A friend once asked me if I had ever been to the desert and I responded, “Why would I ever want to go the desert?”
“One day, you will understand,” she quietly said as she turned and walked away.
I find myself sitting underneath the last mountain range to be mapped, explored and named in a tiny town known as Hanksville. A red t-shirt on the wall with large, white lettering says, “Where the Hell is Hanksville?” I laugh because I know and have known for a little over a decade about Hanksville, the gateway to FUN!
Henry Mountains covered in the Greatest Snow on Earth
The Henry Mountains rise majestically over the Colorado Plateau to the west of Hanksville. The Henry’s, ancient volcanoes rising over 6000’ above the valley floor, are coated in a fresh blanket of Utah powder and I, without my ski gear and partners can only stare for the 10th year in a row of the possibility of skiing from the summit of Mt. Ellen. A bitter cup of coffee will have to suffice.
Ten years ago I fell in love with the Henry’s when I first viewed them from the land of Goblins and the uplift of the San Rafael Swell, an artist palette of ambers, creams,
Ding Dang Dome
maroons and rurples, a mix of reds and purples, in case you didn’t know. This is a land of desolation and seclusion, a land of tumbleweed and cacti, a land of waste. Up close, this land offers a life without borders, a life without questions, a life full of thrills and excitement. Pronghorn Antelope and the great wild American Cow roam these arid lands in search of feed. The only life worth eating out here is Indian Rice Grass, a few milk vetches, penstemons and jimsonweed, but only if you feel like exploring the third world like Ken Kesey on his magic bus.
This is the Colorado Plateau, a magic bus in and of itself. Wanderers from around the globe come here to raft the great waters of the Colorado, Green, Dirty Devil and the San Juan. Mountain bikers race on slick rock and single track, dropping sandstone steps with their 6” of suspension. Canyoneers come to slither along coarse yet smooth sandstone,
The author and friend stemming in Trail Canyon
rappel into the bowels of the Earth and swim through murky, muddy waters filled with feces, decaying desert animals and stagnant water, some holes never seeing the sun’s rays. Occasionally, you take a drink when you gasp upon entering the Icelandic cold waters. I lost the ability to have children because of these waters, Nature’s birth control.
Ah yes, the birth canal of Trail Canyon. A place so deep and tight you don’t have to be much larger than Marilyn Monroe to get stuck. As a matter of fact, my left quad becomes lodged between both canyon walls, my toes unable to reach the sandy floor. My body leans like the Tower of Pisa, facing down canyon. I’m pinched. I’m stuck. Assistance comes from the help of a friend’s hand but no luck, I’m not budging. Another friend grabs onto the first friend creating a chain of strength and support, friends are good like that. But again, no luck. I breathe. With one final gasp of energy, I push with one hand, two friends pull on my ‘fat pants’ and I’m dislodged, a 30” waist never felt so large, I’ve never felt so constricted. We continue swimming through murky waters, ‘high-balling’ 30’ off the canyon floor to move over the narrowest sections of Trail Canyon. There’s more than one way to skin a cat and we all chose our method of escape. This is called canyoneering. We call this fun, only different.
Happy to see the light.
Slithering, sliding, scampering, rappelling, jumping and swimming down narrow hallways known as slot canyons. Elevator shafts body wide fall deep into the Earth and we use our hips and shoulders to brace and move us. Laughter abounds as we scurry around every corner, wondering what is next. Slot canyons are dynamic creatures. There was once a pothole of water that required a full-on swim, also known as thrashing. Now, it is a tub of sand 8’ tall and we walk in ankle deep water to move across. Mae West slots have 6 more inches of sand filling the bottoms making for a flat, even surfaced walking path through the sands of time. It’s hard not to walk inside the epidermis of the Earth without the thought of getting stuck, the thought of the Earth shifting and the thought that this is the most fun ever! It really is.
One can canyoneer the same canyon year after year and return to a different beast. That’s what makes canyoneering so mysterious, almost melodic. You never know what you are getting into on each visit, water one year, dry the next. A flash flood washes canyons clean and sometimes, floods deposit chockstones, logs, and occasionally, dead animals. We climb up and over a dead goat thinking this could be lunch or dinner if we cannot exit. Dig in.
Rappelling into the bowels of the Earth
Slots are dangerous places. Not only are there tight places to squeeze through, there are down climbs where one slip could mean injury or death. There are rappel anchors coming mysteriously out of dirt or from a pile of rocks. Tug, tug, tug…yep, that’s stable. Rappel quickly but smoothly. A few weeks ago, a canyoneer spent 6 days on a ledge 100’ above the base of a canyon after his partner perished, pulling the rappel ropes along with him. Thankfully, he was wise and let someone know where he was and gave them a worry time. He was rescued safely. Years ago, Aron Ralston lodged his hand between a rock and a canyon wall. In order to escape, he had to muster up the courage to twist and break his forearm twice before cutting through it with a dull knife and then rappel out of the canyon and go for safety. He wasn’t so wise.
As I look out the window of the restaurant Blondie’s, I see truck’s pulling boats heading to Powell, SUV’s with bikes on the back and bags on top. A couple in the booth next to me talks of which canyon they are to descend next. I ponder the idea that began ten years ago, skiing the elusive and wild Henry Mountains. A mountain range playing host to the last free ranging buffalo herd in all of North America. A range home to the likes of Edward Abbey, General Wesley Powell, the desert rat turned legend, Everett Ruess and the likes of Billy the Kid and the Hole in the Rock Gang. A mountain range built from magma of ancient volcanoes, an island in the sky.
We wander these parts in search of answers, to figure ‘it’ out and return home feeling better. Most times we come away not finding any answers, only finding ourselves pondering what those questions were, for we have forgotten.
Mancos Shale in the evening sun
I have forgotten.
I revisit the question of 12 years ago when I first moved to Utah,
“…One day, you’ll understand.”
Through all the madness of the world, the life and death of loved ones, the memories created and the memories lost, I believe I’m beginning to understand the desert more and more with each passing moment, with each and every passing experience. But just like the sands of time, we all change and look at life with different perspectives, through different lenses. Today I have my sunglasses on, after all, this is Utah and it’s bluebird out. I step into my car named Phoenix, turn the key and step on the gas.
Leaving town I know I’ll be back in a few weeks, it’s that desert time of year. A smile grows on my face and happiness consumes me. I look in the rear view mirror to read the sign leading into town, “Welcome to Hanksville!”
The Henry Mountains amongst the sands of time.
In understanding the desert, you have to find and understand yourself. Well, as I lay in my sleeping bag last night I asked myself who I was, where I am and where am I going?
To Hanksville! A place I can’t tell you the whereabouts for it’s a place I can only show!