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
My old man always took the back roads. "I like the control," he'd say, hinting without description the virtue of rowing his own boat, choosing his own line rather than being steered by the concrete current that moved around him. For close to twenty years, he commuted into Los Angeles, but on the weekends at home, the back roads became his sanctuary, his escape from the tedium of the weekday herd. Twenty years later, his commute had become my commute, and I've found in myself the familiar desire to get away. Years ago, I found similar refuge in the Tennessee and Kentucky back country. It was there that I would unwind. Like my father, I drove the back roads to get lost in the countryside, and to escape from the stresses of Army life. I didn't need a map. There was no traffic, and gas was cheap. Back in La-La Land, many of my old man's back roads have since turned into golf courses and housing tracts and shopping centers. In and around Southern California, the best remaining roads are well known and busy, far away, and heavily-policed -- hardly the atmosphere for escaping the constraints of the office, the 405 freeway, or my rapidly vanishing summer. I wanted to slow down, and to experience the unfamiliar. I wanted to make memory of something fresh, of something wild and strange, to escape LA, if even temporarily, to stretch my lungs, to refresh and to be, as John Muir says, "redeemed by wilderness." Utah promised the high-elevation escape I've longed for. The pitch was simple: I would fly to Salt Lake and take delivery of a 2013 Volvo S60 T5 AWD, the Swedish automaker's best-selling sports sedan. From there, I'd back-road through the Beehive State for eight days -- all of it a thinly veiled excuse to hike various National Parks and Monuments -- then beeline back to Los Angeles with a travel narrative and a few hundred photos. For the most part, that's what I came back with, until a little "required reading" got in the way.

The Car

My S60 was a loaded, Ice White T5 Premier with all-wheel drive, a high-performance audio system with Sirius satellite radio and steering wheel-mounted controls, dual zone climate control, Bluetooth hands-free phone support, and an advanced adaptive cruise control system with distance and driver alerts.
The interior wasn't too shabby, either. Leather and soft touches adorned every surface, and the lighting scheme was modern and youthful -- and particularly attractive and visually stimulating at night. In the trunk, I fit two large suitcases, an ice chest, and a backpack full of photographic equipment. Under the hood lay a 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The S60 T5 AWD had plenty of freeway passing power, this I knew, but more impressive was its 29-mpg highway rating. This I hoped to top, but how much would the elevation affect its performance?

