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Highway 12 is undoubtedly one of not only America's but the world's most scenic highways. From its intersection on the west with Highway 89 south of Panguitch, Utah, it runs up through Red Canyon onto the Paunsagunt Plateau and across Bryce Canyon National Park. It then drops into the Paria River Valley, passes through several tiny villages, crosses some extraordinary (for anywhere but this region) badlands, and descends the Escalante River into Potato Valley. While a driver may justifiably feel she has seen some...
Highway 12 is undoubtedly one of not only America's but the world's most scenic highways. From its intersection on the west with Highway 89 south of Panguitch, Utah, it runs up through Red Canyon onto the Paunsagunt Plateau and across Bryce Canyon National Park. It then drops into the Paria River Valley, passes through several tiny villages, crosses some extraordinary (for anywhere but this region) badlands, and descends the Escalante River into Potato Valley. While a driver may justifiably feel she has seen some scenery by that point, the highway is just getting started, for in the next stretch, it crosses a labyrinth of multicolored sandstone humps and corridors, climaxed by a narrow hogback with steep slickrock drops to each side, all within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Reaching the oasis of Boulder within this desert of rock, the road then climbs across the flank of the Aquarius Plateau, providing spectacular vistas and terminating at the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park. Along the way side roads and trails access the vast wilderness of the Paria and Escalante Rivers and the high plateaus they drain. Congress acknowledged the unequaled splendor of Highway 12 by designating it one of a handful of All-American Roads.
To travel with Christian Probasco this road and its spurs, which lead deep into some of the wildest, most broken-up and stunning landscapes anywhere, can put a unique twist on an already singular experience. He knows the region as well as anyone and brings an original, edgy, youthful view to it. His opinions and his language may challenge you. His approaches to and perspectives on the land may sometimes surprise you. His understanding of the area's history and its people will likely teach you a thing or two.
Red and Bryce Canyons, the Paunsaugunt Plateau and the Road to Escalante
East of Panguitch stand the Sunset Cliffs, red limestone slopes knocked back at their head and etched into steep draws and spines, bulbous pink columns known as hoodoos, flint knolls and rough walls with scree bases fanned into bajadas, and portals: mouse holes, loopholes, doorways, hallways, windows and arches, through some of which you may pass into another earth-an earth of sagebrush, pinyon and juniper and dead pine spikes and lonely roads, an anguished earth kneaded into rolls, mountains and plateaus and pinched into shark-tooth ridges and split and pried open along ragged faults and soft joints and worn down to buttes and pinnacles, washes, plains, gullies, gulches and deep, indanthrene narrows.
I'm on that revetment now, on the Arches Trail, a mile or so north of Highway 12, trudging up the hill along a well-worn and crooked path with a camera on a tripod slung over my shoulder, pausing for breath now and again and studying the rock because even with the overcast October sky, the bizarre mix of colors-the limonite yellow and rust red and jasper-is still vivid. There are arches all around me, some just barely large enough to fit my hand through (technically not arches at all, whose chord must be a foot long in any direction) some as large as my living room windows, with a view out to a neighboring slope or the rack of a broken-backed pinyon pine, and one as wide as a full-sized movie screen, today's feature being storm clouds piling against the plateau's west face and billowing into black gurges with wisps streaming off from the impact.
Near the top, I can overlook the Sevier River Valley, carpeted by bunch-grass, washed over by shadows of clouds, and the commercial row, the hotel, gas station, trading post and restaurant that line Highway 12 along its western terminus at Highway 89. The western horizon is the edge of the Markagunt Plateau, scended like a ship's bow, and beyond that lies a scorched cordillera of mafic black mountain ranges and blanched alkali flats across western Utah and the entire width of Nevada, to the Sierra's crystalline granite base.
This collection of arches is a fitting beginning for my journey. One hundred and sixty miles northeast of here there's a larger gallery of holes in the rock called Arches National Park, and within that park is a giant's garden of red fins with enormous windows worn through them. These make for the best arches because they juxtapose solidness and impenetrability with openness and wide vistas; space exploding outward from the red wall a few yards from your face into the brisance of the open earth.
Wall and window, impediment and opening, imprisonment and escape. I come to another wall, this one as big as a house side, with stiled windows and an arch as tall as a doorway. The trail passes right through it. I set up my tripod and wait for the sun to poke through the clouds but it never does and finally I pack my gear, sling it over my shoulder again, bow my head and I'm through.
On our way to the visitor's center earlier in the day, my asthmatic, scoliatic friend Gerald and I rode through what I like to think of as the western portals of Highway 12; arches blasted by highway engineers through two rock walls, now leaning like flying buttresses against the mountainside. We met a balding, middle-aged, red-faced firecracker of a volunteer ranger named Bill Shane, who set us straight as to our options-which trails to take, where to camp-and Gerald asked him if he was jealous of the rangers in nearby Bryce Canyon National Park.
"No," said Shane, "Red Canyon is more beautiful and there are fewer people here."
