Category Archives: Backpacking



Friday morning dawned clear with the promise of another hot one. Verg and I had coffee, tortillas, and bacon. John again ate very little and then again began throwing up. Not good.

We watered up at the spring. We were on the trail by 8:00 AM as we needed to go 7-8 miles today. Camping was not permitted between CS3 and the spur trail to Angel Arch. North of the spur trail, we could camp anywhere we liked. I set the GPS on my Suunto Ambit watch to track out route and pace to see how we were doing. Not long into the day’s hike, we found the sign for CS3 which was even further north than we expected or the map showed.

We next passed the Upper Jump, a small set of falls and the last running water we would see although we didn’t know that at the time. We stopped after an hour; we had made a little over two miles. We would be alright if we could keep up that pace. Unfortunately, we could not.

As usual, Vergil was moving well. I was doing fine, but as usual was walking slower than Vergil. That has always been the case. John continued to set out at a brisk pace but quickly ran out of steam and needed to rest. That was not surprising as he was taking in very few calories and probably burning close to 400 calories an hour. The strain was evident on his face, but there was no going back. There was no vehicle at the Cathedral Butte trailhead and no cellphone service. The only way out was through.

Walk, rest in the shade, drink water, and repeat pretty much constituted the pattern for the rest of that day. Breaks became more frequent. By now, John was consuming reserves to keep going, and we were really beginning to worry. How long could he keep that up? I also worried that I might be pushing too hard by suggesting we get moving sooner than he was ready. Nevertheless, john kept hoisting his pack and walking with no complaint.

We reached the spur trail to Angel Arch at 5:00 PM and were now in the area of unrestricted camping. There was a nice site right by the trail junction. It must have been nicer at one time, but the three massive cottonwoods that overhung the smooth, flat area had each been heavily burned. We pushed on as we needed water. A quarter mile on we found it, a long, shallow, slightly silty pool.

No SteriPen now. We all had to filter all our water. We considered pushing on to shorten the next days’ walk, but a good campsite and known water supply won out over the unknown. With enough water for dinner and breakfast, we returned to the campsite by the trail spur. No one had any interest in the mile-and-a-half round trip to Angel Arch. We were all beat.

Wearing long pants had saved my socks from the cheatgrass seeds, but as I unzipped my long pants, I realized that my pants’ legs were full of them. Some had even worked their way through my pants and pierced my skin. They were clustered on the outside of my lower right leg. I plucked out all I could reach, and John tended to those I couldn’t get to. Eventually he had to resort to the tweezers from his Swiss Army knife to get some of them.


Vergil at campsite near Angel Arch



John at campsite near Angel Arch


That accomplished, we lazed about before pulling out something for dinner. We were so dehydrated that I for one had to wash each bite down with a swallow of water. John still could not keep anything down.

As Vergil and I ate, we bemoaned the fact that our pack weight was not dropping much because we were not consuming as much food as expected, at least by me. If we could get through tomorrow, we could certainly make that last 3 ½ miles the next day, but we needed to lighten John’s load. I suggested that we leave his BearVault with as much food as it would hold, especially the heavier items. When we got out, we would tell the rangers what we had done and why, then deal with any consequences. We all agreed and turned in early.

The sky was clear, and Vergil and I decided not to pitch the fly and just sleep under mesh again. That worked well until a shower came up in the night. We rolled out and scurried around in the dark attaching the tarp and pulling our gear into the vestibules. We told John to stay where he was and grabbed his gear for him, stashing it under his vestibule.



We rose early again. For a second night I had not slept well. I was increasingly worried about John, as Vergil was, and had a growing sense that this trip might not end well. It had plagued my mind and gnawed at my gut all night. If John couldn’t walk, how would we get him out? Obviously, one of us could stay with him while the other went for help. But still, how could anyone get to him other than walking or with a helicopter?

I have been blessed in my 50-plus years in the backcountry. Both with my friends like Vergil and Stu and as a Scout leader, I have spent those years backpacking, rock climbing, caving, and whitewater rafting, logging thousands of trail miles and untold nights in the backcountry, and in all that time, only twice has a serious medical situation arisen regarding one of our party. Once when I took a fall while rock climbing, the second involved my buddy Ralph.

It was 2009, and our friend Myles had dropped Ralph, Vergil, and me off at the Lava Point trailhead in Zion National Park. Ralph had not been feeling well the day before, with periodic spells of nausea, but seemed better and felt well enough to proceed. That night he began throwing up. By the next morning he was dry heaving and coughing up bright red blood. This in itself was bad enough but was compounded by the fact that our car was in a parking lot at Zion’s South Entrance, 16 miles of trail and 10 miles of shuttle bus away.

Fortunately, even though we were at a remote, seldom used trailhead, we found a wildlife biologist who had a truck stashed nearby. He graciously drove us to a small hospital in Hurricane, pulling over several times for Ralph to heave. At this point, Ralph started losing consciousness from time to time. Vergil is a medical doctor, and this was one of the many times that I was glad we had his knowledge and expertise.

In Hurricane, they took Ralph’s vitals and started an IV for fluids, then sent him by ambulance to the Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George. Our new friend even drove Verg and me to Zion to pick up our rental car.

By the time the two of us had made it to St. George, Ralph had been admitted and doctors had scoped Ralph’s upper gastrointestinal system. They discovered that his esophagus had multiple lacerations, probably from taking lots of heavy-duty pain meds for years. After a couple of days of treatment in the hospital, he was released.

The events of that trip and the fact that it was such a near thing, have haunted me ever since. What would have happened if we had been further into the backcountry? Or if there had been no transportation from the trailhead? The outcome could have been very different, possibly fatal.

With those memories flooding back and my ability to obsess over all sorts of things, like the availability of water, I had done a lot of tossing and turning.

Well, we had to walk as long as we could. We would defer any other decision until when and if John could go no further. Vergil and I shared another cold breakfast. I think Vergil ate at least ten slices of bacon wrapped in a tortilla. We were on the trail by 8:00 AM.

We stopped at the first pool to water up for the day. As usual, Vergil as usual was going strong and I was strolling along. John was moving better with a lighter load but soon began needing more frequent and longer stops. I was amazed that he could keep going at all. He had to be digging deep into his will and into his reserves.

The canyon continued to narrow as it twisted and turned. Sandy stretches alternated with hard-packed trail. Pools of water were frequent, as were shady spots under the cottonwoods.

We knew we were getting close to Peekaboo Springs when we decided to take and an early afternoon break under the shade a several cottonwood trees. Vergil decided to push on to Peekaboo Springs, drop his pack, and come back. We had hopes that there might be some campers in a 4-wheeler at Peekaboo, in which case, we would bum a ride to the trailhead and get out early. I would stay with John, and we would continue to move on when he was ready.

We watched Vergil disappear down the trail as we rested. John dozed and I relaxed. We were about to saddle up and start walking, when Vergil returned carrying water only. We were very close, closer than we had thought. Vergil shared the disappointing news that there was no one camping at Peekaboo, in fact, no evidence that anyone had been there in a while.

Over my protest, Vergil grabbed my pack, so I took John’s pack leaving him to carry just some water. Soon the canyon began to open up again and we began winding our way through scattered scrub pine amid large formations of red and ochre rock.

Soon the soaring rock wall and notch at Peekeboo Springs loomed above us. We climbed the tiered stone slabs up to the gap. The walls on both sides of the gap were rich with pictographs. On the north side, a dusty trail led down into a large, circular basin surrounded by high rock walls pierced by a single opening on the far side where the road from Cave Springs entered. There was a series of campsites scattered along a sandy road that wound through the basin. From our elevated perch, we selected the campsite that looked the shadiest.

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The Peekaboo




Pictographs at Peekaboo


After taking pictures, we descended the leisurely switchbacks, dropped our packs on the picnic table in our selected site, and pulled out our camp chairs. It was naptime. 


Exhausted Backpackers at Peekaboo

John had purchased and was carrying a Personal Locator Beacon, and earlier he had lamented not purchasing the Rescue Insurance option. After a short nap, we sat there bemoaning the fact that there were no 4-wheelers to give us a ride, when John remembered that he could pair his cellphone to the PLB and send text messages. He tested it out by texting his wife Meg. In a few minutes, he had her reply. It was successful.

Hope began to flicker.

“I have Mike Ballard’s cellphone number,” I said.

Everyone’s eyes lit up.

John texted Mike and asked if he could pick us up at Peekaboo.

It took a while but soon we had a reply: Sure. When?

John: As soon as you can get here.

Mike: I have a sunset tour. I can be there by 11.

We all three let out a contented sigh of relief.


Moonrise Over Peekaboo


With no camp to set up, we loafed about as time crept by. Vergil and I had a bite to eat. I was really enjoying Mountain House’s Freeze Dried Granola with Milk & Blueberries. I added a little extra water for hydration and nourishment both at the same time.

We talked. We napped. We relaxed in our camp chairs. We stretched out on the picnic table. Mostly we willed time to pass more quickly, but it continued to crawl.

The moon rose and the sun sank. Eventually it was full dark under a star-spattered sky. And finally, it was 11:00 PM. We strained our ears listening for the roar of Lt. Dan’s engine and strained our eyes watching the far canyon wall for the splash of headlights. Nothing.

At 11:30, still nothing. We began listing all of the reasons Mike could be running late: tour ran long, the road was rougher than expected, car trouble.

At midnight, we put down the footprints for our tents and our sleeping pads and bags, still hoping Mike would soon arrive. Finally, we all three climbed into our bags and drifted off to sleep under the stars. A couple of hours later, we awoke, not to Mike’s arrival but to a cloudy sky and spitting rain. Disheartened and now disgusted, we pulled out our tents, set them up, and tried to get back to sleep. We needed it. It looked like we would be walking as soon as the sun came up.



I awoke shortly before sunrise to an otherwise empty tent. Vergil was nowhere in sight. Knowing him, I figured he had gone back through the Peekaboo notch to get water. I climbed out of the tent as he walked up with full water bags. We began boiling water for coffee and had a cold breakfast, letting John sleep as long as possible.

Soon John too rolled out.

“Think you can make three-and-a-half?” we asked.

“Have to,” John sighed.

He looked haggard, but the end was in sight.

John pulled out his PLB and cellphone and paired them up. He had a text from Mike. Maybe there had been a change in plans. Maybe he was coming out this morning. At least that’s what we hoped. John scrolled anxiously through the text.

Afraid not. Mike had indeed come out last night, but what neither he nor we knew was that the Park Service had closed and gated the 4-wheel drive road out to Peekaboo Springs. He had walked in on foot but eventually gave up and turned back. He had come close but with no cell service, he could not get in touch with us.

Well, we had another walk ahead of us, but a short one. John was moving slowly, so Vergil offered to boogie out as hard as he could and bring the car down as close as possible. We had seen the turnoff to Peekaboo Springs on our way to the Cave Springs parking lot, and we knew that the gate was further down the road than we could see.

John and I would follow as we had yesterday. I was soon packed up and ready to walk. John was moving slowly, obviously near the ragged edge. When he was ready, we moved out. John started at his usual brisk pace. I followed at my usual stroll, expecting to catch up with him at his first rest stop.

The morning was cloudless and warm. It would be another hot one. The canyon began to open up again, and it soon became apparent why the road had been closed. It was deeply rutted, in some cases one rut two to three feet deeper than the other. Nearly every rut was filled with pooled rainwater awash with tadpoles and mosquito larvae.

The valley was wide, but in some places the undergrowth came right up to the edge of the road and was nearly impenetrable. In many cases the only option was wading through the pools. In other spots it was more open with the undergrowth was well back of the road and a footpath that skirted the ruts and ditches.

As the sun rose higher so did the temperature. The pools might have been silty, but I still soaked my keffiyeh in them and wrapped it around my head and neck. The gnats were out but not too bad. The keffiyeh seemed to keep them off my face. But soon the air began to fill with the relentless buzzing of horseflies. I had started the day in shorts again, and the horseflies found my bare legs to delectable to resist and assaulted them with an insistent, blood-sucking vengeance. I tried to ignore their voracious bites but eventually resigned, stopped, and zipped my pants legs back on.

