Back to Reality
After being home for a full week, the trip feels like months ago. Bombarded with emails and requests at work make it difficult to really sit down and remember detail by detail. Here I sit trying to recall days 2-9.
Desert Raven- Part 1
High winds make it impossible to sleep so we make the decision to pack up the ten (by pack up I mean break the rods down and toss the rest in the car) as quickly as possible. We decide we’re both too tired to try to find a less windy campsite, because even if we do find another great spot we’ll still have to reset the tent, so we settle for the car. We position ourselves to catch a stellar sunrise on top of the mesa. Throughout the night we keep warm by frequently turning the car on and off for heat. This lasts a few hours before the cold really hits Zeke and he braves the temperature and winds to grab his bag out of the mess of the tent that we had literally thrown in the trunk, I knew I would be cold so had grabbed mine earlier.
By the time he finally grabs it, around 6:30 am, I’m too awake and excited for the next day to fall back asleep. We try to close our eyes and sleep a longer but catch a glimpse of the sunrise and try to enjoy it before we hit the road. After going without dinner last night, we figure we can hold off a little longer.
There are two routes to Escalante. The slightly faster goes around Zion, but we decide to take the extra fifteen minutes in our travels to venture the road through Zion National Park, after all we did buy a useless pass, since The Subway technically started outside of the park. We’ll consider this our donation to the National Parks since their funding is currently under review.
The winding road and tunnels prove to be worth the extra time. We crank up the music and drive through the park as it begins to wake up. A wonderful sight to watch the sun peek over the canyons and mesas, catching light and casting shadows, changing with every turn and bend in the road, a new picture being painted right before our eyes.
The landscape beings to unfold, turning from red sandstone rocks into a luscious green mountain range. Zeke rolls down the window and I can feel the temperature drop down to the thirties. We cruise through small town America. Coming from a rural village myself I begin to identify with the town folk who are out and about moving on with their way. I watch a man in his pajamas with coffee in hand drop his kids off at the bus stop. The small boys run onto the bus bursting with energy. Again, my mind wanders, what does he do for a living and how do these people in this small town get by; there’s no real industry insight. But, deep down I already know those answers. I let it go as we continue on, searching for a good place to stop for gas and make breakfast.
The exhaustion of yesterday takes hold of Zeke and we turn off on an entrance to a cattle ranch to switch drivers. I take the wheel for the next hour or so, we trade stories from the day before, wishing we could capture it and bottle it up to share for days to come. There’s a lot of “can you even believe” and “do you remember that time when…” being passed back and forth. We’re just outside of Bryce Canyon when it hits me, the exhaustion. I can barely keep my eyes open. I nearly hit a road marker when Zeke asks if I’m okay, and I admit defeat. I can’t physically keep my eyes open to drive. Those few hours of sleep in the car just did not do the trick. I’m able to get us to a gas station, where we switch off, fill up, brush our teeth, and use the bathroom. The rest of the drive to Escalante is filled with on and off naps for me.
We make it to the tiny village of Escalante around nine or ten am. We search for phone service, a good place to eat, and somewhere to restock our supplies. We stop in the most small town grocery store I’ve ever seen (smaller than Wingerts, y’all). There are limited quantities of everything on the shelves. We get Sunchips and re-stock our water supply. The guy behind the cash register is used to the steady stream of out-of-towners and asks us where we’re from. Half way through checking out another man walks in, I can tell he’s a local from how the two greet each other and share the all too common small town chit-chat. I’m reminded of the simplicity of home and a smile makes its way across my face. I can never explain this fully to Zeke at the moment, or anyone else for that matter. There’s just something so unique about growing up in a small town. I am grateful.
We say goodbye and make our way out through the back where Zeke spots an alpaca, at this point it is his duty to go take a picture for all his instagram followers. We find a street sign pointing us in the direction of a “rest stop”, it leads ups to the village park, nearly the exact same as the neighborhood park a few blocks from my house growing up (Bodeis Park). Again, I smile at the similarities.
