Dispatches
Dispatches Tagline
Trips

Navajo Reservation

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011: Southeast Utah, Trips.

Day 1: Silver City to Bluff

Highlights: Rainbows all the way!

The goal of this trip was backcountry hiking and camping in southeast Utah, and the Utah border is a long day’s drive from home, so my goal today was to reach Bluff, the first town across the border, and spend the night in the cheapest lodging I could find.

Beyond this first night, I had no plans, no destinations, and no schedule. I didn’t even know when I was coming back; I would come back when I felt like it. Or maybe not…

Heading north on US 191 through Sanders, AZ in late afternoon, I met a line of school buses pulling out of the school lot. I fell behind a bus full of kids. Together, we drove north through the high, rolling sagebrush and juniper hills of the Navajo Reservation. It had been raining on and off all day, and far ahead of us a partial rainbow arched up into low grey clouds. In the middle of nowhere, the bus flashed its lights and slowed to a stop. Out hopped two tiny Navajo girls wearing tiny backpacks. They didn’t look like they could be older than 4. No road, trail or house in sight. They just headed off together through the sagebrush and juniper and the bus started up again.

1 Comment

North Mule Canyon

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011: Southeast Utah, Trips.

Day 2: Cedar Mesa and Blanding

Highlights: Prehistoric ruins, water everywhere from yesterday’s rains, disturbing encounter

Looking for a good afternoon hike, I had pulled off of Utah 95 at the upper end of Cedar Mesa onto a well-maintained Forest Service gravel road that snaked up and down and around the maze-like mesa top. The road almost immediately dipped to cross Mule Canyon, where there were already two late-model SUVs parked at a trailhead. I kept going, passing the North Mule Canyon trailhead and climbing higher. After a few more miles I decided to return and hike North Mule Canyon. As I parked at a beautiful campsite under a golden cottonwood, a pickup truck sped past up the road. Apparently a popular road.

An intimate canyon with modest ruins, the red sandstone floor of the canyon sparkling with rainwater pools, this was the perfect hike to start my backcountry experience.

I returned from my hike a few hours later. I thought about camping, and realized it was going to freeze at night. Wood gathering is prohibited here, and I had no firewood and nothing interesting in the way of food for dinner. This trip had been largely unplanned. So I would drive the half hour to Blanding, check into a cheap motel, and go shopping the next morning so I could be prepared for future camping.

On the way out to the highway, I came to the winding descent into Mule Canyon proper. Rounding a curve, I glimpsed a hiker on the road ahead. I slowed and approached him from behind. A tall, skinny guy dressed in the latest expensive gear, striding in the middle of the road. I slowly approached him, expecting him to step to the side, but he kept walking directly in the middle of the narrow gravel road, either oblivious or defiant. So I pulled as far to the left as I could and crept narrowly past him in my truck. As we came abreast, he suddenly turned and looked at me, wide-eyed. I drove on past, checking my side mirror, and noticed that he had a big, expensive-looking camera and was photographing my license plate from behind. So I stopped, and he walked up to my door, aimed the camera directly at my face, and clicked.

He appeared to be about my age, with wild dirty-blonde hair, and his face was tanned and weathered as if he’d been living outdoors for a long time. After taking a picture of me, he held his left arm out to the side, making the “phone call” sign with thumb and little finger. “DO THE RIGHT THING!” he commanded excitedly.

“Is there a problem?” I asked, completely mystified.

He kept making the phone sign, waving his arm up and down, and exclaimed “DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS?”

“No, what’s up, man?”

“HOW OLD ARE YOU?”

“59…”

Still waving his phone sign excitedly, he exclaimed “IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS BY NOW, THERE’S NO HOPE FOR YOU!”

Now I noticed he was wearing earphones, or earbuds. Hence he was listening to music while hiking down the middle of a heavily-used road.

“DO THE RIGHT THING!” he commanded again.

“What are you listening to?” I asked, trying to engage him in a conversation.

But it was as if we were in different worlds. “DO THE RIGHT THING!” he shouted.

We were approaching the two SUVs parked at the side of the road. I assumed one of them was his. “Whatever,” I said, waving goodbye, and accelerated up the road to the highway.

