Freesteel Blog » Utah July 2002


Utah. July 2002

Wheels of destruction

We’ll see how much ranting is worth squeezing between these pictures. I bought another digital camera. The last one got flooded with beer while I was at Clarion when I put an open bottle in my backpack, plugged with a rolled up napkin, and bent over to do up the latches on my roller-blades.

Becka arrived in East Lansing by Greyhound bus on July 20, the final day of Clarion, just in time for the parties. Jamie had warned me that riding the Greyhound was like travelling up Satan’s arse. The service is strictly for the bottom class. He would be surprised if I still had a girlfriend by the time the bus arrived.

With just the right softness of sandstone, you can get all kinds of interesting shapes.

On our travels over the next five weeks, we used Greyhound from Salt Lake City to San Diego, from San Diego to San Francisco, from San Francisco to Seattle, and from Seattle to Montana. Not one of them was late. Not one of them was nasty. And I was surprised at being able to sleep overnight, bolt upright in their uncomfortable bus seats. I can’t do this on a plane. Sure, the bus takes a chunk of a day longer. It’s cheaper and more efficient. This sort of time is not a problem if you actually want to be where you are going, not intending to come right straight back almost as soon as you get there, like on a one day trip. Most transport these days is not about getting anywhere; it’s about showing your face to your business contacts, to your family, and to your work. We are facial animals. Our face is our initial means of projecting power, even in an era of linguistic communication. We have the book, the email, and the telephone, but for businessman to businessman communication they must still fly their asses across the continent for a one hour meeting. Why? Because facial communication is more important than the written document, they say. It over-rides plain information. It creates trust. It’s persuasive. It foments the transfer of questionable beliefs. Lies are more readily carried by people than by documents. In business and politics these days, that’s an important feature to have, or the present system would not work.

On Sunday night, after a last game of underwater hockey in East Lansing, Becka and I caught the train to Chicago. We had to spend a night in that city before catching the California Zephir (train) in the afternoon the next day. Amtrak passenger trains are notable by their infrequent service. There’s only one a day, and it’s always at the same time of day, give or take a few hours. It takes roughly three days to cross the United States, and if your town happens to scheduled for four in the morning (because arrival and departure at both ends of the line is conveniently during the day), then that’s how it will be forever.

People say that the journey across the USA takes so long (72 hours) because it’s such a big place. This is untrue. It takes so long because the trains are damn slow. If you could open the window and stick your head out, you’d feel only a light breeze. Almost all the railroads belong to freight companies, so overloaded trains of corn syrup take priority over people. Freight is actually going somewhere. It does not need to return home for work by the end of the weekend. Also, as a consequence of the lack of need for speed, the tracks are probably in a pretty sorry state. They don’t need to be any good. Being privately owned, the track managers aren’t going to “waste” money making them nicer than they have to be. They’ll take the same attitude as I do with car repairs: fix nothing until it breaks. It’s amazing how bad things sometimes have to get before they break. The more it amazes, the more money is saved.

The costs, of course, have been externalized. Every delay, or lowering of the track speed limit, wastes people’s time. And, for the added joy of travelling much slower, the train tickets cost more because they have to hire the staff for more hours per journey. But that’s not their problem. It’s a free market, von Mises would explain. If people didn’t like it, an entrepreneur would have raised the money and invested it in a new track running in parallel to the old knackered one, and we’d have chosen to ride it instead. Since no entrepreneur has decided that it is profitable to do this, von Mises would reason, then it is right and proper that we continue to get our valuable time ripped off. If we are not willing to encourage people to build tracks in parallel to other tracks, so that we have a choice and can play the owners off one another until they deliver an efficient service on half the income each, then this is what we deserve. Being ripped off is being stolen from. The burglar smashes your window, steals your TV, and sells it down the pub for a fraction of the price. Although he and the purchaser gains some profit, there’s massive a loss of wealth because of the smashed window and ineffective use of the TV. To solve this problem, we need to make a market. Each one of us needs to own another house filled with better TVs and cheaper windows. The burglars will go and break into those and leave us in peace, as long as we keep them stocked.

The justifiably famous Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. It’s a steep walk to get here, but it has to be done for a once in a lifetime experience. You can walk up to and all around the arch as long as you trust your boots not to slip off the rock.

