Updated: Dec 4, 2021
This is the third post about the 5-month road trip my wife, daughter, and I took earlier this year in the middle of the pandemic. You can also go back and read a little of the background/ context behind the trip, or read about our time in Asheville or Lawrence, Kansas.
After all the (both good and bad) stress we experienced in Lawrence – from unexpectedly buying a house to our daughter having vomiting spells to me having mysterious migraines and ostensibly burning my face with a heating pad – we were excited to be heading west again.
We were originally supposed to leave Lawrence the day after our anniversary (April 3rd) and stay one week in Denver and another in Moab; however, since we stayed an extra week in Lawrence to get our second dose of COVID vaccine, our plans had changed such that we were going to just stay two nights in Denver before driving on to Moab. Given all the travel, I'd be taking one day off as we drove to Denver on a Thursday, would work on Friday, and then we'd head to Moab on Saturday.
We'd done the stretch of I-70 between Lawrence and Denver at least a half dozen times back when we'd lived previously in Kansas. The relative green of eastern Kansas makes way for the Flint Hills somewhere around the exit to Manhattan, KS (the "Little Apple" as some call it) before eventually transitioning to the kind of scenery that The Wizard of Oz and other stereotypical depictions of the state teach us to predict of Kansas (that is to say flat). It's not the most picturesque drive, especially the western stretches of Kansas and eastern Colorado, and probably the most interesting thing to see are the endless farms of giant windmills somewhere around 60% of the way to Denver. Still, the drive is easy, there's not much traffic to speak of, and you can drive fast.
Our Airbnb was in a charming carriage house in the Whittier neighborhood of Denver near city park. As we drove around the neighborhood in the first sizable city we'd been in since we'd left Brooklyn, my wife and I joked to each other about whether we wanted to ditch the house in Lawrence and instead move to Denver.
The morning after arriving in Denver, I went on a run near where we were staying. It was great to get some exercise again. I face-timed my brother when I went on my run and showed him the burn on my face (he's a doctor). He briefly made fun of me for stupidly burning my face with a heating pad and then added that my burn (which had started to blister) looked like I had Herpes on my face. I thanked him for the words of encouragement. I worked most of that day, but my headaches returned. My wife encouraged me to get a virtual doctor's appointment, so I scheduled a visit. I told the doctor everything that had happened and she replied: "You've clearly got a lot going on, but I think you might have shingles."
That afternoon after googling shingles for at least an hour, I went to an urgent care clinic in Denver and sure enough, the doctor said that the location of my blisters, the fact that they were only on one side of my face, and my headache symptoms were all indicative of shingles. He also noted that he'd seen two other people recently who had come down with shingles shortly after receiving a dose of the COVID vaccine. I was prescribed some anti-viral drugs and sent on my way.
Adding yet another complication to matters is the fact that shingles is actually just the resurgence of the chicken pox virus (such a resurgence usually happens in older adults and those with compromised immune systems, which are often brought on by stress). As such, while I wouldn't be contagious to most , our daughter was only 8 months old and hadn't yet been given the chicken pox vaccine (they typically give the vaccine at 12 months). What this meant then was that I shouldn't be touching or playing with her until the blisters on my face crusted over, which was likely a few weeks away.
The hits just kept on coming.
The next day, when we were set to leave Denver for Moab, my headaches, which I knew now were essentially caused by nerve pain from my shingles, continued getting worst. We got a late start out of the house, but luckily we only had a five hour drive in front of us. We got on the highway around lunch time. Usually one of either my wife or myself sat in back with our daughter while the other drove, but since I was contagious and also in no shape to drive, I sat in the passenger seat up front. I tried to doze off to sleep. If you've ever driven west from Denver on I-70 you know that the just west of the city, the highway literally ascends right into the Rockies. We'd just passed the last Denver exit when a warning light came on the van.
Shit. There was a problem with our car battery.
I googled the issue, my head still throbbing. Apparently battery warning issues were somewhat common with this model of Honda Odyssey. However some people seemed to suggest that it was just a false warning, while others stated that they actually did have an issue.
It's okay, I said. Just keep driving. Even if there is a problem and it isn't just a stray warning light, as long as we don't stop, the car the battery will be fine. This is what I wanted to believe, at least. The last thing I wanted was a long stop, which would force us to finish our drive at night.
Eventually, after consulting her cousin who owned gas stations in California and knew a lot about cars, my wife insisted that we get the car checked out. My head continued to pound. We'd been driving through the mountains for an hour or so, but saw that there was a Honda dealership coming up in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, roughly halfway through that day's drive.
When we arrived a short while later at the dealership, my wife and daughter went inside. People were already on edge about being near others due to COVID, and now here was me with half of my face melting. The people at the car dealership politely requested to my wife that I don't come inside. And so, for a few hours, while we got our car checked, I wandered around outside in Glenwood Springs, Colorado along the strip of road parallel to the interstate between the Honda dealership, a 7-11, and a Culver's. My head still hurt. I was a bit disoriented from not wearing my contacts. I was tired. I looked like shit.
It was probably safe to say that this was pretty close to the low of the trip.
Our stay in Glenwood Springs was thankfully only about two hours (apparently some cord had just partially come unplugged) and we were back on the road by about 4pm. We came out of the mountains into the desert-like landscape of western Colorado and then eastern Utah.
I don't believe I've mentioned to this point how generally great our daughter had been on all these drives, but I'll do so now. So long as we fed and changed her at semi-regular intervals, our daughter was happy to drift in and out of sleep on our long drives. Occasionally she'd get a little cranky, but it was usually nothing that a toy or book couldn't pacify. Towards the end of our drive from Denver to Moab though (with the stop halfway to service the car), our daughter had had enough. For the last hour of our trip – with my face a swollen mess of weeping sores and my head throbbing – our daughter cried and cried and cried. The only thing that could mollify her was my wife and I singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
And so we sang it. Together at first. And then alternating. And then in rounds. Over and over and over.
