The World, and Life, in a Canyon, Part 2


How do you describe the warmth of an October Saturday afternoon? This afternoon, in the belly of the Escalante, the rock is hot but the shadows are cool, and the water of the river downright cold.

Porter and I, completely alone — we have seen footprints in the sand and mud but no one since the gas station in Torrey last night — walk in the Escalante downcanyon, checking out side canyons and box canyons along the way. Usually we can not go very far up the canyons before they end in high cliffs. Some of the canyons, though, are as big as Silver Falls. Somewhere downcanyon is Choprock Canyon and its huge panel of petroglyphs.

My original plan was to exit Silver Falls Canyon and hike south along the Escalante River to Choprock Canyon, up it and overland back to the truck, but concerns over not being able to find Choprock — the directions I had said basically take the fourth canyon on your left — or not being able to find my way back to the truck overland across the mesas that separate canyons here caused me to abandon those plans and decide instead to camp at the mouth of Silver Falls Canyon and hike up and down the Escalante for an afternoon, then back up Silver Falls in the morning. Sure, I would see the canyon twice, but it wasn't a bad canyon to have to see again.

I stashed my backpack beneath a small forest of cottonwoods and changed from hiking boots into old wading boots and started out, walking stick in hand and with a liter of water, down the sandy bank of the river.

Porter and I poke around in the unlikely cottonwood forests that line the river and occasionally scramble up onto bluffs that overlook the river and the vast expanse of riverine forests and the immensity of the soaring sandstone cliffs that surround us. In a world of such immensity, it is often the small things that stand out in a canyon like the Escalante: the tracks of a lizard across red sand; two black pebbles in a rocky slope when as far as I can see there are no other black rocks or mountains; or a pine cone wedged beneath a rock, when the nearest pine tree is a thousand or more feet above us. As I walk, I coil and uncoil about 40 feet of light-duty mountaineering rope I almost always carry with me. The rope is just enough to get me out of any trouble I can get into — lower my pack into a canyon, use it to belay over a short cliff, or use it to guide Porter over a treacherous slope of steep slickrock.

Harris Canyon

We get rimmed into canyons twice — box canyons with no way out but to scale the cliffs. Further down the canyon we find another good bluff to scramble up and I look back upcanyon and see something I had forgotten about — the mouth of Harris Wash. We wade into the Escalante against the current, which is hard for Porter since he has to stand on his tiptoes just to touch bottom, and work our ways back up to Harris.

Whoever called Harris a 'wash' probably had something to hide in there and wanted to protect the canyon's true identity. Harris Wash is one of the deepest and most spectacular canyons on the Escalante, full of overhanging canyon walls and a cool, sandy stream, lots of dark desert varnish and fall colors. Porter and I walk the stream up Harris Wash, marveling at the canyon walls in the sunset and spying for the first time today several sets of bootprints in the sand and mud.

Two years ago, my friend Janell and I camped for a weekend in Harris Wash, coming in from the west side. Janell said she liked it but not all the hiking. Janell was supposed to come with me this weekend, but she crapped out at the last minute. It would be nice if she could have been here again.

Harris Wash is perhaps an even more alluring canyon than Silver Falls, and if I had the time I would have walked the entire length of it just to see it again. Unfortunately, by this time the canyon was already ensconced in shadows. Porter and I turned around, made good time down the canyon and back to our pack in Silver Falls. I had a dinner of bagels and nuts and lots of cool water and fell asleep in my bag on the sand, the night sky lit by stars. In the morning, a trail of birds overhead, and a jet headed east, perhaps serving breakfast en route to Denver or Kansas City or Dallas.