Splatter Day Satans

There’s a lot of time to think on a train journey of this length. Let’s say it was about 36 hours. We left Chicago in the afternoon, and arrived in Salt Lake City at 3am of July 26 (the train carriage attendants wake you up so you don’t miss your stop– some people call this overstaffing). This is not a useful time as most of the hostels are closed. Even if you found an open one, you’d get about three hours in bed for the cost of a full night, and it’d be a waste of money. We sat in the train station till it closed at 6am. Some cities take a robust attitude towards homeless people, which we were, and we didn’t want any trouble. We wandered towards the centre of town in the greying dawn light and discovered that half the city population was actually sleeping on the street and sidewalks along more than ten blocks. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have a camera at the time to show you, but there were mattresses, sleeping bags, deckchairs all over the place.

It was Pioneer Day! Lena, the Clarionite from Salt Lake City, forgot to tell me. She’s too mature for this type of thing: watching an all-American annual parade. People had stayed out all night to get the good spots on the road. The parade began at eight so it would finish before it got too hot. There were hundreds of floats. Many were completely awful, as you’d expect. It doesn’t make much sense. The quality of the workmanship seems pretty high to me. Many hours of effort and skill must have gone into building these things. Surely, during all those long hours and days of sticking red, white and blue tinsel onto some enormous, sweeping American flag/statue of liberty motif giant thing, someone must have thought: “No. We must think of something better here.” A worrying number of the “patriotic” floats had at least one man dressed as a New York fireman. For the most heavily armed nation in the history of the world (with a huge amount of the public’s taxes going to pay for it), it’s a bizarre fact that these American parades do not contain masses of weapons machinery, as parades do in other highly militarized countries.

The rock wears into these fin shapes in which arches are likely to appear.

I left Becka in the throng of the crowd, at the junction of the Mormon Tabernacle (some Disney-like castle with waterfalls on it), and walked up the hill to Lena’s house. This was a further than I expected and was mostways up the hill with quite a view across the city plain. She collected me by car when I was nearly there. I got to look at walking maps, get recommendations of where to go in Utah, and was told to buy the book: “Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau” by Kelsey, which would give us everything we needed to know for a great canyoning holiday.

Becka brought the small, uncomfortable tent. We bought a good proper tent three years ago and still haven’t used it.

We hired a car and were out of the city by three o’clock. Car hire is a nightmare for us. Firstly, we prefer a battered old car to a spotless new one for our needs. The market says: “Shan’t!” since it’s an oligopoly and can charge more for cars which will show up the scratches. It’s also used as a laundering facility by the car manufacturers for turning surplus new cars into used cars so as to maintain the scarcity necessary to justify their prices. Also, most of the hire companies wouldn’t have me as a second driver because I didn’t have a credit card. I don’t use credit cards because they’re evil. But, to the corporate world, only evil people don’t use credit cards. Therefore, they wouldn’t want me to drive one of their cars. Subject to our limited our choice, we got some sort of Daewoo car that had a pointless skirt below the front bumper whose only purpose was to catch on lumpy roads.

Straight south we went, weaving all the way in the rush hour traffic on the highway. I’d forgotten how to drive. We camped in a park beside Lake Utah at the edge of the rushes. It was a hot evening. We tried to sleep outside until the midges began to eat us alive and we had to pitch the tent and sweat inside it. Becka had brought the small tent. It’s not a dome or a ridge. It has three poles that stand straight up at the corners that are held in place by the tension of the guy strings on the fabric. If you move too much when you are inside you can kick the poles so it falls down flat. The inner layer had no mosquito net, so we couldn’t breath with the door zipped up.

It’s a good landscape to get lost in when hunting for those pesky arches.

The first place we wanted to visit was Horseshoe Canyon, down 30 miles of dirt track on the far side of Canyonlands. It’s famous for its excellent petroglyphs, and the walk was not going to be too far. After a week of travel and sitting on the train, I wasn’t ready for something too ambitious.

Unfortunately, the land was more dry than usual after four years of drought, and the road was closed due to sand drifts. Becka was having an attack of cabin fever by the time we turned round and reached the town of Green River again. She was prepared to just go on a walk across the blank sheet of desert rather than pause and sort out our options. Most open land is pretty boring. Only in a few spots does the ground have just the right consistency of rock, water and wind to make something magnificent. Utah’s like a ten thousand square mile slab of broken eggs, flour and sugar thrown on a tray, shaken a little and then baked in an uneven heat. Only in a few spots will there be something approaching an tasty, fluffy cake with sweet crispy bits. The rest is burnt, flat, crusted, fried or simply dry white powder. All you have to do is find the tasty places, put a park boundary around them and mark them on a map.

