A few days ago I rode into the red rocks and sandy desert and it was like coming home again.
–Everett Ruess, VAGABOND FOR BEAUTY
There are certain places that always call to me. Places that are never far from my thoughts and where I often long to return. A quiet lake in Maine where I can hear the waves lapping against the shore as the sun is setting. A foggy morning in Oregon surrounded by a herd of elk galloping into mist. Being on top of the Continental Divide and seeing the backbone of the continent extending far to the north and far to the south….further than I can see.
Then there is Utah. The desolate, striking and awe inspiring red rock country. A land where there are no easily marked trails to follow. Where the gear is beat up, winds howl and it can be brutally cold and scorching hot all in one day. It is a land that is not forgiving…but it is a land I always year to again steep myself in. Exotic, raw, wild, striking and remote.
Chris is a buddy of mine that invited me to spend spring break with him for a few days in the Hackberry and Paria canyons near the Utah and Arizona border. I have sadly not been to Utah in nearly four years; it was time to return. With the gift of time I have received, I eagerly took up his generous invitation.
Before hitting the canyon country of Utah, I spent some time on a hut trip. On paper, it made sense: Ski three days, drive down to Utah and start backpacking for sixty miles. Of course, descending on skis down a steep mountain and then driving nearly eight hours perhaps was not the wisest idea after all. 🙂
At about 11:30 PM, I pulled into the parking lot of the campground where I was to meet Chris in the morning, pulled down my tailgate and did some dirt bag camping in my truck. I quickly fell asleep (despite my usual rounds of too much gas station coffee!)
In the morning, I woke up, brewed my cup of joe and waved to Chris as he made my way down to my “campsite”. After some catching up (and assisting some college students separated from their group!), we drove down to the ranger station, parked Chris’ Honda and made our way down the rutted dirt road to the Hackberry Canyon trailhead.
The day started off warm enough with the creek gently flowing down the canyon.
The hiking was easy with red rocked walls reaching up the sides, clear blue skies and the warm sun shining on our faces.
At about 5:30 or so, we found an obvious campsite (complete with an old cooler!) and made camp for the evening. While drinking out night caps, we realized we somehow blanked out on an obvious landmark and made better mileage than we had thought. Between the two of us, we have quite a few mileage…and somehow we missed seeing a very large side canyon. Something that amused us as I drank my Cherry Desert Cooler (cheap vodka and Crystal light) and Chris drank his cheap rum and Crystal light (he has no cute nick name for this drink that I am aware).
The following morning, it was quite a bit cooler. But the canyon continued to entrance. Canyon country is not like hiking in the mountains. Rather than hiking up to a summit and seeing expansive views, you continue to push around the next bend of the canyon floor. You want to see what is up ahead, what next view will be revealed. Every foot of hiking reveals something more wonderful, more revealing and continues to pull you forward.
At a break spot, we noticed a set of cairns leading out of the canyon. Hmm? Perhaps this is the use trail that will takes us to the exit point? Looking at the map we thought…er, yeah..it seems so. Somehow we stumbled upon the correct place to make our way to Paria Canyon. Again we had stumbled upon the correct path. God looks after fools, drunks and foolish thru-hikers who drink Crystal Light concoctions in the desert….
After making the steep climb up on the canyon lip, we hooked up to a jeep road and made our way along scrub brush and views of the red rock mountains. I had deja-vu of my CDT experience in New Mexico!
We made our way to a major intersection (again, as much stumbled upon it as anything!) and followed the major dirt road that eventually turned into pavement. One couple from Florida pulled up and asked if we were OK. I replied “Physically fine, mentally perhaps not“. They quickly drove away for some reason….
Chris and I finally spotted the Paria, ’shwacked down to the wide open mouth of the canyon and attempted to make a campsite that was wind free.
The morning we woke up to was colder and even windier than the day before.
No matter; the Paria narrowed (if with a lot of fording) and the greyish-red rock gave away to a rock of an intense red.
As we made our way down the canyon, I could not help but be in awe of the views. The bright blue and deep reds made for an entrancing combination.
At break time, we gratefully huddled in an alcove sheltered from the wind. The view looked a bit like something out of Lawrence of Arabia. The wind howled, tumbleweed blew through and the sand storm picked up.
We continued to make our way down the canyon. The views continued to entrance; the wind continued to howl.
About the time we decided to make camp, we looked for another alcove to shield us from the wind. Somehow we managed to find a spot somewhat sheltered from the wind.
At night, the temps also dropped. Perhaps high teens or low 20s. It made for a slow going in the morning…but I knew beer in my cooler awaited!
More than that? The storm had blown out. The weather had warmed up and the views were perhaps the best of the entire trip. The meandering Paria was below layers of red rocks that reached into the sky. The rock outcroppings reminded me being at the beach growing up – slowly dripped sand making intricate patterns that swirled. The red rocks of the Paria had the same feel to me, but on a much larger scale. Millions of years of water and wind had formed the view in front of me. It is both a humbling and an exhilarating set of thoughts. There is something much larger than me and my petty concerns…and that in the grand march of time, my 80 or so years on this world is not much.
Rather than sadden me, it makes me realize how the time I spend on this world should not be wasted…but embraced and enjoyed with any passion I can bring to whatever I pursue. Deep thoughts or perhaps just a deep pile of something else….
The progress down the canyon continued. The canyon opened wider. The trip was almost over.
For the movie buff in me, this area proved to be interesting. It is where The Outlaw Josey Wales was partially filmed. Westerns are perhaps the deepest vein of the American cultural myths. And this harsh, but beautiful, country we are walking through seems apt for a movie that explores part of the American mythos. Plus, it is just a damn good movie…..in a damn beautiful area…
We climbed out of the canyon, made our way back to the road and began a short road walk to my truck…and beer!
Sitting at my truck, looking over the land scape and just taking it all in quietly was perhaps the best way to end the trip. I did not want to leave this pleasant spot. What more did I want? What more could I need?
But, posing the question often gives its own answer. Time for a shower, some good food and the other comforts of town. We drove back to Kanab, found a cheap motel conveniently located next to a Mexican restaurant, grocery store and an outfiiter (old thru-hiking habits die hard) and wound down our trip. Cotton was worn, Mexican food was eaten and a few beers drank.
The following morning, the Utah section of the trip ended. Chris drove back to his Washington to get ready to teach classes. I drove out to Arizona to start the next phase of my trip: 100 miles of the Arizona Trail with another thru-hiking buddy. The gift of time is continuing to be enjoyed.