I thought about this encounter for a long time. What was he talking about? What was he planning to do with the photos of me and my license plate? First I thought maybe the phone sign was actually supposed to be the “devil” sign, and he was accusing me of being evil. I thought maybe he was a solitary, reclusive wilderness freak, slightly mentally disturbed. Finally I realized he was probably tripping on psychedelics, not so prudently in a not-so-private location, and had worked me into his hallucination. Let that be a lesson!

1 Comment

Fish Creek Canyon

Thursday, October 27th, 2011: Southeast Utah, Trips.

Day 3: Cedar Mesa

Highlights: Unforgettable canyon hike, hanging garden, camping on Cedar Mesa

I’d been lucky to find a cheap vintage motor court, the Sunset Inn, in Blanding the night before, and in the morning I left town with plenty of food and firewood for camping.

I headed west, and at the turnoff for Cedar Canyon, I studied my maps and decided to try Fish Creek Canyon. I’m so glad I did.

I got lost immediately in a maze of shallow arroyos crossing the thick juniper forest of the mesa top, backtracked, and finally reached the edge of the canyon. The trail rapidly drops about 800′ over a series of steep ledges; the very top of the trail was a 12′ cliff that required descending a vertical crack. I was alone, far beyond cell range, and nobody knew where I was, so I was super careful.

A late start left me with too little time to explore much of the canyon. I was pretty much running down and back, stunned by the cliffs, the water, the fall colors. That night, I found a campsite along the road back and had a wonderful night’s sleep under the wheeling and shooting stars.

No Comments

Dark Canyon

Friday, October 28th, 2011: Southeast Utah, Trips.

Day 4: Cedar Mesa to Hanksville

Highlights: Very long rough road over bedrock, huge canyon, scary trail

Dark Canyon is a vast complex of very remote country, similar in scale and appearance to the Grand Canyon. After the previous day’s adventure, I wanted to try getting even farther off the road. After looking at the map, I decided to try to hike into Dark Canyon and spend the night there.

Much of the road in is laid directly on sandstone bedrock. VERY slow and hard on the little truck. A long drive across the plateau, winding around buttes and small mesas, until you finally get to the edge, and the canyon opens below you, monumental.

In the photos, I included the warning sign about the trail into the canyon. I was bummed that fires are not allowed, because I didn’t have a stove. I figured I would have to subsist on nuts down there.

I packed my old Swiss army surplus rucksack for an overnight trip and optimistically headed down the trail, with a supposedly 2 mile walk to the edge for the descent. Actually it’s a bit farther than that. I was already running late due to the hard drive in. Finally I reached this point, a 50-foot cliff requiring a downclimb, followed by another mile or so across a lower ledge. My feet were hurting in my lightweight hiking boots, my shoulders were sore from the hard leather pack straps, and there was apparently a fairly dangerous 1,200′ downclimb ahead of me, with nothing but a cold dinner at the bottom. Again, I was alone and nobody knew where I was. And the book at the trailhead showed that BLM rangers patrol here no oftener than once a month. It really hurt to give up on this one, but I swore I would at least come better prepared with a good pack and sturdier boots in the future.

No Comments

Mount Hillers

Saturday, October 29th, 2011: Southeast Utah, Trips.

Day 5: Hanksville to Burr Trail

Highlights: Hike in a snow-covered burn area, interminable drive on extreme washboard, spectacular campsite

The Henry Mountains rise to 11,500′ in the midst of the Glen Canyon area, a long ways from nowhere, surrounded by the rugged canyons of tributaries to the Colorado River. This mountain range is unusual because although it’s heavily forested, it’s also grazed from bottom to top, and it’s administered by the BLM instead of the forest service. I like that because I “know” BLM land and am more comfortable exploring lands with few “tourist” amenities, where you can camp or hike anywhere.

Since yesterday, I’d been gazing appreciatively at these snow-covered mountains, whose slopes were blanketed in fresh white down to almost the 7,000′ level. The Henrys are crisscrossed by long, rough gravel and dirt roads that are mostly passable with 2WD, and I wanted to get up into the snow and do some snow hiking for a change. Mt. Hillers, and the south end of the range, looked interesting to me, and on the map I found a “loop road” that I could pick up on the east side.

