Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Small dose of desert

Every since I re-read "Desert Solitaire" during a sleepless night between wearying days of that ill-fated trip to Eleazar's cabin in the White Mountains last month, I have been hungry for some time in the desert. For me, Alaska's frozen tundra and Utah's red desert have always been two sides of the same coin — desolate extremes that enrich my soul. Growing up in Utah, I cut my adventure teeth on viscous rivers and sandstone, and assume I'll eventually return to Alaska to die (hopefully the dying part happens well into my senescence, and the return much sooner.) I crave the frozen north because it's there that I feel most alive. I crave the desert because it's there that I still feel young. 

View from the backyard, looking toward the Colorado River and rain clouds over Grand Junction
 An opportunity arose when friends from Boulder rented a house in Grand Junction for the weekend. It will probably annoy locals when I say this, but every time I visit the far Western Slope of Colorado, all I see is Utah — from fluted mesa backdrops to manicured lawns in the desert to tidy street grids (but really, Fruita, what is up with the fractions? J 6/10 Road? What even is that?)

Wendy at an overlook — not really an overlook, more like a regular switchback on a ledgy trail
 I knew this trip was coming and had been saving up my legs for it, as I was pretty sure these folks were going to make me run. It was my fault for talking them out of bringing bikes at the last minute, because the logistics of toting the bikes became too daunting. I know, sacrilege. To prepare for the trip, two days prior I embarked on a five-mile run that was the most running (not hiking) that I'd done since February. I felt good. I was ready!

 Temperatures were mercifully mild for the 15-miler Steve had planned, traveling out to Rattlesnake Arches and back. The trail was just rugged enough that my body balked at running within the first few miles — every step felt jarring and awkward, and without my trekking poles I felt like a black bear trying to lumber forward on two legs. Running on rocks ... so strange! I was certain a face-plant was coming, and tentatively lurched into every step. I actually I did have a pretty good splat around mile 10, but I caught it well enough that I only ripped up my already deeply scarred right elbow. No one was around to see it, so all was well.

Arches — two for the price of one!
Mile four involved a mild class-three scramble in and out of a canyon that sparked navigation confusion and backtracking, then Marianne had a scary-looking ten-foot tumble that she managed to walk away from uninjured, then Jorge started experiencing vertigo and turned around. Given my own perceived balance issues, I was feeling pretty spooked about moving through this hard and often vertical place. Still, the arches were well worth the effort.

The iconic Rattlesnake Arch
Clustered within less than a mile of each other are six or more arches, looming over a narrow bench that spans incredible vistas.  Just a spectacular place, close to town and yet reasonably uncrowded on a Saturday in spring.

 The arch promenade can be looped by climbing through Cedar Arch and descending back to a junction. Spoiler alert: I chickened out without even considering this sandstone scramble, and instead backtracked the two miles. Sometimes I am more open to scrambling challenges, but on this day I was too much of a spooked and awkward bear stumbling along on my two legs, and knew I'd likely panic and freeze up. All of my friends did it, and said another party let them use a rope, and it was perfectly mellow and lots of fun. I did two 12-minute-miles and went splat.

Sheep blocking the trail
 On Sunday morning everyone had to rush back to Boulder for travel, work, and other obligations. I was planning to head to Salt Lake City to visit my family, but wanted to spend one more night in the desert. Before leaving town, I headed to a popular trailhead to hike Monument and Wedding Canyons. For this outing, there was no pretense of running. My quads were again sore, and my weird sense of balance had not recovered. But the walk was quite enjoyable.

One of the monuments in Monument Canyon
Although I intended to just hike the five-mile loop, I felt inspired at the junction and continued deeper into Monument Canyon, eventually climbing out Rim Road some six miles from the trailhead. Well, 12 miles is good, too.

View from my lunch spot. If you squint you can see the trail wending down the slope in the center. 
I did indulge in an extended lunch break with my sweaty shoes and socks flung aside, and the still-papery soles of my feet drying in the cool sand. My body is strongly not cut out for desert living. I was slathered head-to-heel in SPF 50, with dark red burns on my skin where I had previously missed spots. Hat and sunglasses couldn't quite temper the glare of the sun. Long sleeves protected arms that are more or less permanently sun-damaged. My throat felt parched even though I was gulping down two to three liters of water on these five- and four-hour outings. I was sneezing and wheezing from spring allergies despite Claritin and Singular. Still, I was happy, nonetheless.

