Luckily, the only visits we received that first night were from the cows. Apparently canyons are a popular place to let cattle graze. Cows can’t scale canyon walls, though you’d be surprised at the sorts of places they can end up. Everywhere you go there is cow shit. I mean, everywhere. It showed up on every trail, at every campground and on every rocky outcropping along the river. It can be a bit humbling to make some treacherous river crossing, or scale some boulder face and think “wow, I bet there aren’t many people who’ve done something like that before”, only to discover a smattering of cow pies at your destination. Wait, a fucking cow got all the way up here?
After having walked a blistering 1.5 miles or so the first day, we decided to putz around a bit at the campsite the next morning. It was after all a Sunday, and even God putzed around on Sundays.
We spent several hours that morning exploring the high rocky structures nearby. In the narrow passages between adjacent canyon walls Ryan told us to be on the lookout for falling rocks. Somehow, though, and I really have no explanation as to how this happened, I heard not ‘rocks’, but ‘goats’.
“If you hear a clickity-clickity-clack, duck for cover,” Ryan said.
“Do you really think that is a concern, that they might just come falling over the cliff above?” I asked, quite sincerely and a bit confused.
“Yes. It would just take a bird or the right breeze to get it started,” Ryan replied.
I supposed he was right. Startled by a bird, or perhaps an unexpected gush of cold air, a mountain goat that was otherwise planning to chew on shrubbery high atop the canyon might unintentionally find itself stepping over the edge. I couldn’t help but picture the goat running vertically down the steep face, clickity-clickity-clack, with a final thump against the canyon floor, and having reoriented itself to the horizontal dimension, picking up and galloping off. Since being clobbered by a falling goat might put an end to this hike, perhaps even an end to me, I made sure to glance up from time to time just to be safe.
After packing up our campsite on Sunday morning we walked a few more miles through open spaces until the dry ground eventually narrowed. Early on as we searched for ways to get from one side of the river to another we tossed logs across it, each of us then doing our best renditions of Man on Wire. At some point this became too cumbersome and we finally changed into our water shoes, allowing us to trounce in and out of the river as necessary.
On Sunday evening we found ourself at a nice cozy camping spot just raised up from the riverbed. It was sandy and flat-ish and only partially covered in petrified dung. Our site was at the base of slabs of deep red sandstone. When we went to explore the rocks further that night we were amazed to realize that unlike other sections of the canyon, the surfaces sloped up gently enough that we could actually just walk up to the top.
I’m not an extensive world traveler, but I have had the chance to see some spectacular views of mountains in Alaska and of the Andes in Ecuador. The view from atop the canyon that evening was right up there. And it has a qualitatively different feel to it. We know what mountains are supposed to look like, whether they are soft and rolling or steep and powerful. But in those parks in Utah and in the southwest in general, you can’t match what you see with previous experience. It’s like someone photoshopped the boreal forest over an image of mars.
If God did in fact putz around on Sunday, I now know why. Mondays are tough. Really tough. And out on the trail it was no different. In preparing for our trip I’d neglected to adequately consider just how cold it would be at night, and especially at dawn when we’d be forced to get out of our sleeping bags and get ready for the day ahead. As we’d camped at the bottom of a canyon it meant that the sun would not be shining on us for another hour or two after it had risen. And on that morning we would be starting by walking right into a river that hadn’t seen sunlight for over twelve hours.
For the remainder of the morning we zigged and zagged across the river, from bank to bank, until at some points the canyon walls were so narrow that there were no banks. Both the riverbed beneath our feet and the land aside the river was covered in rocks and boulders of various shapes and sizes. Every step was a new opportunity to twist your ankle or trip and crash into the river.
This went on for about three or four hours until we’d finally arrived at a spot where a permanent plaque had been placed commemorating the passage by John W. Powell through the connecting Misery Canyon on an expedition along the Colorado River in 1872. The plaque marked not the end of our hike for the day, but only a transition from horizontal steps through a river to vertical steps up a steep canyon wall of a thousand or so feet. At the hottest point in the afternoon. With those damn packs still strapped to our backs.
After 30 or so minutes of the most exhausting physical activity I’d done in years, we had finally climbed out. Now whereas the canyon provided a rather clear route for us to follow those first few days, standing on this ridge we were faced with an almost infinite set of possible directions to go.
This is where we inadvertently took a minor detour. A detour far away from any signs of an actual trail. This is where my friends saw a near vertical slab of rock and decided traveling horizontally across it would be no problem. And where I felt, in a moment of heat-induced insanity no doubt, compelled to believe them.
Of course we made it across that slab of death, not once, but twice. We camped soon afterwards and spent the next morning hoofing up and down some more canyons before finally finding our way back to the road. And then we found our way back to Vegas to prepare for our flights out of town the next day.
I don’t begrudge Adam and Ryan for almost getting me killed that afternoon in April – Mike gets a pass because we were both firmly in the camp of “I’m going to die here and there are so many things I still wanted to do in life.” No, I think that what happened in those 20 or so minutes up on that ledge exemplified what was so great about our friendships.
The best kinds of friends aren’t just people you hang out with. They challenge you, and encourage you, and then are there for you when your best laid plans go awry.
I’m not really much of an outdoorsman. I love beautiful scenery, but I’m usually content with observing it from a nice roadside pull off. I like sleeping in a warm house with a mattress and having the choice between cereal or toast, or perhaps a Dunkin’ Donut, in the morning. I prefer my coffee to be of the non-instant variety.
So there’s zero chance I would have decided, of my own accord, to go off and live in nature for a few days.
My friends challenged me to get off my ass and get out of my comfort zone and go hiking for four days. They challenged me to keep up with them through rivers and to climb up boulders with the assistance of old frayed ropes that had been placed there previously by who the hell knows. They challenged me to do things that felt uncomfortable and maybe even some things that were a little stupid in retrospect, but the line between a good challenge and a ludicrous one is not always so clear at the time.
But again, you can challenge anyone to do stuff that is hard. Friends see each other through the challenge. They push on your fat ass to get you up another ledge during a stupidly vertical climb out of a canyon after four hours of hiking through rivers. They show you where to put your feet lest you slip into the abyss. Sometimes they even stand idly by on a river bank with a camera, recording as you cross over a precariously thin log on the off chance that you might tip over into the several feet of water below. These are all things that good friends do.