The ground gives way abruptly at my feet, sloughing off as a
massive sandslide; the only overland trail into the Bobway. I know below me are
red slickrock narrows like worm holes carved from the Escalante River corridor.
Graceful, serpentine hallways of red rock, continuous and smooth from the top
of one 200 foot wall, across a glossy floor where the rock abruptly changes
direction, gyrating and spiraling at looking-glass angles, before extending up
the other side hundreds of feet more. More importantly, I know there is a
spring at the head of this squirrely subterranean world, and trees bigger than
the scrubby and stressed junipers hanging on for dear life and rain up on top
of King’s Mesa.
I lean forward into the wind, peering down the slope. It’s
steep enough, I know I’ll have to crawl up it on my hands and knees when it’s
time to head back to Chimney Rock. Adam
hollers through the gale, “Are we good?” Peering down into the canyon, I can
almost see green beyond the 300 vertical feet of sand. The wind blows so hard,
I surrender a little of my weight to it, leaning farther and farther forward.
It doesn’t matter if we’re “good.” It doesn’t matter if I won’t be able to
climb back up this sandslide tonight. I have to get to water and out of the
sun. I need those trees. I lean forward a little more, both unsettled by the
crashing wind in my ears and grateful that for a moment, I don’t feel heavy
with heat. At the tipping point, I feel my body start to tumble forward. I
yell, “Ya! We’re good!” and pitch down the slide.
When we left Salt Lake 4 days ago, it was snowing. When we
dropped down from Chimney Rock into Coyote Gulch 3 days ago, cottonwoods surreally
and serenely snowed tuffty white seeds down on us from lush heights. Lying by
the stream, snake grass already tall and full, watching it “snow”, I started to
feel that spring might be a real thing.
We left Coyote Gulch via a tricky path of slickrock shelves
and natural stone walkways ascending the canyon wall to the north. The path is
easily camouflaged by the canyon’s natural contours, so I, and thousands of
other visitors to Coyote, had walked past it half a dozen times, never knowing
that a whole world lay beyond the confines of those deeply entrenched, heavily
trafficked, walls. The people in the know, the people who discovered this
secret passage and consequently revealed it (on the internet, where else), are
canyoneers. This indistinct path also provides entry to the Long Branch of
Sleepy Hollow, a 16 hour slot filled with keeper potholes and sliver thin
chasms, demanding extensive high stemming and the occasional swim. Winding our
way up the Mesa, we stopped along the lip, peering down into the dark, taking
the measure of what seemed from above to be a featureless black pit.
Coyote is a fairly
narrow canyon lined with trees, willows and snake grass. Hit it right, and even
the air seems to glow a little green. It can also be deeply shadowed and
consequently, a little cold and claustrophobic. After a while of wandering in
its depths, I need a wider view. Panorama. A sense of where I am.
Where Coyote is contraction, King’s Mesa is the essence of
expansion. Emerging from Coyote, the Mesa rolls out as an undulant world of open
slickrock and small, sandy, pothole gardens filled with primrose; their white
blossoms blazing in the sun even as they wilt to mushy pink. The Mesa seems to
swirl and seethe around a single high point, Les George. There, an open notch in
a towering crest of rock connects the south end of the Mesa, the side that
flows down to Coyote, to the north end which drops down to Fools Canyon and
beyond. Standing at the top of Les
George Point, the whole region lays itself out.
Fifty Mile Bench is clear to the south, Navajo Mountain to the south
east, and, my favorite, the area that drags me and calls me and torments me
with its inaccessibility, all the canyons and benches and mesas between Kings
Mesa and the Waterpocket Fold. A breadth
of land connecting two worlds that I have danced around, but barely penetrated.
Seeing this massive tract of unexplored (by me and most other people) land
makes me feel anxious, makes life feel too short, makes my legs feel too short,
and my energy insufficient. Looking at
that fleshtoned, erupting, folding, arching, splitting, utterly bare landscape
makes me full up with longing.
What got in the way of breaching that expanse this time
though, was not my endurance or the length of my legs. It was the sun. Simple. The
thing that made me stop hiking, drop my pack and embrace invitingly warm and smooth
curves of slickrock again and again on our way up to Les George, was the thing
that fried me, sucked up all of my liquids and salts, and spat me out on the
floor of Fools Canyon unable to move for 2 days.
By the time we reached the old stock trail into Fools
Canyon, I was dizzy with light and heat. The “trail” down is barely more than a series
of ledges, dropping in severe switchbacks covering 500 feet in half a mile. At
points, all evidence of the original tread has crumbled away, leaving airy
drop- offs where hikers have piled tottering heaps of broken up sandstone in an
attempt to connect the gaps. I have no idea how cowboys rode up and down these
trails, let alone convinced thousands of cattle that cascading down these
cliffs was a super idea and if they would just follow him, he was sure to lead
them to water. Uh-huh.
For two days, I lay in a thin pool of water. I inched
forward or backward, barely lifting my head, following shadows. Adam explored
and came back every so often to ask me again if he should go get search and
rescue. No, I insisted. Just let me lie here. Just let me stay with this sheaf
of water tracing my face.
I drank enough water. I wore a hat and long sleeves. I wore
sunblock. I wasn’t stupid. I just wasn’t ready.
I wanted to rush for expansion and exposure, more expansion and exposure
than my still-half-hibernating-body could handle. This urge in me to rush, to
burst open, is not new. There is no shade on King’s Mesa. No overhangs. No
trees. Luckily, sometime in the not too distant past there had been rain, so
that as we ascended the head of Arrowhead Canyon, we found potholes filled with
thick, green, slimy and totally alive with the mysteries of desert aquaculture,
water. Any time I found one deep enough, I got in, clothes and all.
The hike out happens, not on my hands and knees, but in a
gentle twilit, pink and purple haze. Severe lines of cliffs and canyons blur
into night. The urge in me to rush has been burned out and instead, I sit on a
dance-floor of slickrock, catching shadows, watching the light leave me here,
pale and cool.