Park City

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that my first stop was to the High West Distillery and Saloon in Park City, about an hour's drive east of Salt Lake City, to sample the "Valley Tan," a Mormon whiskey made famous by Mark Twain's 1872 travelogue, Roughing It. I had read Roughing It in college and adored Twain's many imaginative characterizations and descriptions of the alien-to-him landscape of the pre-Civil War west, but it was his account of the drink that most captured my attention.
In 1861, during his first night in Salt Lake, Twain wrote of an encounter with fellow overland stagecoach passenger, Bemis:
Valley Tan (or, at least, one form of valley tan) is a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it; is of Mormon invention and manufactured only in Utah. Tradition says it is made of (imported) fire and brimstone. If I remember rightly no public drinking saloons were allowed in the kingdom of Brigham Young, and no private drinking permitted among the faithful, except that they confined themselves to "valley tan."
I thought it would make for great story -- to quench my historical curiosity, of course -- to sample this magical drink and count it among a handful of experiences from my exploration of America's last great frontier. But where was it? Aside from Twain's account, I found only one example that outlasted Prohibition, and it came from an unlikely source: the High West Distillery in Park City, Utah, a relative newcomer to the whiskey scene. Unfortunately, I learned upon my visit that the 2011 small-batch release sold out in just three days. After an early lunch in the saloon, Terry Ginsberg, a High West Tour Ambassador, led me on a personal tour of the distillery. There, I learned that Park City was once a booming mining town, but when the silver economy tanked at the outset of the Great War, early residents and city officials successfully transformed the town into a skiing and tourist resort (Park City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, and is home to the Sundance Film Festival). Of course, this only adds to High West's charm -- it doesn't look like it belongs in Park City. It's nestled at exactly 7,000 feet altitude a short distance from State Route 224, and is uniquely situated in refurbished old town. From the street, it's easy to miss. If not for the small horseshoe sign hanging from one of the front doors, it could easily be mistaken for a cozy bed and breakfast. After becoming Utah's first legal distillery since the 1870s, High West now boasts being the world's only ski-in saloon where, after a day on the slopes, thirsty skiers need only cross the street to fire into the livery stable for a "squar" of Rye. This was puzzling to me as it contradicted every one of my simpleton and paradoxical perceptions of Mormon Utah and its liquor laws. But Utah's liquor history is hardly different than any other western settlement. From the 1820s to 1840s, Utah and Wyoming settlers convened every year for the summer "rendezvous" to exchange pelts and supplies, including alcohol. By 1850, the first two breweries opened in Salt Lake, and by 1860, a year before Twain left Missouri, the British adventurer, Captain Richard F. Burton, is said to have been introduced to Brigham Young, and traded valley tan shots with Brigham's bodyguard, the US Marshall, Mormon "Destroying Angel," and hotelier and distilling entrepreneur, Orin Porter Rockwell. Although Joseph Smith, patriarch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, abstained from alcohol, and first claimed in 1833 that Mormons should also, the first generation Mormon settlers to Utah (Mormons arrived in Utah in 1847) made no such secret for their love of "strong drink." And curiously, Brigham Young -- Smith's de facto heir apparent to the theocratic, Mormon throne -- owned and operated his own distillery (of which he claimed never to have tasted) to increase church profits, despite being on the record saying, "If I had the power, I would blow out the brains of every thief in the territory, and I despise the whiskey maker more than I do the thieves." By 1917, Utah was dry, but Terry, my Tour Ambassador, had reminded me that Mormon-heavy Utah cast the thirty-sixth and deciding vote in 1933 to ratify the 21st Amendment, officially repealing Prohibition. High West didn't have Twain's fantastical whiskey, and its other spirits were no less appealing. But I still wanted a Valley Tan.

Into Moab

The route to Moab, home city to both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, grew and fell in elevation, killing the S60s fuel economy, but never the astonishment as I gazed on the orange-peel horizon. Sixty miles from Moab, with the chariot of Helios descending toward Old Ocean's stream, the multilayered mountain walls blushed amber and foreboding, until finally, a train carrying mineral carts beneath the upturned Moab fault led us into the Grand County.
As luck would have it, the nearest restaurant to my hotel, just a few paces from the Porte-cochere, was the Moab Brewing Company, chief attraction in a one-street town of many mud-colored, southwestern-styled strip malls. Inside, a friendly hostess showed me through the busy house to a shabby table in an adjoining room that was raised above the main dining hall. What the Moab Brewery lacked in class, it made up for in brew, namely the ice-cold Black Imperial India Pale Ale recommended by my server, Cindy, who upon examination knew little about strong drink. "Oh wow," she remarked, when I asked if she had heard of a whiskey named Valley Tan. "I had no idea, but that sounds really interesting."

It Speaks

The Volvo S60 T5 AWD is not a wolf in sheep's sheet metal. That isn't its intended or hidden nature. But something happened when the road into Arches National Park bended. For the first time, the sports sedan woke up. It showed me how and where there is more than what meets the spec sheet. Anyone can drive a brand-new car on the highway, or around town, and proclaim, "I like this car," or "This car is as reliable and faithful and rewarding as my dishwasher." But it isn't until you actually do something with the car that you get an accurate sense of what the car is really about, of what emotion lies beneath its sculptured shell, and of what comfort and confidence it exudes in relation to its surroundings. This leads one to ask, "Is this a car that I can live with, or is it merely a tool that I tolerate?"
The road into Arches National Park wilted under the summer sun. Sand piles on the soft shoulder spread onto the road, overlooking the unprotected cliff face. Here, I learned the spectacle of torque-vectoring all-wheel drive is that four wheels of powered traction are better than two, which in no way means that it is safe or responsible to also effectively double the suggested speed limit.

