My first summer in the canyonlands

Let me tell you about the wind. The wind that whips constantly from the West, gaining speed as it soars down the San Rafael Swell and collects sand from amongst the hoodoos of Goblin Valley before crashing around my humble old sheep trailer and then plummeting off the edge of Horseshoe Canyon.

I am all alone out here, just me and the wind and the sand, which is always blowing – into my teeth, into my eyes, onto the bare skin of my legs.

I drove seven hours from Denver to nearby Green River, Utah before bouncing down 32 miles of unpaved dirt to arrive here in the canyonlands, far from civilization.

The Canyonlands

My sheep camp, perched on the edge of the canyon, is quaint and small. It is essentially a quite compact trailer with a raised bed, benches with built-in storage underneath, a pull-out table, a wood stove and a sink that drains into a plastic bucket on the sand, held in place by a rock so it doesn’t get blasted into the canyon.

Really all the space one would need.

My job here, for two weeks, is to patrol the backcountry, this remote section of the national park that only a handful of visitors make it to a day.

At night my trailer rocks mightily – the wind can be fierce – and I hope that I don’t tumble over the edge of the canyon along with the sand. Always long wisps of red sand are plummeting, plummeting over the edge. I sit and watch it from the front door of my trailer, with my bare feet swinging freely.

This is my favorite spot, where I watch the moon rise as shadows slowly cross the canyons and mesas and buttes that stretch east as far as the eye can see when the sun sets.

To the northeast, the Sierra La Sals surge skyward, above the treeline, an unexpected view in the desert. The peaks turn purple at sunset before slowly, ever so slowly, fading into the darkness of night.

There is no silence in the desert. Instead, there is whistling, whooshing, clanging and creaking. The pipe of my wood stove makes an eerie, haunting sound like moaning when the wind blows. It almost sounds like the thundering of drums, but echoing from far off in the distance. My daily soundtrack.

Sheep Camp Trailer

I had never heard of Edward Abbey or Aron Ralston when I agreed to come to this big, empty beautiful place. It was my cousin who insisted I bring along a copy of Abbey’s ‘Desert Solitaire’ when she heard I was headed to the canyonlands of Utah.

Imagine my surprise as I voraciously read page after page about Abbey’s life as a seasonal ranger in the nearby Arches, living in a sheep camp trailer and roaming free through the wilderness of the extreme desert during the day.

I had likewise never heard of Ralston before arriving in Horseshoe Canyon, despite vaguely hearing about ‘127 hours guy.’ Again imagine my surprise to discover that Ralston had stumbled into my canyon after his ordeal, recounted in detail to me one afternoon by a ranger who had been a part of the search crew dispatched after the whole mess to retrieve his severed arm before any tourists found it.

There is just me and the wind, both gaping to the east and that canyon that rips across the land. One day my last visitor rolled away down the road towards civilization at 5 p.m. and I was left alone with the sun and the wind and the openness and the aloneness.

But the wind. That wind! I woke up before dawn to the rocking of my trailer as a rainstorm blasted through. An icy breeze came through the window I’d left open at night for respite from the hot desert air and blasted onto the core of my body. In the darkness I reached for my newly issued National Park Service fleece and quickly pulled it on.

And now the same fierce wind is rocking the trailer as I eat a measly dinner. I feel utterly alone.

Horseshoe Canyon

Down in the canyon, it is different. The wind blows as fiercely as possible, but the only result is the gentle rustling of the cottonwood trees. They are scattered about the canyon interior, growing along Barrier Creek although there is no water. During the scorching summer months, the creek bed is just a dusty wash, filled with rocks and sand that are arduous to hike through. But somehow the cottonwoods find water along those wash banks.

The sun. The heat. The gnats and biting flies that gnaw on me like I’m dinner. The endless wash sand that I trudge through daily, reflecting exhausting heat and light back up at me, so I am doubly exposed to the brutal elements. I sweat through my shirt by 10 in the morning and from then on am soaked through and salty. My face is dry and gritty.

