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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

The Fuel Light

The next morning, my third day with the Volvo S60 T5 AWD, I had slightly less than one-quarter remaining on the fuel gauge. From my Hotel in Moab, it was 24 miles to Canyonlands National Park. No sweat, I thought; I would only need to travel about 40 miles total for the day, and there was a gas station on the edge of town that I could hit on the way back.
I didn't count on a nearly all-uphill drive, or the detour to Dead Horse Point State Park, just two miles northeast of the Canyonlands Island in the Sky District front gate, or the 12-mile one-way road inside Canyonlands. Before I even got to Dead Horse Point, the fuel light came on, a possibility I discounted since the needle was still near the one-quarter mark. When I parked, the digital dash displayed the mileage countdown readout: 70 miles until empty.

Dead Horse Point State Park

It's right there, right next to Canyonlands National Park, on the same road, and so close, they share a border. So what does a State Park have, aside from a lot fewer people, which a neighboring National Park doesn't?
A different story. OK, it also has the final scene from Thelma & Louise, a hardly less gruesome fable from which the park takes its name, but one that is no less interesting. According to legend, late 19th century cowboys had used the 30-yard wide neck of the peninsula as a natural corral to herd wild mustangs and, after picking the horses they wanted, left the undesirables on the mesa where they died of thirst "within view of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet beneath them." Gorier still, the version I heard replaced dying of thirst with being run off the cliff. The official story, though, according to one historian, is that the name was made up by an elementary student for a chamber of commerce contest to draw visitors to the park.

Canyonlands National Park

Like neighboring Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park (which also has arches) was formed when retreating seas left salt deposits covering the Colorado Plateau more than 300 million years ago. As the salt became rock, unstable to the weight of stratified sediment above it, over time, water and gravity eventually carved out the "hundreds of canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches, and spires."
The three districts to Canyonlands National Park are isolated by the Green and Colorado Rivers. The Maze District is one of the most remote areas of the country and requires a backcountry permit, as well as an off road-capable vehicle. The Needles District, the most geographically diverse district within the park, is 70 miles south and west of the most popular and easily accessed district: Island in the Sky which features the Grand View Point Overlook above the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. After hiking eight miles the day before, I wanted a slow and easy hike, a trail fit for a child, and the Grand View Point Overlook Trail, a two-mile hike along the rim of the farthest-reaching mesa of the Island in the Sky District, sounded like a good bet. Most of the trail leads over rock and densely packed dirt, and was marked by piles of cairns along the cliff ledge providing nearly panoramic views of Monument Basin and the White Rim, a series of narrow, inhospitable, vein-like limestone canyons so blackened by shadow and eroded by water that I couldn't even see inside the bottom, nearly 2,200 feet down. As the trail cut in from the ledge, over smoothened and other times jagged boulders, next to potholes swarming with microbial life, and the Maze District to my west, I thought of an Emerson quote I had read, and gazed at the grey-green goosenecks of the Green River, walled in by the seemingly water-painted pinks and lavenders of the Henry Mountains beyond. When I reached the overlook, I sat beneath a rock at the height of the point, amidst the gently, rustling breeze. Only then did I begin to feel, for the first time in nearly four days that I was truly alone, finally free of the clouded chaos of shopping malls and stoplights and Starbucks. I was amidst Emerson's Nature, "the circumstance that dwarfs every other circumstance." But at the height of my leisure, with my toes dangling over the rock ledge, my iPhone vibrated inside my hip pocket, alerting me to a text message.

High on Hypermiling

After hiking the Island in the Sky loop and Mesa Arch trail at Canyonlands National Park, I keyed on the Volvo S60 T5 AWD's ignition to a light in the gauge cluster warning me of a 40-mile fuel range until "biped power takeover." This was not the 70 miles I had when I turned it off, and this clearly meant it was time to roll up the windows, turn off the A/C, and maximize the 3528-pound sled's momentum down the mountain.
Shortly after, the range dropped to 30 miles, with 32 to go and a line of cars on my tail. To pass the time, I made a game of seeing by how far I could increase the gap between my rear bumper and the front bumper of the car behind me using only gravity. The mileage on the gauge screen ticked back up to 40, then 50, and then 40 again. For another few miles, it stayed at 40, helped by the sub-1000 rpm engine speed, and a mostly 25 mph speed limit. In the rearview mirror, I watched the cars behind me disappear as I coasted down the hill, then creep back up to me as I crawled back up. At the park exit, with just over 20 miles to go, the speed limit bumped up to 45 mph. That's when the fuel range dropped to 20 miles, and read zero by the time I got to Route 191, the road leading into Moab. When I arrived at a gas station a few miles later, I had travelled a total of 436 miles on the first tank for a mixed-driving average of 25.5 mpg.
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