Friday, April 16, 2021

Beyond the horizon, day three

 The morning was already hot and bright by the time I crawled out of my tent, just a little surprised that the wind hadn't torn through the nylon during the night. A stiff southwest wind was picking up again, and I rushed to remove stacks of boulders and take the tent down quickly before gusts complicated the task. While working, I took in the first views of the surrounding landscape, since we arrived after dark. It was quite the location — horizons upon horizons, punctuated by sandstone spires and the dystopian dry marsh stretched across the barren lake bed. 

This is the view toward the "lake." Even in daylight, there wasn't a hint of water to be seen. I imagined this as a view of the deep past on Mars, sometime just beyond the lunar cataclysm, when the planet's primordial oceans retreated to the frozen poles. The doubletrack, I reasoned, was the Mars Rover of ancient alien beings, who sent their technology to the red planet because Mars was more conducive to life than Earth at this point ... 4 billion years ago.  I love to imagine the deep past, the distant future, distant galaxies. I like to acknowledge myself as an infinitesimal speck on an infinitesimal speck swirling through an infinite universe — somehow, this helps me feel more hopeful, less alone.  

I did take one photo before I pulled my tent down, with the hot sun climbing over the eastern horizon. I cooked hot oatmeal and coffee. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead as I ate, even though I'd already removed my puffy. 

"Today's going to be a tough one," I thought. 

Despite this thought, we took our time packing up and set out for what was, in hindsight, a regrettably late start. I thought we still had plenty of time for a planned 65-mile day to Grosvenor Arch. 

We climbed out of the dry wash, briefly shaded by canyon walls. 

The shade did not last long. The canyon was not the thrilling amusement park ride that I remembered from the fading light of the previous night, zipping through a tunnel of sandstone. It feels notably different when climbing in the heat, but it remained a beautiful spot. 

Beyond the Warm Creek Bay turnoff was 10 miles of this: Utterly barren badlands, churning into a blowdryer wind. I thought this section was fantastic — so much wide-open space that I continued to crave even as the expanse engulfed me. But the headwind was taxing, sucking the moisture from my body faster than I could replace it. By the time I arrived at Highway 89, I was surprised to hear the slurping sound from my hydration hose and realize I'd mindlessly drained the final drops of three liters that had seemed like almost a surplus of water the previous night. It was just in the nick of time, but still ... I was going to need more water for the next stretch. I had the capacity to haul 10 liters. Would that be enough?

Erika arrived 20 minutes later, and by then I'd already become ridiculously thirsty while standing on the gravel of a dusty pullout in the hot sun. She was moving admirably well and not complaining at all. But I'll admit, I was beginning to worry about our pace. We should have planned for three nights instead of two. Of course, then we'd need even more water. 

We coasted down the highway a half-mile to a tiny convenience store at the edge of town. Big Water was a strange place — there were garages and apparent service shops for the storing and repairing of boats, a hotel, and not much else. At least we were here in the spring when Lake Powell business was hopping and everything was open — I'd read accounts from autumn when cyclists arrived to find shuttered businesses and had to fill their bottles with hot water from the bathroom sink at the visitors center. The convenience store was a cramped place with limited selection, but Erika was able to buy two hotdogs and I found a Choco Taco, so we were both happy. The woman behind the counter was even wearing a mask, which I found pleasantly surprising — almost nowhere else in southern Utah did I see people wearing masks. 

We took another long break to enjoy our multiple cold drinks and lunch at a picnic table outside. I bought a 10-pound bag of ice and a gallon of water and used all of that to fill my containers — one four-liter Dromedary and two three-liter Camelbaks, and threw in a 20-ounce Gatorade bottle now filled with water for good measure. For those keeping score, that's more than 22 pounds of water. Most of the containers went into a single pannier. Now, instead of lifting my bike off the ground using the handlebars, as I usually do, I had to squat low, push my hands under the rack and lift the bike as though I was mimicking that CrossFit exercise where they flip over a tractor tire. 

"Big Water is really living up to its name," I quipped as Erika finished loading her bike. She either didn't hear me or mercifully ignored my Dad joke. 

