Sometimes, we take a trip to a place we’ve always dreamed of. Other times, for reasons beyond our control, life chooses the journey for us instead. That’s how I ended up in a Utah desert.
It’d been three months since I watched the casket close at my father’s funeral, and honestly, most days, I struggled to get out of bed. Although traveling has always been a balm through some of my most challenging times, this was achingly different.
Even as a professional escape artist—sometimes called a travel journalist—who doesn’t mind booking a trip to try to get away from the grind culture ingrained in our society, grieving such a heavy loss didn’t feel like something I could bandage up by jetting off to a far-flung island.
Although I often felt like hiding from myself and the grief now flowing through what felt like every second of my reality, I knew I had to face the shadows at some point. Grief has taught me to find ways to hold onto any piece of peace I can muster in a given moment because anyone who has suffered profound loss can tell you grief has a way of snatching your joy in what used to be life’s best moments: holidays, birthdays, accolades celebrated, and travel. I knew that tapping into Black folks’ centuries-long knowledge and connection with nature could help—or at least I was willing to try to see if it would ease even just a second of my hurt.
I decided that if I was going to travel anywhere, it needed to be someplace surrounded by nature so I could feel comfortable talking aloud to myself, my dad, and every other ancestor I needed to lean on to make it through. This place had to have communal spaces to connect with new people but still offer privacy for when I wanted to do nothing but scream or be silent. And there had to be delicious food because I come from a lineage of people who have always believed in the healing power of a good meal.
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As a triple water sign, I usually find refuge in water. But this time, I was craving something different, perhaps because this grief was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I was on a new, complex journey that we will all know at some point. I desperately needed a soft place to land and grieve. A place that nudged me to exist in the present when all I wanted to do was return to my past life, where my dad was thriving, laughing, and alive. Everything about Ofland Escalante (formerly Yonder Escalante), a glamping desert retreat in the middle of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, felt right.
Getting to Ofland is a journey in and of itself, but I was glad to take it, and thankfully, I didn’t have to make the five-hour drive from Las Vegas to Southern Utah alone. My eldest sister and I picked up our rental car (a drop-top white Jeep because I insisted) at Harry Reid International Airport to make our way to the desert, listening to our favorite oldies’ R&B playlist.
We drove Scenic Byway 12, oohing and ahhing more times than I can count. We twisted and turned past red clay canyons, green pines, and dusty towns for stretches of road and time. Every mile, there seemed to be a sign urging us to pull over for a scenic overlook, and the views only got better as we neared Ofland.
Along the way, another form of grief wedged itself into a relationship that was helping me through the most painful time of my life. I felt stricken with more loss before the trip began. With my sister’s encouragement, as hard as it was, I knew I had to sit in my feelings about everything. After all, that’s why we took what we called our #sistergriefcation, to be present with grief instead of trying to escape it.
We talked, laughed, and cried as hours passed before winding our way into the remote outpost. Black, glass A-frame cabins, renovated ’60s-era Airstreams, and sleek, deluxe cabins made from shipping containers dot the 20-acre property at Ofland, a former drive-in movie theater that transformed into a glamping refuge in 2021.
While many people come to Ofland to relax or retreat into nature, when speaking about why we’d made the not-so-easy journey to get there, Ofland‘s General Manager’s words about grieving guests she’d previously welcomed felt like a blanket of comfort during our earliest moments, bouncing through the unpredictable turbulence of grief.
After checking in, we parked in the gravel lot before staff golf-carted us to our room. It was nighttime, so our wandering of the property wouldn’t start until the next day. In the morning, we left the coziness of our double-bed, contemporary-designed airstream to see what the dark didn’t allow. We were smack dab in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by stunning cabins, clear skies, a preserved area of the once drive-in movie theater, and the smell of breakfast awaiting us.
At Ofland’s food truck, we opted for brunch. Southwestern agriculture inspires the menu flavors using locally sourced ingredients, which were deliciously evident on our plates. We tried their perfectly golden cornbread French toast with maple syrup and fresh whipped cream. Then, a breakfast burrito with bacon, scrambled eggs, crispy potatoes, and refried beans. A sausage patty burger with a cheesy fried egg and topped with crispy hash browns served between a griddled potato bun was an easy choice—that Ofland calls the best in the state. Like my ancestors, I knew that good food could lift your spirits, even if just for a moment’s bite.
Kim Nash Finley
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After brunch, we retreated deeper into nature with a short hike at Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. Before the rain ran us back to the cozy grounds at Ofland, we took in the forest waterside views, sat and talked about all that our father was, all that grief had made of us, and sometimes we let the Jhene Aiko music playing from my phone dance in the silent moments between us. Perhaps we both realized grief had silenced us in a way that felt like anything either of us had ever experienced. When a parent passes, especially suddenly, sometimes there isn’t much to say, so we embrace the uncertainty and let nature do what it can to remedy us.
Our climb ended with rooftop pictures captured on the Jeep—a joyful must. We returned to Ofland to grill steaks and veggies and, for dessert, fire-toasted s’mores in the open-air communal space and moved from our airstream into the properties’ newly-built deluxe cabins, and it was a dreamy upgrade. The spacious black shipping container had a driveway, fire pit, and picnic table in the front yard. Inside, we walked into an airy linen and wood-covered room with hints of mustard, cream, and clay decor mirroring its desert surroundings. Everything about the room was calming, but the best part was washing the day off beneath the rainfall showerhead and open skies.
I’ve only ever used an outdoor shower on tropical islands. It was just as impressive in Utah and another opportunity to draw closer to nature in healing times. At night, the panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows made falling asleep in the desert an easeful, starry wonder with orange-hued sunsets. The deluxe cabins made for a perfect place to read, journal, roast more s’mores, and even cry. We were comfortable showing up just as we felt in the space in those moments.
Bryce Canyon National Park Experience
At Bryce Cayon National Park, a 50-minute drive from Ofland, we journeyed by horseback through the park known for its crimson-colored rocks called Hoodoos. Like the practices of the only Hoodoo I’ve ever known‒traditional African American spirituality‒behind the beliefs passed through stories, wisdom, and botanical remedies, there was a deeper meaning about grief to be revealed.
We trekked along a riding trail that was anything but flat. Unlike the smooth roads we rode into town, the canyon was full of rocky bends and one too many moments of my horse getting close to the edge. But despite the ride, I tried to remember I was here to ground myself in the present, release the control that grief made me realize never existed, and listen. I was here to listen to myself and signs that would bring me closer to my dad.
Any griever will tell you that the signs, no matter how big or small, keep us going amidst the terror of monumental loss. The signs nudge us out of bed or closer to a promise we made with our person. They wrap us in comfort that we’ll never physically get to share with our deceased ever again in this lifetime. They remind us that our memories and nature are the way back to the people we’ve lost. When I decided to surrender and enjoy the surroundings, our cowboy guide stopped and pointed toward a rust-colored plateau above the trail.
“That’s Aquarius Plateau, the highest timbered plateau in North America,” he said before I felt my heart flutter. I tried to keep my composure and listen to the rest of what he was explaining about its alpine forested terrain, but I couldn’t help the smile that stretched across my face.
A sign had come. Like always, my dad had shown up right on time when I needed him most with a tall, reassuring presence that let anyone he loved know he was there if you needed him, always in a spirit of love led with listening, never with force.
We continued clip-clopping along the trail. I looked back at the plateau one last time and a welling tear ducts, taking in the vastness and silently thanking him, my Aquarian daddy, for reminding me that he’s still with me, providing a soft place to land no matter how unexpectedly twisted life’s journey gets.
published 2024-01-18 19:43:01