Though the lack of cell service made it impossible to tell what the point of interest marked as Looking Glass actually was, its placement halfway between the Needles Overlook and Moab made it an easy stop to fit into our plans. The road it was situated on was marked as unpaved, but also allowed us to eliminate 20 miles of backtracking to the highway, and we figured we would just about come out even. We veered left onto the dirt track, a large rock looming in the distance. The tents and all-road vehicles gathered around it suggested Looking Glass was a popular spectacle among tourists.
As we advanced, the tents began to define, morphing into Victorian style houses built right into the facade of the large rock. Their peaked roofs and sherbet trim garishly clashed against the rust of the surrounding landscape. We turned into the development, anticipating some sort of odd attraction or trading post selling hand-made crafts. Crews were digging out sections of the rock with heavy machinery and working on building new facades. We passed a large green field surrounded by a white picket fence and I stopped the car.
It was the type of thing you might have in the center of a subdivision, except it was void of any playground or markings designating a field of play. The road ran one way along the face of the rock, taking us past the crews and houses before looping back to the track we had come in on. It all felt off. “We’re in a cult-de-sac!” I realized, turning the wheel back in the direction we had come, doing my best to accelerate inconspicuously. We rejoined the road, breathing in collective relief and eventually erupting at our late recognition of Utah’s most infamous stereotype.
The Needles overlook was just one stop on the way to Moab. We took one of the ‘footprint’ roads to see the Looking Glass arch. Before we arrived at the aptly named natural structure, we took a well-intended turn towards what seemed like a likely point of interest given the cars and structures glistening in the distance. One should never assume anything in the desert. What we had assumed was Looking Glass was in fact Rockland Ranch, a series of houses around, on top and inside of a massive, massive hunk of red sandstone. An entire town could easily fit within it. We quickly turned around, easily sensing we were in the wrong place and about to tread on the toes of a cult. As we later discovered, “The Rock” as it is known by its residents, is under the auspices of a polygamist sect of the Mormon, uh, faith. The residents live inside a giant rock. Some of them have one husband. Some of them have several wives. Many of them have many siblings.
The rock window of the actual Looking Glass gloriously stood out against the desert landscape from miles down the road. As we came upon it, a woman’s frame stood in the archway, silhouetted against the sky. Excited by the prospect of climbing it, we hurried up its base. However, just a few yards up, the drop steepened, necessitating us to lean sideways against it to advance. We found a part that leveled and sat. The window was near. Another sheer section rose between us and the small landing at its center. I had lost my nerve to finish the climb, being somewhat ungraceful with regards to balance and gravity, but J was still determined.
Ignoring my warning that the climb back down would be more difficult, he scaled the wall, triumphantly posing for pictures at its summit. As he began to descend I grew too nervous to look. I closed my eyes, figuring in moments I’d hear his voice behind me, or tumbling past me, either way ending the ordeal. He sat beside me, where we stayed for a moment looking out onto the severe terrain. A caravan of cars bearing children interrupted our reverie, dressed in shorts and sandals in the chilly morning. They haphazardly vaulted up the hill, effortlessly, fearlessly, and with no knowledge of their adept abilities to humble humans three decades their senior.
After another brush with a cult, we were happy to continue down the dirt road, eventually coming to what was unmistakably an arch. I bounded up the rock face towards the aperture, daring myself to get over the quick heartbeats of the Needles I had only recently soothed. I happily mugged for a picture, then crab-walked back to safety and was even happier. Y noted she was simply happy the picture was not my last.
As we shared a moment of quiet, several cars pulled up, disgorging a small herd of children who immediately and effortlessly bounded up the rock and began cavorting in the Looking of the Glass. I will note that there is a precipitous drop on the immediate opposite side of the lens, though their caretakers, slowly joining them, seemed wholly nonplussed. But cavort away, ye hellions. You’re young forever until you witness a gaggle of immortal tiny people crush your sense of accomplishment like a sandcastle. We took our self-aware mortality and got back on the road to Moab, where everything was fucked.
We took advantage of Moab’s legitimate status as a city and stopped for the now long-overdue oil change. The bulbous, bare stomach of a fellow waiting room patron was bursting through the unzipped hooded sweatshirt he flirted with wearing, leaving his nub of a bellybutton prominently exposed. The proprietress was ringing up a woman, disclosing her good sense at having made the smart choice 22 years back of holding onto the business while ridding herself of the husband. We shared glances at simultaneously being met by our individual versions of life goals.
We pulled up to the line of cars awaiting entrance to Arches National Park, asking the ranger at the window if he was aware of any available camp spots. He informed us that were it not currently closed, we would have needed to book our spot six months earlier. He directed us towards public lands adjacent to the Colorado River, and we turned around in the Whole Foods Parking Lot of a Visitor’s Center, eager to get in a hike before dark.
