Revisiting Ghosts



In my youth (read pre-thirties) I endured a traumatic event that neatly divides my past into before and after. You may have heard about it due to its improbable nature. My girlfriend and I were hit by rockfall as we slept in Grand Gulch in 1995, many miles from a trailhead. She suffered compound fractures on both legs and my kneecap was broken cleanly in half. I managed to find a group of campers that snowy night after a couple hours of wandering and hollering. They were a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) group that did everything right. They competently administered first aid and organized a rescue. A helicopter swooped us away 15 hours later from the depths of the canyon.


My carefree days seemed to have ended on that night.  We had a burst of publicity related to the event, front page of Salt Lake Tribune and articles in few magazines that reworked the story for public consumption. I ran out of money and went into debt for the first time. I got my first desk-bound job in my chosen profession, accounting, and spent six months doing rehab on my knee. I gained 10 pounds that stayed with me for a decade.


My girlfriend did a few months in a wheelchair and slowly relearned to walk. We did not feel physically and psychologically healed until two years later when we spent a summer in Peru and Bolivia hiking a few hundred miles. We got married. We had kids. Four years after our “accident” there was a renewal of interest coinciding with the rise of the Internet. Two different cable shows, Wild Survival and Surviving in the Wild, did short segments of 10 minutes each on our story. One was a reenactment and the other starred us. We made $200 and got a pair of camping chairs.


We often discussed our good fortune that night, having run into a NOLS group and no permanent injuries other than some scars that make for excellent conversation. We often discussed going back to Grand Gulch but time was sparse as we marched to the childrearing and career drumbeats. But then circumstances slowly veered away from hectic and constant needs. We began car camping with our kids. And then short backpacking trips. And then longer. Then we talked of returning to Grand Gulch, which I did with my oldest daughter and a friend. But not to “the spot”, revealed to me as Badger Lodge in later correspondences with some NOLS members.


To this day, dark cold windy nights still bring back bad memories. Memories of being lost in the dark, looking for help that wasn’t there, thinking my girlfriend was not going to survive. On the first night of my first trip back to Grand Gulch, a 2 a.m. brilliant burst of lightning and a paralyzing bang of thunder had me immediately questioning what the hell I was doing back in Grand Gulch. I took it as a personal rebuke to my presence there.


But the ruins and the rock art and the beauty of the canyon were undiminished. The rest of the trip was without drama and it confirmed my love of desert backpacking, especially where the Ancient Ones had lived. We went backpacking in Grand Gulch with the whole family last fall in the lower canyon, but still not to Badger Lodge.


This spring we decided to see the upper portion of Grand Gulch including Badger Lodge. While obtaining our permit at the Kane Ranger Station, we saw a NOLS group ready to head down the canyon. It was comforting. Somehow the accident story came up with the Ranger. She smiled and said “I was here in 1995. I remember stopping traffic on the road so the helicopter could land” … and transfer me to an ambulance that took me to Blanding.


We dropped into Shieks Canyon and camped near the Green Mask Site, a haunting pictograph panel of Basketmaker rock art. The Green Mask, a pictograph for which the site is named, is reputed to be cursed. A scalp with nearly identical face paint and hairbobs as the Green Mask pictograph was excavated in Arizona in 1919 from the grave of a young female and infant. The scalp was worn on a thong around the neck of the female. We had slept near the Green Mask the night before we were crushed in 1995 and had laughed at its small size and strange appearance. We knew better this time.


We passed an eerie night at the Green Mask Site as lightening far to the south illuminated the canyon rim, but it was too distant for thunder to be heard. The lightning flashes grew brighter, backlighting the skyline, but the night remained strangely silent and still. A few droplets hit the tent. Imagining the droplets to be the beginning of a drenching storm, I quickly got out and walked towards our kids who were sleeping out to wake them and get them into the tent. As I did, a massive flash of lightning split the sky and deafening thunder immediately followed. I felt vulnerable and convinced that the next bolt was not going to miss me. Moments later I was still cowering in my sleeping bag waiting for my pulse to return to normal.  The raindrops petered out after a few minutes.


The following morning revealed few traces of the nighttime raindrops in the dust and fine sand. The sun helped me forget about the eerie night prior. We backpacked down canyon and visited Perfect Kiva, a pristine kiva accessed by a ladder. I am not superstitious but in the darkness of Perfect Kiva I could feel the presence of the Ancient Ones. Or it could have been hantavirus stirred up in the dust and dry mouse-droppings by our footsteps. That night was more tranquil under a canopy of budding cottonwoods.


The next morning dawned breezy and cool. High clouds moved in to cast a haze over the sunshine. We backtracked and headed up canyon, towards Badger Lodge. Within an hour of hiking we came to a huge rockfall that was very recent. The rockfall had deposited a 15-ton boulder in the dry streambed at least 50 feet from the base of the cliff where it had originated. At the base of that cliff was an enormous mound of jumbled boulders that lay directly below a discolored scar about 150 feet up. The gouges in the canyon floor from the boulder’s path didn’t yet have any revegetation. I estimated it had occurred within the prior month at most.


