“Where’s your husband?” the ranger asked. My husband? I looked at him blankly. “The rest of your party?” he continued, scanning the canyon. “I’m it.” I grinned as though this was no big deal, a matter of course. I grinned as though the assumption that I should have a husband didn’t bother me. The BLM ranger looked me over. I looked him over. Green shorts, government -issue hiking boots; clearly on his way out, done with his patrol. I was jealous— this red walled beauty of a canyon was this guy’s office—and a little annoyed. “You’re on your own?” he persisted. I responded casually, but inside I was thinking dude, did I not just say that? My irritation rose. On one hand, I wanted to smile smugly, that’s right, I am about to set off into the wilderness! A capable woman on her own! That’s right buddy, on her own! On the other hand, a little part of me, the part that still feels like a teenager sometimes, defensive and wanting to prove herself, wanted to stomp my foot and hit him. Instead, I tried chatting, “It’s beautiful here isn’t it? The weather’s supposed to be really good.” See, I thought, I’m not a complete idiot, I checked the weather; I know stuff. He however, was not to be deterred, “Well…did you fill out a permit and sign in at the trail head?” Are you kidding me? I nodded and showed him my permit. He stood there, staring at me. Man, I thought, how long has it been since you’ve seen a woman?
It wasn’t just that I was a woman though; it was that I was a woman backpacking alone. A woman in a canyon 70 long, bone-rattling, rutted, sandy, miles from town. A woman in Utah, with no kids and no man. “Well…make sure you sign out when you leave, ok?” I could tell what he was thinking, and now that I’ve been a ranger myself, I would have been thinking the same thing; safest to assume that anyone you come across is an idiot. But at the time, I was riled. He was thinking he was going to have to be back here in three days looking for my body or rescuing me from some ledge. What did he think was going to happen? I was in a canyon running east to west and ending in the Escalante River. There was no trail to follow, but who needed a trail? There was no way to get lost—you’re either headed toward the river or away from it. I nodded, smiling again and thinking if I was a guy, you would have just shot the shit with me and then moved on. We could have been talking about, I don’t know, guns or something.
I decided to take this interruption in my morning as an opportunity to sit and shake the sand out of my boots. Even as I sat, a part of me recognized that I had been relieved to see the ranger; relieved to see anyone. I’d been hiking since 6:30 after a crappy night’s sleep in the back of my 4-Runner and hadn’t seen a soul. There hadn’t been any noise either, except the booming echo of my own breath. There had been a group of raucous kids the night before—Jeep rallying up in the dark—zipping in at full speed and screeching to a halt next to where I was parked. They’d piled out of the car, thrown back the last of their beer and asked, “Where are we?” “Hurricane Wash,” I’d answered. “I think this is it,” one of them hollered and in a moment, they were gone. I hadn’t seen them again. If the ranger needed to worry about anyone, it was them.
I also had to admit that part of my irritation and defensiveness was fear. Not because I was a woman alone though, but just because I was alone. Alone in the backcountry for the first time. I had chosen Coyote Gulch as the location for my first solo trip because it’s a popular destination—possibly the most popular in the Escalante area. I assumed there would be at least a few people around to ask for help in case of an emergency. But in the three days I was out, I didn’t see anyone. No one, except for the ranger.
This absence of any possible saviors, of any relief from my own company, was occasion for pride and for terror. I wasn’t raised camping and hiking, but I had been backpacking 4 or 5 times before. My first trip out—sleeping away from trails, signs, civilization of any kind (beyond the other folks on the trip)— I knew: this business of walking around with anything you might possibly need to survive on your back, of going to sleep outside and waking up outside and going to sleep outside again, of being surrounded at every moment by natural beauty, was for me. Now, I needed to feel I could do this without people more experienced than me —telling me what to pack, how much food I would need, lending me their gear and their maps. I knew that if I always had to rely on other people to get into the wild places I loved, I would spend a lot of time waiting in the city.
And so here I was; alone, happy and terrified. Adrenal glands pumping, I had hiked the 7 miles to the Hurricane Wash/Coyote Gulch junction in less than 3 hours. Every time I passed through a fork in the wash, I turned around and tried to memorize which way I would have to go on the trip back out. There are no signs in the backcountry, except foot prints, and these were trodden over by countless hooves. The golden brown wash narrowed and deepened. Water appeared; first in shallow, scummy, brilliant green puddles reeking of cow pee, then in thin, freshly running trickles. I looked at my topo map constantly. Feeling a little overwhelmed by the silence, I stopped midmorning to lay on my back, fling my feet up over my pack and breath for a while, just looking at the sky and feeling my own solidity.
At the junction, the canyon deepened dramatically. The creek ran wide and shallow across sand and cobbles. Sound rippled against tall red walls, gently and reassuringly filling the silence that had so overwhelmed me all morning. Light cast sound- wave-shaped shadows on the bottoms of alcoves that ricocheted against each other as I splashed past.
By 11 am or so (I didn’t have a watch) I reached Jacob Hamblin Arch. The walls of the canyon loomed and twisted here so that looking up into the massive natural arch left me feeling dizzy and disoriented. I had planned on camping here, but with the whole day still ahead of me, I ate a little, stretched a little, looked around, and kept on walking.
The creek deepened, flooding over my boot tops so that every so often, I had to stop and pour water out. By sometime in the afternoon, I reached Coyote Natural Bridge. A clear sandy bench just higher than the creek curved away from the canyon walls. The bench was surrounded by cottonwoods and tamarisk and tall grasses. It was just big enough for me.
Lying on my back, I watched the light move across canyon walls and slowly, very slowly, almost excruciatingly slowly, go away. In all my glorified dreams about being alone in the wild, I hadn’t realized I might get bored. With no books and no whiskey (mental note to bring them next time), I watched the light for the rest of the day. It cut across the canyon, throwing sandstone swirls and spirals into relief; evening became a pattern gradually traced on a wall. Hearing splashes come from somewhere up canyon I sat up, looking around. A doe splashed through the stream. I was alone. I was ok.