I had kept tabs on John as we walked, catching glimpses of him just ahead of me at turns in the trail. With my pants legs back on, I started out again, but John was nowhere in sight. Oh well, I was sure I would catch him soon.

Where the road wasn’t rutted, there were long, wide swathes of deep sand. It was like walking through the soft sand on a beach, only with boots and a backpack. The dry sand caked up on my wet boots. The only shade was the occasional cottonwood.

When there was evidence that the foot trail diverged from the road, I followed it, all the while keeping an eye out for John, picking out his tracks in the sand and mud, and checking under every cottonwood in case he was taking a break.

Either he was moving really well today, or I was slower than usual because he was still nowhere in sight. I was convinced that I was on my usual pace with a backpack, about two miles an hour, and hoping I hadn’t somehow passed him. I was becoming a little concerned.

Proceeding further down-canyon, the trail consisted more and more of the soft sand. The morning was turning into a seemingly interminable, strength-sapping sand slog. My wet boots were caked with sand which I periodically paused to knock it off. Who needs the extra weight? But after a few minutes, they were caked up again. I was feeling the heat of the day and knew I was getting close when I decided to stop under a convenient cottonwood right by the road. I dropped my pack in the shade for a water and snack break.

I hadn’t been there two minutes when I heard the sound of an approaching engine, and there ploughing down the road was a white Park Service jeep. The driver, a young man with a scant beard and long, dark braided hair, pulled up right beside and rolled down his window.

“Are you John?” he asked.

“No, I’m Greg,” I replied. “You didn’t see John on the way in?”

“No, we didn’t.”

Oh, crap, I thought as I climbed to my feet. Had I somehow passed him on the trail? Was he back there resting under a cottonwood expecting me to show up?

I walked up to the window, and Adam introduced himself.

“Your friend Rick came to the ranger station and said y’all needed help,” he said.

“I’m doing OK,” I replied. “Just taking my time this morning, trying to make sure that John doesn’t get behind me.”

A young female ranger named Mallory, petite an efficient, climbed out of the passenger side and walked around. “Do you think he’s back down the trail?” she asked.

“I hope not,” I replied. “The last couple of days, he’s had to stop and rest every 45 minutes or hour, but I haven’t seen him since I stopped to zip on my pants legs. And I’ve been going slow and checking both sides of the road and all the shady spots.”

The was another ranger out patrolling the road between Cave Springs and the ranger station. Adam radioed him, but he hadn’t seen John either.

The three of us began calling John’s name. Adam and Mallory were discussing going in further when their radio crackled to life. “I found him,” a scratchy voice announced. “He was at the Cave Springs parking lot.”

John had made good time and apparently, he had cleared the road to Peekaboo and turned right toward where we had left the car at the Cave Springs parking lot. Adam and Mallory coming from the other direction must have just missed him.

I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. John was safe and in good hands.

“Want a ride back to the ranger station?” Mallory asked.

Of course, I did. I tossed my pack in the back of the jeep. Mallory asked me if I was carrying a knife. I pulled my little Victorinox Classic out of my pocket.

“Do you mind storing it in the back? Procedure, you know.”

“Not at all,” I said. “And I’ll put this one with it.” I unclipped my Victorinox Pioneer Alox from my beltloop and laid both in the back beside my backpack.

Soon we were turned around and headed for the ranger station. Five minutes later, we were there.

John and Vergil were sitting in the shade in front of the stone and stucco building drinking water. The ranger who had brought John in was with them.

Man, it was good to see them.

Mallory asked John if he needed transport to a hospital which he declined. Then she asked him if she could check his vitals, to which he agreed.

Vergil pulled me aside. “I wanted to come back and look for y’all, but the rangers wouldn’t let me leave after I told them about our situation.

I nodded. “Makes sense, I guess. They’d rather be looking for two than three.”

“Yeah,” Vergil replied. “And there’s the other thing. I locked the keys in the car.”

After all that we had been through, I couldn’t help but laugh.

“I opened the back and laid them down to get something out and closed them up in there. I’ve already called AAA,” Vergil added.

I looked at my old friend, my friend with whom I had camped and hiked with for over 50 years, my friend who had walked his fanny off and made extra trips to get water, and who, to paraphrase the old Western song, never uttered a discouraging word. He had a completely unnecessary sheepish expression on his face.

“It’s no big deal. Honestly, that doesn’t bother me one bit right now.” I smiled.

The two of us sat in the shade and watched the very efficient Mallory check John out. Every tourist walking up to the Visitor Center paused and stared, no doubt wondering what was going on.

Mallory went through her procedures all the while explaining to Adam on what she was doing and why. She took John’s temperature, blood pressure, oxygen level, respiration, and seemingly half a dozen other tests, recording everything in duplicate so John would have a copy in case he wanted to seek medical attention later.

The head ranger Mark brought the three of us some Gatorade. It felt great going down. At some point one of us must have said something about when AAA would show up.

Mark looked at us. “Lock your keys in your car?” he asked.


“That’s one of my specialties,” Mark said. “Let me get my carjacking tools.”

Vergil trotted to the pay phone to cancel the AAA call while Mark and I headed to the car. He was indeed good. In a few minutes, he was in.

Mallory had finished with John by this point, and Vergil and I had the car loaded. I figured that surely the park service charged for these kinds of search and rescue operations and said so to Mark.

“No,” he replied. “These are your tax dollars at work. We’re glad to do it and glad everything turned out all right.”

With profuse thanks to all, we piled into the car, Vergil driving, John stretched out in the back, and me riding shotgun. Our first stop was Needles Outpost for more Gatorade. Vergil thought some ice cream might be good for John and that he might be able to hold it down. He was right.

In all the hubbub I completely forgot to mention John’s bear cannister that we had dropped two days earlier.

John slept most of the way back to Moab. We hadn’t had lunch, so we swung by the local Burger King. Vergil and I downed some burgers and fries. John dozed in the car while Verg and I ate. We brought him a milkshake which he managed to get down.

Our next stop was the Expedition Lodge. We checked in and fortunately got a ground floor room. Vergil backed the Kia right up to the door, and we dumped our gear. John crashed on the bed. He needed it. I ran a hot tub of water, stripped, and hopped in. While I was in the tub, the ever-fastidious Vergil, as is his want, grabbed up all our dirty clothes and headed for the motel laundromat. By the time he returned, I had washed and then showered. I turned the bathroom over to him and started some repacking.

John continued to sleep.

When Vergil was finished with his ablutions, we decided to head across the street to the convenience store for snacks and something to drink, including more ice cream for John. Upon return, Verg moved our washed clothes into the dryer, and then we simply vegged until our clothes were dry.

Soon we had a large pile of clean, dry clothes on the bed. Vergil and I folded everything, then began to consider dinner plans. We rousted John up long enough for him to tell us that he wasn’t ready to eat yet. He just wanted to rest. Vergil and I decided to hit the Moab Brewery again.

While waiting to be seated, we talked over the trip. It had been physically challenging and the insects had been worrisome, but the terrain and the articfacts we had seen had been fantastic. Water had even been plentiful. The only real issue had been John’s ongoing nausea, something we hoped that he could get worked out with the help of specialists when he got home.

Our pager vibrated and we headed into the clatter and chatter of the bustling eatery. After a burger for lunch, I opted for the fish and chips with an ice-cold ale. We discovered to our surprise that in a state with a heavily Mormon population that drank neither coffee, tea, nor spirits, the Moab Brewery included a micro distillery that sold liquor on Sunday, of all things. We purchased a half-liter of vodka, and on the way back to the motel, picked up some orange juice and more ice cream for John.

Upon our return, John ate a little and went back to sleep. Vergil and I mixed our drinks, put our feet up, and toasted making it through one more adventure. Soon we slipped between clean sheets in beds that we didn’t have to get down on our knees and crawl into. Sleep came easily and effortlessly.


At the Trailhead
The only picture of the three of us – pre-departure, still fresh



John looked appreciably better Monday morning. Plenty of sleep and some food had worked wonders. In his condition, the carbohydrate-rich breakfast was a good thing. We headed back to Gearheads, and I returned my unused, unopened sleeping pad. We picked up a few other goodies while we were there, then rolled out of Moab on our way to the Arches National Park Visitor Center. We had all three visited the park before but wanted to check out the gift shop for souvenirs. I especially still wanted something for my grandsons.

We soon joined the two long lines of vehicles snaking towards the gate under the baking desert sun. Occasionally we would change lanes to give the people in the lane we had been in a chance to go a little faster.

Eventually we made it in, made a few purchases, and departed. The incoming lanes now reached almost out to the highway. We turned north on Highway 191 headed to Salt Lake City.

Again, John stretched out as much as possible in the back seat while Vergil drove and I navigated. While John snoozed, Verg and I listened to music and talked about the kind of stuff really old friends talk about: family, kids, other trips, books, you name it.

Around lunchtime we began looking for place to eat. We were nearing Price, UT, and since we had cell and data service now, I began checking online. Among the usual fast-food options was Sherald’s Drive-In, an honest to goodness drive-in with curb service. This was too good to pass up, so we took the Price exit and soon located Sherald’s in all its pastel and neon glory.


Sherald’s, Main Street, Price, UT


In addition to the usual burgers and fries, they had something like 40 flavors of milkshakes from Almond Joy to vanilla, coconut cream to peanut butter. The service was great, and the burgers were outstanding. John even ate a little, and I managed to dump my fry sauce in my lap, making a huge mess.

After washing up as best I could, we headed back to the highway, and late that afternoon, we rolled into Salt Lake City and checked into the Best Western Motel near the airport.

I had made plans for us to have dinner with one of my Eagle Scouts from my Troop 6 days in Atlanta. Alex had joined the troop in 1990, but I already knew his parents from Sunday School and church. He was an outstanding Scout and leader. Both he and his younger brother Matt had earned their Eagle rank.

In August of 1998, Sherrie and I relocated to Greensboro, NC, for my work. One month later, Alex and another Troop 6 Scout, Daniel, enrolled in Guilford College located only four miles from our house. We hiked and climbed some through their college years. Sherrie and I got together with both boys’ parents when they came up to visit. We attended recitals and graduation.

But I had not seen Root since his graduation in 2002. I forgot to mention that Alex’s initials are AW, and I began calling him A&W when he joined the troop. That soon morphed into Root Beer for obvious reasons. Then when I learned how tenaciously he approached everything he did, his nickname got shortened to Root, like that root that hangs on no matter how hard you try to get it out. It just fit.

Now Root was married with one daughter and another child on the way. He had parlayed his studies in music composition and theory and ethnomusicology and his love of fine craftmanship into a career as a luthier specializing in custom-made violins. I had had lunch with his father Bob and a few other Troop 6 Scouts and leaders on a trip down to Atlanta back in the spring. I was really looking forward to catching up with Root.

The three of us cleaned up and headed to The Bayou, a spacious, wood-paneled spot specializing in Cajun and creole fare. It was early and the crowd was light. Soon a tall, thin, balding young man with a full beard and a big grin strolled in. I would have known him anywhere. We laughed, embraced, and slapped each other on the back. Our waitress thought we were father and son who hadn’t seen each other in a while.


Root & the author


It was a fine old reunion catching up on family and old friends, how life was treating us, pulling up and sharing pictures, telling old stories. The food and drink were good too. Vergil’s younger daughter is an accomplished violinist, so he and Root had plenty to discuss.

Finally, inevitably, the hour grew late and we had to part. It is hard to describe the way an old Scoutmaster feels about his Scouts, even after they are grown and married with children of their own. In my nearly 40 years of Scouting, there have been so many, hundreds at least, each of whom has a special place in my heart and memories.

But I suppose like any teacher, coach, or youth leader, there are some that stand out more than others, ones with whom you created a closer relationship. Root was one of those. What he had made of his life; the man, husband, and father he had become, these things filled me with an unimaginably deep sense of fulfillment and thanksgiving for the opportunity I had had to spend so many years surrounded by fine young men and other adult leaders.

We parted on the sidewalk with one last embrace. Root hopped on his bike to pedal home to Denny and the baby. Vergil, John, and I headed back to the Great Western. Tomorrow was getaway day for John and me.



When we woke up Tuesday morning, John looked and felt much better. We showered, breakfasted, and checked out.

