Unexplored Desert Canyons Are Full of Life Lessons

About 15 years ago my longing to be in unpeopled places was every bit as strong as now, even if I lacked partners, or gear, or a chunk of the needed skillset.

That didn’t prevent me from going deep in those days, but any trip I did back then had two things in common: At least some part of the route would have been done before: A known quantity, as it were. And once out there I’d be overcome by aching loneliness: I missed the people in my life, and desperately wanted to share these places with them. Enthusiastically shared stories, illustrated with snapshots, had to suffice then. And that was good, for a while. Nowadays I have my wife Jeny, an adventure partner without parallel, and we’re learning to go deep together.

This particular trip wasn’t meant to be a spring break trip. It just happened to coincide with the arrival of spring on the Colorado Plateau. All winter we’d batted ideas back and forth: The coastal crux of Alaska’s Iditarod? The southern half of the Arizona Trail? A singletrack smorgasbord loosely surrounding St. George? A traverse of Canyonlands? Maybe an over-snow tour of Rocky Mountain National Park?

Nothing really stuck. Weeks passed, the discussion would be reinvigorated, we’d half-heartedly check current and forecasted weather for each possible objective, then momentum would fall by the wayside, lost in the immediacy of our day to day existence.

Ultimately we wanted something without a guidebook devoted to it, without a GPS track to follow, without signs pointing the way to the obvious. Something that we weren’t even sure was doable, whose secrets were ours to discover.

But once we’d set a start date it didn’t take long to rule out most of the options. RMNPark? Too snowy, at a time of year when we crave the texture of dirt and rock. Iditarod? It’s just been done so many times and so many ways already, and the Iditarod Invitational races were already happening during our allotted window. Plus it’s both far away and expensive to execute.

AZT? Gorgeous and challenging, just not currently compelling. Partially because it’s such a known quantity, and so popular. St. George had its merits, but we were both feeling decidedly caged, and only extensive immersion into wide-open spaces can cure that particular affliction.

Ultimately we wanted something without a guidebook devoted to it, without a GPS track to follow, without signs pointing the way to the obvious. Something that we weren’t even sure was doable, whose secrets were ours to discover.

Looking back now, that uncertainty might have been the most compelling aspect of our chosen route.

We settled on an omniterrain traverse spanning a healthy chunk of eastern Utah, using fatbikes and packrafts. The meat of the route was terra incognita: We simply had no way of knowing if it “went,” and the possibility of getting shut down deep into it, necessitating a time-and-energy consuming backtrack, seemed more likely than not.

With great risk comes great reward, or so the saying goes.

Our first camp was perched airily atop a red rock amphitheater overlooking a silty river hundreds of feet below. As the sun touched the horizon and we started prepping dinner, two dudes wandered past “looking for a cliff to jump off.” Jeny and I shared pad thai chased with Mike & Ike’s as the base jumpers flung themselves into the abyss.

Once across the river, we saw no one, nor any recent evidence of people having been there. The jeep tracks were sandy yet the washes seemed firm. When the grades were within reason the riding was near effortless on our plump tires, despite the heavy loads. When the grades got steep — as they often did when piercing cliff bands — we put our backs into it and pushed.

For 40-plus miles there was simply no surface water, anywhere. The scenery could sustain you for days if you suddenly found yourself foodless, but mere hours without water in this desert environment would leave your husk withered to the point that food became irrelevant. An off-route detour led us to a wash, down which we walked until the sand became damp and eventually oily puddles appeared. It seemed so insignificant and easy to miss, not to mention gross, yet provided the literal lifeline that allowed us to continue.

We’d spent many collective pre-trip hours chimping aerial maps and imagery to find a weakness that would allow us to penetrate the canyon systems. And while we were quietly confident in our route, we simply couldn’t know for certain that it went until it actually did. Stacked contours on the maps meant cliffs, impassable with bikes and no climbing gear, and the resolution of the maps simply wasn’t good enough for macro-level route finding. Which meant we committed ourselves to hours of rough work with no guarantee of success.

The lingering snowpack was a welcome obstacle, allowing us to tank up on water where we’d expected none.

Once into the canyon bottom, we’d ride 98 percent of the next 25 trail-less miles, using fat tires and decades of experience to ‘read and run’ the engaging terrain therein. Descending this canyon felt like nothing if not running a river, with each horizon line presenting a new and novel jumble of challenges. Without discussion we forewent stopping and “scouting,” instead relishing the on-the-fly challenge of blending body english, skill, faith in friction, and momentum to find or force a way when no clear line was present.

