Moving Across the Country Part 2: Gazing Into the Abyss

After two-and-a-half months of molding my mind to apprehend logical, box-shaped scientific ideas, my brain was more than ready to switch out of stuffy left-brained mode and into a more forgiving right-brained frame of mind. Steven and I were happily rewarded with a three-week break from the grad school grind. Naturally, we decided to make the most of our time and to try and see some of the things we had hoped to see on our way through the country back in August and then a little more. After enjoying a little of what Phoenix immediately has to offer, we mapped out a tour de desert of sorts and decided to explore our way through Northern Arizona and into Southern Utah.

Our trip began in Sedona, which has quickly become one of our favorite destinations to explore. There are so many beautiful sights to behold! We’re always looking for opportunities to completely immerse ourselves in nature, so Steven and I opted to camp in a tent despite the growing November chill. It was a welcome break from being cooped up indoors for the past ten weeks between our apartment and the classroom. I was more than willing to waive constant internet access and the immediate comforts of our cozy apartment for some freedom and peace of mind. Our first night in Sedona was spent scoping out the area and setting up camp. The campsite was neatly tucked away in a corner of the campground that gave way to immediate trail access. Our first night sleeping under the Milky Way was glorious! Luckily, Sedona is one of the few cities which has ordinances in place to reduce light pollution, so we were able to actually enjoy the stars at night. As exciting as it is to live in a city like Phoenix, I often find myself lamenting ever criticizing Small Town, Pennsylvania where I grew up; I do miss the solitude and living among the trees.

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We spent a whole day in Sedona hiking lesser-occupied trails and exploring what other-worldly surroundings it had to offer. The day started about four miles north of our campsite at the West Fork Oak Creek trail with the trail head decorated with remnants of what used to be the Mayhew Lodge. A skeleton of the lodge still remains with the Red Rock Secret-Mountain Wilderness looming overhead. The trail itself was an easy 6-mile round-trip hike with visions of the Red Rock Country part of Coconino National Forest ending in a picturesque view of a slot canyon with Oak Creek winding itself through the water-carved sandstone rocks. To continue the trail through the creek, it would have required water shoes, warmer weather, and a permit, but we were perfectly content to stay warm and dry.

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Afterward, we made our way back to our site with an intent to explore Sterling Pass trail. Cars precariously parked on an all but nonexistent shoulder of route 89A were the only obvious clues to where the trail started. The first part of the trial ascended quickly and gave way to a rugged trail fit with obstacles of many types. We crawled under fallen trees, crossed small canyons, and sidled our way past passersby until we got to the foot of the steepest climb. The many narrow rocky switchbacks carved their way up the mountain for about half a mile and gave way to a view of the recuperating maple forest, which had fallen victim to a controlled burn about a year ago. The view from high above the forest floor was still nothing short of spectacular, but the treat only lasted a few minutes until the lingering rainfall decided to break through and cloud our sights. We hiked back down the trail carefully and safely made it to the bottom where the rain continued to come down in spits and intervals until it was time for bed. It was about 10 p.m. when Steven woke me up to what seemed like a hurricane outside and a soaking tent and sleeping bags. We decided to quickly pack up our things and drive back home, which was only a two-hour drive south. A day was spent drying out our equipment in preparation for a colder climate in the Grand Canyon.

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As we arrived to our site at Mather Campground just south of the Grand Canyon, and began to set up, we realized we’d have to go to the market down the road and buy wood for three nights of camping. Not even five minutes into setting up camp, a stranger in a truck drove up to our site and asked if we needed wood for the night. An angel in disguise! This kind stranger had exactly three nights worth of wood that he generously gave to us. He and his family had planned to camp for three nights, but they decided against it citing the low temperatures at night. After thanking him ten times over, Steven and I couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer luck of our situation. Sure, we missed a night of camping at the canyon to dry out the tent and sleeping bags, but if we hadn’t been in that exact spot at that exact time, we probably wouldn’t have had the dumb luck of getting exactly what we needed in that moment. The universe works in strange and wonderful ways sometimes.

The majority of our time at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was spent exploring the rim trails in the area and marveling at the sheer size of this natural wonder. Admittedly there were times when I found myself panicking internally in trying to comprehend its millions-of-years formation while standing on the precipice of a drop which was more than a mile deep in places. Just when I thought I saw the bottom, I noticed an even deeper canyon inside and followed its course along the Colorado River which seemed to be days away. Limited by time and resources, we would have to save exploring the bottom of the Grand Canyon for another adventure. The rim of the canyon provided enough boundless beauty for our eyes to soak in, however. Thankfully, the park had free shuttles operating for us to utilize. We spent one day exploring the east side of the South Rim and the next day on the west side, admiring each point for its own perspective.

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Once finished at the Grand Canyon, we made a sweep up to the northwestern portion of Arizona to experience Monument Valley. The pillars, buttes, and mesas all greeted us as we roved around the Mars-red valley under the bright blue sunny sky. For a few moments I was filled with an ethereal sense of utter bliss and limitlessness as the sun warmed my face; the scene felt like something from a movie, quite literally. Monument Valley understandably has appeared in dozens of movies and is rather proudly an iconic spectacle of the West. Steven and I were sad to depart such a display of nature’s handiwork, but what lie ahead was just as venerable.

