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Southeast Utah

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.

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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?”



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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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Utah 2012

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012: Southeast Utah, Trips.

After a few weeks of intensive studio work, finishing a new album, I badly needed a change of scenery, and for me, since I moved to New Mexico, that means a trip to the canyons and mountains of southeast Utah. It’s a long day’s drive from here, so to make it worth the drive I need to set aside the better part of a week.

In between me and my destination lies the humongous Navajo Reservation. It takes four hours to drive across it from south to north, and I don’t like to make stops there, because lodging is overpriced and dining is not healthy. In fact, there is no reasonable lodging or healthy dining anywhere on the southeast Utah itinerary. In most towns there’s not even an actual grocery, just a convenience store. Thus, you need to shop comprehensively in advance, and this time I didn’t. So I ended up eating lunchmeat sandwiches for five days.

I left late on Thanksgiving Day and stayed at the motel in Chambers, AZ that night, a godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere with foul petrochemical-smelling wellwater, but a decent room and a good night’s sleep. I was stoked to be on my way. I woke up to clear skies and freezing temperatures and headed north across the Rez. It’s a beautiful drive over an open landscape more than a mile high, with long views, gradually changing from rolling juniper-dotted grasslands to the red sandstone basins and mesas of the Colorado Plateau, passing big fancy Navajo schools and chapter houses along the way.

I had no specific destination in mind, but was hoping to find a campsite which could serve as a base for hiking the next day. I had a vague idea of exploring ruins or “cliff dwellings,” but had earlier ruled out the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado, because it was too close to the town Cortez and was likely to have more visitors on a holiday weekend. I reached Bluff, the tiny settlement on the San Juan River, in early afternoon and took a closer look at my map. I noticed for the first time that the old Mormon Trail, a county-maintained dirt road otherwise known as the Snow Flat Road, traverses Cedar Mesa from central route 261 all the way to 191 just west of Bluff. And according to the map, the Mormon Trail passes near several canyons which were not named on the map, but which might well harbor ruins. I had read online accounts of the spectacular Moon House ruin in McCloyd Canyon, which was supposed to be accessible from this road, but McCloyd was not shown on any map, so I figured I would just make a guess and try one. But first, I had to have a disgusting, virtually nutrient-free Navajo taco at the only open cafe in Bluff.

The southeast end of the Trail turned out to be red powder sand, deep in places so that I was concerned about getting stuck, and deflated my tires to 16 psi – an old trick I learned from fellow desert rats decades ago. I passed a couple of late-model SUVs coming out and the drivers looked like their nerves were shot, but I kept going up the gradual slope until I reached a large campsite just below the mesa top, on the edge of a bluff looking north to the Abajo Mountains and the mouths of the major eastern canyons draining Cedar Mesa. The uplands were shimmering with the gold of Indian ricegrass in vast rolling fields. The sun was going down, lighting the crest of Comb Ridge a brilliant orange, but as I set up camp, a couple more vehicles passed me heading down – a jeep and an old pickup truck, which crawled past in full dark more than an hour after sunset. I wouldn’t have thought this was such a popular road to drive at night.

At that point, the waxing half moon was high in the east and the temperature was dropping toward freezing. There was some juniper firewood lying around that needed breaking up, but I wasn’t hungry after that taco, and I decided to just jump in the sack. Snug in my old custom-made down bag, I watched falling stars for hours and listened to the truck popping and creaking as it adjusted to the cold.

In the frigid morning I scanned the terrain between me and the mouth of the nearest canyon to the north. A lot of slickrock ridges but also a lot of sediment, all covered with cryptobiotic formations that I didn’t want to walk on. I loaded my pack, including my heavy laptop which I didn’t want to risk leaving in the truck, and started to follow one of the sandstone ledges that curved toward the canyon mouth. As the ledge came around to the east, I dropped into a gully and found old footprints from a previous hiker with the same idea. I followed that gully until it also veered east and I thought I should cut north toward the canyon. I picked my way over a low ridge, threading my way between large areas of knobby black cryptogam by walking in narrow drainage paths and game trails, lowering myself down white sandstone ledges, and finally into the canyon.

Locals might ask why I go to Utah when we have canyons and cliff dwellings nearby in southwest New Mexico. In fact most people I’ve talked to think I’m crazy, they like our local landscape better. But for me it’s a rock thing. I didn’t move to Grant County for the landscape – I actually prefer bare rock, sandstone and granite, cliffs and pinnacles, over the forested hills and crumbly volcanic rock of my home.

This turned out to be a good hiking canyon, narrow with a mostly hard mud, slickrock or gravel streambed for easy walking, with several seeps and pools and a short stream at the upper end. All the water was surrounded by thick white mineral deposits, so I didn’t sample it. Before walking very far, I spotted a small complex of ruins very high on the southern cliff, and figured I would explore the rest of the canyon before returning to climb up.

