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Last week, we toured Utah for the first time, and managed to get a lot of nice pictures. Read on only if you want to know the vexing reality behind the photos.

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They say travel can be maturing – for example, a 7-year-old can suddenly seem like she’s 9. Actually, we’ve said that about Dar based on past travels. That, plus his affinity for swimming pools, are two of our main reasons for hitting the road. A third reason for hitting the road is that we fear putting him on a plane because he might act…well, like he did several times in Utah, screaming uncontrollably for minutes and minutes on end. We like to keep Dar in or near our car, so at any time we can make our escape from normal people – who may react adversely at hearing a child imitate a tea-kettle boiling for more than five consecutive minutes.

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This became a bit of an issue on Day 1, at Zion National Park. Ever since seeing 127 Hours and about 127 of my friends’ desktop/screen-savers, I’ve wanted to see the slot canyons of Utah, and one of the nicest ones is supposed to be the Narrows, in Zion. I say “supposed to be” because we didn’t quite get that far. Upon arrival, I learned that Zion Canyon is only accessible to the park’s shuttles – they don’t want civilian cars choking and doddering around their park’s crown jewel. I thought, huh, Dar on a shuttle. But it went okay. We rode it from the visitor center all the way to the last and 14th stop. We began the long walk to the Narrows.

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Near the water filling station, Dar grabbed a stranger’s water bottle and put it in his mouth. I hustled Dar away, apologizing. A few minutes later, maybe 200 meters down the path, Dar was on a slight break next to some dirt-sand, and he threw the dirt-sand into the eyes and face…of the exact same 50ish stranger with the water bottle. The man said to Dar, “Remind me not to take a vacation with you!” which was both funny and, I felt in this case, a sign of genuine annoyance. A minute later, the park’s main river, which is called Virgin River, appeared to our left, and Dar wanted nothing more than to play in it. In a way, that was fine, because it was shallow. But we didn’t have his change of clothes; we’d left that in the car. So we couldn’t let him get drenched. And as we pulled him away from the river he had an absolute freak-out.

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At least this was one case where I knew what was bothering him, but that didn’t exactly help me with my goal of seeing the Narrows. We had also left the stroller in the car, partly because I was worried about taking it on the shuttle, partly because we didn’t think the trails would be stroller-friendly. I considered putting Dar on my shoulders, but my word, the walk had just begun. How long would I be carrying that 5-year-old weight, hours? And if I put him down, would his screams echo echo echo through everyone’s tranquil canyon? I hit the abort-button. This monument would be less Chichen Itza, more Chicken Exit. We turned around, got back on the shuttle, and saw the greatest-hits version of the rest of the park. Well, we did attempt one more hike, the theoretically easiest Emerald Pools trail. First we spent an hour at the Virgin River crossing that starts the hike. Then, .5 miles into the 1.2 mile hike, Dar and his little brother whined to the point of immobility. We trudged the kids back, sighed, and spent most of the rest of the afternoon in our car.

 

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That was nothing compared to the evening of Day 2, after we’d spent the day seeing Bryce Canyon (at one point, Dar and wifey stayed at the car while Dar’s brother and I hiked an hour amongst the hoodoos) and another hour with the whole family happily playing in a slot canyon river called Willis Creek in Grand Staircase-Escalante Park.

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Shortly after our evening arrival at our hotel in Torrey, Utah, just outside Capitol Reef National Park, Dar revived what I call a “1000-Spider Meltdown.” We hadn’t seen this in at least a year, maybe two: an absolute five-alarm freak-out where Dar forgets to breathe because his face is fixed in abject horror. If you had 1000 spiders crawling on your naked body and you couldn’t get them off, you would look and sound like Dar does in these moments. (When they were more frequent, two years ago, I brought Dar to his pediatrician and in a sense I got lucky: the nurse started by acting as though it was no big deal, but when Dar went into a near-paralytic state, she ran to get the doctor and I could see the tail between her legs.) This time he added a twist: his mouth was bleeding all over his chin. He’d bitten his tongue to the point of blood, for the first time that we knew of.

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We hoped we’d seen the last of these meltdowns – did all the travel bring them back? If so, the poison was the cure: I carried a howling Dar into the car and he calmed down the minute the car moved forward. Wanting to sleep, I instead drove him around tiny Torrey at night, Jupiter and Venus lingering close to each other in the night sky above us.

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When I brought him back to the hotel, his eyes were closed, but the motion awoke him, and we had to put up with another 30 minutes of more typical low-level screams. With any screaming, we always ask what do you want? are you hurt? can you show us? And he doesn’t, even with the iPad. Finally the Benadryl kicked in and he fell asleep.

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Day 4 brought another 1000-Spider Meltdown, this one shortly after 5:00am Utah time (4:00am California time). By then we were in our hotel outside Moab, near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. I put him in the car again, and he calmed again. I drove around aimlessly for an hour. The good news is that I got some beautiful shots of the sun rising on the Colorado River near the red Navajo-stone cliffs.

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The bad news is…well, everything else. Although Dar was much calmer when I returned, I was still something of a zombie for the day. However, Arches was so awesome that I kind of forgot about my exhaustion, to the point where we were crazy enough to take the boys on a 1.6 mile round-trip hike to Landscape Arch! Yes, we had to carry them on our shoulders most of the way back, but somehow even doing that much felt like the biggest accomplishment of the trip.

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We got lucky that Zion was the only park to require shuttles to see the highlights; in the other parks, we could effectively implement our escape-to-car-when-needed strategy. Dar’s brother never forgot the great time he had had on the shuttle, though, so he kept seeing tour buses and asking “Can we get on the bus?” I had to laugh while saying NO.

