Dads,Daughters, Desert

It was late.  Late in terms of bedtime.

“Dad, where’s Maddie?” Lilly asked.

“We’ll find her shortly.” I responded.

Lilly asked in a sweet, “I want something,” voice.  “Can we have a campfire once we get there?”

“It’s already past your bedtime.  Once we get there, we’ll setup the tent and get some rest.”

“Mommy, won’t find out.”

Hmmmm….That was true!

The trip involved three dads and three daughters.  No moms! Lilly knows how to play her cards. She would never ask that question if mom was sitting next to me instead of my friend, Patrick.  We drove through the San Rafael Swell hoping to rendezvous with my other friend, Dave, and his daughter, Maddie.  We planned to spend three days exploring the treasures of the Swell.

The San Rafael Swell is situated in central Utah, the Swell (local moniker) runs south to the Hanksville area.  It’s a land of canyons, mining relics of yesteryear, rockart panels of the Ancestral Puebloans and Fremont Indians, and dinosaur fossils millions of years old. The Bureau of Land Management manages the Swell, so dispersed camping is allowed and low impact practices are encouraged.  My Land Cruiser rolled along the dirt road as we searched for the lights at Dave and Maddie’s campsite. Without too much trouble, we found them, exchanged pleasantries, setup camp, and turned into bed.

The next morning dawned prompting three dads to prepare breakfast and pack while the girls took a short hike around camp.  With both vehicles loaded, we traveled to the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, which holds a high concentration of Allosaurus fossils (the state fossil).  Relatively small, the quarry took about an hour to explore—a perfect length of activity for kids.   Once back in our vehicles, we continued south along the San Rafael Reef.

The reef is an enormous sandstone rock feature that rises some 300-500 feet from the desert floor. It runs north-south approximately 70 miles and separates the eastern and western sections of the Swell.   It’s another geographical wonder of Utah.  Our vehicles paralleled the reef until we took a short deviation to an old working ranch.

Rancho Not So Grande” was a working cattle ranch some time ago. We checked out the buildings and surroundings and tried to imagine the cowboys/cowgirls making a living in this desert environment.   And, the cows trying to find something to eat on a land of sparse vegetation.   In the distance, we spotted an older gentleman and a few kids walking toward us. “Hello.” We said.

“Good afternoon.” He responded warmly.

After a little small talk, the gentleman informed us that his family owns the land.  He invited us into the main house, and he began to talk about life on the ranch while pointing to pictures hung on the wall. After spotting one picture in particular, I had to ask:

“Why were you wearing a dress as a baby?”

“Oh, my family didn’t have a lot of money; my mother re-used baby clothes with no regard to gender.”  His answer made sense and helped us realize that cattle ranching was a tough, hard life on the Utah deserts.   I intently listened as he told other stories of life on the ranch and the surrounding area. He provided real-life history lessons to the dads and daughters.

Time was ticking, so we said our goodbyes and thank yous.  On the dirt road, we continued south.   Weaving around small hills covered with juniper trees and prickly pear cacti.  Patrick rode shotgun while the girls sat in back.  The girls talked about school while Patrick and I chatted about life. Patrick scanned the map to look for the road into Black Dragon Canyon.  At his direction, I steered toward the break in the Earth’s crust.  Black Dragon Canyon runs east/west through the reef. The canyon bottom is a watercourse that is dry except during an occasional flash flood.  We found a place to camp.

The following morning, the dads sipped coffee and prepared pancakes while the girls hiked the slickrock around camp.  Afterward, all of us hiked to view the Black Dragon rockart panel and the enormous cave hidden high in an alcove.  The pictograph panels were stunning; but unfortunately, someone outlined and defaced all the pictures in chalk.  We stared at the panels and daydreamed about the original artists.  What did they intend?  Why did they paint them?  Our hypothesizes went unanswered.  “There!” Lilly yelled while pointing up the loose rock slope.  My eyes tried to locate what Lilly had noticed.  I hiked closer to her and then realized that Lilly was pointing to the cave’s entrance.

Patrick, Dave, and I used the girls’ headlamps to see into the dark abyss.  The cave was deep and dark.  Ideal for kids!  However, the dads scoped it before we led the girls into the cave. Our beams of light cut through the dust and dirt particles in the air.   The girls gawked at the inside of the cave.  We found nothing special and no buried treasure.  So, we exited the cave and hiked back to our vehicles.

