"Adventure! Excitement! Glamour! Free scenery! Climb rocks, explore slickrock canyons, learn how to tie great looking knots! Get a BANG out of life, for Pete's sake!" It was an ad for an Outward Bound course in desert canyoneering. I've bumbled around the southwest for a number of years now, hiking in a disoriented, dilettantish sort of way. I don't really go looking for trouble, but it always finds me. I've hiked through Grand Canyon six times and still can't find my way out without a National Park sign pointing "THIS WAY." Maybe Outward Bound can help. So I begin to make plans.
Two years pass. Incidental stuff keeps getting in the way, like cost and logistics. Finally, though, I pencil in a ten-day hiatus on my calendar, cough up the application fee, and wait for adventure to strike.
April 1987: "You've been accepted, now send us more money!" coos the first letter. "Send a hundred bucks now, seven fifty later, plus another fifty for the bus. Oh and here's a list of the clothes to buy. And here's a list of the boots to buy. And here's what you have to do to get in condition: run run run! Do push-ups and sit-ups, too. Then run some more. We mean it! Oh, and congratulations. Now go get a physical so if you have a heart attack during your ten-mile endurance marathon it won't be our fault."
Wait, what about the adventure? the excitement? the glamour? Don't we get to go off into the woods and learn how to build a compass or make nutritious meals from tree bark? Nevertheless, I'm willing to give it a try.
One try later, I'm ready to throw in the towel, write off the application and registration fees. The damned running regimen has soured my attitude on outdoor activities lock, stock and backpack. I am categorically and psychosomatically opposed to running. Walking, loitering or hammocking--no problem. Just leave running to the more extroverted masochists.
There's more. For the past seven years, I've followed my own exercise program of push-ups, sit-ups and stretching. Every day, never fail. Two thousand five hundred fifty-seven days, all accounted for. But after grunting through one short, dumb, foot-pounding sprint and sucking in chlorinated water after one lousy lap at a neighborhood swimming pool--all in an futile attempt to approximate my TARGET HEART RATE--I stop. Dead. No more. Everything. The end. Screw it.
I do, however, send another check.
Another letter from Outward Bound. "We got the seven fifty, now send us the bus money. Now! It's this simple: no bucks, no bus. Case closed."
I capitulate, send another check. Now for the boots. To save money, I drive to a discount camping store. It's in Paramus, a hundred miles away. The boots are heavy and brown, serious looking, made in Italy. They cost a hundred bucks, $14.29 a pound. I have to wear 'em a hundred hours to break 'em in, then smear hot beeswax on 'em for waterproofing.
Now to concentrate on the rest of my outfit. I have sneakers, long underwear and a hat. That leaves the wool shirt, wool jacket, wool pants, wool socks, wood flashlight, Swiss Army house, plus about a hundred other items.
Notice all the hundreds in this deal?
I reread letter #2, discover some fine print: "possible additional expenses include charges for lost or damaged equipment--$150 should suffice."
What do they want from me, a damned second mortgage?
October. My mood is not good as I skip breakfast and head west. Crossing the Rockies cheers me a bit, and a quiet afternoon amongst the crags in Colorado National Monument the day before the fifty dollar bus ride helps even more.
But then ...
Day 1 -- Logistics
The bus is scheduled to leave Grand Junction, Colorado at 7:30, no waiting for latecomers. I arrive at 7:29. Twenty-nine people are on board, 17 of whom are lady bankers from Oklahoma City. Three and half hours and 190 miles later, we stop on a deserted stretch of road just outside Canyonlands. The bankers stay on, the rest of us get off, transfer our equipment to a pick-up truck, then jog a mile to a supply site. We divide into two six-person patrols, two men and four women in mine. Our leader, a Texan named Denis Luján, has a beach chair and bullwhip lashed to his backpack, automatically gets 10 points for style. We are issued sleeping bags, ground pads, canvas tarps, yellow rain parkas, compasses, matches, whistles, maps, caribiners, ropes, plastic bags, water bottles, little metal cups for food and drink, a hard hat, iodine, a stubby candle, a stubby pencil, a 26-page journal in which to write our thoughts (Dear Diary, no news again today.), and a backpack to stuff it all in. Kitchen equipment is next: backpacking stoves, fuel bottles, cooking pans, skillets and a spoon. And finally, the food. There's a lot, a barrelful, but we take only enough to last us until resupply in five days: pasta, rice, soup mixes, peanut butter, honey, crackers, raisins, dried fruit, powdered milk, cocoa powder, teabags, canned tuna, tomato paste, apples and oranges, onions, granola and cheese. Lots of cheese. Wait! Where are the Twinkies? the Ring-Dings? the Yodels? What are we, Buddhists on a weight loss program? We fill our bottles with tap water, load up our packs, and put them back on the truck which, as a gesture of good will, will transport them to our initial campsite. We, however, get to walk. Six miles over dusty desert terrain.
