One of my favorite things about traveling is when we find ourselves somewhere that defies all attempts to describe it. Often these places are impossibly beautiful, but they also tend to be incredibly foreign and unabashedly unique as well. I always hold a special place in my heart for these places, the ones that are so singular that you could never mistake them for anywhere else on the planet. Their “otherness” befuddles and bewilders me, and as I attempt to reconceptualize a world in which they and everywhere else I have ever experienced exist in parallel to one another, I feel as though I am acutely aware of my mind expanding.
I can never predict in advance which places will cause my synapses to explode in sensory fireworks, but I have felt this way while wandering through the chaotic, colorful streets of Kathmandu, Nepal and the close, cluttered streets of Hanoi as cauldrons of soup bubble alongside women who support themselves by selling zippers and buttons amongst a steady stream of motorcycles. I have felt it while gazing out on the rolling rice terraces of southern China while diving alongside prehistoric behemoth bumphead parrotfish in Borneo and while wandering the remains of a mighty empire in Rome. These are places where a surprise exists around every corner, where the stories run deep and history is palpable. They make the world not only feel large, but limitless too, and they reignite my excitement to spend my life exploring and witnessing what our planet has to offer. Stumbling upon these kind of places is one of the things that makes a life of travel so rewarding for me.
Often it has felt that in order to have a brush with “the other”, we have to be physically as far from home as possible; our recent road trip through Utah, which we kicked off in Moab, was a great reminder that this need not be the case.
We arrived in Utah after a day of driving through Colorado, just as the sun was setting. Although we appreciated the golden hour introduction, as we drove down route 128 onto a road called the Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway in pitch-black darkness, we couldn’t help but feel like we were missing out on something. The night was dense and velvety, our headlights the only source of illumination for miles, yet as we traced the curve of the road toward Moab, we both sensed something looming out in the distance. It felt very, very big and very, very old.
Though we are not what you would call “morning people”, when the following day dawned, we were wide awake and ready to explore. Our destination was Arches National Park or, as we (ok, I…) kept calling it in our car, “Bedrock, USA”.
Seriously, driving into Arches, it was like our car turned into a time machine and we were hurtled back to the days of the dinosaur. The landscape is such that it would not have been out of place or all that surprising if we had spotted Fred Flintstone heading off to work or some brontosauruses and wooly mammoths plodding out in the distance. The land here doesn’t just feel old, it feels timeless and eternal—like it has always been here, and predates everything.
Needless to say, it was absolutely stunning. We spent most of our time there in a dreamy daze wondering what we did to get so lucky that we should get to witness this place for ourselves.
We only intended to spend a morning at Arches, but we easily spent an entire day there slowly driving from one scenic point to the next, frequently stopping to take yet another panorama, and even tackling a few gentle hikes. It was absolutely incredible to see what time had wrought on the landscape there, these incredible arches (hence the name of the park) chiseled out by time’s patient hand, forming an enduring fingerprint of Earth’s past. Even better, because we were there in low season, hardly anyone else was there and oftentimes it was just us and the dogs and these billion-year-old rocks.
Arches is not an easy place to capture with words or pictures. The closest comparison I can come up with is to simply say that this is what I consider to be the American equivalent of Angkor Wat. It is a supremely humbling place to visit and a wonderful testament to the beautiful history of our planet.
Canyonlands National Park provided a very different (but no less mesmerizing) topography to Arches, despite being no more than a 30-minute drive away. Here the land is carved into deep trenches and gorges, and unless you have a 4WD all-terrain vehicle or are prepared to do some serious hiking, you drink its beauty in from above. As you can probably guess, we are the opposite of serious hikers, and besides, with two dogs in tow, all of the trails at Canyonlands were off limits to us. So instead, we had to settle for the lazy man views, which suited us perfectly.
Rather than giving me Jurassic Park flashbacks, the canals and crevices of Canyonlands reminded me more of an extraterrestrial landscape and once more I felt I was seeing the world with fresh eyes. We sat on a rock at Green River overlook and gazed out, waiting for the sun to drop from its perch and paint the sky in its wake. The man next to us paced back and forth, fiddling with his camera and muttering, “Come on, come on!” like the sun was a pet who would perform on command or followed any schedule but its own. I wondered what the impatient man’s hurry was, why this moment was one he would want to rush. As the sun finally dipped low and smoldered in the sky, it felt a bit like we were somewhere else, like we were the heroes of a space flick who had finally, after many travails, made it to Mars and it was more beautiful than we had imagined. The sunset was one of the best in our travels, but being there together was the real reward.
Moab is a place where dreams I never knew I had came to life. I remarked several times that if any place would ever turn me into a hiker, this would be it. (Not something I say lightly! Remember this?) It’s a fantastic place where rust red desert meets snowy sleet grey mountains on the horizon and you feel like little more than a freckle on the face of the earth.
We quickly decided to add an extra day to our visit so that we could spend more time exploring, taking joy rides down Route 128 and even attempting an ill-named but puppy-friendly hike into Negro Bill Canyon. After months of never-ending sub-zero winter in Minnesota, it felt so good to get outside and enjoy some sunshine in such a wonderful place. We spent two days exploring Moab, and my only regret is that we weren’t able to spend even more time there.
Having traveled to some insanely beautiful places, I can easily say that Moab now ranks near the very top of my list of places I have been lucky enough to visit and that I can’t actually believe exists. Moab… who knew? Consider our minds blown!
Now it’s your turn: What’s the coolest place you’ve ever visited? Would you be interested in visiting Moab?