It took me 29 years to visit and explore the southwestern desert states - I had passed through a few times before while going somewhere else, but never actually stopped to stroll through the red sands and photograph the stunning landscapes I had only seen in John Wayne movies. Maddy, Japhy, and I all had a week off from school and work so we decided to welcome the New Year by exploring a few National and State Parks found in Utah (and a quick dip into Arizona). Let me tell you...in a week, you'll barely scratch the surface of what's available in this region! We will definitely be returning to explore in the future.
A seven hour drive from Northern Colorado took us over the Rocky Mountains on a surprisingly clear I-70 and dropped us at Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. With a full itinerary and lots to see and do in the region (and the fact that Arches does not allow dogs on any trails), we opted to find spots off the beaten path where Japhy could stretch his legs. Otherwise, we picked scenic areas which were a quick walk from the car where Japhy could sleep while Maddy and I took photos.
Jon and Japhy with Balanced Rock in the background - PC: Madeline Berry
Traveling to the desert during the winter meant we would likely encounter smaller crowds, but Arches was still fairly busy. We made our way to The Windows region in the park to check out some of the stunning landscape features during sunset. Our path gradually inclined up to various vantage points like the one pictured below. A single person on the skyline between large rock formations gives the place a feeling of isolation and solitude...what you can't see is the overflowing parking lot to my right or dozens of people just out of frame to the left :)
A lone hiker near Turret Arch
Hard-packed snow on some steeper sections of the trail required careful navigation. Maddy walked in front of me up a small set of steps toward Turret Arch. The dark red stone in the background framed her perfectly and I had to take a few photos. As a fellow photographer with her own compositions to create in the dwindling evening light, I am thankful she was willing to give me a few moments as my subject!
Maddy framed by Turret Arch
Near Turret Arch, Maddy spotted a large puddle and started composing some great reflection shots. Borrowing her idea, I asked her to make the quick walk over to Turret Arch so I could photograph the whole reflection with her in the arch for scale. A few people watched me crouch with my lens nearly in the muddy water and then saw Maddy silhouetted in the distance. Many of them snapped photos and as the crowd grew to 20 onlookers or so, some even shouted across the distance for Maddy to change her pose. "Move your arm up! No...the other arm! Step a little to the left!" Maddy was a good sport and we all were able to capture some great photos of her in the arch.
Maddy looking tiny inside Turret Arch
As the sun dropped to the west, The Windows behind us lit up in stunning oranges and reds while pastels became more vibrant in the cloudless sky. To give some more scale to this area, look close in the photo below to see lots of other hikers amid the huge stone formations.
There are 43 people exploring The Windows in this photo!
Eventually the sun set and chilly winter air pushed us to go find some free camping for the night. You may be wondering by now why I titled this post "Desert Dogs" with only a brief mention of Japhy in the beginning...no worries! I'm getting there.
But first....the cool thing about Moab (and so many other places in North America) is access to free camping in undeveloped areas AKA "boondocking." These spots are easy to find and are definitely worth checking out if you are camping on a budget. We located a good looking Bureau of Land Management area just south of town on our trusty Free Campsites app and headed that way. Our paved highway matched the curves of the Colorado River and we passed vertical red walls marked with ancient petroglyphs. Eventually our road turned to dirt as we headed out into the vast desert. Generally when we arrive to our camping area of choice, Maddy and I like to drive a ways to ensure we find the best site possible. Campfires dotted the darkness in the distance and their soft orange glow illuminated a few other boondockers' vehicles and tents. We passed a couple occupied sites and continued up the worsening road in search of home for the night.
A few minutes later and well past the other campers, we noticed something following us. An animal's creepy glowing green eyes appeared in my side mirror. We slowed to identify it...my mind traveled to childhood memories of reading Jack London's White Fang when I saw the wolflike dog illuminated by my brake lights. He was cautiously friendly and had a harness on. We assumed he had wandered off from one of the campsites behind us, so we turned around to lead the aptly-named Wolfdog back to his human's campsite.
We stopped at the first campsite - a group of climbers were huddled around a campfire as we approached. "I think I have something of yours," I said out the window with Wolfdog following close behind. They said the dog had wandered into their campsite earlier but it wasn't theirs. We exchanged pleasantries and backtracked another quarter mile only to receive the same response from another couple climbers at their campsite. Their car battery had died so we gave them a jump. They paid us in frosty IPAs and we shared their campfire while Japhy and Wolfdog played in the moonlight. Wolfdog got close enough that I could see a small, worn tag attached to his harness, but he wouldn't hold still long enough for me to read it through his thick fur. One of the climbers and I tried to coax him with beef jerky and I slowly grabbed his harness to get a good look at the nametag. As soon as he felt my hand, his body language coupled with a warning glance told me I better not do that again. Not wanting to get bitten, I gave him his space and hopped back in the car so we could go find a place to sleep for the night. Still wanting to play with Japhy, Wolfdog poked his head through the window but never allowed us a close look at his name tag.
Wolfdog followed us for a while and then ran out in front. Thinking this might be a real life Lassie scenario and Wolfdog was leading us to his distressed Timmy, we followed him for over a mile up the canyon. Eventually the road became impassable with no sign of recent use. We had no option but to turn around and find our campsite.
