I was sitting atop the Waterpocket Fold, high above the lonely promontories of Tarantula Mesa, thinking about Einstein. I also was thinking about the luminescent shade of orange that varnishes Utah at sundown and about my hiking companion’s delicate emotional state and about whether I might be developing an immunity to the active ingredients in Red Bull. But most of all I was musing over the wild-haired physicist’s theory of time dilation–the little gem of relativity that postulates how time actually slows down when you near the speed of light. Up there, as the moonscape flushed with color, I could almost perceive the seconds warping and stretching. It was not the kind of thing I would’ve tried to explain to the Canyonlands ranger who would later pull me over for speeding, but it felt real nonetheless.
Let me slow down for a minute. This trip was hatched–like so many great adventures–late one night with a baby and a bottle on one knee, a road atlas on the other. The idea sounded so elegant, so enthralling in that den of sleep deprivation. Visit 7 national parks in 7 days–and camp in the backcountry in each of them. The ultimate backpacker’s road trip! Rent a convertible, pay the damage waiver, load up the iPod and a pack, and hit the open road. In that moment of inspiration, with Similac dripping onto my thigh, I could not fully get my head around how relentlessly this crusade might play out. Surely someone would have to pay for my shortsighted enthusiasm.
My leading candidate was my preternaturally cheery friend Jackie, a talented photographer with an obvious joie de vivre and an outdoorsy wardrobe. Of course, I didn’t know then about her robust fear of wild animals or her balky right knee, but hell, everyone’s got their share of baggage these days.
Before we could do so much as a shakedown dayhike, we blasted out of Vegas with the top down. I had a big overnight planned for our first stop in Zion. In retrospect, I’d say the trip down the Hop Valley Trail to La Verkin Creek was a challenging adventure: a long trek through a lush, grassy canyon flanked by red rock and an ever-changing sky, an unexpected improvisation descending a dry streambed, a scenic campsite nestled above a tumbling creek. Or, for variety’s sake, there’s Jackie’s version: a 14-mile slog under alternating skies of menacing thunderheads and blistering sun, a missed turn that led to pour-overs and scraped flesh, perilous interactions with bite-sized lizards and a head-hunting hummingbird, and a swollen creek that required fording. We returned to our car the following morning, exhausted, triumphant, and maybe a little frazzled. One down, six to go.
Now that it was in our faces, the daily schedule seemed all-consuming. Drive like David Letterman to the next park. Settle backcountry arrangements. Purchase food and fill water bottles. Talk through logistics and potential wildlife encounters. Hit the trail. Eat dinner as the sky purples. Sleep like a stone. Hike out. Ingest 240 milligrams of caffeine. And then repeat–again and again and again. Our itinerary was a convoluted clockwise loop that would take us from Zion to Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, Petrified Forest, and finally, the Grand Canyon.
Slowly but surely, we started finding a groove. In Bryce, we parked at Yovimpa Point, shouldered our packs, and dropped past golden hoodoos into a forest of Douglas fir. We woke to a frosty morning, spent an hour shuffling around camp mumbling and inhaling coffee, and then tackled the short, steep hike out. I was enjoying scrambled eggs and a sink-shower by 9 a.m.
From there on out, the miles of hard driving unveiled shiny little gifts. A real cheeseburger at a real drive-in. That rollercoaster of rock and sky between Escalante and Boulder–perhaps the nation’s sweetest stretch of pavement–with Jack Johnson spreading all the hope of the summer solstice. The small-town hotel that doesn’t lock its swimming pool.
We started diving into the backcountry, too. In Capitol Reef, we hiked into Upper Muley Twist Canyon, walking beneath arches etched into the Wingate Sandstone as the walls got tighter and higher. We dropped our packs and scrambled up the Waterpocket Fold to see the Henry Mountains light up. We dined on fajitas as moonlight poured over the lip of the canyon. Other than a minor scare involving a jackrabbit, you could say it was a perfect outing.
After a few days, we were really starting to get toughened by the road, which is another way of saying that Jackie was starting to crack. The drive from Capitol Reef featured a spine-tingling, hairpin dirt-road descent, a sketchy creek crossing, a long and winding conversation in which I detailed my deep but now departed lust for Winona Ryder, and hours of top-down speeding through kiln-oven heat–more than enough time for sore muscles and aching joints to get stiffer than 3-day-old jerky. All this before the weather turned, sagebrush suddenly whipping across the road, lightning crashing on this butte and that, and the ranger at Arches’ entrance gate saying something about 50 mph winds. In the visitor center, the ranger tried to deflect my request for a backcountry permit. (“If you want to camp backcountry, you should go to Canyonlands,” he offered. “And anyway, haven’t you seen the weather report?” Then he suggested a route that followed a buried pipeline past the park’s original boundaries where primitive camping is legal.)