But always the solitude. I spend a few hours each midday hiding from the brutal heat of the sun underneath a cottonwood tree, in the shade and all alone with only the high canyon walls watching over me. Most wildlife sleeps through the unbearable heat except for a lone mourning dove, whose gentle call echoes through the bends of the rock walls. It is beyond peaceful.

This is the harshest wilderness I have ever known. Edward Abbey called it the harshest and most intact wilderness in the lower 48: the canyonlands, the Maze.

John Muir Trail Thru-Hike 2014: Slowest Known Time Attempt

Two miles into the John Muir Trail, a 221-mile high alpine traverse of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, I realized that I didn’t pack enough tampons. If you’ve ever climbed up out of Yosemite Valley with a 50-pound pack full of excessive gear and 12 days’ worth of food, you know how far those two miles feel. Uh oh.

However. Having just come from volunteering at an absolutely insane 100-mile footrace called Western States, my boyfriend and I had misguided notions of how easy two miles with 2,000 feet of vertical gain should be. Tyler volunteered to run back to our car, left parked at the trailhead, and retrieve some extras. And then run back up.

For 90 minutes I sat at the corner of a switchback, wedged between our two backpacks, trying out various lies to tourists who asked why there was only one of me for the two packs. “Nature calls,” was the best answer I came up with. “I forgot my tampons and my boyfriend has sprinted back downhill to retrieve them,” was the one answer that never escaped my lips.

Tyler finally dragged himself back up to my perch on the switchback edge, pouring sweat and eating a sausage biscuit that a fellow hiker had given him out of sympathy. He had my extra tampons.

Two miles further along the trail, exhausted from climbing out of Yosemite Valley twice in one day, Tyler bonked and we sat down. In the middle of the trail. “Nice resting spot,” a passing hiker quipped.

So our misadventures on the JMT began. The date was July 2, 2014. I had read “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed prior to starting the trail, and promised myself that we wouldn’t be that bad of a hot mess. Maybe I was wrong.*

Camping in Lyell Canyon

Camping in Lyell Canyon

Nobody goes into a hike more than 200 miles long, crossing nearly a dozen high mountain passes, expecting it to be easy. But somehow we had no idea it would be this hard. Being broke outdoor retail store workers, we had picked up most of our equipment for the thru-hike from REI used gear sales and used clothing sales. My base pack weight was 22 pounds; Tyler’s was in the low 30s. With bear bins, food, and water, we were both pushing 50 pounds of weight on our backs for each and every step along the trail.

Each day was a scrappy attempt to put 10 miles between our starting point and the eventual patch of sand or rock where we’d drop down, utterly exhausted, close to sunset. We would have just enough energy to set up the tent, cook dinner, and collapse into our sleeping bags. We never did have enough daylight or energy to hop in a lake for a nice bath. We were the two most tired, smelly, disgusting hikers on the trail.

Ultralight hikers, especially those on the Pacific Crest Trail, took a liking to pointing out our faults. “Those boots weigh 3.5 pounds,” one middle-aged PCT hiker said to us as a greeting. No “hello” or anything. “Your packs look way too heavy,” he added. “You know, it only takes about $1,000 to upgrade to ultralight gear.”

His unsolicited advice made me wonder if backpacking is so overwhelmingly white (and male) because only arrogant old rich white men could afford to do it in comfort. “Only” $1,000 happens to be about what I make in a month, thank you very much.

Banner Peak

Banner Peak

As it turns out, we did eventually gain our trail legs and every slow, plodding step of the John Muir Trail was so overwhelmingly beautiful that we eventually forgot about the soreness and the smelliness.

“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun,—a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal.”  — John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierras

After some ill-defined number of nights in the wilderness (three? five?), attachments to the civilized world dissolve. Bills are forgotten, become unimportant. Careers and promotions fade into the background; the news becomes irrelevant. What really matters comes sharply into focus.

Let me tell you what I discovered really matters in this life:

The haunting, howling calls of a pack of coyotes on patrol in the hours before dawn, echoing off the walls of Lyell Canyon while you lay awake in your tent, breath frosted in the air, entranced simultaneously by your aloneness and by your connection to the natural circle of life surrounding you.

