Remembering the Desert, Part 9.

This is one in a series of entries recounting the 2009 trip that Phil Rose and I took to the desert.  We are hoping to fund another such trip; for more details or to help out, please check out our Kickstarter.  The beautiful photography present in these posts is courtesy of my friend, the very talented Phil Rose.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

I’m going to backtrack a bit and head back to Utah.  After we left Zion, which is also a place you should visit before you die, being less impressive but more beautiful than the Grand Canyon, we were looking for a place to set up camp.  We found that all the campsites in Zion were full, so we were starting to feel the panic that sometimes befalls those without a clear agenda.  We drove on east, and decided that we ought to have a destination of some kind in mind and maybe we would come across a place to stay overnight.

We headed toward Grafton, UT, one of the most popular and well-preserved ghost towns in the US.  There has been a lot of effort put in to maintaining this place; I could tell because there were several signs telling me where I could walk and where I couldn’t.  There were several houses, and an old church.  They had all had structural reinforcements performed in ways that were consistent with the architecture of the times.

The entire population of Grafton had been evacuated due to attacks by natives during the Black Hawk War, and the frequent and troublesome flooding of the nearby river discouraged resettlement.

The ghost town itself is very beautiful, it was not the sandy waste and precariously decaying structures that we had seen the previous year on our trip through the Sierras in California.  I could easily see why the area had been settled in the first place.  Near the Virgin River, the land that the town occupied was lush and verdant.  The grass and forage grew past my knees, and the gnarled old trees of the orchard were wizened but healthy.

Grafton had a nearby cemetery as well.  What interested me most about that place is the rows in the back… in the very back of the cemetery were a few rows devoted to wooden grave markers, not a one of them with last names.  I saw names like “Black Foot Jim” and realized that these back rows were graves for slaves and native americans.

How wonderful for their lives to have been recorded, but how sad that they were never treated like actual people.

We camped on BLM land on the shore of the Virgin River.  We found the spot by accident; we were starting to get desperate for a place to stay, and so we turned off the highway to look for somewhere far enough away from the main road to avoid attracting attention from locals and from law enforcement, and we came across a spot on the river where a van camper was already staying.

We asked him if he knew if it was okay to camp here, and he said, “oh, yeah… this is Board of Land Management land.  Just find a spot with a fire ring and settle in.”

So we did.

In the morning, we cooked eggs and bacon and brewed coffee over our little campfire.  I went down to the river just a few yards away to wash our dishes and saw in the mud a black bear track.  Not a big one, only about four inches long, but I knew for a fact that it hadn’t been there the night before.  The bear had come down for a drink during the night.  Even though I grew up in a place where it was common knowledge that we shared our space with bears, it has never become less chilling to think of these beasts walking through our yards or around our tents in the night.  I scoured the cast iron skillet with sand from the bottom of the river while Phil slipped off to do some early morning photography, and laid it on the campfire to dry.  I did catch this photo while I was waiting for him to get back:

Sunrise near Grafton, UT.
Sunrise near Grafton, UT.

The morning light was enchanting, and this little forgotten piece of public land was one of the most beautiful places we saw.

Later that day, we headed on toward Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.  Actually, we weren’t intentionally heading there, but we were on the highway toward Kanab, and we saw the signs for the park and decided to turn off and check it out.  The road up to the park was so long that we almost gave up and turned back, but then, without any kind of warning, the dunes appeared to our left.  I was filled with excitement.

The dunes were actually pink!

They were also vast… the photo above doesn’t really do justice to the scale of the things.  I have a photo of my own showing Phil, a lanky six foot four, as I recall, standing on the top of a dune for photography.  He’s barely visible; a speck smaller than even an ant.  We climbed them anyway.  I didn’t think I could leave without having walked up one.  It was a difficult climb, but the view afforded to the adventurous was well worth it.

The dunes move around fifty feet per year, crawling slowly across the landscape.  I wonder if they will skip over roads.  There’s a species of tiger beetle that only lives in the Coral Pink Sand Dunes.

This is the part of the trip that ruined my phone.  I slid it open, and it grated.  A dusting of pink sand fell out.  Shortly after our return, it still had grit in it.  It stopped working a few days later.

The sand gets into everything.

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