We stop to make breakfast and reorganize the car. I help pull everything out onto the big open grass area. Zeke takes the wetsuits still damp from the day before over to a picnic table to dry out. I begin shaking out the tent and sleeping bags, getting them ready to be compressed back up. Zeke starts cooking breakfast burritos, while assisting in packing up the tent We pack our bags for an overnight trip, making sure to fit the tent, stove, pot, food, change of clothes, and sleeping bags.
We make good time on packing and eating then decide to run to the bathroom for a quick spruce up. Only two days into the trip and although I spent the majority of the previous day soaked in a stream filled with water from the snow melt, I’m still feeling pretty gross. I grab my bag of toiletries and make my way into the ladies restroom. It’s what you’d expect, maybe a little better. I forget the baby wipes and make do with what I have, trying to get as clean as possible. A quick lather of soap in the sink, a little dry shampoo, a fresh coat of deodorant and I feel like a new person.
I make my way back out to the picnic table area and help Zeke round up the remaining gear and supplies, packing our bags for the overnight stay in Coyote Gulch. Shortly after, we’re on our way in search of another epic adventure.
We make it out of town and to the beginning of Hole in the Rock road, the main road out to Escalante National Park before we realize that we should probably check the internet for more information on the trails and canyons were about to explore. With no cell service to be found, we make an executive decision to head back into town to snake some wifi. After pulling into multiple parking lots and driving to the highest part of town, I finally remember that we had passed a visitors center. Zeke takes one for the team and goes in to get more information while I take a nap in the car.
He comes back with a load of information and two wag bags. I’m slightly appalled but also know it is what it is. I think Zeke is a little too excited about them, he’s raving about sanitary wipes and double bag technology. I’m still so tired, and after yesterday wondering what I’m getting myself into. Wag bags and freezing cold slot canyons.
We start back down Hole in the Rock Road and I begin to wake up. We’ve got good tunes blaring and we’re driving down some backwood, washboard, dirt roads. Yet again I’m reminded of home and what a unique experience growing up there was. Moments like there are what I lived for in my teen years. Hair blowing in the wind, music up, and a wide-open dirt road.
We’ve already lost good time, back-tracking for wifi, so Zeke is zooming down the dirt road with the kind of fierce determination that only someone driving a rental sedan would trust on these roads. We jump a cattle crossing and I know he means business. I laugh and wonder what have I gotten myself into?
We reach the trailhead of Coyote Gulch and there’s a warning sign for four-wheel drive vehicles, but we proceed regardless, taking the bumps with vigor in hopes of what the next trail will bring. We’re nearly to the top when some large rocks present and interesting obstacle. Zeke takes caution dodging them and we reach our destination with success.
The desert in Escalente is a stark contrast to Zion. It feels like we’re on Mars as we hike over red rock upon red rock, with random plants and cairns lining the route. We see another group start before us and head for the left, we have no clue where they’re going, that’s not the right path from what Zeke heard at the visitor’s center. Being sure not to make the same mistake twice, we take a good look at our surroundings before setting off.
The hike down to Coyote Gulch is rather simple. Zeke thinks he sees where the arch should be and I finally start feeling confident that I can lead the way by following the cairns. After a few miles we see the gulch ahead. I’m thankful Zeke decided to take the shorter hike out verses the 5 or six mile hike we’d originally discussed. We run into two men and their daughters hiking the opposite way. They’re equipped with ALL the gear, hiking rods, massive backpacks, an extra camelback, a compass, and directions layered in a waterproof protection. They tell us that the route down to the gulch requires a harness, which we didn’t even think to bring.
Zeke having spent a good deal of time gathering info at the visitors center assures us this is absolutely the right way, and that he was told this was a class four scramble aka no rappelling, no need for harnesses. They must be wrong.
