Insatiable Desert- Dark Canyon Diner

Every one of the 60 plus people surrounding me is either headed to or coming from Lake Powell; you can tell which by the shade of their sunburn.  You can also tell that I’m the odd one out by simply looking at the parking lot:  a heat haze of large to superhuge trucks pulling trailers loaded with large to superhuge boats, practically incandescent they are so new and clean.  Then there is “Snorry;” a little starting-to-rust-truck so red with dust you can barely tell that if we were ever to wash her (we won’t), she would be white.  I describe this little beast with a certain amount of pride and ill-disguised snobbery.  This truck has been down so many gnarly, sandy, rutted, pitted, boulder-strewn roads you can read her adventures like braille across her body. This also means you can read adventure in the stacks of receipts from various autobody shops that Adam keeps in a shoebox in the back seat.  He curses “Snorry” monthly but I, free from the hassle of actually having to pay for her up-keep, unabashedly love her.

Just this morning, her four-wheel-drive superpowers, facilitated by her short wheelbase, allowed me to wake up in a mostly-used-by-cows meadow, perched high on Boulder Mountain and miles from any town or campground. Lying in her bed in my sleeping bag, mosquito netting over my head, watching the light come on slowly across the white bark of the aspen next to me, I felt grateful that I did not have to sleep on the ground with all those cow flops.

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We are in Hanksville. And as Adam put it when we were driving into town, Hanksville is a collision of heat, and dry and wind.  This condition, as far as I can tell, is only going to get worse.  Back in 2006, the entire region suffered 100 year floods.  I say “suffered”, but I think they were awesome. Slot canyons with barely enough water in them to constitute calling it “moisture,” saw water levels rise to some 20, and in some cases 60, feet.  Hiking down Coyote Gulch, you can still see flood debris in the tops of mature cottonwoods. A whole section a Hole-In-the-Rock road was washed away across the pinion/juniper plains at the foot of the Straight Cliffs, carrying with it a 100 year old line shack, and Hanksville was flooded beyond recognition by the rising flume of the Fremont/Dirty Devil River.

Since then, the city has set out to squelch any possible threat from that nasty river and has decided to drive the Devil underground.  The river bed has a few scattered pools, stagnant and mucky. So much for shade.

And today, we could have used shade.  Unused to summer climes after winter long hibernation, 80 degrees might as well be 110 so we are seeking relief in ice cream.  Stan’s Burger Shack was first opened my Stan Alvey in 1985 and is now run by his kids.  The Alveys have been living in this area since its foundation; there is a prominent wash named after them just over the mountain in Escalante.  I have been to Stan’s some 5 or 6 times, but never in summer.  Usually an explosion of customers resulting in a line out the door and a room full of screaming kids does not improve the quality of food and service at a restaurant, but Stan’s seems to be thriving on it.  I comment on the crowdedness of the room to the cashier and she just smiles and says, “Yah, its fun.”  For a minute I’m incredulous, but then again, I’ve seen this town during the rest of the year and I don’t imagine she has much to do when all these people aren’t here demanding huge shakes and burgers.

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I’m usually here in March, the month when I can pull my dad away from the endless hordes of patients who believe that he is the only doctor who can save their lives (maybe he is). A few years ago, after trying to plan a succession of backpacking trips with friends, all of which failed, I decided to turn to a partner I could rely on. A partner who, when I mentioned I was planning a backpacking trip into Dark Canyon, could barely disguise the wolfish gleam in his eye and who immediately went out and spent four hundred dollars on camp stoves, pocket knives, sleeping bags, heavy duty plastic eating utensils with a fork at one end and a spoon at the other, hiking boots, a tiny flashlight, and a tiny water pump that worked perfectly for the first day of our trip.  My dad.  My dad, who filled my head as a kid with stories of mountains and horses and backcountry canoe trips. Who lovingly (and mistakenly) took my Seattle bred mom to a cabin in the woods for their honeymoon, who used to hike up the back of Timp just to study, and who, miraculously, had never been backpacking until three years ago when I took him.

