(Hiking the Paria River Canyon)
Part One, Mile Zero: Entry
“I ain’t never known a woman to want to share a man,” stated Steve as he turned his head to survey the decaying trailers of a small polygamist compound visible from the highway. Unlike my companions and me, Steve wasn’t wearing sunglasses. His skin had a natural tan, a shade of light brown that comes not from creams or salons but from just being in the sun all the time. His hair was shoulder length and his eyes were clear blue and framed by a web of small wrinkles. He looked like what I pictured a jack Mormon as described by Edward Abbey to look like – someone who had found their salvation not in the cool marble of a temple in Salt Lake City but in the red stones and white sands of the desert.
My companions - my dad and my friend Brace - and I were significantly paler, our eyes protected from UV rays by polarized plastic lenses, our heads covered by hats. We met Steve a few minutes earlier when his dusty Isuzu Trooper swerved into the parking lot at the end of the trail that marked the beginning of our trek into the desert. The three of us had come to the desert to hike the Paria River Canyon, which crosses the Utah-Arizona border, and we had hired Steve to shuttle us the 70-mile drive from the take out point, where we had parked our rental car, to the trailhead.
The landscape was beautiful and harsh and alien. Less than a day earlier, I had been caught in a rainstorm in the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to modern air travel, I had traded a million shades of green in Oregon for at least as many shades of red in Southern Utah and Arizona. Steve pointed out local features, taking obvious pride in our enjoyment of the beauty of his home, while we discussed local politics. “It’s not really fair to call them Mormons,” he said, asking us if we had read that book. “They’re fundamentalists.”
After about an hour's drive, Steve turned the Trooper off the highway and we rattled down a dirt road for two miles to the Whitehouse trailhead. An early settler named it that because the spring there had water that “tasted so good it could have come from the White House.” We glanced around but didn’t see any sign of a spring. The nearby riverbed was dry and covered with dirt as fine as sand.
Dad, Brace, and I pulled our packs out of the back of the SUV and shook hands with Steve. The three of us stood there for a minute and watched the Trooper as it turned around and drove back along the dirt road, kicking up dust. The gear cage on the top made it look truly like an expedition vehicle, something maybe seen on the edge of the Sahara.
Instead of a spring, we found a half-drunk bottle of apricot schnapps next to our campsite. It looked like it had been there for a few days and we didn’t bother to find out if it tasted like something they might serve at the White House these days. Instead, we decided to hike the two miles along the dirt road back to the small ranger station near the highway to top off our water bottles. Jackrabbits, scared off by the sounds of our voices and footsteps, darted out into the desert as we walked. Above us, the cloudless sky slowly faded from a dark blue to black, and the sky rippled with more stars than I had seen in a long time.
Part Two, Mile 18 – Longest, Darkest, Deepest
The water reached that uncomfortable level of just past my crotch. It was so cold that it wasn’t numbing me but rather causing a burning sensation in my lower extremities. The canyon had narrowed to about six feet wide and trapped a twenty foot pool of stagnant water that had the look and consistency of chocolate milk. The solid rock walls on each side rose in undulating cliffs for 500 feet, we couldn’t see the sky. The bottom of the stagnant pool was covered in a slick, sucking mud that threatened to throw me off balance and plunge me headfirst into the water.
We had decided to do a 16-mile day hike up a side canyon called Buckskin Gulch. The best guidebook to hiking the Paria is Hiking and Exploring the Paria River by Michael Kelsey. In it, Kelsey describes Buckskin Gulch as the longest, darkest, deepest slot canyon in the world. The water temperature of the pools we crossed underscored this fact. The murky pools are so deep down in that narrow, twisted crack that the sun never penetrates far enough into the slot canyon to reach and warm them.
Unlike the other days when we’d seek out shade to get out of the blistering sun, in Buckskin Gulch we sought little pockets of sunlight where we could warm up. Walking between the sun and the shade was like walking between a sauna and refrigerator. Crossing the pools of water was like swimming in the artic ocean.
The canyon meandered for longer than we could walk. We hiked eight miles from its confluence point of the Paria Canyon and then turned around and hiked back. The entire time, I was in awe. The canyon was so narrow that two people couldn’t walk side by side, yet the walls towered so high that it often felt like we were walking in a cave. Tree branches and boulders were jammed 50 feet in the air above us, placed there by earlier flash floods that occasionally swept down the narrow ravine.
From the sensual rock curves of the gulch to the stains and stripes on the canyon walls, Buckskin Gulch was simply beautiful. The muddy pools of torturous water had their own desert beauty, I thought as I crossed them. I just wished I was taller.
Part Three, Mile 30 – Rocks: More than Just Pets
I didn’t throw my rock as hard as I could; even so, it landed with a thump on the soft sand and rolled off the embankment and into the shallow stream. I cursed Brace under my breath.
There is a fine line between interpreting the rules of a game to your best possible advantage and cheating. Brace tends to play games in such close vicinity to this line that I’m never quite sure what side of it he’s on. Perhaps, though, I only like to think this because I always lose to him. Even in games that only involve rocks.
