I had just entered a near-empty lounge car when a man asked, "Hey, what's your T-shirt say?" I turned back to them. One was forty-something, with short, blond-gray hair and a friendly demeanor. The man beside him was older, perhaps in his fifties, thin-faced with half a head of brownish hair. "Oh, Dubai," I replied, showing off the T-shirt I'd thrown on that morning.
"Isn't that over in Saudi?" the man asked. "My name is Jack, and this is John." I shook hands with the men and leaned back against an empty seat. "Actually it's in the UAE," I explained, not for the first time to Americans. I will never understand how the citizens of a country with the greatest access to information can no so little about the world in which they live. Nearly everyone I knew in Nebraska had never heard of Dubai, so I was really starting from scratch in the heartland. I began talking about my life in UAE. Yoli came in after a bit and took a chair and introductions were made.
We were on the California Zephyr for the second time (we'd taken it from Omaha to Chicago), and like the previous time, had elected to travel coach and save a bit of money. I had known that we would be spending an inordinate amount of time in the observation lounge car since this route was arguable one of the most stunning of all the US train routes. And that's the way it turned out. Most of the day was spent there, or in the diner, or on the first level of the lounge car for a change of internal scenery.
The Zephyr, historically one of America's great trains, had departed on time at 9:45am. Yoli and I had packed, checked-out of the Grant Plaza, and gotten a free cable car ride down the hill to the one-room station house from where the Amtrak bus would return us over the Oakland-Bay bridge. Our three day pass had run out, and a kind older man on the car said, "Aw, forget the ticket. It's only a block."
Now the Zephyr was moving through the lush Napa Valley vineyards. We'd been sitting gazing out the windows and conversing with Jack and John. Sometimes one of us would get up and go downstairs for tea or coffee, but none of us wanted to miss the increasingly beautiful vistas. Jack was full of questions about Dubai. Just as we'd be silently admiring the world beyond the glass, Jack would pipe up with something like, "So can you touch any of the women there?" or "It's all tax free there in the Gulf, isn't it?" John remained pretty quiet. He was amicable enough; he just didn't have a lot to say.
The train sweeps along the valley along Suisun Bay, where a collection of weather-beaten old ships from WWII sit looking forlorn in the still water. Mothballed by the Navy, they gave me the creeps, like ghost ships abandoned in the Sargasso Sea.
"So what do they think of George Bush over there in Dubai?" Jack asked.
"Not much," I answered. Actually, Americans strangely enough find it peculiar that the citizens of the world have pretty much united against George Bush, including virtually every American I know overseas. I told Jack as much. As it turned out, he didn't like him either.
"Where are you guys headed?" I asked Jack, realizing that they knew a lot about Dubai but I didn't know much about them except that they were from San Francisco and Jack worked as a pilot for a company that dealt with tourists. Flying around the bay area, I think.
"Salt Lake," said Jack. "We're going to a wedding out there, but it's a funny thing. Though I'm a relative, I can't go to the actual wedding cuz I'm not Mormon, but I can go to the reception."
"And give a gift," I mentioned. "Hmmm." Organized religion could be awfully screwed up, I thought. "Hey, the Zephyr gets into Salt Lake pretty late."
"Yeah, around 3am if it's on time," said Jack. We returned to our outward world as the Zephyr glided through the Great Central Valley, riding on elevated ground above the rice fields, which were purposely flooded periodically. That scenery continued for awhile. Jack made some joke about all the land not being used by people, and a forty-something woman sitting a few seats away cried, "Hey don't be sayin' that. This land needs to be left alone; Civilization is spreading out enough as it is." We kind of bantered the topic around for a few minutes, Jack kind of enjoying teasing the woman. The only irritating thing about trying to hold a conversation in Amtrak's lounge cars is that the chairs all face the windows on either side, so while two people can enjoy chatting, it's difficult for any group to make any eye contact while sharing a conversation. Maybe it's okay, though. Conversations usually jump start in the lounge car and become sporadic.
