Valentine's Day is approaching and travel bloggers everywhere are busy writing posts about the most romantic settings, or tales of love overseas. I'm not joining them, for frankly 'love on the road' can produce more interesting stories than sitting on a beach in Thailand watching the sunset...
Arches National Park is located in Utah, USA. Once you enter the park, it is like stepping onto Mars. You enter a maze of sandstone in which it's easy to get lost as rustic signposts coax you in various directions down sandy paths shared with cacti and scuttling lizards. With over 2000 to gape at, this park hosts the largest concentration of natural arches in the world. Their current shape has formed from millions of years' worth of rock re-layering and erosion. The park only receives 8-10 inches of rain a year, and I think most of that arrived on the day I was there.
In the evening, thunder began to crack overhead as I stood watching my partner-in-crime spring up the side of an arch like a monkey. Bolts of lightning lit up the brooding sky in the distance. Always feeling slightly unnerved by thunderstorms, I was relieved when he finally leaped down and we joined the other visitors running back to the safety of vehicles as rain began to be hurled from the menacing sky.
Technically, there was much potential for romance here - picture a stormy night, huddled up together shivering by the back of our car as we waited for our food to cook on the stove. Once ready, we hurried back to the front to eat, before making the bed in the back ready to sleep later. We were considering being a little cheeky and kipping in this parking area for the night, concerned about how the car's brakes would handle the wet roads on the steep descent out of the park, but also relishing the chance of catching a morning sunrise. The only issue was the man parked in a car 20 metres to my right who sat looking at us...constantly.
"Maybe he's waiting for someone," was my initial suggestion, after becoming convinced he wasn't a ranger preparing to shoo us off. I hated the thought of being one of those paranoid travellers who is suspicious of any contact from strangers. Afterall, this was a national park, not the London underground. But everyone seemed to have come back down from the arch. Plus, there was something weird about this man's facial expression; he looked on edge, as if impatiently waiting for something. And he would NOT stop staring.
As the third remaining car exited the parking lot with this man still watching us intently, apprehensions started creeping in like ants into cracks of dried sand. Condensation breathed over my window so that I couldn't see the man anymore, and I found myself locking my door pathetically as if it would make any difference. I no longer felt comfortable about the prospect of sleeping here with him still around. Scenes from horror movies flashed through my mind like forks of lightning from the storm earlier, leaving me with the same ripple of butterflies in my stomach.
Ten awkward minutes of waiting with a mixture of feigned nonchalance and quick side-glances passed, until we decided to leave rather than take a risk and stay. Immediately upon leaving the parking lot however, we felt bad and pulled up, ready to turn back. What if we were just being completely irrational? The man could have been a perfectly innocent human being, who was perhaps worried about driving in the weather conditions and wanted to know if others intended to bend the rules by sleeping outside of a campground.
Then suddenly, a glare of headlights blinded us before the man's car zoomed past. The speed of his exit after we had gone caused us concern and we decided not to return afterall. The drive onwards was spent debating our moral standards and the extent to which we were bad people for supposing the man had violent intentions. I defended our decision on the basis of instinct. When you get a bad feeling about something, you should go with your gut and walk away, whether to a toilet or elsewhere.
Regardless of that disconcerting moment however, we still ended up sleeping in another viewing area of the park that evening (because sometimes, jammy travel leads to some great moments). Quickly, the mysterious man became a figure forgotten in the vast planet of red rock. It was only months later, as I recounted the tale to my brother and sister-in-law during another experience of wet and wild weather and asked them what they would have done in a similar scenario, that I was struck with an idea of what may have been going on that evening. It seemed plausible that the aliens of planet Arches had come out from hiding to seek the new faces that had descended on their turf.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, 'dogging' is a form of public sex that sees people travel to remote areas during the night-time in order to watch or participate in the sexual activity of strangers. This slang term is said to originate from men who, out walking their dog in the woods, have stumbled across a couple putting their own spin on the Adam and Eve story and...chosen to let Bess stay out for a bit longer.
Now the craze has expanded to become the popular focus of devoted forums around the world. There is a website - simply named dogging.co.uk - where people can sign up to meet fellow public sex participants and arrange viewing dates. @letsgodogging has over 10,000 Twitter followers, leading one to question just how many people engage in this activity.
Supporters could argue that dogging is a better, healthier version of watching porn - something that is free, more realistic and perhaps more effective stimulatingly because of its real-life viewing context. On a Channel 4 documentary aired in 2013, one male participant stated that the act of putting on a public show made him feel "important". His partner described how the process of dressing up in disguise boosted her self-esteem. One lorry driver estimated that 70% of those in his job field are doggers, looking for a release from long lonely days on the road. Others credited dogging as livening up their sex life, helping them fulfil a desire to cheat on their "boring" partner. Women are videoed offering their bodies to male strangers, only unlike prostitution, their husbands are watching proudly, the sex is free of charge, and it is a choice based on enjoyment of sex with male strangers, rather than a drastic need to pay the bills or fund a pimp's drug habit.
For this sample of participants, dogging appeared to brighten a grey cloud in their personal life. But for the unaware and unwilling amongst those being scouted out as potential viewing, dogging is an invasion of privacy and can create a perturbing experience.
Arches National Park is definitely a must-see. But if you're there as part of a road-trip with a loved one, it might be a good idea to close your curtains extra tight at night...
For more photos from Arches and definitely not of dogging, head here on www.soleseeking.com