So there we were, setting out with two days' worth of food, 20-plus pounds of water, and camping gear on bikes that weren't terribly light to begin with. This next section could be called the "Highway 89 Bypass," following an unnamed BLM road through Jacob's Tank Draw. The elevation profile made it look not terrible — the segment climbed from 4,000 feet to 5,300 feet in 10 miles, followed by a five-mile, 600-foot descent back to the highway. Right off the pavement, the road shot up a 13-percent grade on deteriorating gravel. After just a half-mile, it faded to a seemingly abandoned doubletrack of bottomless red sand. Climbing. And not steadily, but in and out of drainages, plunging and then rising up 13- and 14-percent grades. For 10 miles. 

This section was just ... so ... merciless. I will say, if you ever feel inclined to ride a bike to Nome and you don't live in Alaska, this is where you should come to do your training. Load up your bike until it weighs 70 pounds. Then push it through this morass, up and down, up and down. Two steps, rest. Two steps, rest. It's all the better if it's 80-plus degrees. Sure, hot is different than cold, but learning how to manage the self-care necessary to endure either extreme can be equally educational. 

It took me nearly four hours to cover the first ten miles. Then, drenched in sweat and no doubt at least six pounds lighter in drinking water, I curled up in a thin patch of juniper shade and studied the maps. Then I read a couple of chapters of a Kindle book on my phone. Then I felt guilty about getting so far ahead of Erika in this fearsome heat and started hiking back down the trail — it was much easier to hike without the bike, so it stayed behind. Erika wasn't too far back at this point, but she seemed to be struggling. The afternoon was growing late. We still had a long way to go. 

She mentioned something about taking the highway back, and it took me several minutes to realize that she was probably talking about veering onto Highway 12 after traveling up Cottonwood Road. If we took pavement all the way back to Escalante from here, we'd still have more than 180 miles to ride.  

"We'd end up in Panguitch," I thought with a smirk. And then it occurred to me that "shortcuts" like Cottonwood Road are why motorists become stranded and die in the desert. 

The red sand descent back to Highway 89 remained soft but it was at least rideable, so those five miles didn't take as long as I feared. Still, it was late afternoon by the time we started up Cottonwood Road. The surface was much better than I expected, basically smooth gravel with a few ruts and sandtraps here and there. But we planned to ride 33 miles of this road before camping, and it was already 4:30 p.m. Erika was cooked. She ate a few chips and dumped the sand out of her shoes as the hot sun bore down. I huddled in a meager strip of shade, stretching like a cruel knife from the thinnest part of a trail sign. I couldn't wait to start riding again. At least there was a breeze when we were riding. 

The road rolled through the badlands for ten miles before dipping into the valley beside the Paria River. The river burbled with the joyously audible melody of flowing water, chocolate-milk-colored though it was. New spring leaves dotted the cottonwood trees; it was thrilling to see something green, bright green, in what seemed like so long — after all, it's more or less still winter in Colorado. In hindsight, we should have grabbed a campsite down here, or at the very least filled up on water. But I was impatient. The road never crossed the Paria; we would have had to hike down to the river to collect some. And as is usually the case in such decision-making, I still had an abundance and believed I would find more later. Cottonwood Creek, or at the very least the cattle tank at Grosvenor Arch. These weren't sure bets but seemed likely. 

Cottonwood Canyon cuts through a geographical feature called the Cockscomb, a colorful and slabby ridge formed by swift erosion of steeply tilted strata. It was nice to roll through this area as the rich evening light descended.

The road climbed away from the Paria River and followed Cottonwood Creek, which was in fact bone dry. At this point, Erika and I had discussed finding a place to camp in the canyon, but the road was surprisingly well-trafficked on this Friday night and most of the obvious spots were already taken. It's true bikes can pull out anywhere, but we were still holding out for a nice site, maybe with a little bit of tree cover beside the creek, perhaps even a lingering pool.

As the light began to fade, we made a plan for me to ride ahead and look for a spot to camp. If I didn't find anything obvious, I'd just ride the rest of the way to the arch in the dark. We thought this was a good plan as we both had satellite communicators. We exchanged our numbers. Then I set out. 

The Cockscomb continued to narrow as I climbed, rising above 6,000 feet on a rolling grade beside the slabs. 

The late evening light was no longer ideal for photography, but it was a gorgeous ride. I could see why this shortcut is so popular. Popular is relative out here — maybe five cars went by per hour. After 8 p.m., there were none. Still, many of the pullouts were filled with campervans. I wondered if the "campground" at Grosvenor Arch might be full as well (there's actually not a campground at the arch. A wrong assumption on my part.) It started to feel more urgent that I find something, anything, while I could. 