This road followed a creek valley up into a recent burn area where all the trees had been killed and replaced by thickets of new growth. I saw several hawks hunting, finally coming to “Quaking Aspen Spring”, fenced off from cattle, where a healthy-looking coyote watched me curiously from a willow thicket inside the fence. The elevation was about 7,000′, patches of snow lay in shadow along the road, and above me loomed the peak, behind a protected, snow-covered basin populated with the bark-less skeletons of ponderosa pine. I really wanted to get up into that basin, but the slopes along the road were covered with impenetrable gambel oak thickets.

The coyote wandered off and I continued up the road, hoping for an opening of some kind. As I rounded the base of cone-shaped Cass Creek Peak, a jeep trail appeared, climbing steeply up the slope. I didn’t want to risk driving it with my little truck, but it might be a good approach to the basin below Mt. Hillers. I had lunch in the warm sun, tempered by a chilly breeze off the snow, then started up the trail. As I rounded a curve toward the basin, I noticed a little black bull rising to its feet in an oak thicket about 100 to the left of the road. It watched me as I continued up the trail. I came over a rise and a lake appeared before me at the foot of a gnarly-looking pile of volcanic talus. It was a 4-acre stock pond created with significant effort, including a big earthen dam and a feeder well, but there were no other cattle in sight beyond the little bull. So I continued past the lake, picking my way between thickets of oak, until I came to an abandoned 4WD trail that seemed to lead up into the summit basin. Parts of the road were blocked by fallen, fire-killed ponderosa logs or new aspen sprouts, now 10′ tall. I noticed a higher roadcut and climbed up to it. And another, still higher – all now abandoned and overgrown. I was finally up in the summit basin, but I couldn’t get beyond these abandoned roads because the slope was completely covered with oak thickets. Still, it was a beautiful place in the snow! On the way back down, I again encountered the little bull, resting in his thicket, and he again rose to watch me pass.

Back in the truck, I continued over Stanton Pass and found a trailhead to the summit on the west side, overlooking Capitol Reef National Park, with a late-model SUV parked there. It was late afternoon, I had a couple hours of sunlight, and should start looking for a campsite. Descending through pinyon-juniper, the road became exceedingly rugged. Suddenly, crossing a creek in a little vale, I encountered a big truck towing a stock trailer up the mountain. I pulled as far to the side as I could, and they passed me, thanking me: two middle-aged cowboys with four saddled and packed horses in the trailer. Shortly after that, I came upon two young bundled-up guys on an ATV herding three huge steers down the road toward a corral in the distance on the spur of a ridge. The slope here was very steep, and I had to creep behind them until they got to a place where they could walk the cattle off the road. I waved, marveling at the bulk of the shaggy beeves that seemed to dwarf my truck.

With cattle all over these mountains, insects can be a problem. The loop went on forever through beautiful high country, and the road threatened to rattle my truck to pieces, but every time I found a promising campsite, the bugs would quickly find me. So I continued on as the sun set, hoping to make it to the Bullfrog highway and from there, to lower desert and hopefully more campsites along the Burr Trail.

No Comments

Burr Trail

Sunday, October 30th, 2011: Southeast Utah, Trips.

Day 6: Bullfrog Creek to Escalante

Highlights: Hike into the Grand Gulch of Halls Creek, monumental slot canyons

The night before, I’d found a campsite after sunset, right along the Burr Trail where it crests a narrow point overlooking Bullfrog Creek. Definitely one of the more spectacular campsites I’ve had, and no traffic during the night on this remote road.

I was in completely new territory now. The new morning, I slowly explored north and took the first significant turnoff to get to something that looked interesting on the map. It turned out to be another monumental canyon at the south end of the Waterpocket Fold, and I hiked down into it, another steep trail dropping hundreds of feet, this time into a lush, broad valley.

I continued on the trail toward what was supposed to be Brimhall Arch, apparently a natural arch somewhere back in those tilted sandstone cliffs. The trail entered a dark slot canyon that became darker and colder as I went, zigging and zagging, with an interesting combination of forest and desert vegetation. I got to a “pouroff”, a sheer cliff like a stairstep to the higher part of the canyon, and there was an amazing rock ladder that had been built, apparently so you could climb the cliff. The cliff was over 20′ tall, and the ladder went up about 12′ of it, literally a carefully balanced tower of small rocks. There I was again, facing danger alone. But it was so cool, I couldn’t pass it up. Some very careful climbing, a reach for an overhanging limb and some intuitive bouldering at the top, and I was up. I figured on the way back down, I could rely more on the tree limbs.

