Sunday, April 18, 2021

Beyond the horizon, day four

An eerie chill settled in during the night. When I stepped out of my tent the air was calm, the sky was stars upon stars, and my nose began to tingle. I thought I must be sun-fried from the previous day; it couldn't possibly be as cold as it felt. But even my hydration bladder inside the tent was beginning to develop flecks of ice. Erika would later tell me that she saw it drop to 19 degrees overnight. The desert is such a dynamic place. 

Somehow I failed to hear a 6 a.m. alarm and woke with a gasp just before 7. I hurried to pack up and hit the road still wearing all of my warm clothing — puffy jacket, mittens, fleece pants, and a fleece hat. I thought Erika must be camped at Grosvenor's Arch and hoped to catch her before she set out. I raced the final five miles to the arch, even bypassing a well-water cattle tank about a mile out. The picnic area at the arch was abandoned, so I continued another half-mile up the road to what I believed was a campground — actually it was just a spot that the route creator marked as a possible campsite next to a reservoir that was bone dry. Erika was nowhere to be seen, so I returned to Grosvenor's Arch.

Grosvenor's Arch was close enough to the highway that I was able to squeeze a few bars of cell reception if I stood on a picnic table and held my phone skyward, so I sent Erika a normal text message. As I expected, she received none of my satellite messages. She spent the night near the arch and set out early for the highway. She'd had a rough night — perhaps a combination of the day's strain along with the medication she needed to take — but it was ultimately much better that she spent the night closer to a developed site. She was already in Cannonville, some 17 miles away. I told her I still planned to travel back to Escalante via Death Ridge. I figured it was between 40 and 45 miles back to town. Since I was traveling solo, I felt no urgency. I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of coffee with oatmeal, brushed my teeth, then scrubbed my legs with a handful of Wet Wipes. It seemed necessary to remove the opaque layer of grime to apply more sunscreen, and it took a lot of time — like removing chipped paint from my skin. I considered heading back to the cattle tank to top off my water reserves. But even after breakfast, I still had four liters. 

"That should be enough for 40 miles," I thought. "The route stays high now and it was so cold last night. It can't get that hot today." 

I continued up Four-Mile Bench, passing a sign that read "Road impassable in 24 miles," and a bit later, with seeming emphasis, "This is NOT the way to Highway 89." The air was cool, the morning pleasant, my belly was full of coffee and I was in a great mood. I zipped through the rolling drainages surrounding bone-dry Wahweap Creek. Fifteen miles from the arch, while coasting down to my low point for the day, I saw an animal dart out of the juniper forest and stand in the road at the bottom of the hill. At first, I thought it was a coyote. When I realized it was a medium-sized dog, my blood went cold. Middle-of-nowhere dogs with no humans in tow are always a threat to cyclists. They're either aggressively guarding sheep or cattle, or they're vicious local dogs with wide-ranging territories and a taste for cyclists' ankles. I clicked into a higher gear and prepared to crank up the hill. As I zipped past, the dog darted back into the shadows. But soon enough it was right behind me, giving chase as my momentum slowed up the hill.

"Go away! Leave me alone you stupid dog!" I screamed. I filled my mouth with water so I could spit at the dog if it lunged for me. But when I turned back again, I saw no teeth and heard no barking. It seemed the dog was just peacefully following me. He slowed to my uphill pace, but when I stopped and put down my foot, he darted into a stand of pinion trees. 

As I looked around, it was clear this dog was all alone. I hadn't seen a single vehicle since I left Grosvenor's Arch. No one was parked along the road. There were no sheep or cattle nearby, and it seemed like a strange place for a dog to be with a herd of cattle — it was a steep and narrowing ridge with juniper and pinion trees but little undergrowth. 

"Are you lost?" I called toward the forest. "Where is your owner?" I couldn't even see where the dog went. I set my bike down and walked toward where I saw him last, locating him five minutes later and at least 100 meters off the road. He had laid down and was panting vigorously. 

"You must be very thirsty," I said. "Here, give me a sec."

I found a Ziploc bag that I folded into a bowl and poured in about two cups of water. The dog continued to sit in the shade and wouldn't come toward me, so I sweetened the deal with strips of beef jerky. I threw one toward him and he again darted away, but then returned to sniff and then eat it. When I showed him that I had more jerky, he slowly walked toward me. He ate a few more strips and then enthusiastically lapped up the water. I could see he had a blue collar. He briefly let me scratch his head, and I reached around to confirm that he didn't have any tags. Despite the lack of tags, I was becoming more convinced this was somebody's lost pet. He was a bit skinny and definitely thirsty, but he probably hadn't been out here for too long. Still, what could I do? I was on a bicycle. I had no cell reception. And there was no one, absolutely no one around. 

