Canyonlands & Arch Canyon Blog -- page 2:
Since we were in Lavender Canyon, and I had
always wanted to go there and see the other 5 famous arches there, and it was a
rough hour-long drive back out to the highway, and since we had had to apply for
a permit weeks earlier in order to be there in the first place, I told the guys
that I wanted to just stay there for another couple of hours and 4-wheel through
it on my own, knowing it could be years before I’d ever get to go back, if
ever. So they went on, and I drove
the opposite direction, down into the beautiful canyon which got its name after
some old cowboy named Billy Lavender who discovered it, not because the rocks
are anything else besides the typical orange, brown, and rust colors of all the
other canyons there. Driving through
it, one of the few parts of the park where vehicles are allowed, I knew I was
the only human on the face of the planet in the whole wonderful place.
The Park Service only gives out 8 permits a day to go in there, and few
are willing to do the hour-long rough trail to even get there anyway.
Our group had reserved all 8 passes that day, though only the 4 of us
wound up going. They had all left,
so there I was… six billion people on this planet, and I was the only one
I passed the Caterpillar Arch, the Handhold Arch,
Teapot Arch, and Black Arch… searching for the famous Cleft Arch, which I knew
was beyond them all. But first, I
parked in the shade of a cliff, in a sandy river bed, to wash my pitiful sore
feet, change socks, and eat a bit. I
should not have! I suddenly realized
that clouds were coming up, and the whole canyon would be in shadow – lousy
for pictures. But I went on to the
Cleft Arch anyway. I had seen
pictures of it, but I had no idea… it was enormous!
I thought I had already seen all the really giant spans of the park,
even of the whole southeast
Cleft Arch, which is much bigger than it looks:
The picnic went very well, even though I had to be
sociable with a bunch of strangers. Some
of the old-time members showed up, which was good, and even though most of the
people there hadn’t known me before, by this, the fifth day, several
acted like they knew me now since we had been on some of the outings together
already; so people were real friendly. When
the president mentioned again that I’d been in the group clear since the first
year, 20 years ago, that seemed to win respect from the newbies, who were
looking up to me like I was some kind of great arch guru they could all sit at
the feet of and learn wise things from. Hey,
maybe I am! I asked around though,
and it turned out that two other guys there had also been members from the
beginning, so I wasn’t the only one. One
of the vice-presidents of the group, whom I had never met before, had a guitar
and microphone set up. He stood
there and sang country music for a solid three hours while everybody else ate
and visited, totally from memory! It
was very impressive. Some of the
people even danced.
After dark, I went back
to my hidden camping spot again. I
was originally scheduled to go on an overnight backpack to the great Angel Arch
in Canyonlands the next day… but I knew there was no way my feet would make
it. I guess everybody else felt the
same way, because they cancelled the whole trip; after all it’s a 20-mile
hike, in a river most of the way – yes, IN it.
I had driven to the Angel Arch about 15 years ago, three days after I got
the first 4-wheel-drive truck of my life and my first brand new vehicle ever, my
1994 green Dodge pickup – that was quite a way to learn all about 4-wheeling,
and how to not worry about getting a new vehicle all scratched up, because
it’s bound to happen! Back then it
was permitted to drive to the arch, but for the last many years the whole Salt Wash
has been closed off, so the only way to see the arch is by hiking.
I had run out of film when I was there that time, and had always wanted
to go back. But I decided the few
pictures I have will just have to do.
picture I took many years ago of the great Angel Arch in Canyonlands...
notice the giant figure on the right of the opening, with wings, robe, and bowed head:
Even though several more hikes and trips were
planned for the next 4 days by the group, I wasn’t very interested in any of
them, or had already seen the places they were going, so I left on Thursday.
I drove about 40 miles to the tiny town of
I had driven Arch Canyon
about 14 years ago or so, in the same green Dodge – and had done $1000 of
damage to the right side of the truck, which I never bothered to fix though I
kept the truck for another 150,000 miles after that.
