In 2009, when I returned back to the USA, my purpose was three-fold. 1) Get the necessary paperwork to work and get married in Morocco 2) Earn some money so that I could start a life in Morocco and pay for the marriage and bureaucracy in Morocco 3) Make sure that I hadn’t completely lost my mind by giving myself a little time away from the girl I had fallen in love with.
It seemed like as soon as I’d started on my way – things began to fall apart. Ultimately, I ended up connecting with old friends, having a huge falling out with my father, strengthening the relationships with my brother and my uncle, hustling enough to get things going in Morocco, and accomplishing all three of my goals.
Back in 2008, I left Hawaii and set out on an adventure that took me across the USA by Amtrak train, I called it the Amtrek. This week, for the Vagobond Travel Museum, I bring you the collected articles and videos from that trip. The trip began in Honolulu and then went to Portland, Oregon from where I crossed the country and ended in New York City with a one way flight to Barcelona – the truth is, the trip has never ended since I’ve never gone home.
Along the way, I couch-surfed and asked my hosts the same set of questions, those videos are below and worth watching. Keep in mind, this was before couch-surfing had gone mainstream.
Here are the ten lessons I learned on that trip:
The trains through the Rocky Mountains have the most incredible viewing cars for enjoying the magnificent landscape.
Sacramento is a lot cooler than I thought it would be and the train museum is a must see..
Utah is an incredibly rugged and scenic state filled with some very cool folks in Salt Lake City.
I want to travel by train to Austin, Texas and Detroit, Nashville, and New Orleans. I’ve still never been to those cities.
I love New York and Boston – taking a train to them was the way to go. People in these cities rock.
Philly and Chicago are both incredibly cold in winter, but the people I met in them were pretty great.
It’s better not to hurry, a 14 day rail pass was too short for a true American experience.
Too many museums in too short a time can’t be appreciated – so get a longer rail pass.
Libraries are havens of free wifi and peaceful places to work – trains should always have wifi and should have libraries for passengers.
Making the wrong friend can suck out part of your enjoyment of life and destroy a train trip – the right friends can make a boring stretch very exciting.
As we near the end of our first week, traveling takes on a comfortable rhythm. Like someone training for a marathon, we grow accustomed to the long miles between stops. Packing and unpacking the car each night becomes a precise clockwork. Miles rack up and scenery swaps out again and again. Every few hours we change landscape and it’s always so new. The grass in this place is not the same as the grass in that place: the rocks, the water, all different. Hell, even the sky seems different, by nature or trick of the traveler’s eye, I’m not certain.
As we enter Utah, Salt Lake City brings a momentary rush of heavy traffic, but it quickly dissipates moving further south. A lovely orange waste flashes by our car windows; the outside air is a convection oven. Utah is a dusty Eden with so many natural wonders, it is difficult to narrow down the list to a couple of stops before we press further west to California. Our travel takes us first to the southern edge of Utah. Here Red Canyon gives us an introduction to what we can find further at Bryce Canyon National Park. The road winds through interesting red limestone formations rising above rugged ponderosa pine trees. This place is familiar, if only because the Disney Imagineers borrowed the look of the eroded spires, called hoodoos, for their popular Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster.
The majority of travelers to Bryce tend to flock to Ruby’s Inn, a hotel that has been serving travelers for decades. It is a large complex just outside the gates to the national park, offering not just lodging, but shopping, dining, travel activities, and, of course, requisite taffy and fudge. We forgo the crowds and instead set down for the night in nearby Tropic, a small, dusty town of approximately five-hundred. We call ahead to notify the owners of Bybee’s Steppingstone Motel that we might not make it before their front desk closes for the night.
“No problem,” the friendly innkeeper says. “We’ll just leave the door to your room open and the key on the bed.”
Tropic seems to be the rare kind of place where a person can leave their doors unlocked without concern of wandering burglars or serial killers. It’s quaint and rough, just a simple stretch of a few homes, some hotels, a few restaurants, and a couple of shops set against a backdrop of grey cliffs. The Steppingstone houses eight charming, if small, rooms, uniquely decorated with homey touches like patchwork quilts on the beds. The grounds are nicely manicured featuring a rare green lawn, taking parched drinks from a flickering garden sprinkler. By the garden a traveler sits on a bench reading Camus. With such a tight schedule, I regret that I don’t have the leisure to do the same.
