Friday, September 21, 2012

Highway 89 Tales:
Hooked on Utah
The Outs
Ellen Jo Roberts
The Noise
October 2012

Back when we were flatlanders, our first dose of the west came in the form of Utah in its many brilliant southern incarnations. Slick rock. Slot canyons. Natural arches. Fragrant sagebrush. Abundant sunshine and fine dry air. Hypnotized by the big skies and postcard perfect scenery we soon plotted our escape west and by the following year we had Arizona drivers licenses and a Flagstaff P.O. Box.
            Visiting Utah always reminds me of those first enchanted days of our new life. In the early days, we used to spend more time north of the border, with frequent treks to the national forests and all of the park highlights: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, Cedar Breaks, the Grand Staircase. Back in the 20th century we often rented a sea kayak in Flagstaff, strapped it to the roof of our truck and headed up to Lake Powell, launching near Lone Rock to paddle and camp in secluded side canyons. But the spirits of Glen Canyon buried deep beneath the flood are too eerie and sad, and combined with a read of Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang we eventually lost any enthusiasm for the damned lake. For the natural places of Utah, however, high excitement remains.

It occurs to me on our most recent visit up Highway 89 that Utah was my gateway drug to the west. It hooked me on the high desert. It's far too easy to be enchanted by it, so over-the-top ridiculous in its bounty of natural beauty.

           Our most recent journey took us up 89 to the historic town of Panguitch and the vicinity of the infamous Butch Cassidy and his "Hole in the Wall Gang". Red Canyon, a junior Bryce complete with matching fantastic fairyland formations of the Paunsaugunt Plateau is seven miles from Panguitch, along Scenic Byway 12. Our goal was primitive camping in the Dixie National Forest. No motel, no reservations, no running water. Just sun and sky and campfire at night, alone under the stars, just like all those years we traveled on the fly and on the cheap.
    The eye-popping scenery begins on our side of 89, and its pretty little sister, 89A, slicing through the Verde Valley up into the Colorado Plateau like a heaping helping of amazing geography. Up through the alpine ecosystem of Flagstaff and back down into the piñons, junipers and painted desertscape of the Navajo Nation. Roadside craft stands punctuate long stretches of badlands and vast panoramas. Many of the lonely lean-to structures are now decorated with giant photographic wheatpastes of Navajo life created by Jetsonarama, (a.k.a. Chip Thomas) and his Painted Desert Project.
A stop at the historic Cameron Trading Post, adjacent to the Little Colorado River, always arrives at the perfect time, just when your legs were starting to need a stretch. Just far enough from home to feel like we were really on an adventure. Buses full of Asian and European tourists join you, as do river running excursions towing trailers full of kayaks and inflatables.

Continuing north you can take two routes into Kanab: stick on 89 through Page and past the Glen Canyon Dam, or detour via 89A up over a winding alpine pass, through Jacobs Lake, gateway to the Grand Canyon's North Rim. Overall, Highway 89 is quicker, but please beware the speed traps just inside the Utah border, between the weigh station and the entrance to Lone Rock Beach. I am not kidding when I say we have been pulled over nearly every time we've cruised that stretch of highway, by assorted law enforcement officials (DPS, National Park Ranger, Utah State Police, etc.) for infractions so minor it leaves us shaking our heads. License plate light burnt out. Going 65 in a 60. In the end they always wave us off with a warning, and we drive off chuckling about how silly it is. (On this most recent journey Chad was pulled over on the way up, and I was pulled over on the way back.) Kanab is a historic community filled with Hollywood lore and surrounded by red sandstone buttes. This city is perhaps now most famous for being the home of Best Friends Animal Society, a large-scale rescue sanctuary tucked into nearby Angel Canyon. Begun in Arizona in the 1970s to save animals from kill-shelters, the society moved its operation to Kanab in the early 1980s. Carmel Junction and the Thunderbird Café (“Home of the Ho-Made Pies”) signals your turn towards Zion National Park, if you’re so inclined, but it was not on our itinerary this trip. Following 89 north the road continues to entertain as it curves through canyons, high prairie and a smattering of small tidy towns that appear to have been forgotten somewhere in The Twilight Zone. Orderville, where all is in order, you betcha’. Glendale, where sun-baked classic cars forever sit in a sales lot, waiting for “or best offer”, and a young boy prays you’ll buy some of the orchard pears from his roadside stand. Soon the Sevier River appears alongside you, grey-green, glassy, impossibly tangled and loopy. The Sevier (pronounced  “severe”) is the longest river completely contained within the state of Utah. By the time you are in Panguitch, a cute little Mormon town with tidy brick architecture and a row of vintage motels lining 89 you feel both far from home and yet completely safe. There’s a small downtown with a couple of gas stations, a grocery, a few diners, antique shops, a thrift store and a movie theater. Nothing is open on Sundays so it took us forever to track down a can-opener (forgotten from our camping gear). Brianhead Ski Resort is not far from Panguitch, but not close either. I get the impression from the locals that the town pretty much shuts down between October and April.