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We traversed through the desolate desert nation of Northern Arizona which has its own unique beauty, and we stayed the night at a hotel in Page. Having gone a few days sans shower, we were more than happy to welcome some of the comforts of indoor living, namely running hot water and down duvets. The next morning was spent investigating Upper Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon formed by erosion of the sandstone rocks due to frequent flash floods. Although it was off-season and the beams of light from the overhead sun didn’t quite shine through fully as seen in pictures online, we were still able to enjoy many of the sights and textures of the famed canyon. The smooth curves and colors of the canyon illuminated by beams of light in conjunction with with the dark and narrow spaces were reminiscent of a stony earthy womb of sorts. The Upper Antelope Canyon stretches only a quarter mile, but every step revealed a different perspective from every conceivable viewpoint.

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Our next stop was to Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah. Our route took us through the east entrance of the park, the scenic drive route. Steep sandstone monoliths and mesas of every color from vanilla to vermilion towered above our upturned heads. Yet again, Mother Nature had outdone herself. The views were nothing short of magical. Steven and I dedicated the next four days to absorbing as much as our eyes could handle. I was surprised to find that Springdale which sat at the very bottom of the canyon was a quite developed touristy area. It reminded me of a miniature Lake Placid, NY or a scaled-down Vail, CO. Everything was within walking distance from the campground from a movie theater and coffee shop to a cute little non-chain organic grocery store.

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Zion also operated a shuttle system that we utilized to get from place-to-place. Our first and most challenging hike was to Angel’s Landing. The trails starts at the bottom of the canyon near the Grotto picnic area and is paved for the first two miles as it slaloms up the side of the sandstone ridge. There’s a point called Walter’s Wiggles that is a set of steep switchbacks winding its way up to the first peak. The rest of the trail is narrow and tricky, and at many points one must rely upon chains secured in the rock to pull oneself along. I’ve never been afraid of heights, but this steep and narrow trail put my anxiety through the roof. There were points that I wanted to look down and see how high up we were, but I’d soon find myself screaming internally at the sheer drop of nearly 1,500 feet above the canyon floor. This hike was not for anyone with acrophobia by any means,but the view was absolutely worth the white-knuckle high-stress trek.

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The remainder of our time at Zion was spent investigating other trails. We hiked the Narrows as far as it would take us without dry suits, and we saw the Weeping Rock in its glory. The Watchman Trail was a quick 456 foot ascent up that ended at the base of the Watchman spire. From this view, we could see most of the campground and some of Springdale. Pa’rus trail was a leisurely stroll that skirted the Virgin River for about a mile and a half one way. Steven and I were able to enjoy views that the floor of the canyon had to offer, especially the Quaking Aspen and golden Fremont Cottonwood trees against the blue hues of the distant mountains and clear skies. Our stay in Zion ended with an eight-mile round-trip hike to Observation Point ascending nearly 2,000 feet to a point 6,521 feet above sea level at the top of Mount Baldy. To say the view was breathtaking is an understatement. Throughout the trip I had been silently thanking the forces that be for each and every splendorous view and for the opportunity to explore this beautiful countryside, and this sweeping view was just as humbling as every other. It was easy to forget at moments that we were still in a desert. Before moving to Arizona, I couldn’t appreciate how beautiful and diverse the surrounding landscape could be.

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Moving further north and a little eastward, our last stop was Bryce Canyon National Park in Bryce, Utah. As we pulled into the parking lot at Bryce Point, the cold November wind whipped around us as a harbinger of a winter storm approaching. Steven and I didn’t do as much hiking at Bryce Canyon as we had hoped, but it was just as nice to stop at certain viewpoints along the rim to spy the crimson-colored spires that made up most of the scenery. Bryce Canyon is not an actual canyon but a multitude of amphitheaters made up of geological structures named hoodoos formed by erosion and frost weathering. Bryce Canyon’s rim sits above Zion National Park at around 8,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level, whereas Zion is anywhere from 3,600 to 8,700 feet above sea level depending on the area. The oranges, reds, and tans of the surrounding rock were no less magnificent to behold, but with an impending winter storm, we decided to forego any venture to the bottom. After a night in a hotel to wash off four days worth of body odor and campfire smell from Zion, our return trip to Phoenix began.

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The drive back to Phoenix through the Navajo Nation of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona was no less of a treat than any of the other natural spectacles we had seen along the way. Nearly seven hours in a car through the never ending desert was nothing compared to the four-day-long trip we took across the country merely three months prior. And though I still felt antsy to get out of the car, the trip was incredibly scenic even driving home. In all Steven and I spent nearly two weeks exploring what grandeur the desert had to offer and we came away more than satisfied. Needless to say, it was quite a welcome break from the routine of scholarly labor. The reprieve from city life gave me exactly the restful nourishment that my mind, body, and soul had been craving. I am extremely grateful for having had this wonderful experience and am glad to share it with others. Thank you for reading.

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