John was considering an inflatable fishing boat and wanted to check out a local manufacturer, Flycraft. Since his flight out wasn’t until 3:43 PM, followed by mine at 5:04, we had plenty of time. Vergil was staying over for a couple of days.

We visited the office/factory of Flycraft, heard the sales pitch, and came away impressed. John was convinced that Flycraft was just the ticket for flyfishing but decided to wait a while before ordering.

We tooled around Salt Lake, ran some errands, had lunch, and eventually returned the rental car and took the shuttle to the airport. There we checked our bags and sat down at Starbuck’s to chill out and bounce around ideas for next year’s trip. Glacier National Park kept coming up.

Soon, with fond farewells all around John left to catch his plane. Vergil and I sat there just talking, about everything and nothing. Finally, it was time for me to head out. Vergil and I embraced, and I headed up the escalator and my plane.

The flight home was four mostly bumpy hours long as the flight crew attempted to avoid weather over the Rockies and the Midwest. We touched down in Charlotte a little before 11:00 PM. I deboarded and headed to the carousel to grab my bags, then walked out in to the moist, thick North Carolina air so different from southern Utah. In a few minutes, my Uber rolled up  and I hopped in.

Traffic was light and 20 minutes later we were driving down our dark street. As expected, Sherrie had left a welcoming light burning. I climbed out, thanked my driver and grabbed my gear. I dropped my duffel bag on the screen porch, unlocked the backdoor, and called out, “Honey. I’m home.” I heard Sherrie’s faint reply from the den. I walked into the den and was greeted by her smiling face, a hug, and a kiss. It was 11:55 PM, June 18, five minutes before my 66th birthday.



After my return from Utah, I had a scant few days to clean up gear and pack to leave for New England. Sherrie and I were driving up to Massachusetts to keep our teen-aged granddaughters while their parents were in England. Among other things, they were attending opening day at Wimbledon.

I had waked up Friday morning around 3:30, and as I had often done over the last week or so, always at an inconvenient or inopportune time, I thought about how I needed to call the ranger station about John’s bear cannister. By the time I had risen for the day, that thought had fled again amid all the other things to be done.

Finally, things settled down. The girls were off with friends, Sherrie was reading, and I was working on my latest novel, which was nearing completion. My cellphone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and was about to let it go to voicemail when I noticed that it was from Moab, UT. I hit Accept and heard the voice of Ranger Mallory.

She was trying to find out who had left a BearVault full of food near Angel Arch. Some backpackers had reported it, and another ranger had hiked in and retrieved it.

I admitted that it was ours and that we had left it there to lighten John’s load. I apologized for forgetting to tell them about it that day amid the swirl of activity as well as my continuing forgetfulness. She said she understood, but there was a $130 fee for retrieving the cannister. I said she should send it to me; it was my decision and my forgetfulness. I would gladly pay it.

Mallory then asked if she should ship the cannister to John. I offered to call John and see what he wanted to do. Five minutes later, I had John on the line. He was well-recovered now but had little interest in recovering his BearVault.

“Donate it to the park service,” he suggested.

“Sounds good,” I replied.

I called and left a message for Mallory who soon called back.

“John wants to donate his BearVault to the park service,” I said.

“Great,” said Mallory. “And I talked to Mark. He decided to waive the retrieval fee.”

“That’s great too,” I said. “Thanks a lot. And thank all of you for the great job you did.”

“Your welcome,” Mallory replied. “Come back and see us soon.” She sounded like she actually meant it.

“I’m sure we will,” I replied. And I actually did mean it. There are too many trails out there that we haven’t walked yet.

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Filed under Backpacking, Canyon, Canyonlands, Hiking, Salt Creek, Uncategorized, Utah



Part 1



In all honesty, the rangers had warned us that the unusually high rainfall that spring had resulted in a corresponding increase in the insect population in the Utah desert. As we sat there at the end of our first day on the Salt Creek Trail, swatting at gnats and wondering when the mosquitoes would show up, we wondered why they hadn’t also mentioned the flourishing plant life, undergrowth so high and thick that it obscured the already faint trail and turned what should have been an easy four mile hike into a seven mile ordeal.

But I get ahead of myself. This little adventure had actually begun three days earlier. In Salt Lake City.



My flight from Charlotte to Salt Lake City was uneventful and on time. I deboarded and called John on my cellphone. He had arrived the day before from his home in Coeur d’Alene the day before.  By 10:30, I had collected the duffel bag with my gear and was waiting curbside for John.

Vergil and I had met John two years earlier on the Timberline Trail around Mount Hood and had hit it off. He joined Vergil and Stuart on a trip to Utah the following year, a trip I was unable to make because of an unexpected death in the family. This year, because of challenges settling on an agenda, backcountry permit availability, and other scheduling challenges, Stuart would not be joining us. This year it would be Vergil, John, and me.

John picked me up and we headed to the service plaza to shoot the breeze and wait for Vergil’s 11:07 arrival from Gulfport via Dallas-Fort Worth.

An hour later my phone rang, it was Vergil. John and I headed back to the airport, and as soon as we got there, I hopped out and headed for baggage claim. It had been a year since I had seen my oldest friend. We embraced and waited patiently as the carousel went around and around, disgorging surprisingly few bags. And then it stopped. None of the bags were Vergil’s. We joined the line at the service desk and learned that a number of bags had not made the transfer at DFW but would be on the next flight due to arrive at 3:00.

Frustrated but resigned – there’s always at least one glitch per trip – we hopped into the car with John and headed out to lunch. Enroute, my phone rang.

“It’s Hike Moab, our shuttle company,” I said. “Must be calling to confirm our pickup on Wednesday.”

Well, it was indeed our Hike Moab, but they were calling, not to confirm, but to inform me that their high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle was in the shop and would not be out until Thursday.

“Will that work?” they asked.

Now, Canyonlands requires backcountry permits, specifying which campsite you will be in on which night. We had to get to the Cathedral Butte trailhead on Wednesday, not Thursday.

“Afraid not,” I replied with a sick felling growing in the pit of my stomach. Scheduling a last-minute shuttle would be tough.

With profuse apologies, the guy at Hike Moab initiated a refund of our advance.

I hung up and looked at my friends: no gear for Vergil and now no shuttle service. What next?

The guys had eaten at the Red Iguana the year before, so we headed there for lunch. As John drove, I Googled shuttle services and began calling each one I found, Coyote Shuttle, Canyonlands Shuttle, Raven Shuttle, all of them. While waiting for our table at the Red Iguana, an appropriately garish establishment specializing in Mexican fare, I paced up and down the sidewalk in the dry, oven-like heat, continuing to dial number after number.

One of the communication challenges in southeastern Utah is cellphone reception. In Canyonlands National Park, it is nonexistent, likewise in most of the backcountry and along many stretches of highway. Around cities and towns, it is better, but most of the shuttle drivers are usually in areas with no service, hence call-backs are when you can get them. I left messages when I got no answer or hung up disappointed when informed that they were booked up.

Finally, there was nothing to do but wait and hope someone returned one of my calls with some good news. At the Red Iguana, we worked on our way through our cervezas, burritos, and chili rellenos, praying that the phone would ring. I had very little appetite. Must have been that sinking feeling in my gut, because no one was calling back.

We settled our bill and decided to hit the grocery store for tortillas, pre-cooked bacon, cheese, coffee, and such. We would pick up fuel and some freeze-dried meals later in Moab. While headed to Smith’s, my phone finally rang. It was a young woman from Raven Shuttles. They were unable to help us, but she recommended Big Iron Tours, a relatively new shuttle/tour company that might be able to shuttle us. With the number she gave me, I made the call and left a message with Micah, detailing when and where we needed shuttling.

Before we reached Smith’s, my phone rang again. It was Mike Ballard, owner of Big Iron tours and yes, he could shuttle us. Yeah! I told him we needed to be picked at the Cave Spring Trailhead at 9:00 AM on Wednesday and dropped off at the Cathedral Butte Trailhead.

“No problem,” Mike replied.

We were all three elated. What we did not realize was that Mike was driving at the time and unable to make notes. This would not work to our advantage.

On to Smith’s we went with lighter hearts and a bounce in our steps. Soon we were mired in our usual discussion about how much food, Vergil opting for less, John neutral, and me pushing for more. I have run out of food on the trail in the past and do not care to ever do that again.

Food purchases complete, we returned to that airport, dropped Vergil off and John and I began circling. Eventually, about 3:30 we got Vergil’s call. He had his luggage. We swung through and picked him up. By now the back of our Kia Sportage was crammed with daypacks, luggage, and groceries, but we were content. Two major hurdles had been cleared, and we headed out of town south on I-15, then on to highway 6 to Highway 191 which is contiguous with I-70 for a short stretch.

Four hours later we reached Moab in the southeast corner of Utah and started looking fo the Expedition Lodge. I had booked it especially because it had rooms with three queen-size beds, and two of them were bunkbeds. How can you pass something like that up?

The Expedition Lodge was right on Main Street and had a decidedly, chrome and Formica, multi-colored brick, stacked-stone hearth late 1950’s feel to it, with a pool, waterslide, and an awesome sign out front. We loved it. We checked in and quickly hauled our gear to our second-floor room, dumped it, then headed out for dinner.


Expedition Lodge

Moab is known for its backpacking, hiking, off-road four-wheeling, and cycling, both road and mountain. Main Street, Highway 191, is one continuous stretch of motels, restaurants, fast food places, outfitters, and shops: cycle shops, outdoor gear shops, souvenir shops. We tooled down Main Street looking for the Moab Brewery. The guys had eaten there last year and really enjoyed it. Sounded good to me. It was time for a good cheeseburger and microbrew.

The Moab Brewery was as advertised: lively and bustling. The service was fast and friendly, the food was good, and the beer was ice-cold. On the way back to the Expedition Lodge, we spotted Gearheads, our stop tomorrow for stove fuel and trail food.


Sorting Gear

Back in our room after dinner, we did a little gear repacking, unloading backpacks and stuffing sleeping bags and pads in them, repackaging groceries, and such. We settled in early. It was Monday night and would be our last night in a bed until Sunday. Vergil took the top bunk, and I took the lower. John plugged in his CPAP, and we all crashed.



We rolled out of bed Tuesday morning and went downstairs for our complimentary breakfast, which was surprisingly heavy on carbohydrate options and light on protein. Breakfast completed, we headed to Gearheads, one of the premier camping stores I have ever seen, walls covered in gear from floor to ceiling, aisle after narrow aisle crammed with anything you might need in the backcountry.

We picked up the iso-butane fuel cannisters for our stoves and the rest of the freeze-dried meals we would need. John and I had brought our BearVaults, 2.2 pounds of polycarbonate that the National Park Service requires for storing food in the backcountry. Vergil, not having one, bought one. I picked up a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad because I suspected mine had a small leak. We were sleeping on the ground that night at Needles Outpost. If my pad deflated, I had a backup. If not, I would return the new pad.

Purchases made, we headed back to the Expedition Lodge, loaded our gear and checked out. We needed to head out to the park to pick up our backcountry permit, but first we did a little souvenir shopping. I found a lapis lazuli pendant for Sherrie and some barrettes and headbands for my granddaughters but couldn’t find a thing for my grandsons.

After a fast food lunch, we headed south on Highway 191 for the hour-and-a-half drive to the Needles District Visitor Center in Canyonlands which included the Ranger Station and Backcountry Office. Actually, it turned out to be a two-hour drive because they were repaving Highway 191 close to the Highway 211 turnoff to the park.

We passed Needles Outpost, our home for tonight, on the way into the park. We entered the park using our Senior Passes and drove to the Visitor Center, a low stucco and stone building. There were a handful of cars and RV’s in the parking lot and a good number of people inside checking out gift shop, the relief map of the park, and the various exhibits.

We made our way through the Visitor Center to the Backcountry Office which was deserted except for a friendly ranger standing behind a counter with sheets of clear Lucite covering maps of the park. The shelves behind him were stacked with food cannisters that the Park Service provides the unequipped for a small deposit.