Arches National Park

The arches at Arches National Park are stone rainbows of mostly red, yellow and orange that geologists say were formed over millions of years by the compression, liquefaction, and thrustful repositioning of an underground salt bed. Water seeped into the fault-caused vertical cracks, joints, and folds, eventually freezing and expanding the bedrock, where wind and surface erosion would later uncover younger rock layers, leaving a series of free-standing fins thus exposed to more wind and water. It makes perfect sense to scientists, and to those who've seen the GIF, but it's impossible to comprehend just how many tens of millions of years it took for the more than 2000 arches to form, especially compared to the length of our own infinitesimal lifetimes, that the only discernible measurement man has recorded since discovery are their occasional destruction.
By definition, an arch must span a minimum of 3 feet; the longest, Landscape Arch, at 306 feet, would be my first destination, via the Devils Garden Trail. I wanted to touch an arch, to sit under it with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and to gaze at the blue behind its window, a calming and satisfying memory for the times I would later be stuck in my office cubicle Temperatures hovered between 98 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don't mind sand being blown onto your sweaty, sun-scorched cheeks and neck, it really wasn't that bad. The brochure describes the 0.8-mile trail to Landscape Arch as "moderately easy with some elevation gain." Unfortunately, the trail to the arch had been closed due to its delicate nature, and the only obstacle I found leading to the viewpoint was navigating perfumed throngs of vacationing French families who, despite the heat and sand, always looked as though they had just showered. Beyond Landscape Arch, I continued along the Devils Garden Trail to Partition Arch, a name that sounds exactly as it describes. That's where the trail, marked by piles of rock known as "cairns," routed hikers up the fins of a steep, slick rock, eventually leading to Double-O Arch, where I ate my PB&J and listened to the God of Thunder smashing his cymbals high overhead. Further on, to the end of the Devil's Garden Trail, I took incriminating photos of my fair-skinned better half at the base of a landscape-marking, phallic statue named, "Dark Angel," before turning onto the Primitive Trail, a "difficult low route through fins" with a "short section of smooth slickrock" that led back to the Devils Garden Trailhead. Fortunately, this did not prove stupid, or fatal, that with short, patchy bursts of rain and the sign of lightning in the not far distance, and the nature of the Primitive Trail being not really a trail at all, but an asinine rock-climbing adventure through narrow, flash-flood smoothed canyons, I came out, nearly eight miles from whence I started, unscathed and black on water.

Brews, Blues & BBQ

As luck would again have it, dinner was a few steps from the hotel, this time across the busy road to The Blu Pig, a "BBQ and Blues Joint" with, on paper, a healthy list of local Uinta brew on tap. It was an unspectacular and empty restaurant of good intentions failed by a lackluster menu and a statewide shortage of Uinta's good stuff. My server, Jess, a cheery blonde, watched the rain batter into the window beside me.
After dinner, when she brought the check, I asked if she had heard of the Valley Tan. "No, I don't really drink liquor," she said. "I mostly just stick to beer."

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.

