Backroading It in a 2013 Volvo S60

We drive through Utah's national parks in search of the Valley Tan

By Jason Davis | Photos By Jason Davis | November 14, 2012

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is just a bunch of silly rocks, a bunch of silly rocks that every American needs to see. The indigenous Paiute called these rocks, Angka-ku-wass-a-wits, or "red painted faces," a name that stems from an anthropomorphic legend which tells of an angry but clever animal god, Coyote, who cast a spell on ancient inhabitants for abusing the land. Geologists, on the other hand, say that the Bryce Amphitheatre began to form 15 million years ago, after the Colorado Plateau's uplift. Over time, sediment-carrying rivers and streams from the surrounding mountains deposited mud, silt, and calcium carbonate, creating what became the Claron Formation, a bed of compressed limestone that later was eroded by water and ice. That erosion formed the hoodoo amphitheater, the one in which T.C. Bailey, a government land surveyor, who first described to the public in 1876:
"...seems indeed as though the bottom had dropped out and left rocks standing in all shapes and forms as lone sentinels over the grotesque and picturesque scenes. There are thousands of red, white, purple, and vermilion colored rocks, of all sizes, resembling sentinels on the walls of castles, monks and priests in their robes, attendants, cathedrals and congregations. There are deep caverns end rooms resembling ruins of prisons, castles, churches with their guarded walls, battlements, spires, and steeples, niches and recesses, presenting the wildest and most wonderful scene that the eye of man ever beheld, in fact, it is one of the wonders of the world."
I woke up early to catch the morning light, hoping to observe the colorcasts stream across the Rocket Pop-shaped hoodoos before the sun got too high. But as I walked up to Sunset Point, the sun crested the horizon and the world around me changed, as it had done each morning for millions of years. The pink and lavender hues melted into summery Creamsicles of yellow and orange. Shadows of purple and blue had warmed and shifted. Birds that had chirped now sang and celebrated the mystery of yet another day. I had already forgotten time. I didn't know what day of the week it was, and I didn't care either. On the Navajo Loop trail, I met a retired couple. They wore dark gray shorts and simple t-shirts, and greeted passers-by with warm smiles and glowing eyes. Each also carried a carved walking stick covered from top-to-bottom with metallic medallions of each National Park and Monument they had visited. Many were glued on; others rattled and clanked against the wood. "I love your walking sticks," I called out, envying their leisure and attempting to halt them for a moment in the shade of a hoodoo garden overhead. "My wife and I collect the medallions also, but we don't have that many!" The couple chuckled, and in conversation, I learned that they were from Kentucky. I smiled, mentioning something of "Bourbon Country," and how I had lived north of Nashville along the Kentucky border several years previous. They didn't drink, they said, but were familiar with the Blue Grass State's distilling celebrity. When I told them of my mission to find a legendary Mormon whiskey, their eyes perked up. "Mormon whiskey?" the man asked. "That sounds like an oxymoron," his wife said. As the Navajo Loop merged into the Queen's Garden Trail, it dawned on me that I was no longer only walking amid the high desert's red painted faces, but among towering firs and pines, and mountainous wildflower, and chipmunks and deer. The air smelled crisp and rich. With each full breath, I thought of Twain's overland route and what he would have written had he seen this miraculous view. Though he devoted whole chapters to Utah and its Mormon pioneers, he saw relatively little of the beehive state, as the stage sliced westward in the north and beyond the Great Salt Lake. To him, it was a land whose "romance had all faded far away and disappeared, and left the desert trip but a harsh reality -- a thirsty, sweltering, longing, hateful reality!" I couldn't say I felt the same, not from the turbocharged throne of a Swedish Chariot. Not from the grandeur of the cathedral before me, and of those to come. That afternoon, I drove to Bryce Point, which, at 9105 feet, is the tallest point in the park. It is paved, and thus popular with the tour buses of French families clogging the sidewalks and parking lot. I walked up the road, away from the cage at the end of the point and made my way to the dirt path beyond. There, I set up my tripod and sat over the amphitheater. From behind me, I heard someone say, referring to my 4x5 camera: "Wow, I haven't seen one of those in years." When I turned around, I saw that it came not from an aged film lover, but from a young man in khaki shorts and a t-shirt. He was muscular, baby faced, and wore the mark of a grunt: the "high and tight" haircut I so hated (and resisted) while in the Army. The young man told me that he was in the Marine Corps, that he had served two tours to Afghanistan, and that he soon looked forward to getting out. In the meantime, he and his girlfriend were enjoying the scenery and I could tell that it was therapy for him, as it was for me, the natural landscape a calming and curious necessity.
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