This is what desert waterfalls can teach us about travel 5

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There is something wholly anticlimactic about being wet and cold in Moab, Utah.

Especially if it happens shortly after a ten day trip to British Columbia, in which you were all but wringing rainwater out your underwear every morning.

Photo: Sean Leader

Photo: Sean Leader

We drove 20 hours in search of heat. I joked that we were going to Moab to dry our laundry (spoiler: it’s still not dry). The first night we got our long-awaited desert weather — 90 degrees at midnight. Windswept rocks and dust devils coating our tent and our throats, making our skin feel both sticky and gritty beneath a film of sweat and sand. Unpleasant in it’s own right, but deliciously desert-y.

In glorious anticipation of dry weather, we left the fly off our tent. And then it rained. And rained. And rained some more.

As travelers and tourists, we expect a lot from the places we visit. That is the paradox of travel — we travel to see new things, find adventure, open our minds, etc. But in reality, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have a set-in-concrete notion of what we’re going to see, a notion established (through means like Pinterest and Facebook and, ahem, travel blogs) long before we take even that first step out the door. And so, easily, without notice, travel can become this long, exhausting search for a reality that doesn’t exist.

Some examples: I wanted to see Machu Picchu on a sunny day. I wanted Moab in August to be hot.

And those are just the mild, weather-related expectations that I am willing to own up to on the internet. Travel expectations reveal some of our nastiest, deepest prejudices about the rest of the world. It can be unsettling and uncomfortable to realize that we were wrong, and that people and places will never fit neatly into the boxes we created for them, but it’s a good thing. That feeling of discomfort is growth, and it’s also the reason why traveling teaches us so much.

But only if we pay attention and learn from our shattered expectations.

Rain in the desert is a curious thing. An overcast day in Moab is a curious thing. The first time I was in Moab, over a year ago, it was all sun and shimmering red rock and untextured, solid blue skies. It was harsh, unyielding, hot and beautiful, just like I thought it was supposed to be. This past week, the sky was steel gray and the rocks were damp and muted. Brown, not red. It was subtle, humbling and still beautiful. Our campsite flooded, our tent grew mold and, one morning, we were privy to some of the most incredible waterfalls I have ever seen.

There are a few things you should know about waterfalls in the desert:

a) they exist
b) but only for a short period of time
c) they are therefore kind of special

The waterfalls we saw on a rainy morning in Moab (a morning on which we were supposed to be riding our bikes) were otherworldly. They cascaded off red cliff sides, hitting the ground some 300 feet below. They came out of nowhere and stopped just as suddenly. While were standing, entranced by the waterfalls on the other side of the river, we heard a crashing sound and wheeled around to find another waterfall charging out of a crevice in the cliff, just 100 yards from our tent. I had always wondered what a flash flood looked like — now I think I have some idea.


Waterfalls in the desert are not something you see every day. In fact, twenty minutes after the rain stopped, the waterfalls were gone.

You don’t go to Moab to see waterfalls — that would be silly. You go to Moab to visit Arches National Park on a blue-bird sky day. You go to Moab because you want to bake in the desert sun and feel the heat of the slick rock beneath your feet.

But sometimes you don’t get what you want or what you expect. Sometimes you get something better.


Have you ever had a travel experience that shattered your expectations? Please share!


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About Syd Schulz

Syd is currently traveling the world, balancing her passion for writing with her current (and equally-unprofitable) day job-- racing professional enduro mountain bikes. She likes adventure and olives and you can hear all about it on her travel/adventure/bike blog, Freewheel Life Blog. (She also uses these things called Facebook and Instagram.)

5 thoughts on “This is what desert waterfalls can teach us about travel

  • Sofia

    It’s always the rain that ruins most of our trips, although I don’t blame mother nature for giving us the gift that is righteously ours, it’s just that, we don’t come here often so if you might give us a few sunshine that would be great!
    That shot of the tiny waterfall is so gorgeous!

  • Erik Graab

    Syd, I don’t have to travel very far to have my expectations shattered. That is what I like about travelling aimlessly through life, something pops up and you bounce off in some other direction. Nice article and it was nice meeting you. The road goes on forever and the party never ends…… Erik Graab

  • Kiara Gallop

    The first (and only!) time I went to the Sahara desert, it rained. I was riding a camel, and wearing headscarf that made me look like an Arab, to keep the sand – and rain – off my face. It was strange, and also kinda cool, because it wasn’t what I expected.

  • Noah

    When we travel with an open mind, we are far more apt to enjoy a place for what it is in the moment, rather than what we expect it to be … glad to see you had a good time in Moab despite the dour weather!

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