“This is the most beautiful place on Earth,” says Edward Abbey of Arches National Park at the start of the book Desert Solitaire. It is truly a stunning place. Spring wind rips over red sandstone; the La Sal Mountains tip their white hats in the early morning glow. In the distance, sky rolls on forever from cliff edges until your eyes can only focus on a juniper close by or risk being swallowed by the expanse.
My experience of the far-flung southwest lands is admittedly different than Abbey’s. The foreword is penned in 1967 and laments the development of the park and the hordes of people descending to snap sunset pictures of Delicate Arch. In his day, dirt roads – impassable in heavy rain – zagged across the park and you were more likely to see a gopher snake than an SLR camera slung around a tourist’s neck. In his work as a park ranger, there were days when not a single visitor would drift into the park.
And yet, even 50 years later, a connection to wild and uninhabited nature remains in this land. Away from ATV’s roaring like little dinosaurs, there are vistas in Arches and the surrounding areas where only a chubby marmots skittering on rocks can be heard. Sitting on the edge of a view where I’m torn between pulling my camera out to frame a shot or chucking it off the ledge in defiance of civilization, I feel centered, alive, and yet drawn to check in on Instagram, to share the moment. So different than Abbey’s world where a trip cut off social contact to an extent many people younger than 40 can’t even fathom.
That connection, as much as I seek (and enjoy) escaping it some days, spawns opportunities to meet people I’d otherwise never cross paths with. Take yesterday, a day kicked off at a brisk 21 degrees in Durango, Colorado.
I’d started following the Keys to Freeze crew on Instagram when they’d liked one of my photos back in January. They’re a group of six adventurous people bicycle touring from the Florida Keys to Alaska, a 9,000 mile jaunt to raise money for national parks and have a hell of a journey together. Since the end of February, they’ve pedaled like a pack of rocket ships and happened to be rolling into Durango right when I was there.
Over bagels, I met two of the crew, Rachel and Brady, a cheery couple. Rachel had never toured at all – hats off, my friend! – and Brady was filming a documentary about their trip. I bade them farewell as they pedaled west…and then I caught them at the top of the 10 mile climb out of town, slid open the door to the van at a pullout and proclaimed, “Hot tea, Annie’s animal crackers, and chocolate, anyone?” No turning that down in the frosty mountain air.
Next up, on a whim, I called and booked motel rooms in a tiny town 50 miles ahead for the crew of six. In 51 days, they hadn’t slept a single night in a motel, and the weather was calling for rain, sleet, or snow. Unacceptable! As it always does, giving back and helping others made my heart swell. The shocked looks on their faces when I let them know (at another pullout) that they had a place to recuperate after some tough days in the Rockies let me know I’d done something they appreciated.
I snuck in a mountain bike ride, ripping along sweet singletrack at Phil’s World (put it on your list), and then decided to reroute my route to Zion. Forget my visit to Four Corners (it’s arbitrary anyway, right?). I opted to go hang with my new buddies. Slightly out of my way, exactly as a fresh adventure should be.
I left something out. Abbey follows his opening line about the most beautiful place on Earth with, “There are many such places.” Last night, this was in tiny Dove Creek, Colorado, where the sign into town proclaimed it “A Special Place.” Not that there were scenic vistas – this was a different kind of scenery and experience. In a down-home country diner, I sat at a big table with my new friends and enjoyed the connection made possible by the internet. Later, we swapped stories late into the night in the “Presidential Suite” (as we dubbed it) at the motel. Total strangers united through a few hashtags, buddies born of a swipe on a phone.
I love my long solo bike rides and the thrill of the middle of nowhere, but there’s a place for everything. Tonight, I’m lucky enough to be headed to the mountains of Zion National Park for a little of both. For the next few days, I’ll be hanging with friends I met through our blog and getting outside for hiking and canyoneering. My company won’t be only the rattlesnakes and winds bearing soft voices from far away, and that’s the way I like it.