Cat Flag’s Southwest Tour: Pandemic Edition

If there is one thing that the year 2020 will be remembered for, it’s the coronavirus pandemic that shut down the world. For months, people around the world who don’t work in industries classified as “essential” by the government have been confined to their homes 24/7, either working from home if they are lucky, or unable to work at all if they are not. Schools have been closed and millions have been forced to homeschool their children for the first time. Many businesses have been shut, and some have closed their doors for good. Political leaders have been forced to weigh protecting public health against these negative consequences, and there has been ongoing debate about how and to what degree the economy can be reopened safely. This has become a huge political fight, with national governments and even state or provincial governments arguing and fighting over whether to tighten or loosen restrictions. All while protests and riots rock major cities in the United States and Europe.

I have been incredibly lucky through all of this. The financial services industry is classified as “essential”, so I have been able to keep working continuously for these past several months. Still, this has not stopped the last few months from being quite stressful in many other spheres of my life. In short, I needed a break, so I took a vacation in one of my favorite places: the American Southwest.

Good to see you again!

This was a trip that was a year and a half in the making. Last year, after I got back from a trip to Utah, I immediately started planning my return trip. I made reservations to stay at the Zion National Park Lodge, a hotel smack in the middle of Zion Canyon, in late March. I was really looking forward to this trip, and was truly excited to get back to one of my favorite spots from the previous year’s vacation.

Then the world shut down.

Undeterred, I waited to see when the park and its lodge would reopen, and when they did, I booked a cabin for mid-October. As the date of my vacation grew near, I started counting the days down. Finally, the day arrived, I packed my bags, and drove off to Utah.

The Mojave Desert, on the road toward the Southwest

This would be the most unusual vacation I had ever taken. As you can imagine, I’ve never gone on a road trip during a global pandemic before. Luckily, some of the hotels had a sense of humor about it:

So, what was different about this road trip? Obviously, there were going to be some pandemic-related restrictions wherever we went. Yet the one thing that was consistent about it was the inconsistency.

Take restaurants, for example. Some restaurants were take-out, drive-thru, or delivery only. Some allowed limited dine-in services but you had to wear a mask, sit at tables distanced six feet or more apart, have no more than four people in your party, etc. Still others had no qualms packing the house full like the virus wasn’t even a concern. After a little research, I found that the parts of southern Utah and northern Arizona where I was traveling had relatively few cases, so they were allowed to reopen to near-normal levels of business. It seemed like, in general, the big national chains were the ones that shut their dining rooms and made their customers take their orders to go, and the local restaurants were the ones that were trying to be as open and back-to-normal as possible.

There was far more consistency when it came to hotels. The consensus in the hospitality industry appears to be that hotel staff thoroughly clean and sanitize the hotel rooms between guests, but when a guest stays for multiple nights, the staff will only empty the trash and replace towels. This seems to be a measure meant to protect the hotel staff’s health and safety. Where I did see a difference was in the free continental breakfasts that are a staple of this industry. Some places had given it up altogether, some offered it but would package it for the guests to eat in their rooms, and some allowed guests to serve themselves and eat in the dining area.

The least consistent were the gift shops. At the Zion Lodge gift shop, I ended up waiting in line for a good 20 minutes or so to be allowed in, as they only allowed a certain number of customers in the shop at once. At the other end of the spectrum, I went into some stores with no restrictions whatsoever, and not even the staff were wearing masks! At a time when we are all being told that mask-wearing is an essential part of slowing the spread of the virus, I was rather surprised to see that.

The view from my cabin at Zion Lodge at sunset

One big difference with Zion National Park from last year was just how busy it was. The trails were shockingly full of people as we hiked up and down the canyon. One of the park rangers told me they were experiencing record attendance this year! In the parking lot, I noticed that more than half of the guests appeared to be from California, and I am guessing that many people who would normally go to Disneyland or something are desperately looking for anything that’s open.

This would explain why most of the national parks we visited were quite crowded, including Bryce Canyon, a place I had missed during my trip last year:

Bryce Canyon is famous for its unusual rock formations, such as the ones pictured here

The next destination on my list, though, had the opposite problem: it wasn’t open at all. I had been hoping to see Monument Valley, an area located on Navajo tribal lands that famously hosted the filming of many classic and modern westerns. Its landscape is the one you immediately picture when you think of the Wild West. Unfortunately, it was closed.

It seems the Navajo Nation has been hit quite hard by the pandemic, and as a result, their president issued an executive order this month that re-imposed some of the tightest restrictions in the country.

Once I learned that, I decided to look for somewhere else to visit. I went to Google Maps and looked up “National Parks near me” to see what was in the area. That’s how I learned about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

This national monument is apparently not a very well-known area, as evidenced by the fact that it was virtually empty as I drove through it and took photos of the amazing rock formations:

The Grand Staircase is located about an hour east of the town of Kanab, Utah, a small town that prides itself on its history of being a place where Hollywood western stars stayed during filming. Plus, while more westerns were filmed in Monument Valley, a few were filmed here as well.

For the first time since my trip began, I was able to be truly in the middle of nowhere and enjoy the solitude of the desert.

Well, mostly. See, the highway that runs through the Grand Staircase actually does lead to a well-known destination: Lake Powell, a reservoir of the Colorado River, and the Glen Canyon Dam that created it.

Interestingly, a bridge across the canyon was built overlooking the dam, that drivers and pedestrians can use. It offers a spectacular view of the dam, though I don’t recommend it for anyone with a fear of heights.

Another area that was less busy was the Grand Canyon North Rim. I have visited the Grand Canyon a few times before, but usually I visit the South Rim, the far more famous side of the canyon that most tourists go to see. The South Rim is where the Desert View Watchtower and the Skywalk are located. In contrast, the North Rim is far more rugged and rustic, full of piney woods and, at this time of year, beautiful fall foliage.

While the North Rim wasn’t anywhere near as empty as the Grand Staircase had been, and I did see other hikers about, it was certainly not busy by any stretch of the imagination. Again, this tells me that people are just not as aware of these locations. However, the longer that more well-known destinations are closed or packed with visitors, I suspect the more people will be trickling in to see these places like I did.

This was definitely a unique and strange experience for me. At times, I would go for hours with my mind shut off from the outside world, just enjoying the beauty of nature as I hiked the trails and took pictures of the wonders of God’s creation, and then I would be snapped back to reality when it came time for lunch and the local McDonald’s was drive-thru only and there was no obvious place to sit and eat my burger.

The inconsistent responses to the pandemic could be annoying at times, as often I would have no way of knowing what the procedures or expectations would be at any given place until the moment I arrived. On the other hand, part of me appreciated that the authorities in Arizona and Utah seemed to trust private business owners and their customers to be able to decide for themselves how they would best protect each others’ health. Yes, this meant you would occasionally run into some people who refused to take the crisis seriously, but most people we saw were conscientious, keeping six feet apart where possible and wearing masks when indoors. Most businesses also had plexiglass around the cash registers and staff who did a good job sanitizing behind their customers. And, of course, there was nothing stopping people from refusing to patronize businesses whose policies were too lax, or too strict, for their tastes. Coming from California, where the state government micromanages every public space, this was a breath of fresh air.

Speaking of fresh air, I was grateful to be able to enjoy the great outdoors for a week, even in spite of having to deal with all the rest of it. It gave me a much-needed mental health reset, and in my not-so-humble opinion, mental health is a very important part of your overall health, too.