Chicks In The Sticks – Camping In Arches
August 11, 2009 Photography
I’ve been posting pictures here on the blog lately from the huge two week road trip we took back in May of this year. My BFF Sasha, wrote up this great description of what we went through for just part of the trip (and one of the funniest parts of the trip)….I’m trying to get her to write more since she’s simply amazing at writing.
Here it is…
Chicks in the Sticks Road Trip, 2009 – Arches National Park, Utah
By Sasha A.
The journey to Arches began 400 miles away in Colorado Springs, which was our first stop since leaving South Florida. There were brief breaks along the way, but for those who are geographically or mathematically challenged (and too lazy to Google.map it), that’s some 50-odd hours and roughly 2600 miles in the confines of a rented Toyota minivan, of which we ran through two. The first was Priscilla, may she RIP, then Tallulah, who over time would reveal a gung-ho attitude, a noxious and mysteriously intermittent odor, and a sluttish affection for Hummers. She fit right in.
We pulled into Colorado Springs around 2am and slept for three hours before we rousted out (not nearly long enough, but they were quality hours courtesy of clean sheets and plentiful hot water—thanks, Drury Inn!) then shuffled downstairs for a surprisingly extensive, complimentary breakfast. No tiny packets of desiccated oatmeal and stale muffins here. We filled up on scrambled eggs, waffles, juice, toast, fruit, assorted pig parts, and caffeine in various forms, all of it fresh and relatively hot. A couple or four pilfered yogurts for the road later we headed out.
Colorado Springs is a lovely, picturesque place with many interesting things to recommend it, none of which were noticeable in the cold, thick, morning fog.
We toured Garden of the Gods and Pike’s Peak then drove through Pike National Forest and Breckenridge on the way to Interstate-70. The impressive panoramas changed from snow-dotted, Alpine mountains and forests to the bright, colorful rockscapes of Utah’s high plateau and prompted many exclamations of astonished delight. It was one of the most beautiful drives of the entire trip.
One memorable pit stop was a speck on the map called Papa Joe’s . A lonely building with peeling whitewash and a handful of colorful signs sat tucked away in the dirt patch behind the overpass. Papa Joe’s (or was it Uncle Jose’s?) seemed a combination gas station and convenience store and recalled cheesy, hollow flute music from old spaghetti westerns—the only things missing were tumbleweeds, a three-legged dog and a stray rooster scuffing through the dust. The place was so sketchy American Express blocked our credit card when we tried to buy gas. (Okay, not really, but we were declined, and we’re sure it wasn’t coincidence.) Credit snafu’s and scraggly imaginary fowl aside, Father Juan’s was notable for its freezer section, which yielded a treasure trove of Red Bull Cola and made Chick Tosca ecstatically happy, but not as happy as the Padre, who offloaded his entire inventory of the stuff in one go.
We turned south on US/SR-191 towards Arches with our resident junkie freshly juiced up on enough caffeine to run alongside Tallulah. The rest of us were a little short on sleep but still caught up in the magical high of a sparkly new adventure. This no doubt helped us avoid many dreaded road trip pitfalls: tension, squabbling, the inevitable awkwardness that came with close-quarter living and exposure of personal issues—which ranged from the intricacies of female plumbing, flatulence and secretion of bodily fluids, etc., to the best flavors of ice cream and how to mix the perfect martini. Some of it enlightened, some grossed us out, but all of it entertained so we poked fun, debated, agreed to disagree, and had a great deal of fun. We were in good spirits and eager for more, and, boy, were we about to get it.
Campsite #43 at the Devil’s Garden Campground in Arches had been reserved months in advance via their online reservation system, and we’d called ahead to let them know we’d be late. We figured it was fine. It was only slightly past 7pm when we reached the park entrance, and we had at least an hour of daylight left. That was surely enough time, right?
For anyone who’s ever camped at the park, go ahead and laugh.
For those who haven’t, the punch line is the campground is situated at the furthest possible point via paved road from the park entrance, and not just any paved road. This road meandered and curved, switched back and forth worse than a dyspeptic rattler, went up and down by varying gradients, and sometimes did all those things at once. It was an extremely scenic experience for the gawking swamp dwellers, but required careful speed and much downshifting. The time this took was frustrating as precious daylight slipped away the longer we went with no sign of the campground. In the end it took us another 35 minutes to reach the Devil’s Garden.
When we embarked on this tour our primary goals were to experience the wonders of the great Southwest and collect as many national and state park notches on our walking sticks and expedition hats as possible, all within 16 days and without breaking the bank. A major component of that necessitated popping the proverbial camping cherry of a couple of Chicks. With the aid of a borrowed tent and assorted gear (thanks, Tony!), we had a better than average shot of succeeding. There was only one problem.
