Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 11.09.15
Just Outside Washington

All photos by author and Kathy Cavanaugh

American Desert Days

The train from Chicago, the California Zephyr, was a half hour late arriving in Grand Junction, CO. We missed the sunset, but the sky was clear with plenty of daylight. We located Rob and his black Suburban in front of the train station; and he took us to the Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab, Utah.

During our hour and 40 minute ride to the Red Cliffs Lodge, we found out that Rob came to Utah for the freedom and the mountain biking. He was a bit vague about his concept of freedom -- other than mountain biking -- but he and his girlfriend, also a mountain biker, had no children, so all will be revealed in due time.

The Red Cliffs Lodge is a large complex with 100 rooms (suites), main lodge with restaurant and bar, swimming pool, stable with horses and its own vineyard and winery; the wine was "quaffable."

The Lodge is located right on the Colorado River surrounded by red cliffs. Very pretty. It reminded me of those rustic motels we stayed in along Route 66 when I was a kid. The entire complex was constructed from Pondarosa Pine, providing shades of brown inside and out, and with pine pole furniture; very rustic. It was more upscale than the old motels, and the bed did not sag in the middle. (We were in the middle of the second building from the left.)


We arrived right after Julie and Jon, who had flown in to Grand Junction and had a separate pickup. A great advantage of these tours is that all the luggage handling is included as well as tips, so we four went right to the dining room in time to see the sunset reflected off the red cliffs. We did not have dinner reservations but learned that carry-out from the bar was from the regular menu and quick. We took dinner back to Julie and Jon's room and ate at the table on the patio overlooking the horse pasture, with red cliffs in the background as the sunlight faded.

After a near-miss in London, we plan our trips so we arrive a full day before the beginning of our tour. We did this with this Tauck Tour, Spirit of the Desert, because it takes the pressure off any transportation goof-ups. Therefore, we had time to ourselves; Julie rested up and Jon, Kathy and I took a hike up the hill opposite the Lodge and explored a bit.

We checked out the Movie Museum at the Lodge and found out that over fifty movies had been made in the Moab area, including Wagon Master, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, City Slickers, the Lone Ranger, Star Trek, and Thelma and Louise. Later we saw where they went off the cliff in the Ford Thunderbird.

We learned about Moab. Between 1829 and 1850, the Moab area served as the Colorado River crossing for the Old Spanish Trail. Mormon settlers established a trading fort/mission at the river crossing in 1855 to trade with travellers crossing the river. Even though forty Mormon men were on this mission, repeated Indian attacks forced the fort to be abandoned. A new round of settlers established a permanent settlement in 1878.

Moab originally depended upon agriculture, but gradually shifted to mining. Uranium was discovered in the area in the 1920s; potash and manganese came next, followed by oil and gas. In the 1950s Moab became the "Uranium Capital of the World" after Charles Steen developed a rich mine south of the city. The tailings from this mine are currently being treated and disposed of by U.S. EPA. Moab now has a population of about 5,300 and thriving tourist and second-home businesses.

At the end of the day we attended the tour reception and dinner; the tour got organized and met a few fellow travellers. This was orchestrated by our tour leader, Paul, who had been with Tauck for over ten years and had traveled all over the world. We also met John, our coach driver, who would be with us for the whole tour and oversee our luggage at each stop -- a very important guy.

Things started with a bang -- Dawn Patrol at 6 a.m.. We were loaded into our coach to go to the Arches National Park to see the sunrise, which was at 7:14. Even though Arches NP was almost right across the river, the route to the Windows and Turret Arches view point was circuitous and took just over an hour. We all (Jon, Julie, and I -- Kathy made the photograph) made the short hike to Windows Arch.


windows arch

The sunrise was spectacular, and everyone was snapping away with cameras, cell phones, tablets, etc. The most amazing thing is the light; on the rocks, in the sky and changing minute by minute. It is something you must see firsthand. After hiking back down to the coach, we found that John had laid out a nice breakfast: coffee, fruit, muffins, hard boiled eggs, and trail bars. After a short hike to Double Arch, we went back to the coach for a tour of the park with stops at Balanced Rock, and Delicate Arch, then back to the Lodge for lunch.