At its head, the canyon narrowed to an overhang beneath which a stream, barely a sheet of white-rimmed water, trickled along a ledge. It was a good place to have lunch in dappled sunlight. Then I walked back down to where I’d spotted the high ruins.

The climb involved scrambling up some big ledges to a point where people had built a rock ladder braced with a small tree trunk to surmount the third ledge below the ruins. I carefully tried it out and found good hand holds above, so I went on up. But the next ledge turned out to be a problem. Previous visitors had built a cairn about knee high below the upper ledge to stand on. It was wobbly, so I rebuilt it with larger stones, of which there weren’t many on the narrow ledge I was currently on, a ledge with a rounded shoulder and a 30 foot dropoff if you should happen to lose your footing. But when I stepped up on the rock pile and felt the ledge above, there were no good hand holds. There was a low, flat hold so I could have climbed up using a manteling move, bringing a foot up level with my hand, and smearing up the rest of the ledge from there, but to reverse the move on the way down would’ve been way too scary with no backup. And with my bad hip, I had only one leg that would even bend that way. So I stood around being frustrated for a while, but enjoying the view, and finally made my way back down and back across the rugged, broken landscape toward camp, where I made a hot meal of canned beans and lunchmeat and spent another freezing night watching falling stars from my snug bag.

The next day, I continued up the Mormon Trail, and immediately encountered the really bad part of the road. I’d spent many hours on bad roads over broken slickrock in other parts of southeast Utah, but nothing like this. Fortunately I’d had to do a lot of impromptu road building on my own land in the Mojave Desert, so instead of just going “shit, I can’t drive this in my little low-clearance 2WD truck” my attitude was here’s a problem, let’s fix it. Every time the road started looking like the Grand Canyon, I got out, began piling up rocks and scouted a line.

The adrenaline was good for me, and the miles passed and I reached 261, where my map showed access to another canyon with ruins. But here, when I left the paved road everything changed. I encountered a maze of seemingly new dirt roads that weren’t on the map, and Cedar Mesa is called that because it’s covered with junipers which block your line of sight in every direction. I lost an hour or so following roads that went nowhere, and finally stopped for another cold lunch at a low place that seemed to match the drainage leading to the head of the canyon I wanted to reach.

But after more than a mile of gradually descending the gully, I realized it couldn’t be right, and turned back. I was filthy and didn’t want to spend another night camping in freezing weather, so after reviewing my options, I headed for Blanding, my least favorite town in Utah, but one with cheap motels and a supermarket. On the way across the upper end of the mesa, I spotted some neat-looking canyons just south of route 95 and decided to check them out on the map for the next day of hiking.

Blanding received its name from a bribe. A rich guy back east offered to stock a library in the town if it would rename itself in honor of his wife’s family. The older residential sector resembles that of a midwestern small town, but without a historic town center it feels more like a wide spot in the road, and there seems to be no culture whatsoever – no cafe, no bookstore, no art gallery – just a few motels and fast food chains, a supermarket and hardware chain. My motel seemed to be built of cardboard; the people in the room above me seemed to be elephants doing a rain dance, and when they took a shower it sounded like Niagara Falls.

In the morning I re-stocked at the market and headed back out 95 to Comb Wash, where I drove down the wash and found the trailhead for lower Mule Canyon. From 95, the head of the canyon had looked deep, narrow, and filled with tall Ponderosa pine. I expected good hiking up slickrock, but the reality was a slog through deep powder sand liberally colonized by spiny tumbleweeds. I did take the initial side trip to some modest ruins which featured some very nice shards of Anasazi – sorry, Ancestral Pueblo – pottery, and a sweet little rock art panel. I was impressed that although most people seemed to have used ATVs to get here, they seemed to have honored the relics.

But my subsequent hike up the canyon was pretty much a death march: 50% more effort than walking on a hard surface, and it took 50% longer to go a given distance. Carrying over 20 pounds in my day pack and wearing lightweight boots with little support, my bad foot was hurting the whole time. About three miles in, I finally came to a single giant Ponderosa pine, and shortly after that, I began sneezing, my eyes started burning, and I could feel my tear glands swelling up in the corners of my eyes. It seemed ridiculous to be having such a sudden, severe allergy attack on a calm day in the wilderness, and I kept telling myself that the canyon would get narrow and walking would get better around the next corner, but eventually, a couple miles below the head of the lower canyon, I was weeping so badly that I could hardly see, and I turned back. Once past the big Ponderosa, my allergy symptoms cleared up. Now I knew why they called it Mule Canyon – only a mule would be stubborn enough to come here!

I was due back home by the night of the next day, and I didn’t want any of the final drive to be in the dark because of abundant deer and elk, so I decided to drive back across the Rez that night and stay in Chambers again, cutting my final drive in half. Little did I know that the entire Navajo Nation would be on the move.

