I slept out under the stars but they were obscured by thin clouds in the upper atmosphere. Sometimes I see them out here and I savor the sense of scale which renders myself and the expanse of my thoughts and desires insignificant. It happens so fast. One minute I’m absorbed by my own thoughts and perceptions and the next my sense of self is obliterated by tiny pinpricks of light which traveled hundreds (thousands) of years just to pierce my eye. So goes the starry night.
I woke up with the new super group (all good people) of three, the sounds of nylon slipping against nylon, synthetic stuff sacks and other wonder plastics, all getting rolled, stuffed, compressed, and fit tidily into the packs. It was just light enough to walk without headlamps when we broke camp at 6:40 this morning.
After the hours of steep climbing up the Waterpocket Fold yesterday I’ve had a good, steady soreness in my hips and legs. I warmed up slow this morning as we wound in and out of washes, avoiding pouroffs (which surprise you, they do, sometimes only becoming apparent when you are but feet from pitching off the top and crashing a hundred feet to the ground below). The hint of orange in the landscape, the blue sky. Layers, always layers of rock and history and time, layers which demand our attention time and again because it’s the variation in rock layers that makes this landscape what it is. Some layers are soft and erode quickly. Some are hard and resist. We often end up climbing over or around the hard stuff, and the obstacles are because of the soft stuff.
We were making our way to Stevens Canyon, a major tributary of the Escalante River. The canyon system up there was outrageous: huge canyon walls, two hundred foot pour offs in the hard slickrock canyon bed, flanked by slickrock benches whose sides plummeted down (or up, depending on where you were standing). It sometimes almost seemed like a canyon within canyon. The slick rock draped from the sharper canyon walls above in ample folds, like a fat baby. At one point we found ourselves walking along a tiny strip of dirty ledge only feet from the lip of a sheer, several hundred foot vertical drop above the canyon bed below. It was maybe the most emotionally strenuous moment of the trip so far. I adrenalized quickly and with dry mouth made my way along the ledge. I was so painfully aware of the empty space just next to me, the dense energy of all that empty space. It almost pulls you, you know. Empty space is powerful, more so when it’s concentrated into a chasm. Even if you don’t have a chasm on hand, you can get a feel for what I’m talking about by tuning in to the empty space around you. Just note it.
It took us many hours to hike the ten miles out of Stevens Canyon. Nine hours, to be precise (including a one hour lunch break where water appeared lower down in the canyon). It was a stunning, crazy canyon. It asks a lot of its visitors: patience, heart, courage, and strong ankles. Also, an immunity to poison ivy would probably help. We encountered thickets of it, even had a hearty disagreement about which lush green shiny plants were poison ivy (and what about poison oak? was there poison oak in this canyon?). I tried to be careful but I know I dragged my pack across some stems and walked through some as well. I don’t do well with poison ivy, and spent the afternoon in a tough little bubble of anxiety about getting urushiol (the poisonous oil in poison ivy) all over me. It’s always in those moments that my nose begins to itch uncontrollably.
By mid afternoon we came to the Escalante River, where the mouth of Stevens Canyon appears so unassuming you’d never know what magical and unequalled world was concealed behind it. We had a one and half mile walk down the Escalante River to reach the mouth of Coyote Gulch. The canyon was so red that the water shone like a green jewel, flowing substantially down the middle. The banks were thickets so we mostly just walked in the river, thigh high at its deepest crossing but usually around mid-calf. The river drifted lazily along, all gentle current with the occasional mini-rapid. Walking in the river is slow because of resistance. The afternoon light, red and green color palate and the streak of blue sky above, the slow pace almost like a walking meditation, all put me into a kind of contemplative trance like floating a river sometimes does.
We arrived before long at Coyote Gulch, one of the heralded backpacking trips of the southwest. A creek flows down this one too (abundant water today), and again it’s often just easier to walk in the creek. There was one place where the creek bed is unpassable due to a boulder choke and there is a bypass, a ‘trail’ that skirts south and crosses a very sloped, no handhold slab with downward angled ledges for foot holds, all of it very slippery with sand, wet and dry. The slab was perched above a 40 foot drop. More exposure. More adrenaline. Otherwise the transit in Coyote Gulch was as easy as any canyon yet. Good trails and abundant backpackers, the highest numbers I’ve seen yet on this hike, made for a pleasant evening of hiking. Beautiful area, exhausted body. Slow miles today!