By this point I was secretly asking myself if it was a good idea to come back here with the family. I tried to be logical and answered that it didn’t matter, my existence in the canyon had no bearing on natural events any more than it does on the weather. It sounded so rational, so scientific. I made a pathetic attempt at a show of nonchalance for the wife and kids, something to the effect of “rocks still fall, pick your campsite carefully.”


We continued up canyon and came to a deep cave with a small ruin. It had only two small structures. The structures were Pueblo era as are all of the canyon ruins. Grand Gulch had two periods of occupation. The second period was the Pueblo (the “cliff dwellers), but the first was the Basketmaker (the “cave dwellers”). The Basketmakers did not have pottery nor did they have structures that withstood the test of time like the Pueblo era cliff dwellings. However, their rock art is more interesting and intriguing than the simple petroglyphs that came later. And the Basketmakers buried their dead in rock-lined cists in the soft ground of sheltered caves. Like the one we were standing in.

Badger Lodge

Looking around on the ground in the back of the shelter it was easy to see the unnaturally smooth rocks that had lined cists for the past 2,000 years until dislodged by collectors, that is, archaeologists or looters. Shallow depressions were easy to locate near the piles of rocks, indicating where the cists had been. Pictographs of handprints adorned the roof of the shelter along with trapezoidal humanoids. As we stood taking measure of the significance of the shelter, a group of several backpackers approached the shelter. It was the NOLS group we had seen a few days before at the Kane Ranger Station.


We chatted with the group and took note of their intended campsite for that night. Just in case. When we mentioned that we had spent a night near the Green Mask Site the trip leader exclaimed “Brave. Brave. That place is cursed. I’ve heard stories about people who do that.” “You have no idea” I replied.  “No idea.” She looked quizzically at me but I was unable to elaborate. The parallel to 18 years earlier when another NOLS leader had said nearly the same exact words was not lost on my wife or me.

Split Level Ruin

We said goodbye to the NOLS group and headed further up canyon. The sky had changed. The non-threatening cirrus clouds had given way to clusters of thunderclouds with dark underbellies building off the Abajo Mountains and Elk Ridge. We continued onto Split Level ruin, one of the most spectacular ruins in the upper canyon. I was happy to see the ruin was not picked clean by souvenir hunters like many other sites. The pottery shards were plentiful and ornate: black-on-white, black-on-red, red-on-orange and the ubiquitous grayware.


Split Level was where I had found the encamped NOLS group that rescued my wife and me 18 years earlier, although camping is no longer allowed on the inviting flats near the ruins. Looking up I saw that menacing clouds had filled in the remaining blue patches. I contemplated the terrain as we hiked, recalling that the last time I was here I was struggling on a snowy night with a broken knee. It was all flooding back, the dark memories of listening to my cries for help echoing down the canyon. The uncertainty of not knowing how it would turn out. My worst night ever.


We came to a dryfall with a deep, leaf-stained pool at its base. The last time we were there it had been a waterfall with a flowing stream. This time it was “the last water until Todie Spring” as some hikers who were filtering water informed us. We looked at the brackish water. We were trying to get by without heavy water filters on this trip and instead chose to rely on a SteriPEN that emits an ultraviolet light to kill unwanted critters in the drinking water. My skepticism of the SteriPENs capability was compounded by its inability to make the water look or taste any different. We decided to gamble on finding additional water elsewhere and departed.


We hiked another 20 minutes and after a few mistakes, we finally spotted the alcove where we had nearly been killed. Everything was right except the stream was dry. The alcove is obscured by foliage and is difficult to access. We veered away from the main trail and up a wash that drained the alcove. It did not seem familiar. We rounded a corner and there they were, the ruins – Badger Lodge. We looked to the base of the alcove for a flat spot where we had slept. It was still there. We showed our kids and looked up toward the alcove ceiling that had sent rockfall onto us. We talked and inspected the ruins. The ruins were better than I remembered. We looked for the place the helicopter had landed. We took pictures. All told, we spent around half an hour at “the spot” Then we left to finish the trip we had started 18 years earlier.

Mesa Verde Black on White Pottery Shards

On the main trail it began to rain intermittently and then harder. At the moment when we needed to either find shelter or dig out our raincoats, the sun broke through the clouds and a rainbow spanned the canyon as the rain dissipated. We found a pristine spring of clear flowing water. Before establishing camp a short walk from the spring, I scanned the area and made a quick calculation of the trajectories of every rock that had the potential to hit our site. I decided that no place in the canyon was totally safe and thus we would have to take our chances.


The clouds moved out at sunset and a trillion stars revealed themselves to us in the cleansed moonless sky. The next day we explored several spectacular ruins under a flawless desert sky. Our kids sensed this was not an ordinary backpack and became caught up in the wonder of the moment. The following day we hiked out of Todie Canyon and I retrieved the mountain bike I had stashed to do a bike shuttle. We stopped by the Kane Ranger Station on the way out and said farewell to Cedar Mesa until the next trip.

One Response to “Revisiting Ghosts”

  1. Hello! I was one of the NOLS students involved in the rescue! Brings back memories. 3 of us were the ones that hiked out to get help one.. It was one of the scariest nights of my life when you stumbled into camp. Loved the dog that was left with us as well.

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