We start up Davis Canyon, pass by the Six Shooters, North and South, two similarly craggy spires which will be occasional points of reference during the next week. The hike isn't hard, mostly follows a Jeep trail. At dusk we reach our campsite. By the time we've figured out where to set up the tarp and dig the sump hole, who has what food and who's on cooking detail, night has fallen and we're working by flashlight.
Denis says we may keep our watches but we have to manufacture our own eating implements, whittling spoons out of dead branches. I make a runcible chopstick, works great till I lose it in the darkness. I try to make another, but the only wood left is full of knots, bumps, splinters and termites. Okay, I'll eat with my hands. As the temperature drops, we prepare some soup. It's hot and tasty. Under the circumstances, volcanic ash would be hot and tasty. And easier to hold, too.
Sleeping accommodations pose another challenge: with three sleeping bags for seven people, can all seven people stay warm? We zip the bags together and huddle, seven torsos in a row. I am on the end and it isn't long before my sliver of bag has been yanked entirely off me. (Answer to challenge: no.)
Denis wants to get up at first light, a term we will hear often during the course. The moon is especially bright tonight and a really good facsimile of first light occurs at 2:20 a.m. Thinking we've overslept, Denis rouses us. Lake Pavlovian dogs, we obey. Eventually I point out that, first light or no, it's still only 2:20. Denis admits his error and is the first one back under the sleeping bags and the first one asleep. I am the last.
Day 2 -- Uphill
A few words about toilet facilities. There aren't any. Well, that's not exactly true, but we have to get by in the most rudimentary way. I volunteer to carry the entrenching tool, and another person volunteers to dig the latrine each day. She calls herself the Queen of Latrines.
[Patrol members, please stand as your name is called.] Besides Denis, there's Mark from New York, Edith from Boston, Kirsie from Chicago, Liz from Hollywood, and Carol from northern California. And me, your obedient servant.
Edith, Queen of Latrines, is an accountant, too. Carol, 42, runs marathons and supervises a medical lab. Kirsie, the youngest at 19, is a student. Liz writes television sit-com scripts. Mark manages a courier service and is a martial arts whiz. And Denis--oh, let's call him Tex--teaches defensive shooting and ballroom dancing when he's not working for Outward Bound. And me, your obedient servant.
Back to toilet facilities. With no toilet paper available, we have to use the next best thing. But there is no next best thing. Only fourth best, such as bushes, pebbles and the occasional leaf. Quick discovery: if something sits not softly in the hand, it'll sit considerably less softly on the bum. Consider, for example, the holly leaf.
It's first light. Really! It's 6 a.m. and everyone grudgingly stirs. I help get the stoves going and fold up the tarp. After breakfasting on cocoa and granola, we give the stoves and utensils a cursory wipe, then jam them into our packs. Being a grumpy early morning packer, I have trouble fitting everything into my pack. The others wait while I bend a saucepan to make it fit.
Crimony, the backpack's heavy! I'll need a winch to get it on my back. We don't have a winch, but we do have Mark and Kirsie, who lift me into the pack. Presto. Instant camaraderie.
It's 7:30, way past first light. Late. We resolve not to let this happen again. We study our topo maps and pick the route for the day. We'll have a dry camp this evening so we load up on water, then purify it. So what if it comes fresh from a glistening stream, it still might contain giardia, a nasty protozoan cyst which can savage the lower intestines. Hence we treat it with iodine, three drops per quart. It tastes like ... well, like water with iodine in it. We orient ourselves, head down a vague trail, and wend our way into Horse Canyon. Then up.
Up. Not as easy as it sounds. Most of the time, it's slow going, scrambling over rocks and crags. Occasionally we hand our packs up to others and clamber up after them. Then it's even slower. When things get particularly dicey, we strap on hard hats. That's so if you screw up and tumble 100 feet, your head remains intact, even if other parts are smithereened.
Eventually we reach the pass between Horse and Mitten canyons, our goal. It wasn't as far as we thought. Plus, what a view! Canyons to the left of us, mesas to the right of us, the La Sal Mountains over there. Scenery in triplicate and Technicolor.
In industrious ant-like fashion we fire up the stoves, put up the tarp, dig the sump hole and latrine (thanks, Queen of Latrines). Definition, sump hole: a hole to put sumping disgusting in.
Tonight's chef has decided on the pasta à la milanese with basil in a light clam sauce, a bordeau, and cr█pe suzettes. Check that, it's spaghetti with tomato paste, boiled tea and raisins. There are a lot of leftovers. Later, surfeited and weary, we kick back, talk about the day, tell lies, clean up, then scrunch under the sleeping bags, ready to get up again at first light.
Day 3 -- Downhill
It's early, but not early enough. How about second light?
Take a Baggie. Put a map inside. Tie a string to it. Hang it around your neck. Voila, now you can instantly see where you are. Providing of course that you can read a topo map. Definition, topographic map: a map with a bunch of squiggly contour lines on it from which you can pinpoint your location if you can identify similar squiggly contours of the land around you. Each line represents an 80-foot difference in elevation, and if you can judge such height differentials while keeping in mind where north is while simultaneously noting squiggle similarity, why you've mastered the art of map and compass, an important part of canyoneering. And one which will elude me throughout the course.