In the Dixie National Forest, our campsite, at the base of bright red hoo-doos and our own secret canyon, was perfect and sparsely visited. Despite there not being much traffic or disturbance by other humans, there were tall ladders in all of the piñon trees surrounding the area of our camp. I'd never seen anything like it. Manning the ladders were migrant workers draped in sap-coated aprons, bandanas and desert-style head coverings. Later, upon chatting with them in Spanish, we found out that they were all from Arizona, imported from Phoenix by a company contracted to harvest the piñon nuts now at their fattest, ripest and stickiest. It had never occurred to me, while eating pasta, pesto or any other assorted dishes featuring pine nuts where those nuts might have originated. The harvest workers’ camp was apparently not far from ours, because one night we heard them serenading the full moon with Mexican lullabies.

     Red Canyon, a favorite place for many years, is a more pet-friendly, less crowded alternative to Bryce Canyon National Park. Lots of great trails, a nice visitor center, and a large, inexpensive public campground. Many of the trails throughout the area are technical, steep and challenging, but the views are a fair reward. We’d not been to Bryce, 14 miles further along Highway 12, in a number of years. As with many national parks, dogs are not usually allowed on most of the trails. During one visit to Bryce Canyon, back before we traveled with pets, we enjoyed hiking down into a deep bowl of hoodoos while surrounded by German tourists. They called out to each other in German, their echoing hollers of “Nicht so schnell!” imploring others to slow down on the precarious steps. Upon reaching the bottom I was startled to encounter a French lady in high-heeled espadrilles, languidly smoking a cigarette. Bryce Canyon, a national park since 1928, was named after Scottish immigrant, Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon pioneer who homesteaded nearby. Legend has it that Mr. Bryce said the unique weather-formed rock formations, complex red hot riddles of hoodoos and towering spires, was “a helluva place to lose a cow.”
(Perhaps an apocryphal tall tale, though still oft- repeated.)
     Ruby’s Inn, largest shopping area for 100 miles or more, sits just outside the park entrance. It’s a tourist city of sorts, where you can buy anything you ever needed, or never needed, including just about any kind of fancy beer. Hotels, laundromat, groceries, souvenirs, tours, fake western town. They even have a one-hour photo lab. Surrounded by a great variety of foreign languages, you can always recognize the Europeans before you can hear them speak. Their shoes are always just a bit futuristic. Let’s get out of here, back to our piñon pickers, back to our own canyon and secluded campsite. Our own private Utah.

Chad, the dogs and I spent several nights in the wilderness, cuddling sagebrush, heading off on daily adventures to explore trails, sipping on fancy IPAs and cooking dinner at the campfire, under the big sky full of stars. “This feels like home”, I’d say, “All of it. This is what brought me out west.” Favorite places like these across Utah makes me feel both young and old at the same time. Old tallying the past visits, and young remembering my first glimpses of this place as it if were yesterday.

For more information:

Ellen Jo Roberts arrived in Flagstaff in 1995. She and her husband lived in a vintage pop-top camper for a couple of months, until winter came. Read all about it at

Utah and the Pervasive Scent of Big Basin Sage.

In writing a new tale of a Utah adventure, I thought I should revisit the last story I wrote, published back in Nov. 2008...

Utah, and the Pervasive Scent of Big Basin Sage
November 2008
Ellen Jo Roberts
The Outs
The Noise

boulder utah horses- black & white

What to do when the economy is in the toilet, the stock market has taken a nosedive, and we’ve entered the next Great Depression? I’ll tell you what to do—take a road trip, that’s what. That’s what we do.