He printed out our permit, made sure we had BearVaults, warned us of the swarms of gnats and mosquitoes to expect, and informed us that right after turning off the pavement onto the unpaved road to Cathedral Butte, we would have to cross a stream running 2-3 feet deep from snow melt and the attendant runoff. He even had recent pictures. Well, that was Mike Ballard’s problem. We assumed that he knew the conditions and was prepared. We were wrong on the first count but right on the second.

We headed back to Needles Outpost, checked in, and selected Site 19 for its rock walls to the east, a couple of cottonwoods for shade, a picnic table, and a great view to the west where the sun would be setting. Life was looking good.

It had been a least 25 years since I had been to Needles Outpost, and a change in ownership had brought a reduction in services. The first thing we learned was that they no longer served meals. So, after some more gear sorting and repacking, we set of in search of dinner. We thought we would try Monticello, about an hour’s drive away, not counting repaving delays. On the way out we stopped at Newspaper Rock, a near-vertical 200 square foot rock covered with hundreds of ancient Indian petroglyphs, for a few pictures.


Newspaper Rock


There weren’t many options in Monticello, so we went on to Blanding which had even less. Heading back to Monticello, we decided to try the Granary Bar & Grill. In keeping with the name, the Granary was built of repurposed grain silos. We opened the door to a blast of near arctic air, a welcoming bar, and a décor a la Cracker Barrel replete with cable spools for tables. After selecting a table and ordering drinks, we returned to the car for long-sleeved shirts.

Our margaritas on the rocks were served in frosty Mason jars. The drinks were strong, and the rims were salty. Perfect. For some reason, we all settled on a large salad, maybe because green veggies are rare on the trail. After a second round of margaritas, Vergil and I ordered the apple crisp for dessert. Overflowing with apples, crisp, and vanilla ice cream, they proved to be more than either of us could eat.

It was still daylight when we got back to Needles Outpost. A last shower before heading into the backcountry seemed like a good idea, but the showers required a token, available at the office which was now unfortunately closed. Bummer. We returned to our site and watched a glorious sunset.

Our plans to sleep under the stars were thwarted by the rampant insect life. We quickly pulled out our tents. John pitched his spiffy little Tarptent Rainbow 1, which used a single fiberglass pole. Very cool. Very light. Vergil and I shared his MSR Hubba Hubba but decided to leave the fly off for ventilation. We all climbed in early


Sunset at Needles Outpost



Hit the trail day. I am always a little antsy, excited and sometimes a bit anxious, on trail day. No particular reason, I’ve walked hundreds, if not thousands of trails, but there is always some degree of the unknown no matter how many trail guides you read. That’s one of the best things about backpacking: What unexpected thing will the trail provide this time, and will we be able to handle it?

We got up at 6:30, dressed for the trail, and finalized our packing before grabbing a quick bite and heading to the park. We watered up at the Visitors’ Center and were at the Cave Spring Trailhead well before our agreed upon rendezvous time of 9:00 AM. We parked and chilled. We looked up at the sound of every car engine, but it was invariably a group of dayhikers. At 9:15, no Mike. At 9:30, still no Mike. At 10:00, we left a note for Mike and headed back to the Ranger Station, cursing the lack of cellphone service.

Ten minutes later, we walked into the Visitor’s Center, and I asked the ranger on duty if she had seen a shuttle looking for us?

“Yeah,” she said. “A guy in a big black jeep with Lt. Dan on the side has been through here twice looking for three backpackers.”

“That’s’ us,” I said, glad that Mike had shown up but disappointed that we had missed him. What the heck would we do now?

We went back outside and sat in the shade where we decided that Vergil and I would wait at the Visitor Center while John took the car and headed out to Squaw Flats looking for Mike. Verg went to the head and I sat in the shade and prayed that Mike would make one last pass by the Visitor Center, when lo and behold, he did, in the largest, blackest Jeep I’ve ever seen, replete with powerlifts and 39” wheels. I sprang up and flagged him down.

“Where the heck have you guys been?” an intense, bearded, sunglassed, and not particularly happy face asked. “I’ve been all over Squaw Flats looking for you.”

“We were at the Cave Spring Trailhead like we said,” I replied.

“Dadgumit,” Mike said. “I got the wrong info from Micah.”

That’s when I remembered that Mike had been driving when we had spoken on Monday. By this time, Verg had joined us.

“Where’s the other guy?” Mike asked.

“Cruising around Squaw Flats in our rental, looking for you,” I replied. “Let’s see if we can find him.”

“Sure. Hope in,” Mike said. “I got another shuttle later today.”

In a few minutes, we spotted John and flagged him down. We followed him to the Cave Spring trailhead and transferred our backpacks into Mike’s jeep. Soon we were back on Highway 211 and past Newspaper Rock, headed out of the park. By this time, it was nearly 11:00.

“I’ve never been to Cathedral Butte before,” Mike noted.

I was sitting in the front passenger seat and shooting the breeze with him. “You know how to get there, right?” I asked. “And about the creek crossing.”

“Got directions here.” He held up a couple of printed pages, navigation systems being dependent on having the map downloaded. “And yeah, this baby’ll handle the creek.” His pride was evident.

At the intersection with Highway 191, we turned right and headed south through the repaving area. Along the way we learned about Mike’s service to our country. He was a Marine and had served three tours in Iraq, breaking both ankles and his back tumbling from a Humvee with a full load of gear and a 17-pound SAW machine gun. He had flown helicopters for a while, then returned home to Moab and started his tour/shuttle service. He was gregarious and sociable. We liked him immediately.

Soon we were nearing Monticello and convinced we had missed our turnoff. We stopped for gas which Vergil paid for as it was obvious that Mike had lost his next client looking for us. Then we went by the Bureau of Land Management Field Office to find out where we had gotten off course. Apparently, it had been very near the beginning.  Just a few miles from the Visitors’ Center, before even reaching Newspaper Rock, we should have turned off on Beef Basin Road. We needed to backtrack 40 miles. It was nearly 1:00 now.

Back up 191 and through the repaving work we went, then took a left onto 211. Past Newspaper Rock we spotted Beef Basin Road and took a left. In a quarter mile we reached the creek, forty feet of churning brown water at least two feet deep. Mike’s eyes lit up.

“This’ll be fun,” he said, then eased down into the water.


Creek Crossing


He dropped the Jeep into 4-wheel drive and chugged slowly across, feeling his way in and out of the deepest channel. Clear the other side, he stopped.

“Let’s do that again,” he said. “And take pictures. You guys don’t mind being on Facebook, do you?”

We said no. Mike handed his DSLR to John who got out and stood on the bank. Mike put the Jeep in reverse and backed across the stream. Then he set up his GoPro to take video from the cab. This time, knowing what to expect, he powered right through the water.

John rejoined us, and we started the last 17 and most challenging miles of our shuttle. The unpaved road was steep and rutted, uneven and corrugated. At one point, Mike stopped and let air out the tires to smooth out the ride. We hadn’t had lunch, but Mike had bought some spicy beef sticks at the filling station which he shared around.

It was slow going switchbacking up the dirt road higher and higher, but we finally reached the trailhead around 3:00. It would mean a late start, but we only had four miles to do. The three of us reached into our wallets and tipped Mike for the ride and the good company. He noted that many of his clients never uttered a word and how much he enjoyed having people to talk to.

Finally, we stood at the trailhead at over 7,000 feet, looking down into the wide, relatively lush valley for which we were headed. But first, we had to get down there, and the first mile of the trail was a steep, thousand-foot drop, a real knee-buster, especially since we were carrying a gallon of water each, eight pounds. I snapped a picture of Verg and John, and we started down


John sans trekking poles & Vergil at the Salt Creek Trailhead



From the Rim
The small distant, flat, green patch on the left is the valley floor.


That was when John discovered that he had left his trekking poles in the car. I’ll tell you the truth, I was glad I had mine because that first mile included more than its fair share of long steps down and awkward foot placements. We went slowly and carefully, descending on the twisty, rocky trail through stunted, wind-twisted pines. As we neared the bottom, the we began crossing the occasional stretch of rock shelves, the trail marked by cairns. These were welcome relief from the steep descent. After an hour, we reached the wide canyon floor.


The Descent



Looking Back


Tiered rock walls of red and ocher well off to our left east and west bracketed a sea of brown and green grasses. The path of Salt Creek was clearly marked by a lush strip of massive cottonwoods off to our left, their leaves fluttering like so many green and white hankies.

At the two-mile mark we crossed into the national park. It was about then that we learned about the other effect the heavy snowfall in the winter and rains in the spring had had on the desert. The vegetation, mostly sage and cheatgrass, was thick and high. We looked out over a vast expanse of grass 3-4 feet high, waving gently in the faint desert breeze. There was nothing to indicate where the trail was except the hint of a faint footpath visible only when right on top of it. We continued plodding along, with the thick growth grasping at our feet and legs, hindering every step.


The canyon floor. Where’s the trail?


At places the trail veered near the creek. Here on softer, reed-choked ground, the trail would be a groove 6-8 inches deep and about eight inches wide, beaten down by the tread of countless backpackers. You had to place one foot in front of the other like you were taking a Highway Patrol sobriety test, only sober, tired, laden with a backpack, and with undergrowth tugging at you. Eventually, at nearly three miles in, we completely lost the trail.

The ground here by the stream was mucky. We backtracked looking for where the trail must have veered off. Nothing. We began cutting back and forth perpendicular to the trail and running down numerous false avenues. Finally, after a short discussion in which our frayed nerves began to show, we struck back down to where we had lost the trail in the first place.

This time, we found our mistake. A series of deadfalls near Salt Creek had obscured the trail which we eventually picked up on the far side. The sun was getting low, and we picked up our pace. Soon the trail dropped out onto a series of rock ledges. We followed the cairns and soon heard the blessed sound of running water. By now it was nearly 8:00 PM.

We crossed a spring that tumbled over a wide series of small ledges and into a swift running channel before disappearing into a cottonwood thicket. We dropped our packs on a convenient ledge and began purifying water. Vergil and I used SteriPens, which kill bacteria with ultraviolet light, and John used his Sawyer gravity feed filter system.

Replenished, we saddled up and kept walking, passing Kirk’s Cabin, dim in the fading light, it was a lovely old log cabin built in 1890 and still standing. A short distance after that we saw the sign for SC1, our home for our first night on the trail. We turned right and found our campsite tucked back in a protected cove.

We quickly pitched our tents,, then pulled out our camp chairs and chilled. I looked at my socks. They were covered with little stickers, many of which I could feel through my socks.

They were from the cheatgrass. John was familiar with the invasive stuff. Vergil had recently heard about it on NPR but never seen it. I had never even heard of it.

“Yeah,” John said. “We have it in Idaho too. Have to be sure to get pull them out of our dogs’ ears or they get infected.”

Vergil had worn long pants, so his socks weren’t in bad shape. John had worn shorts but had remembered his low gaiters which saved his socks. I had worn shorts too but had left my OR Sparkplug gaiters in the car. Big mistake. I began plucking and eventually pulled off my socks to finish the task.


Camp at SC1


I pulled out my stove to start boiling water for dinner. John wasn’t feeling too well and had no interest in eating. I was mildly concerned but not too much. Until he threw up. We were all more thirsty than hungry anyway. I sweat so profusely that staying hydrated is always a challenge for me. I can easily out-sweat a performance or wool T-shirt even in the desert. Vergil and I managed to get down a beef stroganoff dinner, but I had to wash down each mouthful with a swallow of water.

With the setting sun and cooler air, we welcomed first wave of the gnats and then mosquitoes. Vergil and I grew up in Mississippi, and Vergil still lives there. We thought we knew mosquitoes, but we were unprepared the swarms that descended on us. We all put on our mosquito headnets, and I even borrowed some of John’s Cutters. That wasn’t enough, so we piled into our tents as quickly as possible letting in as few mosquitoes as we could. With a finite number inside the mesh of the tent, we proceeded to eliminate them all, one by one.

It had been a long day. We were tired and needed a good rest, and once we were recumbent, we drifted off to sleep, in John’s case with his portable, rechargeable C-PAP.



Even though Thursday would be a short day, only four miles, we were up by 6:30. We had coffee and freeze-dried biscuits and gravy which was surprisingly good. John managed to eat a little. After a leisurely morning, we headed back to the spring to water up for the day.