Jack went to stretch his legs. Yoli returned to the coach section to take a nap before we got to the more appreciable scenery. I read for a bit, until I noticed we were passing through the beginning of the Sierra Nevada. I returned to coach to get Yoli. She'd curled up in our two chairs with a blanket over her. But she returned a bit groggily to the lounge. Over the next hour or so, Jack returned, and we were joined by a couple in their late thirties who turned out to be from Cedar Rapids Iowa. Also, there was an older man, mostly balding, whose job it was to point out the various natural sights we'd see. I don't know if he were simply a retired naturalist that Amtrak had hired or what, but he did a good job of pointing things out. He let us know when the Zephyr was about to cross a long trestle over a deep ravine. Passengers started filling the car now, some practically pressing their faces against the glass to look down. The pine-covered mountains into which we were penetrating began to surround us, and it wasn't long before we reached American River Canyon. "Ooh"s and "Ah"s filled the lounge as we could see 2000 feet down into a valley. There were areas of bare rock and slag, which were around old gold mines, according to the naturalist.
A highlight for most of the passengers had to be Donner Lake. After passing through a tunnel, the Zephyr emerges at a height far above the placid, lake, which stretches for several miles, a carpet of sapphire amongst the pines. Our naturalist told the story of the Donner party, settlers who were stranded in the mid Nineteenth Century when caught by a surprise blizzard. Most of the pioneers died during the harsh winter; those who survived did so by resorting to cannibalism. Scary thought.
Then came a series of descending plateaus. As the breathtaking views decreased, passengers began slipping back to their seats or wandering off to the diner. Towards dusk, we began passing over an area known as the Lovelock Region, considered by the pioneers to be the nastiest part of their wagon train journey. It's sheer desert for three-hundred miles, with only hills and buttes to alleviate the nothingness. To me, the vast emptiness was appealing. I like the desert, it's mysteries. As with the sea, you feel small, ephemeral, a minuscule entity floating on all of history.
The train makes a stop at Reno, Nevada, where a long white banner proudly proclaiming "Biggest Little City in the World" had been hung over one of the main streets. We had about ten minutes to walk about a dreary, dusty station in the middle of what looked to me to be a god-forsaken wasteland. "No way I'd live here," I announced to Jack on the platform. Yoli had wandered off to buy some fruit at a stall someone had set up. To the East of the train there was nothing but brown for miles, with a few reddish-brown hillocks poking up here and there. The city itself seemed like a conglomeration of dull, dust-collecting office buildings and hotels. There was nothing remotely pleasing about the town, and I was happy when the Zephyr pulled out.
In the diner, we shared a meal with Jack and John, again delving into politics. I was elated to discover, all along the journey thus far, a great number of people were adamantly opposed to the world according to George Bush. When dealing with people in the Midwestern US, you would get the idea that here was a true leader, a man or principle who wished nothing more than to venture forth and slay dragons. Fortunately, to my way of thinking, the rest of the planet-not an inconsiderable number of human beings-disagreed with the majority of Midwesterners. "So why does George Bush single out Saddam Hussein as the world's #1 bad boy?" I asked. And plowing right ahead, I answered my own question: "Because he can't find the Al Qaeda network, so the government needs to find a scapegoat."
Jack chimed in, "And why is it that Bush can't provide we the people, and our allies, with any evidence whatsoever that Hussein has weapons of mass destruction?"
John nodded, chewing on a bit of steak. Our waiter, an extraordinarily genial black man in his forties, came by for the fifth or sixth time to ask us about dessert. I forgot what we ordered. After awhile, and all the meals on all the trains, the four dessert offerings sort of merged into one blob of sweetness in my mind.
Yoli and I spent some time down in the lower level of the lounge car doing our usual thing: drinking tea and playing a game of Boggle. We hadn't actually brought the game along since it would have been too bulky for my backpack, and certainly wouldn't have been squeezed into Yoli's toiletries bag. So we improvised, drawing a grid of squares and quickly writing one letter in each square. From the twenty squares, a player joins letters to create words.
Late at night, when quiet had enveloped the dimly-lit train, we returned to our seats. Luckily there weren't many passengers, so Yoli could lay across our two seats while I grabbed the two across the aisle. We pulled into Salt Lake around 4am. Jack and John quietly passed by me going to the stairs, and we shook hands goodbye. I decided to stretch my legs for a few minutes. The station was, as usual, in the middle of nowhere, though I could see the downtown a mile or so away. The streetlights along the track cast a pale whiteness upon the silent train; I experienced a familiar wee-hour grogginess that melded so eerily with the shadowy black and whiteness of the scene. It was like a return to all those train stations of my past.
