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Thody's American Adventures

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Utah: Landscape of a Thousand Westerns

by Peter Thody

Two 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 to sandstone.

The Apache Motel in Moab -- very welcoming, great value, loads of history and just a short walk from the busy town center

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Photo by Peter Thody


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 we go.

"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 life.

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 National Park.

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 like that.

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 … Wilson Arch … the Dinosaur 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.

Peter Thody

Next> Arizona: Two of the world’s most recognizable natural features live up to the promise

More of Thody's adventures>


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