Into the Grand Gulch: Excerpts from a Journal
After spending the night at a Comfort Inn in Blanding, I drove to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station to get a permit to hike down Grand Gulch and up Slickhorn Canyon. The ranger explained no one had been down to the lower part of the gulch yet this year, and said I might have problems reaching the river because of a big flash flood the previous fall, that apparently altered and perhaps blocked the lower half of the gulch. She also cautioned me to not go alone. She reminded me that the previous year a guy ventured into this area alone, got himself pinned by a boulder, and had to cut his own arm off to get free. He had become quite notorious for the deed. I did feel a bit foolish; I forgot to bring a knife.
I took off at about 10:00 am, and got a bit turned around on the flats (I also forgot my compass), but once I dropped down into beginnings of the gulch it was easy going. The upper gulch was crowded. I ran into a large group headed out, and a family camped at the first big junction. I stopped along the way to check out several anasazi ruins. I reached Bullet Canyon close to dark and hiked a few miles up Bullet looking for water, and camped near Jailhouse Spring. I went to sleepreading 'Wind in the Rock,' by Ann Zwinger, a good natural history of Grand Gulch and surrounding country.
I awoke early and hiked without my pack to check out Jailhouse Ruin. Then I searched but couldn't find Perfect Kiva. Perfect indeed, I thought, if so difficult to find. After oatmeal and coffee, I packed up and continued down the gulch, stopping along the way to check out various petroglyphs (a flute player, bighorn sheep, lots of hand prints), kivas and ruins. I reached Polly's Canyon by dark, set up camp, ate, read and slept well.
I was packed and headed down canyon early, and again stopped along the way to check out ruins. At Big Pour Off Spring, I met two guys from California who 'warned' me that I might have to swim a stretch through the Narrows, near Deer Canyon. I passed a camp with people who had three Llamas. I was ready to swim, if it would lead to more solitude. A prickly pear jabbed me good in the leg. I stopped near banister Ruins, ate lunch, and soaked my feet in a seep. I am feeling out of shape, and the trip is taking its toll; sore feet and muscles. I worry I might be pushing it too much to try and complete the entire 'loop' down Grand and up Slickhorn—close to 100 miles or so in all. I considered camping near Collins Spring for a few days, and then heading back out the same way I came in. But I pushed on, to the Narrows.
The Narrows was indeed 'blocked' by a big, deep pool of water—steep, insurmountable cliffs on each side. But I didn't have to swim. I was able to wade across, holding my pack overhead, reaching about belly-button-deep. The bottom was muddy, and slick, and I sank past my ankles. I fell several times, and got pretty wet, muddy and cold. I saw one set of footprints, someone who had headed in and back out, likely on a day hike. At last, I felt alone. I pushed on to Water Canyon and spent the night near a large, deep spring.
This is 'point-of-no-return' day. If I continue all the way to the San Juan, then I will have to try and head out Slickhorn to make it back in time—as it's a shorter route out from there. Of course, I decide to go for it. I'm a bit nervous, though, as I do not know what it's like to try and get from the mouth of Grand to the mouth of Slickhorn. I've heard it's rough. I also haven't yet reached the 'flash flood' area yet, where the canyon could be blocked. Also, in her book, Zwinger tells of a 'hairy descent' near the first main junction up Slickhorn. All this, and I need to be out by Sunday morning. But fuck it. Of course I go for it--for the sake of adventure, for the sense of accomplishment, and other such foolish reasons that always seem to get me into trouble. On to the San Juan!
A raven showed me the Grand Arch. I was walking along daydreaming when a big, fat black raven squawked, startled me, lifted off from a cottonwood and flew within inches of me. I watched him fly, thinking how shiny and handsome he looked, as he curved to my left and went right through what seemed a solid, red wall but was the hole in the middle of the Grand Arch—camouflaged by the red wall behind it. It surprised me, and I think I would have missed it if not for the kind Corvid.
The going is getting tricky; lots of sharp, narrow bends where the flash flood the previous fall piled giant rocks, trees and other debris I was able to climb up and over or around. But all in all, I am making good time. My map comes in handy, as I am able to keep track of my progress and whereabouts—checking the passing of side canyons and turns and comparing it to the map. I wish I had brought my compass; but it's not necessary.
