Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Magic lands

This is my dad's favorite place. He revisits it every spring to soak some sunshine into his winter-weary legs. I've joined him three or four times over the past two decades, and it's started to seem almost eerie, the way nothing changes: the convoluted maze of spires and crevices carved into Cedar Mesa sandstone. The aroma of sage so strong I can almost taste its bittersweet leaves in the air. The spring-bar canvas tent, strong and stoic against blasts of red sand. And my dad, scrambling over rock shelves and jumping across chasms as though he'll never grow old. I think about how he was just a little bit older than I am now when I first followed him on these trails, twenty-something years ago. 

Canyonlands National Park, like most public lands, was closed in spring 2020, so Dad hasn't been back for two years. In my mind, his decades-long tradition hasn't been broken. I don't know about you, but I find myself already writing off 2020 as a year that didn't happen. I talk about things that happened in 2019 and refer to them as "last year." A friend asked me when I last hiked in the desert with my dad, and I said, "two years ago." It was April 2018. Indeed, since we canceled Grand Canyon and didn't go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, it's been almost 18 months since Dad and I embarked on a long hike together. It feels like a blink in time. It's almost as though I wished for unbroken normalcy, and my brain responded by sweeping the problematic threads from memory. Perhaps I'm not the only one casting dark curtains over a difficult year ... even though, in truth, "2020" is far from over. 

Indeed, things aren't like they used to be, are they? Beat and I were just two days removed from Pfizer number two when we set out for a five-day trip to Utah. Knowing we weren't quite "fully" vaccinated, and that caution will be necessary for a while, we planned to remain socially distanced during the camping trip. The one exception was meeting Dad in Moab, where we planned to grab a sandwich at the local Subway. I've walked into plenty of grocery stores and gas stations during the pandemic, but I drew an admittedly arbitrary line at restaurants — even fast food. We walked inside and my anxiety immediately spiked at the visual of people crowded in line and eating at tables without masks. My brain was signaling loudly to get out of here, but just then Dad walked in and gave us a hug. Eeep! I'll admit that I hugged everyone in my family when they came out for our wedding in September, so this wasn't an entirely new post-pandemic experience, nor unexpected. My current aversions to hugs and strangers aren't based on rational risk assessment. But I'm beginning to understand the amount of social anxiety I've acquired in the past 14 months, and it isn't good. Beat has started planning for a trip to Europe in late summer if the vaccination passport thing goes through, and my airport nightmares have already returned. I will need to continue pushing against these reactions lest I travel down the path of full agoraphobia. 

I was grateful to escape Moab for the comforting realm of the high desert. We found a secluded yet convenient campsite at the edge of Lockhart Basin, then determined we still had enough time left in the day for a hike. 

Dad planned to visit all of his favorites, which is effectively the entire front country of the Needles District of Canyonlands. In this map, I superimposed my Strava tracks over a trail map from the park. We basically only missed a few connector trails. In three days, the three of us clambered over rocks and trudged through sand for 45 miles. Dad headed home and Beat and I did a 20-miler on Saturday for 65 miles. Every mile was pure gold. 

For our Wednesday afternoon hike, we headed out the high mesa toward a rim overlooking the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. This was Beat's first-ever visit to Canyonlands. In 2011 he ran the Slickrock 100, which followed a course along the mesa surrounding Island in the Sky. But the race route never ventured into the park, and as far as I know, that has been his only visit to the region. 

It was fun to watch his reaction to the views as we made our way over and down the serpentine ripples of rock encompassing Needles. This place is effectively an enormous jungle gym playground surrounded by stunning views. 

Looking toward the snow-capped La Sals. 

And back toward the sandstone spires that earned Needles its name.

Dad at the confluence overlook. There's a stark delineation where the silty Green merges with the copper-toned Colorado. 

Pfizer number two wasn't treating me well on this day. After sweating out my fever on Monday night, I thought I was mostly over it by mid-day Tuesday. A few muscle aches remained, but surely I'd be back to normal by Wednesday. Still, this 10-mile hike was much harder than it should have been. I felt achy, fatigued, and overheated. At times I became especially woozy and took extra care to not lose my balance. When I tried to drink water I felt a bit nauseated. Jerky and a salt tab helped. 

For the Thursday trek, Dad had a little of everything planned. Here we are starting toward Big Spring Canyon.

More wide-eyed wonder from Beat as we approached the heart of the Needles. 

Skirting through a wind-blasted notch above Elephant Canyon. 

The crowd-pleasing joint trail. (Of course, there were no crowds. There were sprinklings of hikers here and there, probably many times more people than what Dad saw in the late-90s. But this is still a quiet corner of the world, many miles away from the conveniences of towns and restaurants and even hotels, open to all but only visited by those who desire it the most.) 