THE ROAD TO ZION
Definition of "bizarre": sitting exhausted at 7am in a Mexican fast food restaurant and listening to two Mexican teenage boys singing Spanish pop songs to the radio. This isn't what I'd expected of Provo, Utah. I'd imagined an almost Mayberry RFD-like town with clean-cut Mormons strolling around. In actuality, the city has a number of growing suburbs and an extensive downtown. There weren't really any high rises that we could see. But the fast food place was on a street that more resembled quiet suburbia, with trees and sprinklers watering grass in front of still-closed businesses. The Budget Rent-a-car office would be closed til 8am, so we only had an hour to wait.
When we'd detrained at Provo, there was absolutely nothing. No station, just a glass-enclosed waiting area. Worse yet, no taxis, or at least I thought at first. There were only houses, and slightly lower class houses at that. Fortunately, a tall, lanky fellow in his early thirties rose from a bench where he'd been sleeping and asked if we needed a taxi. Glancing then over at an unmarked but very classy minivan, I said, "We need to go to the Budget Rent a Car office."
"No problem," he said affably, and with a slight accent that I placed as Spanish. He turned out to be from Columbia, but had lived here for years. He owned this taxi business, and was the only all-night taxi available in Provo. The Amtrak station was a nightly stop for him, when he met the Zephyr at 5am.
The Budget office was closed. I just groaned as we sat in the van wondering what next to do. I didn't want to wait for an hour or more here.
"Why don't I take you just down the street where there is a 24-hour fast food place," offered the driver helpfully. "Then you can easily walk back here at 8."
We agreed, so here we were, reluctantly munching on a burrito and sipping diet coke at an ungodly hour. The Hispanic workers were nice guys, with a minimal of English. They undoubtedly could take orders, but that was about it. That was my impression, and I do teach English as a second language actually. Yoli disappeared into the bathroom for quite some time. In fact, I was beginning to get worried. The only other customers were two white couples who for some reason needed Mexican food before going out for a day in the desert. I ascertained this from the equipment I could see in the back of their car. Yoli finally reappeared, and we hauled our luggage all the way back to Budget. It wasn't much of a chore actually; Yoli's luggage had wheels and mine was a backpack. I'd traveled under more adverse conditions in Europe and Asia. Downtown Provo wasn't going to be much trouble.
The office was open. I was surprised by how easy it was to sign out the car. Luckily, we had been given a brand new compact Nissan. It even had the new smell within it. I knew I was going to like driving this car. Within ten minutes we were on Interstate 15 heading south. Zion National Park was about five hours away, we reckoned. The landscape was pretty. The hills close to Provo are barren with a hint of scrub brush and tiny trees probably clinging to life. About thirty minutes out of Provo, I asked Yoli if we could stop for breakfast at some little roadside diner. "Yep," she said, always ready for new adventure.
I love truck stops and diners, which have some of America's best food actually. Billboards advertised quite a few places as we approached towns, but one popped out: One Man Band. We took the next exit and rolled into the parking lot of the diner.
It was the quintessential American diner. There were a dozen or so booths, each having its own red telephone, which was kind of funny since you could have easily called out your order vocally to the cook. He was a young guy about twenty or so, busting his butt at the grill, open to the dozen or so customers. A heavy-set waitress in her thirties, with the patience and cheer you expect from a diner waitress, delivered with gusto the plates heaping with food. I opted for the typical American breakfast of eggs, beef bacon, hashed browns, pancakes, and coffee. Yoli just had tea since she wasn't hungry.
I enjoyed being there. For someone who lives in the Middle East, in a multi-cultural city surrounded by the deserts of Arabia, this was a getting back to my roots. A positive submerging myself into that which America had been, and probably for the most part lost. The smell of fresh brewed coffee, the red telephones, the low price of the breakfast (another great thing about diners), the smiles of the waitresses, even the young cook mopping his sweating brow with a dishtowel while flipping pancakes were all so American. Besides, the chow was really fine.
