Day 44: the Escalante Trail

I decided I would allow myself to sleep in this morning. Not a lot, not by hours, but just a wee bit. My alarm is still set for 4:30am (Arizona time) and I heard it go off and luxuriously rolled away. I finally got up around 5:15am. I had to walk about a mile down Lava Creek to the Colorado River and there try to hitch a ride across with a rafting party. I figured I would have to sit there on a river beach for a while until a raft came by, so I wasn’t in any particular hurry. I took longer than usual packing up and around 6 I broke camp. I quickly made it to the river, hearing before seeing because right at the mouth of Lava Canyon is a big rapid. The water roar echoed off the canyon walls. Once I saw the rapid, the fast swell of water where the energy gathers right before it breaks into white water, I was crestfallen. I thought there is no way a raft would be able to take me across the water right above a rapid like that. They probably couldn’t pull the boat over safely. I thought I would have bushwhack a mile upstream to Carbon Canyon to have even a hope of hitching a ride. I started up a clear use path on the river shore into a thicket of Tamarisk and suddenly there were people. People packing up tents. People brushing teeth. People urinating in the river (more on that in a minute). This had to be a rafting party! A few people greeted me and I asked to speak to the captain. They pointed me toward a guy probably in my age bracket wearing a tan cap. He reminded me of my brother-in-law somehow, physical build and round face, clearly passionate for the outdoors, and that made me instantly like him. “I need a ride across the river,” I said. “Can you take me?” “Sure,” he said. “How far do you need to go?” I explained straight across would be fine or wherever was safe enough to maneuver the boat. He said I would have more fun going through the rapids. So that was that. 

This was a commercial rafting party, a crew of three including the captain and 24 clients. They had to finish packing up before they could depart so I hung out near the boat, a giant motorized raft with a hinge bisecting it so it could flex over water swells. No oars for these folks. No wonder he could take me where I needed to go. It was like a semi-truck for water. One of the crew offered me coffee, which I gratefully accepted and drank while watching them efficiently undo the civilization of a commercial rafting trip. The clients came by to talk to me, apparently quite surprised at this apparition materialized in their midst. “Where did you come from again?” they kept asking. Or “there’s a rumor that you’re our guide to take us up to South Rim from Phantom Ranch”. I enjoyed hearing about their trip, a three day journey from Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch, and telling them about mine. A number of them told me I had just missed breakfast. If only I had gotten up earlier. But the coffe was nice and I was very happy to have a ride across the Colorado so early in the day. By 7:30 we were all piling in the boat, me with a spare life jacket on—“our guest in the wet seat” the captain hollered—and I squeezed into a spot right on the bow. He motored us away from the beach and we plunged headlong into the Rapids which weren’t powerful enough to upset such a massive craft but heartily sprayed those of us in the front. Right after the rapid was a good sandy beach and the captain bumped the end of the boat right into it so I could disembark. As I was leaving I slipped and fell on the wet vinyl of the raft and then fell as the sand back collapsed under my foot. A graceful exit. As they motored away all of them waved good bye. And then I was alone. 

It was 8, early still, and I had just had a cup of coffee which drives me along. I quickly found the trail, the Beamer Trail it’s called, and made good time. It was flat and easy to follow, mostly staying in the flats next to the river. The immediate impression of the canyon is reds and greens. Green river, green tamarisk and sage brush, and red rock. The sun wasn’t down the canyon floor yet, so it was cool as I made my way to the Escalante Trail. I stopped to refill my bottles with Colorado River water, my only water source for the whole day. The last time I drank water from the Colorado River was just downstream from Moab, and the water was brown and cow poop floated all along the banks. It was foul. I was a bit worried knowing I’d be drinking it again but the water was mostly clear, coming down from Lake Powell which serves like a giant settling tank upriver. The only downside is that the National Park instructs all beach campers (ie all rafting parties) to urinate directly in the river. So many people raft the river every year that beaches got foul with urine smell and urine-loving algae. I’ve been hiking a long time and I can’t quite bring myself to pee in a river, something usually an eco sin in the hiking world. Instead  I wait until I’m away from the well-used beach campsites. But still I have to drink the river water, even if I’m not peeing in it. I treated all my water today with chlorine, and had to chuckle about all the rafters peeing in my source directly upstream. 

Grand Canyon trails have different names even when it’s the same length of trail. I’m following one foot path to take me all the way to the South Rim, but that path will have different names depending on where I am in the canyon. Different parts of the path have different characters. The Beamer trail was easy and flat, at least the section I arrived in (I’ve heard it’s more exciting upstream). The Escalante trail, on the other hand, is is a little more unpredictable. Several canyon walls came right down to the river and had to be passed by climbing up 1200 feet from the water before descending back down. In geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. This is true in flat geometry and in the stranger non-flat geometries too if you get very precise with what you mean by ‘straight’. In the geometry of the Grand Canyon, the shortest distance between two points is the Colorado River. I would spend an hour climbing and descending, leaving the river and then returning to a place a boat could have reached in five minutes. There is a deeper, more poetic sense in which this is true too. The Colorado River is the artist, the sculptor, of this mighty cleft in the earth. All the points in this magnificent place are in some way created and measured to one another by the powerful hand of the river. It is the metric as well as the means. For five or six million years (or so) the Colorado River has been making the canyon, carving up the sedimentary rocks that were all either sea floor or desert floor or coastal beach. Heraclitus says it’s not the same river. I say look at what was done. 

The wind blew strong today, enough to keep the helicopters out of the sky until around 2pm. They drone like flies, constant echoing whap whap whap of the blades bouncing off all the rocks. Big cloud banks built up into mountains over the rim to the west, and I expected more rain and lightning but it never came. For much of the day it stayed overcast and cool. I was able to hike most of the day without overheating. I saw only one other persons, a pair of backpackers heading to Tanner camp, but otherwise I was alone all day. I had assumed I would see more people: more hikers and especially more rafters, but the only other rafts I saw today were two large commercial rafts far below me on the river at noon while I was climbing up over a ridge. Otherwise it’s empty country, helicopters notwithstanding. 

Around 4 I stopped at a pretty sandbar next to the river to camp.  I’m still a few miles ahead of schedule, though comfortably within my permit, so I didn’t need to strain myself to make miles today. I have fifteen miles to hike tomorrow and twelve the day after, and then I head up to South Rim the day after that. 

It’s sweet to get into camp so early. I cook and read and do nothing. The light slips away like water from seive, draining from everywhere and nowhere. I sit in the dirt. I wait for stars. It’s a good quiet life down here. 















2 thoughts on “Day 44: the Escalante Trail

  1. Dan

    I’m partial to the mathematical observations, of course, but what a beautiful rumination about the river as the metric and the means. In the most literal way, the river truly is the shortest distance between two points: a wonderful observation, wonderfully articulated.



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