The Search Continues

According to Yelp, Moab is filled with two-star eateries at 3- and 4-star prices. I drove the strip twice, scanning each back alley, but nothing looked appetizing to me. With darkness approaching, I settled on Eddie McStiff's, home of "Moab's Best Mojito," and an underwhelming hamburger.
After dinner, I was determined to find information on the Valley Tan, so I Googled the town's State Liquor Store, the state government agency regulating conduct, license and sale of alcoholic beverages, to ask the pros what they knew of the drink. "Whiskey's are over there," one uniformed woman replied, pointing to a wall in the small, square store. "Yes, I noticed," I thought. "Thanks for nothing." I returned to my hotel room to scour the net for any and every mention of the terms "Valley Tan" and "Mormon whiskey." Many of my searches turned up the names "Sir Richard Burton," "Brigham Young," "Orin Porter Rockwell," and "George Lathrop," a driver of the Cheyanne-Blackhills Overland Stage who said of the Valley Tan: "a vile distillate of wheat and potatoes," and "made of horned toads and Rocky Mountain rattlesnakes." But in his 1915 memoir, Lathrop writes that after drinking it, he felt he could "whip all the Sioux Indians on the plains or any of the bull-whackers who had been in the habit of talking back to me. I want to tell you that the Valley Tan was the forty-rod stuff." Of all the reports, though, few were as romantic as that of Burton, who, when reporting on the Green River Station of his overland voyage in 1860, wrote of supping comfortably on "salmon, trout, buffalo-berry jelly and 'Valley Tan' whiskey." My eBay search turned up empty, all but confirming the question of whether the Valley Tan had been eradicated, like some kind of Mormon smallpox, and that High West's small-batch release would be the last.

Monument Valley and the Moki Dugway

On the fifth day, I rested. Sort of.
The road plan called for 343 miles of indirect driving to Monument Valley, which isn't really a destination as much as it is a mile marker on US Route 163, then backpedal, in a way, to Natural Bridges National Monument before retiring for the night in Torrey, Utah, just outside Capitol Reef National Park. Here, I hoped to see Utah as Twain poetically described it, a "fairy-land," and "a land of enchantment, and goblins, and awful mystery." The desert was mysterious all right, this I knew, but was it awful, too? I left Moab early, on a cool and quiet Sunday morning, and watched the sun rise from behind the peaks of the La Sal Mountains to the east. The land along US Route 191 was surprisingly verdant, considering the oranges and browns and rocky canyons I had spent the previous two days walking through. Along a 25-mile stretch of the 191 near Blanding, flashing road signs warned travelers to adhere to posted speed limits else they find themselves the vehicle of animal destruction. One sign in particular caught my attention. From such-and-such date, it warned, there had been 17 vehicle-deer collisions. "Don't be number 18!" This made me rightfully paranoid, especially since I had already spotted a large male near Monticello, his antlers sticking through the brush like a four-legged IED on the side of the road. Volvos are renowned for their safety features, and this one was equipped with Collision Warning with Full Auto Brake and City Safety, a windshield-mounted infrared laser that, if it detects pedestrians and objects in front of the car, will halt and stop the car before a collision. But I wasn't about to test the limits of its reaction. Fortunately, as it was Sunday, traffic was sparse, if nonexistent. Perhaps even the Utahan mule deer were among the Mormon faithful. After passing through Bluff, I descended onto US Route 163, the road I'd take to mile marker 13, north of the Arizona border overlooking the sandstone butte of the Colorado Plateau for which Monument Valley is famous. Entering the valley near the town of Mexican Hat, I was overwhelmed by the peach, pink, red, and turquoise hues of the morning light reflected on the walls of the plateaus and buttes in the distance. It looked as though it had been animated; I half expected Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner to whiz by. After various photo-related exploits, I turned back onto 163, headed for State Highway 261, a 34-mile scenic byway traversing part of the Trail of the Ancients, and the Moki Dugway. I didn't know it when I planned the route, but the Moki Dugway traverses three miles of unpaved and unprotected roads of sharp incline with 5-mph hairpin switchbacks leading to the top of Cedar Mesa, including an 1100-ft. change in elevation. No problem, I thought, I've got all-wheel drive. From the top of Cedar Mesa, I realized that the desert is, despite brimming with color and filling its passers-by with natural wonder, a mostly dull and tireless expanse of repetitive scene. From the air, Utah is orange and jagged, desolate and spacious. But from the ground, it was as Twain described: "so stupid and tiresome and dull! and the tedious hours did lag and drag and limp along with such a cruel deliberation!"