Why, back in the day when we barely even had jobs we managed to muster up enough gumption and funds to hop on the highway and head to unknown destinations, with only a map and a bedroll. We’d sleep in our vehicle, in forests, or in parking lots, showering at campgrounds, with no notion of our next meal.

We’d subsist on walnuts. We never knew where we’d end up. The Appalachian Trail during a winter blizzard? Sure! A Florida Keys biker bar? Why not? A field of fragrant Big Basin Sagebrush in Utah? Yes, my favorite. Life was simple then. All that mattered was the scenery, the next town, the postcards, some snap shots, and the road home. Nowadays we still travel on the cheap, focusing on the fundamentals of the journey rather than on high dollar accommodations or phony luxuries. The true luxuries are present in the rich scenes, sights, sounds, and scents of our country, in its myriad varieties.

Chad read an old “Desert” magazine from 1973 that advised “Septober” is the best season to visit Southern Utah, so all summer he’d had it written on the calendar as an extended weekend trip.

Early October is still summery hot in Arizona, but a few hours north, autumn was already taking place, bathing river valleys in golden foliage, and causing us to bundle up in jackets and sweaters we’d not donned for months. Though we are big fans of Zion and Bryce National Parks, our destination was farther, Escalante, and Boulder Utah, and the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the Grand Staircase encompasses 1.9 million acres of amazing natural features- vast slickrock, multi-hued canyons, mountains, valleys, rivers, important archaeological sites, and locations of major fossil records. It is considered a vital location for scientific study. However, Utahans were caught off guard by its protected designation back in ‘96--there was some bit of controversy about it, during Clinton’s re-election bid. Many felt that the amount of acreage protected was too huge, and others were upset it put the kibosh on a planned coal mine located within monument’s limits. However, upon seeing the region, one cannot help be nostalgic for an administration that had enough foresight to protect extremely beautiful and fragile areas for future generations.

hwy 12 in the rain

Highway 12 is insane! You could totally crash from gawking at the incredible scenery. The stretch between Escalante and Boulder is a marvel of engineering. Winding through Calf Creek Canyon, and then rising above it, some sections of the highway are only as wide as the road, with steep drop-offs on each side, leaving you staring down into crazy deep canyons and endless slickrock. A freak Pacific storm rolled in during our visit, sorta putting a damper on the promised Septober glory, but the rain could not diminish the natural beauty. In fact, saturated with rain, the colors of the rock were deeper, the brisk scents of Utah even more autumny. Or maybe that was just the handful of big basin sage crushed in my pocket. I have had a fondness for Big Basin Sage ever since first encountering it on a winter camping excursion to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. All twisty and shaggy-barked, tenacious, with its fragrant silver leaves flooding the hillsides. It grows throughout the high desert west, but in Arizona it is generally only found in the Kaibab National Forest, as it fades into Utah. One may purchase sagebrush at Clarkdale’s “Arizona Botanic Garden” greenhouse, to plant it in your yard, as we have, but, as it is not native to the Verde Valley, it never seems to thrive in the same way as it does in its homeland.

red canyon, utah

Gas station clerks in Southern Utah are not very friendly to people they perceive as "outsiders". They are somber and suspicious. Arizonans are far friendlier to strangers. I remember once asking a guy at a Moab mini-mart if I could use their restroom and he barked at me "It's not a shower!" They are cantankerous with tourists. A clerk at a small convenience store near the entrance to Zion was obviously aggravated when a large tour bus of French folk disembarked out front. It was also obvious when the escort greeted her by name that every bus from this particular tour company stops at this mini-mart prior to entering the national park. Trying to lighten her sour mood as we hurriedly paid for a tomato juice I said, “Wow, these buses stop here all day? That must sure keep you busy!” Barely looking up, she grunted, “Yeah. But most of em can’t even speak ENGLISH!” Yikes. As I popped the top off my juice I thought to myself, “As long as they speak the color of money, I dunno what she’s griping about.”

thunderbird- mt carmel junction, utah

We stayed at a cute 3 room motel called the “Circle Cliffs”, off of Highway 12, in Boulder. Boulder is very rolling and pastoral, with an abundance of livestock, and a distinct lack of traffic. The vintage motel is owned by a very sweet, friendly cattle-ranching family, and is surrounded by fields of horses, llamas, and an apple orchard. Across from our room were two mares, avidly panhandling for apples. I asked the owner if they saw lots of French and German visitors and he told me that most of their guests were foreign nationals. “They prefer this type of lodging. Americans seem to prefer the chain places, seem to be more comfortable at the Motel 6s”. The Circle Cliffs was not at all fancy. The TV only got the limited local channels, but there was a big bathroom with a tub. The room was well appointed, warm and cozy during the chilly all-night drizzle.

