Once you spend enough time in the desert, weird stuff will happen. Nearly everyone has a life-changing desert story, but for me, strange is the new normal. So here are a couple of my favorites, and before you insist my imagination has clearly run amok, know every sentence in here is true, and that simple truth can easily be more twisted and creepy than fiction. Very simply, I could never make this shit up.
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The Uncle Tale
Years ago I took my Aunt, Uncle, brothers and cousins to Zion. Thinking Orderville Gulch was good hot weather choice, Uncle and I did the car shuttle, while the rest of the group headed toward a rendezvous point where the canyon dropped off. “Hey Uncle, why not a canyon shortcut and cut them off where I told them to wait?” He was game. Orderville might require short downclimbs, or some hand lines, so I carried a little 60-foot coil of 3/8 line. Surely we could manage a little side canyon with that little rope along. At first, the canyon went well with a couple of short raps over boulders, but soon it twisted sideways. We searched uncomfortably along steep, ponderosa-needle-covered ledges for trees from which we could rappel 30 feet with our teeny little rope. Not anticipating this nonsense, and without my usual canyon gear, finding perfect tree anchors was the only option. I belayed my Uncle across several ugly Ponderosa traverses, and believe me, steep Ponderosa needles can be worse than most snow slopes, but he never complained. He was that sort of guy. Or he didn’t realize just how screwed up we were quickly becoming.
Scary, imaginative rope work brought us to the bottom of Orderville. Horribly obvious, further down the creek than planned, and with no recent tracks in the creek bed, Uncle and I had to climb back out of the canyon and go find the family. Uncle was already out of water; the heat was in the upper nineties- nothing looked particularly good. I gave him most of my water as we climbed, so when we reached the pre-arranged rendezvous, we were waterless…and no family in sight. We kept hiking and the heat waves blurred the sagebrush.
We came to an old corral fence, where ran the most vile, puke green stream imaginable. A split second later, and Uncle was on his knees lapping away. “Probably not such a great idea” I told him, but he thought it was the best idea he had all day. “I hope we’re well out of here before you start barfing.”
We hit the main dirt road and stuck out two tired thumbs. We looked near dead, and generating pity I suppose, because the very first pickup stopped for us. “Just get in the back guys,” they said, “there’s beer and cups, have all you can hold.” This my heat-addled mind did not parse until I looked in the truck bed. Damn. Unbelievable. Over ninety degrees and we get a ride in a pickup full of snow with 3 kegs of beer packed in it.
Never had beers tasted that good, before or since, and yes, we tried to drink “all we could hold.” Dehydrated as we were, you can probably guess how drunk we both were when the cowboys dropped us at our spotted car. Fortunately, my old VW knew the road as well as I did, and we roared off down the road at 25 mph. On pavement, we had yet to find traces of the aforementioned missing family. But at the first roadside attraction, near an old carved wooden Indian with peeling paint, sat Aunt, cousins and brothers, in the shade but clearly on the pissed-off side of the meter. Seeing how drunk we both were did not help their disposition at all. My girlfriend just said, “we’re doing the car shuttle, you’re waiting with the Indian.” Uncle and I just curled up in the shade and fell asleep. No harm, no foul.
With no shortcuts the next day, a wonderfully uneventful hike through Orderville Gulch unfolded, except for the two dragging along in the rear. Although Orderville comes up in family conversations often, no one ever mentions the failed attempt. They still don’t believe the tale about the pickup full of snow, or the beer kegs. But my Uncle and I both know better, and he never did get sick from that awful milky green pasture water.
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A Very Haunted Canyon
I’ve been in my share of technical canyons, and all great places to hang out. Even in very difficult canyons I’ve felt only benign canyon energy. Except once, in a Utah canyon I’d rather not name, a canyon that actively tried to kill us. This canyon is haunted.
Friends had recently done the first descent of the canyon with multiple rappels. When I threw off the first ropes they tangled horribly, which didn’t happen often. However shit happens, so I didn’t think much about it, and I went first on spaghetti duty. With my girlfriend following, she immediately got her hair stuck in the figure eight but managed to yank it out. After putting on packs to continue, I noticed that both of our sleeping pads had vanished. We always stuck pads under pack top flaps, but we also tied stuff sack loops to the pack so we wouldn’t lose them on bushwhacks – but they both were gone. Interesting. I gave her the Swiss Army Knife I normally wore around my neck, “cut off your hair if you have to if it gets stuck again.”