One guy asks what a class four scramble is and Zeke replies “basically one step down from rock climbing, hands and knees. If you fall you’ll seriously injury yourself or die”. After slipping and falling multiple times the day before I’m paralyzed with fear. I feel my feet sinking and strain to grip the rock as my whole body tenses. Zeke runs to the side of the cliff. I can’t move. I decide I’ll wait until he scopes out the situation and that I’ll just stay put until I feel otherwise. All three of the men go to the edge of the cliff.
I’m still stuck standing on the hill as a group of seven rather “red” hikers come up. They are loud and carrying the biggest packs I’ve ever seen and seem a bit inexperienced, coming from me, someone who has no clue what they’re doing. Zeke says the route is fine and he grabs the rope. I begin to make my way down, uneasy and scared that the wrong step may send me plummeting to my death… again.
The other group is unfazed by the shotty rope and the men with the huge packs begin making their way down. The women shrill and squeal as they get down on their hands and knees and hold on to the unsteady rope with their lives. At this moment I think if they can make it, surely I can, and if they don’t I’m not sure I want to bare witness. Zeke and I stand by impatient and annoyed that we didn’t go first. This group is slowly making their way down to the great gulch. While we’re standing there we get a glimpse of what awaits below. It looks like pure magic, something out of a storybook and I can make out a few people relaxing and walking beside a stream.
It’s finally my turn and Zeke goes first, our now normal way of tackling obstacles. He barley holds the rope to steady himself down. The two dads point to Zeke and tell their daughters to watch him, that that’s the correct way to go down and to follow his lead.
Once Zeke is most of the way down, I steady myself and prepare to descend. I grab the rope and there’s a lot of extra pull in it. This is not reassuring. I side step my way down and make it to a knot where two ropes are tied together, I’m greeted with even more slack in the next rope. Steady. Steady. By the third knot I’m in the clear and decidedly slide down the rest of the way.
I am struck in pure awe. This oasis is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Moments ago we were isolated in the hot heat of the desert, surrounded by red rock as far as the eye could see, then suddenly as if worlds away, paradise.
We hit the ground and see a massive red-orange arch in the rock; it’s truly breathtaking as the bright afternoon sun strikes the canyon walls and lights the space below with a perfect ‘golden hour’ drenching the entire area. At the base of the trail we’re surprised to see various groups of hikers. For such a hidden gem it’s pretty crowded.
The best reward I can offer myself at this point is to take my boots off and dip my feet in the stream. It’s more refreshing and rewarding than I could have imagined. Zeke pulls out his camera and starts snapping pictures. I strike my best yoga pose and like clockwork the over-packed tourists walk right through the background of it. A reminder that ego has no space in nature, and also completely comical at this point. I feel like a kid, seeing the world in a whole new light in the purest of circumstances.
Zeke is stoked on the view, but something is off. He doesn’t think this is the place, that there should be two arches, so we start to explore to see if we can find what he’s looking for. He’s perplexed at the situation, then comes to the assumption that what he’s looking for must be about three miles downstream. We begin to head that way, and I’m little disappointed to leave the stunning arch.
Walking barefoot along the tail crossing either side of the stream the child-like feeling returns. We hear children’s laughter echoing off the walls and it results in a huge smile and full heart. This place truly is the perfect playground. Moments later the owners of the noise turn the corner running along full of joy and wonder. I can only imagine the adventure they’ve concocted. I’m content to move slow and take in the sights, sounds, and feelings of my surroundings. However Zeke is anxious to make it to the other destination and I can tell he wants me to pick up the pace as he questions me about what I want to do. He claims that I don’t seem like I really want to hike. My mood shifts, as I don’t want to let him down and ruin the trip because I know this is something he was really looking forward to. I’m indifferent and explain so, and say I’m really just looking forward to a real meal. So we trek onwards with no set destination.
In a grassy meadow we cross paths with a couple and unlike the rest of the other encounters, we strike up a conversation with them. We find out that they live on an Indian Reservation and have hiked downstream a few miles, so Zeke asks about the double arch he’s been searching for. They suggest a couple of cool campsite they came across and explain they messed up my taking the first good spot they saw at the base of the trail down where everyone would be crossing and setting up camp.