We followed Shane's advice and camped a half-mile up Cabin Hollow, beneath an orange clint of rock, and we had no neighbors. Shane has a talent for understatement: Bryce draws tourists like a powerful electric current. Over the course of four days and a half-dozen trails we only encountered about twelve people. Most tourists stop at the arches for photographs, pause at the visitor's center (which was little more than a wood-paneled trailer) peruse the literature, maybe use the bathroom or buy a postcard, and then they're off to the main attraction.
We hiked the Pink Ledges Trail right behind the visitor's center but it wasn't challenging enough for Gerald and he took off, with me following belatedly, up a stone-walled gully which pinched out and left us scrambling up scree, over volcanic capstone to a flat and a manzanita garden, and as I explored it, Gerald crawled over more ledges with his short legs kicking until he was lost to sight. He called me, distantly, and again I followed, until we met on the back of a red chert ridge, him with his John Deere cap cocked back and his sand-colored turban with desert motifs of camels and palm trees and pyramids wrapped over a shoulder. He pointed a stubby finger at a black lava scab a half-mile distant.
"That's the top. That is our destination."
Gerald has just been down-sized from his computer-tech job, and the jolt has radicalized and enraged him and he's been binging on pot, alcohol and Ritalin to kill the pain and bludgeon his already dull memory.
"Don't pack any more propane bottles," I told him when he'd stuffed the fourth or fifth bottle into his pack back home. "We only need one."
He just laughed at me. It took him four hours to get his things together and I finally had to drive the Heap up on his lawn to get my point across that it was time to go. He brought tennis balls along so we could practice juggling, and mosquito netting in case we were attacked by killer bees and a laptop computer which must be coddled and swathed in blankets like an infant, and he has spent most of the trip so far compulsively rearranging our gear.
Though I can't seem to impart the concept of "false summits" to Gerald, I do finally convince him that the volcanic ridge isn't where we need to go, but he pulls the same stunt another day and this time I find a deer trail through the hoodoos to the ledge, which is our objective, and watch him drape his short limbs and crooked back across the stone and drag himself over the rim. It's fortunate Gerald thrives so much on adversity because we've had plenty of it so far: the bike's weight on the spare tire buckled out the tailgate; I left an important lens at home and my wife had to deliver it to a point halfway between Salt Lake City and Red Canyon. The skid plate stripped out three bolt-holes on the frame's left side and had to be clamped in the rain and the holes tapped out to accept larger bolts, and a metal strap sheered and spun the gas can off the road at sixty miles-per-hour.
We spend the next several days exploring and find a side canyon of phalanges, scapulas, ribs and skulls carved from calcareous rock painted vermilion by the setting sun and we drop into an amphitheater of crumbling incarnadine clay tiers, malleiform pillars and pilasters, turrets and slanted salients, with the resemblance of rock forms to battlements becoming so uncanny at times that I realize I have it backwards: it's the castle emulating the stone formations, which have battled the elements for millions of years.
We park the Heap on the plateau top and bike down the Thunder Mountain Trail, which drops into hollows and skims over spurs and keeps its elevation for a while but then surrenders to gravity and falls in skidding, exposed switchbacks from the cool forest to the hostile, oxidized red desert, where we trade ponderosa for cedars twisted up like funnel cones and manzanita for a few struggling low patches of gray brush and yucca spines. The sun bakes the earth red and bleaches it white and haze sifts off the trail in staggered waves. We drink compulsively and Gerald's asthma leaves him gasping for breath like a landed fish.
Inspiration Point, halfway down the trail, is an ancient temple. The ground falls away into a pit of jumbled red idols and monoliths toppling towards oblivion and on the far side the sunburn-colored terrain rolls up in uneven terraces towards an altar just below the sky.
At night, Gerald, stoned senseless, affects a Brooklyn accent and rails against the right wing, doctors, pharmacists, CEOs, organized religion, every corporation on earth, and working mothers.
"Economic justice," he says, "That's what I want."
Gerald makes an office of the visitor center's men's room, downloading three-hundred images from his digital camera onto his laptop, which he powers off the room's outlet.
One evening we struggle over the ridge above our campground into the next canyon, which Gerald scouted while I slept, and we find cattle vertebrae, a deep arroyo, an old road overgrown with sagebrush. We transect talus fans and plains of thistle and black sagebrush and a field of sego lilies, Indian paintbrush, columbines, asters, mats of blue penstemon. We pause before a rectangular arch high on a canyon wall and spy another, smaller one by the light of a crescent moon on our return trip, more portals into a state of mind reified into landscape.
In June of 1925 Governor Dern and James M. Sargent, mayor of Panguitch, rode into Red Canyon at the head of a procession of 315 cars to celebrate the opening of Bryce Canyon National Park and they were stopped at the second arch, at a gate manned by brownies, and then mobbed by fairies emerging from behind red rocks. "Do you believe in fairies?" asked one and, trusting his eyes, Dern answered affirmatively. "Then enter Fairyland," she told him, and they did (Newell, Talbot, 267).
