Devils Garden

January 8th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Dancing with the sun.

The next day, we headed due north to Arches National Park. The ride was about two hours, and we passed ridges and land formations and dusty dwellings on the way to the town of Moab. It was a surprisingly happening spot in the middle of a vast deserted showcase of monoliths creased out of sand, rock, wind and ocean currents. Moab reminded me a bit of Chiang Mai, near the Burmese border in northern Thailand, a sort of backpackers’ filling station and hangout, just a whole lot more expensive. Here, adventurers regrouped before rock climbing, mountain biking or white-water rafting on the Colorado River.

We decided to forego yet another lunch in the RV of cold cut sandwiches and, the pizza lovers that we were, found ourselves at a small, pretty basic-looking storefront eatery. Our order of two large pies seemed a bit much for just us. Surprisingly, we plowed through it all, and then John and I pored over the Lonely Planet Guidebook to Southwest USA while the kids watched I Dream of Jeannie on a TV in the back room. (John reminded me yet again that this was one of his boyhood favorite shows, so much that he kept a magazine cut-out picture of Barbara Eden in his plastic Flintstones wallet. He was obviously drawn to her curves and smile; I simply loved her bubbliness.)

By this time we had come to an understanding that commercial RV parks were pretty much just nondescript parking lots, with a smattering of trees and a hookup to dump your refuse, fill up water tanks and connect to a power source — all essentials to a family traveling for a while in an RV. But the ambiance wasn’t there. For something more, there are the national parks. (We took a friend’s advice and had purchased online an $80 pass that would get us into all the parks for the next year instead of paying between $10 and $25 to get into each park. Staying in a federal park’s campground is an additional cost, but the entry fee is waived.)

It was late afternoon, all the campgrounds in the Arches were full. So we made reservations for the next day (most take reservations up to four days in advance), then headed back to one of the nondescript RV parks. With the electric hookup, we switched on our AC and kept it on all night. (If there wasn’t an electrical source at the campground, running our generator could become costly. Cruise America charges $3 per hour to run the RV’s generator, plus the cost of the natural gas.) In the morning, I did two large loads of laundry while taking a dip with the kids in the Arctic-frigid swimming pool. The pool deck was barren except for a man with tattoos covering his body, and with piercings on his lower lip, nipples and ears. An attractive woman lounged beside him and nodded occasionally as he guzzled his second Monster energy drink while rambling on about how much he partied the night before. Ah, romance blooming poolside at an RV park. I thought of what I was missing out on, being married for 18 years and three children to boot. Not much, it appears.

Back to the laundry, then time to move on. By high noon, it was hotter than a three-dollar pistol. The thought of going to the Arches campground didn’t hold much appeal at this time of day, but we wanted to stake our claim on the site that we had reserved the day before. We couldn’t resist being drawn into what lay before us: clusters of sandstone mounds, varying in shape and breadth, reaching more than 20 stories high. Size again was at a giant’s scale, and it was truly breathtaking. This area is known for its arches, forever in flux as the ground shifts and they crumble at times. What started as a quick stopping point for John to take a few photos turned out to be a two-hour hike until nearly dark. We meandered through crevices of monstrous slip rocks, then an arch emerged deep within our footpath. Richard played “babysitter” to Francesca as they both held crooked sticks to secure their steps. Then to wildly swing at each other. Konstantin scurried up the red rocks and tumbled down sand hills, with the others following him in scorching heat topping 100 degrees. Every guidebook advises to have a gallon of water for each hiker, and I can understand why.

We climbed into the RV and drove a few more minutes to our campground slot Number 48, equipped with a fire pit, a picnic table and a nearby communal toilet without running water. Before darkness fell, we went on another trek. We passed by long-eared rabbits and tracks of other small animals. The boys found a boulder that reached up to a large opening. After a long struggle, they finally climbed on each other’s shoulders to reach the opening and carried on with their exploring from high above. Usually John lets them go off on their own if they want to do some “Indiana Jonesing”, but after a while he was getting a bit concerned himself and started calling for them. My mind raced: predators, sun stroke, falling down a large opening, or something even worse, even more unimaginable. Lost in the desert. My heart started racing alongside my thoughts of doom.

Trying to reach the opening above.