I slept while Yoli drove, after breakfast. It irritates her that I can sleep practically anywhere, anytime (except at night in bed, when I require Melatonin to go to sleep-go figure). I just reclined the passenger seat and dozed. When I woke, the scenery had made a dramatic change. Red sandstone mesas stretched on either side of Interstate 15, reaching upwards of a couple hundred feet. The rock seemed to metamorphose one shade of red into another: ruby begot cherry which begot shades of pink. All decorated with thousands of green pine-like plants.
The only cause of concern was the gas tank, which now registered as a fifth of a tank full. And heaven only knew where a gas station would pop up between here and Springdale, our destination. I pulled off at one exit and drove through a one-street "town", stopping at a little food shop/café to ask where there might be a station. "Oh dear, about fifteen miles away," said an Aunt Bee behind the counter. A rancher (looked like one anyway) said, "Won't find one here." He said it as if everyone on Earth knew that little fact. I silently cursed any place not a metropolis.
"I think there is a credit-card only station just down the road," said another woman. "Keep on this road. It kind of curves around, but I'm sure it's down there." She didn't sound overly sure to me, but I didn't have any choice. I started down the road, trying not to look at Yoli, whom I sure was getting upset. I had nearly run out of gas two years back in the middle of Colorado during a heavy thunderstorm. At least the weather today was perfect.
Well, the road curved, but in two directions. It also was no longer paved. To make a long story short, we eventually got back onto a paved two-lane highway which snaked along some spectacular mesas. We bypassed a giant cobalt blue lake set as a jewel in the midst of a Mars red landscape. Trailers and a herd of parked automobiles sat beside a beach area. We continued on, soon reaching a four-lane highway. As the gas gauge got lower (and the subsequent wrath of Yoli threatening to do a grievous injury to our trip), I prayed for a gas station. This is America, I reasoned. There are gas stations everywhere. It's un-American for a community to NOT build a gas station every few miles. Even if it is the wilderness.
Then like a mirage in the desert, the miraculous Standard sign rose above the slightly ascending highway. With great relief, I pulled in. I've rarely enjoyed pumping gas so much.
Driving the rest of the way to Springdale was a bit like traversing Mars after Terraforming. This alien landscape remained so dissimilar to any other part of Earth, and I felt great pride in it. The jagged rocks and the convergence of contrasting colors, along with the obvious divisions of strata, simply reinforced the sense of eons having passed. I could easily imagine all of this under water. What behemoths had swum through these oceans? A plesiosaurus, such as is believed to possibly exist in the Loch Ness? Those hundred-foot long sharks that scientists believe plied the seas? Or was it as Christians believe-that God brought the waters forth in one cataclysmic movement from beneath the surface while unleashing torrents from the skies? Maybe the "ocean" had only existed for a few decades, slowly draining off. It didn't seem to be of great import as we drove along, for two reasons: one, God had created at some time all that we were seeing, and two, I had a full tank.
Springdale's economy depends largely on tourism. It's a cute little town, not the typical Mayberry town of which I've spoken, but shops, a couple hotels and B&B's, and businesses on either side of a winding road. It was tiny but prosperous. Larger towns further away from Zion National Park hadn't fared so well; their economies were down. But Springdale, the gateway to Zion, offered a free shuttle service to the entrance of the park as well as a nice library, manicured flower gardens and some nice homes. It was all pretty compact; you could walk from one end of town to the other in a ten minutes.
We checked in at our B&B, Under the Eaves. I couldn't decide if the architecture of the two-story home was mock Dutch or Tudor. Perhaps a mix of both. Against the backdrop of a series of rust-red hills, it was inviting. So were the proprietors, a lovely English couple, Steve and Deb, who had recently bought the B&B from acquaintances of theirs. Deb, a slightly plump woman in her thirties, fetched Yoli some water and me a diet Coke. She had been vacuuming as we arrived, and was caught not quite ready for guests yet. She allowed us to throw our bags into our room and promised to have it spic and span when we returned from the park.