The traffic on the Rez was unbelievable, especially after dark. I’ve driven that road several times during the day and never encountered anything like it. Normally you go 15 minutes without seeing another vehicle, but that night it was a constant chain of headlights, and they were all passing me going north, from Mexican Water at the north end to Klagetoh at the south. I wonder if many free-roaming horses or cattle were hit that night; imagine my relief when I reached I-40 unscathed.

All in all, this trip felt like an accomplishment. While I hadn’t seen as much beautiful country and prehistoric culture as I had on previous trips, I’d conquered the worst road ever with my little truck, and I’d actually covered a lot more miles hiking than I had in past trips, especially in proportion to miles driven. May it ever be so.


Birthday Miracle

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014: Mojave Desert, Southeast Utah, Trips.

Note: The photos below are viewable in high resolution. After clicking on the thumbnail, you can really get a sense of being there by clicking on View Full Size at lower right of the photo.

First view of my destination - the mountains on the horizon - from New Home Bench, above the Escalante River Canyons

A Spontaneous, Poorly Conceived Trip

Out of work, betrayed by faceless bureaucracies, threatened with financial ruin, sick for months with a mysterious infection that kept coming back, filling my aching head with mucus, making me disgusting to be around, slow and stupid, weak and tired from lost sleep, waiting in waiting rooms and in line at pharmacies, traveling sick in airport lines and crowded shuttle buses and crammed in airplane seats…

And now my birthday was coming up, and I had nobody around to celebrate it with, all my family and close friends were a thousand miles away – because we had drifted apart, I had moved, my attempts to make new friends were frustrated.

Antibiotics seemed to be working, but still tired and weak…needed to get out of my rut, to fool myself somehow into feeling good…a change of scenery? Couldn’t really afford to travel, even by road. But that seemed the only option, a camping trip. The cheapest place would be my land in the desert. What the hell, you only live once.

I immediately notified my partner in ownership – I never go out there without telling him – but it turned out he had already planned a trip without me, a father and son gathering with his son’s friends.

A sudden decision, no planning – a self-imposed deadline for departure – it was a setup for more stress, desperation and inevitable mistakes as I raced to pack, load the truck, get the house and my pathetic affairs in order. A heat wave was beginning. I have an impeccable list for these trips but I was two hours past my artificial deadline, the day was getting hotter, and I skipped the list.

A Desert in Ireland

Driving west across the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau on I-40, just past Holbrook, gently undulating steppes all the way to the horizon, 50 miles away on left and right. Suddenly I’m in haze, like fog, lying over the ground and obscuring the blue sky and scattered cumulus clouds above. The sagebrush and juniper look out of place, like a desert in Ireland. It’s been a hot drive, the AC is on, a curious harsh smell coming through the vents. Takes me a while to recognize it as smoke from a distant wildfire.

I drive through the monstrous tongue of smoke for more than an hour, and then there’s Flagstaff, with a dark sky of low clouds hanging about the San Francisco Peaks, which I glimpse through an opening, draped in fresh snow.

Wearing shorts, I stepped out into cold mountain air at the market, and it began to rain hard as I shopped for groceries and beer. One benefit of these trips is getting IPAs I can’t get at home. The beer shop had a new, lower-alcohol IPA from Stone that turned out to be a great new summertime beer.

Disgusted with the overwhelming generic yuppie landscape and cutthroat competitive traffic of Flagstaff – which I first knew as a sleepy little railroad town – I briefly tried to relax over a plate of carnitas in an upscale strip-mall taqueria, then raced onward through the black silhouettes of forested mountains toward the sunset and my cheap motel, where I could see lightning blinking above a dimly glowing horizon.

It wasn’t until the following noon in the Mojave, cresting the pass at Mountain Springs Road, that I suddenly felt happy and at peace, returning home to my golden mountains of stone riding like ships above their pale alluvial basins as far as the eye could see. On the way up the alluvial fan, while I was grinning at the summit peak over on the left with a suggestive white cloud hanging over it, a mature red tail hawk flushed out of the low roadside shrubs and swooped theatrically over the gravel road in front of me.

When I reached camp, met the LA crowd and saw their impressive array of expedition gear, I realized I’d forgotten my folding camp chair. Fortunately my partner generously offered me one of his for the rest of my trip.

Sleeping in the Open

Few clouds in the blue sky, little wind, warm but not hot. The rusty golden slopes, cliffs and peaks of ancient stone embraced the broad valley below us as I relaxed with the fathers in the shade of their canopy – the campsite has no natural shade – while the kids climbed around over the granite boulders. Their elaborate cooking gear and wheeled ice chests sat nearby in a ceremonial circle like Stonehenge.