Silver Falls Canyon

Grand Staircase-Escalante is, I think, perhaps the most perfect park we have in America, at least in the Lower 48. There are no sprawling lodges, tacky gift shops, overeager rangers (the ones who enforce leash laws, for instance) roadside interpretive centers, not much in the way of guided tours and, perhaps best of all, you really can't see a damned thing from your car. I mean, I bet there are thousands of people a day who drive down state Route 12 between Boulder and Escalante where the signs says something like 'Welcome to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument' and drive all the way until they see the 'Thank you come again' sign and think, 'Now, did we miss a turnoff somewhere? I couldn't see a thing!' Which is the way deserts are supposed to be. Not always, but most of the time. The point is, and I am not the first one to say this, you can not begin to understand the framework and the mystery of the desert when viewing it through the windshield of your Taurus. You just have to get out of the car.

Now, this isn't to say you can't see anything of the desert from an auto: The road that goes through Arches National Park, for instance, does offer may chances to see the arches; likewise, in Death Valley you can rent an audiocassette from the visitors center to play in you car stereo and, replete with the wind of the desert echoing through your car's stereo speakers, drive all the way to Badwater, learning along the way; and once, I rode for three days in an armed transport convoy across the northern deserts of Kenya, and the guards on our open-backed trucks kept their fingers on the triggers of their Kalishnikov rifles and both vary eyes out across the desert for Somali Shifta bandits, and I thought then, after the third day when the convoy climbed up on the coffeed-slopes of Mt. Kenya, that I had seen just about everything. But I was wrong.

The true gems of Grand Staircase-Escalante can never be seen from a car, and my apologies to all of you in wheelchairs or too old or fragile to get out and hike, but there is no other experience akin to sitting on your pack, surrounded by thousand foot straight-up cliffs with the Escalante, cold, gurgling beside you, knowing the only way out is to find a canyon that leads back up the rim and follow it until you reach civilization. That feeling of separation, isolation, and helplessness is the very heart of the wilderness experience, and that is why Grand Staircase-Escalante, despite the problems it has caused for locals and Utah's stuffy, reactionary Congressional delegation, is such a great, special place.

Silver Falls Canyon In the morning it is cold, and damp with dew, and my bagels are hardening and my hair a mess and my socks damp and everything coated with a fine dust of red earth. I am not in much of a mood to sightsee, at least not if it means putting on my wet muddy shoes and wading back into the Escalante, so Porter and I pack up — well, really I pack up while he plays little scientist in the pool of quicksand nearby. We head back up Silver Falls, seeing more this time, I think, because I can put the beauty and scope of the canyon in perspective. I stop a lot to take pictures and it takes a few hours longer to hike out than it did in, and by the time I am staggering back to the truck — even Porter is claiming a limp — it feels hot out among the rocks.

From a juniper-covered rise on the way out I can look back and see where the Escalante lays among menacing cliffs, stratigraphed geography and blazing sunshine. The labyrinthine maze of inverted mountains where the rivers are highways again looks like the bottom of the Earth, primitive and bounded only by the imagination. Each day the sun rises on a cliff and shadow works down. The canyons are so deep, the locals used to sing, that you could see the stars at noon. What is the probability of returning to such a place with the sunlight on the walls and the river cold, bracing and clear? One of these days tourists will lay down their cameras and hiking boots and go looking for the Escalante with rockets. I, meanwhile, will dream up Escalante on my own compass. And this is what I see in my dreams: that Escalante is harder to find, lost a little, but not gone forever. Harder to find, lost a little, but not gone forever. And the Escalante does not need our help.

It is strange to travel on foot for two days, making two miles an hour in the sand and creek, then suddenly fly at 85 mph going back home. But what if this 6 p.m. October Sunday afternoon could last forever, just stop in time as I drive home? What if the long yellow light would go on illuminating Mills Valley in half-light, filling Levan and Nephi with its warm glow? What if that same light shone on the side of a particular cliff in Silver Falls Canyon, always? Would the cars on the interstate stop? Would they keep on driving? Would the hay fields get cut? Would the snow on Mt. Nebo far above stay in its October thinness. Would we still come from canyons? I think I have forgotten how to end this story.

Part 1

For more information on the Grand Staircase/Escalante area, visit the Garfield County Travel Council or call 435-676-1160.

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