Finally, just beyond a punishingly steep dip and climb away from Cottonwood Narrows (I even hiked a short distance into the slot canyon to see whether there was a place to pitch two tents, and there was not) — I found a nice spot a half-mile off the main road. I sent Erika a text message and placed what I thought was my most conspicuous piece of gear — a yellow dry bag — on the road where I thought Erika would see it. Then I headed back up to camp to stake a spot. I put up my tent, headed back to the road, and waited a while. But she didn't go by. Or maybe she missed my text message and the yellow bag and had already passed. It was impossible to know. There were bike tracks in the sand, but there had been others earlier. As it turned out, two others were touring this exact route about a day in front of us. Argh. Too often this happens. I plan trips with friends and then overambitious planning and poor communication leads to us becoming separated, and we don't find each other again. But it was too late to change that now.

I retreated back to camp, cooked dinner *and* hot chocolate (such excessive use of water!), and headed to my tent. The wind was picking up and I could tell the temperature was plummeting. It already felt so cold ... maybe even close to freezing ... although my body temperature usually doesn't regulate well after a full day in the sun. I sent two more messages to Erika and never heard back, so that plan didn't work. It was weird she hadn't texted me, but maybe we both mistyped the numbers. Alas. I already figured she was going to take Highway 12 back, and probably wanted a head start on Saturday traffic. As the cold wind rattled my tent and an enormous powerline buzzed and popped overhead, I could hear the enticingly remote, supposedly impassable Death Ridge calling my name. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Beyond the horizon, day two

 The Grand Staircase bikepacking trip nearly derailed before it started. Overnight, Erika had a medical issue that prompted her to seek out the urgent care clinic as soon as they opened at 9 a.m. I pondered whether I'd embark on the trip solo if she couldn't ride, and surprised myself with wavering motivation. Usually, I have no problems with solo travel in the backcountry. I prefer it, even, because I like to make all of my own decisions and do exactly what I want to do. My anxiety and trust issues mean I intend to be 100 percent self-sufficient and prepared for my worst imagined contingencies no matter what. (I was the type of person to run a supported 50K trail race with a full-sized backpack and three liters of water. Of course, I can also be surprisingly careless in truly dangerous situations. I am human.) 

As I see it, a partner isn't necessarily even a safety advantage, as this often just means you need to address the needs and solve the problems of two people rather than just one. The time all of that takes can cause more setbacks. On a leisure tour, dealing with group dynamics is usually simple and enjoyable. But on a "soft epic" such as this one, with terrain and distance that would likely demand 10-plus-hour days, strain can set in quickly. Still, I was looking forward to Erika's company. Also, I was genuinely frightened of being out there all alone in the fearsome desert. 

Erika, tough woman that she is, was in and out of the clinic in an hour and raring to go. We hit the road only about 90 minutes later than planned. I thought she might be in some pain, but she was cheerful and gave no hint of difficulty. We parked both of our cars in Escalante at the visitor's center, where I requested permission to park while acquiring the overnight permit for the national monument. The conversation with the ranger was fairly humorous. Among my many neuroses, I become extremely nervous around people with any sort of authority, even wilderness rangers. I walked into the building prepared to explain and justify every part of our plan. I expected the ranger would at the very least lecture me on our apparent intentions to commit suicide by desert. But instead, the woman shrugged through my entire spiel until I reached a section near the end called Death Ridge, where she said in a notably ominous tone: "That road is bad. We barely got our truck through the last time we were out there. You might have to carry your bike."

The horror. 

For all of my fretting, this first day was about as painless and enjoyable as a backcountry bikepacking trip can be. Granted, I'm in reasonable shape to pedal a loaded bicycle 75 miles in a day, and for this, I'm grateful for relative health as well as the time and freedom to invest in training. It really is an incredible gift — to exist in a body that can do these things. I take it for granted, and I shouldn't. 

But yes, it was a beautiful day. Temperatures ranged between 65 and 75 degrees with a light northwest wind that was often a tailwind as we traveled almost due south. Afternoon clouds arrived in time to temper the worst of the heat but didn't threaten even a hint of road-destroying rain. (Many of the roads in this region are composed of bentonite clay. Once wet, this clay clumps to everything so quickly it will stop even large trucks in their tracks. Hikers' shoes peel right off their feet. Cyclists have no chance. If you've experienced it, you know.) 