This time I would be more careful in my red Dodge!
The canyon is known for two great arches, one called the Cathedral Arch,
and the other called, just like the one in Canyonlands, the Angel Arch.
Even though the name is highly appropriate for the one in Canyonlands, as
can be seen in any picture, the one in
Angel Arch in
I started up the canyon road, a terribly rough
track, partly under water, and immediately got off track – I was on the wrong
dirt road. I was also not real
happy, because a whole yellow schoolbus was parked nearby with dozens of kids
roaming the hills, with a few yelling adults behind them.
I figured I’d go ahead and start the drive up-canyon and get away from
them, but I went and looked for a camping spot first.
When I drove back, the whole busload of kids was being herded up the
4-wheel-drive road that leads to the arches!
I knew good and well they weren’t hiking the whole way, which would be
many miles, but I just decided to skip the drive that afternoon and do it the
next day; after all, I wanted to continue reading my book, so I did.
The camping spot was wonderful, beneath some
ancient cottonwoods – but that night I heard something I never heard before in
all my years of camping out: the
most amazing shrieking, howling caterwauling sounds I’d ever heard – way off
in the distance, not close enough to get scared by, but all the same very weird,
strange, unearthly. A banshee wail,
up and down the scale, long and drawn out, with seemingly endless breath,
eventually trailing off, only to start again, just as loud and long.
What was it?!? I still
don’t know. Do cougars make that
sound, do coyotes? I don’t think
so. A bugling elk?
They don’t sound like that. Had
wolves returned to the area? Had
they ever been there? Did they have
Bigfoots there? Or Bigfeet??
Or were the kids in the schoolbus just acting up, with some freaky
recorded sound? Guess I’ll never
know. I felt safe in the truck
anyhow, and finally fell asleep.
The next day, I finished
my book, and just relaxed until the afternoon, because I wanted pictures of the
two grand arches in the sunset evening light.
I had heard over 20 years ago that both arches face the west, directly
into the setting sun, and shine a beautiful golden tone in the dying light each
day, as long as there aren’t clouds. Which
there had been that time 14 years ago when I had last driven it, complete with
truck damage; and not just clouds, there had been rain and fog and mist too.
I was greatly annoyed that time, thinking my trip was a big waste,
photographically – but I got some of my favorite pictures of all time that
time; the Angel Arch in the fog was beautiful, though I didn’t get any good
ones at all of the Cathedral Arch. This
time I would! At least I hoped so,
the sky looked clear. I took off,
splashing down the primitive tracks. The
road is so incredibly rough that it crosses the same stream 62 times.
Each way!! The stream winds
and curves so much, and so do the canyon walls, that sometimes the tracks I was
trying to drive on are on one side of the stream, then suddenly they go through
the water and mud to the other side, whichever is easiest, though usually
neither side is because of rocks.
I had been warned before I went that there had been
a big rockfall about a mile up the trail, and that most vehicles could no longer
get beyond that. I had stopped in
I really hate backpacking.
They are never comfortable, and you have to carry a tent, a
sleeping bag, an air mattress, a couple days’ food, plenty of water, your
camera, plus little stuff like a flashlight, extra film, and toilet paper.
It adds up to about 30 lbs. No
big deal for a while, but for 10 miles? Over
rough rocky ground? When you
haven’t done it in years? In the
heat? Some people get used to it and
don’t seem to mind, but you definitely have to accustom your body to it.
And mine was not.
But I had never done this canyon on foot and had no
clear idea how far away the arches were. Somebody
had told me it was about a 4-hour trip each way, which seemed about right.
I’d really rather have just done it as a day trip, in and out in one
day carrying nothing but a fanny pack with water and some power bars, like I had
been doing all week anyway, but that way I couldn’t get those late evening
setting sun pictures that I had always dreamed of getting – I’d be walking
back in the dark. So it was backpack and
spend the night, or nothing. At
about 1 p.m.