We talked through the rest of the long day until sunset, when they burst into chaotic labor, trudging back and forth between their individual camp kitchens and their vehicles parked below in the sandy wash, servicing their kids’ needs and getting them ready for bed.

After dining, they all retired to the confinement of their tents, while as always I slept out in the open, watching the sky darkening, the stars emerging, and the Milky Way reassembling its vague, mysterious shape overhead. For some reason, on this trip I slept better on the ground than ever before; my 30-year-old ergonomically-designed sleeping pad felt so good that even with my bad back I could rest easily in any position.

I saw a falling star immediately on lying down, and woke sporadically through the night to enjoy the westward progress of the constellations and the galaxy.

Theriodonts and Chemehuevis

Warmer in the morning. The fathers were already preoccupied with leaving, returning to their deadlines and crises in the city, working hard to break camp and load their vehicles, while I fried bacon for everyone. With his father busy, one of the kids I hadn’t interacted with much gravitated to me and we talked about our favorite dinosaurs. I told him about the theriodonts, reptile ancestors of the mammals that provided evidence for continental drift. But in my mind I was regretting the way dinosaurs are used to pimp for Big Science.

I told him about the Chemehuevis and their 10,000 year cultural memory of the extinct horse. He seemed relaxed amid all the bustle of departure, enjoying my stories and our conversation, whereas one of the other kids had already had enough, immersing himself in computer games on his dad’s laptop, anxious to get back to his comfort zone in the city.

As they hurriedly piled into their vehicles, I asked them about the bag of trash they’d left. They all said they didn’t have room for it, apparently unaware it was theirs. This was the second time in a row they’d left me with trash to dispose of, but fortunately this time it was only half a bag. Last time it’d been two full ones that I had to sort for recyclables in the heat of Las Vegas. But hey, at least I got a chair out of it, that more than made up for a stinky load and a little dirt on my hands!

Amazing how much packaging trash and garbage families can generate in a couple of days – after an entire week of camping I can’t even fill a small grocery bag, let alone the full size hefty bags they bring. But then it takes me months to fill my city garbage can at home. They have the families, the urban lifestyle and high-pressure careers; I’m lonely and poor, but have plenty of time to focus on the little things.

Sweating in Silence

It was already quite hot when they left and I packed to head up to the shade house. I figured I’d spend the heat of the day in my hammock in the shade, then go for a hike around sundown. But I wasn’t thinking straight. Sundown would be very late.

I wanted to park at the overhang midway up the Gulch and take the shortcut path up the alluvial bench, but driving up the sandy wash I realized my 2wd truck probably couldn’t handle the deep sand of the first sharp bend, so I stopped in the narrows just beyond the beginning of the shade house road and filled my pack. Starting up the road I discovered that someone had recently driven up it – quite a feat since we’ve considered it undriveable for more than 20 years. Of course, this entire area is private property with a No Trespassing sign, but as any rural property owner knows, to many people that’s a challenge not an impediment.

Someone had obviously seen this as a Jeep commercial, one of those extreme off road opportunities with two-foot boulders to drive over. In the process they’d destroyed 20 years of beautiful native vegetation. With the sun directly above, the morning’s heat radiating from the 2,000′ rock walls above me, and still on antibiotics, I had to stop frequently to rest, even though it’s only about a half mile and a climb of 300 feet or so. At the shade house, I found a few cigarette butts lying around, and the macho trespassers had dumped out the old can of artifacts the kids had collected on previous trips: historic pottery, purple glass, and interesting pieces of metal.

I strung my hammock and began to read the library books I’d brought from home, but soon I was sweating in the shade, and it was only early afternoon. I had to go up on the roof and do some more patching to keep rays of sunlight from scorching me. I was sure it wasn’t as hot as when I had lived out here in the summer of 1992, but for some reason it was affecting me more now. I was uncomfortable for the rest of the day, and knew I wouldn’t be able to do any hiking, which is the main reason I come out here. Later, when I got back to civilization, I checked the temperature history of locations that match our land, and found that day’s temperature was likely 100 degrees, so in retrospect I didn’t feel like such a wimp!

In mid afternoon I became aware of an eerie silence. The night before, I’d strained to hear a single cricket intermittently chirping in the distance. I hadn’t seen any birds yet. Now, in the springtime, there should be an abundance of both birds and insects. The day before, we had talked about how the desert willow seemed to be blooming sparse and late. At camp I’d noticed how dark and shriveled the leaves of the creosote bush were. A female phainopepla appeared briefly at the shade house, but otherwise there were no birds and no bird or insect sounds throughout the entire day. It might have been the driest, and most dormant, I’d ever seen this place.

Finally, by 6:30 pm, the sun dropped behind the western ridge, and I began to pack for the trip back to the truck. I was so weak at this point I didn’t even feel like hiking the short distance up to the seep to check the motion sensor camera. The next day was my birthday, and I wondered how the hell I was going to celebrate in this unbearable heat?

