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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.

  1. joan says:

    Max, I really enjoyed this journey and wished I could have been with you.

  2. Wanda Spitzer says:

    Thanks for the travelogue!

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