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
Ellen Jo Roberts
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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 www.ellenjo.com