They ask us a little more about our trip. We tell them we did The Subway in Zion yesterday and the guy replies saying he’s done it a half dozen times, like it’s nothing. We start explaining our experience and the crazy high water levels and how the water was straight up rushing the entire time. He’s shocked and says he’s never seen it like that before. He adds that Utah just broke an eleven-year drought and the struggles from the day before finally start making a little more sense. I feel a little relieved that we made it through okay, but also feel like a total badass. We reluctantly part ways and I feel like I could have really been great friends with these two.
We hash over some of their suggestions and think we’ll settle on the cottonwood meadow they mentioned, but as with everything it’s all a suggestion and we could change our minds again, a habit I’ve grown found of on this trip. We come to the meadow and it’s absolutely whimsical. We walk a little further and notice a tarp on the ground, a sure mark of territory, we ask the two guys if they’re setting up camp there. To our dismay they confirm and we decide to move on.
At this point all plans are up in the air again and I ask Zeke about continuing the next three miles and he replied that he’ll do it another time, maybe on his next trip. I feel like a failure, a little sad and guilty that I didn’t make a better attempt on this trip, as I knew it was something he was looking forward to and knowing my naps had slowed us down. We come to a bend in the stream and see another grassy plateau overlooking the water. We race to the top and think this might be the place until Zeke sees it.
On the opposite side of the water is a cliff situated in a natural amphitheater. We cross to see what awaits us. It’s the perfect campsite one could have hoped for in a canyon. It’s totally flat with a piling of rocks shielding it from passersby. The canyon is a rounded amphitheater and opens up to a perfect sky, surrounded by grassy fields on the side.
We set up our tent to lay claim to the perfect spot. Then I do a quick exploration around the next bend. There’s a small set of rippling falls right below us tricking down into others, this is our soundtrack for the evening. Further down there’s a massive bolder in the stream diverting the water and creating a deeper, smooth, rushing fall similar to something we saw the day before but much smaller and narrower. The two-ton bolder is balancing over smaller rocks in the canyon stream and it looks like a piece of art you’d find in a museum or a fountain in front of a fancy home. Around the next wall is a giant rock in the middle of another field proudly standing as a sort of reward for all those brave enough to seek it.
I hurry back to Zeke to tell him what I’ve discovered. I come back to find camp fully rearranged and the tent now resting near the side of the cliff. What I had bypassed in my excitement when we first arrived was a full scale, sandstone living area. It was straight out of the Flintstones. It felt like we had stumbled upon ancient artifacts. Someone (or rather many people) has assembled a huge flat table with fully functional chairs surrounding it. How we had initially missed this, is unbeknownst to me. We sat down and settled into our little home. It was obvious that the crew before had fashioned a fireplace out the backside of the rock piling staring into the kitchen of our home. It was perfect.
Still feeling rather worn down we decided to lay down our sleep pads and bags on the cliff for a quick rest for a few minutes… that quickly turned into hours. I woke up to complete darkness. I frantically wake Zeke and we make our way into the tent, another early night without dinner. After two nights of terrible, restless sleep I had one of the best sleeps of my life.
Zeke wakes up at three am to take pictures of the campsite under the shining night sky. My only contribution was turning on a headlamp to light up the tent for one shot. I’m so glad he had the discipline to wake up and take pictures because they were absolutely stunning.
More exhausted that we had realized we woke up covered in drool at around eight or nine in the morning, so much later than we had originally planned, but at this point it was pretty clear we weren’t following a set schedule. I liked it this way, it took off so much pressure, and after all we were on vacation. We broke all the rules and made pasta dinner for breakfast, this is usually one of my favorite hangover meals; I’ll make it if I sleep in late enough to justify it as lunch. We polished off the PB&Js intended for yesterday’s lunch and stomached down all of the pasta. Leave no trace. Stuffed o the brim and aching to stay a little longer, we slowly packed up for the day, ready to hike out of the gulch.
