After graduating from college in California, we moved to Michigan, where my husband started law school. The weather there is bitterly cold in winter and so hot in summer that life doesn’t seem worth living (before the days of universal air-conditioning). A Westerner by birth and predilection, my spouse was not happy in the flat and humid Midwest.
During spring break, we drove through Denver, Colorado on our way to backpack in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Denver was warm – we did not need to bundle in our winter jackets. We decided then and there that law school in Denver was a fine idea. That’s how we wound up here.
Canyonlands is as wild a place now as it was then. Off the beaten track, few front-country campgrounds with limited spaces, and minimal facilities. Nothing for miles upon miles but open red rock country, stark in its beauty and unforgiving in its embrace of the elements – wind, storm, flash flood, arm and toe holds in layered stone, sheer drop-offs, tall spires standing where neighboring rock has eroded away, and vast numbers of canyons empty of human presence or imprint.
Canyonlands was established as a national park in 1964. On our first visits, cows were still permitted to graze in the park. Cow dung was everywhere, and hiking in the backcountry involved stepping into and around it in the dry creek beds, the dunes, and what passed for trails. Evading their droppings took a tremendous amount of energy, especially with a heavy pack on one’s back.
There were then no marked trails in the canyons. Our first and favorite hike – we would return many times over the years* – heads into Lost Canyon. Beginning in the middle of nowhere as the wide mouth of the empty stream bed opens a route into the canyon, the trail narrows as it climbs slowly uphill. The course undulates like the river that formed it. We reduce mileage by cutting across the sandy bed and taking a more direct but up-and-down path. We pass dozens – hundreds – of other canyon openings and pray we remain on track. At least I do the praying; my husband is skilled at reading topographical maps and knows precisely where he is.
The location we head for is about 4 ½ miles away. Not that far, but we are walking the entire way on shifting sand seasoned with cow manure. Permits are not yet required. One simply stops and camps where convenient. A water source is a blessing, and we find water in places as the canyon narrows. Deep pools also exist in the desert. Water must be treated before drinking. In this exacting country, no one needs to be reminded that water is life.
For a city girl born and bred, sleeping out in the canyon country’s vast emptiness is unsettling. Beauty and harshness are equally extreme. I had never seen such stars. Multitudes covered the night sky. In particular, I remember Orion. Rising and marching across the northern hemisphere’s dome in spring, I look for him every season of re-birth. He is visible even in the city. When I see Orion, I remember my youth, our backpacking trips to Canyonlands, and the darkest sky with nothing between us and the stars, moon, and planets.
Years went by. Our son was born to grace our lives. We left him and our dogs at home with grandparents and returned, again in the spring, to Lost Canyon.
Access had changed dramatically in the intervening period. Trails to Lost Canyon and elsewhere now begin from the campground. Instead of walking into and up the dry wash, one climbs up, over, and down the slickrock. Called slickrock because, although the footing is stable when dry, when wet it becomes slippery and treacherous. Traveling into the various canyons en route requires using hand and toe holds. Sometimes a ladder is placed strategically. I missed my old circuitous path into magic. Instead of winding slowly into another world, we walked on top of it, looking down into it, not so much a part of it.
Each step requires caution, and I couldn’t lose myself in the moment. We made our way to the Lost Canyon trail, and there the adventure intensified.
We heard cries from the top of a nearby hill. Insistent cries, becoming more insistent every second. Hard to make out what their voices were calling; finally we understood. One had injured her shoulder. She could not return the way we had all come – hoisting ourselves over ladders and up and down steep rock faces.
What to do? Not many people would have known about an alternate route that did not require use of the arms and shoulders. (As it turned out, even the rangers did not know a person could exit the canyon this way.)
My husband decided to run back the way we had come, head to the ranger station, and alert them that someone might need rescuing. My job was to lead the two women out the Lost Canyon route, last taken more than twenty years before. My husband took the topo, since I couldn’t read it anyway. He with rangers in tow would meet us at the canyon mouth.
I was on my own. Four and one-half miles out and hundreds of side canyons to ignore and avoid while they beckoned. A wrong choice and we would spend the night in the canyon – or worse. I had only my very dark prescription sunglasses – desert dark – so for many reasons exiting in daylight was a priority.
My first task was to make sure I was heading in the right direction, that is, downhill. Water was flowing where the path joined Lost Canyon, but direction of flow was difficult to determine. Tamarisk, that foreign species sucking up so much water in the American West, had invaded in force since my last visit. It filled the stream. Eventually, and to the accompaniment of the injured woman’s piercing screams, I made my decision and we set off.
Lost Canyon had not changed much in 20+ years, except that the pesky cow dung had long ago enriched the soil and polluted the water. No human sign or print disturbed the sandy riverbed. As before, I crossed the stream to shorten the miles, back and forth, up, over, and down the small embankments. No trail markers existed to prevent a foray into a side canyon. The canyon looked familiar. I was reasonably comfortable with the course and direction. But I would only know for sure the last half-mile, when the canyon widened and opened to the trailhead. My injured companion and her friend had no trouble walking. I asked her to focus on the canyon, the sky, the view, the spires – anything but her pain. And she did.
In good time, and to my great relief, the canyon began to open; I knew we were almost out. A quarter-mile before the end, a ranger met us with a stretcher. Not necessary, but the sight of another human was welcome. A few more steps, and I saw my husband waiting, together with several more rangers. My husband had produced his ancient topographical map with route highlighted to show them how we had navigated the canyon so many years before.
The women drove to a hospital in Moab, where the injured shoulder was re-set. They came and stayed with us that night; we had booked a cabin with an extra bedroom for our son, who preferred to stay home with his grandparents.
It was a grand adventure, and I remember it with great fondness.
Canyonlands skies are still gloriously dark. It and three other national parks in Utah enjoy the International Dark Sky Park designation.
* sometimes with dogs, meaning we could only drive to the trailhead and look but not hike. There is no shade in Canyonlands in the spring, and dogs cannot be left in the car.
Old pathways through canyon bottom
erased by wind and sand
overgrown by time’s twisting brambles
dry stream bed empty of human prints
Lost Canyon winds its way
into the past heart of youth
Subdued blue sky
ponders a change
from winter to new spring
poems from Bright Moon Wandering,
Environmental Love Poetry
City lights are more numerous
than the stars,
and light years vanish
in the glow from the garage.
Distance vision shutters,
and veiled night jewels
adorn our lives no longer
with other-worldly luster.
The Dippers slake no journey’s thirst,
the Polestar gleam grows dim,
while lonely Orion makes his way
hunting a memory
of radiant display.
from Songs for a Beloved Friend,
Poems and Essays for the Planet