Unfortunately, within a short distance I ran into an impassable barrier: a flooded slot canyon with sheer walls. I never even got to see the arch.

Somehow I made it down the cliff and out into the valley again. I ran into a younger couple heading for the arch, warned them about the cliff and the flooded place, and had an idyllic lunch under golden cottonwoods before climbing out of the Gulch.

Another long drive back to the Burr Trail, then driving at risky speed in order to somewhat mitigate the washboarded gravel. With my truck rattling for dear life, I was passed by four big diesel trucks in succession, all towing full-size stock trailers loaded with cattle, all driving much faster than me, apparently racing to get their stock to the Bullfrog Ferry to ferry them to market across the Colorado River in Arizona. It was a somewhat surprising evocation of history, since the Burr Trail was originally created by a rancher at Boulder, UT, to get his stock from the high Aquarius Plateau down to the ferry and hence to Arizona markets. I wondered if these guys had driven their full trailers down the famous switchbacks, on which trailers are strongly discouraged, for good reason, as I found out later, going up.

Up the famous switchbacks, a long drive over high, juniper-covered plateaus, and then down the outrageously scenic Long Canyon, stopping at one point to admire a statuesque cottonwood, only to find a beautiful, sanctuary-like slot canyon lined with soft sand right off the highway. Here, I encountered lots of tourists, even late in the season. Living where I live, I’m spoiled by the absence of yuppies, and it depresses me to encounter them and their stylish consumer goods. It seemed that my trip might be going in the wrong direction. But there was no turning back.

That evening, driving down Highway 12 from Boulder to Escalante, on an incredibly dramatic, narrow high bench overlooking deep canyons on either side, I pulled off the highway to snap a quick picture, and immediately behind me, three big black luxury SUVs also pulled off, and out jumped a couple dozen young Japanese men, all wearing black leather jackets. At first I thought I was caught in the middle of a movie shoot about drug gangs, but they were all smiling and just wanted their own quick snapshots!

No Comments

Lick Wash

Monday, October 31st, 2011: Southeast Utah, Trips.

Day 7: Escalante to Page

Highlights: Psychedelic rock!

To me, it seems that Capitol Reef marks a divide between extreme southeast Utah and south-central Utah. The southeastern area I’ve spent the most time in, the Henry Mountains, the Manti-LaSalle forest, and Cedar Mesa, is much less populated and much less traveled; although it’s closer to where I live, it’s farther from the big cities. When you cross west into the Escalante area you get into the crowds, because this area is much more accessible from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Phoenix. I thought the Burr Trail was pretty remote, but even in this cold weather there were crowds at every trailhead. Escalante, although a very small town, is totally tourist-oriented. I had to stay the night there – camping is just too regulated in this area for my tastes, and I needed a restaurant meal after almost a week of canned food.

The next day, I planned to head south through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on one of the long backroads, hoping to find a good hike or two and maybe a campsite. The road I took turned out to be another bone-rattler, and every trailhead seemed to have multiple fancy SUVs already parked there. Finally I stopped at the Lick Wash trailhead, where there were a couple of dusty trucks parked. I loaded my pack for a day hike, and as I approached the trail, I met a guy coming out. Unlike the other fashionable yuppie hikers I’d seen on this trip, he was dressed like me – worn-out jeans, a baggy old t-shirt, and a cheap floppy hat. He was also about my age, and motioned that he lives “right over there” and hikes this trail at least once a month “to see what the trees are doing”. My kind of guy!

A mile or so down the trail in the canyon, I met an attractive, fashionably-dressed, 30-something couple heading out with an off-leash pit bull. The dog came up to meet me first, growling. I waited patiently for it to sniff me, but the girl ran up and threw down on the dog violently, rolling it onto its back and clamping its jaws with her hand. She looked up at me, smiling. “This is the first chance I’ve had to do this,” she explained proudly. I love dogs, but dog people are another thing entirely, there are so many different kinds!

No Comments

Mustard Point

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011: Southeast Utah, Trips.

Day 8: Page to Silver City

Highlights: Moonscape

The night before, I had finally come out of the backcountry, me and my truck rattled to a pulp by washboard roads, looking for a campsite somewhere along the highway at the south end of the Escalante country.

I kept driving a few miles and trying turnouts, each leading to worse and worse washboard, until I finally came to the last turnoff before the Colorado River and Page.

