Road Trip: Rediscovering the American West
by Alan E. Lewis
Entry: November 2010
The Lewises enjoying some fly-fishing during their travels in Utah.
There’s nothing like a road trip to break up the routine that we all tend to settle into as time goes by. It’s a great American tradition, one that I consider a kind of birthright. Ever since I got my first car, I’ve loved the feeling of hitting the road. There’s nothing like taking off, having the wind rush by, and listening to music from the dashboard radio—with your best friend in the passenger seat, of course.
So a few weeks ago, as the first leaves of autumn were starting to change color, Harriet and I felt the urge for going (as Joni Mitchell sang). We looked at each other across the kitchen table, nodded, and simply said, “Road trip!” And off we went.
I always make a plan when we take to the road, but part of the plan is to forget the plan. You have to leave room for the unexpected—some of the best discoveries happen that way, as Grand Circle and OAT travelers well know. So the plan was to visit two of our country’s greatest natural wonders, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park, in Utah, but to leave time to follow our noses when we picked up the scent of something interesting, new, or risky.
We’ve always loved the American West, and I think that in the back of our minds when we selected these two parks we remembered having seen Ken Burns’s wonderful documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. One of the heroes of the series is one of my personal heroes, Teddy Roosevelt, a man of great vision and action, who created 18 national monuments (including the Grand Canyon) and protected more than a 100 million acres of national forest. He was a determined advocate of the conservation movement and of our national parks, and his legacy is a gift owned by each and every American.
Alan & Harriet hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park.
Harriet and I have camped in Bryce Canyon National Park before—with our children Edward and Charlotte—and we find the early autumn is a great time to explore. The lines of summer visitors are long gone, and the winter has yet to take hold. By the way, you’ll visit Bryce Canyon National Park on our 18-day America’s Majestic National Parks Escorted Tour, and, new for 2011, you’ll visit Zion National Park, too.
I love geology, and on one of our hikes in the canyon we met a National Park Service ranger who couldn’t have been nicer about answering my questions. I learned that the pink cliffs that dominate the landscape of Bryce Canyon are relatively young, about 50 million years old, compared with the chocolate-colored north rim of the Grand Canyon, which has been around for more than 200 million years. We saw these different-colored layers as we drove along Route 89, and it’s like you’re viewing time itself. The whole formation runs north to south and is called the Giant Staircase. Each step and color shows great leaps in geological time. An absolute marvel.
Because the rim of Bryce Canyon is as high as 9,000 feet, the air is clear and humidity is low. That means you see nearly 200 miles around you, and at night the view of the heavens is unbelievable. The Milky Way spreads out across the sky like a gleaming, twisting ribbon of light. I’ll never lose the feeling of wonder I have when I stare at the stars like this—it’s something Harriet and I have been doing since our first dates together. It’s a joyous feeling knowing we’ve been given such a wonderful world to discover.
Our next stop was Zion National Park. I love Zion. It was on the floor of Zion Canyon many years ago that I saw—for the first and only time I my life—the beautiful blossom of the Sacred Datura, which only blooms in the darkness of night. Come morning sunlight, the flower wilts away. There’s a remarkable variety of plant and animal life here. We didn’t see any mountain lions—fortunately, they tend to prowl areas away from most hiking trails—but we saw many Golden Eagles above the canyons, on wings that spread out more than six feet.
The embodiment of freedom, a bald eagle soars high above majestic Zion National Park.
We got caught in a blinding rainstorm in Zion that was as unforgettable as the canyons and arches. These downpours can be treacherous, even fatal, especially if you’ve made the mistake of hiking in the dry, winding riverbeds when rain is in the forecast. (We keep a portable weather radio in the glove box of our car whenever we travel in the United States.) We got thoroughly soaked, and the washed-out roads meant a change in plan for the night, but it’s all part of the excitement that arrives with unexpected events.
I’m so glad we’re determined to try new things and go to new places. That’s how we picked our next destination, Mount Timpanogos. We heard some campers mention how great the hiking was there, so next day we were off and running—well, off and walking.
The word “Timpanogos” comes from the Timpanogots Ute tribe and means “rocky canyon.” The mountain is located west of Sundance, Utah, in the northwest portion of the Uinta National Forest. We weren’t equipped to hike to the 11,750-foot summit of this beautiful mountain, but the view from any elevation is exceptional, and we had a wonderful time. You can clearly see how the sides of this 300-million-year-old mountain were sharply sculpted by glaciers 10,000 years ago in the last Ice Age—that’s pretty much yesterday in rock time. It’s a huge mountain—north to south it runs about seven miles—and I look forward to coming back.
Harriet and I experienced something else on our road trip in the American West: hope. This is big country, offering all of us amazing, varied landscapes filled with color and scope and drama. And it’s a country filled with wonderful, hard-working people, all happy to share their hospitality with travelers. Coming back home filled with satisfaction and hope—there aren’t any better souvenirs.
Alan E. Lewis