During a recent backpacking trip I kept a journal and wrote in it when I felt the need. Here is what came of it, slightly edited, but the content is essentially raw from the trail. Enjoy.
March 22nd, 2017
We drove to the Utah desert to watch it rain…
Around 7:00 pm yesterday, we embarked on a trip to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. We arrived in the town of Escalante seventeen hours later.
The original plan was to camp in town the first night at Escalante Outfitters. We checked in, pitched our tents, and began relaxing from the long drive by engorging ourselves with pizza at the outfitter’s cafe. The pizza was to-die-for. Later in the afternoon we took a trip to the inter-agency ranger station to request backpacking permits and some complementary Wag-bags (packable outhouses). Turns out the ranger had some info that lit a spark under our lethargic sacks of bones stuffed with pizza. “There is a storm coming and if you don’t get out there today you’ll be stuck here until the road dries out”, she said. So, taking her advice, we decided to skip the front-country camping and head straight to the open desert on night one. Throughout the week the road would dry while we are on the trail. Being in the desert of course, the road to our trail head was a thirty mile sand road filled with wash boards and Tyler’s Chevy Malibu would have trouble in wet conditions. Although I know the conveniences of a front country campsite are refreshing after a long drive, I was happy to skip it for the real camping. I’m not one for the tourist traps anyway.
Changes in planning now carried out, we are now three miles out in the desert, under the rain, right where we want to be.
March 23rd, 2017
We slept in a little this morning do to the drowsiness of an off and on rain shower. Throughout the night, it stormed quite a bit. We were on the rim of a small gulch named after a mammal known for chasing the roadrunner. It felt as if the lightning and thunder were our neighbors, right beside us taunting our fear. I could see the headline, “Backpackers die of lightning strike”, in tomorrows papers. But we woke safely after some well needed sleep.
March 24th, 2017
All the stars have aligned, it seems. Last night we all slept soundly, no wind, rain, or noise to stop us. The hundred foot canopy of rock, or amphitheater if you will, above our tents and the sound of a waterfall downstream persuaded us into deep somber sleep. Now halfway through our trip, we have found routine. Haylie is now packing her gear up correctly upon the first try, without fuss. For me, making coffee was a breeze this morning.
Tyler just pulled out a brick from his pack. It’s a meal replacement protein bar. It’s amazing how advanced food on the trail has become. Meals that cook just by putting hot water in the bag, not leaving any pots or pans to clean up afterward. Prepackaged food claiming to have all the nutrients a hardy backpacker needs to “survive”. Whatever happened to some jerky, beans, and bread? The Native Americans that used to roam these canyons would cringe at the sight of our food stuffs and the cowboys would simply laugh.
One attractive thing about spending time in the wilderness is that no time is wasted. We are constantly living. No television programs to watch. No nine-to-five job to suffer through. Sure, I might spend time on a vista watching the desert for a few hours, but I wouldn’t call that time wasted.
March 24th, 2017
Tonight is our last night in the backcountry. We hiked out of the deep canyons, and are now in the shallow beginning of Coyote Gulch. I almost like these parts better than the attractive canyon arches and natural bridges that have formed further downstream toward the Escalante River. Up here you can explore what’s outside the drainage. I found the tallest slick-rock within a reasonable distance from camp and decided to spend a few hours up there, taking in the view through my binoculars.
It was a blue bird day with little wind, even in the higher elevations. Perfect. I started scanning the desert. Far beyond, what made up the horizon to the southwest was Fifty Mile Bench which runs across the entire span of the monument. More immediate, I could see ridges of slick-rock, sand, and a good amount of vegetation considering the arid landscape. I focused my attention to these areas, glassing ridges and valleys that have just enough nutrients to support a community of sagebrush and junipers. What I was in search of would surely be there foraging on the sagebrush, if anywhere at all. My feet, socks, and boots were still damp from crossing creeks earlier in the day, so I unlaced and aired everything out while I enjoyed the view. Almost taking a drink from my water bottle, I remembered the iodine pill needed some more time to completely sanitize the freshly scooped water from the stream.
To the south of me, across coyote gulch, about level with my elevation, I saw an interesting rock formation, though they all seem that way out here. This one caught my eye and received further inspection from my binoculars. Once in view, the rock was no longer of interest. Three white specs gained all my focus and enthusiasm. There were multiple sets of bright white hind-quarters of the animal that I had been searching for. Eight mule deer were browsing along the opposite ridge from right to left. Not minutes earlier, I had been munching on their Midwestern cousin, the White-tail deer, in the form of jerky. Having never seen a mule deer before, it was a sight for tired eyes. I wonder what their meat tastes like? I question the thought as I watch them. Wait, there’s eleven of them! They had all disappeared behind a slick-rock and I counted them as they walked back into view. These animals have the entire desert to themselves, or so it seems.
March 26th, 2017
I woke up early this morning. The howling wind above my tent in the town of Escalante interrupted sleep many times last night. Headed for some coffee, I entered the outfitter’s cafe five minutes before they opened. It was quiet and peaceful, before the breakfast crowd of tourists takes over. This town is unique. As you drive in from the east, you will first see a high school with an all-weather track and football field. Wait, I thought this was a tourist town? Turns out there are people that live and grow up here as well, in the middle of a national monument. After you pass the school, the town becomes the stereotypical tourist town. Hotels, campgrounds, gift shops, and gas stations all filled with tourists of the outdoor recreation cohort. I expected mostly backpackers, hikers, and cyclists out here. But when we showed up I quickly realized my assumptions were wrong.
Here, in the desert southwest, you will find a large number of four-wheel drive trail users. Jacked up jeeps, trucks, and such crawl through town and the backcountry. All the persons in the vehicles look the part as well, usually carrying a Yeti cooler in the back, keeping who-knows-what cold for the passengers. In planning possible routes throughout these public lands, it was difficult to find a path without four-wheel drive access along the way. Yes, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, I’d love to go to the backcountry wilderness to hear jacked up four wheel drive engines roar by my campsite. I don’t get enough of that back home. No, that is not what I want. Though, I have taken part in that sort of recreation back in Iowa and I own a jeep myself, I would never stain the heart of the wilderness with it. Multi-use recreation is a great thing for our public lands, because it brings people, as well as funding sources, to the outdoors that would not otherwise be there. However, it seems difficult to find public lands and wilderness that has not been affected by the four-wheel drive industry. Hopefully, through my future travels I will find public lands successfully set aside and untouched by the internal combustion engine.