Not knowing if Wolfdog would continue following us, I hopped out to take a 'lost dog' photo which could be shared with the local animal shelter in Moab and again on social media the following morning when we had cell service again. His skittish tendencies didn't allow for a great photo, however. He'd sniff my phone hoping for more jerky, but would jump away quickly if I made any movements.
Wolfdog close up
The best photo I could capture...he certainly looks scared and a little wild in this photo
Since Japhy and Wolfdog had played well together earlier, we decided to see if his new friend would get in the backseat with him. Wolfdog investigated with his front paws in the car but would back out as soon as we approached him. Not wanting to wrestle a nervous 100+ pound dog into a confined space, we let him follow along to our campsite instead.
Wolfdog considering the backseat
As soon as we found a flat spot to camp for the night a half mile back down the road, we parked and started preparing dinner. Wolfdog didn't look particularly malnourished, but when offered food and water, he consumed both voraciously. Then he had seconds, followed by thirds.
Wolfdog quickly put away his food and water
After a few growls back and forth during dinner (neither boy particularly liked sharing food even though we had more than enough for both), Japhy and Wolfdog were full and ready to play again. Wolfdog would run into the darkness - barely illuminated by a nearly full moon - and then bark at Japhy to follow. Japhy would disappear into the darkness and return a few minutes later covered in burrs, dirt, and slobber. Something switched in Wolfdog's mind about trusting me to grab his harness, too. The food and water we offered must have gone straight to his heart because after he was comfortable, I had no trouble finding and removing his small name tag. The fish-shaped metal tag was caked in mud and buried in Wolfdog's thick fur so I opted to twist and break its thin connecting wire to remove it completely from his harness. I was confident Wolfdog...whose actual name we learned was Shahman...would stay close by that night.
Shahman's name tag included his owner's contact info on the reverse side
As the last coals from our campfire dwindled, we decided to try one more time to get Shahman in the back seat. With temperatures forecasted to drop into the teens that night, we wanted him to be warm and safe with Japhy. We piqued both dogs' interests with some treats and came up with a game plan to get Shahman in the back seat.
Both pups sitting patiently for treats
We moved Japhy's bed to the front passenger seat where he confusedly jumped in and looked at us like we were crazy...he is certainly a creature of habit, so the change in sleeping arrangements must have been weird for him. Satisfied with another treat, he curled up to sleep. I opened the back door, threw a treat in, and watched Shahman jump in after it without a second thought. I closed the door behind him, wondering if the dogs would leave each other alone or if our guest would get scared and tear the interior apart. If necessary, I could get downstairs quickly and let him out. Aside from repositioning a time or two (which shook the whole car and Roofnest upstairs), both dogs slept peacefully.
The following morning, we let the pups out to stretch and do their business. Shahman initially played with Japhy for a while, but wasn't nearly as friendly toward us as he was the night before.
He kept his distance for the most part, and eventually disappeared into the vast maze of gulches nearby. He was probably still searching for his human, but we remained optimistic in our goal to take him to town later that morning. He would occasionally come back to camp and once again, food did the trick in winning him over! He wolfed down (pun intended) a large helping and then mischievously coaxed Japhy into following him farther and farther away again. We called Japhy back a few times and tried explaining to him that he had no business following Shahman that far out of sight. Even though Japhy thinks he a tough guy, he wouldn't last a day out there in the desert.
Maddy explaining to Japhy that Shahman was a bad influence :)
After we broke camp, we had to get both dogs into the back seat. Japhy jumped right in as usual, but Shahman wouldn't fall for the treat trick again. Leaving him out there in the middle of nowhere was not an option, so we had to get creative while not scaring him away. Maddy and I decided to clip Japhy's leash to Shahman's harness, pass the leash through both open back seat doors, and pull Shahman in from the opposite side. The plan worked and before long, the four of us were heading to Moab.
Japhy was not particularly happy that Shahman was on his side of the car, but after a couple more treats, they settled in for a bumpy drive back to town. Our plan was to first to call the phone number on Shahman's name tag as soon as we reached cell service. If his owner did not answer, we would drop Shahman off at the local animal shelter and post some photos online.
As we approached the first campsite we had visited the night before, we noticed a different vehicle there. An older gentleman was talking with the climbers as we approached. "You haven't seen a lost dog...." his question trailed off with a big smile of relief as Shahman poked his head out the back window. The man and his dog very clearly recognized each other and were happy to be reunited. We let him know that Shahman had a big dinner the night before and breakfast that morning - he had been looking for his dog over the course of a couple days while camping in the desert. He was on his way to town to inquire at the animal shelter if anyone had brought his dog in, but fortunately we found him first! He thanked us profusely while Shahman and Japhy eyeballed each other through the window. We shook hands and watched the man and his dog walk back to their truck. After one last look out the window to his new friend, Japhy promptly fell asleep in his bed on his side of his backseat.
Thanks for reading! I'll be sharing more stories from different parts of our jam-packed and exciting week in the desert. Check back soon for more :)