[KANAB, UTAH: ALTITUDE, 4,957 FT; LAT 37.04493 N; LONG 112.52664 W]
This is the Planet of the Apes, right here on the outskirts of a little town in Utah called Kanab. Somewhere around here is also where the Lone Ranger met Tonto and where Billy the Kid extracted his revenge. Here, too, is the inspiration for Radiator Springs, the town from Pixar’s CARS.
Before Hollywood came to Kanab it was, and still is, Navajo territory. Before the Navajo this place belonged to the dinosaurs. Their giant footprints are still preserved in rock.
Humans have occupied this part of the world for only 12,000 years or so. Paleontologists have excellent fossil records of plant and animal life from the last 30 million years and they’re still regularly unearthing new species. Travelling across Utah — and much of the American Southwest — the grand sweep of time is on display. You’ve just got to know where to look.
[VERMILLION CLIFFS NATIONAL MONUMENT: ALTITUDE 4,741 FT; LAT 36.68584 N; LONG 111.83541 W]
The brown-yellow-gold-pink striations of the Vermillion Cliffs were formed over millions of years by layers of silt and sand, coloured by iron oxide and other minerals. Highway 89 and 98A run parallel to the cliffs for miles.
The Southwest is not an easy landscape to traverse, even now. You’ll be on top of a snow-covered mountain only to drive a few miles and find sand dunes. Keep driving and you’ll find rocky deserts and lush forest and the massive Lake Powell. The temperature fluctuates wildly from day to night. The sun goes down quickly. It’ll sink behind a mountain in what feels like mid-afternoon, and plunge a whole valley into sudden darkness.
Sitting in climate-controlled comfort for hours on end crossing Utah’s vast landscape, you have time to think about just how hard it must’ve been in the past. In the 12,000-odd years people have been in this part of the world, I figure we — here in this Land Rover — have got it the easiest. On foot it would take days, weeks, months to get anywhere. By horse it would’ve been faster, but not much more comfortable. And there’s the smell. A horse and buggy would’ve been a big upgrade, relative luxury for a Mormon pioneer. But still: no stereo or heated seats. Dirt tracks are bumpy. Even in an old Willy’s Jeep going anywhere in Utah would’ve been a long and uncomfortable ride.
The Land Rover has air suspension, which gives the impression you’re floating over — rather than driving on — the landscape. It’s enough to make a driver feel guilty and go off the paved roads in search of more challenging terrain. This new Rover will go up, over, and through just about anything you put in front of it. It is aptly named: Discovery.
[GRAND STAIRCASE ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT PALEONTOLOGY LAB: ALTITUDE 4,918 FT; LAT 37.03682 N; LONG 112. 52489 W]
East of Kanab, near the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the Discovery climbed a near vertical rock face. Later, going over yet another rock, it leaned to the side at such a precipitous angle its occupants braced for impact and waited for the sound of aluminum crunching against ancient rock. But the moment never came; the Land Rover kept going. This would become a theme throughout the journey.
After an hour or so of this rock crawling and dirt roading near the border of Utah and Arizona, you’ll find the Amangiri. It’s a hotel hidden in the cliffs, built right into the rock on a 600-acre estate. The nearest city of any size is Las Vegas, a four-hour drive to the west.
[AMANGIRI UTAH: ALTITUDE 4,052 FT.; LAT 37.0146 N; LONG 111.61134 W]
Amangiri is a modern palace. The fantastic interplay of space and light makes being there feel like a dream. You don’t want it to end. The only sound is of falling water as you walk the outdoor corridors. The concrete walls are mixed with local stone to mimic the colour of the landscape. The pool is built around a 160-million-year-old boulder.
At night the sky is so clear and so black the stars have never shone brighter; they jump out from the dark.
You won’t want to leave, but eventually you must.
[CORAL PINK SAND DUNES: ALTITUDE 6,066 FT; LAT 37.04948 N; LONG 112.71774 W]
The Discovery only got stuck once. It was at Coral Pink Sand Dunes. The mountains of fine powdery sand aren’t meant to be driven on. If you are going to drive on them, you’d take a dune buggy — or, if you’re very brave — a dirt bike. You would absolutely not take a family SUV with seating for seven and multiple USB ports and cup-holders on sand dunes.
To drive on the dunes you must affix a little orange flag on a 15-foot pole to the top of your car or buggy. It’s so others can spot you more easily in the deep creases and folds of the sand.
This Land Rover, like nearly all modern Land Rovers, has something called Terrain Response. It automatically figures out what type of terrain you’re driving on and sets the car up accordingly. On the dunes you can feel the car’s air suspension rise up to its tallest position.
The car powered up the smaller dunes, all four wheels kicking up a blizzard of sand. Bigger dunes require more commitment. When the car got stuck, I admit it was driver error. Not enough commitment. If you back off the throttle the car bogs down and sinks in. No matter: just back down the dune and try again, this time with more speed. Sure enough, the Discovery made it up.
Driving back towards Kanab at 100 km/h on the highway it feels like you’re standing still. Such is the scale of the valley and height of the surrounding cliffs; it looks as if you’re not moving.
Visiting such an ancient landscape the feeling you’ve just scratched the surface is inescapable. You are just passing through. The American frontier is still vast and empty. There is a lot left to discover.