The National Park Debt

We got to Arches National Park in the late afternoon. This is an offshoot of Canyonlands, near Moab, in the South East corner of Utah. Here were many of those classic views I remembered from my Children’s Encyclopaedia when I was very young. The longest natural rock arch was still standing, although the path under it was now closed due to the risk of rockf all. I even remembered its lumpy shape from the picture I saw over twenty-five years ago. Ithad been taken from an angle that led me to believe it was completely free standing, out in the open. In fact it is the last in a row of rock fins. I don’t know how the fins are made, but the rock itself is in two layers with dark red crumbly stuff on the bottom and hard, better rock on the top. Nearly all the arches form at this junction where the red stuff underneath crumbles, followed by large pieces of the hard stuff that aren’t supported by the virtual lines of support forces, until the arch is revealed.

This was a walk TO a slot canyon, not THROUGH a slot canyon, down from the edge of the Island in the Sky in Canyonlands. It takes most of a day to get down and up from the upper level, across the blasted plain, to the White Rim of the lower canyon where the river cuts through some better quality rock (in upper left of picture). I think of this land as layers of reasonable rock sandwiched on layers of terrible rock which the water can wash away easily from underneath and bring the cliffs down in slivers.

National park entry is cheap for a car (fifty dollars per the year), but camping is relatively expensive. The rangers sometimes give a free slide show in the evening which are almost always worth going to because it’s about stuff you didn’t know, like the history of invasive weeds, or contemporary forest fire management (everything they did in the past hundred years was completely wrong because it was based on European forest management practices and did not account the native conditions).

This French family is joining us for what was probably our near death experience of the year. There was a storm over there, in the open, and it brushed over the promontory we were walking to the end of to see the good view. The lightning bolts started striking down vertically, past the edge of the cliff, when we decided we ought to be doing something about it. As I was running around in circles, I noticed that every single tree and bush had burn marks on it. Becka’s idea of lightning avoidance was to squat down on your heels in the open, not under any shelter. Then the hail hit and we froze. It was revenge for me complaining about being too hot for rest of the day. The correct lightning strike posture is, I hear, kneeling with your head on the ground, your arms palm up and behind you laid on the ground, and your bum in the air, tempting the lightning to strike it and be conducted through your legs, rather than going through your head and vital organs.

The daily park rate is ten dollars without an annual pass. It’s five dollars per person who walks in or comes on a bike, which I think is just mean. These parks are out in the desert on the tops of hills. If a couple of people are heroic enough to peddle up to one in the midday sun, it should be free. It should not cost the same as for a family of brats riding in a monster truck.

The Canyonlands is a trisected park. The Green River and the Colorado River join in the middle at a place called The Confluence. There are no bridges across any of them in the park because the land is so canyony here. In fact, the wedge between the two rivers is so eaten away that it is a peninsula aptly called The Island in the Sky. We drove and camped up there, and walked down the Wilhite trail which ingeniously connects a series of edge collapses between the layered shelves to make its way down to the lower plain.

The trailhead signs which point off the road report the walks’ distance in miles rather than hours of effort. This misleading information conspires with Becka to get me onto walks that are too hard. “Come on this one,” she says, “it’s only five miles long.” The problem with the word “only” is you can slot it in anywhere. Mount Everest is only five miles tall. The rent is only ninety pounds a week. I am only thirty-four years old. My opinion is you can only use the word “only” if what you are referring to is the only thing, but there could have been a lot more of it. “You only have to do this short (neglecting gravity) walk today, and then you can eat,” is not an “only” if you get back at ten pm and there isn’t time for anything else. Nor is it an “only” if you get back early and only have to do another walk when your feet feel like they’ve been in a vice for six hours.

The view brought into starkness by the rainstorm water picking out all the rivulets and roads in the light. The straight roads are miner’s tracks from back in the 1940s when they were looking for Uranium for the government to build its illegal weapons of mass destruction.

As well as blatant lying about the subjective lengths of these walks, the adequate provision of water was another hot topic of dispute. Were Becka to have had a healthy respect for the extreme conditions (a factor reported by everyone we spoke to who had been to Utah) I could have guessed how long the day was going to be by the amount of water she put aside in our backpacks. But the trouble was, she believed that taking too much water slows you down. How can this be? If it’s a short walk, then you have not carried the “too much” water very far and it won’t have made much of a difference. If it’s a long walk, you need to have that water or else you die. On the balance of consequences, it is therefore good to err on the oversupply side, and by a large amount, than it is to take what are chances. I am good at erring, although to err too often offends Becka because it is not right. Short walks inevitably turn into long ones because you get lost, or see something interesting and don’t want to turn back just because you’ve not got enough water. All you have to do is put up with a little bit of thirst. After a near disaster in the heat near Goblin Valley later in the week, I learnt to be obsessive and put in my pack as much water as a damn well liked, regardless of what she said. Women, although they do feel pain, are virtually unable to remember it. Therefore, they can’t be trusted to learn from it.