Boulder is quite small, population less than 200 residents, but is perhaps slightly famous for the Hells Backbone trail, and the eponymous Hells Backbone Grill, located at the wee Boulder Mountain Resort. Very highly regarded and reviewed, the restaurant is owned by Flagstaff ex-pats Blake Spalding and Jen Castle. Now in its eighth season, Hells Backbone grill has one of the highest Zagat ratings in Utah, and follows principles of sustainability, emphasizing use of locally raised organic heirloom fruits, vegetables and meats, and a commitment to the environment.

escalante to boulder 2

Escalante is a bigger town than Boulder, and home to the Fighting Moquis state champion basketball team. Many relics of Escalante’s Mormon heritage and settlement remain in the tidy little town, and most of the businesses are closed on Sundays, even the gas stations.

Peoples Exchange, Escalante, UT

Eleven years ago we camped at Calf Creek, with our pop-top camper backed up against the largest Big Basin Sagebrush I’d ever seen. As big as a tree, that sage, in bloom, and scenting my dreams. The Calf Creek Recreation Area features camping, picnicking, and access to the Lower Calf Creek Falls trail, a several mile long hike through a glorious and steep canyon, following the creek to the falls that feed it. Our attempt to revisit the falls was rained out, and our hike cut short, but we were pleased to shake hands with that colossal sagebrush again. It was still there, at our old campsite, and bigger than ever.

calf creek chad at our old campsite

The Burr Trail is a paved road where no paved road should be. It winds through a red canyon between Boulder and Bullfrog, at Lake Powell, where you can take a ferry across the lake for a shortcut back home. We took that ferry once. It was really cool. This time, though, we were just out for a stroll.

burr trail overview

We found a slot canyon off of the Burr Trail and came back for it. On an otherwise completely vacant road, on a completely vacant trail, in a completely vacant slot canyon, a pair of bozos arrived right behind us, and sidled up right next to us, snapping photos with a cellphone for their Facebook pages-- interrupting our slot canyon solitude, with their chatter and small talk, and with no notion whatsoever that their wilderness etiquette may be lacking. We attempted to wait them out, but they showed no sign of leaving. Instead it was us who were chased off. It reminded me of hiking the Narrows at Zion. The technical aspects of hiking in knee deep water and navigating submerged rocks paled to the challenges of negotiating the crowds of fellow hikers, like a downtown rush hour, the sound of “Excuse me, pardon me” echoing a thousand times against the canyon walls.

burr trail boston terrier

The landscape of Garfield County is dotted with half a dozen tidy little towns, somehow seeming foreign, as if we were driving across Sweden or Denmark. Entering Tropic, Utah, we looked over to see a young girl speeding through a field on a small motorbike, dwarfed by giant bundles of wheat. Red Canyon, a miniature introductory version of Bryce, features numerous pull-outs, trails, and a visitors’ center. The highways were smooth, but occasionally cluttered with rental RVs. Soon we had rejoined Highway 89, with glorious landscape leading us all the way home, flat glossy rivers, red maples, hoo doos, jagged mountains, and vintage motels. And the pervasive scent of Big Basin Sage, tickling our noses and bringing back memories of past adventures.
orderville, utah -parkway motel

Approaching Arizona, the sun came out for us, like a beacon showing us the way home. One last stop, on the Navajo Rez, on the bridge overlooking the Colorado River. Running so deep, quiet and green, contrasting with the oranges and reds of the terrain around it. We shed ourselves of autumn jackets and the Utah rain, and basked in the summery warmth, knowing it would be short lived. Autumn was following us in the rearview mirror.

big river

For more information:

Ellen Jo Roberts was born in 1972. Her house was built in 1914, and her car dates from 1973. She lives with a husband who graduated high school in 1990, and a few assorted pets that were born in the 2000s.

You can read all about it at