To me, spring is never complete without a trip to the desert. I love snow, but sage and red dirt feed my soul, and in the years when I’ve stayed up North they’ve pulled at me until I pay homage. I’d been watching my calendar for weeks, and when the stars finally aligned- weather, work, and a friend passing through on his way to New Mexico- it had never been easier to pack the car.
Moab was deep in the throes of Jeep Week, so we headed West to Goblin Valley in the San Rafael Swell. The area is shockingly desolate with wild, tortured rock formations and dirt spilling out every shade of the rainbow. Here you can see the power of water, with its crazy signatures carved into every square mile. These range from small gutters to gaping, light-swallowing chasms, depending on where you walk- and we were there to walk the big ones.
It was strange to head to my happy place sans bike or climbing gear, but I was excited for a chance to wander slot canyons without distraction. I figured it would be the perfect mellow activity to celebrate six weeks of walking as my primary sport, and maybe even burn some of the restless energy I’d accumulated since surgery. I had no idea.
you couldn’t help but feel tiny, young and hopelessly organic. I wanted to be absorbed into the stone. I wanted to know everything there ever was to know about rocks.
The canyon began as a rocky wash between imposing sandstone flanks, which to our delight slowly narrowed into a deep crack just a few feet wide. Walking awestruck through those silent natural hallways, you couldn’t help but feel tiny, young and hopelessly organic. I wanted to be absorbed into the stone. I wanted to know everything there ever was to know about rocks.
Eventually the hallway widened as we emerged into another wash, and we paused in the shade of a cliff to sip water and decide where to go next. I was shaking sand out of my sandals and absorbing sun like a solar panel when a couple of hikers, the first we’d seen all day, rounded the corner. In retrospect they greeted us somewhat desperately, but we were still riding the high from Chute Canyon- we’d found the coolest place ever!
The hikers immediately wanted to talk about the route, and they pulled out their map, which we photographed for future reference. We reassured them that they were looking into Chute Canyon, and they gave us hints on getting over to the one they’d just come from, creatively dubbed Crack Canyon.
“We’re pretty good routefinders and it completely turned us around” they warned before departing, adding “don’t take the fork that goes to the ridgeline.” We just nodded, smiled and waved goodbye, utterly confident in our own routefinding after a winter spent in the Alpine.
This is how I learned to never, ever underestimate the desert.
I’ll spare you the details, because I honestly can’t think of anything we could have done differently. We followed the paths with many tracks, used a compass and GPS coordinates, talked over every decision, and still ended up terrifically off-route; which became clear as we emerged on a precipice overlooking (by a couple
hundred feet) what may have been Crack canyon or one of the hundreds of other canyons also made of rocks and dirt. What fork? What ridgeline? Hell, what horizon?
And that’s when the weather began to roll in. We couldn’t see the edge of the storm, so we hunkered under an overhang for what we hoped would be a short squall. As the rain loosened dirt, rockfall went off like gunshots all around us. We were wide-eyed grateful to be above the canyons, which are prone to flash flooding. Things change quickly in the desert.
When the rain stopped things felt a little more serious. Many miles and hours lay between us and anything, and we had limited water, daylight and layers of clothing. I also came to the dull realization that my whole family thought I was in Moab, just in case, you know, anyone had to come looking for us.
Fortunately walking is a really easy activity, and we had plenty of day left. As quickly as the storm had come, a rainbow bloomed overhead, and it was hard to ignore the beauty as we plodded deeper into the heart of the swell. Our spirits lifted; we could still find this thing.
Random, isolated bits of trail gave tantalizing hints then crushed our hopes as we picked our way down cliffs and traversed through endless sage. It might have helped if something sentient had created the maze, but water knows no rules save physics, and every turn resulted in a comical dead end. Like cliff-that-could-kill-you-dead end. Our topo looked like the scribblings of a two-year-old on red bull. The sun blazed on.
Talk turned gradually from cool rocks and animal tracks to plans B, C, and D. If this happens then we’ll have to do that. Or if that happens then we’ll do something different. What eventually
happened was that a) we ran out of water. b) it started to get dark and c) we still hadn’t found anything that we could say with any certainty was the elusive Crack canyon.
As the sun sank, we had a whole new set of decisions to make. Navigating slot canyons at night might not be the worst thing, but I was nervous about not being able to see the weather, and navigating flooding slot canyons at night seemed a little too grim- especially with my healing wing. My stomach started to tighten as bits of color flashed in front of my eyes. We’d been wandering for almost ten hours.
With the last of our light we finally made the decision to point ourselves away from the car, in a direction where we knew we’d eventually hit a road. We were still looking at a few miles through terrain that could potentially be more chaotic than what we’d seen, but we figured if we were lucky the slots would diminish the closer we got to the plains.
Leave your ego inside- when you’re outside you’re a visitor to something bigger than, older than, and absolutely indifferent to you.
As soon as we turned our backs on the darkening labyrinth, the knot in my stomach relaxed. We still had some creative scrambling to do, but to make a long story short we managed to hit the road, thumb down a truck with our headlamps, and hitchhike the 20 or so miles back to our trailhead while a friendly basset hound licked the salt from our ears. I sat back against the tailgate, wind buffeting my hair, and laughed. We’d just gotten totally, utterly spanked. On a walk.
I always try to be aware of my relationship to the environment I’m traveling through. We’re animals like any others, and I fully believe that on an intuitive level we pick up little signs and signals that should factor in our decisionmaking almost as much as what we’ve been trained to recognize. Sure your extended column test might be unresponsive, but when the mountain says no, you should listen- you may be observing something you don’t even have words for.
I don’t know the language of the desert. Not even close- and as a pink, squishy and slightly injured animal, almost everything I saw out there felt vaguely like a threat. Yet we’d been truly lucky. We’d met a couple of angels who’d gifted us a map. We’d been on high ground when the storm broke. We’d made it out with the last of the daylight, and to top it all off we’d caught a ride that just so happened to be heading within a mile of our car. Why so lucky? Who knows.
Except the other thing I believe in is that when you go with humility and respect, things usually work out. Leave your ego inside- when you’re outside you’re a visitor to something bigger than, older than, and absolutely indifferent to you. I wasn’t expecting to be held to these rules; 6 weeks post-op is no time for an epic. But if this is going to be the M.O. for my new shoulder I’m keen. I’ll just be bringing more water and a better GPS.