I set off.
Four hours in the heat seems endless, especially
when you don’t really know where you’re going.
Actually you can hardly get lost in a canyon, there are no side roads or
crossroads, the stream only flows one way, and the walls are way too steep to
climb in most areas. So you just go
upstream and sooner or later you’re bound to get there, wherever it is
you’re going. So I kept plodding
on. It’s a wide canyon, with
little shade from the mid-day sun, but the heat wasn’t awful, though my
sunburn from the last few days was. I
knew it was one of the rare canyons that has water year-round in the stream, so
I had brought my purifier so I could drink the stream water after I finished the
quart of water I had carried with me, which saved weight… in a dry canyon
I’d have needed to carry a gallon. I
went through that quart pretty quickly, and the canyon water was cooler and
good, though I had to be careful not to suck little black polliwogs into my
container when I dipped it in the stream each time.
Following the old rough trail, I counted each time it crossed the
stream. I had parked the truck by
the 9th crossing, so counting them now as I walked would give me
some slight idea of the distance I was travelling.
Actually I did have a
map with me, but as usual it wasn’t very detailed or reliable when used for
walking, it was on more of a grand scale, and I could hardly match anything up
with what I was seeing or passing as I tramped on and on.
The backpack was already killing me, not being used to it, but I knew I
had to have it. The sand was often
deep as I trudged down the old tracks, and I was moving rather slowly.
Four or five times I found a rock to sit on to rest, wondering how much
farther I had, and often thinking why didn’t I go ahead and try to get the
truck over that rocky area? I could
have carried rocks and filled it all in even if it took me a couple of hours,
and that still would have been quicker than walking.
But I knew the hiking was “good for me”, and driving was being lazy,
and I needed to stay in shape, so on I went.
Four hours turned out to be about right.
I was getting pretty discouraged as the hours went by, not being able to
judge how far it was really going to be, since hiking and driving are nowhere
near the same time frame, and besides it had been many years ago since I had
even driven it. For all I knew it
might really take me 6 or 8 hours, and my back was totally killing me by then.
But suddenly, and rather abruptly, I looked up and I just knew it… the
Cathedral Arch was right ahead, even though I was seeing it from the edge and it
was quite unrecognizable at that angle. That
perked me up, and I even forgot about my aching back for a while. The
opening became visible, the road curved around, I crossed the stream for the 62nd
time – and the road ended! Well,
that was weird, I thought. I had
clearly remembered camping, all those years ago, right across the valley from
the Angel Arch which was still a half mile upstream, not the Cathedral Arch.
But the tracks dead-ended with great finality right there, at a very
pleasant wooded area nearby that made a great camping spot.
I had just noticed those trees… huge, tall pines like you would find in
the rainy northwest states… hardly typical for a canyon bottom.
For some reason that little area must have its own microclimate that
allows them to grow. I thought wow,
this should be National Forest land, not just BLM land.
No sooner than I had thought that, when a tiny sign appeared by the trail
that said, “Welcome to your National Forest”!
And it actually was – the boundary of the San Juan
was right there at the road’s end. I
finally took off my backpack, took some pictures, then headed on up a narrow
foot path that kept disappearing, to the Angel Arch.
Cathedral Arch in the afternoon:
It was totally obvious there had never been a road
of any kind to the Angel Arch! I
don’t know why I thought there was. There
was nothing but an incredibly rocky stream full of boulders the size of old
Volkswagens that nothing on earth could have
driven over. It made me remember
what Mark Twain had said about travellers: a
great traveller sees many things he’ll never remember, and remembers many
things he never saw.
I got my pictures!
I stayed in front of the Angel Arch until the shadows started to creep up
the side of it, as the sun fell behind the cliff walls.
You’d think that more or less one out of four arches would face the
setting sun in the west, but it’s really a rare thing… even if an arch does
face west, most have canyon or cliff walls nearby, or even trees, that block the
sun in the afternoon long before it starts to set.
