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Monday, December 14, 2015

Moki Dugway and the Hawaiian Rolls of Muley Point

The view from the top of Moki Dugway, Cedar Mesa in the distance.

State Route 261 is part of Utah's Trail of the Ancients, an official National Scenic Byway. Just outside Mexican Hat, the road's southern end starts out benignly enough. Flat, straight highway rolls out along the high plains, Monument Valley and Valley of the Gods monoliths off in the distance to either side. A large mesa looms ahead, and as you get closer you think "Geez, I wonder how the road gets around that thing?" But the road doesn't veer off, it keeps heading straight for the cliffs. That's when you notice the warning signs start to pop up: Unimproved Road Ahead, Sharp Curves, Steep Grades. Hmmmm, you think. Am I'm supposed to drive straight up this monstrous thing?

Hmm, this looks serious...

Is there even a road up there?
I guess we're going up.
Moki Dugway was built, as most things in this part of the country, as an access road for a mine. It's 10% grade is dug into the mesa side, clinging to the edge like a crooked red snake. It's actually well maintained and fairly wide; not the nail biting, corrugated stomach churner in which some of the other western states seem to specialize (I recall one Forest Service road in the Sierra foothills we followed that ended badly: a one lane, blind corner cliffside nightmare. It was one of those experiences where upon reaching the end you realize you haven't taken a full breath since you took that first wrong turn. But that's another story.)

We put the truck into low and started crawling up the grade, pausing at the wide switchbacks to take photos of our friends' vehicle as they ascended ahead of us. The views were stunning, made all the more dramatic by the gathering rain clouds across the valley. Almost to the top, evidence of a vehicle that didn't take the 15 mph speed limit seriously lay crumpled at the bottom of a culvert, the crushed and rusty car mashed up against some rocks at the bottom. For most of the three mile length and 1200 foot elevation, the Moki Dugway has no guardrails. It's best to take it slow and pay attention to the road.
Craig and Rasa's truck above us on the switchbacks.
Looking back, halfway up.
Another view

Look carefully down this ravine; an old car lies crumpled against a rock.

At the top, we took the first left to explore the Muley Point area and try to find the "Hawaiian Rolls" our friend Craig had found on Google Earth. This area is known as Cedar Mesa.

Navigating our way through the free range cattle, Cedar Mesa Road.

The top of the Cedar Mesa is dotted with scrubby sagebrush and juniper, it's reddish sandstone base mostly flat. There are several unmarked roads leading off the main drag; we decided to go to the point first and explore the most promising side trails on the way back.

The manly men of Muley Point (Craig in green, Mark in black)
At the official Muley Point terminus, we parked our trucks and looked over the edge, nothing but a few randomly placed rock cairns to mark the cliff's edge (you gotta love the personal responsibility inherent in BLM land exploration). We looked down at the crumbled sandstone of the cliff face and realized we were looking at pieces of the square blocks that formed the whole mesa. The blocks we were standing on were starting to separate, leaving wide cracks we could squeeze through and climb down the face a little ways. As we edged through the cracks we found petroglyphs carved into the desert varnish. Symbols of horses, snakes and human figures adorned the walls; it made us feel a little better about being down between these massive rocks. We would live to explore another day!

The "rolls" crack off occasionally and fall down the cliff, as seen in this photo. Doesn't seem like much, until you consider those trees on the cliff top are full size, at least 20 feet tall.

Mark entering one of the cracks between the rolls.
Here he is at the intersection of four rolls.

One of the petroglyphs between the rolls.
The view from the void left by a falling roll. (The grey thing on the left is my knee. It's a little unnerving to look through a wide angle lens at the edge of a sheer drop–objects are closer than they appear as the saying goes–so I found it prudent to kneel.)
For scale, Mark is standing on top of the roll closest to the camera (waving from the middle right third of the photo). I didn't notice it was hanging in space until we got home and downloaded the photos.

We took some pictures and poked around before heading back down the road. Craig had some GPS coordinates for the "Hawaiian Roll" photo location we were trying to find.