Maybe it would be better to lie on the sand under the overhang in the Gulch, which is in shade from late morning. But I still wouldn’t be able to do any hiking, and I would probably exhaust my reading material early in the day. Sadly, I realized I’d have to leave my land and drive to someplace cooler to spend my birthday in comfort.

Driving back to camp I passed two cottontails huddled together under a bush.

I was staging my meals in order to make best use of the meat I had brought. The chicken would spoil first, so I had to grill it tonight. I waited until 9pm to start a fire; it was still uncomfortably hot out, but the chicken ended up tender and succulent. Finally, by about 10:30, the night started to cool off and I went to bed naked. There had been no moon either night, so the stars had it all to themselves.

Air Conditioning and a Pool

Awakening on birthday morning, I decided to head in the general direction of my favorite mountain range in southeast Utah, where I knew there would be moderate temperatures, alpine hiking, and shady camping in aspen groves. It was a long day’s drive and I didn’t want to spend my birthday driving, so I would need to find a comfortable motel, somewhere in the hot desert not far from here, to break up the trip. I envisioned air conditioning and a pool, someplace with little traffic, but I didn’t know where that would be yet.

As an omen of the day to come, by the time I had broken camp at 8:30 am, it was already too hot to exercise. I bid a sad farewell to my home in the Mojave, flushing a big jackrabbit out of the desert willows near our gate.

My route would inevitably take me through the southern tip of Nevada, but I wanted to avoid the madness of Las Vegas at all costs. Between Goffs and the 95, I stopped to top up my tank with the gas from the extra can, and checking the map I found there was a long way to bypass Vegas through the Lake Mead recreation area, which I knew to be fantastically beautiful. I would look for a historic motel in Boulder City, which I knew from old desert trips, when one of my biologist friends was living there.

El Rancho Boulder turned out to be perfect. I had the large, clean pool all to myself for a birthday swim. What relief after the extreme drought and heat! Decadent, yes. Wasteful and unsustainable, for sure. I spent my calendar birthday in a motel, but my spiritual birthday was yet to come.

Paiute Homelands

The next day’s drive was better than I’d remembered, better than I’d expected. The road past Lake Mead became vaguely familiar as I arrived at a massive roadside spring. I had stopped here with a girlfriend, not sure which, returning from a road trip decades ago. The garish clay domes and fantastic redrock outcrops were intimations of what I’d find far ahead in Utah; the Moapa Valley was a bizarre mix of huge trailer parks, irrigated farms, and McMansions on hills.

From my place in the California desert, to my destination in southeastern Utah, is the ancient homeland of the Southern Paiutes, people whose sophisticated way of life was, unlike ours, perfectly adapted to their environment. They were “environmentally sustainable” for thousands of years, until the Spanish enslaved them, the American frontiersmen and military hunted and killed them like wild game, the Mormons and other white settlers appropriated their fertile farmland and forced them into indentured servitude on Anglo farms, culture hero Mark Twain ridiculed them as subhuman degenerates – and now they’re forgotten or ignored by our culture of Mars rovers and Google Glass.

Yet they may thrive again as our tottering society consumes itself.

Back on the interstate, I made the improbable crossing through the monumental Virgin River Canyon into Utah and steadily uphill to Cedar City, where I took a road east that was new to me. After a week of increasingly hot weather I felt the temperature drop rapidly as the road climbed into aspen and fir forest, past lush alpine meadows and extensive snow-packed slopes. Suddenly, the heat was behind me! At 10,000′ there was an overlook from which I could see the towers of Zion far to the south. Then, driving faster because I was concerned I wouldn’t reach my destination that evening, I came upon the Markagunt Plateau, an amazing highland of brown and black lava flows in which an aspen forest has taken root. Snow beside the road, meandering trout streams, lots of roadkilled deer.

Then, descending into the Sevier River valley, with more lush pastures, ponds and lakes, incredibly beautiful country following the river north.

I turned east again across the high Bryce plateau, then down into dry ponderosa forest and the warm, dry Paria River valley with big silver-leaved trees along the floodplain. At the farming village of Henrieville I left all the tourist traffic behind. So peaceful here; I had to stop in the town for a red hen leading 7 grown chicks across the highway.

Climbing again toward dark, heavy clouds dragging tendrils of rain, through badlands divided by small running streams, more lush high pastures and meadows surrounded by ponderosa, and the smell of rain. What a country we’ve invaded, damaged and polluted!

I stopped for gas in Escalante and found the most beautiful gas station restroom I’ve ever seen.

Dropping into the red sandstone of the Escalante canyon, a powerful musky smell and edible Prince’s Plume blooming everywhere along the road, then up onto the vertiginous narrow ridge of New Home Bench overlooking the white domes and canyons of the Escalante Country. It was there that I realized more than ever how roadbuilding is a sin – and paved roads are a cardinal sin.

