I took the northern route out of Piedra Lumbre west, past Pedernal, towards Farmington and the Continental Divide. On the map, it looks like a flat plain. In a way, this is true. Going into the drive, I thought I would come out of mountainous territory and slope downward towards a place that resembled Texas.
It was not like Texas.
(Also, I had to take quick snap pictures as I went, because I was trying to avoid an impending snow storm. His name was apparently Cleon. Who names these things? If you click on the first photo, a slideshow of the drive between Piedra Lumbre and Page, Arizona will appear. It will be like you’re actually driving it!)
Just before Farmington I hit a flat plain, 7000 ft above sea level, with random mountains and cliffs and the air was so thin and cold everything was covered in frost. I honestly thought that I was in the “wilderness” when I was east of here. Not so. I don’t know why the desert of Texas wasn’t scary, or why the road to Taos wasn’t scary. Both those places were equally as sparsely populated. Maybe. I don’t know. All I know is that the road from the continental divide to Farmington made my heart beat quickly, my breath come up short and I suddenly felt very VERY small. Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen.
Or perhaps it was Mordor.
(That’s Angel Peak. It is literally sticking up into nowhere.)
After Farmington, I knew that things got EVEN FURTHER apart and that it would be a lonely stretch of road, but I still assumed (wrongly, though optimistically) that it would level off and get warmer. When I mentioned that I was headed west to the lady at the RV park, she said “You know it’s going to snow, right?” I said, sure, but that I was going to see the Grand Circle, so that was warmer and lower right? She laughed. “It will be a little cold most places. You could maybe hit Zion by tomorrow, which is at about 4000 ft. There’s a storm coming tomorrow night that is lots of ice and snow, so you should probably get there soon.”
I would like to publicly thank that lady, because she gave me good advice.
I looked at the weather. Sure, enough, a HUGE storm front was on its way and I was still at 7000 ft above sea level, with only 12 hours til the storm hit.
I decided I had to make it to Zion by nightfall.
Google says it’s 6 hours. Okay, so it MIGHT be 6 hours if you’re not pulling a trailer and the wind is with you and you don’t stop.
I had none of these advantages, and I severely underestimated the lonely factor of this road. Everything west of Farmington is Indian Reservation. I will say this, the Tribes are absolute bad-asses for living out here. It is disconcertingly sparse. I’ve been to deep woods and lonely farm roads, but I have never been on a road like this. Nothing for miles and miles, not even trees. I thought to myself “Well, you’ll pass Ship Rock and Monument Valley, so that will be pretty.”
They were, I guess, but I was too scared to stop. They are surrounded by NOTHINGNESS for hundreds of miles. All I could say was “Yep, that’s a big rock in the middle of nowhere. Keep driving. Keep driving…” You know you’re in trouble when the billboards are advertising things that are an hour away, and the last time you saw a shoulder on the road was three hours ago.
I now know why people who get stuck out in the wilderness get lost and exhaust themselves. You get in this state of mind that says “I have to keep moving or perhaps I will die here.” I had these thoughts, pretty much for the entirety of the trip. Most of them were in the form of “Thank God my car is still running,” or “Maybe when I get to the NEXT stretch of road I’ll see civilization,” though, admittedly, when the wind began to blow and I could see the cloud bank coming in, it was a little more like “KEEP MOVING OR THE STORM WILL STRAND YOU.”
I’m not exactly sure how realistic that was. I know it’s VERY difficult to tell the weather out here due to the geography. I sat in Page, Arizona at the bottom of the last stretch of mountains that I’d have to cross near beautiful Lake Powell wondering whether I could afford to stay the night or whether I’d get stranded forever. (Yes, I’d been driving for at least 6 hours by then, and in my mind, if I stopped I might get ‘stuck forever.’) The storm and nightfall were literally two hours away, and I was literally two hours from my destination. The man at the gas station in Page told me “Oh, yeah, you’ve got plenty of time to get there by nightfall!”
I would like to publicly tell that guy “STOP GIVING ADVICE.”
I should have stayed.
BUUUUUUUT I left.
And as the WIND began to HOWL (20 MPH gusts) I made my way over a MOUNTAIN (stupid) towards a lengthy stretch of twisty CANYON (stupider) roads just as it got REALLY DARK and SNOW started to happen. We went through a LOOOOOOOONG tunnel, with no lights in it and around so many hairpin turns that I thought we were going in circles.
All I can say is that 1: that was dumb and 2: I made it.
Exhausted, we finally pulled into Zion National Park at full dark. Sacajewea’s brakes were hot from trying to get down from the summit. By the time we finished setting up camp, the snow was falling.
If I had to summarize, I would say don’t take the road through the top of New Mexico and Arizona in December. Don’t take it in July either. If you HAVE to take it, take it sometime when the weather is pleasant and you can afford to stop and look and not feel like you have to keep moving or you’ll die. It really is a gorgeous drive if you can appreciate it.