Breakfast is a form of Cream of Wheat. It is slightly less appetizing than papier-mâché, though no less dense. Plus we have leftover spaghetti. A lot. What we don't eat, we carry. And guess who's carrying the garbage bag? (Yes, it's yr obdt svt.)
I change my clothes, put on my Spam tee shirt to the delight of the others. Edith dubs us the Spam Patrol. And me the Spam Man. What an honor!
We clamber slowly down into Mitten Canyon. The vistas are breathtaking. Or maybe that's just my cardiovascular system objecting to the elevation. Our route takes us from 5,000' to 5,600' and then back down. Down is easier than up, thanks to the magic of gravity. The footing is tricky and concentration is important. If you don't watch where you're going, you might not be around to watch where anyone else is going.
We reach the canyon bottom and follow the meanderings of a dry streambed. We pass an Anasazi ruin, a 900-year old storage cell high up on the canyon wall. The map indicates a probable water source. By following the topological convolutions and watching for cottonwood trees, we soon find it, a seep which empties into a small pool. Tadpoles and other minor water critters are already here, and since they have first dibs, we're careful not to disrupt their lifestyle too much--as if a couple of 150-pound behemoths tromping through their backyard isn't disruptive.
Our campsite is just down the road, selected because there's a cliff wall which provides a comfortable backrest. You don't know how much you need a backrest until you don't have one. Tex, of course, foresaw this problem and, as the days pass, his beach chair garners more and more style points.
Dinner is a casserole of rice and chicken soup and carrots and onions, an elegant entrée served in a metal cup still caked with dried flecks of Cream of Wheat. I clean with soap and water when I can. The biodegradable peppermint soap I brought is in frequent demand, and once in a while some utensil actually makes it all the way to clean. Most of the time, though, we just scour things with dirt, then wipe with a handkerchief--this goes for pots and faces alike. They're clean enough. There are other things more important. None of which I can remember.
I study the map, try to figure out the route we've hiked today. I hold my compass up in the air, looking for wind direction. I close my eyes, jab a finger at the map. Yes! Here we are. We're in the middle of nowhere!
Bedtime, Tex studies the sky and says a weather front is on the way. Does this mean rain? The end of the good times? To keep in practice, we resolve to get up at first light yet again.
Day 4 -- Slickrock
(sniff sniff) What's that I smell? Hash browned potatoes?! At last, a real breakfast entrée! Too bad seven hungry people have to share one potato, but we left second helpings back in the food barrel.
For the last two days, we've been practicing knotsmanship. Not your run of the mill windsors or slip knots, these are sophisticated jobs. Yesterday we tied a long length of flat nylon webbing into a body harness called a swami. The idea is to climb into it, cinch it up nice and tight, then dangle over the edge of a cliff. Some fun, eh? We tied other knots, too: the bowline, the double fisherman, the reverse figure eight, the prusik, the Rangoon knitter's knot. They're not only impressive, they're practical. In fact, we'll use 'em today when we climb.
Or more accurately, dangle over the edge of a cliff.
But first, another challenge. There's a splendid Anasazi pictograph nearby called the Thirteen Faces. It's even marked on our maps. The challenge is to find it. That's all, just follow the map and find it. Sounds too easy, must be a catch.
There is. We can't find it. After getting our bearings, we follow a broadly curved canyon wall which looks like a similar broadly curved contour line on the map. We make excellent time and in an hour we reach the area where the pictograph ought to be. It isn't there. Carol and Mark go off in different directions to search on their own. They don't come back. Time passes. The anxiety level rises a bit. Eventually, we regroup, reconnoiter and retrace our steps, almost back to this morning's camp. We re-orient on a recognizable land formation and start out again. This time for sure, it must be here.
It isn't. The anxiety level rises a bit more. Tex, who has been with us all along, says nothing, just waits patiently. At last he drops a hint: look, see that trail over there? Aha. It was 200 feet from where we stopped the first time. This was a test to evaluate our map-reading ability. (Test score: lousy, with an explanation.)
After posing for the mandatory snapshots in front of the Faces, we head up onto the slickrock. We're carrying ropes, but it's not time to use them, not yet. Right now we're friction climbing, relying on our shoe soles to grip the rock surface. By keeping our weight over our feet and not looking down, we can walk up sheer sandstone without holding on to anything, trading the law of gravity for faith in the improbable. Up and up we go, doing splendid imitations of mountain goats. Plenty of concentration is needed here, because if you think you're gonna fall, you will.
And that's a two-hundred-foot nosedive to a terminal migraine.
We traverse the upper inside wall of the canyon, focusing on each footstep. Just ahead is a spectacular arch, our destination. But Tex is more concerned with the scenery behind us. He spots an Indian cliff dwelling, one not on any map. He leaves us to finish the traverse by ourselves while he rappels down to investigate.