The Saddlery

At just .4 square miles, Torrey, Utah, is one of the smallest towns in America. It's smaller than my neighborhood, and there are more cars in my work parking lot than residents in Torrey. Which sounds cute.
The Red Sands Hotel looked cute, too, though better online than in person. When I stepped into the lobby, a large, middle-aged woman with a young girl's voice greeted me. She was sitting behind the counter and had a phone on her shoulder and in her ear. She rolled her eyes, closed her gaping mouth, and motioned that she'd be with me shortly. Fifteen minutes later, she looked up from the phone, apologized, and welcomed me. Before heading to my room, I asked her where in town I could find a good meal. Her eyes perked up and she shuffled out of the room, returning with a handful of menus from a few local restaurants. "What kind of food are you looking for?" she asked. I told her that I wasn't terribly picky, and that I just wanted a burger, some fries, and a cold beer. "We finally have a bar!" she exclaimed. "It's at The Saddlery. It just opened a couple months ago, thank god." "Oh, so you drink? What do they have on tap?" I asked. "Oh, no, I'm not Mormon," she said. "Actually, I'm from California originally. I was a Navy-brat and traveled all over when I was young. I don't drink beer, so I don't really know what they carry, but they have something like 40 different beers. I usually just stick to liquor." The Saddlery: Cowboy Bar and Steakhouse was hard to miss. From the road, it appears on a large gravel lot as a four-walled, slant-roof box monolith set behind a bright neon sign. Inside, though, I was surprised and impressed by the ambient lighting -- there was darkness, and lots of it -- and the high-backed booths on the right of the hall seemed downright luxurious. At the front was a stage, with dancing space big enough for the entire town of 171, and behind that, in the center of the room was the bar, a floating island of antlers and lights and glass bottles glimmering in the darkness. Kristen, my friendly and accommodating server, apologetically confirmed what I had already observed: a not-impressive lineup of whiskeys and the usual comment: "Mormon Whiskey? Really?"

Capitol Reef National Park

And it came to pass that Capitol Reef National Park next appeared on the travel itinerary. Wherefore National Parks are concerned, be it known that the scenery of Utah, in the areas comprising the Colorado Plateau, an expanse of desert in which contains domes, hoodoos, fins, reefs, narrows, and bridges, all formed by the forces of water and wind and time by compression, erosion, liquefaction, thrusting, and stretching of collected sediments from more than 300 million years of encroaching and retreating seas, is a national asset.
But the sky had loosed its drawers and silvery couplets of wet had begun to pool on the road -- first black and then brown-black, and finally blue. It became apparent that prudent exploration of the great Reef's 100-mile long buckle in the earth's crust, the Water Pocket Fold, would prove unsafe, for no great calm lingered in the forecast. Instead of wandering the slopes of rain-slicked canyons, I drove to the Historic Fruita District, a one-time hideout for polygamist stow-a-way, Calvin Pendleton, and which later became a Mormon agricultural settlement. The community contained a period-specific house with turn-of-the-century innards and a sales outlet with jams and pies and breads; a schoolhouse; a large barn; a blacksmithing shop; a smokehouse; many orchards of apple, peach, cherry, pear, and apricot; and a twelve-mile self-guided driving tour. Park literature warned of the two slot-canyons bookending the tour road as "narrow, steep-walled canyon subject to dangerous flash floods that often arrive with little warning," and that park patrons would best "AVOID THIS ROAD WHEN A STORM IS THREATENING!" "What could go wrong?" I thought. "I've got all-wheel drive!" In the end, though, I determined to leave. Capitol Reef National Park is best avoided during the monsoons of August.