It had grown dark by the time we got to our condo rental south of Moab. As if to welcome us to our new place, our daughter cried unconsolably upon arrival. My wife was upset. I contagious as I was and in pain, couldn't help. It was a tough night, but we'd arrived.
Today, Moab is primarily a tourist destination and serves as a gateway of sorts for two of Utah's five national parks (Arches and Canyonlands). The area is believed to have been originally settled by Native Americans as many as 10,000 years ago. In more modern times, the area around modern-day Moab was used as a river crossing for the Colorado River. The first settlers in the area were Mormons who initially tried to establish a trading fort at the river crossing and later established a more permanent settlement in the 1870s.
The actual city of Moab was incorporated in 1902 and its economy was first agricultural and then mining based. Starting in the 50s Moab was known by some as the "Uranium Capital of the World" and the city's population boomed. With the end of the Cold War though, the uranium mines were shuttered and the city began to decline.
Canyonlands and Arches were made national parks in 1964 and 1971, respectively, and over the years the economy has increasingly revolved around tourism and being a resort town full of many second homes.
Having previously been to (and loved) Utah's other three national parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef), we were excited about our stay in Moab. That said, by the time we arrived, conditions had obviously changed a lot and we were just trying to get by. After that first night in Moab the left side of my face swelled up, I could only see out of one eye and I suddenly resembled the Batman villain Two-Face.
Over the next couple days as I started to feel better, I worked a few days and one afternoon after I signed off (I was still working east coast time), we drove to Arches (which is just north of town) and did a short driving tour and a few short hikes. Had we had the time and been 100% we probably would have wanted to do the longer hike up to Delicate Arch. As it was, we only did a short walk up to a viewpoint. While I definitely still wasn't at my best, it felt great to get outside again.
We remained in Moab a few more days while I worked remotely. We didn't get out too much, but luckily our condo had an absolutely stunning view just outside. By the time we left, it felt like we had started to turn a corner and we were back on the upswing. Our daughter was vomiting less, and while I still looked pretty bad, I'd begun to feel better. The morning of our departure we left early and did a detour to Canyonlands National Park. Suffice it to say, we didn't have time to see all that much, but it was immediately apparent that it was one of the most breathtaking places we'd ever visited.
A Brief Aside: National Parks (and other nature) in Utah
Our trip to Moab was our second trip exploring the national parks of Utah. My wife often says that Utah is her favorite state – and while I personally wouldn't go that far, it's definitely in my top 5. Since I was in bed for so much of my most recent trip to Moab, I have relatively few recommendations to give about the town itself. Instead, I thought I'd leave a few thoughts about the national parks in Utah and give my (totally subjective) assessment on how they rank, which ones we loved most, etc.
It's worth noting, that being the fifth best national park in Utah is not a criticism. Instead, it's sort of like being my fifth favorite Michelin starred restaurant in New York – not my favorite, but probably still pretty damn good.
Anyhow, without further ado, here is my list of the national parks of Utah ranked:
Zion is one of those national parks that is sort of the platonic ideal of a national park with breathtaking views all around. During our trip some years back we did the hike up to Angel's Landing. It was a somewhat tough hike – and the final stretch is a bit treacherous – but it was totally worth it. Given the time of year we went we weren't able to hike the famed narrows, but we'd love to go back some time to see them. The big downside of Zion is that it's crowded. You have to ride a bus into the park and the most popular hikes get a lot of foot traffic. We did Angel's Landing early to beat the worst of the crowds, but on our way down people were at a near standstill at certain points due to how many people were trying to get through narrow portions of the trail.
As I mentioned above, we didn't spend all that much time at Canyonlands, but the park is absolutely stunning. The pictures we took don't do it justice. I'm surprised we hadn't heard more about it.
3. Capitol Reef
On first glance, Capitol Reef is sort of the red-headed step child of Utah national parks. Whereas all of the other national parks in Utah have something spectacular about them, Capitol Reef is a bit more understated. But it's this understated quality – and the fact that it was by far the least crowded – that made it feel so special. One of the things we found particularly charming was the small town of Fruita, a sort of orchard oasis village within the park. Though the town is technically a "ghost town" these days, the buildings there now house a number of National Park services. Pro tip: Gifford House in Fruita has great pastries/ cinammon rolls, but they sell out so get there early!
Some might find it surprising that Arches is this far down the list. Arches is probably the most iconic national park in all of Utah, and probably one of the more iconic ones in all of the national park system. In some ways though, its "iconic-ness" probably works against it. When you think about Arches national park, you think about seeing... well... arches (especially the much photographed Delicate Arch). When you get there, what you find is... well... arches. While these arches are undoubtedly amazing geological formations and really cool, the fact that Arches doesn't offer visitors with too many surprises made the experience less exciting for us.
5. Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon is known for the reddish/ brownish rock spires (called hoodoos) that grow out of the canyon. Visitors can hike along the rim of the canyon as well as actually go down among the hoodoos. At first glance, Bryce is one of the cooler, more geologically interesting national parks. That said, it's a bit "one note" and is a park most will probably feel they've seen sufficiently after a day or so. Another big pro I'd mention though is the park is pretty accessible to people of all abilities. The rim trail is generally flat and you can literally park right next to it. While there were quite a few people there when we visited, it didn't feel as insanely busy as Zion. Very happy we visited, but probably wouldn't be on the top of my list to visit again.
Okay, enough about Utah for now. Next up: California (finally) by way of Great Basin.