It was late afternoon when we arrived by the town shuttle bus to the entrance of the park. Since cars were no longer allowed in the majority of the park, a fleet of shuttle buses made a 90 minute return trip to an area called The Narrows and back to the entrance. We decided not to tax ourselves, so were content to do a marginally easy hike to The Emerald Pools. Crossing a flat oak-studded lawn, we crossed a wooden footbridge to the trail head. The remarkable sheer vertical walls of the canyon (or mini-canyon within a larger canyon) were iron red with traces of black, like giant smudge marks. Great boulders had fallen ages ago and tiny pools provided water to birds and plants alike. The trail wound along at the base of a seventy-foot cliff. I could see hikers that had continued further along than we were prepared to go that evening. A gentle shower fell with ease over the cliff and a few feet from us. We basked in this world of crimson cliffs and walls of granite rising in the distance.
Zion is only three hours from the Grand Canyon (also on our list). But unlike the Grand Canyon, where you stand on the rim looking down, at Zion you are already at the bottom of the canyon and are looking upwards. I liked the varied hues of the rock. They ranged from white to tan to pink to red, depending of course on the composite of the rock. The shuttle bus driver pointed out wildlife and gave us the names of the important "mountains".
We would be coming back in a couple days, so we decided to head back to town. Once there, we visited the locally famous Bumbleberry Inn and Café for a turkey dinner and slices of Bumbleberry pie. "What is Bumbleberry made of?" I heard one woman diner ask a waitress. "Bumbleberries," she said with a polite laugh. Apparently, it's a state secret; the waitress taking our order said that even she didn't know. When they brought the pie out, Yoli said," The berries look kind of like blueberries or elderberries." But they weren't. They seemed to be a mix of berries, and short of stealing a sample and showing it to a farmer, we weren't going to know. It doesn't matter; it was delicious, a perfect end to a day.
THE GRAND CANYON
Yoli awoke at 6:30am. It always takes her an hour to get ready for any kind of day. I'm convinced that if there were to be a late-morning Armageddon, she could do it in a half hour. Me, I'm easy. If we need to be at the breakfast table at 7am, wake me up at 6:55.
Deb and Steve had been out the night before and hadn't remembered to set their alarm. Nevertheless, our moving around had awakened them, and Deb came down to lay out some cereal and muffins on the table. The dining room could accommodate ten or twelve guests, but this morning there was only Yoli and I. The night before, Steve, one of those laid back but friendly British chaps, had given us a map of southern Utah and northern Arizona, so that we wouldn't get lost on the way to the Grand Canyon.
In our Nissan, we followed the road close to the end of town before hanging a left at what Steve had described as a shortcut. And it was. It was off road, but the dirt was compact with few bumps, and the scenery was indescribable in the early morning hours when the sun seemed to scatter the colors of Mother Earth, morphing them into new delightful shades. After a rather lengthy trip down the wilderness trail, one which I had begun to doubt was a shortcut, we merged with a highway which indeed led us into the great state of Arizona.
The landscape alters with the new state. Gradually, the mesas were reduced to mere hills in the distance. We were crossing a plain of gigantic proportions, of red soil and lots of scrub brush. After a couple hours, the world got a little greener. By the time we reached the entrance to the park-which is still many miles from the canyon-we were in forest land. Mostly pine, though. We stopped at a lodge for a rest, and coffee. I treated myself to a sliver of cherry pie. A man beside me, in his thirties, asked if we'd come far. I told him and asked if he were going to the canyon.
"Naw, I was camping last night," he said. "Aways down the road. Then the sky opened up and I nearly got washed away." He shook his head and took a sip from his mug of coffee. "Some of my equipment's caked with mud. Probably ruined."
"Geez, that's rough," I said. "You going on to the canyon?"
"No," he said wistfully. "I'm kind of tired. Think I'll just go back home." We wished each other a good trip, paid the bill, and we started out for the canyon. I was beginning to get excited now, though more for Yoli than myself. I'd seen the canyon in all its splendor twice in my life, so it wasn't one of those firsts. But Yoli had waited eighteen years to see it, so it was kind of a dream come true.
What I like about the canyon is that you can't see the mammoth thing from the road in. You drive through quiet woodland and up to the Grand Canyon Lodge, built in the 20's. I had planned exactly how I wanted Yoli to see the Grand Canyon for the first time. After parking we entered the lodge, a big affair with a very high-ceilinged main room and dining room. Huge picture windows look out upon the north rim of the canyon, but I made Yoli look down as I led her by the hand down some stairs, out onto a generous deck, and down some rock stairs leading to an outcropping of rock that is railed off. At the end, thirty feet out into the canyon, I said, "Okay, open your eyes."