It was a bizarre moonscape unlike anything I’d seen before, and the sun was rapidly setting. I drove up and over the rolling clay hills as night fell, and nowhere could I find a place to pull off and camp. Finally I came to a side road down a narrow canyon, and shortly encountered a flat wash where I could pull off, but it looked to be a put-in to Lake Powell, and it was a depressing place to camp. So I drove back to the highway and continued to Page, where I found another cheap motel on the “Street of the Little Motels.”

Then in the morning, before starting for home, I came back to the Smoky Mountain Road below Mustard Point and took these pictures.

1 Comment

Lost on the Winter Solstice

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011: Solstices, Trips.

More than twenty years ago, after losing my home in the Loma Prieta earthquake, I began regularly observing the winter and summer solstices, as my personal, private holidays.

The solstices were important events for some, but not all, traditional societies. Highly organized agricultural societies seem to have based their planting schedules on observations of the solar cycle, but nomadic hunters and foragers may have had less need for such predictive measurements. And of course, in equatorial regions the solar cycles have very different significance.

Almost all of my solstice observations have been dedicated retreats in a special, remote place, usually in the mountains where I can observe the sunrise and sunset from a high place. From experience, I learned that the character of the summer and winter solstices is very different. The summer solstice is a time of thanks for abundance, whereas the winter solstice is the very cusp of the seasonal cycle, a critical time when we want and need the days to change from shorter to longer, to re-start the cycle of food production in our habitat. The longest night is an opportunity to share in this great change, an opportunity for a difficult but rewarding vigil. But in addition, both solstices provide formal punctuations for my year, regular times when I can ritually sum up and review the year’s experiences and get a sense of where I’m at in my life.

Most of my winter solstice experiences have included such a vigil, in seclusion, but a few have been thwarted due to pressing circumstances. This year, financial constraints and family obligations forced me to attempt a solstice observation while visiting family in the Midwest. There are no mountains here, most winter days are overcast, and there’s virtually no public land outside the cities.

Unable to come up with a better plan, I borrowed a car and drove from the city to the small town where I grew up. I knew from other recent visits that there wasn’t anything left there for me, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.

I drove through the gutted downtown, where historic buildings had collapsed or been demolished and replaced with vacant lots. I turned onto Main Street, where ancient shade trees had recently been cut down so the street could be widened, facilitating through traffic. Now you can see from one end to the other, and the town might as well not be there.

I made my way out into the countryside, toward the farms which my Carson ancestors had settled more than 130 years ago. The sky was a uniform mass of clouds; you couldn’t even tell in which direction the sun might’ve risen. Along the highway, old farmhouses had been replaced by new trophy homes surrounded by landscaped grounds and artificial lakes. I came to a tree-lined bend in the river and found that it had been short-cut by a flood-control channel where muddy water rushed between stark banks.

In fact, a few years ago I had visited the mastermind behind the flood-control project, my high school biology teacher. I listened in bewilderment and later witnessed the terrible devastation where giant machines had cleansed 15 miles of river of its shoals and fallen trees, degrading it from natural habitat to man-made drain.

It’s common in the midwest for riparian corridors to retain the last of the ancient forest that covered this land before the European invasion. The trees prevent streambank erosion, and riverside bottomlands flood regularly and often escaped clearing for farmland.

After my senior year of high school, I had lived on the farm beside the river, and my friends and I had discovered a tiny island in the river, hidden back in the woods, which we had claimed as our own, crossing over the shallow channel on a fallen log, building a lean-to and stocking it with canned food. Later, on visits home from college, I would go back there to see how the island was doing. Sometimes the river was in full flood, the forest was deep in muddy water and the island gone from sight.

I stopped the car on the shoulder of the gravel road and made my way through the mud of the recently flooded woods, avoiding thorn scrub and vines and stepping over logs and around standing water until I came to the poor damaged river. It was still running high and muddy. I smelled rotting wood and saw piles of logs left by the cutting and dredging machines. I felt myself drawn further into the dark woods, and then I saw flashes of emerald green. The smell of rotting wood was also the smell of life starting over.

No Comments

Business Trip Snapshots, 2006-2010

Thursday, April 19th, 2012: Business, Trips.

During a five-year period, my design business took me to random parts of the US and Canada, both urban and rural, where I was sometimes a witness to strange, beautiful, or emblematic visions.

No Comments