There is another road that follows the base of Cedar Mesa's cliffs for miles. Next time...
Me atop Cedar Mesa, Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley and  Goosenecks State Park behind me.
A quick lunch stop with a marvelous view, Cedar Mesa.
The sandstone on Cedar Mesa has eroded in an interesting way. Over time, the stone has fractured into even squares and wind and rain have rounded the tops, forming what looks like tightly packed rolls. At the edge of the mesa, they occasionally crack off like a rotten tooth and tumble down the cliff, exposing the neighboring tooth and it's smooth sides. Standing right on top of one you might  not realize what's going on. Climb up a rise (or better yet get into an airplane) and view it from above and the series of squares are obvious, delineated by dark cracks where seeds lodge, water collects, and bushes and trees take hold, increasing the separation of the squares.

The "Hawaiian Roll" photo that started this whole quest.
(photo credit: Adriel Heisey)

We drove down a long dirt road and found the approximate location of the aerial photo that had so intrigued Craig. We wandered out on the rocks, jumping over large puddles that had formed during those big thunderstorms we'd driven through the day before. It was a great place to poke around, with beautiful views on both sides of the narrow plateau.

The views from Cedar Mesa are stunning. Notice the red tinge on the cloud's belly, a reflection of the red rock below.
Yucca flowers
The rains had left ponds on top of the mesa.

A tree does it's best to widen the cracks between rolls.
We discovered this sign at an overlook on the Valley of the Gods side of the mesa. I
 could certainly see why Eva liked to spend time here.
On the way back along the cliff edge, the storm that had been in the distance was getting a bit too close for comfort. Being exposed on a huge piece of flat rock wasn't the smartest place to be, so we drove back toward the main road. Bumping along the narrow single track, we followed the cliff edge and looked down into the valley below. We were almost even with the cloud underbellies, and they were turning a weird black tinged with red, a reflection of the sandstone below. As we paused to take a picture a huge clap of thunder struck, shaking the truck on it's axles. Time to hightail it back to camp.

We could almost feel the electricity gathering for the next lightning strike.

A rainbow appeared as we made our way down Moki Dugway.
On the way back down, the clouds parted and a huge rainbow appeared, the end of which seemed to come right down on our camp in Valley of the Gods. The saying goes there's a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow; if there is we didn't find it. But an adventure like this is worth more than gold in my book, so in a way I guess, it's true.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Twenty-Five to Life

A quarter of a century has passed since Mark and I got married. 
October 27, 1990

Wow, that sure sounds like a long time.

When I was a kid I used to think "old people" (people younger than I am now) were crazy when they kept saying how fast time goes by. "You're getting so big!" Grandma Thelma would exclaim, "Seems like just yesterday I was rocking you to sleep."

At the time I thought Grandma was nuts. Did she know how long it took for Christmas to come? Did she know how excruciating it was to wait for the last day of school before summer vacation? It took forever! Longer than forever!

That lasted up until the end of high school. Suddenly, there didn't seem to be enough time. The first day of college turned into finals much faster than I could study. Graduating was a shock. What do you mean I have to get a job? That's when things really started speeding up.

Pre-marriage: 1988. (Those are safety glasses on Mark not a fashion misstep.
We worked in a laboratory; not sure why I wasn't wearing mine.)

No one can say we had a whirlwind romance. We were friends, we dated, we got engaged, we got married in the space of 3 years. Our first year we spent crammed into a one bedroom duplex with two big dogs, all our wedding gifts still in boxes stacked in the hallway (occasionally knocked over by one of the big dogs). When we moved to a rental house we stacked the boxes in the spare room and lived in the rest of the house. It was eight years until we bought a house and unpacked the gifts, finally serving holiday dinners on the china we received.

Tahoe 1999, pre-camper days.

We've now known each other longer than we haven't. We met when we were both 23, and we've been together for 28 years. Sounds impressive, but like Grandma used to say, it feels like just yesterday.

I look in the mirror now and am shocked by what I see. When did this happen? I still feel the same, and as long as I don't look at that reflection, I can believe it's true (that might explain the state of my hair on occasion). I'm still waiting for the day Mark and I start to look alike; they say that happens you know. God I hope not. Mark's got a pretty good beard going these days.

