“Thank God you’re not French!” said the man signing in at the trailhead.
“Well, actually, I’m part French,” I told him.
“Well you’re not from there. We can be thankful for that!”
He was actually nice enough. We were signing into a log sheet in a metal drawer mounted on a post at the trailhead for the Peek-a-Boo and Spooky slot canyons in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, one million acres of which our dear leader has tried to turn over to coal and mining companies.
I was guessing the guy was upset because a European couple next to him had perhaps not waited their turn to sign in, so he thought they were French. But they were German, it turned out.
The hike down to the canyons was over steep and smooth volcanic outcropping and on for a couple miles to where a set of footholds in the vertical face allowed the nimble to climb into the canyon.
I had seen plenty of pictures of the glorious red sandstone, rendered by desert rainstorms over thousands of years into ovals and curving, liquid shapes.
A pair of younger hikers carried their two dogs up the footholds into the canyon with moderate ease, and I figured I had come that far. So realizing that there was a decent chance of breaking a leg, I nevertheless managed to work my way up the face and into the canyon.
Inside, the gorgeous ovals and curves etched into the red sandstone, with a shaft of bright sunlight illuminating one side of the canyon, provided the images I wanted. I got my pictures and half climbed, half slid back down the rock face and to the terra firma of the desert floor.
That was Peek-a-Boo. A little further was Spooky, which was only as wide as a person sideways. I could feel the rock on my back and chest at the same time, as I squeezed along. And I could imagine the narrow current of a flash flood cutting the sandstone like a saw to create the admittedly claustrophobia-inducing slot.
After the scramble back over the smooth outcroppings of the trail, and a long walk back to the car, I ate a Subway sandwich on the hood of the black Audi A-4, covered with dust after 25 miles of washboard on dirt roads. The sandwich was washed down with a warm beer. There’s nothing like it.
That evening, we had dinner at a place called the Devil’s Garden Grill where the fare was gourmet Mexican. I had the taco salad and pork tamale along with two delicious, cold glasses of Squatter’s Provo Girl Pilsner, a local beer on draft.
All of it was excellent. Paintings and photographs by local artists lined the walls.
It seemed that everybody in this region was casual, direct and friendly, as was our waitress. She was also quite thin and without meaning anything by it referred to my “marathon meal.”
The guests were eclectic, a combination of hikers, locals, one young, single woman, a tough-looking guy with a ponytail, worn, black jeans and boots, accompanied by a young daughter, and camper-traveling retirees.
I had talked with a pair of hikers on the trail to the slot canyons, a mixed-race couple who were sweet and friendly. I saw them at the restaurant and we talked as they left.
He told me they were retired and from Chicago. He said they had enjoyed hiking. “So we bought a trailer,” he said with a grin. Last year, they traveled for three weeks. “This time,” he said, “it’s 12 weeks.”
He had a remarkably peaceful, happy, and warm demeanor.
The next day we were back on Highway 89 to see a dinosaur museum run by the BLM. But it was a bust, containing mostly replicas. Continuing south, again on a whim, we pulled over at the visitor center at Glen Canyon dam. A National Park Service ranger patiently answers questions from a line of visitors, providing maps and circles points of interest.
I wanted to swim in Lake Powell and he circled a spot next to the “hanging gardens,” just on the other side of the dam. He volunteered that the gardens didn’t amount to much. “But,” he added, “around here we celebrate water.”
The weather was hot and dry and the hanging garden was indeed not much, a scraggly set of ferns lining a rock face under a massive outcropping. But I still wanted to swim.
A young, tanned, shirtless, fit, British man, standing behind a rented camper with his girlfriend, pointed the way down to Lake Powell and described small inlets where the rock meets the water.
“But the water is quite cold,” he warned.
The hike down to the lake was over steep, bulging formations of smooth, white rock lined with lateral grooves. Hot and tired, I made it to the bottom where the clear, brilliant, blue-green water washed against the white face of the rock – no sand, no plants, just rock and water – and jumped in.
The water was cold. It was glorious.