Ok so I’ve gotta admit… as Jim and I headed from Moab to the Salt Lake City airport with our buddy Scott, after a tremendous week of kayaking down the Green River through some of Utah’s most beautiful canyons, my inner voice was aggressively second guessing… well, ME.
“What are you doingggg??” it pestered. As the guys headed back east for work, my plan was to stay an extra two weeks to meander around the state car camping. Then I would drive to Denver, where Jim had a meeting scheduled, to meet him and our kids for Mother’s Day. “You’ve had such a great time together and why on earth aren’t you leaving, too? Who thought this is a good idea? Tell me again… WHERE are you gonna sleep?!”
I felt a little sick to my stomach and seriously considered booking a last-second flight to go with them. My pride, however, was obstinate.
“You’ve already talked up how great this is going to be… and what an ADVENTURER you are. This is a rare chance to explore like this. You can’t back out now!”
Feeling conflicted but smiling bravely, I dropped them at the curb and waved goodbye. Then the most remarkable thing happened. As if a switch had been flipped, I suddenly felt energized! It was liberating to pull away from the curb with zero pressure to be anywhere at a particular time. No one was waiting for me and I only had vague, stress-free plans for the journey ahead. My smile deepened and finally felt real. Plugging my first stop, Antelope Island, into the GPS, I patted my camera and headed north. I knew there would be bison and a beautiful sunset reflected across the salt lake’s dazzling sheen to make the drive worthwhile!
Sure enough, the scenery there was beautiful. Time and again I pulled to the curb, not worrying about annoying anyone or killing a schedule if I did a u-turn and hung out until I got the shot I knew could happen. Unlike the last time I’d been there, little clouds of frenzied insects buzzed around me, so I grabbed my images as best I could and then raced back to the car. I was mesmerized by the light and peaceful reflections and scurried into place to shoot herds of buffalo grazing at the shoreline far beyond me.
Rather than wait for darkness, I made the decision to head back south toward Arches National Park and beyond to Moab. BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands are public, so basically owned and funded by us as taxpayers, and it’s legal to park/camp there—typically without cost. I wasn’t sure exactly how to find the BLM lands, mind you. Getting close seemed to be the best first step and onward I drove.
The first night turned out to be a mess. Despite meeting a park ranger at the gas pump (I basically saw her and stalked her for a map, but she was super gracious and pointed out all of the good BLM spots), I decided to camp out the first night in the rear parking lot of a Pizza Hut. At least people would be around, right? Well that was silly. I pulled in and began to set up my sleeping arrangement, trying not to look too obvious. I inflated my backseat air mattress (one of my favorite Amazon purchases EVER since it gives me the ability to drive solo and cozily sleep when necessary), set up my wool blanket window screen and crawled into the backseat.
Bright lights and a generator nearby proved sleep was not going to happen—plus I was pretty nervous that I’d doze off and be towed. A restaurant employee made several trips past me, rumbling rolling trash cans to the dumpster. Each time I would lean up, peer out my window surreptitiously and then slide back onto my pillow. Finally the restaurant closed and it was just me and my absolute insomnia.
I must’ve moved my car five times that night. From the Pizza Hut I moved to the grocery store. Then in the wee hours I decided heck I’d just go on to a BLM campground marked on the ranger’s map. Since it was so late, I didn’t want my headlights to wake up other campers, so I just parked along the entrance dirt road. Again I worried about someone knocking on my window and telling me to move. It was about 2 a.m. and still I was wide awake, feeling ridiculous and frustrated.
Then I glanced up. Holy moly. The Milky Way was arching above my car, clear as a bell! Unlike my stint on the Green River, I had total cell signal and the ability to Google the camera settings I needed to capture its glory. I scrambled outside to set up my tripod and shot images for the next half hour, beaming.
Deciding sleep just wasn’t going to happen, I opted to move yet again. I knew I wanted to capture sunrise nearby at Mesa Arch, a famed location for photographers and gawkers alike. Wouldn’t it be great if I could find it in the dark and shoot the Milky Way there, too? Haha these are the thoughts at 3 a.m. of a delirious woman.