We traversed the rolling drainages of Kaiparowits Basin via Smoky Mountain Road. This unimproved path wends its way over miles of rutted clay, sand, and sandstone slabs. The region proved as remote as I expected. Over the entire stretch, we saw one vehicle — a motorcycle parked several meters down a side trail with a driver apparently tinkering with something on his bike. He didn't call out to us, so I figured he was probably okay — not that there was much we could do for a motorcycle if he was having a mechanical issue. But this did lead to more rumination on being solo out here, breaking down, and what I might do. 

I started the trip with eight liters of water — I wanted to have enough to drink comfortably, cook dinner and breakfast, and travel all the way to Big Water before needing a refill. There were two possible water sources before that — Last Chance Creek (pictured) and Lake Powell, where we planned to camp. I'm okay with filtering somewhat questionable water sources. In my relative youth, in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska, I ingested water out of a garden pump that tasted like straight gasoline and burned as it went down. I'm certainly more cautious these days, but I know you can drink a certain amount of alkaline water if needed, and Lake Powell filtered and treated with chlorine is unlikely to hurt me, even if one might taste bitter and the other skunky. Still, hauling water meant I always had it. Even if my bike imploded right here and I had to walk 30 miles out, I could probably do so without dying. Also, eight extra kilograms of weight is great strength training for the legs. (Did you know a liter of water weighs exactly one kilogram? I just learned that. So eight would be 17.6 pounds.)

We continued rolling in and out of steep and chunky drainages cutting through the stratum of the Staircase. The Grand Staircase bikepacking loop establishes an almost perfect circumnavigation of the Kaiparowits Plateau, at the heart of the national monument. The features of this high mesa are perhaps less dramatic than the slot canyons carved into the escarpments to the east or the colorful redrock formations to the west. But the plateau has a dramatic, Mars-like quality, made more surreal by the almost total absence of civilization. 

We climbed onto a high shelf where the road was straight and flat for seven miles before again plunging off the face of the Earth into the Colorado River basin. This was a fun segment, the first time the road was smooth enough to ride side-by-side and chat. 

The plateau also offered sweeping views. I believe the mound to the right is Navajo Mountain, a 10,300-foot volcanic dome and sacred summit that stands alone in the vast basin south of Glenn Canyon. As the raven flies, it was probably more than 100 miles away. 

The view from the edge of the plateau. Through the moonscape, we could spot blue fingers of Lake Powell as well as Warm Creek Bay — our destination for the night, 20 road miles away. 

Then it was time to plummet off the plateau. This was such a fun descent, carved into the cliffs with seemingly impossible continuity. You'd think there was no way this dirt ribbon could possibly carry you safely off the mountain, but then you'd round another corner and the ribbon kept unraveling. 

It was after 6 p.m. and the light was otherworldly. I actually tried to color-correct these photos, but they came out looking so strange that I just put them back as they were. 

Erika and I chatted about how this road reminded us of descending from Canyonlands' Island in the Sky onto the White Rim on Shafer Trail. Sometimes it seems so random — which places become must-see destinations visited by thousands of mountain bikers and jeeps each year, and which remain so obscure that it's possible to encounter no other people over the course of a beautiful spring day. 

Near the bottom, we spotted a light blue cattle tank and found it completely full of water. Being a standing cattle tank, it also had flecks of dirt and floating moss, but the tank looked recently filled and the water seemed fresh. Erika eyed it skeptically and said something about cow feces. 

"There's likely not too much of that in here. It's above ground after all. But cows do put their faces in it. There's probably cow slobber." 

We both decided to grab a liter for cooking, reasoning we could both filter it and then boil it. Erika would also add iodine tabs to hers, for good measure. 

Once off the plateau, the wind shifted to a stiff southwesterly right in our faces. There's nowhere to hide from anything out here. Erika was slowing down near the end of a long day and a tough week for her. The sun set before we reached the turnoff and five-mile spur to camp. Even with the sun gone, it was warm down here — I would have guessed it was still close to 80 degrees at this low altitude. I looked at the altimeter on my watch and thought, "This is probably the first time I've been below 4,000 feet in more than a year." 