The joint canyon somewhere in the Needles sector of Canyonlands. It forms a nice maze of perpendicular sandy hallways.

There’s a lot to see around Canyonlands. You can see most of it at once by walking half a mile from the car and visiting Grand View Point. We didn’t make it on account of experiencing a lightning storm. Back in Moab, in the diner (none of those fancy cafes seemed to cut it) we read in the paper about a newly married Mormon couple who had been struck by lightning and killed the week before. We stoked up on pancakes, eggs, greasy potato, ketchup and coffee, and then went for twenty miles walking in the Needles park the next day. The rocks are astounding. It’s like walking through a cathedral the size of a city a thousand years after a massive tsunami. Camp outside at Newspaper Rock if you want to be free.

Moving on, and visiting the dots on our map, there was Natural Bridges National Monument. You can find out the difference between a “National Park” and a “Natural Monument” elsewhere, because it looks to me like two parallel sets of bureaucracy which achieve identical results. People often give this Monument a miss because it takes most of a day to walk along the dry canyon and see the three enormous bridges (one of them is an arch, not a bridge, because it doesn’t cross the watercourse, even though it looks exactly the same).

After this, the route was set because we had to cross the Colorado River at the last place before it becomes a lake (Lake Powell) which then feeds into the Grand Canyon. The highway down to the crossing was like a scene from Mars. The lake is barren, the land naked and devoid of vegetation. But there was a huge marina off the highway. In fact, many of the trucks on this stretch of the road were towing big fat boats over there to play.

There’s something about people and their powerboats that I just don’t get. Maybe this was a good lake that makes the hassle and expense of owning a whole boat worth it. Back in East Lansing, when I was cycling through the suburbs up to Lake Lansing, I noticed that one out of every five houses had some sort of power boat or jetski on the driveway. Their frequency increased as you got closer to the lake. But the lake was too small. If you took your boat to full power, you’d cross it in under four minutes. Hardly worth having an engine. It’s like using a motorcycle to get around the house. Why own a boat for this? Why not hire one and have as much fun as you can on a flat, circular piece of water for half a day and have done with it? Owning stuff just looks like expense and hassle, unless you are foolish enough to take pride in that state of social relativity with a piece of expensive property.

I’ve been meaning to take a course in Geology sometime to improve my sense of sight when in the company of amazing landscapes like this. When you know the right stuff you see a whole lot more from the light that reaches your eyes. It’s like getting a new pair of glasses. It doesn’t need to be real Geology. Someone could invent and teach a false theory of Geology which made the world look even more interesting than knowing the facts. As long as you did not investigate too deeply and get obsessed with the flaws, the deceit would be beautiful.

A view from the botton of a canyon near Cannonville where some lads drove their truck off the edge of the bridge and wound up wedged and dead.

The days dragged on with so much to see and drive to. I was wondering if it was ever going to end and we’d get to California, as Becka pencilled in the days. We took a diversion up to Goblin Valley, which I do recommend, including for the park ranger who gives out ice lollies when he comes to collect your camping fees. All these cute stone “goblins” in the sunset were like a gigantic mushroom patch to explore at your whim. A little up the road from the campsite was a mesa with four canyons cutting through it listed in Kelsey’s canyon guide book. By the end of the day we’d decided that this book was utter shite. How it has managed to get to a 4th edition and still not contain clear and useful instructions on how to find the canyons and what’s in them, must be a sign of serious pigheadedness. It’s not hard to give accurate odometer readings of exactly how far down an unmarked dirt track from the junction you should take your car before looking for the invisible path. It’s also not hard to list a few of the landmarks in each canyon so you know you are in the right one when you get there. The maps were abysmal. To be fair, it did say in the introduction that you should always purchase a high quality map of the areas you intend to go walking, in order to use the book effectively. But if that were the case, why bother with the book, or why even allow it to be sold in places where such maps are not readily available? And these maps cost a fortune because they cover all those boring, possibly privately owned lands outside of the canyons that you don’t need to know. Yes, we did start at the wrong place. Yes, we weren’t carrying enough water (for the last time). We accidentally climbed to the top of the mesa because there was nowhere else to go. Pick a canyon down, any canyon will do, as long as the walls aren’t too steep. It was one of those off-trail scrambling experiences where you don’t know where you’re going, or even if it’s possible to get there. Happens all the time with me and Becka.

