When the allure of the open road strikes sometimes it’s best to embrace serendipity, taking the less traveled alternative to minimize bother and maximize bliss.
I learned that lesson on a jaunt throughout the West just weeks before I was to leave my Colorado home to make my way back east. I had decided it was time to scratch the last few things off my Western bucket list so I sat down with my road map to make plans.
There was the Grand Canyon, first on my list. Then Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, and Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Possibilities – although further afield – were Zion and Bryce.
It was April and tourists had already begun descending on the Four Corners and beyond, trying to reach their quota of red rocks, Native American sites, mountains, canyons, and cowboy relics. Despite the expected visitors, I anticipated checking off the items on my list would be unproblematic.
I was wrong.
As soon as I exited Grand Junction and turned south toward Moab, the outdoor-recreational capital of the area, the traffic became more intense. My first stop was ahead, Arches National Park, so I barreled though the campers, 4-wheelers, and pick-ups toward the park’s southernmost exit.
And it was there that my whole plan fell apart.
A long line of cars stretched along the road leading into the park. I soon learned the national parks were letting people in by reservation only and that all reservations had already been made well in advance. The long line was the result of people who’d turned up hoping to be let in, only to reach the gate and be told there was no room.
I turned around before I even reached the gate.
Not only was Arches full, but so were all the other most popular national parks. I learned this from the park service as I was seated in my car alongside a fast-food restaurant back in Moab.
“Mam, I’m sorry but there are no reservations in Zion. None in Canyonlands or Mesa Verde either. Would you like me to reserve you a spot next month?” “No,” I choked out, my head swimming as my bucket list was shredded.
That’s when I decided to take a different route – the highway of happenstance. I’d always been pretty good at making the best of wrong turns but this stretched my adaptability to the limits. I decided just to hop on a south-bound highway – 191 to be exact – and find my bliss along the way.
I wasn’t disappointed. As my car sped down the highway mile after mile, there were signs for various historic sites on both sides of the road. Newspaper Rock. Hole in the Rock. Looking Glass Rock. Needles Overlook. I took my time and numerous side roads to parking lots in which mine was often the only car.
At the village of Blanding, I took a smaller road west toward Bear’s Ears National Monument, which had recently received its protected status. Nearby was Natural Bridges National Monument providing some of the same types of rocky outcroppings and vistas as I would have seen in Arches. Other tourists? Practically zero.
Just as I began embracing serendipity in my destination, I began to experiment with booking overnight accommodations. I still had a mid-trip stop in the Grand Canyon in mind but now that I was freed from visiting other specific spots I could roam across the countryside at will. That lack of predetermination allowed me the latitude to book a stay at a Navajo bread-and-breakfast in Monument Valley, a room with a vintner in Sedona, and a stop at a celebrated Western lodge once the preferred stop for Hollywood stars.
As I hopscotched across Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, I visited the less-well-known Native American sites, parks, and attractions. Sedona hadn’t been on my original plan but it beckoned so since I was unattached to a concrete schedule, I dipped further south.
On through the Petrified Forest, Zuni Pueblo, Bandelier National Monument, with plentiful brief detours along any road that interested me. At one point I even found myself standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona.
The sense of discovery allowed by such a travel approach can’t be underestimated. I found I was thrilled with each novel experience and fortuitous turn. When plans have been exploded and the initial letdown is overcome, you let go of any expectations and simply take joy in what is present. Even the fire-related closure of a national site I’d wanted to see failed to concern me – I simply traveled to a nearby site with similar attractions.
Along my route I discovered there’s much to be gained by taking risks and embracing chance. In fact, the power and beauty of serendipity can be profound. Throwing caution to the wind and confronting the unknown can lead to remarkable discoveries.
And, yes, I did make it to the Grand Canyon as well. It was magnificent. It had been, after all, what I was originally seeking. But along the way serendipity had given me the good fortune to explore treasures I hadn’t even know existed. My lesson? It is the unexpected that allows bliss to bloom.
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