Erika and I reconnected at the Warm Creek spur, then began a fantastic descent into a sandstone canyon, wending through the narrow corridor between sheer walls. It was too dark for photos, but I committed to grabbing a few on our way out in the morning. By the time we reached the supposed lakeshore, it was fully dark. All I could see ahead was more sand, cracked mud, and a marshy flat. The "lake" has receded substantially. We knew there was water out there somewhere, but how far away, it was impossible to say. We decided to follow one of a maze of spur trails to the top of a bench overlooking the bay. 

Mostly we didn't want to camp in a mire of sand, so we were happy to find a gravel pullout at the end of a side road. But it was windy there — even windier than it had been on the shore — and we were becoming too tired and hungry to care. Still, I should have considered how difficult it can be to set up an ultralight backpacking tent in 20 mph winds, or the fact that I only had five stakes to work with. It was an arduous process involving more than a dozen small boulders both inside and outside the tent to brace the structure against the wind. Erika stayed patient and erected hers without drama. 

I spent another 20 minutes building a small wind shelter out of rocks for my stove. That seemed to protect the flame, but since the wind was blowing so hard and I didn't want to waste fuel, I decided to forgo my after-dinner hot chocolate. I actually dumped out the remainder of my cow slobber water (such wastefulness!) and instantly regretted it. I still had three liters but I knew it wasn't that much, taking into account breakfast, rehydrating through the night, and the 15-mile mostly uphill and into-the-wind ride to Big Water. I found myself looking ruefully toward the yawning darkness that held the distant reservoir.

Erika and I stayed up late gazing up at the night sky and speculating about which far-distant and spectacular city resided in the bright lights on the horizon. (It was Page, Arizona.) Finally, as the wind began to lose steam, we retreated to the blissful respite of a warm night in the desert. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Beyond the horizon, day one

Since November I'd been itching to return to the Utah desert, but then there was this and that. Life in the time of COVID moves at a strange clip — a jerking sort of plod that hurls time into the void when you're not paying attention. Summer barged in as the April sun climbed over the horizon and it seemed that it was not going to happen. But then Erika e-mailed a few friends with a proposal: "Want to bikepack the Grand Staircase Loop?" As I zoomed in on the digital map, my eyes widened. This route cut through the heart of it all: the rough, waterless, and largely inaccessible land beyond the periphery of what I knew and loved of the desert. The Great Beyond.  

In the early aughts, when I was a 20-something living in Salt Lake City with nine roommates that included my then-boyfriend, I spent nearly every weekend in the Utah desert. Even in the winter when our Nalgene bottles froze solid, and often even in the summer when we'd while away 100-degree afternoons while lounging in Crazy Creeks in the shade. We'd follow our friends while driving a 1987 Honda Civic as far as we could up steep and sandy roads, park next to a sandstone outcropping, set up a small city of tents, and watch the Milky Way spin over our heads for a couple of nights. 

Sometimes, after nursing the Civic up chunky blocks of sandstone, I'd see a sign listing the distance to the next point of civilization. The signs would say something like "I-70, 70 Miles," and my jaw would quiver. Seventy miles of sand and rocks and nothing else? Who would even dare travel that far? What if you broke down? Even if you were somewhat prepared with a backpack and water, you'd still probably die of heatstroke before anyone found you. Anyone attempting the journey is seriously brave. (Granted, this was the early aughts when cell coverage was much more sparse and satellite messengers were not a thing. It is easier to be brave now.)

It's easier to be brave, but still not that easy. It seems to be a thing with me, that the places I love the most are also the places I fear the most. Utah's desert is the fire to Alaska's ice. Both are wide-open, remote, inhospitable and volatile places that can kill a person quickly. I may be from the Wasatch Front, and I may reside in a region with a nearly identical climate to the one in which I grew up, but I'm built for Alaska. My blood runs warm so I wither in the heat. I prefer long nights, I require a lot of water, and I have extremely sensitive skin that cannot handle sunlight. So yes, I am basically a vampire. A vampire who, perhaps unfortunately, has an insatiable thirst for wide-open spaces.

