Utah, Part 2

It’s taken me this long to get to Utah, Part 2. First, there’s that thing called “life” that happens in between — working, cooking, walking the dogs, playing online Scrabble with Amy. Shopping (we are working on emergency preparedness). I also ended up with a horrendous sinus infection as a result of a week’s worth of nose bleeds from the dry air and high altitude.

But let me begin Part 2 by saying that Utah roads are wonderful! They are well-maintained, both freeways and rural routes — no cracks, no potholes — just smooth, easy roads. I have no idea who runs UDOT, but we definitely could use his/her help out here.

We spent the majority of our driving time on Highway 12 — a very scenic route from Salt Lake City to Bryce Canyon. The terrain changes vastly from high plateaus to arroyos. At times (nearer to the south), I was driving atop mountain ridges; if you look over the sides, the slopes would drop a good thousand feet or so. (And yes, I kept my eyes on the road for the most part. Not for the good driving as much as because of the vertigo.) Most of Highway 12 is one-lane. You screw up and you end up at the bottom of the cliff.

One of the most fun stops we made along the way was a little town called Torrey. On the way down to Bryce Canyon, we stopped at a place called “Slackers”. They boasted burgers being on the top 75 in the nation, and let’s face it, who can resist such a call to arms? Yes, the burgers were awesome — I ordered a Swiss, mushroom bacon swiss cheese melted over a medium-rare. I can’t remember what Michelle ordered, but it doesn’t matter, because mine was AWESOME. Then we ordered a large chocolate malt to share. That might have pushed me over the edge, because we ate at 3:00 p.m., and our next stop was supposed to be Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder. (Boulder, Utah. Not Boulder, Colorado.)

So, before we get to Boulder, I have to say that the aspens in Utah are beautiful. From a distance, they look like cliffs. It’s not until you get closer that you really see the shimmering light given off from the leaves. I love aspens — they are most likely my favorite tree species.

OK. So an hour or so later, we arrived in Boulder. Michelle had wanted to eat at Hell’s Backbone Grill because she saw it on the Food Network. Apparently two Buddhist women run the place and they only serve local, sustainable, seasonal food. Kinda like the stuff we get here in the Bay Area. Except that it’s in Utah.

Hell’s Backbone is actually a place — a town, you can call it, and Hell’s Backbone Grill is about two miles upstream. The menu was great, and the wine list was great as well. But the best part was that we met a civil engineer named Christina. She was so thrilled to meet another woman engineer (“one of four in the country, I’m sure”). She lives in Portland, Oregon, and she was in Utah (this is my favorite part) to take care of her grand-dogs!! So, of course we bonded immediately. And no, it has nothing to do with the fact that she is an engineer – ok, maybe 5% bonus points. I just love it that she has grand-dogs!

Christina lives an interesting life. She was born and raised in Utah. Married the first time to a real traditional Mormon. Michelle made a point of asking her (four times!) if she had to wear a prairie dress. (“No, those are polygamists.”) Then she moved to Texas and had to deal with being a woman engineer in a VERY male-dominated industry. We had such a nice time chatting with her that I intend to keep in touch.

By the time we arrived at Bryce Canyon Lodge, it was so late that all we could manage to do was crawl in bed. We had gotten a little bit lost because it was so dark and we couldn’t really see where we were going. The Lodge was nice, but no-frills. I ran a hot bath just to soak all the day’s driving away. Besides, we had an early appointment the next day.

We were supposed to meet Justin in Tropic at 9:00 a.m., and yes, we were on time. I had set the alarm at 6:30, and several pots of coffee later, we were finally ready. Justin runs an outfit called Grand Staircase ATV. He offers private ATV tours — half or full day — and takes you deep into the outback, to places where no other commercial entities will take you. There’s another, much bigger, outfit that offers “ATV tours”. (Actually, it seems like this one outfit owns the whole tourist industry in this part of the state.) What we got from Justin was an incredible tour through some of the most magnificent terrain in the United States, AND, quite a bit of history to go along with it. We loved the stories! Utah is no doubt a harsh place to homestead. The winters are rough and the summers are tough. This is not a place for the faint-of-the-heart. Justin told us all kinds of stories about people getting lost, people getting washed away in the flash floods of the notch canyons, people falling into ravines — they were all tragic stories! Except for the one boy who survived a self-inflicted wound with an arrowhead flint knife.

Bryce Canyon was an incredible experience. It was a beautiful place to begin with, and we had so much fun on the ATVs. We saw the Grand Staircase and the Hole in the Rock and the hoodoos. If you are ever in Utah, skip the other stuff and take the ATV tours. Justin offers a tailor-made experience. Some of his clients are repeat — they come from all over the world, and they come back for a three-day tour through the canyons. Meals included.

Anyways, we were exhausted (and very dirty) from the day’s activities. After freshening up at Stone Canyon Inn, we ventured out to “Clarks” restaurant — apparently one of two restaurants in town. The food was good there too, although Melissa, our waitress, threw us off when she brought us our beers and proclaimed “Here’s your liquor!” That prompted us to drive all the way back to Bryce Canyon (12 miles away) to a State Liquor store to buy some wine. They had all of six varieties, although admittedly, they were of a good selection of six.

The next day, on our own, we hiked through the Queen’s Garden and the Navajo Trail in the park. The place was crawling with people — mostly German and Asian — and we fit right in. It was hot and dusty and straight up. (Remember how difficult it is to breathe in thin air.) Beautiful; that’s all I have to say. The contrast between blue skies and terra cotta limestone/sandstone structures is breath-taking. The photos I took will never do it justice.

