Road Trip Day 2: Utah State Parks and pray for rain

Utah State Parks. At first, the day's destination seems so far away because I know we'll have to drive through parts of three states to reach it. But in reality, we only have six hours and 11 minutes of driving to do - not bad at all, especially considering it's one of the longest days of our entire road trip. The fact that we'll end the day near the Utah State Parks gives us an incentive to press on.

ROAD TRIP TIP: Driving a loop for your road trip? Do long days on the way out and short days on the way back. At the beginning of the trip, you're full of energy. At the end, a heavy fatigue may start to set in, even if you're religiously sleeping seven or eight hours per night.

One way to achieve the "long-out, short-back" goal is to see the breathtaking, winding backroads on the way out and take more Interstates on the way home.

First things first. At the complimentary hotel breakfast in Bakersfield, I enjoy free coffee and free made-to-order omelet. Little Mary enjoys free peach yogurt and drinks free water through a coffee straw.

On our way out of town, Michelle has to run a quick errand at a Kinko's copy center. I stay in the car, trembling with anticipation. I'm driving the first leg, so I select my Brahms Symphonies 2 and 3 disc as driving music.

We hit Highway 58. Mary sleeps and doesn't fuss until Cramer Junction. We stop in Barstow, after the I-15 junction, and look around the Barstow Station, which is fashioned out of train cars. Once you're inside, you can eat at the McDonald's or scout out some of the many other food options. I go to a Cuban eatery and drink a yerba mate-based soda called Materva. It tastes vaguely caramelly.

Mary is first giddy, then fussy, on the next leg to Vegas. We get cloud cover as the scenery completes its transition to bristly desert. Finally, rain sprinkles the windshield. Mary dozes. The road to Vegas is a slow, steady incline—almost imperceptible, but you somehow can't go above 70 in a 4-cylinder vehicle.

We manage to pass a bus labeled Nada Bus. Funny name for a company; Not a Bus? Or, literally, Nothing Bus? On one side, someone has rubbed out the first two letters, so it reads "da Bus." Michelle laughs.

Vegas is Vegas. I've been three times, but Michelle has never seen it, so we take the Strip. There's traffic and chaos, but I find it surprisingly easy to maneuver through the city. Vegas can't be described. Our only regret is that we didn't drive through at night. I know from experience that after dark, the city is so gaudy it's actually beautiful.

Past Vegas, things quickly get desolate—in a good way. Because once we've filled up on glitz, we're ready for more stark scenery as sort of a purgative. There are occasional gas stations and hotels out here in the middle of nowhere, and it all seems very romantic.

I-15 eventually snakes through red rock in the Virgin River Gorge. The sky threatens. To the left, out of the corner of one eye, threads of lightning strike down. They are so quick, and so thin, that at first I think they're just illusions caused by eye fatigue.

How can a city rise out of this awesome landscape? St. George, Utah somehow coexists with the red rock like a child's diorama set in orange clay. You see strip malls, Mormon churches, and houses poised at the bottoms of salmon cliffs. All across town, signs are colorful and clean.

At our hotel amidst the Utah State Parks, an all-American looking young man named Dash checks us in. We're torn between wanting to explore this town and not wanting to get back in the car. Finally, we eat at a family restaurant within walking distance.

You would think it would be a disappointment to arrive in red rock country under dark skies, but paradoxically, the red rock seems to light up when the sky is gray. Once again, I suspect it's an optical illusion. But the next morning, brilliant sunlight strips the rock of much of its color.

Best time to visit the Utah State Parks? For my money, it's any time they're expecting a storm. You can get sunshine anywhere. But scenery like this is all the more dramatic when the skies are threatening.

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