In the second week of April, 1994, in Austin, Texas, I chaired my last meeting of X3H7 - the standards committee on Object Information Management which I helped found. The next week was spent in a rented jeep in four quadrants around Moab, Utah: Canyonlands to the southwest, Spring Canyon and Hey Joe Canyon to the northwest, the La Sal Mountains to the southeast, and the Top-of-the-World trail to the northeast. The last week of April was spent with a Sierra Club service trip in Arches National Park north of Moab.
Monday, April 11 (flying to Austin)
Why am I angry that too many people are discovering "my" canyons and "my" Indians? Behind anger is usually fear. Too many people will crowd me out of my safe places, compromise the safety of those places. Too many people will transform and corrupt my places. I'd better enjoy them now, while I can. Maybe I should think of this as my last trip to these canyons, and savor accordingly. Any future visits would be a bonus.
I wish I'd said this: "Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts when facts are infinite." "...you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets...". Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire.
Friday, April 15
The trip is delayed a day because of a missed plane connection. My flight from Dallas to Salt Lake City was late because thunderstorms to the southeast of Dallas held up the incoming plane from San Antonio. We landed in SLC about fifteen minutes after my Alpine Air flight to Moab took off. As luck would have it, Alpine has morning flights every day but Saturday, when they only fly to Moab at 4:30 in the afternoon. I tried to arrange a one-way car rental, but the best I could do was Thrifty, who wanted a $200 dropoff charge. So, I finally resigned myself to spending a day in SLC. Phoned an EconoLodge from the airport, and stayed there overnight, near downtown.
Saturday, April 16
Salt Lake City. Walked around downtown a bit, took a guided tour of Temple Square (with a Stepford guide), heard an organ recital in the Tabernacle.
Caught the 4:30 flight to Moab in Alpine Air's ten-passenger Piper Comanche 3. Picked up at the airport by Dan Mick, owner of Canyonlands 4x4 Rentals. He looks a bit like John Goodman. He has seven children, some of whom I met at various times in his office.
Picked up my jeep, a greenish-gold Wrangler. Shopped at the City Market for supplies, filled up the water can at the spring near the bridge north of Moab, and spent the night at the Colorado River Lodge.
Sunday, April 17
Up at 6, loaded the jeep. Went over to the Golden Stake for breakfast, where I ran into Dan again.
Took off for Canyonlands. It was surprisingly cold, perhaps in the upper 50's. The jeep is open, and I was wearing sandals (Tevas), shorts, and T-shirt. Drove the winding road along the Colorado past Potash, and saw the spot where the 1992 canoe trip put in.
There were more people than I wanted to see camped in many spots along the river. I drove past the tourist attractions marked by signs - petroglyphs, dinosaur tracks, Bowtie Arch.
I've been apprehensive about the trip, having heard and read too much about too many people discovering this area. I just missed a big jeep jamboree last week; they are scheduled twice a year now. There are many trip operators and rental outfits in Moab - though I guess that's what made it possible for me to rent my jeep in the first place. It didn't help to see Delicate Arch emblazoned on the new Utah license plate. Even in Salt Lake City, the tourist office is loaded with brochures inviting people to tour the canyon country.
One small consolation: the McDonald's billboard proclaiming "You've seen the other arches, now come see ours" has been taken down because it offended too many people. It was vandalized repeatedly.
I drove past some famous "sights" such as the sites used in the movies Geronimo and Thelma and Louise, but I didn't stop to look at anything. One of the first sights I did see was the huge mineral evaporation ponds visible from Dead Horse Point.
Surprisingly enough, even in this country, things improved markedly after the paved road turned to dirt. I saw very few people until late afternoon, and the country is beautiful. Drove slowly along the Potash/Shafer trail. Took a while to figure out where Dead Horse Point was.
Eventually drove up the Neck on the Shafer trail. This road is an incredible dirt switchback that climbs more than a thousand feet from the White Rim to the Island in the Sky. In the 50's, it was used by trucks hauling uranium ore!