Zeke ventured to find a bathroom area and wound up finding the previous crew’s spot. In my mind the people who set this site up were a close group of friends who returned every year with new stories and inventions to add to the campsite. We also stumbled upon some seats they had worn down on the side of the cliffs in the sandstone. I longed to hear their stories and know them. I wondered what else had they made that I had overlooked and desperately wanted created those memories with my closest group of friends.
We packed up and reluctantly say goodbye to one of the sweetest campsites and best nights sleep of my life. We venture about a mile back over to the larger than life arch that had greeted and amazed us on our descent. This time we decide to go a little further around to the other side. This is when it finally strikes Zeke, and he’s able to really see it. We were in the exact right spot all along; we just literally had to go the extra mile to see it. His eyes light up and he pulls his camera out.
The angle of this shot was unrecognizable from the opposite side of the arch. It isn’t a second arch like Zeke had imagined (Zeke will probably have to add more input here because I missed what we were looking for as I was too busy sleeping in the car). It was the backside of the same canyon wall with a second hole carved into it, not a second free standing arch. He scales the back of the arched canyon wall into a slimy green garden and sets up his camera, careful to frame the shot.
Right then the two men and their daughters we had met yesterday on the hike down come strolling up the path. I briefly think how crazy it was that they would have missed this magnificent sight and experience because of a small block in the road. I’m so glad Zeke was there to reassure them (and myself) and rally us all to get down the rope.
We explore a little longer and come across what may have been the second coolest campsite under the backside of the canyon where a large group of friends had set up. The chairs sitting in a circle, still lingering with stories from the night before. Once again I am completely content in this moment, in this place.
I watch a man scale up a side of a edgy jutted out canyon, wondering how he’ll make it up, then down. Wondering if he’s frightened at all. He pulls out his phone and begins to take a selfie; I cringe. Zeke’s words from yesterday come back to mind. “That’s how our generation is going to go, dying from taking selfies.” Struck by this battle early on to unplug and totally go off the grid or to document everything so I can remember all the wild adventures. For the most part I reveled first option, knowing Zeke would provide better pictures than I could imagine.
Zeke asks if I’m okay with him taking more pictures and I’m still completely content, wallowing in the solitude of a week without. With a perfect setting, Zeke takes what he proclaims what could be one of this favorite picture ever. It’s the icing on the Coyote Gulch cake.
We pack back up and get ready for the hike out. As we’re stopped, we run into a lone traveler. He’s from LA, but working in Las Vegas for the time. He’s friendly, but not someone I would normally strike up a conversation with or find commonalities, but I’m glad he did. That’s the thing about hiking on trips like this, everyone is on the same page for the most part, there’s an appreciation that goes beyond the surface. He tells us he invited friends, but everyone backed out, kind of like Zeke, which is why he’s stuck with me. Lone traveler mentions that he didn’t think his Honda Civic would make it down the road to the trailhead and we explain that we took a Volkswagen Jetta. He laughs and said he noticed there was another sedan up there. We tell him we’re headed for Havasupai and he says he’s been and that it’s unreal. He cautions to bring lots of water, and we share our epic campsite location with him. I’m so glad we ran across him and stopped to talk.
Now, to face my fears and scramble back up the withering ACE Hardware rope. We come to the base of the trial that I slid down yesterday, but it looks unfamiliar. Zeke assures me that it’s the right way as I share my doubts out loud, it looks steeper than I remembered and too crowded with brush, but there it sits, the weathered rope. Here we go. As I begin to pull the rope for support two sweaty guys come jogging down beside me, making it look easy. I pull myself up to the top with a strength and pride I didn’t realize I had packed in my reserve.
The hike back is hot and dry and I can feel my camelback running out of water about half way through. For two days I feel like I did pretty well on water consumption. The cairns direct us over red dirt that crunches beneath my feet, down slick rock hills, through pot holes, and across the desert in full bloom, every once in a while we stop to quite literally smell the roses. We’ve hit Utah at the perfect time of year.
