A Steamy Conversation with Strangers, Boondocking in Mormon Country, On the Road to Moab
Oct 21-24, 2021
When we were in Yellowstone we intended to soak in a hot springs but circumstances prevented that. So Doug went online yesterday and found a hot springs in Thatcher, Idaho called Maple Grove. The guidelines say “Maple is a place to come, relax and reboot. It's not a place to party and fall apart.” Okay then! He booked us a slot.
The Mormons and Paris Tabernacle
Last night (Oct 20) we camped at an RV park near the town of Paris, Idaho. Paris is a small town that doesn’t feel prosperous, yet sports the “Paris Tabernacle.” The historic tabernacle is a lofty building constructed of gorgeous yellow-colored native stone. What’s more, across the street is another LDS church, quite modern. Everywhere there are historical markers telling the story of these buildings.
Obviously the Mormons excel at a couple of things. First, they know how to take command of telling their story. Second, they’ve figured out how to get their people to pay for sumptuous church buildings. After a career in pastoral ministry, I’m well aware that both of these things are difficult to do.
The drive to Maple Grove Hot Springs isn’t long but the last few miles are on a dirt road. We wind around buttes and descend toward a reservoir called the Oneida Narrows. Golden cottonwoods, sage green chaparral, and the water glinting in the distance — it’s all very scenic. But the narrowness of the road and the blind curves make it hard for me to relax. If we encounter someone going the opposite direction, I suppose one of us will have to back up, possibly a long distance.
I say to Doug, “How the heck did they ever get a cement truck down this road?”
Maple Grove Hot Springs
The Hot Springs are in a lovely setting along a reservoir in the bottom of a canyon. The vibe is laid-back. The gift shop, which is redolent with incense, sells a wide range of non-essential items such as rain sticks and tarot cards. If you choose to extend your retreat, you can rent a yurt or order a vegetarian “tin foil meal.”
There’s one large pool (and yes it’s cement) plus four smaller pools, which are set to slightly varying temperatures. Our scheduled soak time is from 2:00 to 5:00. We’re surprised to see how few other customers there are — just eight people including us.
A thirty-something couple is entering the pool at the same time and we chat. As we soak in the hot mineral water, I ask them how they met. They tell us about a wilderness adventure program for troubled youth where they both worked as counselors. An interesting back story which leads to lots more conversation!
As we continue to talk, moving from pool to pool, we discover a fun “small world” connection. The young man grew up in Juneau and was active in ski patrol. I mention the name of some good friends who live in Juneau, with a son the same age, who did ski patrol. Sure enough, they were good friends!
Now this couple lives in Laramie, Wyoming and raise cattle. When I ask what the birthing season is like, they describe the challenges of keeping an eye on the birthing shed from their living room.
I think: A perfect use for our spotting scope and tripod!
When we leave the hot spring, we covertly set up the spotting scope and tripod next to their car, along with a friendly note. Later they sent us some fun pictures of discovering this gift.
That evening we dry-camp down the road at a lovely spot along the reservoir. The only problem is that the site is very uneven, so our camper is at a pitch. After rolling into each other all night, we learn a lesson. Take the time to get level. If you can’t get level, move on! (check out the photo below)
PS: The next morning we took the dirt road in the opposite direction and sure enough, this was how they got the cement truck down to Maple Grove!
Sights Along the Road, Oct 22
Our plan is to drive south to avoid forecasted rain and snow. We take Route 34, which passes through a lot of grazing land. We see different kinds of beef cattle, including Herefords and Angus, plus Highland cattle with their long shaggy coats and longhorns.
At one ranch I notice a cow who’s gotten outside her pen but has her head stuck back through the fence so she can eat out of the trough. The sight makes me laugh. What a metaphor for the search for freedom.
We pass cultivated fields with their freshly dug rows curving neatly through the dark soil, a beautiful sight that reminds me of our years living in rural Illinois.
Soon we glimpse snow-covered mountains in the distance.
We stop in a larger town called Preston to use the restroom at a gas station. I wish I’d taken a photo of the hostile signage — something like “If you come in improperly dressed we will send you home to put clothes on.” When we walk in, people stare at us. No one is wearing a mask. In an odd way it reminds me of the very worst aspects of church life — known for the unthinking ways that insiders make outsiders feel unwanted.
In a town called Smithfield, we pass an old canning factory. The brickwork proclaims “Those Good Peas.” Such a simple, straightforward message. Makes me want to eat peas. Do you ever eat canned peas?
