Saturday, December 27, 2008

Buckskin Gulch: A farewell hike

The author at the White House trailhead, October 2003.

I sleep in the bed of my truck at the White House trailhead above the Paria River. The air is crisp and the stars are bright, filling the desert sky. Sleeping off the ground, I get cold and wish I’d slept out on the ground where my lightweight bag would have kept me warmer. I tumble and roll, falling asleep only to wake again and see that the stars have moved ever so slightly west. It's an uneasy night and it isn’t till it's nearly morning that I finally get some sleep. I stay in my bag until the sun’s rays break over the sage covered hills to the east. Knowing it would soon warm up, I get out of my bag, put together my stove and put on a pot of water for coffee. Then I wake up Ben and Pete. Pete slept on the ground, between our trucks, and Ben is the back of his truck. Both are slow getting up, but excited when I mentioned coffee. We have breakfast—coffee, oatmeal and fruit—sitting on the tail of my truck. Afterwards, Pete and I throw our packs into the back of Ben’s truck and pile inside the cab. I lock my truck and leave it behind, as we head east toward Kanab, the way we’d driven in the evening before. About five miles east, we leave the pavement, turning south on House Rock Valley Road, a road scraped through slickrock and sand and parallels a unique rock formation known as “the Cockscomb.” The going is slow and bumpy and it takes us nearly half an hour to reach Wire Pass Trailhead, just a mile north of the Arizona border. We shoulder our packs; Ben locks his truck, and we walk toward the rising sun.

Photo of debris from a flash flood in Wire Pass Canyon.
I’d been to Wire Pass Trailhead once before, several years earlier, for a day hike into an area known as “The Wave.” The Wave is just a few acres in size, but geologically unlike anything I’d ever seen. The multi-colored sandstone with wavy pastel bands looks like some multi-flavored brand of ice cream. The area is fragile area and access is restricted, with only ten permits issued per day. Hiking the Wave is best done in winter, as the route runs along the top of exposed slickrock. This area bakes in the summer. Even today, in late October, it would be a warm hike. But today, instead of hiking south toward The Wave, we followed a wash eastward and soon pass the sign marking Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area. A half mile later, the wash drops steeply over dry falls, transforming the dry stream bed into a tight slot canyon carved into the rock. We twist through the winding the canyon, walking under logs jammed into the rocks high over our head, a reminder that this isn’t a place to be in a flash flood. After a half mile or so of twisting through this narrow canyon, we came to Buckskin Gulch. Petroglyphs, left behind by Anasazi’s, greeted us at the confluence of the two dry streams.
Sage points out petroglyphs in Buckskin Gulch
Although I was the one who’d brought Ben and Pete together, I find myself wanting to hike alone as we followed the canyon downstream. Buckskin Gulch is one of the premier slot canyons on the Colorado Plateau and is top on my list of things I wanted to do before moving and this is likely to be my last long canyon hike as a resident of Utah.. I walk mostly in silence, spending much of my time looking up at the walls of the canyon carved through the rock, but my mind is torn as I internally wrestled with the future.

Further down the canyon, the rock becomes mostly layers of red Navajo Sandstone. The canyon is deeper and at places you could touch both walls with outstretched arms, and in other places the canyon is significantly wider, but everywhere the walls are steeps. We stop for lunch at a wide sunny spot in the canyon, where the rough Middle Trail comes down off the north wall of the canyon. In the twelve miles, from the confluence of Wire Pass Canyon to its confluence with the Paria River, this is only one place where you can exit the canyon, and it’s a steep rugged trail that’s not recommended. Our boots are still dry; there’s been no water in the canyon up to this point. We joke around as we eat crackers and peanut butter and cheese. I pull out one of my apples and my knife and cut it into quarters and dig out the core. I eat half the apple and give a quarter to Pete and Ben. Afterwards, I lean back against my pack and bask in the sun. The canyon, when it narrows and blocks the sunlight, is quite cool. I fall asleep, enjoying the warmth.

Shortly after lunch we encounter the first difficult section of the canyon. As the walls move closer in, the canyon floor is nothing but deep mud, which sticks to our shoes. In places, the ground gives way and we find ourselves struggling through calf-deep mud. Overhead, there are places a hundred feet above us where logs have been lodged during a flash flood. This is dangerous country if there is rain upstream, but the weather forecast when we left called for clear skies. Throughout the afternoon, the trail alternates between nice easy sections of dry trail and short sections of wading through mud and water. We keep pressing forward. Night comes early in the canyon and we’ve taken our time to explore and to nap. It’s getting dark when we get to the boulder jam about a mile north of the confluence. We take our time, picking our way down through the rocks, passing packs down to those below. Once over the obstacle, we hike fast to a campsite at the confluence. I wash the mud off my legs and change into sandals. Walking out into the middle of the shallow Paria, a Paiute word that means “the water taste salty,” I fill my water bottles and collect enough water in a pan to fix dinner. The water may not be the best tasting, but after treating it, it’ll have to do.