We eat lunch near the base of the arch, a great view over the red rock landscape. In the distance we watch Tex rope down, then climb up to the ruin, a tiny shelter on the precipitous edge of the canyon wall. Later he rejoins us, regales us with the description of Luján's Ruin.
Now it's our turn to rappel.
I've never rappeled before, never thought it necessary. Why jump off a cliff when you can take the stairs? Today, there are no stairs. Etymology, rappeling: a derivative of repelling, or repugnant. I'm not kidding, people actually do this! People who otherwise might seem perfectly rational are quite content to jump off a cliff with a rope around their waists.
I feel more condemned than content, but here I am, a rope around my waist, walking haltingly down the side of a cliff on a sunny day in the midst of some serious scenery. I'm firmly tied into my swami harness and there's another rope to guide me down, so I suppose I'm as safe as houses.
But houses do get burgled, you know.
All right, I admit that it was exhilarating. And afterwards no one was the worse for wear. So what? That's all in the past already and there's still much to do. We still have a lot farther down to get and not a lot of time to do it in. Tomorrow's destination is the resupply point, three canyon systems away. The route includes at least one technical climb, which means ropes, hard hats and extra slow going. That's a hell of a long day, so we decide to traverse one of the passes today.
But by the time we scramble down to the canyon floor and hike back to camp, only an hour of daylight remains. Over a sumptuous dinner of rice and hot water, we decide to get an early start in the morning. That's right, we'll get up at ...
Day 5 -- Rain
Yep, first light. We're up early preparing breakfast, dismantling camp, packing everything away. We hike to the water source to tank up, then leave a cairn pointing the direction we've taken for Tex, who's sleeping in.
We're actually TOO early. It's still dark, and we have to wait till it's brighter so we can make out important canyon topography. In the meantime, we improve on our cairn, spelling out SPAM in the road--a message for archeologists of the future.
Finally, there's enough light, so we head north down a dry stream bed. The light, though, ain't great. It's being filtered through clouds. Rain clouds. Dark rain clouds. Might they be just passing through?
Nope. Tex catches up as the rain begins, gently at first. We're at the base of the slickrock now and we clamber up to get a better view of the pass. The rain intensifies, assumes deluge proportions. We don our parkas but it isn't enough. We huddle under a rocky overhang and repack our equipment, jamming things we want to stay dry into plastic bags. But the winds shifts and our shelter vanishes. It's like standing under a waterfall. To be fair, one with a great view.
Tex makes an executive decision. Slickrock, when wet, makes glare ice look like shag carpeting. Danger and precarious situations are part and parcel of an Outward Bound adventure, but common sense generally prevails. This time, though, the risk is not an acceptable one and he gives us an alternate route to follow--down the streambed to Salt Creek, then up a couple of miles to the resupply point. No climbing involved, just extra miles. Drenched, we return to the streambed.
Except it isn't there anymore. In its place is a ... well, a river.
Flash flood. Two feet deep and rising. We have to cross it. We switch to sneakers, then wade across three at a time, holding on to each other's pack frames. Tex says we should be ready to wiggle out of our packs, because if we slip, the current will drag us under. We reach the other side safely, though now our feet are wet and cold.
And so they'll stay because soon we have to cross the stream again. And again. Twenty times, thirty, I lose count. The rain tapers off, the water subsides. An official National Park Service sign points to Tower Ruin, a nice place to visit. But Liz complains of hypothermia-like symptoms so instead we seek refuge.
We find an overhang, home of an indolent black widow--a spider, that is. Nice dresser, lousy housekeeper. We heat up soup and change into dry clothes. Or rather, less wet clothes. The sky brightens a bit. So do our spirits.
From here we can clearly see the demarcation of the canyon rock strata: Navajo, Kayenta, Wingate, Chinle, Moenkope ... or, "Never Kill Women and Children, Man." Mnemonic compliments of Tex. No, let's call him Denis.
We continue down the trail, refording the stream and resoaking our shoes every few minutes. Soon, signs of civilization: fresh tire tracks, the sound of a motor. And here they come, two guys on all-terrain vehicles. Say fellas, is this the way to Salt Creek?
Wait, that's not the Outward Bound way to do things. Never mind their pointing fingers, we find Salt Creek on our own. Another stream to ford.
Along the way, we pass the lady bankers' bivouac. Denis wanders off to pay his respects, we continue along the trail. We pass Peekaboo Spring, a popular ruin with porta-potties nearby. There are vivid Anasazi petroglyphs here, probably reminding visitors to close the lid after use.
Suddenly, there, off to the side of the road, a couple of barrels, our resupply point. Not as far as we'd feared! The fresh food's important, but not as much as the pot scrubber and the bag of M&Ms. And fresh tap water!