The First Spring


Watering Up


We backtracked to Kirk’s Cabin and dropped our packs, taking only water filters, bottles, and bags to the spring. We filtered up enough so that again each of us had at least a gallon of water. Back at the cabin, we took pictures of the structure. It was built of hand-hewn cottonwoods, enormous timbers at least 12” X 12”. They were fitted and joined with pegs driven through drilled holes. Built in 1890, all it need was a new roof and some chinking in the open joints to be livable again. Very impressive.


Kirk’s Cabin


Verg in front of the fireplace




John had a solar panel which he used to recharge batteries for his C-PAP. He adjusted it across the back of his pack, and at 10:15 we were on the trail.

One of the many things that drew us to Salt Creek was the presence of pictographs, petroglyphs, stacked-stone granaries, and pottery shards left by ancient peoples. The Salt Creek basin is wide and reasonably flat with a more dependable water supply than most of the surrounding area. Archeologists estimate that the area was inhabited from around 200 BC up until 1500 AD.

None of these sites are marked on a map. Accounts by previous hikers are helpful, but one must keep a sharp eye out along the canyon walls for artifacts as well as natural arches. We strolled along, veering off-trail to investigate whatever caught our eye. Yesterday had been hot, and today was hotter.


Distant Arch



We took a break under a copse of scrubby, fragrant pines and later found a nice shady spot for lunch. A formation of four massive rocks had tipped over into each other creating two intersecting passages. Light filtered down creating a luminous cross on the sandy floor, and the air was refreshingly cool. We sat in this cool spot and looked out over the baking canyon floor. Unfortunately, John continued to throw up.


Cruciform Rocks


As we continued in a northerly down the canyon, it began to slowly narrow and take increasingly sharp twists and turns. The trail would follow the canyon wall, then veer around in a long, seeping curve where a rock formation jutted out into the canyon. At one point, rather than swing around the jutting rocks, our path led us on a steep climb up a crevasse with logs jammed into the bottom for better footing. This soon turned into a rock-filled scramble up through a notch in the rock wall. The descent on the other side was down a series of rock slabs.


The Notch


We reached another spring around 4:00 PM. The westering sun created a glittering, golden cascade as the waters tumbled over the ochre rock ledges before plunging into a deep, still pool ten feet below us. Green algae gathered in the eddies and covered the pool.


The Second Spring


We washed our faces and heads, then drank our fill of cool, filtered water. A few years back, Vergil purchased green and back keffiyehs for himself, Stuart, and me. The fabric is a cotton and wool blend, and the large scarves are widely used in the Middle East as head and neck wraps. Vergil and I have worn ours in the desert on every subsequent trip. I soaked mine in the water as Mike had said the Marines did in Iraq, then wrapped it around my head and neck for instant, evaporative air conditioning.

Near this spring was maybe the most fascinating archeological site that we saw: large granaries, multi-colored red, white, and pale blue pictographs, and black and white pottery shards. We wandered about taking pictures until it was time to locate our campsite.


Another Granary


Closer View




Pottery Shards

Unfortunately, we missed both Big Ruins on the west side of the canyon and the All-American Man petroglyph on the east side. We were especially bummed because the All-American Man is very large with vivid red, white, and blues dyes. No one was ready to go back and look for it though.

Our U.S. Geological Survey map indicated that our campsite CS3 was just north of the spring. He headed that way but found no campsite. Both John and I checked our GPS’s; we were well north of where the campsite was marked on the map. We walked a little further up the trail and still no campsite. We backtracked to see if the sign was down and we had missed the turnoff. No, we hadn’t. We headed back north further than we had gone the first time. Still, no CS3 even though both GPS’s showed we were even further north of the marked location.

Finally, we headed back towards the spring and found a smooth, sandy spot up against a large rock formation and camped there. Vergil and I again pitched his tent without the fly as it didn’t look like rain. As we reclined in our camp chairs to prepare dinner, I took a look at my lower legs and socks. My legs were scratched from the brush, and my socks were so covered with cheatgrass seeds that they looked more like a pair of hedgehogs than a pair of socks.


Cheatgrass Seeds


I started plucking but soon gave up. I hated the thought of tossing a pair of Darn Tough socks but decided that’s what I would have to do. I also decided to wear long pants the next days.

Vergil and I ate dinner, but again John ate very little. He was still nauseous and taking some anti-nausea meds that he brought as well as some Pepto-Bismol I had with me. Neither seemed to be helping much.

As it had the evening before, high, thin clouds spread across the darkening sky. I had brought my Sony α6000 Mirrorless camera, telephoto lens, and small tripod. John had brought his too. We were particularly excited because Jupiter would be in opposition and very close to the Earth and being deep into the desert with no artificial light, we hoped to get some good nighttime photos. It was not to be.

A spattering of rain blew up in the night, but the rock formation provided enough protection that we didn’t bother to add the fly.

Next Week – Part 2

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Filed under America, Backpacking, Canyon, Canyonlands, Hiking, Uncategorized, Utah

Paria Canyon 2016

It was just after 1:00 PM on Thursday, April 21, 2016, when Stuart greeted me with a big grin and hug in the tiny airport in St. George, Utah. He was clad in his usual travel attire, convertible cargo pants topped with a Hawaiian shirt.

Actually he should have greeted both Vergil and me, but Vergil’s flight from Houston had been delayed and he had missed his connection in Denver. I knew. I had awaited his arrival anxiously, but in vain, first at the gate and then on the plane. Instead, his seat was taken by a young Mormon fellow headed home for some serious backpacking and hunting. After chatting briefly, I turned my attention to the music on my iPhone and my ereader.

Travel for Stu and me is somewhat easier as we live in Portland, Oregon, and Charlotte, North Carolina, respectively. For Stuart it was a simple connection through Salt Lake City, for me, one stop in Denver. Vergil, however, lives in Gulfport, Mississippi, which usually means multiple connections. This time he had to change planes in Houston and Denver. Houston had been the holdup: the late departure ensured a late arrival in Denver.

Stuart had arrived earlier in the day and had already been by the Bureau of Land Management office to pick up our backcountry permit for Paria Canyon in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. Paria (rhymes with Maria) Canyon is a long, deep, narrow canyon nearly forty miles long. It begins at the White House Trailhead near Kanab, Utah, and ends at the Lee’s Ferry Trailhead where the Paria River empties into the Colorado River near Page, Arizona.

Additionally, the canyon can be reached via Buckskin Gulch which is accessible from the Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass trailheads. Buckskin Gulch is longer, more narrow, and host to a number of pour-offs which might have anywhere from ankle- to chest-deep pools to be crossed, as well as climbs where a rope would come in handy. We opted for the White House Trailhead.

Our permit was for six days and five nights. Our rough plans were to head into Paria Canyon, camp near the Confluence where Buckskin Gulch merges with the Paria, dayhike up Buckskin Gulch, then move up and down Paria Canyon, camping and seeking out interesting sights and side trips

But first we needed to know when, or if, Vergil would get to St. George, and I needed lunch having subsisted on only an airline snack all day. Stu and I hopped into the little, white Hyundai Santa Fe Sport SUV that he had rented and headed for St. George. We stopped at the first place we found to eat, a Wendy’s which was conveniently located next to a Walmart which we needed to finish our food purchases.

During lunch, Vergil texted that he had a flight to St. George arriving a t 8:45 PM. As he needed to return home before Stu and I did in order to leave for Spain to bring his younger daughter Gracie home from a semester abroad, he had already reserved a rental car. We agreed that Stu and I would shop for food and fuel, then head to Kanab. Verg would rendezvous with us at the Best Western Red Hills in Kanab later that night.

Vergil had already realized that he had forgotten his fleece hat and asked us to pick one up for him when we went to Sportsman’s Warehouse for fuel. That was noteworthy as he always forgets something, even his boots on one memorable occasion.

Stuart had brought the freeze-dried breakfasts (Breakfast Skillets, Ova Easy Eggs, etc.) and dinners (Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Teriyaki, etc.) with him. We purchased soft tortillas, cheese, and summer sausage for lunches: pre-cooked bacon and bagels to augment breakfast; and Clif bars, peanuts, and M&M’s for snacks.

We returned to the airport to gather Stuart’s luggage which had come in on a later flight. With Stu’s luggage in hand, we headed for Sportsman’s Warehouse.

I quickly located an Under Armor knit cap for Verg and we grabbed the isobutane fuel for our stoves. I also bought a cheap pair of sunglasses, and by 5:00 PM, we were off to Kanab, 80 miles away. We selected the southern route, UT 59 and AZ 389 through Hurricane, UT, Colorado City, AZ, and Fredonia, AZ, in order to avoid the congestion getting through Zion National Park which we had both visited and hiked several times.

The sun sank behind us as we headed east through the darkening desert evening, catching up on this and that as old friends do. Stuart, Vergil, and I have known each other for well over 50 years, so there is always plenty of talk. We checked in to the Best Western Red Hills about 6:40 PM, around the time Vergil finally left Denver.

Kanab is a quaint little desert town tucked up against a plateau of Navajo sandstone which rises over 800 feet from the desert floor. It is populated by roughly 4,500 souls struggling to determine whether to remain quaint and small or grow and cater to the tourists who flock to southern Utah to visit Zion and Bryce Canyons, the Escalante-Grand Staircase, and Arizona’s Vermillion Cliffs. The town has two street lights and several fine eateries as well as a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s, and roughly a dozen motels that range from the chains like Best Western and Comfort Inn to the places like the historic Parry Lodge and the Sun-n-Sand. At least two more motels are under construction.

UT 89A runs due north from Fredonia into Kanab but ends at the first traffic light where it intersects UT 89. Straight ahead takes one north on UT 89; a right turn takes you east, then south. We continued north, passing an assortment of eateries, auto parts stores, filling stations, and motels. Three blocks later, UT 89 takes a 90° left turn at the Parry Lodge which was originally built in 1931 to accommodate movie stars and crews when filming on location in the Kanab area.

Just past the Parry Lodge is the town’s second traffic light and the local LDS church. And there on the next block is the Best Western Red Hills, our home for the night.

As we checked in we inquired about places for dinner and were directed to the Rocking V which was right next door or down one block to Houston’s Trail’s End. Then I asked the young man behind the desk, “Kris, if you were going out tonight for dinner, where would you go?”

Kris didn’t hesitate.

“I’d go to Escobar’s, a Mexican place out east on 89.”

“Thanks,” replied. “That’s where we’ll go.”

We had asked for and gotten a ground floor room for ease in unloading and loading gear. Stu and I pulled around and dumped our gear in the room: a suitcase and duffle bag for Stuart and a duffle bag for me, a 120 liter Patagonia Black Hole Duffel weighing 45 pounds. We dropped off our daypacks too and headed back through town and out to Escobar’s.

Escobar’s was all we hoped it would be, small and funky with great food and cold cerveza. It was a converted fast food place with limited seating. We opted to sit indoors as the temperature was already headed for the 40’s. Stuart’s Corona and my Dos Equis (Negra Modelo not available) were soon followed by his camarones and my chili Colorado burrito.

With full bellies, we headed back to the motel. Soon we had gear strewn all across the room, both queen-size beds, the bureau, the table, and both chairs as we began making last minute decisions on what to take. I was sorting the food into three piles of as nearly equal weight and volume as possible when Vergil called. He had arrived safely in St. George and picked up his car, actually an enormous, black Dodge Ram pickup truck with a crew cab. Stuart gave him the motel’s address, and we settled back to await his arrival.

A couple of hours later, we began to wonder where the heck Vergil was. Then we got another call. He was at 125 West Center Street, in La Verkin, Utah. Right address, wrong town, not even on the way to Kanab. Only Vergil. Destination corrected, he arrived an hour later, looking neat and fresh as usual, his button-down shirt tidily tucked into his jeans.

It was pushing midnight when we crawled into bed, Vergil and me in one queen-size bed, Stuart, the restless sleeper, in the other. It is the same way the tent on the trail. Stuart carries a one-man tent, and Verg and I share a two-man tent. Old habits.

The next morning, we sat down to the complimentary breakfast, coffee for Vergil and me, Pepsi for Stuart, a full breakfast for Stuart and me, a glass of milk for Verg. We’re funny like that.

