Guest post - desert hike

My husband Bill Worzel and I share a love of the desert. He's written a post about a long-ago trip to canyonlands. The photos are from our more recent trip two summers ago and are mine.

In September of 1987, my friend Duncan agreed to join a group of my friends & associates in Taos for The First Annual Technology Meeting and Chili Cookoff - a technical meeting I had put together. I was pleased, and somewhat surprised since, while Duncan and I had been friends at University, we were not then close friends. At the time he was a very English sort of person. Quieter than most, brighter than many but beneath his quiet exterior, an adventurous soul.

After the conference, which produced no breakthroughs of any sort, Duncan and I borrowed one of our confrere's car and set off to drive back to Michigan, stopping on the way to do what Duncan called “Industrial Strength Tourism.” In about a week, we visited no fewer than five national parks and drove the Platt River back east, crossing Illinois and eventually driving most of the width of Michigan to Ann Arbor. One of the places we stopped was Canyonlands where we drove the long road past Newspaper Rock to the Needles section.

Pulling into the Needles campground late in the afternoon, we had dinner and slept under the stars on pads rolled out on sand weathered from the rock around us. I had long understood that for me, home was somewhere west of the 100th meridian and in particular, at some elusive point in the heart of the American Southwest. But I wasn't sure what Duncan would make of the desert, and in particular, the mad lands where a Mesozoic sun had burnt the rocks into shades of red, ochre, tan and buff and sun, rain, ice and wind had carved them into deep canyons and slickrock ridges.

It turned out that this would be one of those trips that everything fit together nicely. Duncan has the gift of silence - of being companionable without saying much. That is a trait that fits well in the desert, particularly since the wilderness is about the only place that I'm ever quiet.

The next morning, we got up and, after coffee, I rolled out the topo sheet on the hood of the borrowed Buick for a look at possible routes. I don't even remember where I got the map, I imagine it was from the visitor center at Park Headquarters, but I love maps and topo sheets in particular. I used to have a large geologic map of Zion on my office wall, but I had to take it down as I used to spend too much time trying to figure out if I could make it up out of the slickrock wilderness in the east end of the Virgin River section onto the cap rock above the Virgin River canyon. Somewhere in my house I still have a rather large box filled with maps, largely topo sheets, from all the places I've hiked over the years, and many places I have yet to hike. Every time I come across the box, it seems to whisper to me of hiking in the lonely places where you can hear your soul retune itself to a lower key.

After looking at the Needles sheet, I decided we'd do a simple day hike alongside a ridge, up over the top and down into the wide canyon on the other side of the ridge. This is the sort of hike I love. To me one of the delights of the desert is how different it can be from one canyon to the next. The first may be a broad, bone dry cauldron and the next may be a deep defile with a secret stream cutting through limestone with hanging gardens bursting with flowers. I believe that one of the ways you can tell if you're a desert person is whether, when you look at desert mountains in the distance, your eye goes to the canyons, not the peaks.

So, after filling our canteens and slinging our daypacks we started out under the impossibly blue sky while the morning was still cool. It didn't stay cool of course. While it was late September, it was well into the 80s by the time the sun stole over the ridge and flooded the side we were hiking along. Reaching the point where I decided to cross the ridge, we scrambled up and over the slickrock.
The thing that always amazes me about slickrock is how many secrets it holds. You can walk along a ridge expecting to reach a pinnacle 1/2 mile away in short order and find that suddenly a canyon appears between you and your destination. An hour later and a lot of scrambling, you climb up out of the canyon and find the pinnacle no nearer. But it's not just the big things that are so fascinating. It's the universe painted in miniature too: A pocket of water slightly more shaded than the barren rock around it, that holds brine shrimp swimming frantically in a tiny pool; a shadow that falls across the rock like a pot of ink spilled in the middle of a white sheet of paper; the texture of rock that was once a mountain, then the bottom of a sea, then a red rock that's crumbling back into sand that will be washed out to sea. Above all, slickrock is texture, not just physical but visual texture as well. It is sculpted and graded, coarse and shiny, cracked and smooth.

We made our way down off the ridge and into the canyon on the other side. While not a defile, the canyon was more closed off. The vistas we'd see out to the west on the other side of the ridge were gone, as were the pinnacles that beckoned from on top of the ridge. Here it was sandy with just a little bit of water in potholes in the rock, leftover from the last rain. It was also open enough to be exposed to the sun but narrow enough that the air was still. I knew that later, in the evening, there would be a breeze flowing down the canyon, but now it was an oven.
The next part of the hike was a physical misery of sweat as we slogged through the sand piled in the wash. I had done this many times, but I was wondering how Duncan was taking it. Turning a corner, I saw a bigger pothole - maybe 4' x 3' and sort of round. On this hike, we had water enough to drink, so we didn't need to brush away the scum and use our bandanna's to filter water into our canteens, but it was cool. Grinning at Duncan, I took off my bandanna, dipped it in the pool and swabbed my face before wrapping the sopping bandanna around my neck, letting the green water drip down my back.

Duncan looked slightly appalled, but listening to me 'Ahh!” and 'Oooh' as the water cooled me, he tried it himself and came to realize that in the desert there is no bad water, only good water and better water. But if he was surprised at this revelation, I think he was astonished, when, after he finished wiping his face, I plopped into the sitz-bath sized pothole and lay back so that my shirt and shorts were soaked. Then I got up and said, “You try it! It's great.” He squinted at me, standing there, grinning with water dripping off of me, then he frowned a little and sat down in it.

Now Duncan is a very sophisticated man. At the time he managed a team of computer programmers pioneering the use of computer graphics in television. He lived in London and would later move to LA where he won an Oscar for some groundbreaking software for editing movies. He went native in LA, and one of the next times I saw him he was complete LA with rollerblades, sunglasses and a cabin near Big Bear.

But, though born and raised mainly in England, he is a Scot. From his single malt whiskies to the kilt he was married in, he's Scottish and I knew that beneath the civilized veneer, he was up for just about anything. I thought about that as I watched him lolling in the green, scummy water, and then I started to laugh.

He opened his eyes and asked me, “What are you laughing at?” “Well,” I said, “can you imagine what your co-workers in London would say if they saw you lounging about in fetid water, fully dressed?” He started to laugh. “And,” I continued, “can you imagine what they'd say if you told them you liked it? They wouldn't believe you.” “No,” he agreed, “they wouldn't.” and we both sat and laughed.

At different times on that trip we would climb to a mountain tarn in the Colorado while it snowed. We'd also scramble over slickrock by a full moon, where I slid spreadeagle down 20' of slickrock when I lost my toe hold. We'd climb up to visit the Acoma pueblo and drink brandy in a Taos hotspring, 20 feet from the Rio Grande river. Years later we'd work together and later, found a company doing very cutting edge software. But I will always remember sharing that moment with Duncan while the desert listened to our laughter.


Silver Fox said…
Great post, and nice slickrock (and rainbow) photos!

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