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For the last two Spring Breaks (March) my dad and I have descended the 1,600 foot— elevation lost in 1 mile—rockslide known alternately as “The Sundance Trail” and “The Devil’s Staircase” to collapse happily stream side in the rarely visited deeps of Dark Canyon.  I’m not sure how much to give away here, I don’t really want you all to be there the next time I go. However…

Dark Canyon begins up by the Bear’s Ears in the Manti-La Sal National Forest. The canyon is a wilderness area within the jurisdiction of both the National Forest (top) and the BLM (bottom), having received its wilderness designation as a result of the Wilderness Act of 1984.The canyon runs 30 miles, falling 5,000 feet in elevation from pinion and juniper plateaus, to lush riparian oases and finally to the Colorado River (or the backwash that is now Lake Powell).  The miles of descent are broken by a series of waterfalls- that are sometimes hard to navigate- plunging you deeper and deeper into the many layered bottoms.

The Sundance Trail drops about ten miles from where Dark Canyon intersects Cataract Canyon. The trailhead is ridiculously hard to find, but only because all of the helpful guidebook directions to the trailhead are wrong.  Luckily, the Utah Road & Recreation Atlas is surprisingly easy to follow, has the correct numbers for all the little dirt roads leading to the trailhead, and positions the trailhead in the correct location on the map.  Glen Canyon Rec has recently relocated the trailhead and it’s easy to see why.  The trail used to begin by a muddy, danky, mire— aka a cow trough—and now begins on a smooth slickrock shelf from which you can look down and down into Dark Canyon.

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We first went into Dark with my sweetheart, Adam in March of ’09.  After sleeping, nestled in a body-shaped slickrock depression at the trailhead, we began our hike early. Descent off the rockslide puts you in full sun with no shade and no water so we ran like hell to get down to the stream before noon.  The rockslide, however does not lend itself to anything like running. I think I may have laughed, sort of deliriously, when I first caught sight of the slide from across canyon.  From a distance, it doesn’t look at all traversable.  It looks like a huge, precarious mess and you can’t help but wonder if the weathered impulse that initiated this slide, however many years ago, might just decide to finish the job and drop the rest of the wall on you as you descend.  We, however, made it alive, and I have to confess to loving this rockslide.  It makes entry into the canyon a sort of test of will, an ordeal in the medieval sense, an adventure.

At first arrival, I have to admit to being disappointed. I had been used to pack trips in the intimate country of the Escalante, sweeping walls thrumming in the heat, writhing movement in the rock stilled and still obvious in patterns of cross-bedding.  This canyon, on the other hand was wide. The walls were broken and sort of beige, none of the deep reds I had been craving over the winter.  Plants along the stream banks buckled over each other, stalks broken. Steve Allen’s route description and various travel blogs I’d read had promised pools and falls and this was just rocky and rather brown.  Dark Canyon has been called the “Little Grand Canyon.”  Yes, it was a very deep canyon, but otherwise I was unimpressed.

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Luckily the canyon redeemed itself next day.  After a short meander down- stream, the brushy and cobble filled creek smoothed out over a brown bottom.  Brown gave away to red and then to grey as the watercourse narrowed and widened into teardrop shaped pools, deep enough for the first plunge of the year. In observation of my dad’s comfort level, I swam clothed at first. But swimming in pool after deep sinewy pool, I couldn’t take it anymore, so he and Adam hightailed it down canyon to find a “boys hole.”  I ran up the smooth, rounded, edges of the pool like a lizard, then let my body fall from the wall to splash in the water below.  The water wasn’t warm enough to really paddle around much, so I scrambled out and ran up the wall to fall splashfully again. Lying for a minute on the smooth banks to dry in the sun, I pressed my ear to the rock and listened, held my breath and listened; nothing. I had the canyon to myself.

The canyon bottom progressed steadily downward, dropping dramatically 100 feet into a slick, gray narrow.  As we traversed around the fall, peering down into the dark, we could not see the bottom. From our ledge, Adam trundled large rocks into the stream.  They fell a long way and made a satisfying splash.  This water was deep.

Before intersecting the Colorado, the canyon deepened even further, the trail cutting into a grassy hillside high above the watercourse.  The channel below rippled smoothly downstream, a slim and sculpted corridor, purple scalloped with cream and grey.  The walls above the trail a seared orange, clashing brilliantly with the tri- colored ribbon below.  In full sun, we quickly became parched and began to feel brittle and tired. We retreat to the lavender baths above, pitching in head-first at the first sight of a diveable pool.