You will say I’m a hypocrite because I use these roads to quickly reach my favorite places, but two generations ago these places were reached by dirt roads that had vastly less ecological impact, and two generations before that people simply drove their old, high clearance cars across untracked land, getting to the same places that we’ve spent millions to pave. And before that, of course, they went horseback, and before that walked, and because of it were healthier than any of their descendants. All these places were always accessible, but with far less impact, and an unpaved track is quickly reclaimed by nature.

I began to think of the places where paved roads are most evil: Yosemite Valley, Tioga Pass, the Virgin River Canyon, Long Canyon, the Burr Trail, Comb Ridge…the list is endless.

At the edge of Boulder I turned off on the Burr Trail, a road my aboriginal skills instructor called particularly wicked, a road fought bitterly by environmentalists in a losing battle against redneck yahoos. Driving up Long Canyon, which should have been a hiking trail not a road, a fat red-brown marmot bounced across the road in front of me.

Camping on the Edge

The sun was setting behind the cliffs as I crested the head of the canyon, with my first view of the distant mountains that were my destination, dimly silhouetted far in the east, with visible patches of snow on the crests. Below, I saw a dirt trail off to the side and followed it to a campsite on the edge of a cliff overlooking multi-colored hills and canyons and juniper plateaus.

It was still mercifully cool up there, but I knew that down in the canyon lands to the east, it would be as hot as in the Mojave. I gathered just enough small firewood for a cooking fire. I reached into the ice chest for my birthday steak, which I had bought four days ago frozen but had thawed immediately. The lamb sausages had been waterlogged the whole time. I put them all on the grill and overcooked them; I joined the steak with a cabbage salad and saved the sausages for another night. Midges and lacewings attacked me gently after sunset; a bat hunted through camp, and an owl hooted down in the canyons before I went to sleep under clouds that gradually broke up and revealed the stars.

At dawn I was awakened by my first mosquito; the midges were bad in my ears and eyes. I hoped they wouldn’t be like this in the mountains.

Back on the Burr Trail, I passed a big but young mule deer buck standing in a dry meadow staring at me. He was so big I first thought he was an elk.

Down the legendary switchbacks into another long valley where I turned north into that amazing hidden country of sporadic, huge, lush farms and ranches, the prelude to my destination. I’d never approached it from the south before and I overshot my turnoff.

Salivating for Snow

My attraction to these mountains is almost as mysterious as my seduction by the Mojave. I remember driving past them with Katie on our rock art expedition in 1987, and thinking they looked inviting, a high, green, presumably cool oasis in the midst of a vastness of red rock. Somehow that vision got lodged in my mind; more than 20 years later I found myself retracing our expedition path, and ended up climbing to the summit and falling in love. Since then, I’ve found a few others who also treasure this remote, little-known range.

As far as I can tell, these very mountains were the eastern limit of the Southern Paiutes, the tribe I know and admire the most, the tribe that branched and became the Chemehuevis who claimed what is now my land in the Mojave. The group that lived in this area was called the Yantarii. Nothing seems to be known about them; they managed to evade our historical appropriation.

Back on course, across dramatic badlands and climbing up, up the big mountain from sagebrush foothills through pinyon-juniper into the ponderosa and then the alpine fir and spruce. Dark clouds swirled around the summits up ahead and I salivated for that snow! Someone had driven the road much earlier when it was saturated after snowmelt, and their deep ruts, meandering back and forth, had dried rock-hard so that it was very slow going in my bouncy, rattling little truck. It was yet mid afternoon and I wanted to park at the pass and try the summit hike.

I passed a rancher in his pickup truck; these mountains are grazed to the top. I passed groups of mule deer, and a small area of recent clearcut with a pile of ponderosa logs and a trailer. I passed the first aspen groves above 9,000′ and carefully inched my way up the final steep, rocky grade. Entering the fir forest near the pass I encountered an ATV trailer someone had surprisingly parked right in the road; I squeezed past it, rounded a turn and came upon a deep snowdrift blocking all but a couple feet of the roadway. So I backed to a wide place in the road, parked and loaded my backpack.

Talus and Tundra

The pass was only a few hundred yards past the snowdrift. Out of the trees I encountered a gale force wind, as I had in my previous visit. The air temperature was probably about 50 degrees, and the steady west wind was only slightly less than what would knock me down – maybe 60-65 mph.

The pass is 10,500′; the peak is only a thousand feet higher, at the end of a crestline of four progressively higher peaks. The initial slope is a gentle grade, but with my weakness and the relentless wind I felt uncertain starting out and quickly lost heart and breath. I kept having to stop to rest. I thought I might stop at the first low peak and turn back.