Breakfast out of the way, we dressed for the trail and finished loading our backpacks. I equivocated over whether to take my Patagonia R1 fleece or my Patagonia down sweater. I opted for the R1, the only time I have not taken my down sweater since the day I bought it, which proved to be a mistake.

I tossed Vergil the fleece hat I had bought him.

“Glad that’s all you forgot this time,” I laughed. “I mean, you did remember your boots, right?”

He gave me that loopy grin of his.

“Yeah, I got them,” he replied, then paused. “But I can’t find my rain shell. Or my polypro shirt.”

“You’re kidding, right?”


“Do I need to make you a checklist?” I asked.

“You already did,” Verg reminded me. “Didn’t help.”

“I guess next time I could fly to Gulfport and help you pack,” I offered.

We both laughed.

Stuart chimed in, “Good thing there’s a camping store here in town.”

With that, we headed to Willow Canyon Outdoor, a faux adobe structure filled with clothing, gear, and books for the outdoor enthusiast plus an espresso bar. Stuart and Vergil bought matching, red Outdoor Research polypro zip T-neck shirts. Stuart had forgotten his hiking stick which he was able to replace with a nice shock-corded model from Helinox.

Vergil also bought a nice, lightweight Outdoor Research rain shell and, since he had brought his MSR hydration cell but forgotten the tube and bite valve, neither of which were available at Willow Canyon, a brand new Platypus hydration system. He had also forgotten his camp chair but elected not to purchase another. His purchases were already well into three-digit range.

I bought a map.

Completely geared up, we returned to the Best Western and stuffed the last few items in our backpacks and tossed the packs and our trekking poles into the bed of the pickup Vergil had rented. We had made arrangements to leave the car at the motel. So we piled the rest of our luggage into the car and parked it around back. We were ready to go at last.

We headed back through town, turned left at the second traffic light, and proceeded south on UT 89 towards the White House Trailhead less than an hour’s drive away. The weather forecast was for high 60’s to low 70’s during the day and mid to high 40’s at night. There was a chance of rain on Sunday, but today, Friday, was warm and sunny.

We drove through the russet desert with the plateau dominating the northern horizon, Vergil at the wheel, me dozing in the front seat, Stu messing around in the back.

I awoke from my nap and asked, “Shouldn’t we be getting close?”

Stuart looked up from his iPad. “Should be,” he said.

“Gotta be close,” Verg added.

I looked at my watch. We had been driving for over an hour.

“Well, let’s see where we are,” I suggested.

Stuart and I had left our phones with our luggage in the Hyundai, but Vergil had his as he was planning to use it as his camera for the trip. I opened the map app on his quaint, little iPhone 4 and pressed the arrow symbol to pinpoint our current location.

I looked up as we passed Cottonwood Canyon Road, then back down at the map.

“We missed it,” I said.

“What?” Vergil exclaimed.

“Yep, it’s about four or five miles back,” I added. “The turnoff was right after we crossed the Paria River.”

Abashed, Vergil took the first opportunity to turn around and back we went. And there it was, right at the Bureau of “Land Management Visitor Info. Paria Contact Station” sign.

We checked in with the ranger, topped off our water, and headed two miles down the dirt road to the trailhead. The BLM only allows 20 backpackers to enter Paria Canyon daily although they do not restrict how long one can remain in the canyon. Friday, April 22, was the only day available in late April when I applied for our permit, so we were surprised to see so few vehicles in the parking lot, and at least one of them was filled with picnickers.

We dropped the tailgate on the truck and booted up. Vergil and Stuart were hiking in ankle-high, Gore-Tex lined boots, Vasques and Lowas respectively. I was in low-top Merrill Moab Ventilators, very breathable, not waterproof. Additionally, Stu and I were wearing neoprene socks over sock liners to keep our feet warm when wet and lightweight Outdoor Research Sparkplug gaiters to keep detritus out of our boots. Vergil had opted to not bring his neoprene socks determined to steer clear of deep water.

One of the less pleasant aspects of canyon hiking these days is that the BLM requires one to bag and pack out all human waste, and yes, that includes Number Two. When Stuart picked up our permit in St. George, he was also given three yellow mesh bags, one for each of us. They looked a lot like potato sacks, but inside of each was six large, foil, zip-locked pouches, one for each of our six days on the trail.

I eyed those pouches and wondered aloud if a few doses of Imodium would lessen my need to use them. I mean, backpacking with bags of poop lashed to your pack. Good grief. Nevertheless, we tucked our bag of pouches under a compression strap, hefted our packs, posed for the requisite trailhead photos, and headed down into the gully.

It was 11:36 AM on Friday, April 20, 2016.


Entrance to Paria Canyon © James Gregory Catledge 2016

The canyon was wide and shallow at the trailhead. The Paria River was ankle-deep, narrow, silt-laden and turbid. We were headed for the Confluence where Buckskin Gulch merges into Paria Canyon. Within the first 30 minutes, we had crossed and re-crossed the river so many times that I had lost track. It didn’t matter. My feet were wet but comfy. At every immersion, the water would cool my feet, but my body heat quickly warmed the thin film of water trapped inside my insulating neoprene socks. Perfection.

As we descended ever so slightly, the canyon walls slowly rose around us although the canyon was still very wide. We plodded through soft, dry sand; slogged through thick, clinging mud; waded through cold, murky water; picked our way through rocky stretches seeking the best footing. The inside curves of the riverbed frequently had elevated shelves of packed sand covered with thin scrub eking out enough moisture to survive and anchor the sand in place.

Occasionally a stiff breeze would whip up the soft, dry sand clouding the air with fine, stinging grains. Vergil has bought each of us a keffiyeh or shemagh. The keffiyeh is of uncertain origin but has been worn by Semitic desert dwellers for centuries and lately adopted by modern armed forces operating in the Middle East.

The ones Vergil got us were 42” X 42” of loosely woven cotton in a green and black pattern. Stuart opted not to bring his, but Verg and I did. Verg wore his folded diagonally and tied around his neck, but I tried the traditional, open desert style, folded diagonally, wrapped over the forehead, and brought around the lower half of the face and tied behind the ear.

I wore it over my OR Swift cap and usually pulled down below my chin, but when the air was filled with flying sand and my friends turning their heads this way and that to avoid it, I simply pulled my keffiyeh up over my nose and kept walking, my eyes protected by my sunglasses.

IMG_0110.JPGThe Keffiyeh © James Gregory Catledge 2016

No wonder the keffiyeh had been worn for centuries. It filtered out flying sand, it captured cooling breezes or kept my head warm as needed. I ended up wearing all day, every day on the trail. It is now part of my standard loadout.

About three miles in the deepening canyon is crossed by a set of high-power electrical lines, a handy indicator of high far we had walked. We had been told that there was a tiny slot canyon on the left with some petroglyphs, but we never found it or them. We also ran into a couple of women here who were backpacking out. They did not know where the petroglyphs were either.

It was about 1:00 PM, so we began to cast about for a likely place for lunch. And found the perfect spot: a broad, elevated shingle with the usual scrub and a stout, twisted cottonwood tree. The day had warmed up making the shade welcome. The spot was actually an established campsite. We dubbed it Cottonwood Terrace.

After dropping packs, we pulled out lunch: tortillas, pepperoni, and cheese. As usual Vergil passed on the cheese. Stuart and I pulled out our chairs, an REI model for Stu and an Alite Mayfly for me. Vergil leaned up against a convenient log. He did not look his best. He had been a little slower than usual on the trail, stopping often and leaning over on his trekking poles. Additionally, his face was flushed and his hands shook.

“You alright, Brother?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ll be OK,” he replied. “Back is killing me though.”

“Want to call it a day? We can camp her,” Stuart offered.

“Naw. I’ll be alright. Let’s go on,” Vergil said although he regretted that decision later.

After lunch, we saddled up and headed out. Almost immediately, the canyon walls began to close in. we were entering the Narrows, the last four miles in to the Convergence, no place to camp, no place to get above high water if there should be heavy rain upstream. Once you enter the Narrows, you’re committed. You have to go all the way.

As the canyon narrows up, sunlight rarely reaches the bottom even at midday. Rather the top of the wall high above blazes read and orange in the bright sunlight and the reflected radiance bathes the lower reaches of the wall in soft light. The walls are riddled with clefts and smoothly wallowed out holes. In places the walls are streaked dark gray, almost black but mostly they are ever hue on the red to yellow spectrum.

Scattered along the cliff walls were some unusual formations, narrow clefts starting at the top of the wall that abruptly flared out to several feet wide before disappearing into the murky stream. Being an inveterate sticker of my head in weird places or climbing up on things for photos, I headed across the stream for a photo op among one of these flutes. The water looked deep inside the recesses, so I planned to stop just short of stepping inside.

I was about ten feet away from the cleft on mucky but reasonably solid ground. The water was ankle-deep. I reached out to take one more step into a deeper pool, maybe a foot deep. My right foot never touched bottom. I sank up to my ankle in thick but insubstantial, sucking mud, quicksand actually, then up my knee, then up to mid-thigh.

Paria CanyonApr_24_4088.jpg

Quicksand!   © Stuart Worley 2016

I threw both hands out wide. My left foot was still on reasonably solid ground, and my immediate reaction as to struggle to get out, which only made things worse. I was now in to the top of my thigh. I weird calm came over me, and I relaxed and quit sinking.

Vergil, to my left, was reaching for me with his trekking pole, but I was pitched away from him and couldn’t reach back. Stuart was documenting the entire event with his camera. I slowly and carefully worked to regain my balance, and once that was accomplished grabbed Verg’s trekking pole with my left hand.

“Brace yourself,” I suggested, a good idea as I outweigh him by at least 50 pounds.

With Verg well braced and me balancing on my left leg, I began to steadily pull my right leg out of the goop. I was wearing low-top Merrill Moab Ventilator hiking shoes, and you guessed it: my right shoe began to slip off my foot. Now the last thing I wanted to do was to have to try to fish my shoe out of that mess. No, actually the last thing I wanted to do was lose it irretrievably and have to hike in Crocs.

I clenched the toes of my right foot which kept the slippage at bay and continued to pull. With a sickening sucking sound, I finally pulled my foot free. The quicksand closed without a ripple, smooth and deceptive, waiting for the next unwary soul.

My leg had come out so slowly and the water had been so deep over the quicksand, that my leg was washed practically clean.

“Wow! That was exciting,” I laughed.

“I’ll say,” Vergil added.

“Catledge, I swear,” Stuart added, no doubt thinking about the time I impulsively headed across iced-over Blair Creek only to crash through thin ice near the far bank.

I am normally a thoughtful, careful person, but I will admit to the occasional impulse that banishes reason far to the background and gets me into tight spots. Another good reason to never go into the backcountry without competent friends.

We continued through the Narrows as the sunlight continued to climb the canyon walls and the temperature started down. It was increasingly obvious that Vergil was not feeling well. He was stopping more and more often, but there was no going back. We were too deep into the Narrows.

As usual, he refused help. We offered encouragement. I insisted that he eat and drink something although he insisted he wasn’t hungry or thirsty. But after walking five or six miles with 30-35 pounds on his back, he needed the calories.

Soon we passed Slide Rock Arch which is not actually an arch, but created when a house-sized slab sheared off the wall and crashed down to the canyon floor, then tilted back against the canyon wall creating a covered passage. It was a rare and encouraging landmark in an otherwise featureless stretch. It was only a little more than a mile to our campsite.


Entrance to Buckskin Gulch © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Twenty minutes later, I saw clear water entering the Paria from the right. It swirled and eddied before eventually blending with silty Paria. We had cleared the Narrows and reached Buckskin Gulf. It was 6:00 PM. We snapped a few pictures and turned left down canyon at which point we walked out of Utah and into Arizona.

Five or ten minutes later, we came to a point where the canyon bent sharply back to the left with sandy, scrub-covered tiers rising 40-50 feet on the right side of the river in the middle of the bend. There were even a few scrubby cottonwoods up there.


