Writing this on the night of the 8th, from a wonderful little hole-in-the-wall pizza & brews place called Hot Mama's! I'm muddy, exhausted, starving, and triumphant — I walked the lava tubes! So cool! So muddy! So in need of a washing machine at my next stop too. The township is called Duck Creek, and it looks like it could be held in the palm of my hand — it's that small, in a beautiful green meadow. Most of the houses are log cabin style with very slanted roofs, which says to me the snow must be a real pain up here.

Everyone rides around in what they call OHV or Off Highway Vehicles, which I always knew as ATVs or All Terrain Vehicles. They travel in packs, and it's not uncommon to see tiny helmeted children on them as well, either held on in front or clinging on to the driver from behind. While I was at the Mammoth Cave lava tubes I saw four different groups of OHVs, each consisting of anywhere from five to seven vehicles. One of them even had her boxer dog riding behind her, seated in a sort of crate fastened to the back. The OHVs are loud and buzzy and spit up gravel and dust something fierce, but I can see why they're popular — they can get anywhere. Unfortunately there are apparently some irresponsible riders, which means they tear up the terrain and the roads sometimes.

There are, I think, two or three lava tubes. The longer one is quite mucky, and the reason I got so muddy. The shorter of the two lava tubes is smaller and lower — I had to traverse most of it bent double, which means my hips and lower back were quite annoyed with me that night! I was surprised at the amount and variety of crenellations and wrinkles and protrusions on the walls and ceiling — I'd sort of assumed, I guess, that the lava would scrape everything smooth. It took seeing all the ridging and wrinkling for me to realize lava is nothing but molten rock — of course it would be just as ragged as the rocks within the flow! At one point I turned off my flashlight and simply sat down in the cool, pitch-black tube. Once the OHV pack left it was absolutely silent, since nothing lives down there. It was also astonishingly peaceful — like being cradled in the womb of Mother Earth.

I saw what I think was a conservative Mormon family at the lava tubes — we ended up crawling one of the longer tubes together, since I have one little flashlight and one honkin' big one, and they didn't have enough lights for all of them. There was a stooped, gray-haired Grandma; a pale, blue-eyed, blonde Father (which is what everyone called him — even Grandma and Mother); a dark-haired Mother; and a passel of kids. If my memory is correct, there were four boys — 3 younger than maybe eight-ish and one maybe… 16? 18? There were also, I think, three young women. Two couldn't have been older than, say, 15 and 17, and one looked a bit older — like maybe 20ish? In the dark of the tubes it was hard to tell. I was surprised and interested to see the clothing was very definitely gender-based: the males wore the same kind of shirts and pants, and the females all wore the exact same style of dress, differing only in what light shade of blue, pink, or yellow it was. I also found myself wondering if the third, 20-year-old-ish woman was a second wife… because if not, Mother had born seven kids.

Funny thing is, the only folks who spoke to me — let alone in a friendly fashion — were the Mormons. I really disagree with their religion, but when it came to carefully picking our way through the muck and mire of the lava tube, lit only by a handful of flashlights… I think we were more alike than not. We all got muddy, we all needed light and a helping hand, we all enjoyed ourselves.

Oh! One funny thing… I realized I'd been driving in the desert too long when I noticed these wet patches on the side of the Utah highway and thought, 'Is that wet tar?! Surely it's not that hot here?!' …and then it hit me: it was puddles from rain!

Writing this the morning of the 9th: the pizza last night was delicious! I was stunned too — I ate an entire 12" pizza myself! Usually two or three slices are it for me. Weirdly, I didn't feel uncomfortably bloated afterward, either. I guess I needed the calories? Also, I had to laugh: remember I mentioned I got quite muddy last night in the lava tube? I put on my last pair of clean jeans today to hike to Cascade Falls, since they told me it was hot and dry. Guess what happened on the way? It rained… a quick, soggy-making squall. Why yes, I am again muddy!

Utah is insanely gorgeous. I was expecting nothing but desert buttes, but at least in south Utah the land is rich and green, with the striated red buttes bursting up through a thick pelt of firs and pines, and the white trunks of aspen shimmering ghostly against the green. The remains of the volcano offer a startling contrast, in that the long tumbled flows of basalt are still visible as wide black boulder-filled streaks through the lush green. In comparison, at least this far (I'm currently in the Kaibab National Forest), Arizona is everything I expected of Utah but did not find: poorly maintained roads, lots of run-down semi-industrial garbage visible while driving, scrubby arid land.

People have been astonishingly friendly at these small towns and campsites. I had a woman stop by to see my van and reminisce happily about the one she and her husband had many years ago. Before she left she gave me some excellent advice and a package of bath wipes! She's not been the only one, too; just gifting for the pleasure of it seems to be the norm. It's a lovely and stark contrast to Vegas' mercenary greed. I find myself speculating on why that is so. I'll have to write more about that later. I'll probably get to sleep early tonight, so I can take off early in the morning. I don't expect to be able to find a campsite on the Grand Canyon's South Rim, which means I may have to push on to Meteor Crater and spend the night there.

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