The crest line is true alpine tundra, which, I’m guessing, exists unusually in this latitude and elevation probably because of the constant cold wind. Thus the slopes are clear, and the approach is mostly a good trail, with occasional traverses of brittle diorite talus, festively decorated with orange lichen.

I reached the little grove of wind-stunted dwarf spruce and firs at the first peak, and tried to cross a snowdrift that blocked the trail between the trees. At first the snow was hard, then my boots sank deep and I got snow in them so I had to briefly take them off in that harsh environment. I was not feeling particularly robust at this point.

The trail to the next peak was much steeper. It just headed straight up the slope. I forced myself to try it. And somewhere in that difficult climb, in that howling wind, I got my spirit back.

At the second peak I was on top of the world. I could see across all the canyon lands, a maze of red, yellow and white rock to east and west, burning hot way down there while I was freezing up here: the engine of that wind. Ahead of me across the trail to the third peak was a slab of snow hundreds of feet long, with a small cornice facing me. I skirted it along a soggy slope that got steeper, until I had to find a way across the snow.

I found a place where it seemed to be shallower, and tried kicking my boots into it. It was soft but firm and I could climb over it. The rest of the third crest was nonstop talus, with that howling wind threatening to topple me from every loose rock I stepped on. Then there was the steep climb to the final summit, over big, sharp, barely eroded loose diorite chunks and slabs. Occasionally I saw a spider scrambling between rocks; I came upon three ravens; otherwise nothing but lichen and hardy tundra plants hugging the sparse soil.

The clouds were pulling back as I reached the summit. I couldn’t believe I’d made it, feeling the way I had at the start. I was so elated, I made a video for whoever may have wished me a happy birthday, back in civilization.

Coming back down was actually the hardest part, because without the heat of exertion I felt the cold a lot more. I cinched my hood as tight as I could around my face. The next day my lungs were burning and I coughed a lot, but after that it cleared up.

Waiting for the Dark to Fall

With this cold and this wind, my former campsite in an open grove at the head of a ridge was way too exposed, but I knew there was another attractive aspen grove protected in a bend in the road farther down. What I didn’t know was how cold it would get at night; I had only my lightweight summer sleeping bag.

When I pulled out beside the lower grove, I found faint old vehicle tracks that passed the grove up a gentle slope, and walking up I found one of the best campsites I’ve ever seen, in a mature grove of very tall aspens, some of whose trees had started to die, providing ideal bird nesting habitat. It hadn’t been visited or used yet this year; there was lots of dry firewood; there was a woodpecker working loudly high up in the canopy.

I got out one of the lamb sausages, sliced and mixed it with some seasoned black beans and rice I’d cooked days earlier in the Mojave. I started a small fire and sat waiting for the dark to fall. I thought about how I keep making these trips alone, because I have no one else to make them with. I know of only one other guy who might rarely go camping alone. Most of my friends would never venture it, and certainly not the climbs or canyon hikes I do by myself. The arrogant jocks and bullies who threatened me and called me a coward in high school are now all out of shape and in poor health and probably couldn’t handle a single night outdoors.

It was a chilly night, but I slept with all the warm clothing I’d brought, and in the morning I woke to a form of paradise.

Miracle in the Morning

My grove was full of birds and birdsong. The woodpecker was still working. The first bird I saw was a hummingbird, attracted to the red in my sleeping pad or mosquito screen. I lay in bed for a while as sunlight poured over the crest and gilded the high canopy. Then as I prepared my granola and made coffee, I marveled at the avian spectacle all around me. They were working the ground, the middle space, and the sunlit tops of the aspens. I saw flashes of blue and green, tan, red, black and white, all sizes from hummingbirds to jays. Small, sleek swallows kept swooping through my camp. I had my breakfast and while I was eating they all suddenly moved on, as an ensemble, to another grove nearby. Completely different kinds of birds, working independently, yet moving together as a group. I was surprised and inspired.

As I was rinsing my dishes I heard a sudden crashing at the low end of the grove and looked up. There, about 40 yards away, three bison were galloping away through the trees. Apparently they had been grazing their way closer and suddenly became aware of me. I sort of remembered hearing there were bison in these mountains, but had never seen them – and had certainly never seen bison wild, outside a national park or a billionaire’s ranch. Now my birthday celebration was complete! First a spontaneous, poorly conceived trip, then an insurmountable obstacle leading to an unplanned detour, and now these miracles!

Traversing the Middle Peak

I wanted to stay there forever. But like my LA friends, I had a deadline and a crisis back in town. I felt I needed to somehow get in cell phone range today to call my mortgage officer – today was the deadline for her to call the lender and extend my application. I could just assume she would remember, but if she didn’t I’d be screwed, with a lot of money down the drain. And I wasn’t sure how far I was from a phone connection: 3 hours, or as much as 6 hours. I was really out there.