The Grand Staircase Loop is just one of an almost overwhelming number of user-generated routes listed on I clicked over to that site once, felt almost sick to my stomach with FOMO and desire to explore it all, and admittedly haven't been back. But because hot deserts and lack of water are two of my many fears, I spent as much time as possible researching the route in the week I had between deciding to go and embarking. From the town of Escalante, the route travels 180 miles on mostly unimproved dirt roads and jeep tracks, skimming the Arizona border before returning north. There is only one 100 percent reliable source of water on the entire route, and that's the town of Big Water, Utah ... a town that seems entirely devoted to the storage and repair of motorboats for Lake Powell, and offers little else. The route has about 15,000 feet of climbing, which seems a small number for 180 miles. But as I would soon learn, the total does not take into account that much of that elevation change happens on intensely steep and rocky pitches in and out of sandy washes. As I told Erika, "Steady 5,000-foot climbs look impressive on an elevation profile, but when your day is full of 5,000 feet of 14-percent grades over rocks and sand, it's at least five times harder." 

My trip preparations coincided with Boulder's first heatwave of 2021. Temperatures rose into the 80s for several days in a row, and I jumped full-face into the cauldron, hopeful that it was possible fast-track heat acclimation. On April 3 I took my road bike and four liters of liquid for a 100-mile ride through the foothills between Boulder and Fort Collins, with temperatures spiking to 85 degrees as I rounded Horsetooth Reservoir. 

That went reasonably well, so on April 5, I set out to run a double Sanitas after my monthly allergy shot. Since the appointment came first, I smartly stuck my two-liter bladder filled with ice into an insulated grocery bag, thinking I'd have ice water after three hours of sitting in a hot car. But three hours later, when noon temperatures spiked to 81 degrees, the bladder was still filled with only ice — those insulated bags are incredible. So I only got water in the tiniest sips as the ice melted. I pushed hard up the first Sanitas and continued the tempo pace for a second. About 200 feet below the summit, the heat hit me like a bag of sand. Suddenly I was extremely dizzy and so nauseated that I doubled over, retching but not quite vomiting. I had to crawl into a thin spot of shade for 10 minutes to wait for the world to stop spinning. It was all I could do to limp back to my car.

"I really am going to die out there," was a thought I had about the desert.

Still, sometimes a vampire just needs to slap on some SPF 100 and a sunhat and take the necessary risks. On April 7, I headed out early enough to drive eight hours to Boulder (Utah) and still have enough daylight to find a place to camp and go for an evening ride. Before the time of COVID, it had been a number of years before I traveled this way — loading up all of the food and water I need for a week and camping every night on undeveloped patches of public land. Dirtbag lifestyle. It's actually pretty awesome ... for a week or so. Then my legs are covered in an impenetrable paste of dirt and sunscreen, my hair is a big rat's nest, my lungs fill with phlegm from too much dust-breathing, and my joints creak when I get up to pee during the night. That's when I'm about ready to admit that I'm not 22 anymore. 

I found a nice spot on a ledge overlooking Death Hollow, at the base of a ridge called Hell's Backbone. Such fearsome names for such a lovely place. I also discovered I only had about five tent stakes left in the bag, which became ... annoying ... as the wind-blasted week went on. 

Hell's Backbone proved the perfect intro to the desert. Starting at 7,000 feet and climbing along the narrow spine of a mesa to 9,500 feet, it was 55 degrees when I started and just above freezing as the sun began to set near the summit. A stiff breeze forced me to put on my puffy jacket while climbing, which was concerning ... maybe I hadn't brought enough clothing for the bikepacking trip. I had the capacity to haul 10 liters of water, but only one puffy. Still, what a treat. Climbing through the bare aspen and ponderosa forest, I'd almost forget that I wasn't in Boulder (Colorado.) Then suddenly I'd round a corner to a jaw-dropping view of sheer sandstone canyons rippling off the side of the ridge (some views shown in the previous photos.) 

In 33 miles, I saw one jeep. Just one other group of humans in four hours. This definitely isn't Boulder (Colorado.) When I was 22, I really believed I'd grow old in this region. My then-boyfriend and I even talked seriously about buying a cabin in Teasdale, which is an even smaller town just down the highway from Boulder (Utah.) And yet I've explored so little of the area — just the perimeters, the places a young and inexperienced person can reach with a Honda Civic, not-yet-athletic legs, and a single weekend to burn. I've long thought of the central Utah desert as one of my soul places, so it's startling to return two decades later and realize I'm seeing it for the first time.