The desert is flooding. The Boundary Waters are on fire and closed for the first time in forty five years. Every single National Forest in California is closed. The Bootleg Fire in Oregon is bigger than New York City, casting a hazy smoke across the country reaching into Canada. Hurricane Ida crashed into the coast of Louisiana as a category four hurricane and the rains from it flooded the streets of New York City.
With heavy hearts, we canceled flights to the Boundary Waters, temporarily giving up on our canoe trip dreams. We loaded up the truck with bikes and backpacks and headed toward Capitol Reef and Grand Staircase.
There we encountered monsoon season flooding. The side canyons we wanted to hike were deadly with the ferocious power of flash floods. Waterfalls were shooting off bare rock two hundred feet high. In narrow slot canyons, the water was sliding down from both sides they were hitting each other mid air before flowing together through the rocky floor into the valley. In many places, the water didn’t know where to go. It sat on top of the soil and pooled, bleeding into the road. Forest Service roads were impassable. Camping was not an option there. We had never encountered this type of flooding before. It was magnificent in all it’s glory and destruction.
We bore witness to waterfalls that lasted mere minutes and some hours. We set up a tarp to protect us and sat in the wet desert. We watched pink water pour over the cliffs in awe. When the rain turned into a drizzle, the waterfalls ceased to exist. Cars that drove past never knew what they had missed.
This was not the time to enter slot canyons. The Escalante River typically flows at 1-2 CFS and that day it flowed at 1200 CFS. We were not going to backpack there like we planned. Letting go of plans, we settled into indecision and uncertainty.
We drove through the desert with a million ideas and no plans.
We needed a sign.
Not the signs that said flash flood warning and road closed and DANGER. Not the my stove broke beyond repair and I dropped my sandwich in the dirt signs. We needed a sign to get us safely out of the car and into the wilderness.
The next sign was not promising.
That night we parked and I raced against approaching thunder to set up a tarp. Each rumble was getting closer. The sky darkened. The wind whipped. Rain began to fall hard. We dove under the tarp only to work harder. We dug a trench with a rock that led away from the tarp so the heavy dripping water would not soak us in a puddle. The rain turned to hail. Lightning flashed across the sky directly overhead. The wind lifted the rocks up and off the ground that were holding the tarp in place. More rocks on top of the rocks, more rain and hail, and more wind. The storm raged havoc on us, hunched under a flapping tarp on an exposed cliff edge in between two junipers.
And just like that, the storm passed. It blew into the valley below us and we watched it go. We crawled out under the tarp and were embraced by a beautiful rainbow over the freakish desert rock landscape. The rain left the sandstone in myriad of red, orange, pink, purple and brown. Again, we witnessed momentary waterfalls cascading off the rocks and into the Escalante River Valley. Above the majesty of the barren rocky landscape was not one rainbow, but two.
A perfect double rainbow was pure magic. It was gift to witness. This rainbow was no ordinary rainbow either. For an hour we watched it spread across the desert. The rainbow filled us with giddy hope and excitement. We pulled our bikes out of the car, attached the wheels, loaded up and a sliver of the rainbow was still there.
It was the sign we needed to get our asses on our bikes and pedal.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, our noses were buried in maps. After posing ten million options for the last few days, we made a plan to ride from Bryce Canyon to Zion to Kanab to Grand Staircase back to Bryce.
DAY 1 OF BIKE PACKING BLISS
From Bryce Canyon City there is a five mile paved two track bike path that takes you into the park. It climbs a little over 1,200 feet and winds through the happy Ponderosa stands of shade. The bike trail ends with fifteen more miles into the park. The world needs more safe bike lanes! If you visit Bryce, congratulate them on the thoughtful bike trail and pester them to expand it!
Biking is the best way to experience a national park. You can avoid the Disneyland shuttle bus ride, but you cannot avoid the trap of tourists.
BEWARE THE TOURISTS.
Find a shady spot underneath a pinyon pine a few feet off trail. Take off your shoes, drink some water and take it the freaky hoodoos, sandcastles of red, the windows of sunlight streaking through red, orange, pink and white striped rocks. Listen to the pinyon jay’s call and try to tune out every conversation in earshot about whether a video or a picture would be better to take. Avert your eyes at the family’s arrangement of one picture for every pair of people in the same spot, taking minutes to switch siblings in and out.
Your shaded spot will soon be discovered. Tourists will wonder: why are they sitting there? Perhaps I should go there. The selfie savages will come in hoards, standing ten then five feet away from you snapping photos but acknowledging your presence. Even worse, they may record a video of you sitting there minding your own business and not even offer a hello. Give us a granola bar if we are going to be part of your National Park scrapbook. Maybe we were invisible to them, with the dirt of a bike trip caking our faces. Frankly the only way the tourists would notice us is if they accidentally elbowed us in the throat and hucked us off the cliff for a chance to get the best lighting.
Heaven forbid they ask me to take a picture of them with their selfie stick. How do I do this? What button do I press? There’s no button. Oh, I just hold this stick and you press a button on a remote? Great, here you go. Enjoy. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch them check the photo, judge that they’re fat and ask the next person walking by to take another marvelous hot girl summer photo.
Don’t get me wrong, I snapped a few photos. I sent one to my mom and she loved it and I loved sending it. That’s not the problem. The problem is there’s no limit except for what humans limit themselves. We’ve all seen self control is not humanity’s strength. Away with the film cameras and disposable cameras, we can stand there and snap an unlimited number of thousand photos and videos and see the whole park through a screen now.
Our photos have now become disposable.
There’s no choosing what to capture. You can snap 1,000 photos in an hour. There’s no waiting to see what comes back, no anticipation or excitement to see how they turned out. Our photos are instant, abundant, and perhaps less valuable now.
Solitude still exists in national parks. Simply walk a strenuous, backbreaking trail that winds and drops .2 miles away from any overlook or parking lot and you will find yourself in the immense and beautiful wilderness.
The magic of Bryce was in the sunset over Inspiration Point. People puttered back to their RVs, hotels, or cabins and the beauty was the quiet. The beauty was the million year old rocks who danced in the fading sunlight, changing color every time I blinked. The beauty was ignoring the sun setting in the west and facing east to watch the backdrop of color drip into the basin of sand castle magic.
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