Finally, a faint, distant response from above, and we looked up while walking toward their voices. I’m just not into heights at all, so my stomach did a slight tumble when I spotted the boys way up high, in the center of what is called Landscape Arch. I ogled at their tiny bodies the size of my fingertip, then cringed and turned away as John told them to stand taller and go out a bit more so he could take a photo. My mothering instinct took over and I just wasn’t into it anymore. I couldn’t watch.

An apprehensive (and cheering) mom watches her sons in the arch.

Just before it became totally dark, we went back to camp and John started a fire in the pit while I washed up the kids in the RV’s shower. We grilled chicken and had that with white rice and peas (a favorite staple from our Hong Kong days) and then topped it off with Richard’s version of S’mores: sandwiching a toasted marshmallow between an Oreo cookie. Talk about a sugar injection.

It wasn’t a good night, with temperatures seeming to hang in around 80 degrees with very little breeze. Inside the RV, our sleeping arrangements oftentimes shifted, but pretty much were as follows: The boys slept in an expansive bed above the driver’s area, in the front cabin. Francesca was in a convertible bed that, by day, was a dining table. And John and I slept in a curtained-off queen-sized bed in the back of the RV. Konstantin woke up three times: once for water, another to move in with Francesca, and a third time to move back to his bed. Before each move, he tapped my leg to let me know what he was doing, while shirtless Daddy slumbered away.

Our plan was to wake up at 6 and climb more rocks. At 7 a.m., after an utterly restless sleep (if there are no electrical hookups at federal campgrounds, generators usually cannot be run between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.), I pulled myself out of bed, poured cool water out of the cooler and filled it with more ice from the freezer, boiled water over the gas stove to make coffee in our French press, and sat outside to write.

Before me was a red sandstone formation, and the sun was already making a pronounced statement. I drank my coffee and waited for the dark liquid to jump-start my engines. A small squirrel came to my feet, and an unusually blue-colored bird and a black crow swooped near a tree limb nearby. By 8:15 a.m. a group of Japanese tourists attempted to scale one of the rocks, stopped halfway and then collectively turned around for their guide to take a group photo. Then my little Francesca woke up and, in true form, stated, “I’m hungreeeeee.”

Our breakfast wouldn’t be a usual order for any roadside diner: Francesca, scrambled eggs, white rice and blueberries. Richard, just white rice (he isn’t much of an early-morning eater). John, Special K with berries. Me, oatmeal, and Konstantin was yet to be determined. At 9:15 a.m., he was still in bed. As I look around this cul-de-sac shaped driveway with camping lots spaced evenly off the road, I see a fellow Cruise America family parked nearby. There was also a van with a folding table set up beside it with the huge spread of breads and cheeses, coffee and pastries. Ah, the French know how to set up a campsite. Then there was a two-person pop tent right next to us that sheltered a young couple. I felt bad that they were stuck next to us, following a night of giggling and horseplaying by our two boys playing iPod Monopoly from their bed.

Then someone’s car alarm goes off, echoing into the caverns and reminding nature that we humans were here. After an eternity (10 seconds) the honking stops, and we are quickly put in our place. The earth dominates again with its awesomeness.

We befriended three chipmunks and Richard started tossing blueberries to them, which they happily held in their front paws and nibbled away. Even with Francesca chasing after them in her underwear and tank top, they came back for more within minutes. I guess the choice was to scavenge food from a dry desert with a bunch of big rocks and little vegetation, or eat succulent blueberries while a 3-year-old girl tried to catch you. They chose dodge-the-girl-and-eat-the-blueberries diet.

A fine morning.

So here I am now, catching up on some writing in the parking lot of Sand Dune Arch, watching tourists with bottles in hand, sunglasses on and hats pulled down to shadow their eyes even more. Soon enough, I found myself shifting into the RV, generator churning away with the AC cranked, while John and the kids explore outside. I’m looking at the map to get an idea of where else we should stop in the Arches, and the names given to the various points sound intriguing, but not quite the oasis that I was now yearning: Fiery Furnace, Salt Valley, Dark Angel, Devils Garden. I go back to writing until the rest of the gang return and we move onward to our next destination, wherever that may be here in the searing Southwest.