I leave the redolent bag of garbage behind, eager to start a new one. We cross two more streams, then make camp. As I spread my wet clothes out to dry, it begins to rain. I frantically put them away, it stops. The weather toys with me this way for an hour. We unwrap a fresh block of cheese, eat it all. Three pounds, half a pound each, all gone in 15 minutes. Try it sometime. Denis rejoins us in time for dinner. We make ... I forget.
Nighttime. We're sprawled around, beat, still wet. Denis, not wet, announces it's time for a short night hike, destination a secret. We take sleeping bags, breakfast food, a stove, flashlights, candles, that's all.
Oh, and time to put those sneakers on again, because we have to ford another river. Mine are still wet, and nothing is worth putting them back on.
Surprise, it's worth it. Denis leads us up the side of the canyon to a cave. Great view from here. That is, if we could see, we'd have a great view. More importantly, it's dry.
Denis asks us why we're here on Outward Bound. I confess that I want to talk to the ghosts of dead tourists. He wants details, but I can't provide specifics without a bottle of cheap wine to inspire me. Tap water won't do.
Liz reveals that she'll be leaving in the morning. Seems she has an important meeting in Hollywood that she just can't reschedule. She thought she'd have time to work while on the course, silly girl. The conversation segues into bad sheep jokes, picks up. Later, sleep comes easy. It's about time.
Day 6 -- Solo
It's raining again. We fix granola al dente and cocoa, then lounge about, waiting for the weather to clear. It makes an attempt and we hike back down to our other camp to look for dry clothes. There aren't any. We clean up the site, plunk Liz down at the resupply point where someone will presumably pick up the leftovers sometime today, then head off into another canyon. Somewhere in here is where we'll do our solos.
Solo, the part of the course I looked forward to the least. How it works: we're each stuck alone in some desolate place for a day without food. We're free to do whatever we want--sleep, write, work on a suntan, contemplate the rocks, play basketball. Just as long as we don't disturb the others. They'll be nearby, half a mile away, just out of sight.
It's a short walk, only a couple of hours. Our solocale is picturesque, but so is nearly every other area we've seen in Canyonlands. After lunch, our last meal for a while, we set up a semi-camp. Denis will stay here, so we put up the tarp as it begins to rain again.
Standing in a mud puddle, I select my solo gear: sleeping bag, some clothes to dry, one-person tarp, toothbrush, journal, pen, flashlight, whistle. The whistle is only for last resort (e.g. if a giant canyon beast attacks, blow it three times ... the whistle, that is; otherwise, don't).
Denis arrives at last, having scouted the available sites. There's been a slight change of plans. Solo will last 44 hours. What? Forty-four hours without food? Or conversation? Or TV? Without even friggin' Cream of Wheat?
We head out. I jam an emergency cracker in my pocket but eat it before walking 50 feet. So much for discipline.
Carol is assigned the first site, a neat little grotto with a beach and stream frontage. Nice!
I'm next. I get an Anasazi ruin, a low-rent cliff dwelling. It wouldn't be prudent to sleep in it--those restless Indian spirits don't dig interlopers--so I look for another spot. I have an entire sub-canyon to myself, and I find an overhang with a soft, sandy floor. I don't even have to set up my tarp. And with the stream babbling just down the hill, perfecto!
As the others continue on to their sites, I begin housekeeping. I smooth out the sand a bit, spread out my sleeping bag, flop down on it, done!
Now what? I'm bored already. When the sun reappears, I hang my soggies out to dry and go exploring. There's an interesting cave on the far canyon wall and I consider climbing up to it. Consider, that's all. I settle for a quick scramble down to the stream. The area's covered with cryptogam, a rudimentary plant colony that takes root where others can't. Rudimentary etymology, cryptogam: Betty Grable's mysterious leg. Just an hour's passed since lunch and already the lack of food is affecting my mind. More than usual, that is.
I take out my journal and begin to write. But my mind is stuck. I can't think of anything profound to write. Not even anything superficial! I look about me, drinking in the magnificent panorama, the grandeur of the sun setting in the ... west, I think.
Nothing. You'd think that "Creative Writing 102" and "Existential Expressions of Swell Visual Phenomena 190" would have prepared me for this moment. I give up. Surely things will look differently in the morning. I slip into the sleeping bag, resolving not to get up at first light.
Day 7 -- Dreams
I'm curled up in a sleeping bag halfway under a sandstone boulder the size of Rockefeller Center in a craggy sub-canyon system in the middle of Utah. Everywhere I look there's scenery. Sand, too, including inside the bag. Whenever I turn over I scrape a layer of skin from my body Am I dreaming or am I awake? My dreams are never this clear so I must be awake. Suddenly I wake up.
I get up, look for things to do. I pick up my journal, begin to write, then stop. Still nothing. I take the most fetid clothes down to the stream to wash. The stream has dried up. There must be something to do. Aha, my teeth! I brush them carefully, like a $7.00 an hour professional dental hygienist might. I polish 'em so well, in fact, that I'm sure I could see my reflection in 'em. I try to prove this to myself but can't, and get a stiff neck trying.