Utah has Mountains

Utah has mountains, mountains in the sense that I am familiar: great, snowy peaks of more than 9,000 feet, not the rolling hills glorified by flatter regions of the country. I left Capitol Reef early afternoon with the clouds rolling in and merged onto the Scenic Byway 12 (U.S. State Route), a two-laner that eventually led through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Kodachrome Basin State Park, and finally, to Bryce Canyon National Park. The road quickly ascended to the Homestead Overlook, a road so immaculate, winding, steep, and exposed, it is closed in winter.
Down the pass, and beyond the great Aspen forest, I cruised through Boulder, Calf Creek (It's got all-wheel drive, it'll be fine!), and the Hogback, which was like driving down the back of a giant, scaly lizard. On each side of me, the shoulder disappeared to reveal winding creeks, canyons, and cottonwoods, and an impressive view of the Escalante Canyons of the "Grand Staircase." I was not yet tired of driving the Volvo, or of looking out, but I realized then the problem with this road is that the small-town streams and creeks in which I wanted to immerse all led to larger rivers, faster currents, and finally, to the Pacific Ocean. One way or another, the Scenic Byway would meander to the 15, then the 40, and then to Los Angeles and my office cubicle. Thus I drove the S60 T5 AWD ever closer home, ever closer to our impending departure.

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.

To Springdale

The Volvo's quiet execution alarmed me. Even when it told me it was going to fail (the fuel light thing -- clearly my own fault), it continued to work. I pushed it through heat, elevation, a river, a monsoon, and thoroughly examined the hold gravity exerted on it. I played with the key-sensing door locks, perfected the audio system's equalizer, and filled the trunk and backseat with more luggage and food and gear than any person has a right to travel with. And it still looked great in photos as dust and mud clung to the windshield and trunk lid, never obscuring the lines of its conservative elegance.
Through and through, the S60 T5 AWD did as I asked, and in that manner, it was mine -- the kind of car that, after a string of non-keepers, you're proud to take home: "She's clean, Mom, I swear! She gets 29 miles per gallon!" And later on, "Dad, she's fantastic under the hood, and she handles great."

ThunderBird Restaurant

At the Thunderbird Restaurant in Mt. Carmel, the sign at the front of the parking lot really says "Home of the Ho-Made Pies." Mt. Carmel is one of those drive-by towns between destinations, the kind dominated by truckers and bikers and runaways. It's kitsch but cute, exactly what one would expect on a journey like this, and often, as I've found, where some of the more memorable food and interactions take place.
Inside, I was shown to a well-worn spring booth and met by a cheery runaway type named "Sunshine." She was short and curvy, not altogether dissimilar from the caricature on the neon sign glowing outside the window. She made small talk and then pointed out the varietal standouts on the menu, and I settled on another burger and a draft of Uinta's finest. When Sunshine returned with my food, I asked her if she'd heard of the mythical Valley Tan. But namedropping "Mark Twain" and "nonfiction memoir" didn't seem to alleviate her confusion. Finally, I asked if she was local, and whether she or anyone she knew had heard it under a different name -- Mormon whiskey? "Oh, I'm not a local," she smirked. "I don't even really like whiskey. I just like Jack Daniels. But I'll go ask the kitchen. Someone in there should know." When she returned, she said what everyone else had said, in every place and every restaurant I had visited, adding, "I thought Mormons don't drink?"

