Day 3: Alice in Wonderland: Utah Highways & Zion's Tunnel

December 07, 2008  •  Leave a Comment

p1031214303-2 After the Gooseneck Overlook shoot (below) I stopped back by the room, checked out and gassed up. I was excited to get in gear this morning-I knew what lay ahead.
For all the time I've lived in Colorado (some 25 years now), I've spent almost as much recreational time in Utah as Colorado. Years ago I'd travel to Wyoming's Wind River mountains, southeast of Jackson along the Rocky Mountain chain, with the occasional trip to Utah for mountain biking. In the past 15 years though, when I've craved inspiration and adventure, Utah is the map I run my fingers over most, searching for routes off the beaten path. Why is another story, but for now let's just say Utah flips my switch-especially as a photographer.

To say the drive from Torrey to Zion traverses some beautiful land would be like saying King Kong was just a monkey: a gross understatement. It's not a long drive-and that's a good thing. There is so much to see between one point and another you could easily disappear for weeks disappearing wandering dirt tracks off into the desert-which is exactly what I love to do. Today, however, I was on a bit of a schedule. The goal for the day was to hit Springdale before the Zion NP Visitor's Center closed at 5pm. I needed to get my permit, then pick up some neoprene booties for the hike tomorrow. I knew what time they closed and how many miles it was from Torrey to Springdale. The rest was as the Spirit led.

There's a stretch of road in Utah I try to drive during daylight. If I come upon it at night I'll pull over and wait. It's that beautiful. It begins just out of Torrey heading south on Utah highway 12 towards Boulder. The road travels up and over aspen-infested mountain passes, through Dixie National Forest, amidst a surrounding sea of red desert. I'm sure I shorten the Subaru's brake life when I travel this road. I'll be cruising along at highway speeds, see something I want to explore, check my rear-view mirror, and slam on the brakes to check it out. A half-hour later I'll dump my gear back into the car, check my watch and think, "O.K., that was worth it, but now I really have to hustle..." only to repeat this sequence innumerable more times. This is one of the main reasons, I believe, why Annie and Matthew have stopped traveling with me when I make these trips-and I can totally see why. Heck-it even drives me nuts. But when it's there in front of you, how do you turn your back on it? I have to stop. Have to. So I do. Again, and again and again and again.


At one point near the top I happened to look down along a boulder-strewn drainage as it passed beneath the road and saw something I wanted to explore. I pulled over, geared up and headed down a steep, bolder-littered creek bed a few hundred feet beneath the road into shimmering, effervescent, autumn-color-filtered forest light. Some large bolders teetered as my weight bore down on them, others stayed still. My tripod hung over my shoulder and I did my best to steady myself with my other hand, but there was nothing to grab onto. I just took it slow. Finally I was deposited in the middle of a sunken bolder field below the road, partially obscured by forest. It was noticeably cooler here out of the sun at moderate elevation and I zipped my neck closed a bit.


What I thought would have made a cool photograph ended up not. But, I was there and so I just stood for a moment. Cars occasionally passed by on the road above, but for the most part I was left alone in the cool quiet.

He must have been watching me come down the slope all along-but had stayed put. That's all I can figure. After standing there a bit in the silence I heard a rustling off to my right and turned in time to see the hind-quarters of what was probably a coyote (I doubt it was a wolf) disappear into the brush. Too small to be a deer, too large to be any other small mammal. I stayed there a while-probably longer than I should've-and just listened. Partially because I didn't want to navigate back up that bolder field with my camera, but also because I was enjoying the light. The gold and green changing leaves filtered strong, side-lit light straining it into something I wanted to scoop up and drink. Because it was largely shaded, cool hues prevailed. Moss and lichen on the bolders underfoot were their quintessential bluish-green against the dark-gray rock spread out before me like lumpy carpet you'd brake your ankle trying to walk across. Fallen trees lay decomposing amidst the bolder field filling golden air with the sweet aroma of decaying fall foliage. Wonderful peace for just a bit. No road noise, no wind, just birds, breeze, flies buzzing by my head and the distant hiss of tires above.
I don't know how much time passed down in that ravine but eventually I snapped out of it and headed back up, slowly, carefully, until I reached the pavement 150 feet above. Now I really needed to hustle...
I'd spent enough time in Dixie that stopping at some of the other spots was going to have to wait. There was, however, one exception: Kiva Coffee house for a late morning Americano. The taste of bad hotel coffee had been purged and I had my sites set on something better. It was Tuesday morning. I wasn't at work, and I was thirsty.
Kiva Coffee House sits on a beautiful, lonely stretch of Utah desert Highway 12 just out of Escalante. If you're not looking it's easy to miss the sign. Nestled down beneath the road, you can see it on the approach from below (the north), but once you go up around the bend it's nothing but a rock & stucco sign by a gravel driveway. Not remembering exactly where it was (having only been once before) my eyes were straining to spot the long, earthen words spelling, "Kiva Coffee House..." then to my horror just below, "closed Tuesdays." Oh no...

I pulled over and sat in the gravel drive for a moment, engine running, gathering my thoughts. I'd really been anticipating good coffee as I'd pushed on, and now this - this travesty, this disaster. I hung my head in sorrow... Then, after remembering that wouldn't actually re-open the Kiva Coffee House, I collected myself and headed back onto the pavement.
It feels somehow inappropriate to recant the following, but given the circumstances it was necessary. The rest of the drive that day was pretty much just that-a drive. While I passed through some absolutely spectacular land, I was afterall on a mission: to reach Springdale in time to get my booties, and my permit for tomorrow's hike. I sped past the turn off to Kodachrome Basin, Bryce Canyon National Park and so many other beckoning scenes I lost count, promising I'd be back to spend time there.

After a long pull I found myself sitting at the Mount Carmel Junction gas station doing a trash dump as the Subaru filled his thirsty tank. I'd made it. Only a few miles to travel, along the spectacular Mount Carmel Highway that will deliver me to my end goal: Zion National Park.
Through the official eastern entrance to Zion where I stopped to renew my Annual National Parks pass, I headed towards the tunnel. For those unfamiliar with the main tunnel in Zion that connects the "east side" with the rest of the park, I'd encourage an exploration of the topic on Wikipedia or another site. It's truly an amzaing feat of engineering-especially considering when it was built. The net effect is this: you head west from Mount Carmel Junction towards Zion, and ultimately pass through a tiny tunnel scooped out of over a mile of mountain, emerging on the other side to the main canyon of Zion National Park.
As you're driving through the narrow, dark tunnel, there were "windows" blasted out used to dump rock as they tunneled. It's difficult to describe, but there's this sense of hurtling through a hole, emerging on the other side into this magical world, much like, I'd imagine, Alice experienced as she took the plunge through the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
I made the National Park Visitor Center before closing and spoke with the rather serious gentleman behind the counter who warned me of what I was getting into tomorrow. He made me sign a few papers and handed me a small, sticky note parking pass I was to put on the dash of the Trib tomorrow. A quick trip to the mountain shop yielded my neoprene booties, then it was off to Under the Eves B&B, which would be my home for the next 5 nights in Springdale. The fun was only just beginning... but I was here. I'd made it.


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