Backpack trip to North Dome (Half Dome in the background), 2001

I don't have any advice about how to make a marriage last; I seriously think we got lucky when we found each other. Neither of us have strong opinions that we don't agree on; that saves us from serious arguments. We both enjoy the same hobbies, and the few we don't share we've found others to share them with. We've learned how to deal with the other's grumpy days without taking offense and how to sense when to shut up and listen. We don't have kids, so either we've been living the empty nest syndrome this whole time, or we've enjoyed it so much we didn't notice.

Death Valley 2004

When our now-eighteen year old niece was five, we were teasing her, pretending to take away her favorite toy. When Mark ran off with it and I pretended to be in distress, telling her he wasn't going to come back, she just rolled her eyes at me. "He'll come back. He wouldn't leave without you because you match." At that point in her life, she had never seen us apart; she couldn't imagine it any other way.

Frankly, I can't imagine that either.
Hawaii 2005

Like a lot of couples we spent our honeymoon in Hawaii. We went back for our anniversary, this time  spending it hiking in the national park there trying to catch the volcano erupting (there's a metaphor in there somewhere, I'm sure) and snorkeling around the reefs with an eye out for sharks (another fitting metaphor I suppose).

Hawaii 2015

We had a lot of fun, because hey, how can you not have fun in Hawaii? Now that we're home we immediately started planning our next adventure.

Because that's what we do. We match.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Valley of the Gods & Goosenecks State Park: Utah's Showing Off Again

Always listen to Craig. 

That was the lesson we learned on this year's trip to the Southwest.

When planning our post-Overland Expo trip this year, a lot of emails flew back and forth in the days prior to departure. What about White Rim Trail in Canyonlands? Camping there was already booked up. How about Moab? Always fun, but crowded. Grand Canyon? We did that last year. Craig mentioned he had always wanted to go up the Moki Dugway, having been down it before but never up. And by the way, Valley of the Gods is just a hop skip and jump away from there. And after consulting a map, he realized Muley Point was just up the road, and wouldn't it be fun to go visit the Hawaiian Rolls?


That's crazy talk Craig, but ok, we're game.

A little background: Craig is an archaeologist, specializing in aviation. His work life is devoted to studying crash reports, satellite photos and old photographs looking for clues as to where missing aircraft from as far back as WWII might have gone down. When he's fairly sure he's got the right area he drives out, hikes out and tries to find the rusty bits and pieces that might indicate he's found the site. He's a man obsessed, but in a good way.

This explains in a roundabout way how he came across a this photo:

Photo Credit: Adriel Heisey

He became so enamored with this picture he spotted in an Archaeology Southwest magazine issue, he studied Google Maps satellite view until he narrowed down where it might have been taken. What he came up with was a mesa near Muley Point Utah, accessed by the Moki Dugway, just adjacent to Valley of the Gods. Voila! The perfect place to explore, and just a half days drive from Flagstaff.
The namesake for Mexican Hat, Utah.
To get to Valley of the Gods from Flagstaff, drive up highway 89, turn towards Tuba City on 160, then turn north on 163 at Kayenta. From there you cruise through the outskirts of Monument Valley to Mexican Hat, cross the San Juan river and wave hello to the Swingin' Steak Grill, and maybe stop in for one of their famous steaks, grilled to perfection as it swings over a wood fire. (Or so I've heard. We didn't actually stop. Next time!) Take the turnoff at 261 toward Goosenecks State Park and drive almost smack into the side of a huge mesa. Turn right to get to Valley of the Gods; go straight and you'll be driving up steep switchbacks cut into the side of that mesa, the famous Moki Dugway.

Wind, Dust, Thunderstorms. I'm beginning to think the name Utah is derived from the Navajo word meaning "Crappy Weather"

Now, I love Utah. I really do. The red sandstone that is so famously carved by wind and water into arches and hoodoos, towers and spires; so very grand. But why is it every time we go, the "sculpting" has to be in progress? What is it about us that attracts 50 mph wind gusts and thunderstorms followed by torrential rain? Isn't it supposed to be a desert?

Driving through Monument Valley, through wind and rain.

