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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

The Road to Capitol Reef and the Most Beautiful Place Ever

Route 12 didn’t start out looking like much. Maybe I was already getting biased after what I’d seen over the past few days, but I wasn’t terribly impressed when I started heading north towards Capitol Reef National Park. I rode for miles alongside small canyons, short mesas and lightly forested countryside under a dreary sky.

I slowly began to notice the smells. Anyone who’s been reading for a while knows how important it is to me for a place to have inviting smells. Utah, up until that point, had been almost strangely devoid of any particular odor. Perhaps all that time spent out among the desert sands had overwhelmed my olfactory senses, but I definitely noticed it when we started getting into a more agriculturally inclined patch of countryside. It washed over me like a refreshing warm rain and immediately made me feel more connected to the land around. Shortly thereafter, the ride improved markedly.

The change was sudden. From one minute to the next the land opened up and I was descending into a canyon that looked so epic beneath the now partly cloudy sky that I couldn’t help but whoop like a western cowboy.

The road quickly began climbing again until it crawled along the very spine of the plateau, with the canyon falling away to one side and a desert on the other.

That alone would have made for a fantastic ride but the road entered a true forest and continued climbing into the mountains. As the elevation rose and the air thinned, the chopping of the engine fell softly among the skinny trunks of birch trees. I was overwhelmed by scents familiar from my upbringing in the woods of Massachusetts but that I never expected to find at 9000′ in Utah. My mind summoned unwittingly the particular feeling of running my hand along the flaky bark of those trees.

The forest hugged the road, save for brief glimpses of open pastures (and a pause for cattle in the road) and alpine meadows strewn with mossy glacial boulders. The temperature dropped significantly and I found myself hugging the engine for warmth, caught totally unprepared for the change from the heat of the near-desert below.

The descent came quickly and seemed too brief compared with the long and glorious climb. Once again I found myself among red rocks but this time the strong cliff line of the Capitol Reef dominated the horizon. The sun had fallen in the sky and the temperature picked up to that ideally comfortable level that warms the face and hands but causes no particular discomfort. An then, upon rounding a corner, I found what was simply the most beautiful place ever.

I have a hard time describing that particular moment and it may never occur quite the same way even should I return someday. I first saw the barn, then the fence, and then the verdant fields of horses that were cupped by the gentle rise of the rocky red hills a mile away. The long arcs of sprinklers caught the golden character of the sunlight and sent radiant streams falling to the earth like the remnants of just-exploded fireworks.

I must have spent an hour there just watching and listening to the chit-chit-chit of the sprinklers while the horses grazed unconcernedly and the sun continued to fall gently towards the cup of the hills behind it all. I don’t think I caught that particular smell of water, grass, horses and rocks anywhere before or since. Pictures can never do justice to the feeling of the place and it seems almost trite to even try, but I could hardly leave without at least trying to keep a piece of it.

I grudgingly did leave that spot and continued on to a motel in the little town of Bicknell, UT. I had apparently used up all my karma during the phenomenal ride earlier in the day, because when I went out to grab a bite to eat a few miles down the road at the quaint (and superb) Diablo Cafe, just about everything went wrong.

First, I noticed that one of my saddlebag rain covers had blown off. Then, when I returned after dinner to look for it in the failing light, I felt a strange tug in my pocket. I’m completely paranoid about things falling out of my pockets and I was wearing my hiking pants not my usual jeans so I was extra on guard. When I slapped the pocket containing my phone (iPhone v4.0, 1 week old), it was gone. Only when I immediately stopped to begin the desperate nighttime search for my fallen phone did I realize that I’d forgotten to buckle my cargo net down and my tripod was also missing.

I found the phone by the glint of my flashlight off its cracked glass (thankfully the rear panel) where it rested at the edge of the pavement about fifty feet back. I then spent another hour looking along the road for my tripod which, I eventually discovered, had been crushed to smithereens by some unlucky passing vehicle. In the course of that hunt, I even had a deer leap across my path in the road. Needless to say, I felt completely disoriented and just wanted to get back to the motel to assess my life before anything else went wrong.

The saddlebag cover was never recovered.