At the ranger station I had another setback. I had known that permits were required for overnight stays, but I didn't know how scarce they were. There are only twenty sites altogether, and some had been booked a year in advance. There were no sites available in the central section of the White Rim Trail, only near the two ends. It takes at least two days to properly drive the 100-mile jeep road, so an overnight campsite near the middle is essential. So, at that moment I had to abandon my plan of driving the loop.
As long as I was up on the mesa, I drove out to the Green River Overlook and Grandview Point for some wonderful views, though I was feeling quite tired. Late in the afternoon I drove back down the Neck and headed back out of the park toward Potash. Fortunately I did find a nice, and legal, place to camp just outside the park boundary.
My new plan: get an early start tomorrow, and try hard to complete the loop in one day.
Monday, April 18
Up at six with the sun. Plan to have breakfast down by the river in Lathrop Canyon. Slow drive, many scenic views. It's chilly again, but this morning I had sense enough to turn on the heater. The days warm up quite a bit by mid-morning, probably getting into the 90's in the afternoon. The air is dry, but the weather is hazy and partly cloudy.
Lathrop Canyon is gorgeous, and there's no-one at the river site this early; no camping is allowed there any more. It's eerie to recall prior visits here two years ago with the canoe trip and about ten years ago when we drove down in our camper. A couple of ravens stand guard atop the cliff, there are deer tracks in the wash running into the river, and a couple of geese are feeding in the marshy bank opposite.
By the time I finish breakfast and drive back up to the main trail, it's noon. Typical driving speed is 10 mph. I'm dismayed to realize that I've covered maybe a fourth of the loop. I don't think I have enough time or gas to make it around. So I go as far as Gooseberry Canyon, then turn back.
I'm not feeling too great. Not getting an overnight camping permit was disappointing, and the attitude at the ranger station depressed me. I feel disowned. Instead of being one of the special people who cherish the canyon country, I began to feel like one of the outsiders from whom they're trying to protect it. We can't even walk freely on the dirt any more, needing to protect the fragile cryptobiotic soil. It's not my country (or Abbey's), but theirs. Of course in my head I'm supportive - they are doing the right thing.
Though I really don't see too many people, I have seen three or four clusters of brightly colored tents and vehicles at the camp sites, and a couple of times I've been surprised by clusters of mountain bikers. Again, though my head says that bicycling is non-intrusive, they don't really seem to fit. Maybe it's their style: yuppy-ish bike clothing and gear, traveling in chatty social groups. Bright colors, clever T-shirts, and snug Lycra shorts seem out of place. I later learn from rangers that bicycles are intrusive. They tend to stray off designated trails much more than the four-wheel vehicles do, and they actually carve deeper ruts because their weight applies more pressure per square inch of tire tread.
Also, I'm feeling a bit sick. Though it's been mostly overcast, it feels like sun poisoning. I have a headache and nausea, and my neck hurts. I try to drive the bouncy roads as gingerly as I can.
I retrace my route back out of the park one more time, and find another nice place to camp just outside the boundary. No supper, and too tired to lay out my sleeping bag. Sleep in the jeep.
Tuesday, April 19
Had a good night's sleep. Feeling better. Both nights had many stars, and a bright half-moon. Though there is morning sun on the cliffs, the sky is more than half cloudy.
And what a wonderful day it turned out to be! Even if this is the only good day of the whole trip, it would be worth it. I may have found Paradise, though for a while I wasn't really sure where I was.
Being somewhat fed up with the Canyonlands hassle, I had decided to try Spring Canyon leading down to the Green River north and west of Canyonlands and Arches. It was marked on a jeep trail map I had bought from Dan. Back into Moab for gas and second breakfast at the Golden Stake. Then I checked in with Dan, and he told me that Spring Canyon was a lot of fun but rated 3.5 to 4 on a difficulty scale of 5. I really didn't expect to make it (but I did).
Things were frustrating at first. There were no signs after the first turnoff north from the road to Dead Horse Point, and nothing seemed to match the map. I took several wild goose chases, including one hairy sand hill that took three tries to get over - for no purpose, since the trail just looped back to the main road. It was getting awfully hot, and I put the top on the jeep. At the same time, there were large clouds in the sky, and it almost looked like rain in the distance.