We fix dinner in the dark, tuna and noodles, and go to bed shortly afterwards. Sleeping on the ground, I’m not nearly as cold as the night before. Canyons are eerie at night, the red rock are now gray and cast weird shadows upon the ground. Lying in my bag, I watch the stars for a few minutes, then quickly fall to sleep and don’t wake till light has returned to the canyon. I’m up first in the morning and put on water for coffee and oatmeal. By the time the others are up, I’ve rolled my bag and bivy sack and have eaten breakfast. I take the potty bag and head up onto a bench, under some cottonwood trees, where I take a morning dump. In the Paria, like many of the popular canyons on the Colorado Plateau, when you obtain your permit, they give you sacks to use to carry your solid waste out of the canyon. These sacks have chemicals to keep the shit from stinking. I tie the sealed bag to the outside of my pack. Watching me, the conversation turns to potty humor. Pete, who’d never hiked before, can’t imagine going in a bag and hauling it out with him and vows that he’s going to wait for the privy back at the trailhead, seven miles away. He didn’t make it.
Pete looking at Slide Rock Arch

Shortly after breakfast, we pull on our wet boots and shoulder our packs, and set off upriver on the Paria. A few hundred yards north of the confluence where we camped, we pass Slide Rock Arch, a well known landmark. The further we hike, the canyon becomes wider and its wall lower. Again, I find myself often walking alone, lost in my thoughts. Crossing over high bench, above the river, I peel the leaves from the branch of a sage. Crushing the leaves between my fingers, I raise my hand to my noise and smell. I love this country.

We reach my truck at White House Trailhead a little before noon. Dropping my packs in the back, we all climb in the cab for the ride back to Wire Pass, where we pick up Ben’s truck. Then we caravan to Kanab, where we have a late lunch/early dinner at Nedras Too (yes, that’s its name), pigging out on their famous homemade salsa and looking at the photos of actors who’d eaten there in the olden days when many western films were made in the area. Once we finished eating, we head back to Cedar, arriving at home at dark. Two weeks later, I accepted a position in Michigan and began making plans to move across country, leaving the canyons and sage behind.


  1. I am waiting for the travelogue to be written by you. And ofcourse I will review it!

    That surrealistic photo of the sandstone inspires me to write poetry. If I do write, can I use it with your permission? Do feel free to refuse.

  2. "We shoulder our packs...and walk toward the rising sun." Do you know how good this sounds to me??

    The canyon photos are amazing and you paint a realistic picture of what it's really like out there (in mud up to your calves). Still, I'd love to touch the red sandstone and make my way through the winding canyons. It sounds like quite an adventure.

  3. Gautami, thanks for your confidence in me... Of course, you can use one of these photos for a poem... when I get home I'll have to find and make digital copies of some of my photos of the Wave.

    Scarlet, it was fun--I've hiked many canyons but Buckskin is one of the best--because it is so long.

  4. This sounds better to me than an "Indiana Jones" movie because you lived it, my friend! WOW! And that last photo was the cap to a great adventure. This is Living!

  5. I got sooooooooooo excited when I saw the words "Vermillion Cliffs" on the photo pop up in reader :-) I had to interrupt Tag on the couch across from me to share the moment!

  6. Geez...I shouldn't have read this post right after posting something about the Lawn Nazi. You (almost) make me want to go out and do something like this.

  7. W.O.W!
    Do you have any closeup shot of the rocks? Especially the rocks in picture #4 here?

    Gosh, that kind of scenery is the only reason why camera exists!

  8. Michael, it wasn't quite an Indiana Jones adventure, I didn't see any snakes (on this trip), nor were there sinister Nazi's trolling around.

    TC, have you been to the Vermillion Cliffs?

    Murf, I would love to lead you on such a trip through the mud... it would make a great blog post and I bet Ed would even want to join us for the adventure :)

    MH: I'll have to look when I'm home--I'd digitally copied these photos a while ago when makikng notes for this post.

  9. Sage - I would be there in a second just to see how long Murf could hold it before going into a plastic bag!

    I've been all around that area but not to any of those specific areas. I love slot canyons but they always make me jittery seeing flood debris up so high. I am forever keeping tabs on quick climbing routes to escape it if I had the time which is probably doubtful.

  10. It was exciting. I was engrossed. And then came the potty bag. Somehow I find potty humor more something than the visualization I saw due to the intensity of your writing :)

  11. I actually dreamt about taking off to a vacation somewhere and beyond the frozen lake where I camped, there were these caves with multicolored sandstones that I could almost see the shades of red. I thought, if I walked across the frozen lake, then I would be face to face with the "multi-flavored brand of ice cream" (your words). Then I woke up! What a bummer!

  12. A little TMI in the middle but great story! Love the petroglyphs.

  13. Ed: I'm pretty sure I would surprise you. Can we make a monetary wager?

    Ed and Sage: There's a movie coming out called New In Town in which a big city girl finds herself in small town Minnesota and while attempting to fit in, having to use the bathroom outside was one of the scenes in the preview. Did you know they make overalls with the zipper up the back just for this reason?!?

  14. You should publish a book of your travel photos and stories!

  15. Thanks for sharing Sage, it's making me homesick. I took a similar hike above Zion in the 90's and hope and plan to do it again. I realize now how much I took for granted living so close to such beauty!

  16. Ed, if airplane bathrooms are a problem for her, I can imagine what a "stink" the bags would make! :)

    Pia, for some reason, I felt that I must say something about the bags... they do help keep the canyons clean--especially important in slot canyons

    MH, I will have to dig out some photos of the wave and maybe write about hiking to it--so you can see that multi-colored rock. Some rock group used photos of the site for an album, but I can't remember who--i thought it was Pink Floyd, but I looked up their albums and didn't see it

    Kontan, sorry about the TMI

    Murf, you wear overalls?

    Diane, would you like to be my editor?

    Betsy, do I know you? Was I at your wedding a few--make that 6--years ago? Did I recently give your mom this url? Is you Dad on cloud nine after the recent Democratic wins?

  17. You're brave. Adventurous And motivated. :)

    Great story, and I wonder if you felt regret after your first winter in MI? It's really, really cold there you know!

  18. sage
    Excelent write up on your hike. I enjoy hiking in the foot hills of Daniel Boone National Forest from time to time. Slide Rock Arch reminded me of the many arches there I've seen.
    I've also noticed you have been to Quetico "Gods Country"
    I'd love to include this story in my next magazine issue.
    Any interest?
    Thank you and great story.