Fortune smiled on me and my GPS took me straight to the trailhead. With my camera backpack in tow and using my cell phone light, I made my way haltingly along the trail. I’d been relieved to discover I wasn’t the only photographer with the idea and there were a few veterans, both male and female, milling around the parking lot and trail. One who was leaving after shooting the Milky Way told me the exact spot I’d need to capture sunrise, so I set my tripod in that position, then returned to my car for the night’s first shuteye.
As dawn neared, the parking lot began to fill with a horde of eager photographers and I returned to claim my spot, unchallenged. It was worth every moment of the night’s restless uncertainty.
That success fueled me and I plotted my next destination. Ultimately I wanted to end up back at Moab for an upcoming weekend women’s event I’d been eying (and begging my way into), but first I’d make a circuit of the lower corners of Utah. I headed to Monument Valley, an iconic Indian-owned park in the southeastern corner of the state. Intending to car camp, I booked a $20 campsite inside the park (after also paying the park entry fee).
Out of curiosity, I wandered down to the actual site assigned to me and WOW! I was stunned to discover I’d scored a spot directly in front of the famed mittons! Scrambling, I pulled my tent gear out of the car and set up the ultimate photography base camp. Then I leisurely prepared dinner on the Jetboil stove I’d borrowed from Scott after the kayaking adventure. Gradually the campground filled with families and other photographers, but I had the best spot of them all. Capturing iconic images, merely leaning out of my tent flap, was a piece of cake!
The next morning it was tempting to stay another night and traverse the park’s many glories, but I really wanted to squeeze in Antelope Canyon and Zion National Park before doubling back to Moab in a couple of days. After showering using the campground facilities, back on the road I went.
Now I had a system and it was working for me. My cozy backseat air mattress and sleeping bag stayed in place, with my camera gear in the front seat and my duffels for tent gear, clothes and food alongside my extra water in the hatchback. I kept a headlamp and handy dandy pee funnel/wet wipes within reach for early morning nature calls. Voila!
Zion National Park was a new challenge for me. I’d set my goals on conquering Angel’s Landing, an arduous trek up switchbacks and steep ascents to a spectacular (and once again iconic) view. Not confident I could do it with others, since I tend to be slowww and hold everyone back, I definitely wanted to try it while alone. I’d done my homework and knew most people complete the roundtrip hike within six hours (some far less, of course), so I planned eight. I’d be the first person in line for the park shuttle at the visitor center—and I was.
Again I camped on BLM land, simply pulling to the side of the road until morning. Yes as a woman traveling alone I stay watchful and was fully prepared to drive away if a problem surfaced. I don’t say that flippantly—I understand the risks. I take what precautions I can.
As morning arrived, I felt nervously excited. I knew I could do this… whatever “this” turned out to be. When the shuttle dropped me off at the trailhead with other hikers, I quickly fell into step and slowed to the back of the pack. Fortunately I met a woman who was somewhat overweight and struggling. Encouraging her took my mind from my own sluggish pace and we rested often. In time we were passed by those early hikers already returning downhill. Yep… I’m slow. Given time, I get where I wanna be!
Eventually I reached the portion of the trail where many people peel off and turn back. It’s necessary to grip chains up a harrowing cliffside path. Oddly enough this is my sweet spot! I love the thrill of heights and felt the adrenaline of nearing the top. When at last I was able to scoot to the edge of the outermost ledge for my ridiculous, dangerously risky selfie, I. was. beaming. I’d done it!! The roundtrip trek actually took me five hours: two up, an hour to picnic and leisurely take photos at the top and two hours back down.
From there I drove the long route back to Moab, fearing at one point that I’d run out of fuel. Fortunately, a gas station shimmered like a mirage just in time.
Jim convinced me that a shower and good sleep would be wise before joining the women’s weekend, so he booked me a hotel room in town. I’ve gotta admit that boy has great ideas! I loooove car camping, but holy cow that bubble bath and bed felt great!!
Soon I’ll tell you all about the remarkable women’s-retreat experience and remainder of the trip!