This is the same bridge from above. It’s easy to imagine getting it wrong at night if you’re too fast and drunk.

We missed out Capital Reef National Park which is so named after its slightly dome shaped white rock structures remeniscient of the dome on Capital Hill in Washington DC, also replicated by tradition into each of the state capitals. The big deal in this park is the Waterpocket Fold where the earth rose and cracked in a line. We visited some canyons by Cannonville, where we fell foul of the directions again, and took a wrong turning down a loose dirt track with a run-down farm that had buffalo, and emu, and a small boy with buck teeth like a walrus, sent over the fence to our car by his dad to ask for some spare change to feed the animals. There was also a night in Kodachrome Basin, so named because of the quality of the colours when photographed with that brand name film that was new and cool in the day the park was founded. The actual deal here is a collection of tall sandstone chimneys that were said to have been formed by geysers. These are hot water spouts that came out of the ground. When they stopped spouting they filled in with mud and sand that solidified into a stronger type of rock than the earth around it. How? When the earth eroded away, it left these castings of the water channels. Not to be confused with worm castings.

At least now we were in the cool part of Utah, where for the first time in a week I began to pee regularly. In the heat up till then, water had been pouring from my pores faster than I could pour it in my mouth. I’ve never liked real heat, especially when there isn’t enough shade because there are no plants. But where there are plants there’s humidity, which makes the heat much worse to bear. The ground life was mostly ants and scratchy grey lizards that could run up walls. There were hardly any birds. The main fuss with the ground was this crypto-biotic crust which is a sort of dry bacterial moss that takes fifty years to grow on the sand but half a second to wreck with a footstep.

The Final Canyons

Onwards we drove, searching in every town for decent places to eat. There’s lovely Torrey Kiva Cafe in Torrey, but that’s it. Becka is usually good at sniffing out the best American diners, except that when there was only one in each town, her sense of discrimination could not be exercised. Most were awful, particularly for feeding vegetarians where the default breakfast was pancakes and eggs with lots of raw coffee. Our worst experience was outside Bryce Canyon in a touristy town with lots of bars and theme restaurants. One of them had an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast with nothing else on the plate but margarine and high fructose corn syrup. When we stood up we felt like we had been punched in the stomach with a rolled up mattress. This floury fluff rose up our throats and repeated on us throughout the rest of the day.

The famous Bryce canyon, which isn’t a canyon so much as a outcropping of soft rock that’s crumbling away to reveal these strange formations.

Bryce Canyon is a premier National Park. Without a pass it costs twenty dollars a day. Here, the ground has fallen completely to pieces like a rotting red wound. It’s a sliced whale carcass of a landscape with dust like icing sugar ankle deep on the paths. Somehow, trees managed to take root in places before the red-orange sandy soil slides away leaving them standing naked like hydroponic plants. How do trees manage to make it, but not grass or ivy?

In general, the very best paper-based guide information is handed out by the rangers at visitors centres, or in the “help yourself” box of leaflets nailed to an outside tourist information map stand. These beat anything you find anywhere else for describing walks in sufficient detail to get you around without getting lost, as well as for useful information. What someone needs to do is make a comprehensive collection of these leaflets, strip out the useless ones, and print them up in a book. Or even put them on a web page.

I think this is one of those bristle-cone pine trees. Most trees are a living skin over a dead heartwood structure. These trees are unusual in that they don’t have to form a complete layer over their wood. Indeed, they are often just a small growth clinging on the side of a dead structure. It helps if the dead wood still stands and doesn’t rot away or get colonized by moss, which might explain why these trees live in the harshest locations where soft-bodied plants can’t survive to annoy them.

You can drive for an hour each way to get to the far end of Bryce Canyon, but I don’t think it’s worth it since it is less good there than by the entrance, and the time is better spent on the trails walking down among the hoodoos. For an alternative Bryce Canyon-like scene, go to Cedar Breaks National Monument (not a Park) which is nearby, but with a slight different consistency of rock to give a much looser structure.

Finally, we made it to the big one: Zion Canyon, famous for the Zion Narrows where the rock is sufficiently good that it can support vertical cliffs of a thousand feet high, but not so good that water can’t carve a thousand food deep slot into it. Unlike most canyons, there are no waterfalls along the entire length. The stream bed is practically flat and full of round slippery boulders that have been rolled in by the water from various tributaries with different coloured base rocks. These make it tricky to walk and you look down at your feet the whole time. You have to remember to keep looking up so as to be impressed by the view. There are many famous posters of this place with little tiny hikers dwarfed by walls of a monumental temple. You really have to be good photography to take pictures like this. I didn’t take my camera for fear of getting it wet.

