The park ranger at the Visitor Center in Arches National Park scrutinized my husband and me, taking in our seventy-two-year-old faces and well-worn Tilly hats before she answered. I’d said we were experienced hikers who wanted to avoid the crowds of tourists already filling the walkways. She told us Tower Arch Trail in the Klondike Bluffs, eight miles off the main loop, had some steep inclines, but we wouldn’t be disappointed: “Take plenty of food and water,” she said. “Few people make the drive or the climb—the views are stunning.”
Art turned off the paved road where buses and RVs crammed the parking lots, and onto a narrow white gravel road that cut a path across a serene plateau, and we disappeared into the horizon. Pale green pinyon and stunted juniper trees softened the view. To the right, the steep red cliffs were outlined against the blue sky of the high desert; a cluster of massive boulders revealed a small arch, like a window, open wide. The snow-covered peaks of the La Sal Range far to the left were stunning, but it was the road with not a car in sight that captured us.
“This is why we’re here,” Art said, turning to me, his blue-green eyes aglitter with joy. “If we see nothing more, the trip will have been a success.” He loved the remoteness, the solitude found in the vistas of the West.
“Stop, please,” I said. “I need to take this view home to Boston.” Paths, roads, highways, and trails with no end in sight have always been my favorite subjects. Photos framed on my desk, on the bedside table, in the bookshelves and on my computer screen, symbolized what I hoped to find when I traveled: a chance to shed the past and move into the unknown.
Here was the perfect shot.
The trailhead was quiet when we arrived, except for a couple of park rangers preparing to work on the road. We were glad to see them because, as much as we sought solitude, neither of us wanted to be totally isolated, or too far from help should we need it. Art parked our rental car next to a lone, dusty Subaru, and unloaded our gear. The Utah morning was ablaze with sun, a sun that would burn my pale Irish-English skin within minutes. With my history of basal cell cancers, I’d given up the idea of a healthy glow years ago, in favor of a swipe of blush to the cheekbones. I’d need to cover up. A fleece jacket over a short-sleeved tee wasn’t the best choice, but I’d make do. We waved to the rangers who wished us well. They said we’d made the right choice: “You’ll probably have the trail to yourselves.”
“Can I see the map?” I asked Art. Don’t follow Janet, my friend, Carol, reminded everyone when we traveled together. For navigation, I deferred to Art, a general aviation pilot, but facing the sheer rocks ahead, I wished I’d paid more attention to the details about this trail. “How many miles?” Like a kid in the backseat, I always wanted to know: Are we almost there? The National Park Service did a fabulous job marking the trails and providing a pit toilet at every major trailhead, but once you were on your way there was no telling how far you’d walked.
“Less than four miles,” Art said, and handed me the park’s brochure. I skimmed the hikes listed under Easy Trails, Moderate Trails, the category we’d always aimed for, until, under Difficult Trails I found: Tower Arch, 3.4 miles, round trip, 2-3 hours. The primitive trail climbs a steep, short rock wall, cuts across a valley and then meanders through sandstone fins and sand dunes. The red dotted line in the far western corner of the map looked like a broad U. It told me nothing.
“Are you ready, Ralph?” Art quoted Burt Reynolds from Smokey and the Bandit.
I slid my hands through the straps on my hiking poles, and delivered Sally Fields’s retort with gusto: “I was born ready!”
But that was far from the truth. I’d come late to everything requiring physical exertion. I’d blamed a heart murmur, an early childhood diagnosis, and my parents near hysteric warnings that I might die if I didn’t rest whenever I felt tired. No games of dodge ball during recess or competitive sports were allowed. I outgrew the condition, but my father’s voice lived on: “Be careful!”
I’d blamed the combination of a demanding career and motherhood for never delivering on my New Year’s resolutions to start exercising, but even with access to a corporate gym, I’d shied away at the first sign of sweat and went back to my desk. All my excuses dried up after retirement. I had a few false starts, but gradually, with the help of teachers and trainers at a neighborhood gym, I began associating my workouts with a new sense of wellbeing and physical competence.