Boondocking in Cache National Forest, Oct 22-24
We use the iOverlander app to find possible boondocking sites in the Cache National Forest. We pull into one campsite and there’s a guy already camped. He’s a local and suggests we try the next campsite down, which is along a lively stream, and even better than this one he says. So we do. The fella comes by on his bicycle a bit later to make sure we found the place okay. That was kind of him.
We have this lovely place to ourselves.
I pick up the litter when we first arrive, including lots of wrappers from fireworks, which are very tedious to gather. Along the way I also discover vertebra and rib bones, probably from a deer, and a road-killed raccoon and rabbit. Apparently the apex predator (and keystone species) in these parts is the pick-up truck.
In the late afternoon we spend an hour bushwhacking along the steep hillside. Sunset isn’t until 6:30, but we suspect it will become dark early in this ravine.
Lying in bed that night, the sound of rushing water in the nearby creek is disconcerting, as if I left the water running.
Saturday Oct 23
Saturday is an all-day rain, a perfect lazy day at camp. I write and Doug tinkers with the rig. We splurge and pull some cinnamon rolls from the freezer and bake them in the oven. Cozy.
Sunday Oct 24
I wake up at 8:00 thinking about church, specifically Palisades Community Church. I realize with a start that it’s 10:00 back home and worship is just beginning. It’s like my body is on a Sunday-timer, even across time zones.
I hold images of the people and the sanctuary in my mind and pray a blessing on them.
As we’re packing up to leave camp, I see a domestic rabbit which looks completely out of place. It’s white with pink ears. The Easter Bunny incarnate.
Someone must have dropped it off to fend for itself, a cruel idea. I speculate that the bunny will become a meal for a coyote or wolf before too long.
Around 10:30 we head out, driving through the town of Hyrum, Utah. My enduring snapshot of a Mormon Sunday morning is this scene (which I did not photograph): A pick up truck stops near a mailbox. An older gentleman wearing a white shirt and dark suit steps out. He retrieves a large manila envelope, then climbs back into his truck.
Returning from church, no doubt. What do you think he ate for dinner?
South to Salt Lake City and Beyond
We head south on Route 15, which is the main artery passing through Salt Lake City. The speed limit is 70 mph, which is uncomfortably fast for the rig, so we poke along in the right lane. We normally wouldn’t travel this highway, but we want to get down to Moab pretty quickly, and then spend a few days working our way back toward Salt Lake. On November 9 we have an appointment for the generator repair in a suburb called West Valley City.
We also want to warm up a bit so it makes sense to head to southeast Utah.
Today is gray and overcast so our first glimpse of Salt Lake City is not super-favorable. The city is ringed by snowcapped mountains, and sits in a flat broad plane. Other than that it looks like any other city — lots of billboards, a five-lane highway, and lots of industrial activity on either side.
Also, the HOV lane costs $.25. LOL.
It’s getting warmer as we drive. We may have overdone it. It’s currently 68 degrees. We switch from heat to air conditioning.
The region feels increasingly arid. A broad tabletop, dry and barren. We stop at a Loves Travel Stop “in the middle of nowhere.” I’ve never seen such a large travel stop — it spreads across both sides of the road. Even so, every gas pump is in use. Inside there’s a Subway counter with a long winding line (pity the poor sandwich-makers!). The line for the women’s bathroom is 8 to 10 deep. You get the feeling there’s not much else around here so everything congregates in one spot.
First Glimpse of Moab
When we finally arrive in Moab (the gateway to Arches National Park), it’s exactly what a person would expect — a place catering to fit, young people. Store after store offers adventure jeep tours and T-shirts. Lots of billboards for skydiving. One motel sign proclaims: “Welcome to Moab YOLO.” Another place advertises: “Donuts, Chicken and Coffee.” Which I assume reflects some market research.
On the downtown streets every establishment seems absolutely packed on this Sunday evening. We see as many dogs as people.
It’s late after a full day of driving so we are camping at the KOA, a first for this trip. We need to take care of our tanks and replenish our battery. Plus they advertise an outdoor pool. After dark we walk to the pool and discover there is also a hot pool, which is a perfect temperature. What’s more, we are delighted to be alone. A gas fire roars beside the pool, and we can see stars overhead.
That night the temperature is perfect for sleeping, with a warm breeze coming in the windows. (Was it really just a week ago that we were in Yellowstone freezing?)
When I wake up and turn my head to look out my bedside window, I am greeted by the red line of cliffs against the horizon.