You can see the road snaking upstream into the canyon in the top right. We are standing on a buttress around which the river loops, after an amazing walk called “Angel’s Landing”. The first person to climb up this knife-edge must have been hard. But the person who decided that they could build a tourist route up it with chain lines to hold onto, was nuts. I’m glad they did it.

The standard Zion narrows walk is one of the big deals. You buy a permit from the visitor station, purchase a six o’clock in the morning minibus ride up to the top of the hill, and walk into the canyon from the far end. You get a piece of paper listing the landmarks and the times you expect to reach them. The narrows only begin halfway. In the top part you’re walking along a track between cows pissing in the water that feeds the stream. Just before the narrows is a series of numbered camping spots that are allocated by further permits, should you want to do the walk in two days. The one day walk lists an itinerary twelve and a half hours long from top to bottom where it opens out into the valley and the road starts. Due to the growing popularity, cars had to be banned and the park operates a free shuttle bus system.

We hitchhiked from the top of Subway canyon to the bottom, after our walk, in the back of a pickup truck driven by a bunch of brainless teanagers who had run out of gas for their little go-cart vehicle and decided to tow it back to town along the road at about 30mph on a leash half the length of what you see here. (I protested after the first couple of miles because the guy was certain to get flipped over and dragged, or be rammed under the truck if it hit the brakes.) I couldn’t watch. There was nothing I could do to stop it. Eventually he did get a little scared and let his girlfriend try. She kept steering out into the other lane like a waterskier and couldn’t see what the problem was. If she lives to the age of thirty without a major life-threatening accident, it will be a miracle.

This means if you want to see the good bit, all you have to do is walk up from the bottom, wading and getting your boots all soaked until you reach a part that’s too deep. If you come from the top, you have to go through the deep pools whether you like it or not. Fortunately, because it was such a dry year, there were none that couldn’t be avoided, and I didn’t even get my keks wet.

Becka and I made such good time down the canyon that it looked like we were going to finish it after only eight hours. Of course, this meant we had to explore the main side canyon, Orderville, that comes in from the left. This is another day-long trip (listed in Kelsey’s book), which you can catch a bus to the top of, but it requires a rope because there are some waterfalls. We’ll just see how far we can go up before we have to turn back, Becka said. All that effort of keeping my pants dry was wasted when I was forced to cross a pool that was too deep, and climb a slippery log. We found the waterfall, which was a logjam, and climbed that too. This is an unfortunate by-product of being relatively good at climbing: you don’t have so many excuses to turn back. We went far enough up for the water to disappear and the canyon to turn dry, then we turned back. I was beside myself with exhaustion by the time we made it to the campsite at sunset. In the morning I broke down in tears, begging Becka not to take me on another walk. It was too much. I wanted to get a move on to San Diego and go diving as soon as possible. This walking holiday in Utah felt like it was never going to end. We had six weeks of holiday in America to share between us, and Becka was monopolizing all of it to her ends. She promised just two more days and then we’d be out.

We’d heard about an interesting canyon called Subway just to the west of Zion from the guy who’d driven the minibus in the morning. It is so named because, in places, the canyon waters cut a narrow slot in the ground, and then it bulged out on both sides cutting a subway tunnel shaped passage. There were two rope climbs in this canyon, according to Kelsey’s book. We still didn’t have a rope, so we weren’t going to be able to do all of it. Becka moved us to a different campsite at the north end of the park, which was on the same road as this canyon, and we overheard some guy bullshitting about this canyon all evening to his girlfriend. He had to make it sound like it was going to be really interesting and worth doing, but not so interesting that she was going to get scared off. As well as the rope climbs, there was a warning of a deep pool that had to be swum.

We went in from the bottom (such a long boring walk up the valley until it got interesting). The subway tunnel shape appeared and was pretty nice. I didn’t take pictures, intending to do some on the way back down so that I didn’t run out of batteries before the best bits. We found the first rope climb (with no rope on it) and tried getting up it. There was this New Zealander sitting at the top who gave Becka a hand up. He had just spent twenty minutes trying to climb it ahead of us until he succeeded. Since the upper level formed a ledge, there were many places to have a try.

Lava tube listed only in Becka’s rough guide of America. A nice attraction on which to end our Utah trip, crawling around in the dark with insufficient light for quarter of a mile.