That creature had it wrong. As I later discover, the highway has delivered us into a land of contrariness, a Negative Earth. Gerald boils up a pot of pasta that night and slips into an incogitant rage and flounces about, shouting, with his hands clutching at God's throat while the fire's smoke and aroma waft over me and saturate my clothes with the redolence of juniper and pinyon pine. Gerald pauses and I don't know whether he's run out of steam or if it's just for effect.
"You know," he says, "some days it's just not worth gnawing through the straps."
I crawl into my sleeping bag as the fire burns itself to embers and begin to sleep and again there is a portal before me. The stars materialize and the black dome of night rolls over me.
East Fork of the Sevier
From the turnoff onto FS 87, the earth appears to bend down to the head of the East Fork of the Sevier River, and that's troubling because the river coalesces from its tributaries twelve hundred feet above where it crosses the road. I can only ascribe this illusion to the roughly pyramidal peaks and the bare rock in the distance, where the East Fork originates. On the Colorado Plateau, such weathering usually indicates downcutting too rapid for the earth to accommodate it with gentle banks.
The road is smooth and I make time but the Heap spins a giant billowing wake of chalk-white dust into the summer sky and it coats the seats, the instruments, the steering column, my clothes, everything. I have to stop every few miles and clean my glasses and I can taste the grit on my teeth. When I look in the rearview mirror, I see a tired, gray-eyed ghost.
I pass over the end of the Tropic Ditch; further on the road narrows and begins to meander as the East Fork straightens out. Side roads curve off into Badger Creek, East Creek, Skunk Creek, Long Hollow, Blue Fly Creek, most of them coming to a dead end against the west boundary of Bryce Canyon or the backslope of the Sunset Cliffs. Pink pedregals and inchoate hoodoo columns lean from side-canyon walls.
There's a drought on and Tropic Reservoir is a shrunken remnant of itself, no anglers on its shore today. Near the road's north end, Podunk Ranger Station stands empty before the entrance to Podunk Canyon.
Who, I wonder, would want to man the Podunk Ranger Station?
The East Fork dries up. It's a lost stream anyway, except the portion siphoned off for the fields down in Tropic. The East Fork joins the Sevier, which evaporates or drains into Sevier Lake south of Highway 50 in the Great Basin, and never escapes from there except to sink into the mud or rise heavenward as vapor. No water in any creek or river from the East Fork westward, in fact, escapes from this basin except in a similar manner.
Beyond the East Fork, east of the Paunsaugunt Plateau's crest, the creeks join larger drainages which empty into tributaries of the Colorado and finally the great river itself. This river, too, dies out before reaching the Pacific Ocean, not because the Colorado is closed off from it but because it is put to work watering the fields of Colorado, California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona.
There's a turn-about at the end of the East Fork Road and no sign the trail ever continued beyond this point, though there are old logging roads running up the slope on my right, blocked by the Forest Service with brush and rocks. That's fine, I think, there are other routes to the ridge top. I drive back and turn into Robinson Canyon, into a tangle of roads just below the ridge, which might deliver me through the Sunset Cliffs to the town of Alton. The sun is nearly directly overhead, neither rising nor setting, and I lose my bearings. The road is narrow and rough, rutted in places and steep in others. After a half-hour chasing my tail, I see some high orange bluffs up ahead and I figure I'm nearly there, but the road drops into a gulch before I can get near them. Now I'm watching the gas gauge, a quarter tank, and I'm feeling tired and disoriented. Juniper grown over the road scratches the Heap's side.
Soon I realize my mistake: I've circled around on my path, done a 180. Those orange rocks are outcroppings of Bryce Canyon, and I'm now dropping back down to the East Fork. Then I'm there, on the road further north than where I started, facing east though my body tells me I've been traveling roughly westward the whole time.
Trying to escape from the basin of the East Fork, I've been shunted back toward it. I switch the Heap off in the middle of the road-I haven't seen another vehicle for two hours-and in my notebook, write: "non-Euclidean space."
On my way back to town, by coincidence, I meet Wallace Ott, who's tending his herd, with this brand, on his spread of meadowland west of the road:
Ott, a nonagenarian, is a little stooped, and his eyes are hidden under creased lids, but his memory, as he tells me, is "as good as it ever was."
"I've had a long life and good memories, met a lot of good people. But let me tell you, after you turn ninety, you're living on borrowed time," he says.
Ott was born in Tropic. He was on the board of the Garfield County School District for twelve years, and Garkane Power's board for twenty-four years and he served on the BLM's Advisory Board for thirty years. He was also County Commissioner for eight years and he still serves on the board of the Horse and Cow Association.
"Not good paying jobs," he tells me, "but they helped the county out."
Ott has nine children and about sixty grandchildren and great-grandchildren and one great, great grandchild. I ask him if it's hard keeping track of them.
"My sister was two years older than me," he says. "Died a year ago, had nine kids, just like I did and one time she was having this reunion and they had kids of all ages and sizes and I asked her, 'Do you know all those kids you've got here?' and she says, 'Let's put it this way: they all know me'."
I ask him about getting to Tropic before they put the highway through.
Excerpted from Highway 12 by Christian Probasco Copyright © 2005 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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