Exiting the Narrows, Friday, April 22 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Stuart started up the near, higher side to see if there was a place to camp. I continued around the bend until the river doubled back on itself and started up the tiers from the downriver side. About 40 feet above the canyon floor, I found a nice, large, almost level shelf. Stuart was about 20 feet above me and not impressed with what he saw.

“What’s it like up there?” I shouted.

“Not too bad,” Stu replied. “Rocky. Some small sites. How bout down there?”

“Plenty of room. I think you’ll like it. Come on down.”

Stuart retreated the way he had come where Vergil waited, spent and in pain. I headed down the way I had come and met the two of them at the downcanyon side of the rise.

We were picking our way up when Vergil spotted a small snake. We rushed to investigate and found a young rattlesnake, so young, in fact, that it had no rattles, only a button, having not even shed its skin for the first time. It moved slowly in the cooling air, headed for the undergrowth. We were so captivated that no one thought to pull out their camera.

Everyone agreed that the lower, downcanyon side of the rise was the better site. We were a good 40 feet above the river with commanding views of the canyon to the north and to the south as well as the full sweep of the horseshoe bend. We dropped packs and began pulling out gear. As usual Verg and I were tenting together and Stu was solo. I say tenting. In fact, we both brought only the poles, tent fly, and footprint, leaving the tent body at home to lighten our loads.

Paria CanyonApr_23_3901.jpg

First Camp, Friday, April 22 © Stuart Worley 2016

Stuart brought his MSR Hubba and I brought my MSR Hubba Hubba NX. With the poles fitted into the grommets on the footprint and the stretched tightly over the poles and attached at the pole ends, one has a very stable and well-ventilated, some might say breezy, shelter.

In a matter of minutes, shelter was pitched, sleeping pads and bags had been pulled out, and everything was covered with sand. Our campsite was high and dry but also windy. In fact, so windy that in the blink of an eye, my 20 ounce Alite chair was picked up and dropped 20 yards down a gully on one side of our elevated campsite. I clambered down, retrieved it, and made sure it was secure from then on.

We all shucked our boots and set them in a likely place to dry. Between the breeze and lack of humidity, that should not be a problem. Nor was it. We started every day out with dry boots. Verg and I slipped into Crocs, and Stuart put on his Teva water shoes.

From our commanding perch, we noticed a lone backpacker headed upcanyon. He saw us too and called out. He headed up, we headed down, and we met in the middle. He was a young Frenchman, whipcord thin and wiry with an accent so thick I had trouble understanding him.

He had been in the canyon several days, working his way up and down the canyon, exploring. We asked about water conditions down canyon. He reported that the spring at the ten-mile point near the first fault crack was feeble but that Big Spring at Mile 12 was pouring right out of the canyon wall or the Moses Rock as he called it, an obvious reference to Exodus 17:6-8 where the recently liberated Hebrews are thirsting in the desert when Yahweh commands Moses to strike a rock with his staff causing water to gush forth. We immediately settled on Big Spring for our third night in the canyon.

I noticed that Frenchie was carrying a ÜLA backpack and asked him how he liked it. I had been considering one at one point. He raved about it. Maybe my next backpack, sometime in the future.

The Frenchman headed on towards Buckskin Gulch, and we set about preparing dinner. We considered scooping water from the Paria and letting the silt settle out before filtering but decided to take advantage of clear pools of water left behind by the receding river from which the silt had already precipitated. Stuart slipped down to the pool at the bend of the river below us and filled his 10-liter Sea to Summit bucket. When he returned, we simply filtered from that. At 2.8 ounces, I added one to my gear as soon as we got home.

Dinner the first night was a departure from Vergil’s favorite, Mountain House’s beef stroganoff. Instead we tried Mountain House’s Chicken Teriyaki. Either it was very good, or we were hungrier than expected. The three of us ate two packages which advertised 2.5 servings per package. As usual there was a debate as to who would get to eat from the foil packaging. I offered to use my cup for dinner which meant I was the only one with a dish to clean up.

We sat around after dinner, and Verg and I enjoyed a cup of Starbuck’s Decaf Coffee Via, one of our indulgences. As the temperature dropped and the breeze picked up, we all three began to add layers. Soon by common agreement we decided that our sleeping bags would be warmer, and we each clambered in to our sandy sleeping gear.

As usual, I started out using my bag, a brand new Western Mountaineering EverLite bag, 8 ounces of high loft goose down in sewn-through, box-constructed configuration. Total weight 17.25 ounces. It is rated down to 45° F, which means I am usually good to at least the high 30’s.

We all slept somewhat fitfully that night. The wind shrieked through the canyon all night long. A near full moon brilliantly lit the canyon walls and eventually found its way all the way down to us, causing the tent wall to glow faintly in the soft, lambent light.

The morning dawned clear, and the Paria which had been wide and silty the day before was now shallow, narrow and crystal clear. I headed up to the rockface where we had hung our food. A previous hiker had jammed a forked branch down into the rocks over a deep cleft by the wall. Wedging another desiccated limb into a crack in the wall, they had placed the far end of the second into the fork of the first. We had tied our foodbags together and stretching out over the cleft had draped them over the horizontal limb.

It didn’t look great, but it was the best we had, and it worked. No camp robbers got into our food.

We rose at 7:00 Am and had a good breakfast of Ova Easy eggs and precooked bacon wrapped in tortillas. Verg and I had a cup of Coffee Via Columbian Roast. Yum.

By pre-arranged plan, the only firm one we had at this point, we had decided to spend two nights at this location and spend the day hiking up Buckskin Gulch, but first everyone crawled back into the sack and wait for the warming rays of the sun to creep deeper into the canyon. We climbed back out at 10:00 AM.

By consensus we agreed that our campsite out on the point was too windy. We decided to move up to a more protected spot that Stu had earlier discounted. No sooner had Stu pulled his tent stakes than I heard a shout of warning form Vergil. I snapped my head around just as Stuart’s airborne tent grazed the back of my head.

I watched in fascination as the wind carried it off the point of our elevated campsite and 20 yards down the slope. I dashed down after Stu’s tent, and just as I grabbed for it another gust picked it up and lifted it over my outstretched fingers, back up the hill, past my tent, and dropped it back at Stuart’s feet where it had been pitched. Stu grabbed the tent, and the three of us stared each other in surprise.

“What the heck.”

“Did you see that?”

“Are you kidding me!”

We shook our heads in disbelief, and went back to moving camp.

I pulled up my stakes uneventfully, and hefting my tent overhead, headed uphill. Several rock formations provided windbreaks and Stu and I re-pitched our tents at the new location.

Paria CanyonApr_23_3926.jpg

Relocating Camp, Saturday, April 23 © Stuart Worley 2016

That accomplished, we pulled out our little REI Flash 18 Packs. At 10 ounces they make a great daypack that also doubles as a stuff sack.

We each tossed our hydration systems, lunch, snacks, and extra layers of clothing (including raingear) into our daypacks and then booted up.

About ten minutes up Buckskin Gulch we found an ideal campsite on the north side of the gorge. It had several tiers, very flat, and more trees than we had seen in one place since entering the canyons. A party of three was setting up camp on the lowest tier. We marked it down for possible future use, particularly the highest tier, and headed on up canyon.


Buckskin Gulch © James Gregory Catledge 2016

The walls rose and narrowed simultaneously, at one point narrowing to only six feet wide, and the trickling stream completely disappeared.


Buckskin Gulch, Saturday, April 22 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

At about two miles up the Gulch, we came to a rock-fall that appeared to be easier to climb over going upcanyon than coming back down. We claimed victory and turned around. Vergil’s back was better to day, but no one wanted to take a chance.

We settled in to our new site, both tents nested among protecting boulders with all additional tie-downs staked out. As we had the night before, we piled rocks on top of our stakes. It had been an easy day, and Vergil’s back was still doing fine. We dined on beef stroganoff and had settled back with our coffee when we heard voices of what turned out to be a large group down on the canyon floor.

It looked like a large family, two or three adults and the rest kids. They were headed upcanyon at a reasonable pace but paused to call up to us to confirm directions and mileage. We shared that it was at least eight miles to White House Trailhead and be sure to take the right fork at Buckskin.

They thanked us and continued on. It was about 8:00 PM.

“Wonder where they’ve been all day?” I asked.

“No idea,” Stu replied. “We sure didn’t pass them earlier. Course we were up Buckskin most of the afternoon.”

“Well, they only had daypacks, so I guess they came in from White House. Still …” I said.

“Yeah,” Verg added. “They’re going to have some whipped kids by the time they get out.”

“Roger that. With luck it’ll be pushing 11:00 o’clock before they get out. Getting colder too,” I said zipping up my R1 fleece. “And they look pretty lightly geared.”

“Good reason to keep moving,” Stuart noted.

We all shook our heads in disbelief.

We were early to bed again.


Down canyon from Camp 2 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Day Three dawned, still clear. In fact, the night had been so clear that when Stuart got up in the middle of the night to relieve himself, he set up his camera on his tripod, and got a beautiful picture of the Big Dipper hovering between the moonlight drenched canyon walls.

We rose at 8:00 and feasted on egg, bacon, and cheese burritos. We leisurely broke camp and were on the trail by 10:30.

At one bend there would be tall columns of stone, tapered at the bottom so that they resembled pipes in a pipe organ, at the next turn deep clefts with stair steps leading deep into the rock, shafts of sunlight filtering down from 200 feet above. One formation resembled nothing so much as a pair of praying hands, palms together, raised in supplication.


A Sense of Scale © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Stuart and I were so busy with our cameras that it took us nearly four hours to walk four miles. Vergil’s back continued to hold up.

On the left side of the canyon at another bend in the river, there was yet another tiered shelf of sand with a mixture of scrub and large cottonwoods. we were at Big Spring. We climbed up and began scouting for a likely spot to set up camp when we ran into the people we had seen camping in Buckskin Gulch the day before. They were from Pocatello, ID, a man and his wife and brother. They were even older than us. We chatted for a few, and they headed back up the canyon.

Paria CanyonApr_24_4160

Big Spring Camp, Sunday, April 24 © Stuart Worley 2016

We found a nice wide flat spot close to the canyon wall which included a convenient overhang in case the weather turned wet. And it looked like it might. High, thin clouds began to roll in.

Stuart and Vergil went down to the Moses Rock to get a bucket of water which we nevertheless filtered. We pitched our shelters, and hung our socks up to dry. We set our boots under the overhang just in case.

I was lolling in my Alite chair when I felt something brush the back of my head accompanied by a fluttering sound. I swapped across the back of my head once, then again. I thought it was a large butterfly. The third time it brushed my head, I swatted harder and knocked a small gray and white bird with a russet crown to the ground, some sort of flycatcher, I believe.

Stunned, the small bird hopped up under the log beside me and cowered in a convenient crook. I pulled out my camera and shot a close-up. Something bright green clung to its beak. I had noticed caterpillars the same color scattered about on the cottonwood leaves. I still could not imagine what he had been after on my head. I pulled off my cap and looked at the back, and there on the dark olive of the cap was the Outdoor Research logo in bright green, the same color as the caterpillars.

All through dinner, the cloud cover increased and the temperature dropped. We made it our third early night in a row. As the temp dropped, I snuggled deeper into my bag. Eventually, I climbed all the way in and zipped the bag up. I was warm but pushing the lower limit of my bag’s range.


Canyon Abstract © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Monday morning broke cloudy and noticeably cooler. We could sense the moisture in the normally dry air and suspected we would see rain before the day was over. We soon had all of our layers on for warmth. We powwowed over breakfast and looked at our options: head further down the canyon with borderline gear, spend another night here and dayhike downcanyon, or head back and camp in Buckskin Gulch. With the wind picking up, we thought that Buckskin would be more protected. We selected the third option, planning to ease out to Cottonwood Terrace for the last night.

Plans made, we cleaned up after breakfast and packed up. Walking, as usual, warmed us up and we pulled off layers. We were back at the Confluence in a little over two hours. The Paria River was still clear, still only a shadow of what we had seen last Friday. The wind had continued to rise and the temperature had continued to fall throughout the morning.

With the wind whistling down the even more narrow Buckskin Gulch, we decided to push on to Cottonwood Terrace for the night. Maybe we could take a better look for those petroglyphs.