We convoyed with our friends, Craig and Rasa in their Toyota truck towing their gigantic tent trailer and Mel in his Wrangler with his tricked out old army Jeep trailer, our big Ford truck bringing up the rear. We watched the trailers wag back and forth in the wind ahead of us as Mark gripped the steering wheel as the truck tried to change lanes on it's own. Off to the left, huge black clouds were hanging low over the desert. Now and then a lightning bolt would stab down and seem to touch the "monuments" that make up the valley. This was going to be fun.

By the time we reached the entrance of Valley of the Gods, the wind was tearing across the park in gusts strong enough to bend the metal sign posts off kilter. We slowly drove down the gravel road, searching for a spot that was big enough for all three of our rigs, and with enough protection from the wind to allow us to pop up our respective campers and tents without having to chase them down the valley. Thankfully, we had all brought our FRS radios so we could communicate without having to get out of our trucks. If you've ever tried to get out of a car in this kind of wind you will understand the risk you take every time you open the door; watching your expensive set of topo maps along with various bits of road trip flotsam (napkins, apples cores, gas receipts) fly into the next county is not fun. Been there, done that.

Valley of the Gods is on BLM land, which means dispersed camping is allowed anywhere a previous camp has been made. Off road driving is prohibited, but there are plenty of spots to choose from, ranging from large pullouts along the main road to campsites on spur roads right beneath some of the monuments.
Circling the wagons, Overland-style. That's Craig behind his Fleetwood trailer, trying to hook things up while the wind was trying to rip everything out of his grip.
The view from camp. Not too shabby.
The storm made for a dramatic sunset that night.
As we were setting up camp in the wind, the guys from Ninkasi Brewing Company drove by, stopped, backed up and handed us some beer (they had attended Overland Expo as well). They said anyone who was willing to camp in this weather deserved a free beer.
We are now fans for life.
We found a nice spot nestled down behind a small outcropping. It was still windy, but tolerable. The saving grace of all this weather was it had rained just enough to keep the dust down. Small favors from the heavens. We set up camp then huddled in Craig and Rasa's trailer for dinner, holding onto our plates as the whole thing rocked in the wind. It definitely wasn't a-sit-around-the-campfire night.

Good morning!

The next morning Utah decided to show us it's alternate personality. Waking up to silence, we looked out the window and found it was a gorgeous, blue sky/puffy cloud/red monument/perfect kind of day. We hopped out of bed, grabbed our cameras and walked down the road before our campmates were up. If there's a better time or place to take photos than Utah at 6:00am, I don't know where that is.

Yucca flowers try to out-spire the spires in Valley of the Gods.
Evening Primrose decides to stay up until morning.

A backlit daisy seems happy the wind stopped.


A break in the clouds highlights one of the many spires in Valley of the Gods

Mark hurries back to camp after our photo shoot went a little long. Way off in the distance you can see our camp, the white dots to the left of the road under the center spire.
We were having so much fun we didn't realize how long we had been gone. When we got back to camp our mates were waiting with breakfast for us. Scrambled eggs and veggies from the garden; perfection.

It was the perfect day to take a little exploration trip and find the Hawaiian Rolls, stopping in to see Goosenecks State Park along the way.

Goosenecks State Park, Utah

Goosenecks State Park overlooks an area where the San Juan River makes multiple u-turns, cutting sharp curves through the desert floor. Standing in one spot you can look down a thousand feet and watch the river as it makes it's way through three full curves. From above, it looks like a giant wiggly W. It's a spectacular view, and there are some primitive campsites if you like flat, windy places, but there isn't much else there.

Notice the red tinge to the clouds. That's not Photoshop; the white clouds were reflecting the red earth beneath them.
The San Juan river has cut it's way 1000' into the plains of Utah.

We stood and stared down for a while as more people started pulling into the park. Turns out, this area is very popular with the European tourist crowd. There were lines of rented Harley Davidsons parked in rows along the edges of the lot. A group of riders pulled in behind our parked trucks as we were trying to leave. We waited and watched as one woman tried to back her motorcycle up to the curb. She almost made it; Craig and Mark helped her prop the bike back up after it spilled over.

Note to self: do not rent your expensive fancy motorcycle to people whose total riding experience amounts to puttering around Florence on a Vespa.

Next stop: Moki Dugway and the Hawaiian Rolls of Muley Point.

To be continued...