So a great arch glowing gold in the evening light is a rare treasure, and
the slanting light of sunset hours is always more beautiful than the harsh
shadowless vertical light of mid-day. I
took a lot of pictures, and got much closer to the great span than I had the
previous time, up to where I easily got sky beneath the curving rock.
I must have spent an hour there – after all, it’s one of my favorite
places on earth, one of the most majestic of all of Nature’s creations.
I took picture after picture… everywhere I stepped seemed an even more
picturesque spot, and the light just got better and better as the sun sank.
But finally I had to go; I knew the Cathedral Arch, back down the trail,
was also losing light, though it would hold it a little bit longer, with no
canyon walls at all in front of it. As
I turned to leave, suddenly some words hit me – “Bye-bye, my beautiful Angel
– I’ll never see you again.” I've
never gotten kind of sad over a rock, no matter how magnificent.
Well, okay, I did when I heard the Wall Arch had fallen, but that was
like a death in the family. Many a
time I’ve left a beautiful arch or natural bridge, after a long hike or a hard
drive, and have said, “Good-bye, I hope I see you again.”
But this time, I knew it was final… I’m getting older, the hike was
not fun at all, you can’t drive to it any more, and even though I’m willing to
make an equally hard hike any time again for a great natural span, I’d rather
put forth that effort going to one I’ve never seen yet rather than back to one
I’ve visited twice. But still it
was sad, leaving a friend for the last time.
I walked backward down the path until the arch was out of sight around a
corner – not an easy thing to do on a rocky cliffside trail.
Angel Arch in
The Cathedral Arch was still in its glory.
That is one arch that never shows blue sky under it from the typical
viewpoint. I daresay you could climb
way up to it, look upwards, and finally get some sky through it, but I was in no
physical condition after a week of hiking to bother with it, and it’s a high
one… besides, at that close angle, it would just look like a band of rock
overhead against the sky with no particular character or personality.
But it did something rare and wonderful that night, something I had never
seen anywhere before.
For some reason, the area directly behind the opening retained the orange
glow of the sun long after the arch itself had gone into shadow – so instead
of the typical classic shot of a span with bright blue or white clouds showing
through it, I got an unusual shot of one with a shining brilliant cliff wall
behind. And then it faded out,
within minutes. The show was over.
Cathedral Arch at sunset:
What on earth made me think about walking the whole
4 hours back to the truck that night? Why??
Was I nuts? Did I really
think I’d have that much more daylight to walk in?
Even though the canyon walls were now all in shadow, the sky itself was
still quite bright and bluish-white. I
decided instead of camping there at the end of the road under the great tall
pines, and then hiking the whole 4 or more hours back the next day, that I would
just hike back a little ways, maybe an hour, and then camp, in order to get a
head start the next day and not have so far to go.
I went a ways, crossing the stream several times as
before, but this time counting backwards… 61, 60, 59, 58….
That was more or less my method of measuring how far I had to go to get
back to the truck at the 9th crossing, though the distance between
crossings was completely irregular; but still, that gave me some idea of the
distance back, if I didn’t lose count. I
got down to crossing number 50 or so, where I thought I’d probably start to
set up camp, but the sky was still somewhat light, so I went a bit farther.
At #45, it was obviously getting late (I didn’t have a watch), but
still I could see clearly enough, so I kept on.
It was nice and cool, and I was walking much faster than on the way in,
when I had been hot and tired and a bit discouraged by the distance… in fact I
was now matching about 3 of my footprints to every 4 heading the other way.
The backpack was still hurting me mightily, though.
I got down to the
40th crossing. The sky
ahead was pretty dark, though behind was still clear and the light-colored sand
of the road still showed up fairly well. I
knew I should stop and set up camp… but it takes so long to do that!
I hadn’t set up my tent in years and would have to figure it out all
over again. I’d have to blow up my
air mattress, which takes a lot of breath, 10 minutes or more.