We headed back into the Narrows, and within two miles, the Paria River simply disappeared, dried up and gone. Assuming this might be the last water we might see on the way out, we backtracked to the nearest pool and filtered enough water to fill every container we had. We each carried four or five liters as we headed back out.

There was no sense of urgency. We meandered along taking photos and talking. We cleared the Narrows a little after 5:00 PM. In the widening canyon we could see darker clouds to the north and west, and it must have been raining there because a serpentine flow of foamy water came twisting down the canyon floor, gaining strength and volume by the minute.

It is impossible not to be moved by these little wonders of nature, knowing that in but four short miles, the flow would reconnect with its receding waters downcanyon. Then it started spitting rain. We hustled on towards Cottonwood Terrace, adding the rain factor to the equation.

We dropped packs at Cottonwood and cast about for tent sites. The sand was deeper and softer than we remembered. It would be a challenge anchoring our shelters. The temperature continued to fall, and we soon had on every layer off clothing we had brought. And we were still cold. Howling wind and intermittent rainfall didn’t help.

The rain was an irritant, but the wind was a huge factor. Wind chill as an abstraction becomes very real in these situations. It robs the body of warmth that becomes increasingly hard to replace. Our layers of fleece, wool, and polypropylene were designed to trap air in small spaces so that our bodies could keep that air warm, but our rainshells did not block all of the wind and those warm pockets of air were being depleted faster than we could warm them back up. It was not a winning equation.

“Well, what do you think?” Stuart asked.

“I’m with you fellers,” Vergil replied.

I pointed out the obvious: it was getting colder, it was raining, the river was rising, even if we got the tents pitched and anchored, the wind would be whipping sand and rain under the rainflies, and the trailhead was only three miles away. I had initially been reluctant to walk out early but was being swayed by the safety factor.

“Let’s cook and eat dinner. Maybe that’ll warm us up. Then we can decide whether to camp or push on,” I suggested.

Verg and Stu agreed.

Using a log and two flat stones stood up on edge, I created a windbreak and lit my stove. We decided to try the Mountain House Beef Stew which proved to be our least favorite dinner. Everything, beef, potatoes, carrots, everything was diced into the same sized cubes, about ¼ inch to a side. It was just not very beef stew-like.

But it was warm and filling. Only we were still cold and getting colder. We had planned for temperatures at least a few degrees cooler than the forecasted high 40’s nights, but we were already below that and falling. The wind continued to be the real warmth sapper though. It was shaping up to be a miserable, cold, wet night, and I was seriously regretting opting for the R1 fleece rather my down sweater. I’ll never make that mistake again.

At 6:00 PM, by consensus, we decided to head on out to the White House Trailhead three miles or so away. With the river filling back up, we dumped most of our water to lighten our loads and saddled up. We had already put in a solid nine miles but were determined to set a fast pace.


The Gathering Storm, Monday, April 25 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

The river continued to get wider and deeper, evidence that the dark clouds to the north and west were dumping heavy rain upstream. Light rain came and went with maddening frequency. The only way to stay warm was to keep walking. We were now spending nearly as much time in the water as out, deeper water at that, as we trudged through stretches of rock and sand and mud and water.

We made pretty good time and covered those three miles in a little over an hour. We climbed out of the canyon at 7:15 PM. The parking lot was full of vehicles. People were setting up tents in the adjacent campground as the rain continued to fall. We had backpacked 12 miles with about 35 pounds on our backs, more than any of us done in a while. But we had made good time and were in good shape.

We got a stranger to take our picture: three old guys swathed in most of our clothes. Piling into the truck, Vergil cranked her up and turned on the heater. Soon we were headed back to Kanab in the increasing rain, tires humming on wet pavement.


Trail’s End, Monday, April 25 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Back in Kanab at the Great Western Red Hills, we got a room for the night, not ground floor this time but conveniently located next to the guest laundry. We hauled our gear up and proceeded to strew it all over that room.

By 9:30, Stu and I were showered and changed. Verg, as usual, was focused on washing clothes and opted not to go with Stuart and me to find something to eat. We tried out the Rocking V but found it too high end for our tastes. We both wanted a hamburger to the exclusion of anything else.

Houston’s Trail’s End was already closed. Apparently 10:00 PM is the witching hour in Kanab. We ended up at the Wendy’s/Walker’s Convenience Store/Gas Station right across the street from the Kanab Bureau of Land Management Office. We got our hamburger just before they started closing up. After eating, we grabbed some milk for Vergil at Walker’s and headed back to the motel.

It rained all night and was still raining the next morning. Coming out early we thought we might have extra chances to get into the Wave before Vergil left on Thursday, but that was not to be. After a late breakfast at the motel, we checked in at the BLM office where we learned that the last 10 miles to the trailhead for the Wave is a compacted dirt road, considered a challenge when wet even for a four-wheel drive vehicle, which we did not have. Our disappointment was somewhat mitigated by the absence of blue sky for contrast and the flat light conditions created by the overcast and rain. The Wave would have to wait.

With the Wave out and Vergil scheduled to leave on Thursday, Stuart decided to head back early too. I looked into changing my flight and was shocked at the cost, but my only option was renting a car, paying for another two nights in Utah, and wandering around in the rainy desert. The weather forecast was for continued rain and very cool temperatures. I bit the bullet and booked a flight home for Thursday.

We spent the rest of the day checking out Kanab and shopping for gifts for family. Denny’s Wigwam was suitably tacky, but the Little Hollywood Land Museum with its movie sets from countless Westerns filmed in the area, relocated and preserved, was pretty cool. I even found teardrop-shaped turquoise earrings for Sherrie. The pair I got her several years ago had recently become a singleton. I found some neat scarves for Annabelle and Sawyer, our fashionista granddaughters.

We finally got a meal at Houston’s Trail’s End and enjoyed it.

The next morning, we decamped for St. George, heading back west on UT 89, but first we decided to go by Coral Pink Sand Dunes Park. The dunes were more yellow than pink, no doubt because the sky was overcast. After a short stop we headed on. I rode in the Ram truck with Vergil. We cut back down to UT 389 rather than take the slower route through Zion.

It was still cold and spitted rain the entire way to St. George. The plateaus to the north and west were covered with new snow. Stuart wanted us to see the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site, and Vergil and I wanted Stuart to see Snow Canyon State Park. We headed to the dino site first, and it was wonderful.

Apparently back in 2000, a local optometrist, Dr. Sheldon Johnson, was leveling a hill on his property in St. George when he uncovered a thick level of sandstone. Flipping over the large blocks, he discovered perfectly preserved dinosaur tracks. Eventually thousands of tracks made by dinosaurs and other animals were discovered from what had been the shores of an ancient lake some 200 million years ago.

Now the site is a museum with catwalks over the excavations and scientists hard at work teasing fossils form the surrounding rock. There are even life-size representations of the creatures, Dilophosaurus, Megapnosaurus, Scutellosaurus, and Protosuchus, arrested in mid-stride in the tracks they once made. Dimorphodon hovers overhead. It is truly fascinating. I purchased 200-year old fossilized shark’s teeth for my grandsons, Jake and Dylan.

We lunched at the ubiquitous In-N-Out Burger, then headed to the Best Western Travel Inn on East St. George Boulevard. It got exciting when Stu, while making a left turn, startled a pedestrian in the crosswalk who gave Stuart a piece of his mind in no uncertain terms.

Once checked in, we all piled into the Hyundai and headed up to Snow Canyon. In 2009, Vergil and I had spent several days in St. George when our buddy Ralph McCumber had needed to be hospitalized with severe gastric issues. After Ralph’s release, we had camped in Snow Canyon and done some dayhiking.

With its cinder cones, lava tubes, both red and white Navajo sandstone petrified dunes, rich black basalt, scrubby green sage, and shifting dunes, Snow Canyon is a study in contrasting colors and textures. There is no backpacking, but the park is covered with trails, even if like us, you don’t necessarily feel the need to restrict yourself to trails. We had wandered and scurried and climbed to our heart’s content.

Of course, with the overcast and rain, it was less than vivid but still spectacular. We drove about and took a few pictures, then headed back to the motel to pack for Thursday’s morning departure. For our last night together, we walked a couple of blocks to George’s Corner Restaurant, a cozy, funky retreat with live music-one guy, his guitar and harmonica.

Vergil had the grilled ribeye; Stuart ordered the battered fish and rings. I had the smoked turkey club. The food and the music were good, the company even better. We walked back to the motel with full bellies and finished packing.

Vergil and I were on the same 7:25 United flight to Denver. Stuart’s Delta flight to Salt Lake City left an hour earlier. Having two vehicles was working out great. We set every alarm we had and turned in early.

Stuart’s stirring around roused Verg and me. We bid him a fond farewell and tumbled back into the bed for a few more minutes. By 6:00 AM we were on our way to the airport. We dropped off the truck and went to check our bags.

The St. George airport only has two gates, only one of which they apparently use. One security line accommodates both TSA Pre-check and the common folk. For some reason, my boarding pass had not been flagged as usual for TSA Pre-check, so we had to wait until those three people were cleared before it was our turn.

Then the fun began. I had won the lottery and got wanded, then tested chemicals that could be used to build a bomb. Next the ultra-vigilant screeners became suspicious of the two irregularly shaped lumps, each about the size of a large potato, stashed in the bottom of my daypack. I must admit they did look suspicious on the screen, although they were only sandstone blocks holding petrified shark’s teeth all swathed up in bubble wrap for protection. The TSA screener unwrapped one to satisfy that all was safe, and I was free to go.

Vergil had gone through with no complications, and we entered the boarding area to find Stuart waiting patiently for his flight. He looked up somewhat abashed.

“I misread my boarding pass,” he admitted. “I got here before the airport was even open.”

We all had a good laugh and sat down together for those last few minutes. Stuart’s Delta flight was visible through the window. The United jet Vergil and I would take was parked way around to the left. We had seen it as we walked in.

For some reason, Vergil’s layover in Houston had increased from one-a-half to six hours. No one at Ticketing had been able to explain why or correct the issue. He was less than delighted as he had a quick turnaround to leave for Spain.

Soon Stu’s flight was called, and with one last embrace, he was gone.

Vergil and dozed until our flight was called. We headed through the same gate. The jetway had been swung way around to the United jet parked around the corner. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible in adjacent seats and settled in for the one hour 41-minute flight.

Despite the lack of activity at the airport, we still got away late. It was snowing when we landed in Denver. Naturally our connecting flights were nearly as far as they could possibly be from our arrival gate. We hustled through the airport, paused long enough to use the restroom, bid a hasty good-bye, and boarded our respective flights.

There is a particular poignancy saying good-bye to old, old friends that you only get to see once or twice a year. The previous October, my father had the stroke that ultimately took his life. I got to Tupelo the morning after his stroke and moved into the hospital with him. Vergil drove up from Gulfport the next day and stayed the week as I moved with Dad to hospice where he spent his final few days. Vergil would come drag me out just to get me away or just sit with me in Dad’s room. That is the kind of friend he is.

I was lucky in my seat, a bulkhead seat, and because the bulkhead did not extend all the way to the deck, I could stretch my legs all the way out. The two seats beside me were empty, but I couldn’t flip the armrests up as that’s where the tray-tables were located. I called Sherrie to tell her that we were leaving Denver on time and settled in.

As we flew over Kansas, the beverage cart came by. I hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before, nearly eighteen hours ago. I ordered the heartiest sandwich on the menu and a rum on the rocks, then caught up on my sleep.

In between naps, I thought about the trip. Had we made the right decision coming out early? I thought so and still do. Could we have stayed in? Undoubtedly, although it would have been a miserable night with at least the potential for hypothermia. It might have come down to breaking park rules and building a campfire.

Considering the ease of travel in the canyon, I would like to go back and do a point-to-point, from White House all the way down to Lee’s Landing on the Colorado River. We only saw 12 of Paria Canyon’s 38 miles. That’s for another year.

Our plane landed right on time, 3:16 PM EDT, and I headed for baggage claim. Warm 80° F air spilled in from the open doors as I descended on the escalator. Cold rain to snow to warm sunshine in less than six hours. Sherrie was already there, waiting patiently at the carousel with that radiant smile of hers. I was home again.

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