Capitol Reef to Bluff, Utah
It’s strange how in a place where the Earth’s processes are most evident, I look toward outer space for a point of comparison. Such is the case with the Waterpocket Fold, the 100-mile-long gash that runs through Capitol Reef National Park. Viewing it from the Strike Valley Overlook, I can’t shake the idea that I have seen it before ― but as some anonymous planet of childhood sci-fi imaginings.
Rumbling south on the Notom-Bullfrog Road toward Lake Powell, there are no other cars in sight for 30 miles, just triangular formations, jagged as Cadillac tail fins. The road is beautiful but trying. We are coated in a layer of pale red dust, the fine, almost aerosol remains of the layers of landscape we pass through.
Then, beyond a ripple of coral pink dunes, improbably ― impossibly ― blue Lake Powell spreads out where the Colorado River once flowed through the desert. Dotted with jet skiers and houseboats, the lake’s surface reflects the sun off a million facets, and we drink in the breeze as we make the 25-minute car-ferry passage from Bullfrog to Halls Crossing.
Our destination for the night is Bluff, Utah, the town founded by a group of Mormons known as the Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition. Sent by church leaders to settle southeastern Utah, the group earned its moniker by lowering wagons, animals, supplies, and people 40 feet through a tiny gap in the sheer cliffs above the Colorado River. They finally called it quits here, where Bluff now stands.
In this isolated part of the world, Bluff makes a comforting home away from home ― especially with the Cow Canyon Trading Post and Restaurant in town. Liza Doran and her husband, Jim Ostler, opened the store in 1986, then started a restaurant a year later. The moment you enter, you notice the quality of the pottery, basketry, rugs, and jewelry, most crafted by the Zuni and Navajo peoples of the Colorado Plateau. “What drew me here is the mix of cultures,” Doran tells us. “It’s part of the sense of place.”
That sense of place extends to the restaurant’s menu too. While the climate makes it impossible to grow some types of produce, Doran does cultivate herbs, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, and she keeps the menu selections simple.
“I have to drive three hours to get romaine lettuce, so if I don’t have an ingredient, I just deal with it,” she says. “I’ll go out in the yard and work with what’s there. It’s like Ruby Warren, a Navajo woman who works at the restaurant. She can make spanakopita or overhaul your truck. You learn to be resourceful around here.”