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Wednesday 2 Oct 2013
Hanksville, USA

Um... what happened to the road?

It was only 20 miles back to Monument Valley, but the incredible photo opportunities on the way meant it wasn't a quick journey.  There were cars on the side of the road all over the place as other people did the same thing.  It was the classic movie set of desert, monoliths and a long straight blacktop fading into the distance.  Proper John Wayne meets Easy Rider country... In Monument Valley, we decided to brave the 17-mile dirt road loop in our hire car rather than pay for a tour, but very nearly changed our mind on the first hill.  It was a very steep descent to the valley floor with rocks and potholes to contend with on the gravel road.  Thankfully after the first mile or so it levelled out considerably and we cruised along happily for the most part.  The views completely justified making the drive. 

Some cars were better designed to cope with the dirt road and we found ourselves pulling in to let them past.  In all honesty, we were quite happy to do so as we were both so enthralled by the scenery around us, we didn’t want to drive any faster anyway.  Monument Valley was in the Top 5 on both our lists, so we alternated between being amazed by the landscape and giggling that we were really here.  It took us nearly three hours to drive the 17-mile loop, because there was just so much to look at.  Every few metres offered a new view, a new angle, a new gap between the rock fortresses above us.  I have seen some amazing sights already this year, but Monument Valley is simply in a league of its own.  The vivid red rock and dust contrasted brilliantly against the deep blue sky and the sparse green desert scrub. The new black and white feature on my phone camera really came into its own and made the scenery even more dramatic.

The only down point of the day was discovering a poor stray dog at one of the viewpoints.  He was clearly starving and thirsty, so we gave him the last of our lunch food, as did a few others.  Someone else left him a few cups of water, but it was very hard to drive off without wishing we could do something more.  At least he was smart enough to stay where people would feed him. 

Saying goodbye to Monument Valley, we drove back up to Mexican Hat and caught a glimpse of the famous Hat Rock as we went north.  A few miles out of the town, we turned onto Highway 261 and discovered the driving fun was not over for the day.  The Moki Dugway is a short stretch of road that climbs 1200 feet in the space of a couple of miles.  We’d read about it in the guidebook, so were expecting something interesting.  The road led us across the desert in a direct line towards an enormous bluff, clearly lifted by some seismic event in the distant past.  As the cliff face began to tower above us, there was still no sign of the road up. Then the signs indicated the paved road was about to run out and become gravel track instead, but we still couldn’t see any evidence of it on the rock face ahead.  Finally the tarmac ended and we found our first switchback.  The road began to climb steeply and wrap itself around every curve in the rock face.  The picture on the sat nav screen looked like spaghetti, nothing but long winding switchbacks with tight hairpin bends at each end.  The sun was skimming the horizon when we started and as we climbed higher we could see long shadows stretching out below us on the valley floor.  We were keen to reach the top before we lost the light, but at least having headlights on helped alert us to any vehicles coming around the hairpins the other way.  As it happened, the only other vehicle we passed was a motorbike coming down.  The rider waved us to stop and asked if we’d seen a gas station recently.  The poor guy was free-wheeling it to preserve what little gas he had left, so he was relieved to hear there was a station at Mexican Hat only 10 miles further on.  The drive was great fun and the views were well worth it.  We reached the lay-by at the top and looked back over the hairpins we’d just climbed, down to the valley floor with its single straight road leading out at a right angle.  This would have been well worth the detour even if we hadn’t needed to come this way!

With darkness almost fallen, we continued across the ridge that would eventually lead us to the far side of Lake Powell, cross the Colorado and Dirty Devil rivers and meander its way up to Hanksville, on the edge of Capital Reef National Park.  We’d set this as our goal for the evening, but hadn’t reserved any accommodation in case we found something else sooner.  It was a shame to miss so much of the scenery in the area by driving through the dark, but we knew there would be great things to see the next day.  We did get a glimpse of a Kit Fox as he crossed the road in front of us.  He had a small face, but beautiful oversized pointy ears on top and a fluffy brush tail.  We’ve actually seen very little wildlife on the trip so far, so he was a nice surprise.

Fifty miles short of Hanksville, we saw a sign indicating accommodation so followed the turning, only to be greeted with the first concrete evidence of the Government Shutdown.  Literally.  The turning should have lead us into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, but the road was blocked by a huge concrete barrier and a notice informing us that the area was closed due to “lack of appropriations”.  It was like a slap in the face.  We’d seen the news, but up until then we hadn’t actually been affected by it.  Here was a stark reminder that our road trip - so long in the planning - was going to be disrupted not by wildfire, but by the actions of a few rebellious politicians in Washington without a care for the consequences.

We had little choice but to keep driving and hope we’d be ok when we reached Hanksville.  The first motel was a welcome sight, brightly lit and clean, but unfortunately they were fully booked.  They said there was one more motel we could try, otherwise it would be a further 40 miles to the far side of Capital Reef.  It was already 9.30pm so we really didn’t want to go on, especially as it meant missing the very scenery we’d driven up to see in the morning.  The next place, the Hanksville Inn, looked fairly run down – the kind of place you wouldn’t normally consider – but we were out of options.  We went into the smoky reception and waited for the owner to appear – an elderly lady in a night robe, who I think we had interrupted getting changed for bed.  She sold us a room and recommended the steak house across the road, advising us to head straight over there before they stopped serving. 

At Duke’s Slickrock Grill, we were greeted warmly by a lovely, bubbly waitress called Sally, who made us feel right at home.  We were discussing our journey with her, when a middle-aged, long-haired biker came in and asked us for our room key.  There was an awkward pause as Verity and I looked at each other blankly, unsure what to make of this, especially given what the motel looked like from the outside.  Verity nervously asked why he wanted our key as I looked at Sally to see if she could vouch for him, when she suddenly understood the looks on our faces.  This was not the person who had checked us in – to us he was a random guy asking for our key! She laughed and assured us he was the owner’s son, while he explained his mother had checked us into the wrong room by mistake.  Cue a mildly hysterical fit of the giggles all round that had us weeping into our beers.  It had been a long day…

Mileage: 1446

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #1 America

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