After about an hour of aimless exploration, I suddenly found myself at the edge of a really steep dropoff into a canyon with a stream running through it. It seemed to match the entry to Spring Canyon, though I was never aware of turning off the larger dirt road to Dubinky Well.
The problem, as I later learned, was that although the roads were in the right places, their quality was not properly designated on the map. A little dirt track running off to the right was marked as the primary trail on the map. I kept looking for a left turn off the primary trail, without realizing that I was already on the secondary trail.
The road down into Spring Canyon was much harder than the Neck on Shafer Trail - equally steep but poorly maintained. It was still pretty hot, and I was feeling a bit stressed and anxious. But, of course, I decided to go for it. The trip down was harrowing in spots, but worth it (naturally).
After two more miles along the stream in the canyon, I found a lovely grove of cottonwoods sheltering a strange collapsed log structure of some sort. It seemed too small for a cabin.
Around a bend I was startled to discover I was on the banks of the Green River. About a mile and a half down river the trail petered out to a single track suitable only for hiking or bicycles. I was startled again by a rash of red dots upstream. It was a canoe party drifting toward me. There were several other canoe parties later, but those were the only people I saw.
Then I drove about ten miles upstream, past the cottonwood grove, around some big bends in the Green River until the road ended at Hey Joe mine and canyon. That's where I am now, and where I might stay tomorrow.
Many parts of the whole trip were really tough to drive, not just the first descent into the canyon. The Jeep Wrangler is tough, and got me through a lot of spots I had my doubts about. But I really don't relish the trip back.
My meals are simple. For dinner Sunday I opened a can of soup and a can of beef stew. No cooking. Cleanup consists of crushing the cans and wiping off the can opener and spoon. Tonight I've had a can of soup, and might also open a can of turkey chili. For breakfasts and lunches I've had summer sausage, cheese, sardines, crackers, bread, fruit, and trail mix. I drink mostly water, though I do have a big jug of apple juice for breakfasts. Things seem to stay cool enough in a closed white box strapped in the back of the jeep.
I haven't said much about the scenery itself. It's grand, but I've run out of words. I hope the pictures will do it justice.
Bats come by to inspect me every night. I haven't seen much other wildlife except chipmunks and lizards. I hear crickets and a strange bird or frog croaking upstream, and an occasional airplane. Contrails still glow on the darkening horizon. The half moon gives light enough to finish my supper (sausage and cheese, not chili) and brush my teeth, but I finish these notes by the light in the jeep.
I've had a chance to notice something I don't usually observe: the waxing of the moon. It was just a bit less than half full Sunday night, and just a bit more than half tonight. We may see a full moon next week at Arches. So far, though, I haven't seen the Milky Way, and only one small shooting star.
Big fluffy Ansel Adams marshmallow clouds glide across the black canopy of sky, with the moon and an occasional star peeping through. Thicker clouds have dark centers, and some are entirely black passing in front of the moon.
Four-wheeling is sometimes scary, but I don't think I do it for the bravado. It's mainly a means to an end, a way of getting to wonderful and secluded places. But I can't deny a gleeful thrill of achievement when I do accomplish something hard. It's just not my main goal. I'm basically conservative. I take the minimal risk to get where I want to go, choosing the less bumpy option whenever possible, usually a bit slower than I really need to. I hope this approach gets me out of here safely.
I'm restless tonight. Those frogs (?) are still croaking/howling strangely upstream. There are two of them. I've taken a short stroll by moonlight. There is a bit of cactus and Yucca around, so I have to watch where I step in my sandals. Maybe reading a bit more of Abbey's Desert Solitaire will help me get to sleep. Except that I find it disturbing and depressing. His predictions are painfully accurate, and his recollections of the way things were at Arches are poignant. It hurts.
Maybe I'm scared about the return trip. I feel that I'm at my limit, and might be pushing my luck.