It was our first night camping, our earlier excursions and merriment had put us slightly behind schedule, no one had ever erected a large, 7-person tent of the sort we possessed (some of us had never pitched a tent at all and hardly knew a tent pole from a gopher hole), and by the time Tallulah was unloaded we had approximately 20 minutes of fading light by which to work. Just to round out the experience clouds moved in, the wind picked up, and there were one or two scattered sprinkles that made us even more nervous. Now, that’s more like a whole Brownie-troop of problems, but we were game Chicks, darn it, and determined to have a successful camping experience if it killed us.
We unfolded the tent, laid out the poles, and set to. When it got too dark to see we broke out the battery operated lantern and mini-miner’s headlamp, the latter of which looked very rakish perched atop the fluffy noggin of our most experienced camper!Chick. The other Chicks shared the remaining light source and awaited instruction amidst blowing sand, creeping exhaustion, and the enviable sounds of the rest of the campground settling in for the night. It quickly became apparent after several false starts using the standard method (i.e., “we don’t need no stinkin’ instructions”) the tent was not quite as easily assembled as we thought. At this point we began discussing the probability of a cramped and uncomfortable night in the van, but we weren’t quite ready to throw in the towel.
With judicious and frequent reference to the diagrammed instruction sheet (in five different languages, no less) and exceptional teamwork from all the Chicks, we finally got the hang of it, but not without much hilarity, sweating, a few flared tempers, some inventive cussing, and several pinched fingers and scratched shins as we navigated uneven ground and prickly bushes.
We got the tent laid out after figuring out the back side of the tent from the front and where the door was supposed to be underneath all that material that made up the porch (“Rotate it this way.” “No, rotate it that way.” “Oh, what the hell, it’s good enough where it is”). We then had fun with the helpfully color-coordinated collapsible tent poles (‘this thick black pole goes in here, through there and over that, except, wait—four thick black poles later—nope, it’s those thin, red-tipped black poles that go here, because they have to bend that way and slot into these thingamajigs and get tied at the top with the little ribbon-bit; and the other thick black poles actually go in those sleeves and get clipped to these bindings, but don’t put them into those slots yet because that’s where the thick grey poles go and we’ll have to attach them all together later on’). Excellent.
Once the structure was upright and had attained a vaguely tent-like shape, we felt our first stirrings of hope. We might actually get to sleep in our tent before midnight if this kept up, we thought, until a sharp gust of wind yanked the whole thing from our hands like a child’s kite. Thanks to lightning reflexes (and pure, dumb luck) the whole thing did not go flying off into the night to wind up dangling like ladies’ underwear from the tip of a 60-foot tall rock the next morning, and we were now aware of our next task—anchoring the tent. Apparently, that’s what tent spikes were for. Cool. We had tent spikes, and we had a hammer (we’d hammer in the morning, we’d hammer in the eveninnngg, all over this lannnnnnnndd!!! I kid you not. We took turns at first with the hammer, which I’m convinced was possessed by the spirit of an evil folk singer, because whoever held it was pathologically incapable of not singing at least a line or two of that song, and, once uttered, everyone else was likewise incapable of not singing along). Unfortunately our tent spikes were rather average and the ground was exceptionally soft and deep and sandy, which meant that as much as we hammered (we’d hammer out DAN-GER!, we’d hammer out WAR-NING!, we’d hammer out love—between—my brothers and my sisters, all-alll over thi…we were seriously punchy by this point), the tent spikes didn’t do a very good job of holding things in place. So we decided to put two spikes at each corner and hope for the best (and that we’d be able to find the stupid things in the morning in all that fine, shifting, red sand).
Next up was the tarp covering for the top of the tent, which we managed, although with not a single one of us taller than 5’7” at a stretch that maneuver also caused much amusement. After we attached the various pieces together, we still had guy lines dangling, which our camper!Chick tied off to nearby scrub bushes. Lo and behold, we had a TENT! Sleep was in sight, ladies and gentlemen, HALLELUJAH AND PRAISE THE LORD!!!
Like I said, punchy.
Our success with the tent spurred us to a second wind. We worked like crazy getting the rest of our things set up inside, which at that point, for us, was bare bones—sleeping pads and air mattress, sleeping bags, backpacks, flashlight, oh, and the baseball bat from inside Tallulah, just in case some crazed serial killer or rabid mountain lion got loose in the campground that night and decided to attack our tent from among the 50 others assembled.
Everything not needed was dumped back inside Tallulah, but thanks to our generous friend we had more than we needed and were camping in style. A huge tent, a battery pump for the queen air mattress to be shared by two Chicks and sleeping pads for the remaining Chicks. We had another large air mattress but opted in favor of the self-inflating sleeping pads to save time. Too bad the “self-inflating” aspect of those failed miserably. It was probably user error, again, but those pads did not significantly inflate, and we were so tired by that stage we never checked them properly before slapping the sleeping bags down on top and calling it good. Those two unfortunate Chicks would wake in the morning feeling like the proverbial princesses and the pea, except the “peas” this time really were big honkin’ rocks.