I’d have to unfurl my sleeping bag, and then pack everything back up
again in the morning, after shaking the sand back out of it all, and stuff it
all back in my backpack, which has always been an extremely tight fit… okay,
all that was no big deal, but still it just seemed easier to keep walking… and
walking… and walking.
crossings got harder and harder as the light faded… sometimes I couldn’t
tell water from mud from dry land.
I was stumbling constantly over large rocks in the dirt road that no
longer had shadows to make them show up well.
The backpack seemed of course even heavier than ever, and my back was
absolutely torqued with constant pain by then, plus I was developing a painful
left foot. I thought
it was just sand in the shoe, but after dumping it out and shaking out the sock, it made no difference – I had a blister.
No, I had two. Well
tough; on I went. The
numbers slowly kept going backwards, down into the mid 30’s, as the sky went
What had that screaming been the night before?
Was I going to hear it again? Closer
this time? Did the maker of that
noise eat lone hikers at night?? I
was walking faster, maybe even 2 steps for every previous 4 in the flatter
areas, though the light was simply gone by now.
I finally stopped to get out my little flashlight; after all I was not
being foolish or stupid about the whole thing, I was totally prepared to camp if
I had to, and I still had food and water plus light (though who can know how
long batteries will last). But by
now I had for some reason set the crazy goal of getting clear back to the truck
that very night, and even driving on back out to the mouth of the canyon – I
really didn’t want to set up a tent in the dark.
As I hurried on, that plan even expanded… if I got out in time, I would
reward myself by going clear on in to the next little town and get a room at a
cheap motel I had seen on the way in… with the first shower I’d had in 8
days, whether I needed it or not! Wow,
that spurred me on.
I only turned on the flashlight every few minutes,
still somewhat able to see the road if I pushed my glasses back up my sweaty
nose every minute or so. By then it
was hopeless to try to make any crossings without light though, but I didn’t
dare waste light and the batteries by using it the whole time.
But now it was simply black out there… I’d turn on the light, peer as
far as I could see, then turn it right back off and walk blindly the same
distance… over and over like that. It
was ridiculous, and again, I knew I could at any time just give up and pitch the
tent, but by now reaching the truck had become a quest!
I was determined to make it. I
plunged on through the dark, on the faint sandy tracks…
…and totally lost
them. Actually it seemed that they
went in a circle. That was
crazy! How could the road do that?
For the first time I suddenly felt that I wouldn’t make my goal… I
was clearly lost. I was using more
and more of the light, practically constantly now, and the road literally did go
in a circle. I backtracked, clear
back beyond the last stream crossing, then tried again… once more, I went in a
complete circle. It made no sense!
Back again, back over the same crossing, but this time finally, I picked
up a faint trail heading in another direction, which eventually proved to be the
real trail again. The circular area
I guess was some kind of a turn-around area off to the side of the tracks that I
hadn’t noticed on the way in.
After another 20 minutes or so, tramping along in
the night, it suddenly hit me with a jolt that maybe I had gotten totally turned
around back there and was heading right back up the canyon!
That was a horrible thought. I
had already noticed that the stars were out in full force.
I was also hoping that the moon would soon rise so I could see somewhat
better, but it’s a good thing I didn’t depend on that, because as I found
out the next night, it would not have risen until after 3 a.m.
I stopped in my tracks,
and with great effort lifted my sore shoulders back and head up to scan the night
sky. Straight behind me was the
constellation Gemini… I could recognize Castor and Pollux, the twin stars, any
time. And they were always next to
Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. And the
pointer stars on the edge of the dipper always point to the star at the tail end
of the Little Dipper – Polaris, or the North Star.
Yes, there it was, directly behind the direction I had been walking.
And yes, I knew the mouth of the canyon faced almost straight south.
If the North Star was behind me, that meant I was headed right!!
But more than once after
that, I still had little frantic moments when I lost the track.