Within sight we see the large mesa that blocks the parking lot from the trial. I rack my brain trying to remember if we walked to the right or left when coming down. Zeke thinks right, but I think left. I specifically remember turning around to take notice when we started yesterday knowing this would happen. We see cairns to the right so I take Zeke’s lead. For the life of me, nothing is strikingly familiar and I don’t recall it looking so picturesque.
We spot the lot and the water container in my backpack feels painfully dry. Zeke suddenly remembers the giant metal pool of water caged at the trailhead and tosses up the idea of a bath. Somehow, I missed this as well, but sure enough there it is. I want to drink the whole thing. We pull open a large metal barbed wire gate to check the pool out. I head to the car, and pull the crusted dirty laundry from the door jams and open the door to grab my water bottle and chug. Zeke prepares for his ‘bath’.
He’s taking his time to jump in, so I mosey back to see what the hold up is and bring some shampoo and soap. I stick my hand in the water and although refreshing, it’s pretty damn cold. Zeke is situated on the ladder debating. He pours the shampoo in his hand and prepares to jump into the frigid water. I’m taken back to memories of the first jump into my childhood pool, mid-spring in Michigan. Weighing out desire and rationale. I laugh thinking of my pre-teen self soaking wet in an over-sized t-shirt and gym shorts, running and screaming into the house to mom as my dad sat back and laughed at us. I finally get to see things from my dad’s perspective as I count down for Zeke and he psyches himself up.
One, two, three and with a shrill he’s in. Rapidly combing the shampoo through his hair and shouting, he makes this decision an easy one for me. As much as I’d like to be clean, I can’t handle that cold again after The Subway. I opt for just washing my hair in the pool then baby wiping the rest of my body. I feel surprisingly clean and love the feeling of letting my hair air dry in the heat.
For a moment we have cellphone service and Zeke begins to upload pictures and videos to social media so that all of our friends and family can follow along in our adventures. My mind drifts back to the guy on the edge of the cliff taking a selfie. We hop in the car and traverse our way back down the rocky side of the road back, going in and out of cell reception. Wanting desperately to share our stories we turn the car around trying to get to higher ground for better service. I also have to text my dad back after the “holy shit” text I sent the other day.
Zeke wanders aimlessly in the parking lot while I mindlessly scroll social media and look through pictures and articles on our next canyons. After we leave the Coyote Gulch parking lot we’re heading down the road to Spooky and Peek-a-boo canyons. I read a few blogs and realize it’s a pretty popular hike and only takes a few hours. Zeke had mentioned that last time he was there he got lost, so I make sure to take note of how to get in and out.
About 40 minutes later we’re back on our way down Hole in the Rock Road, cruising down the dirt road, hair drying in the wind, soaking it all it. It’s about three o’clock in the afternoon and we reach the turn off for the trailhead rather quickly. After getting caught in the dark in Zion, we’re both trying to be conscious of time and Zeke says that although pretty cool, these canyons won’t take too long, his crew got lost last time which was why they had gotten stuck in the dark. Lovely. But I’ve done my research to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
We pass a number of cars on our way down the second road, where we see a turn off with a sign directing people without four-wheel drive to park. We scoff at the sign and we take the left down the treacherous road, the Jetta can totally handle it. Along the way we pass a few ATVs, lots of SUVs, then another older Jetta. We’ve got the windows down and pull off to the side to let them pass, they stop briefly and we shout at each other, praising the maneuvering work of the Jettas. I shout “Jetta love!” and we all laugh as we continue on our ways. Zeke is once again cautious over the jagged rock as we make our way to the top of the lot, where about 20 cars are parked.
We pull to the side, near some of the smaller vehicles and park, unwilling to cross some more protruding rock. Conscious of the time, I stop a group of girls and ask them how long it took them to get through the canyons and they say about two hours but they had stopped to take a lot of pictures and tell us we could probably make it in an hour and a half, and that they had parked at the first lot. We only pack up one bag, mostly just to carry the water and start our hike down.