Nicole was running late. She called to say so as I was trotting deeper into a canyon in Arches National Park. “So, I lost track of time,” she said. “And, I left my wallet in my school bag. So, I hope my car makes it there!” “Oh shit!” I laughed. “Call me if you need a rescue. I’ll stay in cell range as much as possible.” And then the call dropped.

So began our last-minute winter rendezvous in Moab, Utah. Our mission was to journey from Carbondale, CO, and Salt Lake City, UT respectively, to take advantage free admission into Arches National Park that weekend. Nicole and I had both spent considerable time in the Utah desert, and I’d worked on trails in Arches in 2006. Seeing the arid, redrock canyons and arches in winter, potentially dusted in snow, and void of the usual favorable weather crowds, however, was something we’d both longed to do.

In Arches

Nicole met me at Panorama Point as the sun was softening on the La Sal Mountains. “I’m definitely just driving on fumes.” She said. “Thankfully it’s all downhill back to town.” We shared a hug and jumped in my car to squeeze in a sunset hike to Delicate Arch. (If you’ve ever seen a Utah license plate with a red rock arch on it, that is Delicate Arch––the wind-eroded symbol of Utah). We speed-walked up the darkening trail, passing a few groups of tourists who warned that sunset was fast approaching. As we crested the final slickrock incline, our hasty efforts paid off. Before us stood the sandstone arch, a massive relic of nature’s evolution. Through the arch, we saw the snowy La Salles exploding in deep fuscia light. We both gasped, stunned at the sudden beauty. “I’ve never walked up here before,” Nicole said quietly. Our  timing was perfect; only a handful of other visitors milled around the eroded basin below the arch. We both crouched down, rocked back on our heals and let our eyes soak in the beauty. As the sun dipped farther behind the western horizon, the mountains glowed more fiercely, the patchy clouds above pulsed pink until suddenly the sun dipped too low. The colorful lights were out.

Our drive back to Moab was slow and uncertain. I crawled behind Nicole’s Toyota willing the car crest each small hill in the road. She pulled into the first gas station we saw, and after using my card to fill the tank, she exclaimed, “Oh my God, my car takes 10 gallons and I just put in 9.89. Ha! How about a close call!”

During high tourist seasons in Moab, finding free camping close to town is a challenge at best. In the dead of winter, however, it’s a piece of cake. Fully refueled, we drove to the outskirts of town and then along the Colorado River to the Moon Flower campground––a usually bustling row of semi primitive campsites along a creek. At 7 p.m. the dirt parking lot was totally vacant so we trekked our sleeping bags, tent, food, stoves, and guitar to the closest clearing and set camp. The night air was still as could be and when Nicole suggested we leave the tent unstaked, I saw no reason not to.

And then a series of odd incidences occurred:

  • We discovered that Nicole had forgotten her stove. Fortunately I’d thrown mine in the car at the last minute, so we did have the means to cook our rice and stir fry our veggies.
  • Two guys trouped by our campspot, and then a third, donning firewood, everclear, marshmallow vodka and orange juice. They invited us to join them for a fire and cocktails.
  • We joined the guys, only to realize that the bursts of flames we thought were fire were actually just procured by lighter fluid. “We’re pyros,” the tallest of the three explained.
  • We discovered that the guys, all of the them in their early 20’s, were among a very small handful of Bringham Young University students who were gay. “We hate it there,” one quipped and the rest of the evening was peppered with jabs directed to the predominantly Mormon university
  •  Gusting wind materialized suddenly in the dark canyon. In minutes the fire was blowing sparks, plastic cocktail cups rolled across the sandy ground and Nicole and I glanced at one another. “Maybe we should go check on our tent.”

We jogged back to our camp spot. “And there is my sleeping bag,” I said, “but no tent.”

“The tent is gone? Shit, that’s a brand new tent!”

The tent was gone until we flashed our headlamps across the small, barely frozen creek. Nicole charged across the soft ice and into some leafless bushes. “I found it! And everything is still in it!” She yelled over the howling wind as she grabbed the tent. Tent fabric can be likened to kite fabric, and given that similarity, trying to wrestle a tent across a half frozen creek is a measurable feat. Nicole was soon engulfed and blinded by the tent that wrapped itself around her small body. I slid down the creek bank and squealed as my sneakers sunk into the wet slush. I grabbed one side, Nicole took the other and together we forcefully brought it to shore.

“Ah!” I growled, “Where is the rest of our stuff?” We flashed our headlamps into the now empty tent and across the slushy creek. Nothing. I slid back down the embankment. Moisture rushed into my mesh sneakers and I skipped across the mushy ice to where our sleeping pads, pillows and tent bag were still nestled in the bushes.

When camping in a tent, there are two weather conditions I find the least desirable: gusting wind, or cold rain with gusting wind. Once we had nestled into our now sand-filled tent and sleeping bags, we attempted to get a good night’s rest. Attempted. Each gust of wind that charged against the tent not only rattled the fly but also spit plumes of desert sand through the mesh tent walls and into our faces. I burrowed deep into my zero degree sleeping bag, cursing myself for bringing my warmest bag for a night in the desert. Each time I thought the wind had settled and I began to nod off, it kicked another gust of sand into my face. I tossed, now sweating profusely in the down bag, cursing the wind, cursing the desert, cursing the warm night.

Around 1 am, I sat up abruptly. Sand poured from my hair down to the tip of my nose. Enough! I thought, Enough! I gathered up my sleeping bag between wind gusts, wormed my way across Nicole’s sleeping figure and out of the tent, where I proceeded to run to the haven of my quiet, sheltered Subaru backseat.

I woke to the sound of knuckles rapping on my car window. Nicole stood outside looking pale and groggy. “Let’s get some freakin’ coffee,” she said. We hastily packed up our sandy camp and rushed into town with fingers crossed that our favorite coffee shop, Love Muffin Cafe, was open in the offseason.

In town we found an overcast sky coupled with brisk wind that gusted dead leaves across Moab’s quiet main street. Never, in my many visits prior, had I seen the streets so quiet. Usually there were jeeps roaring through, Subarus overflowing with climbing gear and covered in dust, tourists and dirtbag climbers roving the sidewalk. In the absence of the usual I wondered, as I do on most visits to this part of the desert, what it was like before the jeeps, river outfitters, the rock climbing boom. Before so many Indian art and Moab paraphernalia storefronts beckoned, before billboards littered the south and north entrances into town. Back in the day when Edward Abby wrote Desert Solitaire, foretelling the crowded future of Moab and Arches National Park that is reality today.

Nicole and I tucked into steaming coffee mugs at the Love Muffin and checked the weather. Snowstorms were rolling into Salt Lake City and across Colorado, directly along our intended paths home. “Given our luck here so far, I think we better head out a little earlier than planned,” I suggested. Nicole agreed. We settled on a short, steep hike off of Potash Road. We passed just one other hiker on our way up. “When I was here in October, this trail was loaded with mountain bikers.” Nicole remarked. But now, in winter, with the heavy wind and approaching storm, we had the whole place to ourselves.