After the ordeal with the trailer (which wasn't even an ordeal, I mean, really, it was stunning and miraculous in its non-ordeal-ness), we made our way to Capitol Reef National Park. This was a maintenance day—we were getting information about the park, but not actually visiting. I needed to get to the private campground in the next town over, get everyone showered, do all the laundry, finally be clean. Kids swam in the clean pool, everyone got showers in at the clean bathroom, and I washed all the sheets and dirty clothes in the clean laundry room. It was a perfect day. Everyone was chill. I have to remember that 7 year olds don't care much about giant rock formations or even petroglyphs or ranger talks. But a nicely maintained pool or a train trip up a mountain (Pikes Peak, on our first day, which was a lot of fun), and a 7 year old boy and 11 year old girl are quite happy.
So after a very windy night during which I could recall all my dreams (because I kept waking up kind of afraid—there was this trip to a state park several years ago that involved a traumatic thunderstorm), we got up, ate yogurt and fruit and granola, and headed into the park.
And then headed back out because we forgot to buy ice. But then we headed into the park and stopped at some turnoffs to take pretty pictures. All good. There was a scenic drive we'd learned about the day before, and we headed out. Did the turn off into a wash area, a well maintained dirt road, and stopped at the first turn off.
At a uranium mine.
Let me pause here and tell you what Capitol Reef is all about. It has amazing scary large-scale cliffs in several colors. Huge monument looking things. It is dry, red and yellow rocks, but there is a river that runs through it, and it was home to the Fremont Culture for seven hundred years or so. But they disappeared one way or another and it stood empty until Mormon settlers made a home along the river, planting orchards and carving out a simple life. They left in the 30s and 40s, and then it became national land. The orchards are still there along the river, and we stopped and ate apricots right off the tree. It's all very garden of Eden feeling, except.
An abandoned uranium mine. Actually four of them, caged off with the spooky radiation warning signs. Don't stay in the area longer than a day and don't drink the water.
We drove on, down the wash road, and stopped again at Cassidy Arch. Cassidy, you might know, is my favorite Grateful Dead song. It is also Niles' middle name. I could look up at the cliff and see the arch, obscured slightly but still visible.
And I was charmed by it, standing there in this dry dusty rocky wash, looking up at an arch that shares my son's name. I wanted to go there. We read the sign. Only 1.7 miles up, and then return. I have done harder hikes. So much harder.
The kids were not interested, and I found myself thinking, “I could do it alone. I practically did the Mt. Cammerer hike in the Smokies alone, I mean, I was the only adult.”
We headed back to the scenic drive, past the uranium mine, and down the way, past huge cliffs and crumbling sand at their bases. And something hit me. It was just a creepy place all of a sudden.
But on the way back, in the little historic village, there was pie. With ice cream. And we ate pie together (the girls split a cinnamon roll, not pie fans). And I wanted to take that Cassidy Arch hike. And I wanted to get the hell out of this place. I kept debating. We headed to the visitor center and I asked a ranger, a woman half my age, about that hike.
“It's strenuous,” she warned. I told her I'd done strenuous, but I was worried about the weather. The whole area had warning about sudden floods and how we were responsible for our own safety. She pointed me to the forecast posted on the wall. And then turned to another ranger for his opinion.
“You get up there, and a thunderstorm happens?” he started. “You're on pure slickrock. No place to hide.”
I thought about the Appalachian trail and how many scores of places to hide there were.
“But tomorrow morning, you could take the chance,” he shrugged.
Then the first ranger pointed to the map. Showed me a short trail that followed the river to another arch. But this one wasn't named Cassidy. I wanted to take that trip. Up to that cliff in that toxic dry land.
We went to a ranger talk about the Fremont People. People who lived here and then disappeared. How we don't even know what they called themselves, just what they ate and how they lived and the art they drew on the walls of the canyon. And I felt haunted.
We went to the old school for the orchard workers' children, and I burst into tears. The interpretative signage had a recording of the voice of a teacher who worked there in 1934-1935. And how she couldn't do more than a year, it was too hard, but she cried when she left. I looked through the windows at the tiny building. I read the sign about the family that had pushed for the school. I looked at the pictures of the last few years' students. And I kept crying.
I told Bixby that I was tired and needed to head back to the campground. The skies were threatening storms and I wanted to get dinner done before dark. And I felt so lonely and homesick and strange in this place, I just needed to get out again.
“I can't do that hike,” I told him as we left. “Let's go to Bryce Canyon tomorrow and if we want to, we'll come back and do that one along the river. If we want to, before we head to Zion.”
“I think that's the wisest choice,” he agreed.
“I don't want to be reckless,” I said, my voice a whisper. Why was this place making me feel this way?
We headed back to the campground, which was windy but no rain. Got a fire started for dinner. Our campsite is at the back of the campground, with a stunning view of more of those huge red cliffs with the rubble at the bottom. I sat on the picnic table and stared at them. So magnificent, so out of proportion to anything in my everyday life. But so broken, like palaces built and abandoned. Arches National Park, you can feel the oldness, you can see the weathering and age. Smokies, too. The Smokies, in fact, has such a good feel to it, so relaxed and broken in.
This place felt broken down—no, it felt SHATTERED. So dry and sharp and harsh, but while it is beautiful, it evokes a hollow fear in my heart.
“I can't look at them anymore,” I told Bixby. I tried to explain it.
“Well, if you were my ex-girlfriend, I'd say you were bothered by ghosts,” he answered.
Maybe it's ghosts. But it feels more like an empty oppressive presence, a vastness, an absence of peace. Malevolence. There are apricot trees and fruit pies and chill friendly helpful rangers, and a stark beauty like nothing I've ever seen—and I'm glad I've seen it—but it's not right in my heart.
I'm not sad we went. It was not a mistake. I am so glad we went. Because I need to be reminded of those feelings and those places as well. But I'm glad when my heart said, “that hike will harm you”, that I listened. I think it would have been a mistake. And I'm not sad that I didn't take that path.