I sent a satellite message to Erika's regular phone number, giving her a description of the dog and my location and asking her to report it, as she was sure to reach Escalante before me. Then I left the rest of my beef jerky and the zippy with another cup of water in the shade, hoping that could hold the dog over for a while. But several minutes after I took off, I looked back and there he was, back on my trail. This was a slow section with frequent sand traps, chundery climbs, and loose rocky descents, so he had no problem holding my pace. Often during the climbs, I had to get off my bike to push. Whenever I stopped, he always darted into the trees. He only liked to stay beside me if I was pedaling. He picked up the pace if I did. Sometimes I lost him during steeper descents. But he always returned. 

We reached an intersection, unmarked except for a sign that read "Impassable to full-sized vehicles." I thought, "Well, now we're really going to see no one." The dog had already followed me for five miles and was panting vigorously. I'd admittedly left the Ziplock bag behind, having believed the dog would stay with it. But I had to give him more water. I dug out my camp pot and placed it on the road. When he didn't come toward it, I moved the pot into the shade and held up a lemon Oreo cookie. He crept toward me, took the cookie from my hand but spit it out, and then went for the water. I held onto the camp pot as he drank. This was a precious resource. I wasn't about to risk spilling water onto the ground. But he didn't seem to mind my proximity then. After he finished, he rolled over and allowed a few belly pats. That's how I learned he's a boy dog. 

These brief contact allowances never lasted long. The rolling spine of Death Ridge continued to narrow until it was barely the width of the road over precipitous slopes, but the dog always found places to hide when I stopped. As long as I was pedaling, he was right behind me. I started to fret about this unexpected companionship. We were still at least 25 miles from Escalante. He'd have to be an unusually fit dog to run behind me for 35 miles on a hot day. And more concerning, I did not have enough water to share. I'd already doled out nearly a liter on top of what I'd been drinking and was down to just over two. So far I'd been traversing the ridge at an average of 5 miles an hour, and had no reason to believe that was going to change before the route intersected with Smoky Mountain Road about 7 miles from town. 

He just seemed so thirsty. He still ran away whenever I stopped pedaling and showed no interest in the chunks of protein bars or granola bars that I tossed his way. But as soon as I pulled out my camp pot, he loped out of his shady hiding spot toward me. I gave him another 12 ounces and urged him to drink slowly. "We have to start rationing," I said. I wished there was some way I could tell him to "sit" and wait for help to return. Not that I could drive my car up here. Nor did I expect that reporting a lost dog in Escalante was going to lead to any kind of follow-up. 

Just as my anxiety about the situation had ratcheted up to a fever pitch, I heard a low rumbling. Auditory hallucination? But sure enough, as I neared the top of yet another steep climb, a black truck rose above the horizon line. It was an enormous vehicle, an older model Ford F150 or similar, scratched and dented and sparkling beneath the noon sun. I sheepishly waved the vehicle down. When the driver stopped I saw a deep frown on the face of an older gentleman — possibly 75 or 80 years old — and a less clear view of a smiling woman of similar age in the passenger's seat. The man rolled down his window and let me speak first.

"This is a weird request," I started. "But see that dog over there?" I pointed to a dappled patch of shade 100 feet off the road. "That's not my dog. I don't know whose dog he is. He's been following me for 10 miles. I've given him about all the water I can give him. I don't know what to do."

"I don't have any water," the man barked, and my heart sank. He wasn't going to help me. 

After he said that, though, the man opened the door and stepped out of the truck. Something about his stance startled me. He reminded me so much of my late grandfather — similar height, similar wispy blond-gray hair, button-down shirt tucked into his jeans, and cowboy boots. 

He asked me a few questions about where I found the dog and who else I'd seen. I mentioned the collar had no tags. The dog was gentle but skittish, I said. He ran away when I stopped but otherwise seemed desperate to follow me wherever I might go. 

"That's definitely a lost dog," the man concluded. "Here, let's see if we can get him in here." He opened the rear door of the cab. 

Wrangling the dog was an arduous task. I had no more beef jerky to dole out, and the dog seemed wary enough of the man to not come when I trickled some water into my camp pot. After five minutes I thought the man might give up, but he stuck with me as we closed in on one shady spot after another. I learned the man was a local, out for a drive with his wife, and "this road isn't washed out; I don't know why they closed it." I didn't want to discourage him from helping me, so I didn't ask too many questions. I never got his name. 