My restless mind goes back to my food and equipment, and starts enumerating the techniques I've learned for myself over the years.
My minimalist approach to food avoids cooking and cleanup, and requires little or no cooking gear to be carried. If water is available at the destination, and if weight is an important consideration because you are backpacking, then dried food is the mainstay. Lots of dry and freeze-dried foods are available at your camp store, or you can prepare them yourself. Cooking consists of boiling water and mixing with the ingredients in the pouch. If you eat directly from the package, cleanup means wiping off the spoon and folding up the empty pouch.
Sometimes, though, you can carry water. Maybe you can't trust the water quality where you're going, or there simply isn't any reliable water supply there, as in the desert. Or you might have a vehicle or pack animal to carry your supplies, as I have on this trip. Then you might as well take ordinary food rather than dry food plus water separately. If the weather isn't going to be too cold, I don't bother to cook at all, and don't even carry a stove. For dinner I open cans of prepared foods such as soup, stew, or chili. A variety of spaghettis and other such meals are also available. Kitchen equipment consists of a canopener. There's no cooking at all, and cleanup still consists only of crushing containers and wiping off a spoon.
For breakfast and lunch I rely on such things as summer sausage, a big hunk of cheddar cheese, canned sardines, tuna, jerky, bread, crackers, fruit, trail mix, and chocolate. Still no cooking. The sausage and cheese keep well enough without refrigeration for at least a week. Beverages are mainly water and fruit juices, either made from powder or carried in containers. This approach works best when the weather isn't too cold. The biggest sacrifice is the lack of hot beverages.
In hot weather, drink lots of water, much more than you think you need. Don't wait till you get thirsty; just drink much and often. In hot desert conditions, the rule of thumb is a gallon of water per person per day.
A bandana is a very useful piece of equipment. It can become a handkerchief, wash cloth, towel, pot holder, bandage or sling, hat, eye shade, brow mopper, food wrapper, carrying sack, water filter, face mask, scarf, sponge, cleaning cloth, and a few dozen other things. Wet and draped around the head or neck, it can even be a portable air conditioner. Carry several.
Rope is versatile. I carry quarter-inch nylon rope in ten foot sections, each neatly wrapped. Nylon is handy because you can keep the ends from fraying by sealing with a flame. Learn a few basic knots from the Boy Scout handbook, such as the square knot, bowline, slip knot, and half hitches. My favorite is the tautline hitch. It can be slid back and forth to take up slack, yet holds firm when tension is applied. It's ideal for staking out a tent. Good knots are simple, easy to untie as well as tie.
A cheap butane lighter with adjustable jet is handier than matches, though I do carry both.
A plastic tarp is also versatile for ground cloth, shelter, equipment cover, and other purposes. You'll have to make your own price/performance evaluation at the camping store. Lighter and sturdier materials are more expensive. You can minimize bulk by folding carefully. The secret is to keep folding in half in a way that always leaves one edge open, with no folded seams. This open edge allows air to escape when you do the final folding or rolling starting at the other end.
One of the newer self-inflating air mattresses with foam inside is pretty comfortable if you're going to sleep on the ground. Half or three-quarter length should suffice. You really don't need padding under your legs. Don't over-inflate; too hard is just as uncomfortable as too soft. Again, bulk can be minimized by careful folding. A double-rolling technique works well. Roll it up, forcing out most of the air, and shut the air valve. Leaving the air valve shut, unroll it and then roll it up again most of the way, rather tightly this time. As you get near the end, open the valve to let out the accumulated air. Finish rolling, and shut the valve. You now have near vacuum inside.
The air mattress doesn't have to take up space in or on your backpack. You can fold it flat and tuck it under the shoulder straps behind your back. This way you can carry it outside your pack without strapping it on top or bottom, and it provides some extra padding against your back.
A portable bathroom consists of a six-inch garden trowel stuffed into a small roll of toilet paper.
