In 2004, Joanna and I visited Arches National Park on a trip out west to spend time with our granddaughter Megan In Phoenix. We happened on it almost by accident driving back to Denver to catch our return flight to Tampa. We stopped for the night in a small Utah town and were having dinner when we struck up a conversation with a couple nearby. They raved about the abundance of National Parks in the area, and urged us to visit at least the closest one – Arches. The next day we spent a few hours exploring the natural beauty of this national treasure.
Fast forward 11 years…… I no longer have my traveling partner and, although I’m comfortable traveling by myself, I wanted to experience group travel. An article in a local newspaper described the group Road Scholar as catering to the “senior traveler” by partnering with colleges, universities and other groups to sponsor thousands of scholarly trips throughout the world. I thought the play on words (Rhodes Scholar) was very clever. Remembering the long-ago dinner conversation about the abundance of natural wonders to see in Utah, I selected Road Scholar’s April 2015 Utah’s Grand Circle of Parks and Monuments to be my test case for group travel. We’d explore several National Parks (including Arches, where Joanna and I spent time years ago), National Monuments and State Parks.
As I headed to the trip’s starting point, Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, I did so with a mixture of enthusiasm, anticipation and bit of reluctance. I knew I’d be experiencing spectacular scenery, but wondered how this single traveler would fare in a group setting.
There were 39 of us – mostly couples; several women friends traveling together; a few single women and me, the lone unaccompanied male! Most, if not all, were retired folks who had no desire to stay at home rocking on the front porch! This was a friendly, energetic, world-traveling group that really had a thirst for adventure. Many had been on other Road Scholar trips; a few, like me, were on their first. After settling into our somewhat spartan dorm rooms, we met the leaders and other participants in the lobby as we waited to go for dinner.
The dinner conversations that first evening, were the first indications that I was about to travel with some very interesting people. I sat next to Carol, a solo traveler from Wisconsin. We talked about our families; her backyard that was a magnet for the children in her neighborhood; how she had owned a framing shop/art gallery and her love of painting. She was so easy to talk to and such a great listener! We had no idea that in a few short days she would be “patient zero” of the illness that would strike our happy group! Across the table sat Dave and Joan, retired educators. They had driven to St. George from their home in Chicago. They told a couple of amusing stories about the previous night spent in a motel in a small Utah community where Dave found himself locked in the bathroom and Joan was forced to perform surgery on the bed pillows!! A fun, witty and well-traveled couple who added much to the overall experience. This adventure was looking like a winner from the very first night!
I think it was at breakfast the next morning that I ran into Marguerite and Diana – California friends, widows, adventurers and downright fun-loving human beings. We seemed to hit it off from the start and, over the course of the trip, we shared hiking trails; meals; stories of our families; companionship and a few glasses of wine! As Diana said of our trio: “We seem to be of like minds, which doesn’t seem to happen all that often, but when it does, it’s really special.” Teri, a single traveler from Colorado, and I found we had a lot in common. Her late husband was former Air Force, as am I. She was my seatmate on several legs of the trip; a hiker in our “fearless five” group and proved invaluable as our dinner-planner for the two evening meals we had to provide for ourselves!
Darrell and Paula McMahon were our guides/instructors/coordinators for the ten days. A phenomenal couple! Darrell is an accomplished geologist, botanist, wildlife biologist and entomologist who has worked in natural resource management for more than three decades. More important than that impressive resume: he had the uncanny ability to impart that knowledge to us lay people in a way that was most interesting/informative, such that we might retain some of it! Several times he’d get in costume (and involve one or more of the group) for his “Geo-Moments” to get his points across! Paula kept the ship moving making sure we had comfortable accommodations and full bellies. Both were great storytellers, keeping it light and lively as Fred, our trusty driver, safely covered 1200+ miles over the ten days. Paula, a self-taught musician on the Native American Flute, played that haunting instrument at several sites along the way, adding to the beauty and reverence of the moment.
