trail to Delicate Arch, located in Arches National Park, isn’t remote;
in a few hours, throngs of camera-toting, water-bottle-sipping,
sunhat-wearing tourists will hike the three-mile round trip trail marked
every hundred or so feet with rock cairns. For now, however, it’s just
us and the stars, and it takes a moment—and a bit of concentration—to
find the next cairn. “Are we lost?” Gunnar and Ingrid say again.
Delicate Arch and the Lasal Mountains at sunrise.
Will Home Still be Beautiful?
Our reasoning behind the predawn hike is threefold. One, it’s consistent with our “new experiences”
theme. Two, we want to see an iconic American landmark minus the
crowds. And three, many of the nation’s national parks, Arches included,
have shifted to a timed entry reservation system. (The resulting lines
at the park entry—20 to 40 minutes on average—are an improvement over
the hours-long waits that were occurring prior to the new system.)
Reservations aren’t required, however,
if you arrive before the park opens at 6am, and the lines then are
nonexistent. Sunrise at Delicate sounds great, we decided.
the end of the trail, a sheer red butte rises, hiding Delicate. We
round the corner, and Gunnar stops short; Alison draws in a breath.
Before us, the 46-foot Delicate Arch rises a hundred feet away
surrounded by a smooth, sheer, natural red rock amphitheater with
the snowcapped La Sal Mountains in the distance. Behind us, the sun
peeks above the desert horizon in the east. Gunnar takes my hand,
genuine concern on his face. “I’m afraid I won’t think home is beautiful
anymore,” he says.
for Gunnar is Vermont—in my opinion, one of Earth’s most beautiful
places. But I get his gist: the scene in front of us—the barren and
rocky expanses, the rugged landscape, the color palettes—is like nothing
he has witnessed in his almost decade-long life. Rather than answering,
I let him process what his sensory receptors are taking in.
A Two-Year Delay
Alison, Gunnar, and Ingrid Aiken gaze down at the Colorado from Shafer Canyon Overlook, Dead Horse Point State Park.
trip was supposed to happen in 2020. As both of our employers shut down
and public schools closed in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, we
clung to our reservations and flights. Camper van life might jive well
during a pandemic (especially with no school to miss)—or so we thought.
Just three weeks before our departure, Arches closed in the face of
crushing crowds of similarly thinking people. (Of the National Park
Service’s 419 parks, monuments, and landmarks, 224 closed completely
during the pandemic.) Utah would have to wait; outdoor exploration would
be confined to our own neighborhood.
had been particularly enthusiastic for the Utah desert trip; a lifelong
Vermonter, I lived for nine years in the Southwest. As Gunnar digests
the landscape, I recall spending my twenties (another impressionable
age) roaming the Southwest as an environmental educator, wilderness and
whitewater guide, and ski instructor. It had been my first independent
experience away from home, and my first real exposure to the idea that
the world lacks simple, straightforward solutions as I learned about
issues around water rights, land access, conservation, ranching,
agriculture, and ancestral lands, all central in the American West.
The sun rises, and my family exhales. For a moment, it’s just us experiencing a magical place. I wish everything
were always that simple. For now, our biggest issue was Gunnar’s: the
idea that there may be places on
earth bigger, wilder, more mysterious, and possibly (depending on one’s
perspective) more beautiful than home. It takes a few minutes, and then
the sun illuminates Delicate. “I’m going to touch the Arch,” Gunnar
declares. “Let’s go,” I say, and we make our way across the
It’s Going to be Different
Alison makes coffee behind the van on a chilly desert morning.
rented a Dodge Ram Promaster camper van—dubbed “IndyVANa Jones” by
Native Campervans, the rental outfit we used—in Salt Lake City. Equipped
with a camp stove, a Yeti cooler, a rooftop tent, and a bed inside for
the kids, Indy served as our home on wheels as we stayed in dispersed
campsites on BLM land (that’s Bureau of Land Management) and at state
parks like Dead Horse Point and Goblin Valley.
going to be different,” Alison had warned me, noting that I lived in
Utah 20 years ago. “What hasn’t changed?” I wondered. Back then I drove a
1986 Chevy, I lived mostly on Ramen noodles, and my only instruction
manual was a battered Edward Abbey paperback.
She wasn’t talking about me, however; she meant the Southwest and everything I remembered about it. In many ways, she was right; for example, it seemed the whole world had camper vans like our rental, and
everyone was heading for the hills. The world has discovered the value
of outdoor adventure, and this brings its own issues and challenges.
camp the last night in a side canyon in Goblin Valley on the outskirts
of the San Rafael Swell, a 130,000 square-mile BLM-managed tract of
buttes, mesas, pinnacles, abandoned mines, slot canyons, and four-wheel
roads. Gunnar and Ingrid immediately leave to explore hoodoos and towers
of reddish-brown dirt while we cook dinner on the stove behind Indy.
The menu for the night: chana masala and rice. While Alison and I cook,
we hear the kids as they explore and voice imaginary friends.
Occasionally, they sing.
next morning we explore Little Wild Horse Canyon. It’s been a long
week, and the kids are quiet as we start down a dry wash. The creek bed
descends into the earth until the walls tower a hundred feet on either
side of a shoulder-width canyon. Reinvigorated, the voices of the
imaginary friends rejoin us as the kids run back and forth through the
slot. The characters and voices are the same as those we typically hear
in our own living room among the Legos and Magna-Tiles toys. Our kids
feel at home here.
goals when we first imagined this trip, before the pandemic delayed us,
and before we finally rebooked two years later, had been to expose our
family to unfamiliar territory. To show our kids that they can thrive
outside their usual element. To leave computers, toys, and (some)
conveniences behind. Ingrid bursts past me at a full gallop singing one
of her songs at the top of her lungs. “Peace and love and prosperity and
nature!” she sings. I look at Alison and laugh. Mission