I review things in my mind, like all the incidental stuff I brought along on the trip that I didn't need. Like the cellular phone, the handgun, the Visa card, The Complete Walker on 3x5 index cards, the styling mousse, the umbrella, the galoshes.
I take another walk. Lay on a rock in the sun. Return to my overhang. Check my watch. It's still morning. Or am I dreaming?
A raven soars overhead, its love caws echoing stridently along the canyon walls. It looks like Raoul, a raven I met at Indian Gardens campground in Grand Canyon. It was always on the look-out for hand-outs. Or decaying hikers.
I pick up my journal, wander back out to the cliff dwelling, sit in a corner. Good timing, Denis passes by, sees I'm alive, continues on his way. No words are spoken. Worse, no scraps of food are tossed my way.
Sitting cross-legged in the ruin--an approved Anasazi position, according to pictographs--I begin to dream. Not of Native American mysteries and adventures, but of restaurants. Chinese, Italian, Greek, sit-down, take-out, diner, cafeteria, every eatery I've visited in the past three years.
Apparently the Anasazi don't approve, for my left leg falls asleep. All right, I'll try something else. Music. Back to the journal, I scrawl some bar lines, then trace the jagged silhouette of the canyon rim over top. This gives me a sort of melodic line. I'll clean it up later. For now, I have the initial sketch for, um, Canyon Tango. No, Rock and Raoul!
All right, that's done. Back to my overhang, then back to a different rock to lie in the sun, then back to the overhang. Whew!
Somehow the time passes, darkness approaches, I crawl into my bag. I could eat the toothpaste, I reason, as I drift off.
Suddenly, it's bright daylight, time to get up, time for breakfast!
But I've miscalculated. My flashlight has switched on and is shining in my face. It's a quarter to midnight. Depressed, I work myself into a deep sleep, rich with even more restaurant dreams.
Day 8 -- Froot Loops
Bright daylight, this time for sure. I'm awake, but too hungry to move. A sound. Twigs snapping, bushes rustling. Time to blow the whistle? No, it's Denis, come to invite me to breakfast. Now I'll move!
We gather back at the semi-camp and Denis dishes out Froot Loops. It's pure ecstasy, with a serious sugar kick. We talk about solo. The others sat and wrote and sunned and slept and wrote and slept and sat and ... well, there isn't much else to do. Most feel good about the experience. Me, I feel good about the Froot Loops.
Now it's time for the final. Uh-oh, should I have spent my time on solo cramming? Denis points to a spot on the map. We have to get from here to there. Look, just follow this trail, then that one. Bingo, end of hike!
And we have two days to get there. Easy? Sure, easy as pie (i.e. Rangood stammel pie).
Denied a Froot Loop refill, we have no recourse but to hit the road. Our route leads down Salt Creek to another canyon, then we traverse a pass into Lost Canyon, where's we'll camp. Tomorrow we hook up with the Peekaboo Trail, wend our way to Squaw Flat, and end at Cave Spring, where we'll meet the other patrol. Alas, not the lady bankers.
Either the terrain is less challenging or we've grown accustomed to perverse hiking conditions--whichever, we make good time and arrive at the base of the cliff in the early afternoon. Now up again. The route is apparent for the first hundred feet or so, then it isn't. We scout around, looking for the best way up. There isn't one. By process of elimination, we find the least worst route and head up that way. In one place we have to take off our packs and pass them ahead, in another we spot each other to guard against a nasty tumble; otherwise, no problem. It helps that traction is good and that we're evidently much more sure-footed than a week ago.
At the top of the pass now and a stupendous view: a wild jumble of mesa, cliff and canyon; in the distance, the La Sal Mountains glisten with fresh snow. We pause, heady with the beauty of the vast Canyonlandic wilderness, then press on.
It has come to my attention that there are now lumps on my legs where there weren't lumps before, there behind my shins. Can you get tumors from walking over rocks? Carol says they're merely muscles sprouting, gastrocnemius or cranial hexacholorophene or something, and they're probably not malignant. Unless I've drunk too much iodined water, she adds.
We descend into Lost Canyon, pass the water source indicated on the map, and camp in a sandstone alcove. The tarp goes up, fresh water is fetched, dinner is started, everything proceeds like clockwork.
On this, our penultimate evening together, I volunteer to dig the latrine. I find what I consider an excellent location and gouge out an elegant hole. I proudly show it off to the others who point out two flaws: (1) it's situated on a steep incline and (2) those are holly bushes next to it. Luckily, latrinery isn't graded on an Outward Bound course.
The sun sets, but there's an amazing amount of starlight. It is intensely quiet. Suddenly, it isn't. A twig snaps, a shadowy figure moves behind a boulder, then a giant canyon beast growls and charges. Crimony, where's my whistle?
No, it's only Denis doing his creditable canyon beast imitation, a test for our nervous systems. (Answer to test: um, what was the question?) He tells us he watched our progress during the day, that we'd inadvertently taken the wrong route over the pass. If we'd stuck to the left side of the canyon, we would have traversed it with ease. But he was pleased that we'd done it the hard way. The Spam way.