Steady rain two days before our departure lingered in the form of puddles in potholes. Finding water in the desert made us feel unaccountably wealthy.

Eventually, the walls drew close and we found ourselves stemming through eroded slickrock gullies and handing bikes down successive pourovers into the tight confines of a slot. The brief gymnastics of downclimbing and manhandling our bikes served as a reminder that they’d gotten us this far, into this ethereal place.

The handful of boulder chokes that we carried the bikes over and through were a welcome reminder to slow down and enjoy the moment. Plant feet and remain motionless long enough to catch a breath and in that short time, our brains could start to catch up to where we were. The walls had been polished by eons of floods, yet the nature of scoured sandstone is anything but smooth. Wind tumbled sand has accentuated the flutings, whorls, stripes, and striations, creating patterns both intricate and tremendous to inspire awe in us. Not just awesome in the moment, but powerful, memorable beyond the ability of words to convey.

Eventually, and somewhat regretfully, the walls receded and we rode out into bright sunlight — light that we hadn’t noticed missing within the intimate cathedral of the slot. Canyon walls give way to tumbled car-and-house-sized boulders, an apron of sand wide, long, and untracked, and then a desert river.

I am never not amazed at how quickly and easily we can transition to amphibious mode — done here to exit the canyon system. 20 minutes or so to remove wheels and bags from bikes, stuff ‘em inside boats, inflate boats, stack bikes onto bows, place refreshments close at hand, then shove off and let the current do the work while witnessing differential erosion, on both a grand and macro scale, happening right before our eyes.

A few hours later we left the river, gently climbing a dry wash under the late afternoon sun. Light breezes were pushed aside by gusting winds, necessitating more careful scrutiny of our campsite for the night.

We snuggled into a somewhat sheltered pocket with a level sandy surface, dead and down cottonwood nearby for fuel, and narrow walls framing the celestial sphere. Fire was kindled at sunset, water boiled at twilight, dinner eaten at moonset, and dessert shared as the milky way edged into view above the southern rim.

Stereo owls conversed overhead on matters unknown to us, but sleeplessly imagined in terms of newspaper headlines (”Cultivating local rodents: Quality vs. Quantity?”) academic papers (”The fine line between whinny and trill”), or op-eds (”Why eat other birds? It’s not you, it’s me.”).

A windy night can induce a fitful sleep dictated by the vagaries of its strength, direction, and implied malevolence. Eventually some semblance of real sleep found us, not long before songs of house finches and canyon wrens filtered through the hoods of our sleeping bags. Their clear cascading notes bringing smiles to our faces before our eyes had yet opened, alerting us to impending dawn and cementing the reminder that immersion in ‘nature’ is so much more than visual.

The brief gymnastics of downclimbing and manhandling our bikes served as a reminder that they’d gotten us this far, into this ethereal place.

Tired, sore, and stinking we broke camp one last time then dieseled up the wash and back above the ledge. We were intensely grateful for the respite this wilderness bestowed. We were also wise enough to understand how much more exquisite and rejuvenating this journey would feel once we had burgers in bellies, sand dumped from ears and scrubbed from between toes, and clean sheets to burrow into.

Every bit of our traverse was legal to the letter of the law, and we pulled necessary permits before leaving. On top of that, we followed strict LNT etiquette for the duration — taking only photos and leaving only footprints and tire tracks in the sand. However, the regulations for some of the public lands we traversed are many, byzantine, and often nonsensical to anyone versed in any level of backcountry travel, often intended only to keep the lowest common denominator of the general public from killing themselves and leaving an unsightly scorch mark on the earth in so doing.

I respect the mission of the land managers but am tired of being treated like an incapable, ignorant imbecile when what I want to do is see vast swaths of land in a light and fast style that said land managers fail to recognize as legitimate. If they recognize it at all. As such I am leery of publicly sharing the exact routing we devised, knowing that someone desiring to repeat it could easily cause an access kerfuffle if they embarked without knowing every last detail of why we went where we did, when, whom we approached for permission(s), and which gray areas we consciously tiptoed around and over en route.



Read more from Mike Curiak at Lacemine 29. All photos: Curiak



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