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Next day, we wandered up stream, discovering a veritable waterpark of slicks, slides, pools and falls created by my new favorite rock layer, the Hermosa Formation.  The Hermosa is made of creamy purple limestone, forming smooth sidewalks at the base of an otherwise orange and blocky sandstone canyon.  These sidewalks are scattered here and there with flood debris, but are otherwise clear, rippling slightly and dropping delightfully into narrow little watercourses.  The first time we observed this phenomena, I literally jumped for joy and ran for the first deep pool.  The second day followed this pattern: walk a bit, squeal, plunge, walk a bit more, squeal, plunge. We didn’t get very far.

In March, the canyon is just starting to come alive. When we first arrived, the cottonwood trees lining parts of the creek had tightly curled leaf balls on the end of each slender branch. The first morning in the canyon, waking up under a copse of cottonwood trees, found our winter-weight down bags wet with frost.  I slept in down booties, now wet and useless. By the third day, the leaves uncurled and you could see the occasional Aster poking out of clefts in the rock.

On our first visit in ‘09, we wandered hot in the sun (hot to us, it was probably no more that 65).  In March of 2010, we decided to return and explore further up canyon. Our last pack trip had been spent in the dry outposts of Grand Gulch where we had searched anxiously for water and were saved by a very green and notatall fresh pothole.  My Camelbak water bladder has never fully recovered.  In the spring, we were eager to return to a canyon with the promise of soaks and swims and no stress over drinking water. On our second visit to Dark, clouds kept interrupting our progress and day time temperatures warmed to no more than 60.  We swam anyway.

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On our way home from each of these trips; Dark Canyon I, Grand Gulch, and Dark Canyon II, my dad and I stopped off at Stan’s.  Charmingly, my dad blends the name of the town and the restaurant in his memory, so Stan’s to him (and therefore to me) is always, “Hank’s.”  There is no amount of food that we could have eaten while backpacking that could possibly have given us the calories needed to hike up that rockslide, so we arrived starving.  In October and March, Stan’s is dead, the only exceptions are a couple of dirty boys with rafts strapped to their car and the cashier’s friend, clearly a local, who stands chatting with her for the entirety of our visit.  My dad and I play cards while we wait for our food, watching the counter hungrily for any sign of a fry.

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In March, the cook stands listlessly staring out windows, compulsively checking his cell phone for texts and the shakemaker puts hardly any thin, stringy pineapple into my roughly blended shake.  They are out of tomatoes.  The buns are stale. There simply is no juice to life, and certainly none in the food.  The cook must be so morose over this lackluster season, that he can’t be bothered to watch my burger as it cooks because it is unforgivable dry.  We eat everything and leave no crumbs.

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Sitting here in early summer, I forgive Stan’s its off-season mediocrity.  Adam and I have been swimming in Capital Reef all afternoon—the waterfall off Highway 12—and water always makes me hungry.  At Stan’s, everyone is spoiled by being served desert first—easier and quicker to make.  In front of me is the most enormous shake I have ever had and it is full of blackberries, cheesecake and bits of graham cracker crust.  Adam orders an Oreo shake, but keeps sneaking his spoon into mine.  I have tried mango shakes, raspberry-banana, caramel and pineapple here at Stan’s and this one is the clear winner (make note: when you come, you must order the BLACKBERRY CHEESECAKE SHAKE).  When we’ve waited for the sun-burnt hordes to be served, our order is finally ready.  The bun is glistening with brushed-on oil, it is plump and buttery.  The patty is thick and juicy, the tomato is there! the fries are crispy!  The “on-season” is clearly in full swing.  After all that ice cream, I’m not even sure I can eat this, but hell, I’ll give it a shot.

2 Responses to “Insatiable Desert- Dark Canyon Diner”

  1. It was every bit as good as Jessi writes it! I would love to go back but probably never will as I am sure that my knee would never survive the descent into the canyon! Woe is me.
    Chris

  2. Love the article and thinking of Chris on a vacation! I am a patient of his and he truly is the one who saved my life! Would love to see all that you described but am sure it will never happen, so thanks for letting us see it through your eyes!!

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