Sometimes, it is the unexpected that surprises us most. After planning our own version of the Griswold’s great western adventure, we decided to make a last second adjustment. Planning is important.
My wife plans. She’s the Greek Goddess of planning. In life, there is always a counterpoint. I’m the Greek God of chaos, but I like to believe we make a great team. I wreck trips. I don’t mean to. It just comes so easy with a little contrived innocence and well-meaning to boot. Let’s extend the trip a day because the largest sand dunes in North America are only two hours off the interstate. What about this cool candy-striped lighthouse? It’s only a half hour off County Road 19. Don’t worry about finding a canoe to take us there. We’ll make it work. No problem. But a half hour here and there adds up. It almost always goes wrong.
Last year, we started the annual Great American road trip and mid-trip I forced two hotel changes (I was pretty sure one of the stops was haunted), two extra days in Vail (it’s beautiful in the summer), and took an alternative route to Durango (not a good idea, some places are best left to silent whispers in the wind). In the end, it worked out fine, but my family wanted to do it different this year.
So, we planned and vowed not to make last-minute changes. Yes, it was an ambitious National Park itinerary–Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon with a quick stop at Vail to relax. And then, during a House Hunters marathon, we saw it. The advertisement for the Utah Five. We were missing two national parks. This couldn’t be possible. It was time to go all-in.
Of course, my wife started to remodel the trip. She’s great at it. And that’s when the magic happened. It was almost as if we the universe was in motion. Recently, I listened to a podcast where a guy described how he just let the universe run its course. Relax. No meditation necessary. This was his mantra. His own personal code word for Transcendental Meditation. Let the universe come to you. The universe had come calling, or at least shameless advertising pushed us to go the extra mile.
We rerouted the trip, pushing onward from Bryce Canyon to Scenic Byway 12 to Highway 24. We did this for two reasons: (1) it saved us a few hours instead of backtracking back to Zion (the original plan) and (2) we could hit all five national parks in Utah (Capitol Reef and Canyonlands). Then, the unexpected came.
Byway 12 is quite possibly America’s Great Highway. It was built by the CCC during the depression. Six years later, I can’t think of a single thing America’s latest spending spree accomplished (See Post on A Million Small Ideas). But the CCC built the Hoover Damn, Highway 1, and this great achievement through the mountains and desert. Our forefathers carved this through rock using dynamite and a lot of sweat and tears. There is a reason some publications have called this one of the great drives in the world. It is breathtaking.
Half-way through the drive at an overlook of the mountains, an elderly woman came up to me, squeezed my arm, and said, “Son, you be careful on the road ahead. Death, despair and danger await.” Yes, she actually said this. She reminded me of a crazed gypsy. We had researched the drive beforehand. Halfway into the drive outside of Boulder, Utah, the Devil’s backbone supposedly swallowed all comers. According to internet lore, the road squiggles atop a hillside. No guard rails. A junkyard of cars awaits in the abyss below.
Before finding the dreaded wiggles, we ended up stopping at a coffee shop carved into the hillside. It was a good stop. I wish I remembered the name to give it a shout out, but if you’re on the byway it’s hard to miss. After grabbing my cup of joe, I noticed the road was eerily quiet. There was nobody on it. I remembered the old woman’s warning. Did the ghosts of the road find their prey?
We ended up stopping at a place called the Hell’s Backbone Grill. Now, the universe shined on us again. We saw an article calling this one of the best farm to fork restaurants in the country weeks back and had added it to the trip.
Turns out, this maybe one of best restaurants in the country. Everything made from ingredients nearby or grown on the farm. After watching my kid scarf down the perfect piece of cheesecake, I asked our waitress about the death, despair and danger. Apparently, I missed it. I drove past the infamous wiggles three miles back. In ranking America’s great drives, I found the Million Dollar Highway, Road to Hana and parts of Highway 1 more challenging. But the views and beauty were there. Plus, the meal is now on my list of all time favorites. Great company. Local ingredients–honey, fish, and apricots picked from a hundred-year-old orchard inside a National Park. An endearing cat. The owner even signed the cookbook we ended up taking home.
The day didn’t end there (I didn’t even talk about the lightning storm in Bryce Canyon). After dinner, we drove through a National Forrest, fought off a herd of cattle, and stared in awe as the sun went down inside Capital Reef National Park.
We’ve had a few trips go astray. The candy-cane lighthouse hunt was a bad idea, I admit it. But if we don’t explore and try, we may miss it. I’ll go on ten candy-cane lighthouse hunts to live this day again. The unexpected matters.
Capital Reef is the National Park Service’s hidden gem.
And so is Bryce Canyon. Both are two underappreciated places to go.
Hell’s Backbone Grill, one of my new all-time favorite restaurants.
A throwback motel, near Capital Reef. Austin’s Chuckwagon.
Scenic Byway 12.