Clothing and other such soft goods are bulky, and can be heavy if you take too much. Take as little as possible, and let a few things serve many purposes. Washing and re-washing a few things is better than carrying a lot of clean and dirty laundry. Change clothing as infrequently as you can tolerate. Reexamine the social conventions about smells and dirt, and seek your own comfort level. You'll be surprised how much you can get away with in the outdoors, and how much it's worth to travel as light as you can.
It's common knowledge that layering is the best strategy for dealing with variable weather conditions. Don't carry a heavy jacket, but accumulate layers of things you can put on or take off as conditions change. Windbreaker or shell and down vest are basic. Wool, flannel, and/or denim shirts also make good layers.
It's also common knowledge that keeping the head warm keeps the body warm. The brain protects itself. When it gets chilled, it channels more blood to itself, drawing from the extremities. If your feet are cold, put on a hat. Gloves are also very handy, especially when you have to do things and can't keep your hands in your pockets.
I don't have much advice about materials. Consult other sources. I do know that wool is especially good because it can keep you warm even if it's wet.
It's hard to sleep comfortably without a pillow, but for Pete's sake don't lug along a separate pillow. You have enough other soft stuff. I usually stuff my sleeping bag stuff sack with some clothing. It's also a handy way to keep a windbreaker and down vest handy.
Film is sensitive to heat. A wet cloth bag can keep your film cool by evaporation. Put your film cans inside in waterproof zip-lock bags. You can keep the bag wet longer by wrapping it in a wet bandana or T-shirt. Keep it in the shade whenever possible, and use light colored cloth to reflect away the heat.
Even more important than any technique, though, is attitude. If you're going with other people, be clear on your goals. Differences in goals can take the fun out of a trip. Some people see a wilderness experience primarily as a backdrop for getting together with friends in a lovely setting, as an opportunity for long, relaxed conversations and gossip. Others really want to get immersed in the wilderness experience, to commune with nature. Companions are welcome to share the focus on the experience.
Attitudes about food also differ. Many people relish a hearty hot breakfast on a chilly morning, and a rewarding meal at the end of a hard day, topped off with toasted marshmallows and stories around the campfire. This often requires a fair amount of food and equipment to be carried, and a fair amount of time for food preparation and cleanup. Others take a more utilitarian attitude, seeing food as a means to an end. For them, carrying less weight and bulk, as well as spending less time on preparation and cleanup, makes it possible to spend more time on the trail, to go farther, to see and do more things.
While it might be possible to blend styles, not everyone can achieve such unity. Personal goals can certainly be adjusted, but it's wise to get them synchronized.
Wednesday, April 20
The good news is that I'm really losing track of what day it is. I have to find my watch, or look at the previous journal entry, in order to date my journal entries. And I keep forgetting soon after I look.
Spent the morning browsing Hey Joe Canyon. There are three mine sites, a cabin, an outhouse, two bulldozers, and a pickup truck, all very old and slowly falling apart in the canyon desert. Then I went over to the Green River, where I promptly got stuck nearly knee-deep in green mud, almost losing a sandal. The mud is like clay and sticks hard to me and my sandals in great gobs. Much of the shore is thus pretty inhospitable, even though you can get right down to it. Fortunately I did find a better sandy stretch a bit further down river. The current flows slowly, but the bottom drops off abruptly and the water is too cold for my overheated body. The day did heat up abruptly when the sun came up over the canyon rim this morning. So, I settled for a partial dunking, and shocked my hot back with a cold soaked shirt.
It's time to face up to the return trip. I may just go as far as the cottonwoods at the mouth of Spring Canyon, where I'll spend the night and finish climbing out tomorrow.
There are two especially mean rock piles about twenty yards apart which I've been dreading. When I got there, with a little mental preparation I bulled through both. There were a couple of cigarette butts on the other side. I guess it's a popular place to breathe a sigh of relief.
Unfortunately, the next rock pile was more disastrous. I blew a tire. I've given the jeep some pretty hard knocks (literally), but this was the first noticeable damage. It's definitely a self-reliance situation. There's no way to call for help, and I don't expect anyone to come passing by. So I changed a flat in the heat of the afternoon on a narrow dirt road on a narrow bank of the river. It took me an hour and a half because the ratchet handle that operates the jack and the lug wrench was not working very well. I had no choice but to figure out how to jam it so it wouldn't keep slipping. Dan had sold me tire insurance at $10 a day, which I suspected at the time of being a bit of a ripoff. But I guess it did make sense after all.
