Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Utah Saga: Saluting the general

Always make an effort to talk to strangers when traveling. 

You just never truly know what encounters you'll have when you're wandering around solo. Conversations with strangers turn into lengthy, high-quality caches of inspiring dialogue. Creative storytelling erupts and peaks.I had just finished a hike through Bryce Canyon National Park's coral-colored hoodoos at sunset and met Ben in the trailhead parking lot. He caught on to me gawking over this big, white van backed into a spot near the pines. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Ben stuck out his hand for a shake and proudly gave me the rundown of his prized gem: The General.

I'd guess the vast majority of people buy cars as a dependable method of transport from point a to point b. While there's nothing wrong with that concept at all, there's that ounce of emotion that attracts us to get behind the wheel and drive. For hours, days, weeks and even months; seeking adventure across the globe. Finding freedom and breaking away from the normal daily grind. I've always thought that life is better spent on the go, traveling around, seeing new places, meeting different people and just trying out things for the first time. The automobile makes all of that possible.

"She's America's first, female general!" Ben joked as he slammed the back barn doors of his old Ford E-250. He had purchased the once-cargo van up in Canada where his father, a commercial truck mechanic, helped him outfit it for weeks of road tripping to multiple National Parks. Like me, Ben was exploring the infamous Utah 5 (Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands). "You want the tour yeah?" he asked and took me around to the front, he opened the passenger door. "Dude you've actually got a love seat in there," I said. "Yeah it's fucking brilliant, I can just throw a laptop up on the dash and watch a movie." The General also has trees elaborately painted on both sides. That's the benefit of owning an older cargo van, those blank empty panels turn into canvasses of art. Ben offered to pawn off The General on me for a few grand and had I not been committed to this rental car, rolling in a heavier bank account and student loan debt- I probably would have snatched the keys from his hand and drove her home to Wisconsin. Tempting, so, so tempting, Ben.

We shared tips and stories from our adventures out west in Utah, agreed that camping for free on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land was the way to go and parted ways. Two days later, I caught up with Ben yet again at Zion National Park. Hearing from a distance the rumble of The General's tired V8, he pulled into the park headquarters lot. I had just finished hiking The Narrows, in knee-deep, freezing cold water, but I was high on adrenaline. Ben rolled down his window when I waved at him. He was ecstatic about finally having the chance to pay for a hot shower. When I told him I showered for free at Bryce Canyon, he laughingly yelled "Smart you lucky bastard!" and sped off. The General had set Ben free.

Everyone in their pursuit of wanderlust has some kind of a unique, intriguing backstory. I often saw camper vans, minivans, station wagons with fully-loaded roof racks, old pickups and rugged SUVs being lived out of, nearly everywhere I traveled out here. They'd be all parked next to each other each night in National Park lots, circled around a fire pit on National Forest lands, or sitting side-by-side at the nearest truck stop in the early hours of the morning. That vagabond spirit was high in Utah's brisk air.

Days earlier at Canyonlands, I returned from my backpacking site in The Needles and met Tim, a semi-retired Cabinet maker from Nashville, Tennessee. He had been coming out west here to Canyonlands National Park since the 1980s, in a tow-behind camper. He's an avid amateur archaeologist and has had pretty good luck. Burial areas with human skeletons, relics, and fragile pieces of art. He even unearthed North America's "oldest discovered shoe," all in this magical mysterious desert he explained. At Capitol Reef National Park days later, an orange Honda Element with a Norwegian flag in place of the front license plate was parked at a trailhead. Inside, the Element had been transformed into a house on wheels, its owner sitting under the rear liftgate lacing his hiking boots as he gazed upon the Reef's massive rock domes.

Then there's Pat and Martin from England, who I met while hiking in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a couple of rock climbers in their sixties who had outfitted a Dodge Grand Caravan with hardwood floors, pull-out kitchen, and a big, comfy bed. Diving into the conversation, I asked jokingly what they had thought of the ritzy, multi-million dollar RVs we keep seeing driving around. "Yuck, we'll stick with our van," Pat confidently replied. After tackling Utah's national park system, the duo was heading to Vegas, to climb at Red Rocks. They too had found freedom on the road in their own way.

I spent ten days in Utah visiting all its National Parks and outdoor spectacles as I could. I lived out of the back of my new Mitsubishi Outlander Sport rental car. It was fun, cheap, and challenging. I camped out or backpacked seven nights under the stars and slept in the car the other two, often due to harsh weather or just being too exhausted to pitch a tent in the dark. Let's be honest, that sucks to do after a dozen miles of hiking in the burning Moab sun. My daily routine usually consisted of waking up, taking down my tent, cooking a quick breakfast over the stove, glancing over my guidebook, and hitting the road for the next destination. I had no real timeline, I'd just get there when I could. After a day of adventuring, I'd get back in the driver's seat and set out into the deep night to find a place to sleep. Often times it was free, in a National Recreation Area or other BLM land. Sometimes it was in the back corner of a truck stop, the subtle idling of semi-trucks overnight substituting as a lullaby. Often times I'd be the only one out there, not a single car or light in sight for dozens of miles. Tranquility at its finest and dosage of serenity to really give you the chills. I had front-row seats to Utah's unreal, star-lit sky every single night as Nirvana's acoustic "Unplugged in New York" album gently played on my iPod. I felt free.