The Great Westward Soul Search (Pt. 3)

After a long delay, I am back with a semi-brief reflection of the last leg in my solo road trip journey.

Day 7: Goodbye Zion and Hello Dixie National Forest!

The Dixie National Forest straddles the divide between the Great Basin and the Colorado River, and it was the best drive of my entire trip.

I went through Zion National Park one last time and I traveled up HWY 89 and into the plateau portion of Dixie National Park. Ponderosa Pine populated the area and the road cut through a couple of short man-made arches in the pink rock. I stopped at a rest station and hiked around on the nearby trails. The Pink Ledges Trail at the Red Canyon Visitor Center had several stops with information on the local wildlife, and I felt myself fall into the “just one more corner” mentality. I didn’t want to go too far, but there was a sense of missing out on something more beautiful or more astounding around the next corner. It was only 10am and I had other places to get to. So I reluctantly went back to my car and drove farther north to Bryce Canyon National Park.

If you only had time to stop at Zion or the Dixie National Forest/Bryce Canyon, I’d probably decide on seeing the latter only because the visual panoramas that you are treated to at Bryce Canyon left my speechless. I’m sure you get outstanding vistas if you do the Angel’s Landing climb, but I am a huge baby and I like being protected with metal fencing when I’m looking over the edge of a 1,200+ foot drop.

At Bryce Canyon, I hiked up to each lookout in the park. I probably walked two miles total at Bryce, but the elevation changes were a killer! It was a great workout though and I hope to be back in better shape so I can explore Bryce even more.

I reminded myself that people spent several days at each park and I was spending four days at Zion, Snow Canyon State Park, Bryce, and Dixie National Forest. I didn’t have the opportunity to see everything which is the downside about fast paced road trips like this. On my next road trip, I think I’ll go for quality over quantity in the number of places that I visit.

The drive out of Bryce and up to Moab was tough because as you descend the plateau, the desert heat hits you again. I drove into Moab during the hottest day there (so far). Every extra move that I had to make felt like it took twice the effort. I was cranky and hangry, so I checked into the motel and went straight into my room. If only I knew that this would be a portent for the next day.

Day 8: Disappointment at Moab and Making Lemons Out of Lemonade

I woke up bright and early because I had another long drive ahead of me, and I wanted to see Arches National Park before I left town. I pulled up to the front gate at 9:06am only to find this sign:

Closed?! You can’t close a park! What do you mean it’s closed?!

Apparently you can close a park and Arches is the smallest National park in Utah so they had to pay close attention to population sizes. Also, I wasn’t the only bright person to get up early in the morning to beat the heat. So while I was disappointed, I do understand why they were closed and I got over my indignant frustration.

So instead I went to Canyonland National Park which was pretty cool, and (un/fortunately) just as crowded. The cool thing about Canyonland is that it is a drive-through park of sorts. There are places for you to park and pull out to walk/hike/bike, but because you are technically at the top of a plateau, there’s only so far that you can go before you are forced to turn around.

It was another hot one when I was there and I wasn’t feeling well, so I did the express visit. I parked at every overlook, got out and took some pictures, and got back into my car. This is a place I’d like to revisit in the Spring or Fall when the heat isn’t as stifling.

The entire journey through Utah gave me a lot to see and think about. Utah is by far the most beautiful in terms of natural topography and sweeping vistas. My all-time favorite video games are Fallout New Vegas and Red Dead Redemption. Both video games are set in the American Southwest and the locations featured in the game unconsciously pulled me to see them in real life. I heard the guitar sting and the lone cowboy whistle in Canyonland. I thought about my player character plodding down the dust-beaten trail atop of their gorgeous steed. Although it was blistering hot throughout the entire trip, it was seeing comparisons like the pics below, that made my heart swell.

Day 9: Colorado Springs Calls Me Home

My last stop after traversing through Utah was to venture East through the Rocky Mountains and visit Colorado Springs, CO. I was originally going there to attempt the Manitou Climb.