Now I've made it back to the mouth of Spring Canyon, in a big cool shady grove of cottonwoods. It's wonderful! A cold beer would sure hit the spot, though.
This is where the funny little log structure is. The area is also dotted with hundreds of huge "pies" (but no stink or flies). I wonder what sort of critters wander through here. I may not sleep on the ground tonight. (I later learn that cows are seasonally brought down here to graze. It's hard to imagine cows climbing these steep and difficult jeep trails. Mountain cows?)
According to the map, this is Spring Canyon Bottom. As nice as it is, this place also has no good access to the river. The cottonwood grove is separated from the river by a quarter-mile tangle of small trees, reeds, and other underbrush. Pursuing animal trails through this leads to a sheer 20-foot dropoff to the river. The main wash down the canyon itself becomes a muddy flow between steep banks, providing only sloppy access to the river.
I just finally got to eat my can of turkey chili. It really hit the spot.
What I did today was hike a couple of miles in Hey Joe Canyon, wade in the Green River, drive eight miles, and change a flat tire. It doesn't sound like much, but I'm bone tired.
Tomorrow I have to face the rest of the hard climb out of the canyon. Then I think I'll be ready for a change of pace. I've actually had about enough of jeeping around the canyons for now, and I don't see how I can top the past two days. Maybe I'll try to renegotiate my contract with Dan, and perhaps try to do a day or two of rafting before Sunday.
It's occurred to me that I could have been spending this week at an X3H2 database language standards meeting in Pittsburgh.
I haven't seen or heard a single solitary person the entire day today.
Thursday, April 21
One of the prettiest sights on earth is a cottonwood tree with the sun streaming through from behind. Highlights dance in the bright green leaves, contrasting against the deep red-brown canyon wall.
Wonder if I'll meet anyone coming the other way as I climb out of the canyon. I don't remember much passing space.
Now picture this. In the foreground there's snow in fields beside the road, coarse springtime crystals glinting blue and pink in early evening. Downhill toward the sun are white stands of birch peppered with a few dark pine trees. Over the treetops, hazy in the distance, are receding ranks of canyon country mesas in backlit silhouette, each dark rank outlined by white mist settling in the canyons. Behind me, a three-quarter moon is already high up in the blue sky.
This is my dinnertime scenery. Does it really matter that the entree is a cold can of beef stew? Anyhow, I have dark chocolate for dessert.
I certainly did get my change of pace, and a change of scenery.
After a difficult climb out of Spring Canyon this morning, I met a couple from Salt Lake City at the top who were considering going down in ATV's. After I described my trip, I think they changed their minds.
In Moab, none of the rafting outfits had anything good going before next week. No Cataract Canyon trips. Several offered a one-day float through Professor Valley above Moab, but that didn't sound too appealing. I had to spend a couple of hours in town while the jeep got fixed. They replaced the busted tire and rotated the rest, and also had to straighten a steering linkage rod that I had managed to bend.
So, I decided to explore the snow-capped La Sal Mountains about twenty-five miles southeast of Moab. There really is a remarkable variety of terrain and climates around here. It looked ominous at first, with big black clouds hanging over the mountains. It even started to sprinkle as I approached. But it cleared up, and here I am.
I'm parked high on the mountainside with snow all around, the road ahead blocked by snow. I covered the jeep with my blue tarp to make a shelter. I'm going to sleep inside wearing five layers of clothing including down vest and windbreaker, with wool hat and gloves if necessary - in my sleeping bag, of course.
I'm restless, and wake at 2 am to write this. I can almost write by the light of the moon. The tarp sometimes flaps loudly in the wind.
What a spectrum of experience! From cottonwoods in broiling canyon sunlight to birches in the snow by moonlight. In one day. I don't remember ever being so exhilarated.