The afternoon called for our rafting trip on the Colorado River, very convenient because the Lodge was right on the river. However, we were bussed the short distance down to the shore where four rafts were "put in."

Each raft -- a large inflatable boat -- came equipped with a rower. Eight of us "tourists" got carefully into each raft -- they were pulled up to the bank and none too stable with us scrambling in. After pushing off, we found that we were going downstream against a headwind; and Christy, our rower, was working hard. Jon and I took up paddles and soon we were the lead boat. At one point despite out effort, we were going back upstream. The rafters had designated WIND as a four letter work; we understood.

We were waved over to the bank where the rafters conferred about continuing. Our vote was to continue. We did and the best rapids were around the next bend. We did not even get very wet. Buses met us at the "take out" and took us back upstream to the Lodge and dinner.

It was Friday night and Jon and I had to honor the Friday Night Martini tradition. David, an island "mon" from Jamaica, was at the bar. He made martinis, shaken not stirred; shaken until they turned into frozen martinis; interesting. David said his hand was freezing also. We then had dinner on the deck overlooking the river with the red cliffs above.


(Jon and Frank with martinis. Julie and Jon at dinner.)


After breakfast on Saturday morning we piled back into the coach to drive through the Castle Valley (Picture 6) to Castle Rock (Picture 7) and see the Book Cliffs, which rise over 8,000 feet and stretch nearly 200 miles where the Colorado River descends into the Grand Valley. They got their name from the cliffs of Cretaceous sandstone that cap many of the south-facing buttes, which appear similar to a shelf of books. During the drive, Paul gave us a dissertation on the layering of the sedimentary materials that make up the cliffs.


(Castle Valley and Castle Rock)


It was a short trip back to the Lodge to hear William Yazzie, a local Navajo, discuss Indian (his stated preference for the term, not Native American) life in the area. Life on the Navajo reservation is hard. He also discussed the history of the Navajo code talkers in WWII.

We were on our own for lunch so we ate at the Lodge's cook out pavilion; barbeque, hot dogs, hamburgers, beans, and salad. After lunch we were back in the coach for a tour through the Canyonlands National Park (photographs below) to see the Island in the Sky, Mesa Arch, and the Green River.


(Frank and Kathy)


On the way to the Canyonlands we listened to the stories of Carl, an 84 year old, ex-cattle rancher. He worked on a number of movies including Thelma and Louise and was appreciative of the money the movie business brought to the community. Carl told the story of how rustlers had driven some stolen horses off the point to avoid capture by a posse, which gave the pointed bluff its name. Also, he talked about the bad deal he got grazing cattle on federal land; $500 a head for the permit and $2 per head per month grazing fee.

Later, I asked Carl for clarification on the grazing fees; it turns out the grazing permits are traded on the private market and $500 per head was the going price at the time. The 2014 grazing fee was $1.35 and was set by law. It cannot be increased more than 25 percent in any year and is fraction of the rates that non-irrigated private land owners charge. Carl felt that ranchers should be able to graze cattle anywhere they want.

A highlight of the day was a picnic dinner at Dead Horse Point State Park, which was catered by the Lodge. We started with appetizers and some wine, which we carried to the bluff to view the sunset. It was difficult juggling the appetizer plate, the wine glass, and my camera. Sunset was spectacular.


The highlight of the dinner for me was the Caprese made with local tomatoes, fresh basil, and homemade mozzarella. (Dinner at Dead Horse Point)


John adroitly navigated some narrow and winding roads and got us and the coach back to the Red Cliffs Lodge about 9 P.M.; it gets really dark out here in Utah. We were ready to crater.

(Stay tuned: more coming later.)