Previous days have been hot and sunny, but today is cloudy and cool. Nice to hike in. It seems it could rain. I'd love to witness a flash flood. I keep an eye out for ways to climb above it all just in case. The closer I get to the San Juan, the more narrow the canyon, the steeper the walls, and the higher the debris. I see several huge cottonwoods jammed into rocks piled more than 20-feet high. Powerful!
About a mile from the river, I had to pick my way around a 30-foot drop off. Below that, I ran into a couple from Missouri, who had hiked up from the river. They were on a rafting trip. Wanting to avoid them, I decided to set up camp about a half-mile or so from the river, up against a huge pile of boulders.
After dinner I hiked up above, took off my clothes, and sat on a large, flat rock for an hour watching the sun set. When I came back down, I stripped down again and jumped in a big pool; the water was cold but felt good. I washed my socks, shirt and skivvies and hung them on brush to dry. My shorts had ripped in the crotch and I wish I had remembered a small sewing kit. Moleskin, too, would have been nice. But I never remember such things. I am not as sore as I was the first few days, but the bone of my right heel hurts and it was a painful walking. I stopped several times to soak my feet in water and stick my feet in wet sand. That helped.
As chilly as it is, I can tell it's been a lot warmer down canyon. The grass is greener, the cottonwood leaves are fully developed and lots of flowers: Indian paintbrush; yellow flox, some cactus blooming. Near a water hole I saw an unfamiliar tree with yellow blooms that smell strong and pleasant. I can also smell sage and dirt. I love the smell of the desert.
A thunder storm came through this evening, and it rained a little, but no flash flood. The thunder echoing in the canyons was intense.
I find myself wondering what the people were like who lived here thousands of years ago and built what are now the ruins around me. I'm sure life was tough for them, and they worked hard. But did they know it was tough? What would they have to compare it to? Were they happy? Did they play? Fall in love? Love their kids? Did moms get worried if their kids were down in the gulch, in the path of flash floods, when it started raining? Did teenagers have contests to see who could climb the most treacherous cliffs? Did they find meaning and purpose to life? Did they experience feelings of satisfaction, depression, glee, sorrow, boredom? Were they grouchy, violent, timid, bold? Were any of them gay? And did they care? Lots is known about how they lived—what they ate, hunted, that they grew maze and cached corn and grains in well-crafted Carnes. But I wonder more about what they were like; what kind of people they were. Did they even know life existed outside these canyon walls?
One of the main reasons I came on this trip is to deal with my own depression. I don't fully understand why I have been so down. A combination of things I suppose: deciding whether to go Iraq or not with my unit; my father's recent death; a midlife crisis?
I like the feeling of being a sergeant again in the infantry, and leading soldiers. In some ways, I think I am a better sergeant now then when I was an active-duty Marine in my younger days. I am more mature, and respect the troops more. But am I just reliving my past? Trying to stay young? Or being young again? I'd love to be in Iraq with my unit, but would hate to be away from Chris and Cory. Does my platoon need me? Will they be okay without me? I know Cory needs me. He needs a dad to be there for him. Cory is the most important thing in my life, and should always come first.
It's been half a year or so since my dad died, and I still think of him every day. I still miss him. I still cry. I think because I lived so far from him for so long, and didn't see him much, it seems he is still alive in Connecticut and I can still call him, tell him about my latest adventure.
Although I have so many great memories of my father, I also feel sad thinking that he did not have a real happy life during the past 10 years or so. Maybe I am wrong, I don't know, but he seemed sad, just going through the motions. I hope I never get that way. I wish I had spent more time with him these past few years. I wish I had spent more time with him and really talked and listened. I was not always so kind or patient towards him.
Although I try not to, I still think of him as he was near the end: skin and bones, oxygen tanks, fighting to even eat, barely able to talk. Did he know it was the end? I think so. I wish I knew what he was thinking then, knowing his journey was over. I worry that I will always be sad when I think of him, and that's not what I want. I want to think of him and be happy, and remember all the good, the fun. Instead, I get sad, I cry, I feel guilty. Is this normal? And now I am crying again . . . .
Windy last night. I had to get up twice to secure the tent. Sand blew in and all around. Sand everywhere and in everything, including my eyes, my ears, my nose and teeth. Sand up my ass!
I eat, pack up, and get on my way. Still cloudy, cool and nice. My ankle still hurts. I stopped and talked to the group camped at the mouth of Grand Gulch, along the San Juan—about six of them in all, two whom I had seen the day before, all from Missouri.