We spent the rest of the day climbing the canyon together, getting up the second climb and, more importantly, traversing around the one deep, smelly pool by thrashing a route though the bushes and loose rock high up on the wall. There were hoards of people going the other way at this point, including this guy and his girlfriend as part of a properly equipped party.

The great thing about this day was we never learnt this New Zealander’s name. We just got along. It’s the complete inverse of the times you phone up the directory enquiries and the operator tells you her name, when you just don’t want to know it, and you don’t need to know it. It’s false familiarity. The only way to rebel is go to the opposite extreme and not even know the names of your fellow travellers. By the time we got back to our cars, we discovered that he was doing the tour of all the Utah parks in the opposite direction, from west to east. Fantastic, we said, and gave him Kelsey’s crap book, all our park leaflets of the different places, and as much information that we thought would be useful to him. That got rid of most of our litter.

Exit Strategy

Hooray, it was nearly the end of Utah! All we had to do was catch the bus to San Diego. Unfortunately, due to the car company not doing drop-offs in other cities, we had to drive up the highway in the morning all the way from the southwest corner of the state, to Salt Lake City, get it washed, turn it in, and catch the bus all the way back down so that we passed the spot we had left that morning at around midnight.


Las Vegas, would you believe. I had to spend a few hours visiting what is our culture’s holy city, even though I am a non-believer.

We hit Nevada Las Vegas at three in the morning. I’d heard it’s a twenty-four hour city, and I wanted to see it. This was my only chance. I like to think of it as the Holy City of our dominant Western culture. It’s our version of Mecca. They have Islam. We have the Dollar. The slot machines are our prayer wheels. The funny thing is that while pilgrims go to Mecca to improve their spiritual quotient, we go to Las Vegas to try and get rich, knowing for certain, implicitly, that vast wealth is a product of luck, never hard work and diligence. Practically every single person who goes to Las Vegas to gamble, comes back with a hole blown in their dollar account. They don’t get rich. But they don’t seem disappointed either. They don’t, for example, tell all their friends not to go there and get suckered. They don’t get the word out to everyone so that eventually no one attends. Why, in God’s name, are we so stupid? If everyone who went to Mecca had a stone thrown in their face and got told that Allah was not great, Islam would not last to the end of the year. But Las Vegas does this with your money. It continues to grow. People keep gambling. It’s like we’ve been born with a number of security flaws in our psychological programming, and they’ve found them out and hacked into them. Through it, they’ve installed alien subroutines and hijacked our brains. And we don’t ban it!

We caught a bus to the far end of the strip to walk back through as many of the casinos as we could find. We were looking for food. Much to our distress, every single one of those famous cheap casino buffets was closed. We got good at going in and finding their closed doors in every single hall-of-mirrors style gambling floor with its flashing fruit machines, table clusters of dice, blackjack, roulette and so forth. Mexican women were hoovering the floor and polishing the seats. The famous shows were all closed for the night. We’d missed them.

Nobody believes me when I say we couldn’t find any food between two and five am on a Wednesday morning, but that’s because nobody visits there at this time when the streets are quiet and you can even hear the crickets chirping. McDogshit’s does not actually count as food to a couple of vegetarians. We went hungry. I almost fainted inside one of the halls and had to grab a brass rail to keep from hitting the carpet. The decor was revolting. It was all the same from building to building. Visiting it when you are hungry and deprived of sleep to the point where you feel stoned is, I think, the appropriate state to experience this milieu.

Goblin Valley. The colours are completely genuine.

I did try to put a quarter in a slot machine once to see what would happen, but Becka confiscated it. She was frightened of what I would turn into. She was worried I might like it and get addicted or something. Psychological habits and instincts are every bit as compulsive as chemical addiction. Perhaps more so since the action is not as obvious as swallowing a pill or injecting a fluid. There’s a high degree of plausible deniability and rationalizing that can be applied to most unbreakable habits.

I don’t perceive a difference between chemical addiction and psychological maljudgement in relation to a brand. Listen to the product designers speaking about building and promoting the perfect brand. What if our brains were more chemically oriented than they are now, and all sorts of complex drugs could give you specific trips and experiences, in the way that a mass-produced hamburger can give you a particular taste and eating experience? We’d encourage the capitalist economy go to work on this. There would be corporate enterprise, drug research, unpleasant drug side-effects which they would try to mitigate and play down, independent small inventors would have their best proven ideas bought out for money. The economy would seethe. People would buy and experience and ride and enjoy, and pretty soon after a few decades the system will have discovered, by process of optimal calculation, the most addictive substance in the world, Substance A. We would all drink Substance A from the moment we were born till the time we died. We would have to work for it, for it won’t come cheap. We couldn’t be lazy. The price would be set to ensure that we could only just afford it if we worked hard all the time. We would work more hours than we needed, to keep alive and stay happy in the absence of Substance A, or even with Substance A were it sold at cost price, at no profit, and with no profits recycled into further substance promotion. We would be working a lot extra. The wealth from all this extra work would be harvested by the few who owned Substance A, and they’d become immensely rich and powerful. Unfortunately, they too are addicted to Substance A. They fill their swimming pools with it and splash around in it, losing their minds. They become walking crystals of A. They rule us. We are ruled by A.