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Let me give you an example of how this little 3-year-old is influencing his 5-year-old brother. Many times, a beautiful canyon view or arch or whatever would require about a 500-foot walk from where you can leave the car, so wifey and I would take turns checking it out quickly, instead of unloading and dealing with these two outside. (I’m calling them “these two” all the time lately.) Little R would inevitably say “Can I go to the front?” and we’d let him, and then we found that when we unshackled Dar (to take him on the canyon view, for instance), Dar preferred to join his brother playing with the car’s buttons and switches and mirrors. So by Day 5, wifey and I were pretty regularly returning to a front seat with one adult and two smiling, button-pushing kids. At least they weren’t pushing OUR buttons. Then.

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I wish Dar’s newer therapists had been in our car on the morning of Day 6. At Arches, a couple had told me how horrible they’d found Four Corners, describing an hourlong queue that people regularly ignored because the place lacked any proper management or organization. Based on what this couple said, I probably should have skipped the place, but instead I made sure we did it first thing in the morning.

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The drive to Four Corners from our hotel in Bluff, Utah took about an hour, and for the first 55 minutes Dar was utterly calm, just staring out the window, occasionally making his “tee-tee-tee” sounds. Then it was like a switch went on, or perhaps off. FREAK OUT. I wouldn’t quite call it a 1000-Spider-er, but he was screaming like a fork was twisting in his ear. “Dar, what’s wrong?” we asked in vain. The long-time therapists know: he just does this. No antecedent. No explanation. You may as well try to explain storms on Jupiter. Some things just happen.

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“Does anything hurt?” we asked anyway. “What can we do?” Nothing, other than pull into the Four Corners parking lot at 9:00am on Friday July 3rd…when there were almost no other cars. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles… There was no line, no queue, nothing but a few families snapping pictures and checking out the nearby book tables. We parked perhaps 200 feet from the only place where four of these United States meet. If this were any other attraction on the journey, we could have left Dar to scream in the (soundproof-booth-like) car while we kept one eye on it. But…come on, four family members, four corners. We weren’t getting this far without the right picture, dammit. At that moment we gave the dictionary a new picture it can use for the phrase “dragged kicking and screaming.” There were two small families standing just outside the point we might call (0,0), taking turns taking photos of each other. When they heard Dar, they both stepped aside. I said, “Uh, you were here first…” A mom said sweetly, “No, you go ahead.” THANK YOU. I smiled and said, “He’s not having a great day.” No need to tell every single person that he’s autistic.

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A very nice young man took my phone and took pictures. And miraculously, in the first one you can’t even tell that Dar is caterwauling. Wifey and I had asked each other on the way there “Now, do you want to be in New Mexico or Colorado or…?” That sort of thing seems entirely irrelevant when your child is simultaneously playing all the parts of the promgoers after the blood falls on Carrie’s head in Carrie. I could see why the couple in Arches had been bothered, particularly compared to the national parks that are run by rangers: at Four Corners, the Navajo Nation runs the site, takes your money as you drive in, and then lets you figure it out for yourself. I guess a lot of visitors trade photo duties: you shoot us and we’ll shoot you guys. Luckily, in our case, the people there, and us, all had a common interest in our departure occuring tout suite. For the first time, the worst of Dar’s autism probably worked to our advantage.

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Of course, the trip wasn’t all bad. We saw six national parks in six days (Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, and Mesa Verde), and many other cool things besides, like Natural Bridges and the Moab Film Museum and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. But it did get me wondering how much more we can really do this. We love travel partly because it’s been an escape from our daily grind of work and autism; what if the travel no longer functions as such an escape? Also, I’m not sure how much longer I can carry Dar on my shoulders for a half-mile, as I did at Landscape Arch.

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He’s getting bigger. I suppose one solution is to travel to just one place and spend the time in one hotel. I guess if that one place is a tropical paradise, I could be comfortable, although even there I’d wonder what hikes and sights we’d be missing. Next summer we may rent an RV, even though I kind of hate driving those things – perhaps the relative stability of a “home on wheels” will improve Dar’s mood. Or perhaps we leave the kid (or kids) with someone else for a week? We have no grandparent help, but we have heard rumors of such things happening, with enough money and trust. But then what about exposing Dar to new things? But then what about our sanity?

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On Day 7, the Fourth of July, we drove from Monument Valley to Antelope Canyon, supposedly the best (and certainly most-photographed) slot canyon in the world. Entering it without a guide is impossible – Navajo territory, Navajo rules. And securing a – slot? reservation? make your own joke here – on the phone had likewise proved impossible.

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We’d heard informally that one could drive into Page, AZ, check in with the different touring companies, and hope for cancellations. Once again the karma gods, perhaps hearing of our ordeals, smiled. Still ten minutes from Page, we saw a tour company gathering on the side of the dusty road (“ANTELOPE CANYON PHOTO TOURS”).

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We pulled over; they had six cancellations, and they would leave for the canyon in ten minutes. Perfect! They needed cash only. Not as perfect. Did we have $144 in cashola for two adults and two kids? Between wifey and I, very barely. We scraped the car for coins. We managed to hit the numbers.

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Our guide was an awesome, gregarious Navajo personality, though he was wearing an Arizona Cardinals hat, and he and I had to just agree to disagree about that.

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Better, he seemed to know all the stories and all the camera angles better than just about every other guide near us. (I would overhear guides say to their group, “Did you catch what he just said?”) Best, Dar handled everything like a champ.

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Oh sure, there was some low-level fuss, and he wandered into other groups too often, but considering the length of the walk and the potential for claustrophobia, we were thrilled with his behavior. In Antelope Canyon, the walls that surround you and restrict you are the same ones that offer you a jagged beauty, a wavy-curvy grace, an undulating unity with the universe. There may be a lesson in there somewhere.

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