Another visitor, a scorpion, a little guy, just two inches long. We adopt him, name him Beulah, make a little house for him, lock him up in it. More stories, more sheep jokes. Then Carol, an amateur astronomer, takes us on a whirlwind tour of the twinkling, scintillating, coruscating night sky. Life is quite fine. This is an evening that needn't end for a long time.
Day 9 -- Roosters
Today, according to the map, we go down Lost Canyon to the Peekaboo Trail, up a jeep path to Squaw Flat, the a couple hundred yards to Cave Spring. It's not far and we have most of the day to get there, so why rush? Denis is the first one out of camp, long gone by the time we scrape the last bits of breakfast out of our cups. What did we eat? I don't remember, and the pastry chef isn't talking. No matter. Just as long as it wasn't the Cream of Wheat.
We head out, mosey on down the canyon, pass a National Park Service sign pointing to the Peekaboo Trail. Gradually, we're running into more and more signs of civilization. We even meet another hiker, a reminder that the solitude we've come to enjoy will expire tomorrow. A billion people are out there waiting for us, just us.
Perhaps I'm overreacting. I mean, what's one hiker, right?
The Peekaboo Trail is a real regular sort of trail. You start at Point A, follow the rock cairns, end at Point B. Along the way you get swell vistas, plenty of slickrock to clamber on, and the occasional scurrying lizard to step on. We start up. Funny, isn't it, how most of these trails go up, then down? Just like life! (Now why couldn't I have thought of that during solo?)
We climb up to a high pass, another elegant view: a Six Shooter in the foreground, a panorama of red and brown striated cliffs behind, and a cobalt blue sky to complete the color coordination. Suddenly, we spot a cairn with a note attached. It says "Great Nirvana." Fifty feet further, another cairn and another note: "Just Ahead." Then a third: "Remember What." And a fourth: "The Dormouse Said." Finally, a fifth: "Burma Shave," with a bag of M&Ms attached. The M&Ms have special significance to the Spam Patrol, but so does everything else edible. Or even remotely edible. (Note: the Cream of Wheat was not remotely edible.)
Descending across the slickrock now, almost to the bottom of the trail, but there's one last surprise. A ladder. It's the only way to reach the ground, a scant 50 feet away. It's sturdy metal, firmly anchored to the rock, but here's the catch. It's jammed into a crevasse, a narrow rock chimney. No sweat for ordinarily slim folks, but what about hikers with fat backpacks?
Kirsie's the first to find out. She gets stuck, wedged tight. So does Edith. And Mark, and Carol, and me, too. But by squirming and wriggling like hula dancers on amphetamines, we all squeeze through. We hike back to the Peekaboo pictographs for our last lunch, leftovers: crackers and raisins and peanuts and Gookinaid, a vitamin-enriched powder which, when dissolved in water, tastes slightly more palatable than our iodined water.
We press on, make good time to Squaw Flat. (Etymology, Squaw Flat: the answer to the question "Why did the Navajo with perfect pitch divorce his wife?") We round a bend and there's Denis waiting for us. More accurately, waiting for an M&M hand-out. We amble down the jeep trail to Cave Spring, which really does have a cave, maybe a spring, and for sure a picnic table. With real food on it! There's also a pick-up truck and other people, Outward Bound administrators. (With real food on it!)
We partly kick back, partly wander around in a daze. I feel both relieved at having arrived at the finale intact, and sad that our time in the canyons is nearly at an end. But mostly I feel hungry, so I head back to the picnic table. (With real ...)
Denis demonstrates his bullwhip expertise, crack!, tries to teach us. Some do better than others. Put me down there alongside "map and compass." After an hour, the other patrol arrives. We trade trek stories and I'm convinced that we had the better of the two adventures.
Dinner time. Five squawking roosters are brought out of the truck. Our campsite turns into an abattoir, another adventure. It's a three-person job: one to hold a noose around the head, one to hold the body down, and one to cut off the head. Sounds easy enough, but remember the Rangood stammel pie. I opt to hold down the body. As the head is lopped off, the dark meat portion of the critter twitches frantically, determined to die with his dancing shoes on. Blood spurts from the neck like a ghoulish squirt gun as the life drains out of him. I wonder, did he have a good life? Did he make a lot of hens happy? Did he ever taste Rangood stammel pie?
Who cares, let's eat! But first we have to pluck the feathers, clean and eviscerate the carcass, then chop it up into supermarket-sized portions. It's tedious work but finally they're all on the grill, browning nicely. Kirsie doesn't participate, becomes an instant vegetarian. I had no problem eating it, though chewing it was a challenge. What a tough old bird. Yeah, a reckon the hens were real happy.