From there I embarked on the part of the trip that made me the most anxious—picking my way along the steep, solid cliffs between the mouths of Grand Gulch and Slickhorn. It was easier than I had expected. I had to scramble up and around lots of rock and scree, but in places I was able to stay down along the river, walking in the sand and pushing through the willows. I saw several groups of rafters floating down the river, and saw lots of geese and quail. I reached the mouth of Slickhorn at about 10:00 am. I soaked my feet for an hour or so in a pool of water—tons of water, lots of cool, clear water, deep pools and waterfalls, cascading over stair-like steps of emerald rock. Then I pushed on up the canyon.
Some thoughts I had while hiking today: I have the most wonderful wife, and the best little boy, and live in such a great place, and have a pretty damn good life. I should think of that more, and not let all the petty little bullshit things get to me so much, much of which is out of my control anyway. Do what you can and enjoy life.
I require these tough, challenging trips every now and then-- the type of trips, like this, during which I experience some doubt, reluctance, hesitations, but push on--and not only feel a sense of accomplishment, but regain my appreciation for this beautiful, rugged, wild land; and get to really know it, to develop intimacy with the land.
I require challenge, physical and mental. I require wilderness. This is the real world; the rest is artificial, which is why I get so confused and depressed. The real world is fairly straight-forward, and here I find simplicity, focus, clarity.
I will miss the National Guard, to be sure. But I know I don't need it. I think, in some ways, I used the guard to fulfill my need for adventure, and to prove to myself and others that I am still 'tough.' Of course, I also liked the feeling of being a good leader; but I can be a good leader to Cory. And I can provide leadership to efforts to protect the wilds. I 'proved' myself as a Marine, and can continue testing myself on these sorts of adventures. But I don't need the Guard, and it doesn't need me. I do need my family, and they need me.
I guess I hiked 15 miles or so today, and made it much further than I thought I would. The soak did wonders for my feet, and my ankle no longer hurts. I think I've worked out the kinks and sores. Today is the best I have felt, and I wish I had gotten in shape before the trip, as I may have enjoyed it more.
It rained hard all afternoon. I got wet and chilled, and almost stopped but glad I kept hiking. It was amazing to see the Canyons and pour-offs in the rain, with water running everywhere, lots of big waterfalls, and eerie, gurgling noises echoing off the walls sounding almost like voices at times, as if the ancient people were still here.
I felt happy today. It has done me good to be alone, to think, and write, and work out my problems. Or, shall I say, perceived problems. Because I really don't have any problems. Except getting older—which I'd rather not do. I want so bad to stay young. But not much I can do about it, except try to remain healthy, try to at least feel young, and take advantage of and enjoy any sort of 'wisdom' I may have gained from it all.
It's funny I felt so good today, because the weather was miserable. Sometimes, it seems, the more miserable the conditions, the happier I am. Misery makes me happy? Perhaps I need more misery in my life.
I can't believe I struggled with a decision to remain in the Guard and go to Iraq. I am such a dumbass at times. It all seems illogical now. I'm a strange person. When I get out, I need to apologize to Chris for even putting her through this, go turn in my gear, and say goodbye to the military forever! I need to focus on what's important, and spend all the time I can with Chris and Cory. I miss them both, immensely, and can't imagine being away from them for more than two weeks total. Instead of two-week's military training each year, I should go on more adventures like this. It's cheaper than therapy.
Someday, I would like to hike this same loop with Chris and Cory.
Rained all night. I got up early, everything wet, cooked, ate, packed up and moved out. The weather cleared up a bit early in the morning, but the rain returned and lasted most the day, as did the wind. Again it was nice seeing and hearing water in the canyons. It was a steep climb out, but I made quick progress, followed by a long, boring walk on the flats out to the road. I was on the highway by noon. There was very little traffic, and tough to hitch a ride back towards Kane Gulch, where my rental car was. The first half-dozen or so cars passed right by, ignoring me, but then a family from Alaska picked me up and gave me a ride.
I spent the night in Moab, drank a bit too much, and hiked about 10 miles the next day in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. It was nice to hike without the damn pack. Then I drove to Salt Lake City, drank a bit too much again, and caught the plane out the next morning: home, to Missoula, Montana, Chris and Cory! All the things I love.