Friday, April 22
Oh well, no sunrise pictures. I wake at six to the patter of rain on the tarp. At least it's cozy in here. And it's not snow.
A couple of determined skiers park at the end of the cleared road behind me, and set off into the woods. They don't look in on me.
Fortunately there's a sturdy new outhouse here. This must be a regular trailhead.
Today turned into an emotional roller coaster. It was exhilarating to wake amid snow, with grand vistas of canyons in the distance under the rain clouds. The rain did stop quickly, and I got some more good pictures. The urge for hot breakfast in the chilly morning was irresistible, so I drove down to Moab. While waiting too long for breakfast, I chanced upon some brochures extolling tourism for Moab, and my mood plunged like an anchor. Jeep safaris, raft trips, helicopter rides, Canyonlands By Night Sound And Light Tour, tacky trendy T-shirt shops, film making, motels with hot tubs, golf courses, subdivisions on the golf courses, real estate for sale - the whole catastrophe.
As Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire, "... most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You're holding a tombstone in your hands."
My depression is compounded by guilt. I have no right to take Abbey's name in vain. In the very same paragraph he also said "... you can't see anything from a car; you've got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus." And here I am doing my thing by jeep. Maybe that's a shade better than the family sedan, and maybe 10 mph is more respectful than 50, but I still feel like an infidel.
No matter. I press on. But I do sense that this might be the last time I get to enjoy this area this way. I still manage to find splendid isolated places, but how much longer? I might just wrap up my memories, pictures, and words at the end of this trip, and cherish them as they are.
I drive back south, then swing east and north on the La Sal Mountain loop road, making the marvelous transition again from snowy forest to the beautiful red canyon called Castle Valley, east of Moab. Then north and east along the Colorado, southeast and higher on the Entrada Bluffs dirt road, and then south and still higher on the tough Top-of-the-World trail.
It's so aptly named! It ends abruptly at the top of the world on a high granite-like clifftop point with an incredible overwhelming mind-busting 360-degree panorama of incredibly gorgeous vistas. (Sorry, that's not enough adjectives to do it justice. See the pictures.) Exhilaration again. Adrenaline pumping again.
Almost 3000 feet below to the west, the Colorado River glints under the setting sun. Across the valley to the south are the La Sal Mountains. This could be a place I was looking at this morning from over there.
This is where I'll spend the night. The moon is getting fuller, high in a blue sky long before sunset.
It's windy up here, and I'm going to sleep in the jeep again, out on the point, facing south. Off to the west, where the sun recently set behind some fat black clouds, I now see lightning coursing through those same clouds. Out of my window as I sit in the jeep I look over the precipice at the lights of cars driving along the Colorado almost 3000 feet below.
What a day! What a week!
A few hours later I wake to see another "set", this time the moon going down. More stars shine in the deeper darkness, and the Milky Way becomes visible. And a shooting star flashes by. What a night! Sunset, lightning, moonset, Milky Way, and a shooting star.
Saturday, April 23
A low key day. Leisurely drive down from the top of the world. Picked up a hitch-hiker whose girlfriend had locked the keys in their car, about forty miles outside of Moab. Got breakfast, checked into the motel, and returned the jeep. Call home, shower, laundry, nap.
Took a walk through town, taking pictures of changing conditions: trendy shops, and bicycles everywhere. Two bikes on top seems to be a standard accessory for lots of cars here. Indian lore is featured a lot. They've also discovered Kokopelli. Shades of Sedona.
Was a bit startled on my return to see "my" jeep already on display with a big For Rent sign.
Walked a mile out of town to our old favorite, the Sundowner, for dinner. I guess that little walk where others would drive is a little bit of penance.
Tonight I sleep in a bed. Tomorrow I join the Sierra Club service trip in Arches. I'm beginning to think that the "service" I'd like to do is to lock the gates and blow up the roads.
Sunday, April 24
Picked up at motel by Mike Maller, who drove from Idaho, with other passengers picked up in Salt Lake City. Mike also has a bicycle atop his Mazda 4x4.