"Oh my God," she said in awe. And that pretty much sums it up. No photo or video or even written word can describe the emotion that wells up within when seeing the Grand Canyon. It's like a tangible reflection of eternity. The depth and emptiness between the canyon walls hits you like a compassionate slap from Mother Nature, reminding you of your finite existence. At least that's what happens to sensitive people. Clods probably glance down into the canyon in a moment of subdued silence before running off to the ice cream shop.
Angel Point is another narrow outcropping of rock that protrudes into the canyon. At its widest, it's around twenty feet wide; at its narrowest, three feet. If you fall, you're dead, going a long way down. Naturally it's railed off at key points. Boulders form tiny man-made piles on the outcropping, so tourists can climb up and get a great view. Some were finding ledges on which to sit, legs dangling over a great nothingness.
We sat in wonder, just enjoying it all. We checked into our cabin, one of many built in close proximity to each other near the lodge. It was rustic, all right. The bathroom was pretty standard, but the bedroom (actually the ONLY room) contained one double bed, one single bed, and one desk The walls were real logs. The only thing I didn't like about the cabins were that they were duplexes: a family was in the other "half" of the cabin. Oh well.
We got some information from the Information Center and set out to hike the rim. We did a nice hike, seeing very few other people, but some wildlife, including some hawks gracefully soaring over the canyon, parallel with us on the trail. At one vantage point was a log to sit on. A woman and her daughters were sitting there. A couple Dutch girls came hiking in, and somehow we all managed to get our photos taken by someone else. Soon, Yoli and I were alone to enjoy the overlook by ourselves.
After walking quite a bit, we emerged into a campground. There was a store, so Yoli decided to have an impromptu picnic. We shopped for sandwiches, baked beans, raw carrots, yogurt, fruit and ice cream. We chose a table and feasted hungrily, but taking our time enjoying the woodland. It was then a short walk back to our cabin, where we napped.
In the evening, with plenty of light still available, we drove to Roosevelt lookout, where yet another vista unfolded. From each vantage point was a distinct view, something special, whether it be an arch or a square rock the size of a forty-story building rising out of the ground. It was easy to imagine images. Yoli saw a medieval castle, which she declared to be her own.
Driving to one lookout point, the road twisted through a burnt out forest where the only remnants were bare trees, an eerie white with black scorch marks on the trunks. An army of the dead.
At sunset, we were back at Angel Point. We found a pile of rocks to sit upon while the sun sank behind the canyon, altering the patterns and colors of the canyon walls darkness swallowed them.
MORE GRAND CANYON
There weren't too many of us out at Angel Point at 5am to catch the sunrise. Yoli wasn't one of them. I sat alone, perched happily on a ledge, bordered on three sides by thin air. Several others were scattered about on various ledges and rock piles. All were silent for sunrise, an almost spiritual hush preventing human mouths from opening. I stayed on my ledge for an hour or so, each moment precious, stored in my memory for those frenetic days in the classroom.
I then wandered over to the lodge, and went into a little coffee shop. A few souls were ordering mugs of coffee, savoring that pre-morning time before humanity decides to be on the march in the form of Japanese tourist buses and families trotting along the rim. A cassette player played the hits of Frankie Boy, so I sipped my brew to the up beat of Love and Marriage.
After breakfast, Yoli and I drove to a trail head I remembered having walked with Dad and my English half-brother Neal back in '89. It's an easy trek down through the wooded path that is used also by donkey and horse trains. In fact, we bypassed one horse train filled with kids wanting to ride a horse into the canyon. The horses tended to deposit really nasty stuff along the way, however, so you had to watch where you stepped. Flies were having a field day.
On a little plateau, we sat and admired the same scenery that I'd viewed all those years ago. It was incredibly pleasant. The hike back up took longer, due to all the rest stops I was required to make. It was the downside of living in a city that was perfectly flat. Back at Roosevelt lookout, we spent some time visiting with a German family that had rented out one of those monster-size RV's. One of the men was decked out like Indiana Jones, hat and all. I was sitting beside a middle-aged German woman in their group, and as the look-a-like came strolling up, she teased, "And around the corner comes Indiana Jones." I laughed. Soon we were all talking about our travels. That's what I like about traveling. All over the world there are scads of people from all over the world. We've become one big ant farm.