After some administrative evening chitchat, we retire. The other patrol has peremptorily staked out the cave. Fine with us, too dank and chilly in there. We find another splendid overhang, away from the porta-pottie and the revelry that such a device engenders. Overhead, a shooting star arcs across the sky, then another, the constellations gleaming down like sequins on a divorcee's bathrobe. I stay awake and watch, savoring the silent camaraderie of the Spam Patrol.
Day 10 -- Run
No, this is the part of the course I looked forward to the least. The run. Not far as marathons go, just four point four miles on level terrain. A person can walk that far in about an hour. Nevertheless, the tension has tied butterfly knots in my stomach and refuses to let go.
GO! We're off. I fall back to the middle of the pack at once. It's a quarter past 7, too early for the sun to have crested the canyon wall and provide useful warmth. (Temperature, 38ºF; wind chill, frosty.) One mile, two miles, the halfway point with two Bounders waving encouragement, three miles ... four miles! Something's wrong. I'm still in the middle of the pack and still not exhausted. There's even a modicum of energy left for a last ditch kick. Finish line, 37 minutes, not bad! I didn't experience a runner's high, but I got to the mezzanine.
We regroup, scrub and disinfect our equipment, turn it in. We get to keep the candle stubs and pencils, Outward Bound souvenirs. Oh, and our journals, too, detailed documentation of our life in the canyon country. ("Dear Diary, still nothing to report, will try again tomorrow.")
Then it's time for a wrap-up chat with our instructors. I admit to Denis that my expectations for a cynical and fault-finding report were dashed early on this adventure. After all, anyone who could quote Monty Python and the Firesign Theater like he did ought to be listened to with some respect.
And I did.
Back together for the final time, the Spam Patrol awards each other Outward Bound pins, 49ˇ pieces of sentimental costume jewelry. Then a bus full of lady bankers pulls up. We board. Good-bye.
I like to think the constitution of our particular patrol was special. The bus ride back illustrates this. As we rumble out of Canyonlands, the lady bankers talk of mascara and make-up, of hot showers and current rates on individual retirement accounts. The other six-person patrol talks of beer and the inevitable party tonight. The Spam Patrol doesn't talk, we sit quietly as the hoodoos and mesas of this incredible geological fun house pass by. Reverence or just sleepiness? You be the judge.
Don't worry, we ain't wimps. We save our carousing for later that night at a Mexican restaurant, where we order giant portions of steaming ethnic food prepared American-style. Then more good-byes.
Mark and Edith and Kirsie are flying home the next day. Carol is driving to Las Vegas, then California. And I'm doing my eagerly anticipated 2,000-miles-in-two-days kamikaze cross-country marathon. Another adventure.
That night, a dream. A hombre in a beach chair demonstrates how to tie a knot: the right way ("just fine") and the wrong way ("you're gonna die"). Those who tie the former get an M&M, suitable for framing; those who tie the latter get French-kissed by a three-year old with a mouth full of Cream of Wheat. I wake up in a cold sweat, a dreadful taste in my mouth. Part of my pillow is missing and there are clumps of kapok stuck to my lips.
Next day, Monday, I get up early, and am on the road by 7. The sun greets me with a Peter Max sunrise as I head towards the Rockies. It's always a cathartic experience, this mountain crossing. Some Beethoven on the stereo buoys my spirits, but I'd rather be heading west.
Uphill, the red-gray canyons give way to rolling valleys and deep, green forests. The Colorado River zigzags along for a while, then swings north. The incline steepens, I downshift to fourth, then third, then second. Fifty miles an hour's the best I can do. I pass the trendy ski burgs of Vail, Copper Mountain, Frisco and Dillon. Then the pass, 12,000 feet, snow here, and the tunnel, a zillion flickering lights doing a strobe dance on the windshield.
And now down.
Let's see, I drove 50 in a 65 zone for 15 miles. That means that for the next 30 miles I can drive, um, 100 miles an hour.
Great fun, but I miss all the good downhill scenery. Soon I'm swooping into Denver, with its dim and dingy atmosphere, the good part of the journey already behind me. What's left? The dull half of Colorado, followed by four hundred twenty-eight miles of Kansas, then Missouri, then ...
Personally, I prefer a little side canyon with iodine in the water.
In Kansas, I stop at Prairie Dog Town for a souvenir bumper sticker.
In Missouri, I stop for an evening siesta. Only 942 miles today, not as far as I'd hoped.
In Illinois, I don't stop. Nor in Indiana. Nor in Ohio.
In Pennsylvania, I stop for supper at a Howard Johnsons. The cuisine even edges out the Creme of Wheat as the food most unlike Grandma's cooking.
Midnight. Almost home now. Just one more exit on the turnpike, then a 30-minute spin down the expressway, a 25ˇ bridge crossing ... and then a real bed!
But there's a minor impediment. Just a moment after that last thought, a half-minute past midnight, twenty-two hundred sixteen miles away from the Six Shooters, North and South, my car and I hydroplane on a surprise oil slick and carom into the median guardrail, KER-SMASH!
Ups and downs, yeah life is sure like that. Not that I'm complaining....
The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.
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