The Western Road Trip That Went South

A Wise Man Knows When to Quit

There are few things I love more than the creative process. Take music for example. As my family and friends know, I play guitar and sing. Music has been a wonderful means of expression for me, a way to lose myself while I am playing. There are times where two hours have transpired before I realize what happened.

Another form of creativity I love is finding expression through writing. Whether producing term papers long ago that could make a professor cry, or later in the corporate world, crafting an airtight justification to spend lots of money, I loved using words to build an unassailable edifice of reason that could not be refuted.

But, there is another side to my experience of creativity that is more complicated, and that I sometimes struggle to understand. This is not so much in the realm of art, as are music and writing, but something I think of as being more under the category of projects. In other words, I get a vision in my head to make something happen, and then I feel compelled, some would say obsessed, to see it come to fruition. It feels to me like such an idea must be made physically manifest and that it is my existential purpose to shepherd it through to completion. I know, this sounds overly dramatic, but after I recount my latest adventure I suspect you may see my point.

Playing guitar camp after dinner in Grand Canyon
Playing guitar in camp after dinner during rafting trip
in Grand Canyon (June 2018)

In June of 2018 and 2019, I planned two-week trips that included rafting and hiking through the Grand Canyon, hiking in Yosemite, and visiting other amazing spots in the desert Southwest U.S. Objectively speaking, there is no doubt that these are stunning places that deserve all the passion and reverence that we bring to them. I came to the notion of visiting and immersing myself in the wilderness somewhat late in life, and was thrilled when these two adventures, which I meticulously planned, were realized without a hitch. Not only that, they exceeded my wildest expectations, as well as incited a burning desire to plan an even more epic two-week trip to the Southwest in June of 2020.

Eighteen months before the big event I got to work assembling a massive spreadsheet. It covered 16 days, almost down to the hour, and had my son Alex and me hiking across the Grand Canyon, visiting five national parks in Utah, including two epic hikes in Zion, driving 1,500 miles while seeing other sights too numerous to mention, and photographing all of this as we went. I booked all the hotels, flights, permits, tours, car, and bought all the gear we would need. And then … Covid-19 arrived.

Ready to depart on our western road trip
“Trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion
just crossed my mind.
Cleaning and disinfecting supplies for our western road trip during Covid-19
Taking measures to ward off the evil Covid-19 spirits
during our road trip

As we approached our trip in June it became clear that we not only couldn’t fly, but that the country was getting worse, not better. The national parks closed while they figured out what to do. Not to be denied, I rebooked our entire plan for August, which included using a rental car to drive over 5,000 miles so we could avoid flying. We came up with elaborate procedures to make sure the risk from Covid-19 would be no more than if we had stayed home and continued to wear masks, avoid indoor venues, and so on.   

As August got closer, Alex began getting cold feet. He felt that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to go across the country during a pandemic, and that hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, carrying 40 pounds of water, food, camping gear, and camera equipment on our backs in 110 degree heat under such conditions, might not make the most sense. But, I said, the national parks were now open, they had strict protocols in place, they were almost empty, and we would be around hardly any people. I did tell him clearly that I only wanted him to go if he was comfortable, and ultimately, he did. So we set out on August 7 from Pennsylvania.

After driving for 30 hours straight, our first stop would be Great Sand Dunes National Park in Southern Colorado. We got there without too much trouble, other than hallucinating after 20 hours in the car and almost running out of gas in the soul-purifying nothingness of Western Kansas. We checked into our hotel and immediately set out to climb the 700 foot dunes. All was well for about ten minutes. Then I planted my foot on some shifting sand and my leg slipped out from under me at a crazy angle. I immediately felt great pain in my back, which shouldn’t have been surprising since it had been giving me warnings for months. At this point I knew at once that all the hiking I had planned had gone up in smoke. Physics being what it is, there was no way around it. Yet, thanks to Alex’s quick thinking, we came up with an alternate plan on the spot that still allowed us to see most of the sites on our agenda, take some stellar photos, and have a great time driving across the country and back.

Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument near Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, scenic Route 12
Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument,
near Capitol Reef National Park – Utah Scenic Rt. 12
Great Sand Dunes National Park in Southern Colorado
Great Sand Dunes, where my mishap saved me from foolishly trying to hike to
the bottom of the Grand Canyon two days later with a cranky back
Strand gas station near Moab, Utah
Who knew? The world’s mecca for (apparently not too intelligent) beef jerky –
Rts. 191 & 70 near Moab, UT
View of Colorado River below Dead Horse Point State Park Overlook
Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab, UT – Early morning looking out over the
Colorado River gooseneck 2,000 feet below with Canyonlands National Park in the distance
Agathla Peak in Monument Valley in Northern Arizona
Agathla Peak in Monument Valley, N. AZ where we pulled over to eat dinner close to golden hour

What did I realize through all of this? Planning and executing a project, being resourceful, and finding solutions to thorny challenges are great. But being inflexible to the point of not knowing when to retreat is not. Upon reflection, it wasn’t the risk of the pandemic that bothered me; I truly felt the risk was low. It was the fact that I had willfully discounted the nature and magnitude of the obstacles I faced. I was persistent to the point of hubris. My body ended up making sure I got the message loud and clear. Luckily, my back is now feeling much better. And, I am chastened, which puts me in a more sober frame of mind as I plan future trips to the wilderness.

State signs and our route during our western road trip
5,400 miles of driving across 10 states over 7 days through 10 national & state parks.
We never could have imagined how this trip would turn out, but Plan B was pretty good indeed.

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