We had a second picnic at the campground, and left the park in the early evening, steeling ourselves for the three hour trip back to Zion, and our B&B.
The next morning, we breakfasted with another guest at the B&B, a rather stout looking young woman. Once at the park, Yoli and I spent four long but utterly joyful hours walking The Narrows.
The Narrows is a mini canyon which splits off into two or three directions. I believe it to be possible to walk for more than a day if you do the whole route. Actually most of the year there is too much water to go any appreciable distance, but this time of year, with drought hitting much of the United States, the water levels were low.
It's a mile hike to the entrance of the narrows. That means that a lot of the tourists on the bus make it to the entrance of the Narrows and after a quick wade into the Virgin River, turn around and return to the shuttle bus. Yoli and I, along with a dozen other intrepid explorers, waded into the calf-deep water, which was quite cold. Bearing it, we walked over pebbles and small smooth stones through the stream, surrounded by the straight-up cliffs. The stream meandered. There were twists and turns, and at its widest the canyon stretched out to a width of fifty feet or so. There was dry land to walk upon; we weren't always in the water. There were even a couple little hills, and huge boulders measuring fifteen to twenty feet in diameter. On one of these we had a little break, snacking on trail mix and water. The deepest water was thigh deep, but we eventually came to a point where a mini rapids over some boulders and a couple fallen tree branches blocked the onward journey. One Australian man managed to hoist himself up an intimidating and slippery boulder. He gave me a hand up, and after a little work crossing other boulders, felt like we had entered the land of the lost. Yoli and a couple others, including a young German woman, couldn't make it. "I'll just wander up ahead a bit and come back," I shouted back to Yoli, who stood at the edge of a pond.
I walked along alone, half expecting to see a dinosaur come charging around the bend. That is until this family with two children caught up to me. We made it after about ten minutes to yet another barrier. A larger six-foot waterfall cascaded into a pool over a series of boulders. A log was half standing against a slippery side of the cliff, and believe it or not, one of the kids climbed the thing, managing to scamper across the rock without breaking his neck. The mom and dad, fools or extremely brave, decided to follow junior. I figured it was time to return to civilization.
It was a long day, but one of the best. After four hours of traipsing over stones through a river, your feet were thoroughly soaked and still felt as if water was moving around them. They were dry by the time we returned to the B&B, where I collected up my laundry and went to the little laundromat near Bumbleberry's. Yoli waited while I washed the clothes. It wasn't too exciting. In the evening, we chatted with Steve, Deb, and Steve's teenage son visiting from England. We talked a bit of politics and more of travel, including an arduous hike they had made that morning in the park. When Yoli mentioned we were from Nebraska, Steve jokingly asked, "Oh. Is anyone still living there?"
BRYCE NATIONAL PARK
Bryce remains unique. It's very eerie rock formations, and the shades of pink make it a great place to walk. It doesn't take long to actually reach the bottom, not that we got that far. The day was hot and we were already tired from having driven for two hours from Zion. We spent most of the day either hiking or driving to some of the vantage points. I napped in the car once. And at one stop, while Yoli and I were sitting on flat rocks overlooking the entire canyon with its wildly shaped pillars of red sandstone, I gave her a gold ring that I had purchased in the Gold Souk in Dubai.
We had a nice picnic, though I had to twice take cartons of milk back into this little general store because the milk had gone bad. I eventually grabbed a diet Coke instead.
In the early evening we strolled on a easily descending trail that was devoid of human traffic. Even better, the air had cooled so that it was doubly enjoyable to walk slowly on this weird world. Gnarled trees empty of leaves and other trees with odd-shaped leaves decorated the plethora of dune-like hills. We sat at one point just listening to all the utter silence.
The drive back was long, and for the most part enjoyable. There was a scary moment when some screwball in an RV wouldn't let us pass on a country road. When I started to, he sort of veered over as if to hit us. To this day, I believe he was either drunk or crazy, or perhaps both. America and her nuts.
