Escalante countdown

0830, prelude

I have an old acquaintance who for decades has specialized in 2-3 week technical outings which consist of little other than day trips.  He only camps away from his truck when a route cannot be fit into a day, however long.  The planning and discipline required to live out of a vehicle for 3 weeks when every day is filled with a 6-14 hour canyon or climb is immense.  There is little room for forgetting anything, and no room for not sorting and repacking each tired evening.  This is one reason I’ve come to delight in backpacking; a two week trip can usually be packed in only two trips between house and vehicle.

1400, 0 miles

In distance from a road nothing in the Colorado Plateau shows well on paper.  I doubt more than a handful of spots are further than 10 miles from one, strictly speaking.  When the metric is travel time from pavement places like the Escalante sound much closer to how isolated they feel.  The final few miles of the Moody Canyon road make me glad I choose my fatbike as the shuttle vehicle, and I’m impressed someone got a Forester in to my trailhead.

1600, 20 miles

14 years and a few weeks ago we finished a big loop through the Escalante by walking the Moody road up to my Forester in the upper reaches of Silver Falls Creek.  Carl and I were supposed to run the whole 13 miles, but our resolve only lasted for 4 or 5.  I follow sets of pigeon toed trail runner prints up the dust into Little Death Hollow, and am happy I’m not playing the walking game when I pass those backpackers at 15 mph on the final descent.

1930, 33 miles

Little Death Hollow is green, the vibrating green-grey of sage set off with sharply green-green grass, interrupted only briefly by a slot section before the iridescent green of new cottonwood leaves in Horse Canyon.  They’re overwhelming, the leaves, reflected in the inches of clear water that follow me bend after bend all the way to the Escalante.

2040, 36 miles

There’s a rhythm to the Escalante which is immediately familiar.  Riffles cross from one meander to the next in a way I find entirely predictable, the mostly clear water making my more than adequate distance above the rocks obvious.  I still get wet, when routes around the willow thickets take me into the splashiest waves, and am thus quite cold when darkness forces me up on the bank to camp in the nearest flat spot, an uninspiring cow clearing in the brittlebrush and cactus.  With no visible chance of rain and a mind lagging miles behind I fumble collecting clean water and getting out of the wet clothes before eating dinner in my sleeping bag.  I’m warm enough, necessities are all within arms reach, and the rest can wait until the morning.

0655, 37 miles

It was cold at first light, I had to knead my shoes to unfreeze them and get my feet in, laces left untied for later.  A civilized packrafting trip would get on the river in a few hours, leaving only enough time between launch and a sun firmly above the canyon to get a taste of cold evening air stuck along the water.  I am driving by need, and by many things undone back home, to pack up and blow up immediately, and thus the wet of the water has four hours to soak deep into my muscles.

1300, 48 miles

At first I appreciate the tall sun baking in air too clear and blue to mitigate its heat, but after a few hours I need to take clothes off, and get salt and food down to balance out the water I gulp every 10 minutes.  For miles the Escalante has been almost entirely beachless, and with a nicely swift current for what is obviously low spring water I drag my boat entirely up onto the bank before setting to lunch.  It is hot, my presence sends lizards running away loudly under beds of leaves, and after ten minutes I bleed air from the mouth valve of my worryingly taught boat.  Not from my theramrest come seat, which is smaller and not black and thus seemingly less worthy of concern.  A poor assessment, I learn, when after another 10 minutes several foam pockets delaminate one after the other, leaving gunfire quick a blister the size of a cantelope in the middle of my pad.  I’d been reading the map, estimating progress, and am now firmly set on pushing the limit of daylight to make it back to the truck today.  Sleeping on that pad is no longer desirable.

1700, 60 miles

The afternoon passes slowly and quick as river miles do when none of the difficulties are worth mentioning while still constant and innumerable.  I get stuck and have to walk twice, I think, but do better avoiding the willows and nightmarish logjams created by the tamarisk eradication crews.  Tamarisk, the tough and evil and water-hogging non native has been mostly extirpated from this stretch of the Escalante by considerable human dedication.  The bushes are hacked to ground level and the stumps poisoned, and the debris either by intention or gravity ends up in the river, where it forms at quite unpredictable intervals the sort of dams beavers would build if they were 180 pounds.  each tami-dam has a boat sized channel, though on several occasions that channel is not obvious until I’m an all but uneddiable distance from the wall.  These dams dissipate and then cease to exist in the final miles, as the walls grow and close in and sandstone boulders become a more regular presence in the watercourse.  My exit canyon presents a perfectly flat, sand free gravel staging area for the hike out, and an obvious path north between wall far enough apart one map check is all it takes.  I look wistfully downstream, the greater potential interest outweighed by responsibility, my very light food bag, and slowly self-destructing thermarest, whose blister is now the size of an extravagant dinner plate.

1930, 70 miles

Flat canyons are never flat, always either up or down hill, and broken up with sand and rock gardens and boggy bits where springs well up, but with legs on auto pilot and head on a swivel (for canyon wrens which I hear, and the desert bighorns whose tracks I see all over) I find myself at the road where it exits the wash bottom before I saw the truck parked up on the hill.  Said hill, which seemed fast and steep descending it on a bike the day before, doesn’t seem that way on foot.  The drive back to my bike is easy enough, rough roads keeping the speeds not too jarringly fast, and I make it the further 45 minutes back to pavement with only one false turn.

Unfortunately, scheduling doomed me to the same mistake as that first trip 14 years ago; making it out to Boulder and Torrey late enough that nothing is open.  I have a sad granola bar for dinner and bed down on a partially inflated packraft in the back of the truck near Caineville.  Microwave burritos are the best Hanksville has to offer early the next morning, and even after real coffee in Green River I still wonder if I’ll make the final 90 minutes of driving without having to take a nap.

Weeks later my left shoulder still complains, some part of it still wandering out with the lizards.  Some days distance just clicks, and it is best to let that happen, and worry about the details later.




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