The group collected at the Visitor Center in Arches, where we had talks from several of the rangers. The work done by such volunteer groups is really valued, and makes a big difference in what can be done to keep the park in good shape. The talk by Noel Poe, Park Administrator, was inspiring, and completely turned my mood around. He is implementing some positive and imaginative plans to manage visitor impact. There is hope.
We had a guided tour through Fiery Furnace (it's not hot!). Really spectacular. The ranger took us on some trails and climbs we'd never dare do by ourselves.
We set up camp in the group site at Devil's Gardens. This is the first time I've ever really used my new tent. Though I was considering just sleeping outside, it was a good thing I put my tent up. No sooner had I finished than it started to rain, a portent of the week's weather. It was a light shower, but the weather turned really chilly.
Our trip leader Linda Thibodeaux (the Canyon Cajun) made gumbo for dinner! It was fabulous, especially in the chilly intermittent drizzle. Later in the week she also made jambalaya.
There was probably a full moon hiding behind the clouds; there was soft light in the campground all night.
Monday-Saturday, April 25-30
This week wasn't dramatic, except for the weather. We did a lot of work. Probably the biggest single task was helping to remove tamarisk from Salt Valley Wash. This non-native tree soaks up far more than its share of water, crowding out other species and lowering the water table. Removal is hard labor, pruning branches and hauling out the duff that accumulates underneath. A ranger will come along later and apply the final touch, trimming down to ground level with a chain saw and applying a biodegradable herbicide. This is an experimental procedure, and seems to be 95% effective so far. Progress is slow; each service group clears a few acres.
Road and trail maintenance was another major task. Unauthorized jeep and bicycle tracks were obliterated and blocked, and markings on authorized trails were improved. Other tasks included maintenance of gates and fences, erection of a new screen for the slide show at the campfire program, installation and repair of road signs, and herding cattle. That's right. Rangers in trucks would sometimes escort unauthorized cows off park property, back to their proper grazing lands outside.
Sometimes while getting to our work sites, or just as a reward, the rangers would take us to some areas not generally seen by tourists. One delightful walk took us up a canyon to see a horned owl's nest in a cave high up on a cliffside. We also heard about, but didn't visit, unadvertised archeological sites, some recently discovered by rangers themselves.
Weather was incredible, and incredibly changeable. The skies were filled with enormous panoramas of cloudbanks, often with rain hanging down in the distance. Sunlight and shadow played like paintings over canyons, arches, and snow-capped mountain peaks. Conditions would shift back and forth between hot sunshine, chilly rain, and sometimes hail. We never knew what sort of clothing to take when we left the trucks to do something. We often had a bit of drizzle or hail at mealtime, and we sometimes had to skirt "Lake Thibodeaux" to get to our tents.
People and spirits were marvelous. Good humor abounded. My previous exhilarating week got me started in high spirits. Doing something valuable to protect the canyon country felt especially rewarding. Getting to know the rangers, and to feel like privileged insiders at the park, was also good.
The trip ended with a farewell dinner at the camp site, with some words of appreciation from Noel Poe and some of the rangers. Some of us rested up at a motel in Moab Saturday night, and flew home on Sunday.
Wednesday, May 4
Re-entry to my other life was slow, with a couple of strange wrinkles. After taking a couple of days to catch up on stuff at home, I went in to the office for the first time this morning. Bicycling to work, my head still full of canyons, my eyes suddenly focused on my jeep parked right there on University Avenue in Palo Alto. It wasn't really the same one I had in Moab, of course, but another one of almost the same color and model. A jolt. It was in the wrong place, the wrong context, like seeing something out of a dream the night before. The dream world was reaching out to me, touching me here in my other life. Which is real?
Then, a few hours later, I saw a new display of photographs on the wall near the cafeteria. Many of them were common scenes of arches and canyons, but one of them stopped me in my tracks: a big black and white photo of Dead Horse Point, seen from below. That's exactly where I had been two weeks ago! Here it was back in my life again. I could almost see myself in that picture.
The canyons keep touching my life.