Sunburns and Arches: Getaway to the Desert

Canyonlands, Utah. The spires in the bottom of the canyon are about 300 feet tall. Talk about perspective.

After fourteen hours–the first two of which we drove through 2-4 inches of wet snow–Cole and I exited our car and stretched our legs in front of a red mesa and felt the hot sun on our shoulders. Montana seemed like a distant dream when basking in the glow of rust colored rocks of Utah’s Canyonlands country. When we had left our house after having to brush the car free from its tomb of snow, we’d hoped that the young aspen trees in our yard, bent in defeat, weren’t forever destroyed by the intense wind and snowstorm that marched across northwest Montana over night. Nearly 900 miles later, we were on vacation–most certainly our last hurrah before Kalispell Brewing Company opens–and welcomed the heat radiating off the surrounding mesas and plateaus.

Joining us for the Memorial holiday weekend were Cole’s college friends, Thom and Jess, who drove from Santa Fe to join us. They are both scientists. Seriously. Thom is a plasma physicist doing his post-doc at Los Alamos and Jess is working on her PhD in mammalian biology. I humbly announced that the day before our road trip I’d finished my first year of my graduate program in writing. I spent the weekend surrounded by scientists -although Cole has a degree in English he was one class shy of his degree in Physics. He’s also a genius. Seriously. As the lone writer, I relished in conversations where I could barely understand what the threesome were tackling as we hiked through the lunar-looking desert of Canyonlands Needles region. I only wished I had my notebook on hand–me playing the role as part anthropologist, part journalist. Who were these people? And what were they saying? I’m asking the same questions about the characters in my memoir. However, most times I understand what they are saying, I only have to figure out a way to translate their words onto the page. I was certainly a stranger in this new land and I was a stranger among brilliant scientists, but they let me tag along anyway.

For both Cole and me, it was our first trip to Utah’s desert country. We needed the mini-vacation after a winter of multiple injuries, starting the brewery and concluding the first year of graduate school. We wanted to bask in sun and rock and, essentially, explore a new territory. Our sight line has been trained on mountain tops. We are always looking up. In Canyonlands, we had to adjust how we saw the world. Instead of looking up, we looked down and down and down. The earth fell away instead of rising into the sky. Judging distance was difficult with canyon walls sharply descending into the earth, an earth where we could fathom no bottom, save the slice of dark green we’d periodically see–the waters of the Colorado and the Green River flowing through rock. Ah, I revel in the change of perspective. How big and beautiful this world is. How old it is.

Grand View Point from our campsite.
Grand View Point from our campsite.

I tried to not get sunburned, knowing my pale sun-starved skin would instant fry in the formidable heat of the desert. The tops of my shoulder’s reddened after the first day exploring Upheaval Dome, Whale Rock and the Grand View Point areas. The rest of the weekend I kept my arms and legs covered and my hat secured to my head after the wind’s repeated attempts to rip it away from me. At night, as we cleaned up our meals and pulled cold beer from the cooler, we watched the full moon rise in the sky. There was no need for a headlamp. The sky was bright and clean and warm. Snow? What snow in Montana? I wondered as I tried to sleep but that moon tempted me otherwise.

Full moon rising above our campsite.
Full moon rising above our campsite.

On Monday morning as we shook the red grains of sand from our tent and packed the car, we said goodbye to our friends, grateful that in our busy-mutual lives, we made and stuck to the commitment that we’d spend time together in the desert. And as Cole and I drove north, our eyes had to once again readjust to a different landscape. Shades of brown, purple and red gave way to lush green, yellow, and white (still snow, of course, in the high country). Instead of craning my neck downwards to trace the direction of a canyon or take in the wonder of an arch, I was once again in the mountains: looking up, up, up. It was about 9:30pm when we saw the shores of Flathead Lake. We were home. And while the desert gave us a much needed reprieve from the stormy and surly Montana spring, when we first crested the hill above Polson and saw the deep blue lake surrounded by mountains, Montana was a sight for sore eyes. Once again, perspective.

Flathead Lake at sunset.
Flathead Lake at sunset. How could this place not have captured my heart when I first took in this very sight in 2004?

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