On the way back to Salt Lake City, we stopped at Cafe Diablo in Torrey, on account of Christina’s recommendation. The food was delicious (I had a Cuban pulled pork sandwich, and Michelle had three shots of tequila). Another recommendation if you’re on the road.

Overall, we had a good time. Would we ever do Utah again? Probably not. There are so many places left in the world that we haven’t explored. But more importantly, there is probably a couple of points stacked against Utah.

First, while Utah welcomes money from everyone, especially tourists, they are not so keen on patronizing their local entrepreneurs unless they happen to be Mormon or Latter-Day Saints (yes, they are the same thing, according to our friend Tom, who was raised a Mormon). Stories abound of scouts sniffing out establishments which are not Mormon, who will never see another dollar coming in from the local community.

And second, nosebleeds. Sinus infection. Lack of things to do except for ATV-ing, and you can only do that for a few days.

And third, we missed our girls. Except for a few small places like St. George, Utah does not welcome dogs (they are trying to preserve the land — no dog pee). The water table is quite high, despite the arrid conditions. Justin was telling us how it was very difficult for the first settlers to find water. If you were lucky, the water was sweet and clean. If you weren’t so lucky, the water was laced with arsenic. And that’s when they relied on the indigenous folks to show them the way.

Much later, after we came home, Madeleine and Gingersnap! told us that we’re not allowed to go back to Utah unless they were to accompany us on our journey.

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Utah, Part 1

Part 1, because I’m not sure I can finish this tonight. Michelle just made me a hot toddy, well, two, actually, because I have caught a cold and don’t know how far I will get before they kick in. I am all congested, and it feels more like a head cold than anything else. And a little bit of an achy back which makes me a little suspicious of it being the flu. Anyways…

At 8,000 feet, breathing is difficult if you’re not used to the elevation. The air is so thin that it’s difficult to even do “normal” activities, like walking. When we first got to the resort, we traipsed a short distance uphill — maybe a hundred yards or so — and we were completely winded and had to stop to breathe. Of course, it was also after my one shot of tequila and Michelle’s two (but it was also her birthday, so she was entitled — Grand Centenario Plata, FYI.) Afterwards, we read the resort’s welcoming guide, which mentioned abstaining from alcohol for a couple of days. Oh well. It took us a couple of days to get adjusted to this climate. Added to this lack of oxygen was also the lack of humidity. Everything was bone-dry. We probably used twice the usual amount of lotion, and our skin still felt “itchy”. I had a bloody nose pretty much everyday we were there. I also developed this weird pin-prick sensation to anything cold. It felt like somebody was sticking ice splinters in my skin. Michelle had a weird skin rash that looked like tiny water bubbles (which is finally subsiding after several days back in California). Fortunately, the resort also provided a humidifier in every room. It might have helped a little — we had it on every night on full blast.

BTW, cooking also takes twice as long at this altitude. Water took a ridiculously long time to boil.

We had arrived at Snowbird late on a Friday afternoon, and stayed at the Cliff Lodge resort. The resort is a beautiful place — well thought out, well constructed. Engineeringly speaking, it was a work of art. Because it is known mostly as a ski resort, there was NOBODY there except for a small handful of folks. Saturday was our “recovery” day, that is, getting acclimated. We didn’t do much of anything except for shopping. But, it was also Oktoberfest, and suddenly the place was crawling with people. There were zip rides and alpine slides and trampolines — all were targeted towards families with kids. We had a lot of fun people-watching, but after a couple mugs and a few bratwursts, it was time to retire to our room. Yay, hot tub on the balcony!

We finally ventured out on Sunday (when we were finally able to breathe normally) and took the chair lift up to the mountain peak. It’s difficult to explain what vertigo feels like unless you are susceptible to it. It’s not a “fear of heights” as much as it is a chemical or biological response. It is a visceral feeling, and the only way to deal with it is to fight it  with a lot of intellectual reasoning and a lot of breathing to calm the nerves. Michelle finally felt that same sensation when she looked over the 9th floor banister down at the lobby — her palms immediately got sweaty. Anyway, after an 18-minute ride on the chairlift to the peak at Mount Baldy (11,000+ feet), we hiked all the way back down to the resort. It took us a little more than two hours, and I have blisters to prove it. Our calves were aching by the end of the hike. Thank goodness for the hot tub! (And thank goodness we decided to hike down instead of up.)

Whatever possessed us to do the hike again on Monday, I cannot say…but we did. This time a little longer (we took a different route), and by then my blisters were bleeding and I had to put on bandaids. I’ll need new hiking boots. I also have one mysteriously bruised toenail. Our calves were now screaming. But, we saw a couple of moose (mooses? meese? moosen?) and a bunch of other interesting wildlife. There were marmots, for example, which I think might be a relative of the prairie dog? Anyway, there were signs on the resort grounds not to feed the “potguts”.

If you are an avid hiker, or climber, Snowbird is a good place to be in the summertime. It’s only a half-hour’s drive from Salt Lake City. The mountains are spectacular, much more grand than anything I have seen in a long time. But aside from that, and maybe just spending some alone time, there’s not much else to do here. If your calves are screaming from the hikes, and you get twitchy because you don’t have other things to do…well, this is probably just a long weekend kind of place. Even the concierge person that Michelle spoke to, said that we would be ready to leave by Tuesday….and how right she was.

But I will save that for Part 2. Maybe tomorrow. The hot toddies have kicked in and  I need to go put my head down on a pillow now….