My advice to the uninitiated who may be reading: never, ever, EVER go out camping using gear with which you are not intimately familiar, despite how much previous experience you may have had with other gear. It should also go without saying not to attempt use of said unfamiliar gear on the fly in utter darkness and adverse conditions. Granted, we lived to tell the tale so maybe it’s just added spice (which causes severe heartburn, by the way, but whatever). That first time it took us well over two hours to set up camp; with no exaggeration, subsequent efforts took 15 minutes from start to finish, simply because we knew what we were doing with each piece of equipment.
For those who are intelligent enough not to require such glaringly obvious, idiot-guide worthy advice, here’s a tip specific to the Devil’s Garden: try to score a campsite on the inside track of the main drag, like 19, 22, 30, 31, 33, 36, 38 and 39. We were in site 43, which had good views but was a bit exposed; what we wouldn’t have given later on for a nice, big boulder to block the wind. One final thing, always be sure to have adequate first aid supplies. You never know when a simple cut can turn gangrenous and mean the possibility of lopping off a limb, sepsis and death. I may have read one too many adventure novels as a child, but when Chick Tosca lost the fight with a particularly vicious bit of local flora, I came running with my rubbing alcohol, Neosporin and band-aids. Like any good health care professional I obtained the verbal release of the patient; she could have given me the written release in blood, with all of it she was spreading around, but it was ultimately unnecessary because I quickly began treatment and doused the digit in alcohol. There were a few inarticulate cries and other unrepeatable expressions of what I’m sure were her undying gratitude as I cleaned and bandaged the appendage. The big baby lived on to have many more adventures-in-cacti through the very end of the tour and beyond.
As the night wound down we made our final treks to the lavatory station, zipped up our tent and turned in for the night. It actually took us another hour or so to decompress, stop giggling, and let the stress and exhaustion of the day wear off. Our mumbled observations trickled to a halt, and we gradually drifted to sleep, despite the strangely noisy silence of being out in the middle of nature, miles from the ambient light and sounds of a big city. The skies were only partly cloudy by then and the stars through the tent windows above our heads were startling in their abundance and clarity.
We’d been sleeping for perhaps an hour or two when suddenly there was a loud WHUMP! and a soft cry from the Chick Heather on the end. The wind had picked up since we’d gone to sleep. Another strong gust hit and momentarily buckled part of the high-clearance ceiling, by which time we were all wide awake. Ten minutes and several ferocious blasts later, the initial adrenaline buzz started to fade when the loudest, strongest gust yet hit Chez Chick like a drunken pterodactyl crash landing into the nest. The back quarter of the tent collapsed on top of Chick Heather, amid sounds of flapping, squawking, and whistling, followed by a pathetic little, “help!” when the tent did not bounce back into shape like it had the first few times. Battle stations!
With two Chicks avoiding suffocation by holding the tent up from the inside, Chicks Tosca and Sasha clambered into boots and tumbled outside with lights. The wind was strong enough to buffet and sand was flying everywhere; the stinging onslaught abraded every bit of exposed skin—thank goodness we’d gone to sleep in pants and long sleeves. Our eyes were another matter, but we managed to get around and right the side of the collapsed tent. The lashings on the tarp cover had pulled loose and needed to be refastened, but there was nothing to secure them to, with the exception of a few scrubby bushes that hadn’t done the job very well in the first place. With absolutely nothing else at hand in the middle of a desert gale at 2am, we grabbed the lines one by one and wrapped them several times around the bases of the sturdiest brush we could find, which in most cases were prickly, ill-mannered, half dead cactus-plants. Horrible things, but they served their purpose. We got back inside scratched up and with our brains rattling between our ears, but with our new, improved knots the tent held out until morning, and everyone eventually got some fitful sleep.
The following morning was as calm and lovely as the night had been hellacious.
We stumbled to the wash station bleary eyed and so numb to just about any other danger that even the presence of very large spiders and other assorted (and possibly highly poisonous) arachnids sharing the facilities were not enough to phase us. We broke down camp much more quickly and efficiently, and we chatted with our neighbors and the camp aid while we waited for Chick Karen to return from an early morning mission at the visitor’s center. In her absence we learned the gusts that night had been nothing to sneeze at, clocking in at 35-40 miles per hour at their strongest. No wonder our tent made like a pancake at one point. We also learned that there is little privacy in a campground, because our neighbors, a lovely older retired couple from the Midwest, were alternately amused and worried about our welfare based on our loud, verbal commentary and obvious depth of expertise throughout the ordeal. They were as relieved as we were we’d made it through the night and gave us several helpful suggestions for user-friendly campgrounds along our way. I think they believed we needed all the help we could get. They were also kind enough to take a picture of the four of us with Tallulah to mark the survival of our inaugural camping expedition.
Our adventure in Arches was the Chicks’ first true test of adversity, and although years of friendships and months of confident boasting could have been at stake—it was a toss up for a brief while whether things would fall to BFF-forevah! camaraderie or belly-flop into where-do-we-hide-the-body blood pact—we managed to make it through with our sanity and humor intact.