But we don’t have that kind of complex chemical weakness. In this world we ban the most effective side-effect-free psychoactive drugs when they are patent-free and too cheap to make. Instead, our economic system is a machine which is trying to calculate the perfect brand that can be owned. The perfect template to fit the brain. It’s a complex shape, but in it’s simple analogue it’s like trying to invent the handcuffs. You know why handcuffs work? It’s because our arms aren’t tapered all the way. They go narrow at the wrist, and then wider to accomodate that all-important hand which makes us special. Our hands cannot collapse to fit through a loop of metal the size of our wrist. You try making handcuffs for a dog. They won’t work. Dogs are not the same. If you made them tight enough to stay on they would cut off the blood supply. For dogs, the neat invention for controlling them is a lamp-shade around the neck. They are free to do almost anything but chew their bandages off. And they look very silly when they try to eat their food out of a bowl on the floor.

Against the odds, there was one slot machine in Vegas I did play. It was disguised as a change machine in the Greyhound bus station. We needed lots of coins to feed the left-luggage lockers. You put in a paper dollar and get two quarters back. Just to see if it’s a mistake, you put in five dollars and get just ten quarters back. Hang on a minute. I told Becka and she blamed it on me for putting the five dollars in. You should complain. Unfortunately, the people at the Greyhound desks did not give out change because the machine was there for the job, and they weren’t responsible for the machine because it was owned by an outside contractor. Always divide the responsibility and put the people who deserve the blame as far away as possible. Would they have minded if I’d smashed up the machine, or did that aspect of the responsibility still reside with them? This has to be done if they think they are being clever by hiding crucial pieces of the machine owner’s job elsewhere. I came close to doing this to a payphone after it took four dollars of my money for a call that didn’t connect. You call the operator and they give you the run round different complaints departments (the responsibility for giving a single telephone service is divided among many different companies, any one of which could be blamed for delivering the signal telling the phone to take your money) on numbers that don’t connect or get cut off after ten seconds. They knew they could do anything they liked because there is nothing you can do at the other end of the phone line but break the phone. They carefully invested in coin boxes made out of hardened steel so that no one can break in and get their stolen money back. Shoving quarters in a slot machine is probably a better gamble than an American payphone, although it is less of a learning experience.

We squeezed onto the bus at 6:30am with all the other lower-class riff-raff and headed across the hot Mojave desert to San Diego in the farthest corner of America.


  • Amtrak Discover the train system of the world’s richest country.
  • Greyhound That other mode of transport.
  • von Mises web page Beware the “Autrian” school of economics, the foundation of neo-liberalism. The reason this type of bollocks doesn’t get thrown into the bin along with the Flat Earth Theory is because the rich-and-powerful buy into it since it’s the only secular theory which proves that the rich-and-powerful are necessarily the right people who should be rich-and-powerful in an ideal world. Economic theories are valued on the open market in the same way as Enron shares. They are not subject to the Scientific Method.
  • Canyon Country Zephyr Find this excellent free newspaper in Moab with good cartoon ads to laugh at when you’re bored reading the articles. Why don’t all newspapers do this?
  • The “official” page of the state which irritatingly does not have any useful links to the rest of the net. So, for example, it has a page for the Arches National Park, without a link to the National Parks webpage.
  • Bryce Canyon Country This website has the same problem as the above. It’s beautifully produced, but you can’t go anywhere except to their sponsors.
  • Discover Moab Another one of those privately web pages in which there is no informative way out, and the material is skewed towards premium services such as guided tours and hotels.
  • Arches National Park Government website.
  • Canyonlands National Park Government website.
  • Natural Bridges National Monument Government website.
  • Kodachrome State Park Government website.
  • Goblin Valley State Park Government website.
  • Bryce Canyon National Park Government website.
  • Zion National Park Government website.
  • Cedar Breaks National Monument Government website.

Julian Todd 9/2002.