Our first stop on our tour of the area is Mossy Cave Trail, a short, scenic walk situated between Tropic and Bryce Canyon proper. Through here the rippling Tropic ditch canal was carved through the arid land by farmers in 1892 to provide irrigation for crops. Along our walk we delight to view small waterfalls along the creek and above hoodoos and windows carved in sandstone. A special treat are the many colorful wildflowers that dot the landscape.
Next we take in some of the scenic outlooks of Bryce Canyon National Park, culminating in a stop at Sunset Point. The overlook is poorly named. Gazing out at the amphitheater positions our back toward the west, so the sun slides down, out of sight behind us. However, the diminishing evening light is supposed to make interesting shadows across the amphitheater. At the rim we join a long line of people poised with cameras gazing out at cliff faces and spires that give the impression of walls and buttresses of an alien castle. To our right, the entrance to the Navajo Loop trail catches our attention as it winds down into the amphitheater funneling into a narrow slip of rock. The lure of adventure beckons and we descend down the switchbacks and pass through a dim hallway of rock, named Wall Street. It empties out to an opening where spindly Douglas fir trees stretch upward in search of rare sunlight from the sky above.
By the time we reach the bottom, those inching shadows have covered the floor with deep, dense black. A terrible truth sets down upon us: we must somehow get back to the rim in the dark. Unfortunately for us, this particular trail boasts one of the most extreme elevation changes at Bryce. It’s a daunting five-hundred twenty-one feet back to the top. Climbing is a weary chore. Each step is a painful reminder of the overall lack of activity that dominates my normal life. Each labored breath mocks all those unfulfilled New Year’s promises to “eat better”, “exercise more,” “walk to the kitchen to get a beer instead of shouting at the child to do it.” Speaking of the child, she casually skips up the switchbacks, texting on her cellphone. She is soon out of sight, leaving her mother and me in the black depths of Tartarus.
We press on, sweat-soaked, bones creaking, bodies aching. Stopping. Resting. Resting. Giving up and making suicide pacts through punctuated breaths. Finally, we make it to the top.
“Geez, what took you so long,” snips my daughter as we arise like Lazarus from the pit.
The bed back at the Steppingstone is an exquisite comfort, though hard asphalt in a rat-ridden back alley would do as nicely after such a grueling workout. Too soon it is morning. With sore muscles we walk to nearby Clarke’s restaurant for breakfast. It’s good and filling and some European tourists provide unexpected entertainment as they navigate the puzzle of pancakes, butter and syrup. They quickly figure it out with great enthusiasm. Rested, sort-of, fed, definitely, we pack up the car once again, quickly, and set out eagerly to explore more of what Utah has to offer.
As I biked on the long winding road down into the canyon, I was struck dumb in the shadow of the setting sun. Zion is indescribable, but I will attempt to describe it. It is ineffable because that’s a word too. The sheer cliffs rise up threateningly and gorgeously on both sides of the echoing canyon like that girl or guy that you’ve always been in love with from the moment you first saw her and who is so attractive that you find it difficult to speak in his/her (because I’m gender neutral) presence: intimidating but undeniably stunning. Zion immediately made me feel like I was on some kind of nature speed, lighting a passionate fire that so often waits impatiently to be sparked and left blazing on a heaven-on-earthly grill and, once burning, is loath to be put out. Vagabonding Tip #1: Find something that lights your fire. Then burn baby burn and scorch the earth lusting to quench your fiery desire. So I was wide awake and euphoric and raring to go with lightning speed, and like a keen owl in the balmy Utahan night my eyes were sharp and focused and trained completely on the present moment. And here, in my manic state of elevation, I biked headlong down the spectacular canyon glorying in all these buttes and monoliths because those are apparently words. These rock formations in Zion beckon urgently to all who are born to boldly boulder, and immense mountains call climbers breathlessly sans lungs to climb higher to elevate our lives, and rolling rivers swerve alluringly through narrow slot canyons away from the sun. My first day in Zion I did two hikes, the 8-mile Observation Point hike and the 6-mile Angels Landing hike. I was a solo venturing yodeling vagabond at this point, as my cousin and I had gone different