Nobody within their right mind should believe me when I tell them that I had the time of my life getting sunburned, dehydrated, blistered, cold, hot, sandy, and at times, vaguely lost while wandering the desert. My photos, perhaps, tell a different story: The opportunity for my friends and I to unplug. Our devices were totally useless (one even drowned in the desert's spring rain) and sand would to destroy them if we left them unprotected.
Hauling ourselves across the country, we flew to Salt Lake City and drive to central Utah, arriving at our first campsite at 4 a.m. (which for us was actually 6 a.m.). I could not have imagined a better and smoother trip were it not for Lindsay and Rebecca who planned our back country meal portions, grocery shopped, picked up our rental car, and nabbed our first campsites.
We're grateful for Will as well: Without knowing that it could be done, we could never have safely done a trip as treacherous and remote as this one. There is no trail, and our first signs of human life were a set of footprints and a men's Croc on the fourth day. Until you arrive at the river, water only occurs in small seeps across the slick rock. Some are cesspools of mosquitoes and algae. Others are fresh and clear. Most are dry.
The first two days of the trip took us across the slick rock. Carrying 35 liters of water for 7 people, we were slow moving. It did not help that the topography of a land pockmarked with canyons is rather difficult to navigate. Having no trail meant that our experienced crew of backpackers could not just fall into a rhythm of breath and footsteps. While we were only walking 3 miles as the crow flies, we had to zig and zag endlessly, avoiding 60 foot cliffs which appeared to the sight only when standing directly on top of them. A combination of topographical map and compass skills, paired with determination, and eagerness to find shade (precious respite from the beating sun!) led us the 3 miles in about 7 hours. A tad slow for my usual 2-3 mph with a pack.
We drank all the water. Running on fumes, we were thrilled (and relieved) to find seeps on the other side of King's Mesa, some of which were in reasonably good condition for drinking.
That night we slept in the most beautiful and most remote campsite I had ever appreciated. Tucked in a dry, sandy riverbed, we marveled at the 700 foot drop to the canyon floor. As the sun set, we surprised Will with a back country birthday party, watching the canyon walls turn purple and orange. Lindsay served brownie batter with cockanilly candles and Rebecca bequeathed a beach ball. Later, we set up an impromtu game of volley ball, using a rope as a net and our hiking poles as the supports.
Day two of crossing the slick rock was significantly easier. There were only two large canyons diverting us from our end goal, but we had to find the single scree slope that would enable us to drop into the canyon (and get more water) without having to navigate a 200 foot cliff. The rock and sediment layers were wide, but the drop to each new layer was so steep and winding that it prevented us from seeing the bottom of the canyon. Canyoning is so different from hiking in the mountains. You can always see what you're looking for in the mountains. You never know where you are and when you'll get there until you arrive when in a canyon.
Pacing back and forth across the canyon rim, we checked and double checked our location before finally committing to a sand dune which in all appearances ended in a bottomless drop but would ultimately lead to a nimble goat trail which wandered toward the Escalante river. Eager for water, shade, and relief from the mouth parching wind, we slid down the dunes, across the sandstone layers, and finally to the river bed.
The next three days we meandered at the pace of the Escalante River wading in knee to chest deep water with our packs as we flowed downstream toward Lake Powell. The river grew in mysterious ways as no visible stream flowed into it. It was highest in the morning and lowest in the afternoon. We presume that invisible seeps grew the river, while the relentless sun drank another 2-3 inches per afternoon.
Katabatic winds whipped through the canyon in the mid-morning and late-afternoon as temperatures shifted from scorching hot to comfortable. The winds carried sand, which when mixed with food, we deemed 'desert spice'.
Bush whacking through willows and Russian olive, and wading through muddled waters, we wandered downriver admiring the towering red cliffs on either side. We felt so small in this landscape. So remote, It could crush us so easily whether for heat stroke, rock fall (just one near miss), or dehydration. We were grateful that nature posed no indelicate questions regarding our self-confidence or back country skills. Not everybody belongs in this landscape. Many who both came and left were probably just lucky. I chalk up our positive experience to both luck and skill.
Meeting the confluence of the Escalante River and Coyote Gulch, we turned upstream. For the first time in four days we saw people. Can you recall the number of times in your life that you have not seen another soul in four days?
Though there were less than 20 people wandering 12 miles of the fern laden desert oasis, yet it felt crowded. It was no wonder, given the sights we were enjoying. Though not as large or deep as the former canyon, it was dynamic and fascinating. The red walls morphed, flaked, and curved into massive amphitheaters and enormous sandstone arches. If you look at the bottom of each photo in this particular section, you'll notice that there is a person present - for the sake of scale. We were but wee insects in comparison to the sculpted overhangs we admired.
The final hurrah commenced at Bryce Canyon National Park, famous for its hoodoos, or red sandstone and clay spires carved by wind, water, and ice. The day was overcast and raining. Some trails were closed due to mudslides. Given that 3 foot wide yellow excavators sit patiently among each trail, I think we can safely assume that trail maintenance is weekly, if not daily in the rainy season.
Dropping off the canyon rim, the trail switched back every 15 feet. Clouds swirled between the hoodoos which leered overhead, looking particularly precarious in the rain. Three miles into our six mile hike the clouds began to transform from pea soup to a dark and angry stew. Thunder began to growl, at first a mile away, and suddenly 1/2 mile. Lightning made an entrance among the clouds, not yet threatening, but enough to inspire us to seek shelter under an overhang in hopes of allowing the storm to pass. We waited patiently, perhaps an hour, and struck out only to watch lightning whip between the hoodoos near the trail which meandered along an exposed ridge. Rather anticlimactically, we waited again and when the lightning had abated, made a run for the ridge line.
Photographically, it was a tad disappointing - the ridge line offered a fabulous view of the fresh powder on the mesa across the valley, carried no doubt, by the storm we were participating in. The sun peeked through the clouds several miles away, igniting the snow with light. Yet the storm was still around us, thunder still grumbled, and it did not seem prudent to linger so I captured the view in my minds eye and hit the trail in eager anticipation of dry clothes, hot coffee, and a slice of pie at a nearby diner.