I headed back as the heat of the afternoon really started to bear down. Sweat was poring down my legs and aggravating an old but not-yet-healed rash around my ankles. I was quite disappointed to check the temperature gauge in my car and see that it was just 72 degrees, not the 114 that I was expecting.
 For the night, I drove west on I-70 for a hundred miles or so and set up my little tent on a sandy patch of BLM land in the San Rafael Swell, close to a wrinkle I hoped to explore the following morning — Devil's Canyon. It was a gorgeous and warm night of scratching my irritated and sunburned skin, blowing my nose, wondering if my sore throat was the result of a virus or just parched desert dryness, and getting up five times to pee because I over-drank water in large amounts. "No, you are not built for the desert," I thought as I listened to a hard wind drive sand against my tent. "But you love it all the same."
By morning, the wind had a sharp chill to it. I started down the rugged mine road in my puffy jacket, but thought better of that and stashed it in the car, opting to just shiver until I dropped far enough into the canyon to partially block the gale. For a time the walking was easy enough, and I drifted through happy memories of desert camping trips in the Swell, and of being 20 years old. Then I hit the wash and ankle-deep sand. Suddenly my quads were burning with angry muscle memory from hundreds of miles of soft snow in Alaska.

 My research of this route amounted to a Google Map search to locate the trailhead. Drainages veered off in at least four directions, and I had no idea which one was Devil's Canyon, or which way I was supposed to go. I was searching for a narrow slot that was supposed to cut into one of these canyons, but I realized at this point that my chances of finding it were low. I chose to head straight, along a sandy wash where I could occasionally see faint footprints. I hit a dead-end after an arduous mile and a half.

 Desert hopscotch — not the clumsy person's favorite game. Incredibly, I did not go splat. But I did start to run low on drinking water, having greedily slurped up too much again, and having promised myself that this "recovery" hike would be two hours tops. I'd already run up that amount of time, but chose to try one more drainage heading east.

 I did find a tiny slot — not the correct one — and water, although I had nothing to filter it and was not nearly thirsty enough to drink from a stagnant pothole. Despite being low on water, curiosity got the better of me, and I continued hopscotching, sand-wading, and sandstone-ledge-scrambing up a side canyon, hoping I might intersect with the road I walked in on. Again, I knew chances of finding an exit were low, but there's something so compelling about exploring a tiny wrinkle in the Earth. People on I-70 would look across this expanse and see only the flat juniper desert stretching all the way to San Rafael Knob. But the entire plateau rippled with these hidden canyons, a veritable maze that I could crawl through for hours, days, weeks even, and never find the place I'm looking for.

My explorations led to the sharp end of the drainage, where I crawled out onto a rim and followed a cattle trail back toward the main canyon. I assumed cattle like to access water, and that the trail would lead back to my starting point. Instead, it dropped into another small wash, which ended in a cliff that plummeted 200 feet into the narrow crevice I'd been at the bottom of, an hour earlier. No option but to backtrack. I was effectively out of water, and quite grumpy. But I'd made my choices. I wasn't going to die from 90 minutes of thirst. The wind still roared and the sun was hot now, drying my skin and throat to an even greater degree. My quads joined the chorus of complaints as I hopped rocks and waded through sand. To soothe a growing urge to panic, I sang to myself the Tom Rosenthal song that I mumbled many times during the Iditarod, where it always made me feel better.

"I took a road that wasn't a road, but it was something I chose, and that's fine."

The desert, like frozen tundra, never yields. The desert makes you earn it, whatever it is. The desert punishes mistakes severely, but it also rewards in kind. By the time I made it back to my campsite, my skin was pockmarked from the sand blast, and my throat was searingly dry. But I had a gallon of water stored under a blanket, where it remained blissfully cool. The taste of that water was pure ecstasy. 


  1. Part "Desert Rat" part "Mountain Man, I share your love for oppositional landscapes, and the secrets they reveal to those (and only those) who probe their inner reaches. I bear this years scars from weeks spent in Red Desert Utah with pride...the sunburn, windburn, dry throat, blistered lips, scabbed shins and elbows...loneliness. Now healing up, alternating between Hot Springs and Hearth in Lovely Ouray, planning the next adventure.
    Box Canyon Mark

  2. Thanks for the Tom Rosenthal reference. New music and lyrics to explore and mumble on my hikes.

  3. The Grand Valley's road numbering system is quirky, but at least you always know how far you are from... wherever the heck 0 Road is! A blessedly underestimated part of CO. Love that area

  4. The Grand Valley is, well, pretty grand. Lots of different opportunities there.


Feedback is always appreciated!