After studying the maps I decided to try a new route across the mountains. To reach it I’d have to drive back down into the lower foothills. Before that turnoff, there would be others higher up that led to 4wd-only roads I needed to avoid.

But of course I turned off too soon, following a sign that seemed to point where I wanted to go. After many miles of steep climbing on a bad road at 5-10 mph, I realized I was on the 4wd road to hell. But if I turned back, I would likely miss my call. So I kept going.

It took me up across the southwest face of the northern massif. I gradually became confident. I was filling in the blanks of my knowledge of this range. I hadn’t encountered anything undoable. I saw the middle peak getting closer, with its solid granite outlier formation. I began to see exactly where I was on the map. I followed the road down toward the saddle connecting the peaks. Then I came to the bad spot.

Fortunately I was going down. I might not have been able to come up this part of the road. It turned to deep red powder sand with big, sharp rocks sporadically embedded in it. First there was a sharp turn that was just deep sand. Around the turn was a steep downslope of sand and rock. Using gravity, I inched around the turn and carefully lurched down the long rocky hill, and breathed a big sigh of relief at the bottom.

Now I was in an entirely new part of the range. I came into a fairly recent burn area; the entire north and east slope of the middle peak had burnt intensely in 2003 and the ponderosa forest on its slopes was being replaced by thickets of Gambel oak. The middle slopes were gently rolling, with large expanses of grassy meadows and sagebrush flats, with a few small groups of cattle grazing at great distances from each other. The road was, if anything, rockier than ever. I could see the canyonlands desert off in the distance, with its highway that might lead me in calling range, but I couldn’t hurry on this road.

After stopping to make lunch in a sunny flat at about 8,000′, I slowly made my way across and down the east side of the mountains into the desert, dropping into the canyon of a major creek and coming suddenly upon a major encampment of ATV enthusiasts with big trucks and RVs parked beside the stream. A few miles beyond I hit the paved road.

I still had no phone signal; I kept driving southeast through my old familiar canyon country, across the big river and over high mesas, until finally high up on the edge of Elk Ridge I saw three bars on the phone and pulled over to try calling the bank. It was 4:30 pm on Friday; she was away from her desk so I left a message.

I had hoped to do another hike before driving home, but I had used up the entire day driving across the best hiking country in the world, just trying to make a futile, and probably unnecessary, call. I was starting to think about dinner; I drove to the village of Bluff on the San Juan River, where I knew there was a good steakhouse, but as I passed it I realized I still had leftover lamb sausage, beans and rice, so I decided to look for a picnic spot on the river. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed that my old favorite cheap motel in Bluff had re-opened.

Folk History in Bluff

Several miles later I was in a grove of cottonwoods beside the San Juan, starting to unpack my cooking gear, until I realized that my stove was buried under everything else, and there were bugs here, and no good camping spots, and no place to camp on the Navajo Reservation if I kept driving. So I decided to return to the Mokee Motel, get a room for the night, and warm up my leftovers there. The next day would be a reasonable 6 hour drive back home.

Per usual for this time of year, Bluff was hot as hell. After dinner, with the air conditioner rumbling, I intermittently read Richard McKeon’s Thought Action and Passion on the iPad and glanced at a PBS fundraiser on TV featuring mainstream, baby boomer folk music acts of the late 50s and early 60s, some of whom had been part of my childhood. Most of them were insipid, and I was reminded of why I don’t really like folk music. It’s a genre primarily consisting of uptight, overeducated urban white people self-consciously trying to reproduce traditional music divorced from the traditional context. Like professional sports, its another way in which our culture has specialized and commodified the life out of its traditional roots.

Tamales in Chambers

Traffic was light across the Navajo reservation. I was on the decompression leg of my journey. I still had the White Mountains and all the other watersheds of the San Francisco River ahead of me, and the open Gila Country, but first I had to stop somewhere for lunch. There used to be a Denny’s-type coffee shop attached to the motel at the Chambers exit on I-40, so that would be my first attempt.

It was open, and it was now a bare-bones Navajo eatery. A big TV was blasting at the end of the room; a pony-tailed older Navajo was eating and watching from his booth, and an Anglo couple were finishing lunch at theirs. I sat at the counter and a shy young Navajo guy handed me a menu. A middle-aged lady was cooking behind the order window.

I ordered tamales, and they came out looking good, with big whole kidney beans and rice. The tamales and sauce were much better than I’d expected. I took my time, reading from my iPad. The other diners left. The kid asked me if I wanted him to turn off the TV and I said sure. As I was getting up to pay, the cook came out and I told her I liked her tamales. She went to the other end of the room and started a long, soft-spoken reply that I couldn’t understand, so I smiled and chuckled and strolled out to my truck, to end a journey that turned out pretty well after all.

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