The first full day, we learned some the history of the St. George area from Dr. Douglas D. Alder, historian and former President of Dixie State University. After a classroom lecture, Dr. Alder took us on a tour of St. George, including stops at the Mormon Tabernacle, Court House and a replica of an early Mormon home. In the afternoon, we hiked in the beautiful Snow Canyon State Park.
The next morning we began our journey along Utah’s Great Circle of Parks and Monuments. Below is just a taste of sights we were privileged to experience.
If I had to pick just one Park as my favorite on this trip, it would be Bryce for the sheer beauty and abundance of the rock formations.
For the most part, the meals were very good. One meal that stood out for me was at the Rim Rock Inn & Restaurant in Torrey, Utah. I had the fresh Utah trout accompanied by roasted acorn squash topped with brown sugar and butter. I don’t like many vegetables but, without a doubt, this was the best squash I ever had! My dinner companions that evening, Bill and Phil (along with their wives, Diana and Denise) decided to split a bottle of Polygamy Porter beer they found on the menu. The beer was a dark, heavy, chocolatey brew, but it was the rather suggestive label artwork that caught our eye with the slogan, “Bring some home to the wives!” Bill kept the empty bottle as a souvenir. A few days later in the town of Moab, several of us went on a hunt for it and split a 6-pack. The beer was not to my liking, but I now have an empty bottle as a reminder of this trip!
The return to Arches without Joanna was a bit melancholy; at the same time, it was heartwarming and uplifting knowing we had walked these paths together years ago.
Monument Valley lies entirely within the Navajo Indian Reservation on the Utah/Arizona border. Since Stagecoach was filmed here in 1939, dozens of films have used Monument Valley as a setting. After lunch at Goulding’s Lodge, we were able to explore the small John Wayne museum and trading post.
Rainbow Bridge, the world’s largest natural bridge, is accessible by boat on Lake Powell or a couple of trails (for which hikers must obtain permits). We traveled about two hours from the Wahweap Marina near Page, Arizona, crossing into Utah to the floating courtesy dock that led to the .3 mile trail to Rainbow Bridge National Monument.
UPPER ANTELOPE CANYON
Antelope is a slot canyon located on Navajo land near Page, Arizona. A slot canyon, significantly deeper than it is wide, is formed by the wear of water rushing through rock. A bumpy 3-4 mile ride on a dirt “road”, in the back of open 4-wheel drive vehicles, brought us to the canyon. We were led through the very narrow trail by a Navajo guide. It was a surreal experience!
This was a truly educational experience with Darrell, Paula and other guest lecturers providing numerous classroom and on-site learning opportunities – including Darrell’s impromptu Geo-Moments! We visited a replica of a Navajo village, with rug weaving demonstrations; explanations of hogan construction and a native dancing presentation. Larry Davis, an archeologist and former manager of Anasazi State Park, gave us his insight into the day-to-day life of Native Americans, sharing with us historical relics and stories from his long archeological career.
As mentioned earlier, Carol was “patient zero” of an illness that had many of the group fall ill for 24-36 hours. Carol first thought it was food poisoning, but when others displayed the same symptoms, we decided it must be some sort of bug making the rounds. It became a game to come to breakfast in the morning wondering who had become the latest victim overnight! Before it ran its course, a half dozen people were infected.
On a lighter note, on our last full day, we had lunch at the Chuckwagon in Kanab, Utah. Many Western movies were filmed in and around Kanab. So, of course, before we could eat they herded us out back; dressed us in costume – good guys, bad guys, posse members, saloon patrons, etc. – and we took part in a movie! Dave snapped this picture of Pat (a former Colorado attorney and magistrate) and me, as Ma & Pa, driving the wagon into danger!
This trip exceeded my expectations. The reluctance I had at the outset was unfounded, as this was a most rewarding ten days in terms of new knowledge; new appreciation for the natural wonder of this great country and new friendships that I intend to keep!