We skirted low mountains and crossed broad plains bearing crops. Then we hit Interstate 15 and drove on and on, taking turns driving. When we got to the exit for One Man Band, I happily took it. The diner was hopping; unfortunately with loads of kids who had been playing baseball. A couple of harried mothers were with them. The waitress maintained her good nature though a few orders were being messed up. The cook, the same young guy, moved like lightning, flipping, tossing, throwing, patting. I managed to get a free scone for dessert. One was just sitting on the counter, and when I asked how long it would take to get one, the waitress good naturedly picked up the plate and handed it to me. Before we left, I thanked the waitress, assuring her that no one had come further than me to visit their diner. "Dubai," I said, and explained where it was. "My goodness," she laughed. "That's for sure."
We entered Provo at night and found a cheap motel, run by an Indian couple, of course. I returned the rental car to the office, surprised to find a young guy still working after hours. It was a bit of luck. He drove me in the same car back to the motel. I called the Columbian taxi driver and arranged for an early early morning pick up, to which he was quite amenable.
CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR, PROVO TO OMAHA
An hour before the train arrived, we were at the station. The Zephyr was late. So in the pre-dawn hours of a humid morning, we sat in the taxi van, the Columbian (named Joseph as we found out) groggily recounting his early days of marriage and living next to the railroad tracks. "I wondered why the rent was so cheap," said Joseph in that thick Columbian accent. "And then, wow, I found out at three o clock in the morning when the train roared by. Man, I thought it was an earthquake at first. Those were hard months." Then, he related a story about a man who wanted to be driven by Joseph all the way to North Carolina, promising $2,000, payment upon arrival. "I said, 'No way, how do I know you're gonna pay?' Oh, he was weird."
The train showed up after a long wait, and it felt good to get to our sleeper. After breakfast in the diner, we just hung out in our cabin. When we did go up to the observation lounge, we were entering the Rockies. For hours we viewed the scenery, and chatted to other passengers. In Grand Junction Colorado, at a stop, Yoli bought some fresh peaches. Our car attendant was a funny black guy in his fifties, short and squat, who complained incessantly about the stupidity of Amtrak management, after I'd asked him at one of the stops.
We dined at lunch with two women, one in her forties, a businesswoman from the northwest, and a petite woman in her late sixties. The old gal was pretty silent through the meal, until we started talking about Omaha. I told the woman from Seattle that Omaha didn't have much, to which the old woman piped up, "We got nothin'" She lowered her head as if to whisper, and with a chuckle, repeated, "Nooothing!" Then she got started on a story about her sister, who was traveling with her now. "I had to push her up to her berth since they don't got no ladders, and man, I was pushin' her behind when she let out this loud fart! Oh my God! I started laughing, and then looked out into the hall to see if anyone was lookin', and oh man, she did it again!" She thought this was hysterical and kept shaking with laughter. Yoli was giggling.
In the lounge car, I met Stu, a hulking man who looked a bit like Rush Limbaugh. He was fairly conservative too, though he didn't like Bush. I met him again while he was "exercising", walking from car to car, one end of the train to the other. We chatted quite a bit throughout the evening, and he joined Yoli and I and some quiet old guy at dinner. I remember we sat at a table across from a father with three kids. He was asking all kinds of nature and science questions, like it was a quiz or something.
Around 10pm we pulled into downtown Denver. We got to disembark and hang around the station for about twenty minutes. The car attendant and I were standing next to our sleeper car along with a Finnish man and his son who were traveling around the States. The car attendant started telling this story about how he'd gotten rich working for a wealthy man, and that he had lived in Denmark for several years, and how his sons, now grown, owned Mercedes. I found it difficult to believe that a worker with Amtrak was secretly wealthy, but who knows. I think the Finnish guy was skeptical. To him and his son, this slightly weird American black man must have been pure entertainment.
Our last night on the Zephyr was the bumpiest. In my upper berth, there were a couple times when I was sure that we'd derailed. Scary stuff. But in the morning, we had breakfast in the diner just as we pulled into Lincoln's quaint little downtown station. Afterwards, we spent our last half hour in our sleeper, gazing at the cornfields of Nebraska until we began passing through industrial Omaha. Soon, the three towers of downtown Omaha came into view, and the Zephyr came to a halt, back in Omaha, Nebraska. We were home.