And then I drove Jackie through Moab, its shiny strip of weathertight motels flashing vacancy signs. What happened next is one of those unspoken secrets that fellow adventurers agree to tuck away in a sacred place, but let’s just say that I was struck with this feeling that my journey would be incomplete without a solo night. As I pulled out my raingear at the trailhead, thunder clapped in the distance and tourists scurried to their RVs. For a very long moment, I stood there with rain dripping down the back of my neck, laughing at my own kooky compulsiveness. Yet once I starting walking, everything fell into place. Sure, the weather was dicey and the trail did trace an old pipeline, but I had Broken Arch to my left and a misty rainbow to my right. I could only hear my breathing and my footfall. A couple of miles later, I was standing atop a box canyon filled with leafy trees and songbirds punctuating the darkening sky. The ground was littered with chert, a quartzlike rock that the area’s original inhabitants used for arrowheads. A thick spout of water curled over a nearby wash and dropped 200 feet to the canyon floor. Fighting a gusty wind, I pitched my tent on the slickrock and clambered inside. I felt spooked and edgy and alive.
In the morning, the sun came out and the chert glimmered and I felt renewed. I drove into town and discovered that Jackie had found her own renewal, as well as a place to wash her sleeping bag. We shared caffeinated beverages, toasted the second half of our adventure, and got back on the road.
Back at warp speed, it seemed possible to live two parallel lives: that of the nitro-powered road warrior, fueled by petrol and tiny cans of joy, and that of the contemplative backpacker, enriched by a prickly-pear blossom and the wind swooshing downcanyon. We could start the day 5 miles from the nearest car, and then enjoy roadside Navajo frybread with pinto beans for lunch. We sped past Monument Valley, snapping Polaroids and singing along with old Morrissey songs. Everything flew by in such an easygoing blur that time seemed elongated.
A classic Canyonlands trek unfolded in slow motion. Jackie and I hiked a 9-mile loop through the aptly named Lost Canyon. We dropped into a slickrock bowl with red and white color bands as delineated as Neapolitan ice cream. We brushed past overgrown cottonwoods and ended the day listening to silence in an otherwise empty amphitheater.
At Petrified Forest National Park, the solitude was more literal. Thanks to the hard work of scoundrel fossil-hunters, the rangers lock the gates each evening. And on this searing early July day, we were the only registered backcountry visitors. After a short cross-country hike, we set up camp atop the pastel badlands in the southern precinct. We sipped Shiraz and watched the late-day light refract over the wildfire-hazy western horizon–kind of like an L.A. sunset but without all the moral ambiguity. It was odd to be there, locked in a national park, the only witnesses to such a beautiful show.
For literary effect, I planned to follow that easy interlude with a killer hike. Yet somehow, even getting to the Grand Canyon proved formidable. The delays were pure comedy: We lost an hour waiting for someone to open the Petrified Forest gate, another hour as I searched Winslow for a practitioner of the apparently dying art of the straight-edge shave, and 15 precious minutes taking a complimentary dip at a Flagstaff luxury hotel.
The Grand Canyon has a way of crushing the best-conceived literary effect. Just hike into the maw with 9 liters in your pack, and you’re humbled by simple, staggering truths. The shifting colors of geology descending from the deep red Supai formation into a world of gray limestone. The endless web of canyons and side canyons. The shock of coming face-to-face with your beet-colored companion when she tells you she’s drained another hydration bladder despite your pep talk about conserving water. We approached Hermit Creek just as darkness swallowed the canyon. I threw up the tent and fired up the stove and tried to fire up Jackie, too. But she was exhausted, her knee throbbing and her confidence shot. The descent was harder than she had imagined, and I tried to remind her that the climb out, with lighter packs and less direct sunlight, would be easier. We tossed and turned for 5 hours, then loaded up for the hike out.
For the next 6 hours, the Grand Canyon really put the wood to us. Jackie fretted and limped solemnly up the brutal switchbacks of the Cathedral Stairs. Truth be told, I too was feeling the wear and tear of backpacking 62 miles and driving another 1,850 in a week. It felt a bit like a cheap tequila hangover. But we trudged on and soon we were passing slower hikers and the river was shrinking. Once we could crane our necks and see the rim overhead, it was as though someone lifted Jackie’s backpack, loaded with the psychic weight of so many challenges and so many creatures met without respite, and sent it tumbling toward the Tonto Plateau. The last stretch up to Hermit’s Rest was nasty–rising 1,300 feet in about a mile, completely exposed to a merciless sun. My calves cramped and my heart raced, but Jackie was right on my heels, back to her preternaturally cheery self. I practically had to beg her to take a break halfway up the slope.
Was it worth all the effort? Let’s put it this way: A half-hour after we stumbled over the sun-baked rim, I was floating in a hotel swimming pool, marveling at the oversized escapade we’d stuffed into 7 short days. Four hours later, I was getting misted as I savored a Sierra Nevada on a Vegas lounge chair. And one interminable hour after that, I was bellied up to the most outrageous buffet in town, loading up platters with baby green salad, Peking duck, seafood risotto, and crab legs. I kept at it until I was in pain. A few deep breaths later, I staggered back for a Swedish meatball the size of a nectarine. Sure I was full, but as any student of physics can tell you, it’s all relative.
Permits Backcountry reservations are essential at the Grand Canyon (www.nps.gov/grca/backcountry) and a wise idea in Canyonlands (www.nps.gov/cany/reserve) and Zion (www.nps.gov/cany/reserve). The other 4 parks do not accept advance reservations and issue same-day permits. In Arches and Petrified Forest, backcountry camping is extremely limited. Buy a Golden Eagle Pass ($50) rather than pay an entrance fee at each park.