Arches & New Mexico

Thursday, May 15th

Awoke to bright blue skies and cool temperatures which rose quickly with the sun. The climate here is interesting: relatively mild winters and, in summer, very hot days and cool nights. It is quite dry, with only nine inches of rain a year, distributed pretty evenly over twelve months. It’s desert, really, with just enough liquid for the hardiest plants and animals to make a go of it.

The town of Moab has an interesting history. It’s original claim to fame was a navigable crossing of the Colorado River and Mormon settlers established a fort and trading post there in the 1850s. That initial investment came to grief and was abandoned when the shaky relations with the native Navajo and Utes turned violent and fell apart. But by the late 1870s, new and permanent agricultural settlements had been established in the area and by the early 1900s, mining took hold as the key economic engine. Around World War II, the area began to gain notice as a tourist destination and many hollywood movies were filmed in and around Moab beginning in the 1950s. Although mineral mining and natural gas extraction are active today, Moab is now mainly a tourist town. In addition to the national park attractions, river rafting and off-road motoring are big recreational draws. And the local businesses seem geared almost exclusively to the tourist crowd. Lots of hotels, restaurants, shops and outfitters.

We grabbed a substantial breakfast at a local diner (green chile omelets, hash browns, toast, coffee) and headed up the road to Arches National Park for a little hiking. The purpose of the park is to preserve and provide managed public access to the enormous sandstone monoliths and formed arches rising hundreds of feet off the desert floor. Hiking is pretty strictly limited to marked trails, straying from which is strongly discouraged. We managed a couple of separate, two hour walks, each featuring a different landmark. The first was to the iconic Delicate Arch which used to adorn the Utah license plate and figures in the state welcome sign. The second was to the Double O arch at the top end of the park. Both hikes were three to four miles round trip with some climbing but nothing like yesterday. Lots of rock-hopping instead. The views were, predictably, amazing. The National Parks don’t cheat you, that’s for sure.

The park was pretty crowded with visitors. Lots of Japanese tourists and I heard some German and French here and there. Also many young couples and at least one giant tribe of what looked like college kids recently sprung from Spring exams. And a very large number of retired couples. Many looked to be well into their seventies. Inspiring.

As varied as the visitor crowd was the way they dressed. At one end of the spectrum were the poseurs in expensive micro fibre SPF gear ordered online from EMS / REI two weeks ago. These folks had the double walking sticks, hydration packs, and military grade eye protection. Go home. At the other end were the young people in shorts and flip flops. Girls in sports bras. No shirts, no hats, no water and probably no sunscreen. Cute, but stupid. Go home…and change. Bill traded his blue jeans and long sleeves for shorts, a T-shirt and a gallon of sunscreen. I wore a cotton button-down long sleeved shirt and a pair of Dockers – basically what I used to wear to work every day. Add good hiking boots, two liters each of water, sunglasses, hats and we were fine. The only difference between us in terms of comfort and functionality was that Bill looked like he’d done some research on what to wear. I looked like I’d lost my job and walked to Utah to find work. But there are no extra credit points for style.

A good long afternoon of hiking under our belts, we got back in our car and headed South out of town headed for Farmington, New Mexico and our next overnight. The landscape turned increasingly bleak and unfriendly as we got toward the bottom of Utah and the Four Corners region. Our route took us briefly East back in to Colorado and then South again, crossing the New Mexico line at the border of the Navajo reservation.

The land at that border was a moonscape. It looked dead – dry and gray – and the horizon was obscured by dust. There was absolutely no hint of attempts at irrigation, if that is even possible. In the first reservation town, Shiprock, we saw evidence for the first time on this trip of sustained, grinding poverty. Just outside the Navajo Nation, there was a trading post and liquor store. And in subsequent towns, check cashing loan outfits and pawn shops, one after another. Predatory.

Tomorrow we backtrack through the reservation and into Arizona; our target is Flagstaff, so we’ve got some driving to do.

Random notes from today: New Mexico license plates are the coolest we’ve seen. So is their tag line: Land of Enchantment. Though, so far, not so much. Bill drives like it’s his job. We saw chipmunks today at Arches. Last thing I expected to see in the desert. Like ours at home but with different cammo. I’m getting fascinated by the innkeeper business. More on that later, maybe. Cure for what ails you? Eat, hike, drive, shower, beer – Magic. We decided to change the oil in our rental car next chance we get. #sainthood.

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