Monday, Oct. 1
Left the Ruby's Campground at dawn and made my way east on Highway 12. Another sleepless night in the bare-bones cabin left me foggy-headed, irritable and a bit depressed for the initial part of the drive, but that changed real quick. The first stretch from Bryce on Highway 12 isn't anything notable in comparison to what lay ahead - though I did enjoy a little interpretive pull-off area about the geology of the region - but as I approached Escalante, wow. And I do mean, wow. I felt like I knew the drive intimately after watching a thousand YouTube videos of Highway 12, but the dramatic scenery has to be seen in person.
I wanted to jump out of my car to take photos - and in many instances did - at every twist and turn in the road, each one revealing a more spectacular vista than the one before. Amazing. I eventually reached the Kiva Koffeehouse at mile marker 74 on Highway 12. This was a planned stop, as I wanted to take in the views here and relax with my first sit-down breakfast after four full weeks on the road - every single morning up until then it was PB&J sandwiches and Clif Bars, which was fine up to a point. Relaxed on the outdoor patio with my green tea, eggs, wheat toast, ect. (love the fact they have healthy food here), and had the place to myself. So relaxing.
Struck up a conversation with my server and asked her about Calf Creek Falls. There is so much to see from Escalante to Torrey, and I had only one day, so decisions needed to be made. In the months leading up to the trip I had hemmed and hawed about doing the Calf Creek Falls hike. With all due respect here, while it is recommended quite often on the Utah forum, I never sensed the "wow" factor from advice given here compared to many other hikes in the region. It seemed like something worth doing if you had the time, but not a must. Well, my server at Kiva said it was an absolute must. I had decided against it during my planning because I thought it would eat too much out of the day and leave me with little time for much else, but my server literally talked me into it. And after all, how can you turn down the chance to see a breathtaking waterfall in the middle of the desert?
Well, let me tell you, it was worth every second - another top-five hike on my entire 6-week road trip. Loved the diversity of the landscape (including all the plants and flowers), the interpretive pamphlet you pick up at the trailhead that describes the fascinating geologic and cultural history of the area, the striking beauty of this canyon with towering cliffs all around you, and that's all before you arrive at the featured attraction - a stunning waterfall that hurls itself into a pristine plunge pool down below, rivaling pretty much any of the multitude of beautiful falls here in Western North Carolina. I was in my glory, and got to share it all with a fun couple that I hiked with and then a small group at the falls itself, where we all took a dip in the freezing cold water and took photos of one another. I loved, loved, loved this hike. TIP: If you can, get to the falls by noon, ideally, or at least before 1:00, so you get the sun's light beaming on the falls. It disappeared out of the cove right at 1:00 on my visit.
After running the 2.5 to 3 miles back to the trailhead (ankle starting to slowly heal at this point), I was so energized and excited still that I continued on running for another 15 minutes on Highway 12 with the huge red-rock cliffs towering above me, though the early afternoon sun beating down on me put a halt to that.
Continued on east on Highway 12 and, because of my lengthy hike at Calf Creek, something else had to give. My top priority today was the Burr Trail Road, but when I saw the sign for Devil's Backbone Bridge - a place that intrigued me greatly during my trip planning - I made a "sperm of the moment" decision (as Archie Bunker would say) and banged a left-hand turn on that road where I saw a woman walking, so I stopped and asked her how long of a drive it was to the bridge. She said it was "oh, about 10 or 15 minutes" so I went for it - a decision I'd seriously regret. You drive on this twisty, bumpy dirt road - and I mean really bumpy in some sections - and it goes on and on and on and on and on .... I was seriously cursing that woman as the drive went on and on and on and on and I seemingly got nowhere. Yet, the further I went, the more determined I was to make it to the end, which at one point seemed like it wouldn't come until the following week. Finally, as the road up this mountain got steeper and steeper and I got hope that it would actually end somewhere, my fear of heights kicked in like almost nowhere else during the trip, with steep drop-offs as you navigate the sharp switchbacks on this slippery dirt road. As you can probably tell, I'm not in a good mood at this point, but finally I made it.
Totally alone at this dramatic site, I marveled at this bridge perched precipitously over the steep, narrow gorge below. This was one of the most rugged landscapes I had seen on my entire trip, with jagged cliffs rising above this deep, narrow gorge. And in the distant mountains were these bizarre looking streaks of yellow - the aspens - like God had taken a paint brush and stroked it yellow across these ridges. Amazing sight, indeed.
Despite knowing I was screwed on time, the ride back down was much more enjoyable. I drove past a couple cow herds roaming right in the road, and with the smattering of aspen groves and the late afternoon sun now beaming at an angle, my mood skyrocketed. So much so, in fact, that I got out of the car, parked it in the middle of the road (not a another soul around), cracked a beer and just hung out taking photos of the cows walking just a few feet from me. Eventually I made it back down the mountain to Highway 12, but by this time it was late in the day, and when I reached the Burr Trail Road, I had run out of time. I started it, and made it about 5 minutes down the road, but realized that I didn't want to be driving Highway 12 in the dark, and still had a ways to go to Torrey, so I turned around and came back and continued east on Highway 12.
This is when one of the most magical parts of my six-week journey, and then by far the worst, occurred. I began ascending Boulder Mountain, a scene I'll never forget as long as I live: Cows roaming the roadway amid thick clusters of aspens in their full golden glory, with the distant Utah mountain ranges as a backdrop, and the sun setting behind it all. Wow - magical! I could not have been more excited and energized, and I was pulling over literally every minute or two to snap photos. The drive over Boulder Mountain was so spectacular with the aspens that it became the single biggest influence in returning specifically to this region at the beginning of October this year to recapture the magic and spend a little more time there.
Unfortunately, the time I spent snapping photos put me even further behind on time, and by the time I descended Boulder Mountain it was getting dark. And then, feeling like I was on top of the world, a deer ran out in front of me. I remember thinking in that split second: Whew!!! I missed him. Then another deer behind the first one, and same thing: Whew!!! And then, a third crossed the road - this is all in a split second - and I wasn't so lucky. I nailed the third deer flush on his backside and saw him fly toward the side of the road. It was one of the most sickening feelings of my entire life. And I had two cars behind me, so I had no chance to figure out what to do - should I stop and at least check on the poor thing? But what could I have done? Nothing. So I took myself and my rattled nerves into Torrey, checked into the Capitol Reef Inn and called 911. A very, very nice and compassionate dispatcher listened to my sob story and said there was a wildlife specialist in the area and that she'd send him out there to look for the deer if possible.
So then I'm on the phone with the girl I was dating at the time, and she helped calm me down and then made an extremely generous offer to treat me to dinner at Cafe Diablo (a gesture I can still appreciate despite not-so-admirable actions later in my trip that caused us to end things, but this is not a Dr. Phil episode so I'll end it there). I didn't even want to go to Cafe Diablo at this point - the image of the deer flying through the air was engrained in my brain, and the thought of enjoying a gourmet meal made me feel pretty darned guilty - but Tanya talked me into it, then actually called the restaurant and arranged it with them to pay via her credit card over the phone, and telling me to order whatever I wanted. So I did: rattlesnake patties for an appetizer (not much flavor to them, actually), the rib plate which was an awesome culinary presentation, a yummy dessert (which I hardly ever have), and a couple of much-needed beers. I also sat outside on the patio next to a nice young couple who I would accidentally run into in Moab a couple days later and enjoy the entire Devil's Garden hike with (I saw on Facebook they just got married last month). It was a good way to end an otherwise horrific evening, which followed one of the most magical days of the entire trip.
In the words of John Lennon, strange days indeed.