national parks -- Arches and Canyonlands -- provide the
backdrop for the eastern Utah leg of Peter Thody's 4,000-mile
journey from the Great Lakes to the Pacific coast. Join
him and wife Carole as they sleep with the ghosts of old
movie stars, get to grips with the state's curious licensing
laws and marvel at what a bit of wind and water can do
As afternoons go, it's hard to think of one better
than this. We've spent the last few hours on the road, heading
west across an arid desert landscape under a scorching sun.
We're 2,183 miles into our trip from Chicago to San Francisco
and we've just crossed the border into Utah, our sixth state
in 14 days. We roll into town, spot the sun-bleached signs
to our hotel and, moments later, pull up outside a place that
could have been the centerfold of a 1950s Motels Monthly.
Welcome to Moab.
And welcome, more specifically, to the Apache Motel, a place
so oozing with character we feel guilty parking our 2007-model
Jeep outside. Back in the day, this was the No.1 place in
town and it's quite something to think that John Wayne, Anthony
Quinn, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, John Ford and other big-name
stars stayed in these very same rooms. I like to imagine that
Yvonne De Carlo slept in our bed.
I also like to think that the four-block walk
into town would have been much the same 40 years ago as it
is today and that, like us, John Ford would have passed a
guy working on an engine in his front yard, a couple sitting
on their porch watching the world go by, and a group of kids
practicing on the baseball diamond. It really was small-town
America captured in a five-minute stroll. All we needed now
was a local bar in which to eavesdrop on conversations about
college basketball, where the trout are biting and last week's
holdup at the 7-Eleven. Woody's Tavern looks perfect so in
"Two pints of Miller please."
"Are you members?" enquires the barmaid.
Hmm. This isn't a promising question nor, strictly
speaking, a necessary one, given our English accents and the
cameras, guidebooks and other assorted tourist paraphernalia
hanging from our pockets.
"Er, no. No, we're not."
"I'm sorry, this is a private bar. You have
to be a member to order drinks."
Seeing our faces fall, it dawns upon her that
not only are we not members, we're also wet-behind-the-ears
out-of-staters, unaware of Utah's peculiar liquor laws, which
place different restrictions on the sale of alcohol depending
on the type of outlet: Tavern, Brew Pub, Restaurant or Private
Club (and no, I wouldn't know the difference between a tavern
and a pub, either).
"Oh! But it only costs $4 to join,"
she explains. "Or you could order a small meal -- a plate
of fries maybe?"
Some might call this a pointless charade: If
it's that easy to order a drink, the law's no obstacle anyway.
But here in Utah, land of the Latter-day Saints, they take
their liquor control very seriously. In fact, tonight is Woody's
reopening party after a 35-day closure for some undisclosed
licensing misdemeanour. Maybe their fry count fell short and
an unsuspecting tourist received a simple "bar snack"
instead of a booze-qualifying "small meal"?
Anyway, after taking up temporary membership,
we take our place at the bar and wait -- in vain as it happens
-- for citizens of Moab to entertain us with tales of local
It's an early start the next day and no sooner
have we escaped the untidy outskirts of the city (not even
its best friend would call the road in and out of Moab "pretty")
than we're turning right into Arches
National Park, home to a extraordinary collection of sandstone
formations sculpted by water and ice over millions of years.
Unfortunately, today's dull skies cast a greyness
over the landscape, draining the rocks of colour and flattening
their features. And yet to us, brought up on 60s cowboy-and-Indian
shows, this first-ever sight of real-life arches, buttes,
spires and canyons is magical.
We make our way north through the park, stopping
at The Courthouse Towers, The Great Wall, Sand Dune Arch,
Broken Arch and more. At Devils Garden we take a short hike
through the red sands to marvel at the 306-foot-wide Landscape
Arch. And on the way back, as the sun finally begins to filter
through the clouds and deliver definition and perspective
to the rocks, we follow the side roads, first to the most
famous formation of them all, Delicate Arch, and then to what
was for me the most impressive up close: North Window.
It's a landscape so unlike anything I've seen
before that I set the alarm for 4:45 the next morning to go
and see the sun rise. Sadly, while I keep my side of the bargain,
the sun doesn't. Never mind. By the time I accept that today's
photos are never going to grace the pages of National Geographic,
it's time to return to the Apache, collect my wife Carole
and head off to Moab's other backyard wonder, Canyonlands
Even before we reach the park, it's apparent
that this is a landscape very different from Arches: bigger,
wilder and emptier. It casts its spell over both of us from
the moment we look out over Shafer Trail from the view point
opposite the visitor center.
Given the vastness of the park -- backcountry
expeditions can take days, and off-road driving comes with
a warning that "the risk of vehicle damage is great and
towing expenses typically exceed $1,000" -- we weren't
able to immerse ourselves as much as we might have liked,
but Canyonlands still manages to make a huge impression on
both of us.
The jewel in the park's crown is Mesa Arch, a
spectacular gateway of rock that stands atop a sheer cliff
and frames the views over the canyons below and the Colorado
River beyond. Other stop-off points offering breathtaking
vistas are Grand View Point Overlook and the picnic area at
the beginning of the trail to White Rim Overlook -- certainly
the most picturesque setting for a sandwich I've ever enjoyed.
But for us, it was standing at Buck Canyon Overlook
and looking out over the almost incomprehensibly huge landscape
of cracked and fissured sandstone that went somewhere far,
far deeper. And if there's anything more moving than experiencing
that so-beautiful-I-could-cry moment yourself, it's watching
someone you love experiencing it, too.
I'd seen our elder daughter Claire standing spellbound
as she looked out over Manhattan from the Empire State Building
and it's something I'll never forget. Carole is a different
kettle of fish, a practical person who, in her own words,
has "never been one for getting emotional about landscapes."
But here she was, totally mesmerized by the view of this primitive
land, so immense that surveying the scene from the overlook
is like looking out of an airplane window. We stand together
in silence and just look. I wish you could bottle moments
We should have allowed more time for Canyonlands.
We didn't even visit Dead
Horse Point, which now leaps out of every guidebook as
a "must see," it being the real location of the
final Grand Canyon scene from "Thelma and Louise."
But compromises are unavoidable on road trips, and what we
did see will stick with us forever.
Our experience the next morning only serves to
emphasise the fact that this is a region with more natural
features than you could hope to see in a year, never mind
the few days available to us.
Having taken the precaution of booking hotels
for the next two nights (we're heading for the tourist honey
pots of northern Arizona where rooms could be hard to find),
we've foregone the flexibility of being able to stop at will.
We're therefore forced to ignore sign after sign tempting
us with one world-class attraction after another. Look
there goes Glass Rock
Museum at Blanding
we speed past them all. The
road splits at Navajo Twin Rocks and we take U.S. Route 163
west, straight past the Valley
of the Gods.
In seeking the assurance of a guaranteed bed
I'd signed away our freedom to explore. As I say, you've got
to make compromises, but this felt like one too far. Utah
is a truly exceptional place with far more than its fair share
of natural beauty. This is unfinished business.
Two of the worlds most recognizable natural features
live up to the promise