Chesler Park, a truly spectacular spot. Photos don't depict the otherworldly expansiveness of the place. It carries the ambiance of a sci-fi film about an ancient city petrified in stone. 

Climbing Elephant Canyon, with fun technical features that Beat loved. 

Druid Arch. The arch stands perpendicular to the canyon, so you don't see that it's an arch until you climb around an adjacent fin. Dad played his favorite "first-timer" game with Beat, challenging him to guess where the arch was before we got there. I haven't been back to this arch since one of my earliest visits, and I couldn't remember which sandstone tower hid the window. Beat, with an eye sharpened by route-finding in the Alps, picked it out relatively early. 

I'm grateful for the national park and its established routes. This Byzantine ripple of sandstone and valleys would not be navigable without them. At least, not without extensive planning, a map and compass, focused route-finding, and not a small number of technical climbing maneuvers.

I did a Google search for "the convoluted surface of the Earth" to remind me where I'd heard this phrase before, and came up with results for the convoluted surface of the brain. Come to think of it, Canyonlands does remind me of the cerebral cortex. 

We spent four nights in the same campsite, with Dad in his spring-bar and Beat and I sharing a smaller three-person tent from REI. This being spring in the desert, most days and evenings were filled with gusty winds: Nice when hiking under the harsh sun, but less nice when cooking or sitting outdoors. By the final night, a large windstorm coated everything inside the tent in several inches of fine sand. We took 20 minutes to shake out sleeping bags, pillows, and mats, but the film of grit remained. Sand found its way everywhere: In my ears, in my nostrils, in my eyes. Sometimes I dream about road-tripping across the continent and think I'd rather stick to the simplicity of my Subaru and a tent rather than deal with the logistics and expense of a trailer or camper van. But after four days of wind and sand, I can understand the appeal of hard-sided shelters. 

On Friday, we headed out Peekaboo Canyon, a 14-mile jaunt along the ledgy sandstone. 

Dad has all of these bright hiking shirts. I like to think he wears them to make his photographer daughter happy. 

Dad looks toward "The Sentinel," a precarious rock outcropping that presides over Horse Canyon. Each time I visit, it seems as though it's about to topple. And each time, it's still here. 

Beat descends the ladder through a notch. The final few steps are doozies. 

Crossing the cactus beds toward Salt Creek. There were new blooms but surprisingly little water for the height of spring. 

Claret cup cactus. 

This is a spot where Dad wants his ashes spread someday. He's recruited me and Beat, but we joked that he may need to start training his grandkids. His fitness may outlast ours. Hell, he might just outlast The Sentinel. 

Making our way back through Lost Canyon. My vaccine fatigue was mostly gone, but my feet were becoming a mess. After a winter of less running than usual, the softened skin was especially vulnerable to heat and sand. The skin on my heels, ankles, and a few toes was rubbed almost raw. Beat taped my feet. This helped, but ugh ... I haven't experienced foot pain like this since I was a relatively new runner dabbling in 100-milers that I couldn't finish because my feet hurt too much. I have so much work to do to get ready for the summer hiking season: Heel lifts for my Achilles, one-legged squats, hamstring curls, and apparently scuffing my feet with sandpaper every night to toughen them up again. 

Dad needed to head home on Friday, but Beat and I decided to stay through Sunday and squeeze in one more long hike. I mapped out the route through Red Lake Canyon because I thought it would be new to both of us, but Dad reminded me that I hiked to the river with him in 2010. This prompted Beat to ask questions about the route, but I remembered so little. "The climb out of the canyon was long and hot," I offered. "And the river triggered bad memories from Cataract Canyon."

We headed out the Elephant Hill jeep road in the morning, each packing five liters of water.

Fun road. It's better to be on foot than anything else, I think. Even hurty feet. 

Crossing Devil's Lane. From the distance, this looked like a vertical cliff, but there was a relatively benign path snaking up the side. 

Another perpendicular valley at Cyclone Canyon. On the return trip, we would be blasted by hard wind and rolling tumbleweeds through this sand trap. The canyon was aptly named. 

Past Butler Wash, we climbed up and up, which I found perplexing. Where exactly are we going to drop into this canyon?

High above Red Lake Canyon, with the Dollhouse — part of the Maze District, across the Colorado River — on the horizon. 

As we wend our way around sheer dropoffs into the wash below, I fretted about where this trail might lead. We had close to a thousand feet of elevation to lose and less than a mile (as the raven flies) to the river, and I knew it wouldn't be a steady drop. If this was a trail in the Italian Alps, it would just dump us straight down the steepest, chossiest gully imaginable. I was not looking forward to the bruised shins and bloody knees that were sure to follow. But I needn't have worried. Even though we hadn't seen a single hiker since we left the trailhead in the morning, and this place was beginning to feel unnervingly remote, the trail still made friendly (if steep) switchbacks all the way to the valley floor. 