Four rappels in I couldn’t help but notice every rope toss ended in spaghetti, this I thought was quite unprecedented since I’ve been throwing rap ropes my entire life. I went first to deal with the ropes yet again, wearing my pack. Halfway down, just as the rock steepened, I noticed that BOTH ropes had an overhand knot below me, simply impossible I thought. Never in all my decades of climbing had a rope done that, let alone two. I wrapped ropes around one leg twice and clipped off to the ropes from above, then I could untie both knots. Simple problems like this have killed more than one so-called canyoneer. Once down, I had her lower her pack so she wouldn’t have any problems, but at the overhanging section, she got her hair stuck again. Before I could express any displeasure, a loud rock crashed into the rim hundreds of feet above, and a couple of seconds later a watermelon-sized rock pulverized six feet away. Shards hit me in the back like shrapnel, drawing blood. I looked up, confused. There weren’t any rocks that could have hit the rim like that-only steep dirt. But the rock had smashed into the rim and then streaked straight toward me as if it were thrown. Meanwhile, she was cutting her hair out of the figure 8 while spinning in the air, and I knew better than to say anything. She eventually got off the rope, saw the white powdered rock piled beside me and asked, “Did it hit right there?” Yeah. The color left her face. And don’t say anything about the hair thing, she continued. I watched as a little breath of wind blew my hair into the figure eight, just when I couldn’t take either hand off the rope to stop it. The color left my face too; there hadn’t been any wind.
Next up was a funky little downclimb, one she could do without difficulty. I continued down canyon to work the next problem, a single rope rap to a pool. Naturally, both rope ends tangled again, so as I pulled up both ands to unsnarl them, I decided I had better deal with rap ropes much more carefully. Again without warning another rock hit hard up high and smashed into the low-angled rock where the rope had just been. This canyon was really messing with us.
I yelled up canyon, “you ok?” I heard my voice echo several times, with no answer. We don’t need this I thought, and ran back up. Around a single bend, there she was, walking calmly down canyon. “Didn’t you hear me yelling? I thought you fell off that downclimb!” “I took a little while to figure it out,” she said, but I never heard you yell anything…” I knew my voice echoed everywhere. I didn’t tell her about the second rock fall.
An enormous ponderosa tree now blocked the canyon. Two dead deer were lying on either side of a trunk that was at least four feet wide. Clearly the easiest route down canyon, I jumped up and began walking on 50 feet of the huge tree. Halfway across I heard a sudden exhalation of air, I turned and saw her lying on her back in the boulders. The pack cushioned her fall of about six feet likely saving her life. “How in the hell did you fall off this?” I asked, this tree is like a highway. “I didn’t fall, Dennis, I was pushed. Something put its hand on my chest and shoved me backward.” She was as scared as I have ever seen her.
We sat down. “I don’t know what’s going on in here” I told her, “but we’ve got to be extremely careful. Never get out of my sight.” I thought we would camp when we hit water, but now- not so much. Let’s just get out of here. On the next rap I took no chances: I slid each rope down, one side at a time, I tied off the middle, sent her down on a single line, belaying with the other half. People have died because they did not know how to set up this simple technique, and I wasn’t about to let anything happen to either of us.
We eventually came to a place where the water was flowing between pools. It was like a walking from a dark canyon into sunshine, we were out of the evil part of the canyon. “We can camp now,” I told her. “Yeah, I felt that, too,” she answered. “But let’s keep going just to make sure.” At dusk we slept on our wetsuits, since we had no pads, and slept well.
I haven’t had any desire to repeat this canyon. Whenever I hear about someone wanting to descend it, I always tell them to be careful. You won’t be alone.
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Ghosts in Grafton
I’ve spent many nights on front porches in Grafton, a little ghost town near Zion. It’s where Katharine Ross rode on the handlebars of Paul Newman’s bicycle while “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” played in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But once when I drove in around midnight a fire blazed in the fireplace, I didn’t think much of it, probably just local kids drinking some beer. On closer inspection, there were no beer cans around however. I threw out a bag and pad on the porch and was nearly asleep when the back door began creaking. I laughed. Just like a low-budget horror movie. A couple bricks on either side of the door should do it, and tried to get back to sleep. I was awakened by a loud thump, and the door began squeaking again. Urgently. The bricks had slid away.
Since I’d been working as a carpenter, I went to the car, grabbed a hammer and 16 sinkers and toenailed the door shut, finally convinced I could get some sleep. But a couple hours later, a loud bang woke me this time. Near my porch loomed a large cottonwood tree, and folks who have spent time in the desert know that any amount of wind will make cottonwoods rustle. The Navajo call them the “tree that sounds like water,” but my cottonwood tree was stone cold still. I walked to the back door and saw it had been pushed hard from the outside, pulling out and bending four long nails. No way I said to myself.
OK, you guys, I get it. You’re the Berry’s, right? I had seen their names on the largest tombstone in the tiny cemetery just outside town on an earlier trip. The tombstone said they had been killed by Indians at Short Creek (also know Short Creek as Hildale, of polygamous clan fame). I have got to get some sleep here, so I’ll tell you what. How about I bring someone for you to scare every time I come out here? I’ll just send them in alone and you can have your way with them. Is it a deal? I got back in my sleeping bag and slept soundly with no further incidents. We did have a deal.
Later that summer I had arranged to meet a lady I was seeing in Zion for dinner. Naturally, we went out to Grafton to spend the evening. I told her there were some amazing whitewashed walls in there, each with a name scratched into it, and that she should check them out while it was still light. In a couple minutes it began. I heard both doors slam, windows go up and down and various thudding noises coming from the house. Out she came, running hard. When she saw me smiling, she just said, “You knew that was going to happen, didn’t you!” I just kept on smiling.
She wouldn’t be the last one I’d take out there. This was fun.