Every spring, about the time that most of the snow has melted in the valley but still drapes the peaks and taller hills, when the river is starting to swell and churn, when three or four robins come to town and a couple dandelions get a head start, I get an undeniable urge to leapfrog the whole seasonal process and head down to southern Utah. This year, however, with funds running low from a lack of winter work, I started doing my darndest to squelch the call of the desert and warmer climes. So when my brother called me up and told me he wanted to go on his first backpacking trip ever, in the desert, in the red rock Colorado plateau landscape that I love so, with me as his guide, I breathed a sigh of relief and burst out with an emphatic yes. I had an excuse! Cash be damned, I was going to Utah.
We chose to explore the canyons and plateaus of Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument over the southern Utah’s numerous National Parks for a few reasons. For starters, the Monument is huge: 1.9 million acres of wild backcountry that was the last area to be mapped in the lower 48. Given the more publicized National Parks surrounding the Monument such as Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef, the human usage of this vast wonderland is very slight. Or it is now anyway: the rock art and structural evidence of pre-Puebloan peoples is abundant in the canyons. The record of time past and present is everywhere, written and kept by the bare rock, from a time of ancient seas to the mysterious Anasazi, from the explorations of John Wesley Powell to the more recent cultivation of land for the modern American megafauna we know as cattle. Hiking through the canyons of the Escalante River, we are witness to and part of a story so big and so long we can barely begin to understand it.
Thinking about the seemingly endless number of canyons and side canyons on the Colorado Plateau inspires ambition. I want to hike through all of them, drink from all the rivers, nap on top of all the mesas. My brother and I planned out a weeklong backpacking trip, honing in on this ambition and ignoring the caveats that come along with a first-ever multiday trek. Needless to say, we lasted two nights. After bushwhacking all of day one and making ten miles in almost as many hours, the spaces between my brother’s sandal straps and his bare feet had been inundated with that abrasive mixture of sand and water, and his skin began to rebel with angry blisters. On day two, after his body had had a few days of car camping to realize the atrocity of instant pasta and summer sausage, he was stricken with a steady stream of the runs. Still with a positive outlook, in love with the towering sandstone walls, we decided to hike out. Near the end of hike we ran into a couple, the only people we saw, one of whom had just gone in up to his waist in quicksand. The desert is beautiful and unforgiving.
The human elements, the anonymous greetings and bumping-intos, are often the most impressionable and least mentally romanticized moments of any adventure. My pre-backpacking acquisition, for example, of toilet paper in a gas station in Panguitch, Utah. I was wrapping a square upon square of industrial toilet paper, the thin kind that feels like sandstone itself but that gas stations have in plenty, when an older gentleman opened the door to my stall. I turned towards him as I was rolling.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello! Pardon me,” the man responded with a polite smile, and closed the stall door.
Simple, amiable, and full of toilet paper. An interaction that I will relive and laugh at with my brother for years.
Despite any physical ailments, thwarted plans, supply-gathering interruptions, the feeling we’re left with is of warm sun on cool sand, cold green water on gloriously dirty, sunburnt legs, and excited heart-thumping at hundreds of unexplored side canyons. Two crows flying overhead on a sunstroke afternoon, divebombing one another in the pursuit of lofty love – it happens over our heads all the time. But the image is seared in my heart and mind because of the stillness of the canyon, the solitude of our campsite by the river under budding cottonwoods, the warmth of the sand between my toes, the sun-faded tint glazing my eyes, the fine dry layer of dirt caressing my skin, the joy of brotherly kinship reunited after too long an absence, and the two black bird’s absolute abandon for anything else but the other, everything playing on everything to form a memory I’ll never lose.
The sensations I realize on a hot desert day are unique to a place. I love so many ranges, valleys, rivers, and little towns throughout the West, but in flipping through mental images and feeling my mind comes to those learned in the desert to rest. Maybe it’s the two black dots on brilliant blue over comforting red.
When I can’t sleep and stress and grey skies toe the line too hard, I shut my eyes and always this is where I go.