Green River to Monticello

I drove over the Wasatch, and Staci drove over the Rockies, and we met in Monticello.

Summer's over. The bikes are being put away, the kayaks stowed for winter, the ski areas putting the final touches on new lifts and restaurants. In the mountain resort towns, the streets are momentarily free of RVs and rental Jeeps.

Summer may seem over, but there are still some summer-like thunderstorms out there. As I drove down from Tooele toward Monticello to meet Staci, it looked like there was one thunderstorm covering the entirety of southeast Utah. Coming down from Price, headed into canyon country - the back of beyond - one massive thunderstorm rose dark blue over the desert, obliterating mountains and canyons and panoramas. It was the sort of huge thunderstorm you see in Central America, or tropical Africa.

It was still warm out, but felt cold. I blew through Green River on I-70, across the now-low Green River, and picked up a hitchhiker in Cisco. Never learned his name, but he was headed south. I could never get it out of him if he was going to Flagstaff or Phoenix or Mexico, and he was so strung out and fast-talking I decided not to pursue it further.

He didn't have a job, of course, nor a car. All his cars get impounded, he said, and by the time he can get his paperwork in order to retrieve the vehicle, he owes more in fees and tickets than it is worth. So he hitch hikes. Or rides the trains. Utah - Salt Lake City - is a good place for picking up trains.* (*Note to tourists: neither Jeff nor Utah.com suggest you ride a rail car to Utah.) They head out in five directions from the main rail yard on the west side of town, he said as we barreled into the thunderstorm and towards the Colorado River. But the rail yard cops are like federal agents, he said; they have dogs, big guns, fast Suburbans, and all the authority one government agent could ever want. He doesn't hate the rail yard cops, he said, but he fears them, and sometimes it is easier to just hitchhike rather than find a train headed his way, elude the rail yard cops, and sit for at least 8 hours in the back of a goods-container shipping car. Even once you get on, he said, things are not great. For starters, there are gangs of rail-riders who rob, steal or kill. Especially out West, he said, it can be freezing cold at night and baking-hot during the day. And you need to take water and food and camping gear. Furthermore, he warned, don't get off the train when it stops at a siding in the middle of no where. They leave without warning, and then you're really stuck.

He said he had crossed America countless times, this bearded hitchhiker, but he had never been through southeast Utah. As we got further down into the red-walled canyon outside Moab he talked slower and looked out the window more. He'd never seen cliffs like this, he said. And when we passed groups of cars parked in pullouts, I had to explain to him that they were probably parked at a trailhead and were hiking or mountain biking. The entrance to Arches National Park befuddled him - Just looks like a bunch of rocks to me, he said.

I had to let him out in Moab. I was going south more but had some errands to do in town. I've seen tourist traps like this, he said, looking at the river tour company officees and gift shops and art galleries. Oh, I've been stuck in tourist traps just like this, he mused.

It was raining and windy and red dust was blowing across the road and leaves were being ripped off the trees. I let him off at McDonalds so he could stay out of the rain for a while and maybe wash up in the bathroom. Then I drove west along the Colorado River for a while, since I hadn't been out on this side of town in years, then went into my usual eating stop, Bandito Grill, and had a large vegetarian. I was reading the New Yorker and glancing out the big picture window. The rain had stopped, and though it was still blowing hard the clouds were clearing out from the La Sal Mountains, the 12,000-high peaks just outside of town that one can think of as a prelude to the San Juans, which are just over the Utah-Colorado line. Five minutes later I looked up and the ancient head of Tukunikivatz had reared from the clouds.

I looked back a few minutes later and I got the chills and the hair stood up on my arms. I stood up in my booth, eyes glued to the window, and sort of lost my breath for a second. I looked over at the guy running the caf´┐Ż. He thought I was asking for something and came over to me. What is it, he said, looking first at me and then out the window. When he saw it he called the others over.

In the La Sal Mountains, it had snowed.

People still send me letters. Click to read what people say (we screened out all the bad ones).

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