Just as we were rounding the first mound of rock to disappear on the Chimney Rock Trail in Capital Reef National Park yesterday, we heard a siren whirl from the road and saw a National Park truck pulling up to the trailhead. We’d parked in a pull-out up the road and walked down to the trail. The word in town (because we’d talked to people as we bought groceries and coffee) was that all the trail entrances along Route 24 were blocked, people were parking elsewhere and walking to the trails, and if they got caught, were being given $150 tickets. David and I stopped and looked and a woman got out of the truck and yelled at us. “You need to come back and get off this trail.”
We walked back. The ranger began the conversation by being firm and telling us we had to leave, that it didn’t matter to her if we felt we weren’t doing anything wrong by walking on our public land, and that we’d get ticketed (yes, $150) and even arrested if we didn’t get off the trail.
“But we were in the park yesterday,” I said. We’d gone to the southern end of Capital Reef the day before, because we’d heard (everyone out here is talking about the national park closures) at dinner that the eastern and southern ends of the park were open. “They only have 5 rangers for the whole park,” one person told us. “They can’t patrol it all.”
We’d driven the long, gravel Notom Road down the eastern side of the park, then turned on the Burr Trail, a 35 mile road that climbs through the Waterpocket Fold of Capital Reef on steep and narrow switchbacks. The fold is an upheaval of layers of the earth along a fault that’s almost 100 miles long and that reaches over 2500 feet (it used to reach over 7,000 feet). David and I had hiked the Upper Muley Twist Canyon the day before, which follows the wash of a river through the spine of the fold after climbing to the top, providing incredible views of the jumbled rocks stretching north and south.
“We were on the Upper Muley Twist trail yesterday,” I told the ranger. “Well you were hiking illegally,” she said. We hadn’t really engaged in civil disobedience, I thought but didn’t say, because there were no signs saying the trail was closed. Instead, I told the ranger I felt a moral obligation to continue to hike as planned, in spite of the national park closures, because I truly believe the parks are public land and that the public can’t be denied access. David talked to her about his vision of national park protests and sit-ins by older Americans, the people taking back the parks. “You’d need to pick a more well-known park than this one,” she said. She argued with us for a few more minutes, but then started suggesting other hikes that wouldn’t be illegal and asked us not to continue with our protest right then and there by continuing to hike, “because then I’ll have to arrest you and take you to jail all the way in St. George, and that’s not going to be fun for anyone.”
The ranger was reasonable, she was only doing her job (without pay), she was listening to us and she was nice. We didn’t want to ruin her day, and we didn’t want to spend the weekend in jail (which the ranger had told us would likely happen if she did arrest us) so we left, after thanking her for working without pay. We drove back down the Notom Road to Cottonwood Wash, another river bed that runs west into the Waterpocket Fold, and walked up through a series of unimaginably varied, colorful and angled rocks.
We’d shifted our plans and decided to do half of the long drive back to Santa Fe yesterday, rather than a 10 hour drive today, so we came to Durango, Colorado last night. We’d heard it’s a wonderful town (it is) and the drive was spectacular, with the widely varying landscapes we’ve come to expect on this trip, including a long descent through a red canyon, 1,000 foot walls of Navajo sandstone rising on either side of us, and dropping us at a northern edge of Lake Powell where the Dirty Devil and Colorado Rivers flow in. Towards the end of the drive we got into more familiar looking mountains, forested with spruce and colored russet and golden with the changing foliage of oaks.
We expected an interesting and charming town, steeped in cowboy culture, which we found. What we didn’t expect is that this weekend is the 25th anniversary Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Last night after dinner we walked into the Strater Hotel and listened to cowboy poets reading and singing and telling stories. All the men were wearing cowboy hats and all the poems rhymed.
The next four days in Santa Fe don’t include plans to visit national parks, so our days of civil disobedience might be over. Or maybe we’ll get back to New Hampshire and start organizing in a park people have heard of. A sit-in at Acadia next weekend?