“The problem with camping,” a family friend who probably hasn’t gone camping for at least twenty years once said, “is that you just wait around until it gets dark enough to go to bed.” This friend, obviously, didn’t know about rocks.
Rocks, it turns out, can be very entertaining. It was on our second night that my dad invented the game that became our nightly routine. It wasn’t a new game but rather a variation on an old game and I’m sure other people have played it before. We called it “Rock Petanque.”
We played it like normal petanque (or bocce ball), only, and here’s the genius of the idea, with rocks. We’d throw a stick out on a flat, sandy bank of the river. Each player would get two rocks to throw at the stick and whoever’s rock landed the closest to the stick would win the round.
On the first night, the sun dropped behind the soaring cliff walls of the canyon early in the afternoon. The day cooled off and the evening became that special temperature that can only be described by the word “pleasant”. We played with round rocks that we found in the shallow stream. A sandy riverbank was our playing field and we threw our rocks overhand and rolled them to the target.
By the second night, Brace “reinterpreted” the rules of the game and started using flat rocks. He’d toss these rocks underhand, much like throwing a horseshoe, and they would land with a dull thud and lay where they fell. My round-ish rocks would land near the target and keep on rolling. Of course, I only slander Brace’s good name because I wasn’t smart enough to think of this strategy first. Nor was I smart enough to adopt it myself until I was so far behind that, if all bets were honored, I’d be buying rounds of beer for a long time.
Of course, Brace’s strategies were all moot because my dad, it turns out, has a special knack for Rock Petanque. It wasn’t a game he had really played before (despite the abundance of rocks in Montana), yet, every night that we played, he defeated us young whippersnappers. I had a plan to put rocks into his pack to make him extra tired at the end of the next day, but I suspect that wouldn’t have worked. They say part of life’s transitions comes when your sons start beating you at games. I keep wondering when this will happen.
Part Three and a ½: The Failure of Words
From the desert varnish staining the sides of red canyon walls to the shallow, glittering pools of the Paria, from the red sands to the pale green prickly pear, my words fail to describe the sheer size and beauty of the Paria River Canyon. Here then is a gallery of some of my better pictures from this hike:
Part Four, Mile 48: Hot
“It’s hot,” I thought to myself as the sweat dripped into my eyes. The sky had gone from being a narrow blue ribbon to a vast azure field as the canyon walls grew farther apart. The path of the sun appeared to be following the canyon and keeping pace with us. The cool shadows at the base of the cliffs walls had left for the day, leaving us exposed to the desert sun.
I readjusted my baseball cap for the hundredth time, shifted the weight of my pack, and took another step. We continued our walk along the edge of the water, zigging and zagging through the stream. With each hour we hiked, the water became warmer. I hoped we could find a place deep enough to go swimming. So far, we hadn’t found a swimming hole deeper than our knees.
“It’s hot,” I thought as I shifted the weight of my pack again. I took another step, feeling an ache in my knees. It was hard to believe that it was only ten in the morning.
Part Five, Beyond Mile 62: Civilization and Its Discontents
The line at the Café Rio in Saint George, Utah was long. It wound its way back and forth through a little maze of metal dividers. Brace, Dad, and I shuffled along as we waited our turns and didn’t say much. My knees ached and a pain flashed through my left ankle with every step. Still, the thought of hot food that didn’t come from a pouch and which involved a more complex cooking process than boiling water made each step worth it. In the six previous days of hiking through the desert, we had seen less than a dozen people. It was unnerving to be standing so close to more than twice that many people, especially because it had been six days since we’d taken a shower.
After backpacking, it’s always hard to return to civilization; this is doubly true, I believe, if that civilization is a Mexican restaurant in the retirement/golfing/Mormon community of Saint George. In the line in front of me, a college kid was wearing a shirt that read, “I’m not a gynecologist, but I’ll take a look anyway.” Even more disturbing, the guy behind us wore a silver and black bluetooth cell phone device in his ear. It was Sunday afternoon and he was obviously out for an early dinner with his large family. I wondered if, like some sort of cyborg, he felt naked if he wasn’t wearing the three-inch long earpiece. Perhaps he just needed to talk to someone other than his family.
Earlier that day during our last ten mile stretch through the desert, we had rested behind a rock carved with ancient petroglyphs and some modern graffiti. We had been battling the wind all day. While it kept things cool – probably in the low 90’s – the wind kicked the sand up into our faces. Particular fierce gusts felt like a power sander was being applied to my out layer of skin. Each step was a do-it-yourself, all-natural, anti-wrinkle derm abrasion treatment. A bit later, we passed an old rusted engine that had been the one and only attempt to pump water out of the stream up to the top of the canyon. A skeletal pipe still came out of the riverbank but it had been more than half a century since water had flowed through it.
Those two memorials of old and ancient peoples who had made the desert their home served as a reminder of how brief and fragile civilization can be. As I watched the modern-day cyborg behind me, I wondered if I was happy to be back in the real world or sad that I had just left it.
Update: A year later I returned to hike the Paria and I've now posted some of my 2007 Paria River Hike photos. In addition, I've also posted some thoughts and tips for hiking the Paria from this year's hike.