Beat at the Colorado River, just upstream from Brown Betty Rapid, which marks the start of the famous wild ride that is Cataract Canyon. We sat down for a breezy sandwich break. As much as I was dying to, Beat warned me not to put my shredded feet in the river. ("It feels good now, but it just adds to the problems later.") We assessed the current and talked about swimming over to the Dollhouse, not that I could ever coax myself to do such a thing. I'd probably struggle to cross the river in a boat, although I like to believe I could sit in a packraft and do a small amount of paddling without unraveling into a panic attack. When I look at the Colorado River in Canyonlands, all I can see is the darkness encompassing me as I struggled against a strap that had tightened around my neck, pinned beneath a raft underwater after the boat flipped in rapid number five on April 14, 2001. Twenty years ago. I shook my head. I really should be over this my now, but when I think of rafting, all I still see is the wave that was about to engulf us, and Bryan ducking into the bow as he said "This one's gonna get us wet," the roiling whitewater, the roar that was so loud, and then suddenly ... silence. And darkness.

Now I'm terrified of boating, apparently for as long as I live. Curse my stupid brain and its phobias. 

Hiking, even up steep and rocky terrain, is comparatively comfortable and relaxing. The climb back out of the canyon was as long as arduous as I barely remembered, and this was our warmest day of the week with temperatures spiking to 80 degrees. But that blustery spring wind provided enough cooling to keep it tolerable. I was in bliss — a hard grind uphill, surrounded by a stunning and seemingly deserted expanse of space, letting the fatigue of four strenuous days calm my thoughts, moving farther away from the scary river. 

On our way out, we looped around Devil's Kitchen, with many stops to gape at rock formations. Even Beat was stopping, and he never stops. 

I know this is one of my more rambling trip reports. I didn't know what to write about this place. It's pure magic, everywhere you look, around all of the many twisting turns. There's not much more I can say about it. It was wonderful to see it through Beat's first-time eyes, and also share the experience with my father who knows every patch of cryptobiotic soil by now, and who loves the land deeply, and who I've barely seen since the start of the pandemic. By definition, magic is something that can't be deconstructed, so I'll leave it at that. 


  1. I like the rambling about the magic
    and could really read posts like this daily if you’re willing to write them. Heck, you could write about Beat’s hummingbirds and if they are waiting for the Colorado winter to end. The beautiful thing about these times and your magical ramblings is that you’re not having to write about horrible stuff like we experienced in the last year that doesn’t even exist anymore. Many hugs to you and my best to you, Beat and your Dad. (By Linda Drish
    I’m case I have to do Anonymous.)

  2. That looks absolutely amazing! Will have to go there someday. So many places to visit. So little time.
    Rubbing your feet with sandpaper! Is that a thing?!!

    1. Haha, it's probably not a thing. Sandpapering is what the desert was doing to my feet. Now calluses have started to form over the shredded skin, so my feet already feel tougher.

      Usually I do more running than biking over a winter, and go into spring with tough feet and sensitive sit bones. This year has been the opposite.

  3. Wonderful post and photos! I’m an Arizonan but Utah is one of my very special places. How lucky you are to have a Dad who loves to explore and adventure with you. :-)

  4. Beautiful shots! Blooming cacti always fascinate me.

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  6. Sounds like a nice trip. Certainly looks that way. Gorgeous photos! And glad you got to do a park trip with your dad again.

  7. I really loved reading this and looking at your amazing photos! I’ve been to Canyonlands, but not to all the areas you hiked. I live in Philly, but I have to get my red rocks fix every few years. It never disappoints and never gets old. Thanks for sharing this trip - and your dad is an inspiration (I’m a lot closer to his age than yours).

  8. Beautiful story, pictures! Very fortunate you are to have a Dad who wants to explore with you.:-)

  9. Although I love reading about your trips, usually I am not interested in trying to replicate them because they seem too hard or arduous. This one has really caught my fancy however. I never knew anything about Needles, but now I want to visit and hike these same trails. I like the idea of day hiking on slickrock where the trail is marked by cairns and knowing I won't end up at a cliff. Thank you.

  10. Beautiful and really some amazing pictures. Life is really short to visit all these beautiful places. Thank you for sharing. I will definitely try visit this place.

  11. Your travel tales usually don't inspire me to follow suit due to their difficulty, but this one about Needles has me eager to explore its trails. I appreciate the idea of safe, marked hiking. Thanks!


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