Finally, the dog decided to let us approach and the man was able to place both hands on the dog's torso. He held the dog with outstretched arms like he was some kind of poisonous snake — "don't want him to bite my face off" — and placed him into the cab. I got one last glance as the door closed — the dog had already curled up on a seat and closed his eyes. Scared, but maybe saved? He was better off now than he was running in the heat with me, at least. 

"I guess I can put something on the Internet," the man said gruffly. 

By now I had big tears rolling down my face. I couldn't help it. I already get so emotional on physically taxing adventures, and I'd become attached to this thirsty little dog. 

"Thank you so much. I'm so sorry to saddle you with this, but I didn't know what to do. I don't want him to die out here."

"Oh, he'd die out here. There's no water out here. None at all." And with that, the man rolled up the window and drove away. 

The older couple drove south and I continued pedaling north in a daze. Without the dog loping behind me, this difficult traverse had lost its purpose. Of course, I still needed water. I pulled out my Camelbak bladder to assess the supply. There was less than I hoped. Less than a liter, for 25 hot and hard miles. The pit of acid in my stomach gurgled with renewed anxiety. I was going to have to ration. 

I tried to pick up the pace — at least on descents. I launched down another boney, sandy chute only to arrive at a sharp turn across a wash at the bottom. I couldn't brake in time. The bike slammed into the sand, which washed out the rear wheel, then threw me down onto a baked clay part of the wash. It felt as hard as concrete. The left side of my body and my entire face slapped down with a hard thud. The impact pinched the wind from my lungs. I must have laid there for 10 minutes. First gasping for breath, then waiting for the world to stop spinning, and finally just pondering if this would be a good point to give up on life. 

I limped up the steep rise, then limped down and back up the next hill. My chest hurt from having the wind knocked out of me, my legs and especially my right shin throbbed with righteous fury, and my throat was parched from drinking a lot less than I wanted to be drinking. Perhaps an hour went by like this, with me mostly walking and feeling sorry for myself. One pitch was particularly mean — 20 percent grades — rising to the rim of a high mesa above 7,600 feet. The road up there was wider and smoother so I got on the bike to ride, wincing at how even pedaling punished my sore shin. The road started to wrap around a small summit. I rounded a corner, and ... what was that? Was that SNOW?!?

Salvation! Yes, it was the dirty and sun-baked remnants of a winter drift. That was as good as the clearest spring cascading from the highest mountain. I threw the bike down and jumped into the patch like a puppy, plopped down on the snow, and covered my sore shin with a thick layer of icy clumps. For a few minutes, I just sat and enjoyed the ice bath. Then, after water soaked through my tights, I stood and grabbed my Camelbak bladder to fill to the top. I dug around for the cleanest cupfuls of snow I could find, then threw in two chlorine tabs for good measure. The small amount of water left in the bladder melted it quickly. Before long I had three liters of ice water. 

It had been a hard day. But the bikepacking gods provide. 

It was after 5 p.m. by the time I arrived back in town. Erika was waiting for me in the now-empty lot of the visitor's center. She said she reported the lost dog, but as I expected, the rangers shrugged it off. "There are lots of ranch dogs out there," they told her. Before then she'd enjoyed a lovely tour along Highway 12, taking her time and stopping to see the sights. I tried to relay details about my day, but my brain was scrambled, as though I'd just completed a hard ultra and hadn't slept in two days. 

I did many variations of the search for "Lost Dog Escalante Utah" on Google, but sadly never came up with any more information about what happened to the dog. I like to believe that the gruff old man who sort of reminded me of my grandfather ended up adopting him. 

Erika decided she was going to head home to Colorado that night. I briefly considered sleeping off my adventure hangover in the Subway parking lot, but decided to first drive to a place I believe could bring peace — another high and dry place, way out yonder in the fearsome desert. 


  1. What an adventure! Losing your friend, saving dogs, saved by a snowbank, what could be next?! Really enjoying these stories. Can't wait to read the next installment.

  2. That was definitely something. And as always, so well written.

  3. Can relate to running across a lost dog. Gave a black lab a lot of my water out in the area between Separ and the pavement before Silver City, NM on one really hot June afternoon. He followed me for a few miles, then disappeared. Finally got cell reception and called a local animal shelter who called me a week later and said "we didn't find him". Still bothers me, but there wasn't anything I could do at the time. Love this series.

  4. Amazing adventure and beautifully written! That was incredible of you to help that poor dog. Thank you so much for sharing!


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