Waking up in the dead of night to get out of the tent and pee, only to realize after unzipping the tent door that the sky is overflowing with stars. The Milky Way is blazingly bright. There must be over a million stars up there. I have to wake Tyler up and show him this. “Tyler, wake up! Tyler, wake up! The sky! Oh my god, the sky… Tyler, it is so beautiful.” But there is no way to explain it. He only discovered the indescribable awe of the night sky an hour later, when he likewise had to get up and pee. And there it was, the sky on fire with stars and galaxies, reflecting off the water of Evolution Lake with jagged Mt. Mendel and Mt. Darwin smiling down at you knowingly. “Mary, wake up! Oh my god, the sky…!” What a tragedy to have lost this view in all but the most remote of places. What have we done?

Stupidly trying to describe how beautiful the night sky is to your fellow hikers a few nights later, miles and miles from civilization, as you swap trail stories over the crackle of an evening fire. Words fail, but it’s okay. They smile knowingly, also wordless, melting into the memory of something so beautiful that there will never be enough words, the right words, to paint the brilliance.

Crossing over Selden Pass in the 15 minute space between two fierce lightning storms and discovering a hiker headed the other direction has had the same terrible, horrible, dangerous idea as you. Laughing maniacally at each other, at once recognizing those universal human traits of courage and stupidity. And laughing because you are both so beautifully, fully, intoxicatingly alive.

Threading the needle between storms on Muir Pass

Threading the needle between storms on Muir Pass

During our trip, we spotted legendary ultrarunners Jenn Shelton and Krissy Moehl in the early morning as they passed our camp (I had my head out of the tent, sipping coffee from the warmth of my sleeping bag. The juxtaposition between me and them did not go unnoticed…) during their Fastest Known Time attempt. Their goal was 3.5 days. (Krissy had to drop out, and Jenn eventually finished in an impressive 4 days, 9 hours).

We met loads of fast people. It was surprisingly not uncommon for thru-hikers to be completing the trail in 8, 9, or 10 days. Most people we spoke with were aiming for two or three weeks. They had jobs to get back to, of course, and the furious pace of civilization. Their jobs needed them, needed them 52 weeks a year and for nights and weekends and 90 hours a week at virtually no notice, if you please.

But what we needed was the trail. We took our time, we trudged, we e-mailed family to say we were going to be out of the wilderness later than expected. We could not be reached by cell phone. We had found our home in the wilderness.

We summited Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States and the terminus of the John Muir Trail, at 9:00 a.m. on July 28th, in the fog, shortly before a powerful storm rolled in and shook the mountain. Literally shook the mountain! Rockfall came screaming down an avalanche chute during our descent, appearing suddenly out of the fog above us, scaring the bejeezus out of me.

Tyler and I on the summit of Mt. Whitney!

Tyler and I on the summit of Mt. Whitney!

It took us 27 days to complete the trail, four days after our wilderness permit had technically expired (oops…sorry Park Service!), half a day before our sad remainders of dehydrated rice and beans were completely depleted. We had averaged way less than the 10 miles a day we had hoped for. I cried on the summit both because I couldn’t believe we’d actually made it, and because I didn’t want to leave.

I’ve taken to thinking of our JMT experience as the Slowest Known Time attempt. I think John Muir would have been proud.

Truth be told, I’ve been adrift in the weeks since. Yes, I lost ten pounds out there. And yes, I may have immediately donated my too-heavy pack out of frustration as soon as we found an organization to take it. But there is truth and soul in the wilderness that has been sucked out of mainstream American life. And I think we really, really need that soul in our lives. And that has left me with an extreme reluctance to rejoin the supposedly civilized world, and instead return to the deep profundity of long dusty trails leading off into the unknown horizon.


*No offense to Cheryl Strayed! Maybe it took me this hike to realize how much perseverance that woman has. Color me impressed.

**One last thing, for the record: we took so long to complete the JMT that I ended up really needing those extra tampons!