Construction had blocked off all but a single lane of road, and after impatiently waiting to be let through, we found all the public spots reserved for the night. The next park was also full, and the next. We tried the State Park nearby and found the road to their campsite closed for repair. Seven sites later, we came upon an opening at Ken’s Lake. The sites were primitive and lacked privacy, and the only one available was situated next to a group of children who were already getting their kite tangled in the Suburban’s wheels as I attempted to pull it in.
Already 5pm, we decided to accept the un-ideal circumstances and just set up camp. We drove to the nearby KOA glampsite to replenish our beer and firewood rations, where the man running the store let us know that but for two weeks in August, Moab was always like this. Considering that even modest motels run upwards of $100, I can understand why. We lit a fire to roast a potato hash over, and after a brief scare wherein J cruelly convinced me we had purchased non-alcoholic beer, we settled in to watch the incredible lunar display between sips.
To be perfectly fair, the scenery is amazing. It’s Moab, so, duh. After trolling the area and no less than 6 campgrounds, we finally found a spot. Between construction and outright denial, it was getting very tense. It was a palpable release of pressure to drink some beers, hit the pen and slug some whiskey, all while waiting for the full moon, which of course explains everything. Truly, seeing the full moon rise over the Moab valley was worth every little vexation. We slept happily and deeply, and woke early and refreshed, excited to explore Arches National Park.
National Parks Pass in our hot little hands, we set out through downtown Moab, marveling at the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the tourism-based economy. We had a specific loop planned out for our tour, hitting a few vistas and stopping at the Sand Dunes Arch. Even within the small span of the park the landscape was constantly changing from sheer red rock walls to rolling hills dotted with juniper to gray, green and yellow dunes, frozen in time.
The line for the park was even longer the next morning, and after bypassing the first few sites on our list due to a lack of available parking, we realized we would need to formulate a game plan if we were going to be able to weave through the hordes to hit everything we wanted to see. We walked through the slot canyon to Sand Dune Arch, took in the sprawling vistas of the Petrified Dunes (scared stiff) and the Fiery Furnace, hiked the Devil’s Garden Trail to Landscape Arch, and watched mule deer as they lazed about Tunnel Arch.
We climbed through the center of Turret Arch, were awestruck by the scale of the Garden of Eden, inspected the petroglyphs at Wolfe Ranch, posed for an obligatory photo beneath Double Arch, and overlooked the Salt Flats. The landscape afforded distinctly varied views, expanding our ability to be impressed. The sky lit, aglow with the late afternoon sun, as we reached Balanced Rock, and with it the last of our energy.
While we were appreciating a vista, I noticed two men trying to hack off a piece of a crystal-laden boulder. Listening, I could discern that they were French and that their wives were just as oblivious to how shitty they were being as their husbands were of simple rules, respect and decency. After a solid deathstare hit its mark with the mustachioed of the pair, I couldn’t think of a thing to say, merely slowly shaking my head, more than a little dramatically. As we passed them by I managed “pardonnez-moi” leaving out the implied “salaud”. Like the French in the previous century, he assuredly wasn’t much of an adversary, and after cooling off, I was happy to forego having an arch nemesis, focusing rather on the arches themselves.
I will say that as a traveler, you represent your neighbors, your home. While traveling and attending bartender events, seminars and the like, I learned very early on the importance of respecting the locals and comporting yourself professionally. There may be times in the future when I too might like a token of memorabilia, or want that selfie to be a little extra, but I’ll be damned if I help reinforce the sadly accurate stereotype of loud, sloppy and entitled ‘Mericans. And seriously, you want a rock that bad, the Southwest has a rock shop at least every ten miles. I think it’s a law.
The remainder of our day was blissfully bereft of any mustachioed, international Snidley Whiplash types. We drove to the Devil’s Garden trailhead and took in all we could without any seriously strenuous hiking and were more than rewarded. The Landscape Arch alone was worth the walk. The entire experience was like coursing a gallery, albeit on a much larger scale. On our way out, we managed to visit the previously over-crowded spots, seeing all of the park we cared to just as it closed.
Pictures and words are clumsy tools to describe a massive arch that’s over a sportsball field in length (that’s 303ft), yet is delicate enough to likely break within our lifetimes, showering the ground with hundreds and hundreds of tons of sandstone. On the way back to camp we picked up more firewood and some beer from the local brewery to relax and re-tell the day, trying to verbally contain the sights we had beheld.
The dark hillside would become illuminated by the bouncing headlights of cars down the road, casting the campground as a series of immense and distorted shadow puppets. As the moon crept over the rise of the hills, we finished the last sips of our Appleton 21 and moved on to the Don Julio 1942, letting the fire dwindle before turning in.
Interested in taking your own trip to Arches National Park? Check out our guide here.