Zion National Park and America's Better Idea

In Zion National Park, a high desert wilderness carved from water and wind and time, there are two major hikes that define the geology and allure of America's last great frontier: The Narrows, a slot canyon that, for nine miles, submerges hikers in the north fork of the Virgin River, and Angels Landing, a strenuous hike providing panoramic views of the ancient canyon.
I didn't have time for both. Information boards and pamphlets scattered throughout the visitor's center warned visitors that even a single inch of rainfall could be deadly in the slick-rock Narrows. The National Park Service also served to remind visitors of the 22 flash flood deaths since the 1990s. With rain in the forecast, and thunderheads billowing in the distance, as they had each day of the week previous, the NPS had predictably shuttered access to its red and orange and yellow canyon of death, leaving me to consider only the formidably dangerous Angels Landing, a seemingly-inaccessible perch of rock that explorers in 1916 exclaimed, "only an angel could land on it." In my mind, no better place existed to enjoy the distinctly Utahan landscape, and a shot of the Valley Tan. At least, that was the plan. Of the two-and-a-half mile trail that ascends Refrigerator Canyon, Walter's Wiggles, Scout's Lookout, and finally, the rock fin once known as the "Temple of Aeolus," the NPS says: "The route to Angels Landing involves travel along a steep, narrow ridge with support chains anchored intermittently along the route. Footing can be slippery even when the rock is dry. Unevenly surfaced steps are cut into the rock with major cliff drop-offs adjacent. Keep off when it is wet, icy or thunderstorms are in the area. Plan to be off before dark. Younger children should skip this trail; older children must be closely supervised." Most of the trail is paved, so I took my time. It was hot and getting warmer by the hour. Walter's Wiggles, the thigh-and-calf-burning section of switchbacks before Scout's Landing, ensured a slow pace. I paused often to etch into my camera the surrounding texture of the canyon's multicolored walls. At Scout's Landing, I walked past exhausted travelers crouched to the floor, and others, too psyched out by the half-mile conclusion. "It's totally worth it," one man said as he led his wife and young children toward the Wiggles. Others had chimed in, saying, "It looks way worse than it is," and "The beginning section isn't hard, and it gets easier." Even a 7-year old boy chimed in, saying, "It was pretty easy for me. But for you, it might be too hard." The chains on the first fin were nerve racking. They led horizontally along the cliff ledge. One false step or slip of the hand would send you first sliding down the jagged rock, then hurtling toward the valley floor almost 1,500 feet below. And with hikers coming down the chains, and a line of followers behind, there was no room for delay or second-guessing. Further up, where the trail appears more foreboding and deadly, it actually got steeper -- and easier. That's where I met a young man about my age, of boundless energy and sweaty muscles, with no water or pack to weigh him down, jumping up the rocks, swinging around the cables, and smiling as if he was on a playground swing. He had one leg and an athletic-looking, carbon-composite prosthetic for the other. It was his third trip up the mountain and he was storm chasing, he said, hoping to stand on the rock beneath a shower of rain and lightning. I saw in him the youthful vigor for life that commuting was killing in me. Further up, I encountered a large family of Mormons. They were resting on a rock, at one of the few spaces off the cables with more than a few inches of real estate to allow for others to pass by. I had been speaking with two Eagle Scout-types behind me of my quest for the Valley Tan, and as we stepped toward the family to allow others to pass, I asked the waiting father figure whether he was local. He nodded, and I asked him if he had ever heard of "Mormon whiskey," of Brigham's home distillery, or of Orin Porter Rockwell. He replied in a piously condescending tone, "Well, if it's alcohol related, then I just wouldn't know anything about it." So it goes. When I climbed the last cable, the fin widened at the center like a diamond with scrub and boulders down the center. The trail had peaked and meandered further until the sides inched ever closer and when finally, the sides met, there was an end, and at the end there was uninterrupted sky and cloud. And the valley below. I sat with my feet over the edge of the jagged cliff, next to hungry squirrels, chirping birds, and shirtless frat bro's. This was what I had come to see. This was the nadir of a 1,500-mile journey to a foreign land. This was where the Volvo had brought me, to a rock throne hanging above a canyon. Henry David Thoreau called these places "little oases of wildness in the desert of our civilization," no doubt unaware that in the future, they would become the desktop background for countless millions of hikers and adventures across the globe. Probably some French teenagers vacationing in the States with their parents, right then, had just updated their Facebook profile photos with the same photos I had taken from the same locations. Overhead, the clouds continued to lift and balloon, and the 90-plus degree heat became bearable and pleasant under the best breeze in the state. The fearless squirrel ran off with fallen bits of my trail mix. The frat bro's packed up and descended the hill, being replaced by a succession of fashionable hikers clad in neon-colored spandex, like the ones you'd see at a Disney dance party. That's when I realized, while biting into my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, that Wallace Stegner and Ken Burns were wrong: the National Parks are not "America's Best Idea." Protecting these places was a great idea, and preserving them for future generations an equally great idea. But the better idea was the road system, like the back roads of the early National Park-to-Park Highway, that afforded every American and international visitor access to them.
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