The road to Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah is not of this era. If you come in through Dixie National Forest, you are immediately transported into a world of Westerns — cowboys and Indians. It’s your first taste of the vibrant red rocks, hoodoos, and arches that Utah’s National Parks promise. The road runs through two carved archways, like rusty tunnels. I am left speechless, mouth agape, at the natural beauty of this alien landscape.
I was driving in the car alone; I had been for three days. All I had to eat were PB & J’s, apples, and granola bars. My six hour playlist and choice of three CDs were not cutting it for entertainment, and I felt ill-prepared for my long road trip from Orange County, California to Denver, Colorado. But there I was, 850 miles from my starting point and feeling remarkably energized.
Perhaps it was the Spring Break crowds at both Grand Canyon National Park and Zion National Park that made me feel less in touch with nature than I was back in California, but something felt different when I pulled into the empty parking lot at Bryce Canyon National Park Visitor Center. This is what I’d been searching for: solitary adventures.
Hefty amounts of snow lingered on the ground, though the March sun shone brightly in the clear sky. I looked around at the varying landscapes: rocky mountains, lush evergreen forests, and burnt high deserts. This place had it all. It was love at first sight. Looking down at the map I was given, I decided to drive 18 miles to Rainbow Point, the highest point in the park and what would be my highest elevation so far. As I drove the winding, escalating two lane highway, I thought to myself, What the hell am I doing?
It’s a feeling I can only describe as utter amazement at my own audacity. What started as a pipe dream to drive my father’s car from Orange County to Portland, Oregon had become a reality and I was living in it. I would drive all the way out to Denver to visit a friend and stop at the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce on my way out. It’s a completely inefficient way to go from Southern California to Portland, but I was checking items off my bucket list: visit every National Park.
Half an hour of slow, cautious driving brought me to Rainbow Point. I was excited to see only four other cars parked there. After being herded around like cattle at Zion, I was looking forward to stretching my legs. (I reiterate: if you can avoid visiting Zion during peak season, do so!)
I walked onto the overlook, which boasted an elevation of 9,115 feet, and gazed out at the landscape that was so unfamiliar. Huge and bulbous red rocks jetted out like uneven teeth from the snow-covered mountain side. Dark green, almost black, evergreens freckled the base of these monstrous crags. I suddenly felt very close to home, as in how had this beauty been hiding from me? Twenty-four years old, living on the west coast all my life and I had never seen this? I wanted more, so I took Bristlecone Trail to Yovimpa Point. It was only a 0.8 mile loop but my sea-level lungs were gasping for air at this height. I trudged on, though parts of the trail were obstructed with leftover snow and ice.
As I proceeded farther onto the trail the tourists disappeared and I was left alone among the 1,800 year-old Bristlecone Pines, listening to snow melt from treetops and wind rip through the canyons. My anxious mind kept drifting to thoughts of bears. I clutched my metal tripod, convincing myself I would use it as a baton if one came my way. None ever did.
It was here at Yovimpa Point that I realized you can be beaming with pride, jittery with excitement, exhausted from lack of oxygen, and terrified of imaginary bears all in one moment. This was the real feeling of traveling alone for me. It was simultaneously exuberant and panicked. The thing about panic, though, is that it fades when the situation resolves itself. And when I reached the forming crowds at Rainbow Point again, I was left with only the exuberance. I was metaphorically on top of the world and physically very close to it. I thought of the fears I had conquered in just three days and how they turned from fright into pride: driving long distances alone, hiking alone, sleeping in a car in a new place alone, relying on myself completely to get from Point A to Point B.
Was I scared the entire trip? Yes. Would I trade that fear for comfort? Never. I learned more about myself and what I am capable of doing in just four days than I had in almost twenty-five years of living comfortably. The ability to say, “I can do it!” in almost any situation holds more worth as a souvenir than any postcard or t-shirt possibly could. So the next day when I was facing my first snow storm, climbing the Rocky Mountains into Denver, crying from fear and anxiety, I could remind myself that I was stronger than I thought. I could get myself safely to Point B, because I already had done it.
About the author:
My name is Alison Thomas and I am 25 years old, currently residing in Portland, OR. I enjoy reading, baking, and writing. Currently I am working toward my goal of visiting every National Park in the US.