Our route took us through the San Rafael River Wildlife Refuge.  Really, there’s a wildlife refuge in the desert?  The San Rafael River flows through the Swell, and the shores of the river provide an extensive plant and animal life habitat.  We scanned the horizon for wildlife. “Look!”  yelled Abby from the backseat.  My head swiveled to the south and spotted the herd of antelope Abby was watching.   The desert holds it’s secrets, and seeing wildlife revealed yet another one.  The towering cottonwoods provided shade over the precious waters of the San Rafael River as the songbirds sang.

On the shore of the San Rafael River, we pulled over and got out to hike around the historic Chaffin Ranch.  Or, at least, what’s left of it.  The Chaffins ranched the San Rafael Desert in the 1930s and 1940s.  Today, visitors can view the ranch’s “secret weapon” to combat the harsh, desert environment. The Chaffin Ranch survived because of a cold-water geyser on the property.  Yep, cold, fresh water peculated and erupted to the surface.  The girls cautiously approached the bubbling waterspout.  And, they screamed and scurried as soon as it erupted. Patrick, Dave, and I chuckled as the scene unfolded.  Roughly, every 30 minutes or so, the geyser erupts; shooting water skyward 10-20 feet. The water, heavily mineralized, creates a beautiful mineralized terraced watercourse.  Once dried, we continued south on the Green River Road hoping to find a campsite.

We found a good spot to pull over for the night high above the waters of the Green River, which originates in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and travels south until it meets the mighty Colorado River.  We were roughly 100 miles north of the Green/Colorado River’s confluence and savored the view of the glassy, smooth waters in the late evening light as it weaved its way in and around the sandstone walls.  The river waters still erode the sandstone, hence the reason for the brown color, rather the emerald color of the headwaters.

Patrick and Abby setup their ground tent while I deployed my rooftop tent.  Dave and Maddie had their camper and began cooking dinner in no time.  I started the fire, and we discussed our day’s activities while performing camp duties.    The girls enjoyed s’mores while the dads sipped adult beverages.  The stars “played” their show and we strained to look upward to see the big dipper, Orion’s belt, and other constellations.  We slept well.

In the 1930’s, prohibition was the law.  Therefore, many moonshiners made their own alcohol albeit, illegal.  What does this have to do with San Rafael Swell?  The following day, we found ourselves in Moonshine Canyon. We entered the head of the stunning slot canyon.  The canyon walls constricted us but made hiking through it a blast. The girls stemmed the canyon walls as we descended further into Earth’s depths.

“You see it, right?” I asked everyone.

“What?” The girls responded. I gave them a few minutes, but none of them saw the old sheep bridge high above the slot canyon.  The bridge was used to move sheep from pastures on either side of the canyon.  Ten more minutes of hiking and, the canyon walls dissipated—at the canyon’s end. This is where moonshiners would drive their wagons into the canyon and to the moonshine vats to create their alcohol concoctions.  All that remains today are the concrete bases of their alcoholic vats.  A snapshot of a historic time in America.

Once back to our vehicles, we continued south.  The girls conversed in the back while Patrick and I discussed the joys of camping with our daughters without our wives/moms.  It’s just different without mothers.  No, not necessarily better, just different.  Conversations are different.  Activities are different.   Dinnertime is different.  Dinner? Oh yeah, we needed to find a campsite to get dinner started.  Luckily, I knew of an outstanding site overlooking a different part of the Green River.

I led the way as Dave followed in his camper.  We stopped on a beautiful field of slickrock.  We quickly set camp, and I started making tacos for dinner.  The girls got the fire started with the help of Patrick; and shortly thereafter, long shadows signified an end to another outstanding day.

The next morning, we quickly packed and then hiked to Colonade Arch.  This magnificent arch is really five arches.  The arches are tucked into an alcove high above the Green River.  It was slickrock heaven!  The girls’ feet stuck to the rock as they cruised up, down, and around the slickrock wonderland.  The weather was ideal with temperatures in the low 70s and puffy cumulus clouds dotting the sky.  Unfortunately, I looked at my watch and realized we had to rally.   The “real world” was calling, and we embarked on our four-hour drive home.

Breaks from reality are crucial; and luckily, Utah has many places to escape reality.  As our vehicles traveled toward Highway 24, we glanced to the south and saw the canyons of Robber’s Roost.  Another time….  I looked into the rear view mirror and noticed the girls were fast asleep. Traveling with kids as a solo parent is not easy! But, it’s a worthwhile activity and experience.  As we turned north, the San Rafael Reef was backlit by the western sun and our route home laid before us.

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