routes a week earlier. Words of Wisdom #1: If no one wants to vagabond with you, go alone! Being alone on the road is highly superior to being clustered and flustered in claustrophobic cities where finding any time at all to be alone is difficult. When I was in Zion, words—even words of wisdom–were not forthcoming. How does one describe the indescribable? How does one express the ineffable because that’s a word too? What does one say in such a place? I had not acquired the courage to speak to the stunning woman who dared me to approach her overawing beauty and I approached and we neared closer but I spoke not. On my way up to Observation Point, I traversed through slot canyons which provided discrete sneak peeks through narrow windows, portholes to paradise, hinting at the magnificence that would become vividly clear upon reaching the top. Then there was a curvy section that looked out to the east and then to the west in a cyclical wondrous fashion as I winded my way to the top. At the Point, the other hikers and I all competed for Zion’s attention and she like an eternally beautiful always vigorous spinster chose no lover but stirred the spirits of all men and women who exulted in her spacious canyon. She made youthful the old and she made bold the faint-hearted; she never spurned her admirers’ advances but spurred on the souls of restless vagabond wanderers who had searched ceaselessly to see her and delight in her delights for days and decades alike and she did this with a mysterious majestic air of constant slight amusement, laughing inwardly at the magnetic effect that she had on all. And then I descended Observation Point and began to hike up Angels Landing, where messengers would surely come down from on high and pronounce Zion as the unmistakable heaven on earth and all comers would enter into the gates where the angels land and where spirits of sojourners soar with just-realized wings to new elevations. The hike began in earnest and the angelic views took shape at a point where the steepness increased and a rope was needed to hold onto. I took my time here and enjoyed the journey. For the vagabond, it is all about the journey. In the words of the Grateful Dead —Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there. Fun Definitely Disputable Fact Which Is Not A Fact At All But An Opinion #1: The Grateful Dead is the best band to listen to while vagabonding on the road. Agree or disagree with this statement as you see fit. Say I am unquestionably correct or that I am disgracefully mistaken. My view on the matter has been stated with conviction and I hold steadfast to it. And with the Grateful Dead playing in my head, I dreamed peaceful daydreams on the angel’s throne. The next morning, I arose early. Although the previous day had been incredible and I had climbed two hikes considered the best in the park by some, I wanted to earn the beauty that I was witnessing by allowing the all-powerful Zion to put my physical abilities to the test. And Pride Rock provided that opportunity. Pride Rock was simply a mountain that had a rock that looked to me like Pride Rock from Lion King. Vagabonding Tip #2: Pride Rock is an unknown unmarked hike. You won’t find it in any guides or handbooks. Do the established hikes at places like Zion. Even with the crowds, they are absolutely worth it. But also go off and climb your own mountain. And choose a cool fitting name for it. I knew that Pride Rock would be a noble competitor. I would describe the climb as very difficult bouldering. When I needed some limb to grasp hold of in precarious points of the climb, Pride Rock offered not his hand to hold; when I needed to climb on his back, he carried me not; when I needed energy for the last final push, he gifted no such burst and I was forced to find it inside myself. But finally, though Pride Rock put me full to the test and did not help me at any point and was an altogether stubborn but beautiful bastard, I finally made it to the top where I zanily unrestrainedly exulted to no one in madcap yodels, which were insane enough to do any traveling minstrel proud. And then Pride Rock and I shook hands with the utmost mutual respect and we sat together and watched the sun set slowly to the west, pleading with the tyrant of time to stop and stand still and soliciting the sun to do the same and stay motionless for a time in the sky and fall not. But time went on as it does, and the sun went down as day turned to night, and I rode back for my last night in paradise. Then the next day I biked up the canyon back onto the road.
Brian Leibold is a student of life and a yodeling vagabond. You can find his work at his blog at BMLontheroad.blogspot.com and maybe even back here at Vagobond.
Story and Photos by Anthony Mathenia – Every Tuesday!
Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
Utah is Mormon country; that much is true. At each stop, we find racks of promotional cards for the Church of Latter Day Saints bearing compassionate paintings of Jesus Christ and photographs of happy, smiling Mormon families. Store counters hold stacks of complimentary copies of the Book of Mormon in a myriad of language. I’m also unable to find a decent drink. Fortunately, Utah has natural beauty in abundance. It’s not a gin and tonic, but it is soothing in its own way.
Our next stop as we work our way west to California, is Zion National Park, in southwest Utah. Like much of Utah, the park is religiously themed. The name “Zion”, meaning place of refuge, was bestowed upon the canyon by Mormon pioneers. Other park features like Mount Moroni, evoke the land’s Mormon heritage.
As we approach, the black asphalt winds around grey formations that are laced with fine lines that ebb and flow with ancient wind. They give the impression of great hornets nests rising up over patches of Utah juniper and pinyon pine trees. To get to the national park we pass through the Zion Mount Carmel Tunnel. At just over one mile in length it was once the longest tunnel in the United States. Windows cut into the tunnel give glimpses of sheer rock cliffs rising up over patches of trees.
At the park welcome center we luck out to find a parking space in the densely crowded lot. During peak visiting times, vehicle traffic within the park is prohibited. Instead visitors board shuttles that make regular stops throughout the park. Each stop offers visitors several hikes through the splendors of the national park. Zion is a thrill park for danger seekers. The Angels Landing trail takes hikers along a narrow rock fin over 5,700 feet in the air. For those who are not deterred by the dizzying drop offs on either side, Angels Landing offers splendid panoramic views of the rich landscape. Closer to the ground, the Zion Narrows trail plunges hikers into the Virgin River, weaving through a deep canyon gorge. Rushing water and slippery rock make this a chilly challenge to all but the fleet footed. Still recovering from our spirit breaking hike from bottom to top of Bryce Canyon, we opt for some of the lesser, handicapped accessible, trails at Zion. We follow the Narrows trail as far as the gently sloping paved path ends and the river disappears behind perpendicular canyon walls. There a frantic hiker returns to report to a park ranger, that one of his group has a twisted ankle miles up river in the back country. With evening approaching, it is doubtful a rescue can be mounted until morning. It will be a long painful night for the unfortunate hiker.
The Emerald Pools Trails offer a relatively easy going walk shaded by cottonwoods and boxelders leading to a tall alcove. Overhead waterfalls cascade into the namesake green pool below. The Weeping Rock trail is a bit steep, but short, at only a mile round trip. There, water drains through an overhead arch of Navajo sandstone sprinkling out in a gentle rain. For such a short walk, the view is spectacular. Through the weeping mist we look above a canopy of green at the Great White Throne and parts of Zion Canyon.
Zion has so much more to offer, but limited time urges us onward toward California. There my personal holy mecca awaits: Disneyland USA. I intend to return to Zion someday, but only after I’m physically fit enough for a vertigo inducing trek across Angels Landing or to ford the Virgin river in a descent into the Zion Narrows.
We make one last stop in Utah, an overnight at the Chalet Motel in St. George, just miles from the Nevada border. At only $45 a night it represents the best value we have enjoyed on our trip. The room is well furnished and immaculately maintained. While we relax, my daughter busies herself by reading the Book of Mormon that is placed in the drawer next to the standard Gideon King James. “Please do not remove, ask for your complimentary copy at the front desk,” encourages a sign placed in the drawer. “Can I get a copy?” asks my daughter.
The next morning I go to the front desk to ask. The elderly motel owner’s face lights up with joy at my request. She disappears into the back, while I busy myself looking at a large painting of Jesus and promotional pamphlets for area attractions. Shortly, she returns with a new copy in hand. “I just know this is the truth,” she says as she presents the book to us. She feeds on our assumed interest to point out various activities in town. There is a historical reenactment of Brigham Young, one of the founders of the Church of Latter Day Saints. “The actor really captures him”, she informs me with a smile. Or perhaps we would enjoy taking the tour of the local temple? She nicely explains that we won’t be able to get into the temple proper being heathens, but the grounds are beautifully attended to.
I thank her and bid her farewell. I have no interest in converting. I really don’t mind crazy conspiracies and weird theologies; but, I’ve got no love for any religion that practices shunning and breaks up families. That, and it would really be a sin to forgo the pleasures of a nice gin and tonic.