The clock in the car reads 6:21 as I pull out of my morning driveway and head down the dirt road. Destination: Elephant Canyon, Utah! I listen to NPR as I work my way south towards I-25, and then west on US160. Presidential candidates Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz seem to monopolize the news stories. Especially Donald Trump. I climb La Veta Pass and am happy to lose reception. Enough of Donald.
I leave Cortez on Hwy 491 and immediately see the snowy La Sal Mountains directly in front of me, probably 75 miles away as the raven flies. An island of white floating on a red dirt sagebrush landscape. I pass through Dove Creek, Home of the Anasazi Beans, and soon cross the Colorado/Utah state line. I approach the town of Monticello and see that a wind farm has sprouted just north of town since the last time I drove this highway a year or so ago. As I lose elevation heading north on US191, signs of the red rock country I am heading towards in Canyonlands National Park start to peak out from between the green pinyons and junipers.
I arrive at the Needles District Visitor Center at 2:30 – eight hours in the car. My left sciatic, which turns 60 today, doesn’t like it one bit, being in the car for that long. A short and pleasant visit with the ranger, a quick late lunch, and I am soon hoisting my backpack onto my back. Not since I finished the Colorado Trail a couple of years ago has my body felt this familiar combination of sensations – the weight of the pack balancing between hips and shoulders, hip flexors saying “hello,” and that feeling that borders on euphoria, knowing I am going spend a few days immersed in what Gary Snyder calls “wild Nature.” This wild redrock canyon country very much qualifies as wild Nature!
This four-day adventure is a pilgrimage of sorts. I first came to canyon country about 25 years ago after hearing about it from a magazine article on the quietest places in the country. Being a passionate appreciator of natural quiet, I took note of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. As soon I could make it happen, I made my way to southeast Utah. I was accompanied by my two kids, Sierra, then around 13, Sequoia, 10, a friend of mine, Todd, his 12ish daughter Sarah, and Dylan, a good friend of and the same age as Sequoia. We arrived at the same Elephant Hill Trailhead I just arrived at and was heading for the same EC2 campsite that I am hiking to today. That first trip here forever imprinted this landscape deep into my spirit. I’ve been back to what has become my favorite national park nearly every year since that iconic first backpack into redrock canyon country – car camping, backpacking, day hiking. I’ve been here in rain, hellish summer heat, snow, wind, and days like today – warm, sunny, gentle. But I’ve never experienced this place solo.
The seed to come here on my own was planted exactly a decade ago, the day I turned 50. I was on a solo backpack along Frijoles Canyon in New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument to say good-bye to my 40s and welcome my 50s. I decided then that, when I turn 60, I would acknowledge that milestone – which sounded a good long decade away – on another solo wilderness retreat, in Canyonlands National Park.
Well, that decade has come and it has, as of today, officially gone, and here I am, just where I said I’d be when I turn 60. All too often, we make plans to do something for ourselves, but life gets in the way, or, we let life get in the way, and those plans fall through. I’m guilty of it. But not this time; backpack on my back, sun on my face, I’m a just-turned-60-year-old pilgrim happily working my way into the backcountry of Canyonlands.
I arrive at the campsite, set up the tent, and head down to where there should be a good source of water. This canyon country is a desert, so finding water can be tricky. It’s been a rather wet winter in this part of the world (thanks to this year’s strong El Nino, that warm water in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean thousands of miles away from this place), so the “puddle” I’ve found water in many times in the past is bigger than I’ve ever seen it. In fact, there is more water along this wash than I’ve ever seen. Good, finding water will not be a problem.
Dinner heartily enjoyed and cleaned up for the night, the evening sky is graced by a just-past-new sliver of a moon, sliding down into a gap in the backlit hoodoos that make up the western horizon. I locate the Big Dipper, standing on its handle, the last star of which is hidden behind the rocks that rise from across the main canyon. The sky begins to explode with stars. I check the time – 7:29. Hmm – nights are long on late winter backpacks. I’m glad I brought along something to read – a copy of Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s classic book about this redrock country – Abbey’s country.
I can still see all of us on that first trip here, listening to Desert Solitaire. We were preparing dinner one evening, the fading light of the day just barely discernible in the western sky. Sierra was reading aloud, the book illuminated by her headlamp. Everyone, even Dylan, who really liked to talk, was quiet, listening. Sierra was sitting on a log, knees bent, feet out in front, reading away, while a mouse scampered back and forth right underneath her legs. No one else noticed. I said nothing, as I figured she wouldn’t have appreciated knowing that little critter was as close as it was.
When we turned in for the night, we all decided to sleep out under the stars, lined up side by side by side across the slickrock. Haley’s comet was a part of the magical desert night sky for a few weeks that early spring, which was off to our front left as we lay there on our slickrock bed. I can close my eyes and see the bunch of us all those years ago, cozy in our sleeping bags on the same white slickrock where I ate dinner this evening. Sometime in the middle of the night, Sequoia, who was next to me, whispers, “Dad, are you awake?” “Yeah.” “A mouse just ran over my head,” he said in a rather nonchalant voice. “Are you ok?” “Yeah.” “Then don’t worry about it, it won’t hurt you. Go back to sleep.” “Ok. Good night.” “Good night,” I whispered, “see you in the morning.”