the sandstone cliffs and lush greenery of Zion National
Park to the searing heat and inhospitable desert of the
Wah Wah Mountains, Peter Thody explores the southwest
corner of Utah, discovers his favorite bar in the whole
of America and decides that, like the outlaw Josey Wales,
he wants to settle here.
Arrive in southern Utah on U.S. Highway 89 and
the first place you hit is Kanab, an unremarkable sprawl of
gas stations, real estate businesses and RV parks, and about
as unlikely a candidate for the sobriquet "Little Hollywood"
as it's possible to imagine. But so numerous were the cowboy
films shot around here in the 1930s that this did indeed become
the town's nickname.
The natural beauty of the surrounding area has
attracted the TV and movie industry ever since, and it's the
preserved set of Clint Eastwood's 1976 film "The Outlaw
Josey Wales" that tempts us into town. Actually, the
Old Pariah movie set (named after the nearby Mormon ghost
town) is a good half-hour's drive east and, we've been told,
involves picking up a dirt road at some point, so we call
in at the tourist office for directions.
"Old Pariah? Oh dear, I'm afraid it burned
down in 2006," we're told. "They're rebuilding it
but I don't believe they've got any further than the foundations."
While the charred remains of a burnt-out homestead
might have been quite evocative, my enthusiasm for Clint-related
memorabilia doesn't quite stretch to concrete footings so
we skip it and head west instead, through high desert and
on to Zion
Arriving at the east entrance and making our
way into the park on the Zion - Mount Carmel Highway, I'm
immediately struck by the change in geology. While the beauty
of much of what we've driven through this morning has been
in its rugged inhospitality, Zion is nothing short of magnificent.
At first the rock formations are soft and rounded,
the curved, layered patterns emphasizing their smooth, organic
shapes. As we get further into the park, this landscape gives
way to a bigger and greener scenery of cliffs and canyons,
all created by the Virgin River, which rushes down the Zion
Canyon. Although no more than maybe five or six miles long,
the drive from the east entrance to the south entrance takes
us a good hour as every bend reveals a new scene to be marvelled
If you're planning to follow this route, be aware
that the Zion
- Mount Carmel Tunnel was built in the 1920s when vehicles
were smaller and fewer in number than today. If you're driving
an RV, bus or camper, or pulling a boat or trailer, you'll
need to pay a fee for the traffic to be halted while you drive
down the middle of the road.
Zion is Utah's busiest national park so we've
booked lodging ahead, choosing Springdale's Majestic
View Lodge on the likelihood that it will offer better
views than the Really Rather Disappointing View Motel. And
the gamble pays off. Stepping out from our very large and
very comfortable room onto our private balcony, we look out
over the pool toward the park itself and enjoy what are indeed
truly majestic views.
There's one more treat still waiting to be discovered.
Over in the main lodge there's a saloon with its own brewery
(usual Utah rules apply: drinks for members and diners only)
along with a steakhouse and a gift shop selling the usual
leather and feather knickknacks. But what sets this place
apart from any hotel I've ever stayed in is its incredible
collection of dead animals (or "wildlife museum,"
as it's euphemistically described). There are grizzly bears,
black bears, Kodiak bears and a polar bear. There are boars,
badgers, beavers, bobcats, bucks and bison. In one amazingly
lifelike scene, four timber wolves are attempting to bring
down a Yukon moose.
I can only presume that the investment (and carnage
to North American wildlife) is justified by the extra traffic
the display brings to the gift shop, but you'd need to sell
an awful lot of rugs, dolls and moccasins to cover the cost
of this extraordinary attraction.
The next day we hit that point that eventually
arrives on any trip, when a combination of factors - fatigue,
the availability of a pool, and the need to wash clothes being
just three of them - forces you to slow down a little. Zion
may be one of nature's most beautiful jewels but, you know
what?, today we're taking it easy.
Not for us the leg-jellying Walter's
Wiggles cliff ascent, a series of 21 switchbacks constructed
in the 1920s under the supervision of the park's first custodian,
Walter Ruesch, or the acrophobia-inducing Angels
Landing ridge trail with its 1,000-foot drops to either
side. No, today we accept our position at the bottom of the
tourist food chain, find a seat on the park's shuttle bus
and listen attentively as a pre-recorded park ranger describes
what's passing by our air-conditioned cocoon.
At the top we get out and enjoy an easy stroll
up to The Narrows, where the canyon, yep, narrows and the
footpath disappears into river. And then we turn around and
take the shuttle bus all the way back down to the visitor
There are any number of trails for more eager
or energetic visitors but for us, a morning of scenery, photography
and minimal exercise followed by an afternoon of swimming,
sunbathing and snoozing is just what's needed. And just when
we think that to be any more relaxed would see us fall over
backwards, we follow the recommendation of our shuttle bus
driver and head for the wonderful Bit
and Spur Restaurant and Saloon.
This is one of those places that's so genuinely
welcoming that you immediately feel at home. After a couple
of Provo Girl Pilsners at the bar we take our seats on the
patio, sip Francis Ford Coppola California Classic and watch
hummingbirds darting to and fro while waiting for our calamari,
brie, salad and local bread. What a day. Perfect.
Later, I get into conversation with Tricia, one
of our servers, and tell her that there's something so special
about Springdale we could imagine living here. Instead of
dismissing the notion as foolish wine talk, she sees this
as completely normal and starts to tell us how to make it
"Sure!" she says. "You need to
speak with my friend, she moved here from England. Maybe you
should think about Virgin, just down the road? That's where
I'm building my house."
The next day, promising ourselves we'll be back,
we leave Zion and head north on Interstate 15, diverting briefly
to say hi to the good folks of Leeds,
Utah (pop. 547), a town named after our home city of Leeds,
England (pop. 747,939). In fact, I do slightly more than that,
calling in at the town hall to see if they have anything on
the history of the place. Before I even get to ask, the lady
behind the desk recognises that I'm from "the other Leeds"
and presents me with a 200-page souvenir book. I like to imagine
the staff in our town hall would be equally helpful, but somehow
I doubt it.
Eighty miles north on Interstate 15 and we reach
Beaver, turn left onto State Highway 21 and, after lunching
on what can most charitably be described as "authentic
diner cuisine" at Milford, head west into the desert.
And suddenly we're as close to the middle of nowhere as I
have ever experienced.
I was going to describe it as empty but we see
more deer and antelope playing on this particular range than
anywhere else on our journey - possibly because there's nowhere
to hide. And the views! As we crest yet another 6,000-foot
summit of the wonderfully-named Wah Wah Mountains, the next
perfectly straight section of hardtop stretches out in front
of us, drawing us ever deeper into this arid wilderness.
The 60-or-so miles west from Milford to the one-horse
town of Garrison on the state line are pretty much devoid
of any sign of human habitation other than the turn-off to
the Desert Range Experimental Station (which, depending on
which Google search results you're inclined to believe, is
either the site of all kinds of sinister extraterrestrial/military
activity, or a research center specialising in the effects
of sheep grazing). It's a road that's incredibly fun to drive
and, as we leave Utah, I realise that we haven't stopped smiling
the whole time we've been here. It's that kind of place.
August 22, 2008> Nevada: Slots, Cyanide Leaching and
a Little Lunacy in the Desert