A Trip to the Desert

South for a week of work. And since I’m leaving Alaska I coordinate with friends who live nearby. By chance an old high school friend, Tim Stubbs, happens to live in the same town as my client. So I make the arrangements, board the red eye and fly south reaching Southwest Colorado in mid afternoon. We start driving west right way. It’s dark when we get to our campsite but I can see faint outlines of desert towers jutting into the stars. Warm desert rock and dust and stars. I sleep out in the open but it’s hard to close the eyes when the stars are so bright.

Morning comes and I awake to the blood red landscape that is Valley of the Gods. Sandstone towers jut three hundred feet into the sky surrounded by sand and rock. Abbey country. We drink coffee and soak in the surreal view. I have never been to this part of the country and my visit is over due. The slickrock and towers permeate the senses similar to the way big mountains do.

We set off. Tim has an agenda and when Tim has an agenda you’re along for the ride. Tim and his agenda has been the source of countless adventures though-out the years from spur of the moment overnights on the Appalachian Trail to high school road trips in search of. This agenda is no different. Goal Number One was for me to wake up wide eyed in the red dirt surrounded by ghostly towers. Goal Number Two is to show me ancient Pueblo dwellings. So we’re off – driving through the desert towards Comb Ridge.

“Comb Ridge is a great monocline, rising gradually on the east side, dropping off at an angle close to 90 degrees on the west side. The drop-off from the rim is about five hundred feet or more of steeply sloping talus below the cliff. Like many other canyons, mesas and monoclines in southeast Utah, Comb Ridge forms a serious barrier to east-west land travel. Or it used to. God meant it to.” (Abbey – The Monkey Wrench Gang… and if you’re going to reread it make sure you read the edition illustrated by Crumb.)

The serious barrier caused Morman settlers to weep upon first seeing the vast west face and inspried Hayduke and company to lauch their first assault one year from today. Today two roads bisect it and what once required an expedition of determination is now easily accessed by weekend yuppies in search of desert peace. We were no different. Fresh from a nights sleep we tromped up a wash in search of the ancient Pueblo people.

Tim, who works as seasonal park ranger at Mesa Verde, fed me the NPS handbook speech about protecting cultural sites. Apparently the ancient Pueblos are under siege from looters, bloggers and hikers, all of whom appear to be held in the same regard. The cynical Abbey fan in me pointed out the roads and drilling pads that sprout like invasive species in the valleys below and asked where the perspective was. But I digress.

We ascended the wash and arrived at the mouth of a cave where handprints greeted us. Underneath the massive walls of the cave and above a deep green pool the walls of the ancients stood firm against time. Thatched roofs, pottery shards and stains of past fires on the roof of the cave; the peoples vanished and replaced by dust, footprints and crumbling walls.

We traversed the village and then ascended to the top of Comb Wash where we looked down at cliffs and steeply sloping talus. A serious barrier that God meant to be.

Goal Number Three was a deep canyon and my first natural arch; so off the top of Comb Ridge down steep rock to a wash that may or may not have gone (but it did) and back to the truck. Warm beer in the truck bouncing down the sandy roads, a brief dip in the San Juan, west to the famous Moki Dugway that ascends 1,100 feet in 3 miles and then west again to the Muley Point Lookout for a sunset dinner where we watched the Goosenecks of the San Juan fade from muted desert brown to burning orange and darkness.

Another night of sleeping out under the stars and then driving across the eerily flat Cedar Mesa to Owl Creek. 10 minutes of flat hiking brought us to the canyon, then 45 minutes of steep scrambling deposited us on the canyon floor. High above we spied the occasional cliff dwelling and below lizards scurried just out of reach as we tromped 4 miles beneath 600′ walls and hoodoos, down sandy washes, slickrock, and around deep green pools. And finally just as when we were beginning to think we ought to turn back we came around a bend and spied Nevills Arch – a 140′ span arch on the canyon rim surrounded by red spires. Then backtracking up the canyon. The problem with starting canyon hikes is that you go down first and you reach the end of the hike relatively fresh without really knowing what’s in store once you turn around in the hot sun and start tromping uphill. But we made it out well before dark and then it was back in the hot car and bouncing down the dusty road and back east to Mancos.

A week of work that you really don’t want to hear too much about and come Friday night plans were made to leave town once again. Up early on Saturday and then a 2.5 hour drive east through the desert and Moab and to Goal Number Four: the great muddy Colorado.

We spent the day drifting down the great slow river underneath red mud towers in the distance and snow covered mountains on the horizon. Above us glistening red sandstone walls and beneath us the great silt. Rolling wave trains soaked through my thin layers but the sun warmed the body as soon as we reached flat water again. Like a trip to the desert, a desert river trip is well over due and I began making plans to return and spend more time on the great muddy Colorado.

The take out and to Moab for a brief nights sleep and then Goal Number Five: Arches National Park. It happened to be Easter Sunday so with limited time we chose to attend church at Double Arch where the rising sun turned the sandstone blood red as we lay on the rocks looking up. A fitting metaphor but we tried not to think about it too much.

By then it was time to go. Abbey’s words came back to me, “When I return will it be the same? Will I be the same?” But there was no time, and so it was back across Utah to the big jet and then up and off north again until the next time.