Art and I liked city living, but I longed for more time outdoors. “What would you think about hiking?” I asked him five years ago. He was gung-ho. I was eager, but apprehensive, scared I’d wimp out. Scared we’d see a snake or a bear. Scared we’d get lost. Scared one of us might slip and twist an ankle, or worse. Scared I wouldn’t be brave.
We started with easy trails and developed our skills and confidence, but at each new trailhead I worried: Is this the hike that will deck us? We booked five nights this year at a ranch outside Moab, to hike in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and had been looking forward to the trip for months.
Now, we faced an impossible-looking rock wall. “I don’t think I can do this,” I said.
“Let me go first,” Art said. “I’ll help you up.” I held my tongue and watched as Art found just enough of a ledge for his poles and one toehold after another, until he disappeared from view. When he climbed down without his pack or poles, he shifted his weight carefully, and reached for me. His fingers, misshapen by osteoarthritis, were still strong, but could be painful if I squeezed too hard. “Just take it one step at a time.”
Riveted, I lost all thought or feeling except for Art’s grip and the rocks under my feet. The height of each step rendered my polls useless; they dangled dangerously from my wrists. Sweat trickled down my back under the fleece. Art and I didn’t speak. We were working, balancing and inching our way upward. Together.
Once we’d made it past the steepest point, I turned to see our car in the parking lot far below, dwarfed by the distance. We continued to climb then, independently over the loose russet stones, until we stepped safely onto the first plateau, parched and shaky.
The panorama, the results of one-hundred million years of erosion, was humbling. The air felt alive, full of consciousness. Cacti with bright fuchsia and yellow blossoms were growing in the sand, while tiny white flowers sprung through cracks in the rocks. We drank our fill of water. I stuffed the fleece into my pack, prepared to rely on my tube of Walgreen’s sunscreen, but, thankfully, Art had packed a light windbreaker, huge on me. I gladly rolled up the sleeves and zipped up.
Cairns, distinctive piles of rocks stacked one atop another, marked the trail ahead over limestone slick rock. They ranged from knee-high towers to some small enough to miss if you weren’t paying close attention. “This must be where we meander,” I said with relief. “How far do you think we’ve come?”
Art pulled out the map and shrugged. “When we get to something called Marching Men, we’ll be halfway,” he said. I checked my watch: eleven o’clock. We’d been on the trail more than an hour; no way could we do this hike within the range specified in the brochure, but I didn’t care. The beauty more than compensated for the time.
The smooth rock under our feet would be treacherous if wet, but in the sunshine it offered us a mile of an easy, welcome amble. This beautiful shelf in the sky was worth the effort, even as I worried about how we’d climb down. Eventually, off in the distance, a series of tall thin towers, like ten-story soldiers standing at attention, dwarfed the rock formations in all directions, and signaled our progress.
Soon we were climbing again, but this time in deep sand that required arduous effort. The fine granules snuck through the mesh inserts in my Merrells, and into my Smartwool socks.
We heard the young couple before we saw them come bounding down the trail, hatless, pole-less and totally at ease. “Really worth the climb,” the man said. We were the only hikers they’d seen. I asked if we were close, and he nodded. “Breathtaking, and by far the biggest arch in the park.” We pressed on.
“Those kids, so healthy looking,” I said. “Wish that’d been me.”
“But look at you now,” Art said. “It’s even better at our age than at theirs.” He stopped abruptly. “The trail… is this the end?” And then we saw it.
Tower Arch looked like the entranceway to a palace constructed for the dinosaurs, intimidating, yet graceful. With a span of ninety-two feet and a height of forty-three feet, it was hard to imagine how the natural sandstone fin had evolved over so many centuries into this massive work of art.
I found a bit of shade. Our bag lunches from the ranch contained simple fare: sandwiches, an apple, and a cookie. We sat, experienced hikers in our Tilly hats, side-by-side, together, alone in the beauty. Art and I were together almost every day of the year, but on the trail, our togetherness was imbued with more intimacy. More meaning. We didn’t speak of it—there was no need.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.