I remember.) Think about that: during SAG's commercial strike, they were casting in MOAB.

Not that the strike was having any effect or anything....

Moab is tastefully touristy. A few of the shops are far more upscale than you would expect in a small Utah town, but in a down-to-earth way. Though when I tried one restaurant that served breakfast only, I did find the prices a bit steep (and the service a bit precious.)

One of the bars, by the way, is a micro-brewery that serves tasting portions. I tried things like lime beer, but they didn't have a tasting size for the one I REALLY wanted to test before committing: the jalapeno ale.


From Moab, it was on to Nebraska, via Colorado and Kansas. The green of Colorado was a welcome change after days of gorgeous but arid terrain. Downtown Denver, where I stopped for about two hours, was actually a very pleasant place (though a resident I met later couldn't understand how I had that impression.) What really surprised me was that after Denver, Colorado starts to resemble Kansas - flat, with lots of fields. After a day's drive, I landed in Kansas for the night.



continue to Nebraska

LAST UPDATED: March 2003