Still I assured myself that there was no reason to worry, I was totally
supplied if I got hopelessly lost… but by now I was bound and determined to
get to that cheap motel that night. And
of course the memories of the distant screams in the night kept coming back.
I wanted to be out of there!
I was using the flashlight constantly, it was vital
for every step. If it failed, I’d
have no choice but to set up camp, pitching the tent by feel – what a hassle,
but possible. But by then I had
given up on conserving the light – if it went, it went; on the other hand, it
might do just fine for as long as I needed it, who knew.
The crossings were way down into the teens by then… I knew I was
getting close. I had parked the
truck beside the tracks right before that rockfall that stopped me.
Every time I came upon a rocky area, I’d get excited, thinking is this
the place? And I’d anxiously shine
the light far ahead, hoping for a reflection of some sort off the truck; but
time after time, disappointment. I
was actually hoping that I had miscounted the crossings and that somehow the
truck would show up somewhere in the teens instead of near crossing #9, but no
such luck. Finally, with
great anticipation and excitement, stream crossing #9 showed up, and I skipped
right on over… and nothing was there. No
rocks, no truck. Well, maybe I’d
goofed on the count, if not on the way out, maybe I had on the way in, because I
hadn’t realized it would become so important to me as I was hiking in that
afternoon. Crossing #8 showed up,
and I was feeling happy again… just a tiny bit farther!
But no… nothing. Not at 7,
not at 6, not at 5, not at 4… what was going on?!?
Then it struck me… I must have totally passed the truck!
I must have walked right on past it in the dark.
There were so many rocky areas that I’d evidently not even noticed when
I passed the one that that had stopped me from driving in.
So the truck was back behind me… somewhere… far back there… or was
No, I couldn’t be so oblivious as to miss a whole
truck, even in the black night! Well
okay, I know me, I could have. Obviously
I had goofed up badly somehow or other, either by missing the truck or
dramatically miscounting the crossings. I
hoped it was the latter. I decided
I’d rather keep going on forward, even though I was totally confused.
I realized that if I had indeed missed the truck in the dark back there,
that the mouth of the canyon was only a mile ahead, complete with my camping
spot under the cottonwood trees, the schoolbus, and the noisy kids.
I’d rather pitch my tent there and walk back in the next morning to
retrieve the truck than to stay in that dark and frustrating canyon.
For once I wouldn’t mind camping next to some other people!
And then things suddenly got familiar.
Even in the dark. The rocky
area showed up. The very rocks that
I had inspected hours earlier and had decided would totally tear up my axles
suddenly looked as delightful to me as the arches had been.
And something was shining a few feet ahead – the bumper of a red Dodge
For the first time that entire day, I spoke words out loud… I don’t
remember what they were, but no doubt yeehaw was one of them.
After all, that’s what an Okie says when he gets excited.
I opened the door on the right, swung my heavy pack onto the seat like it
was a passenger, drank the last of the stream water from my bottle, went around
and hoisted my
sore and weary self into the driver’s seat, and took off for the mouth of the
Even that seemed like it was much farther away than
I had thought, and I’m sure glad I didn’t have to hike it after all, since
there were long stretches of deep water with no way to walk around them which I
had hardly thought twice about driving through earlier, but would have been
totally unpleasant to walk through. But
then, at last I was out. Out of
And yes, I did make it back to that tacky $25-a-night motel room, though I had to get the manager lady out of bed to come sell me a room, the last one they had, and she even had to go clean it up and make up the bed with clean sheets before she’d let me have it. I didn’t mind! I had a shower to get the red dirt off, then soaked in a tub of hot water for half an hour, then slept till 10 a.m.
I was actually supposed to go back to Canyonlands
and make an overnight backpack to the great Druid Arch that very day, a 10-mile
hike. I had even bought the permit, made the campground reservation, and
got my truck pass. But for some
reason, I don’t know why, I just said… forget it!!
They can just keep the money. I’m
going home!! And so I did.
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