Catching the 3:30 am train from Salt Lake City was more a matter of staying up late than waking up early. I arrived at the station with my friend, fellow photographer Blake Pack, with plenty of time before our scheduled departure. We sat in the station anxiously awaiting our train to start boarding. The anticipation of the journey ahead was more than enough to keep us awake in the early morning hours, and we both figured we’d have plenty of time to rest on the train to Green River.
When it came time to board, however, we quickly realized we were wrong. We wouldn’t be getting much rest that morning, because exploring the sleeping train was too tempting. Carefully stepping around the sleeping passengers, we explored the other corridors of the train. We passed sleeping couples, families, solo riders, and exchanged friendly nods and smiles with our fellow passengers who were still up as the train sped through the predawn hours. Finally, Blake and I settled in our seats. We stared out of our respective windows from this new vantage point as our familiar, but fleeting city whipped past. Neither one of us had ever taken the train out of Salt Lake City and the excitement was palpable.
As sunrise approached, we made our way through the different passenger coaches to the observation car. Up to that point we had only enjoyed moonlit glimpses of the landscape from our seats, and the occasional open curtained window of the passenger coaches. Once we made it to the observation car, though, we were treated to an amazing sunrise where the rising light crept in over the passing hills and the scenery began springing to life. We passed over gentle rivers and rolling plains, through mountain tunnels and along winding canyons.
The train took us past cliffs and jagged terrain before opening up to beautiful landscapes, treating us to view of vast stretches of wilderness. The ride to Green River was breathtaking and to experience the journey by train was something we’ll never forget. Green River is just four hours from Salt Lake City so when we arrived we were fortunate enough to still have the whole day ahead of us.
Blake and I were the only ones to disembark at the station and when the train continued on we were left alone to explore the town. We spent the morning establishing our base camp at the hotel, and getting our gear ready to explore the city of Moab. A few hours later, Tom, our taxi driver, arrived in a dust colored van. He wore a straw hat and had white hair that matched his beard, which reached the middle of his chest. He had been a geologist in a previous life who turned tour guide/taxi driver in Moab. Some of the most insightful points during our whole trip were getting his musings, wisdom, and thoughts concerning the rocks and formations as we made the 45-minute drive.
Upon our arrival in Moab, we only had a couple hours until sunset and we knew we wanted to be at Delicate Arch by then. We also knew that we were roughly two hours away, with a combination of driving and hiking ahead of us. We set off in a rented jeep to Arches National Park to explore the incomparable natural beauty of the area.
We had only driven ten minutes or so before we had to pull over to take in all of the towering rock formations right along the main road. Additionally, we took this opportunity to remove the roof of the jeep allowing Blake to spend the rest of the ride snapping photos of the red rock formations as we snaked around them on the road far below. As we rounded the bend by the La Sal Mountains’ viewpoint, we saw the light raking across the valley. Sunset was closing in, and it was perfectly lighting The Organ and Courthouse Towers. Against our better judgement we stopped, even if it meant risking missing the sunset at Delicate Arch. We allowed ourselves just a few minutes before rushing to Delicate Arch, where we arrived just in time to see the iconic Utah landmark before the day ended.
The rest of our trip went this way: we moved when we felt like it, and stopped when something captured our attention. The following two days were spent trekking through Arches and Canyonlands. We roamed around in search of all the famous vistas we had grown up seeing in pictures and books. We were almost eaten alive by mosquitos, we outran a thunderstorm, and we photographed rock formation after iconic rock formation. As expected, the Doubles Arches were my favorite formations and we stopped there before continuing on to see the fragile Landscape Arch and Double O Arches.
In Canyonlands we looked out over Dead Horse Point, awed at the huge canyons that the park is named for. The views stretched out for miles and we spent the afternoon scanning the Park and its countless epic panoramas. We finished our time with a walk out to Mesa Arch before heading back to Moab again.
I’ve been a fan of Steinbeck for nearly two decades and I have never forgotten his thoughts on taking trips: “Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
After some dinner, we headed back to Green River for the last time. We watched the sunset from the train station and took some time to reflect on the experiences. Blake and I went back and forth talking about our favorite moments of the weekend and agreed that this will be a trip we won’t soon forget. It’s a blessing to live so close to Southern Utah. Knowing that these natural wonders are just a short train ride away opens the doors to many more trips like this down the road (or tracks…).