This used to be a railcar lift that brought tourists to Pikes Peak summit. When the railcar was removed, they kept the railroad ties and now this .88 trail marks a feat of true endurance and grit.

I am drawn to things that scare me, and when I saw a Tik Tok video (of all things!) about a young woman who was on a fitness journey who climbed the incline, I knew that I wanted to try it. After all, I completed my virtual Korte and I didn’t die. The incline would be hard, but I was on this trip to do hard things!

And then the altitude sickness hit.

One thing they don’t tell you about driving West to East through Colorado is that you will be driving along roads that are 12,000+ feet above sea level. I felt the effect of it after I got through Vail, Colorado which is a small town nestled at the base of Vail Mountain. The lightheadedness and sluggishness through me for a loop. I even stopped at a rest area to take a break from the long drive and I almost got sick. I was sweating, my heart was racing, and I realized that if I was experiencing this at a rest stop after sitting in my car for several hours, I wasn’t going to make it to the top of the incline. I needed to aclimate and I didn’t have the time to do so.

I like a challenge, but I also know my limits. I didn’t want to be one of the many tourists who needed an evacuation off the mountainside, so I called up the reservation office and gracefully bowed out. I vow that I’ll be back! This isn’t over Manitou Incline. THIS ISN’T OVER!

Without the Incline as my grand finale excursion, I was at a loss for things to do or see in the few short hours that I had left in Colorado Springs. I was also starting to run short on money, so I wanted to do something that was economical and outdoors. After a quick Google Search of attractions, the first result pointed me to a place called The Garden of the Gods park. I chose the place at random and made that the last thing that I did.

The Garden of the Gods park is free, and because it was free, it was crowded. Thankfully, I had my trusty bike with me and so I parked a couple of miles outside the park and biked in. I tried to take it easy as I was still winded from the elevation. After biking up to the park, I walked around and listened to some podcasts.

It wasn’t until I returned home that I realized that I was meant to be there. As I was showing my Dad pictures of my trip, he saw my pictures from Colorado and said, “You know, I think your Grandma to that park too.” Ever the historian, my Dad went upstairs and dug around in the archives and returned with the proof (which I later framed).

Look specifically at the middle black and white picture and my bottom left picture.

Dad told me that Grandma went on a road trip with a friend when she was fresh out of high school. They stayed in Colorado and they also visited Garden of the Gods.

I know that my Grandma’s wanderlust and her adventurous spirit transferred to me. Seeing this coincidence was proof of that. Ever since I was a teenager, my Grandma wanted to take me on a trip. Just her and me. She really wanted to take me to Africa as that was her favorite place and she’s been there seven times. Unfortunately life got in the way. I was busy with school and I couldn’t find time to get away. Then I was busy with college, and my career, and then Grandma’s health started to decline.

My one regret is that we never got to go on that trip before she died.

My decision to go to Colorado was completely spontaneous. After Utah, I originally planned to cut back up through Wyoming and South Dakota again. I only went to Colorado for the Incline and when that fell through, I chose the first attraction that caught my eye. It seems that my Grandma and I have an eye for the same things. Although she’s been gone since August 2020, I know that she’s still with me and that she’s watching out for me in her own way.

I took this trip to find myself again after a hellish year of teaching during COVID. I needed this trip to be the catalyst of change in my life. I had to re-establish where my personal boundaries are when it comes to balancing my work life and my home life. I had to remind myself that I am worthy of happiness. I also had to remind myself that I can do hard things. Hard doesn’t always equate to physically challenging. This year, my “hard work” is more mental.

It’s hard being resilient. It’s hard to chase your bliss. It’s also really hard to be kind to yourself and to have faith that life will work out. This trip reminded me that I can do hard things, and I have a feeling that this is going to be a yearly sort of reminder from now on.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from, with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” 

Terry Prachett

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