I’d been trying to do a backpack all year. It shouldn’t have been that hard. I have five weeks vacation. I am in good health and relatively good shape. I live on the edge of the Colorado Plateau—a short drive to some of the world’s most spectacular wildernesses.
For years I did one “big” backpack a year. Grand Canyon. Utah canyon country. San Juan Mountains. The Sierra Nevadas. For a while, we had a regular Monkey Wrench gang—a motley crew of boozers and poets, bankers and meat clerks, who, at the drop of a hat, could have packs packed and canteens ready—usually with Jim Beam.
With age, though, comes complications. My favorite hiking partner, my wife, has seen her job “down-sized.” She lost all her vacation time and holidays. My kid s a teenager—physically able to climb Everest, but mentally unwilling to walk a cross the street on foot—especially with his dad. My brother is caring for a spouse with a long, lingering terminal illness. My friends all have their own troubles and obligations. Some just simply no longer want to do it.
I still wanted to do it. Badly. Yet other demands always seemed to cut in line. Originally I had an ambitious four-day backpack along the Tonto Rim planned. I lined up some hikers, circled the week in red on my calendar but, like all the rest of my plans this year, the red ink turned to blue, turned to pencil, turned to eraser. By the time the week got here, all my hikers had opted out, I was physically drained and beaten from a hard summer’s worth of work and my own mounting chores were stacked up around the place like cord wood.
Still, I was determined to do something. Even as I crossed the backpack off the calendar, I penciled a short overnighter to my “happy place”—a nearby hike into a remote and pristine canyon wilderness. Though I’d been a avid backpacker all my life—I had never done a solo overnighter. Long day trips, sure, but truth be told, I had never spent a night alone in a deep dark wilderness. Even though I didn’t particularly relish the idea—I was desperate to do something.
Naturally, the day arrived dark and foreboding. The twenty-mile climb on a back road up the rim was an adventure in itself. Immediately it started raining and the road became covered with “weasel snot”—the kind of mud that makes ice seem tacky. Even in 4X, the Jeep was sliding all over the road. The rain came down steady and my tires were soon caked in clay-- leaves and trigs and branches spinning around in the mess.
This was a bad idea, I thought to myself.
The last mile or so to the canyon rim is a Four-wheel adventure even in dry times. That day it was a muddy nightmare. The mud-caked tires kept the Jeep from gaining any traction and I kept sliding off the sharp lava boulders. It was like rock climbing in muddy boots. I kept picturing shredded sidewalls and punctured oil pans. The rain increased ever so slightly.
This was definitely a bad idea, I thought.
I finally got to the trailhead—a rotting bulletin board and trailhead register abandoned years ago by the forest service--and turned off the Jeep. I sat there for a long time. If I was going to turn around, this was the time to do it. Finally I got my gear out of the Jeep, put on my rain jacket and pack cover and started down the trail. My boots were soon caked in weasel snot. Each step collected more mud until my boots weighted a couple tons each.
Such a bad idea.
I passed a graffiti rock in which I’ve tallied every trip down. I quickly see this is my 13th trip. Great. And then I recall it’s 9/11. Even better.
Once I started the descent into the canyon, however, the hiking took over and I fell into a groove. That kind of hiking—a steep descent on an unmaintained, rocky trail—requires complete concentration and soon all doubts and worries disappeared. The rain was kind of cool and refreshing. I enjoyed the hike down.
The last quarter mile involved some tricky route finding across a side canyon and some delicate bushwhacking through prickly pear and cat-claw country. The monsoon rains had brought tall grass and the no-see-ems were thick. Walking through the grass, they completely covered my legs like little hairy leggings. I could already see red welts from my allergic reaction to them. When I finally found the final descent and scrambled down to my favorite camping area next to the creek, I was greeted by a swarm of mosquitoes. I dug in my pack for the bug spray. Couldn’t find it. Frantically I took out the entire contents of the pack. I distinctly remembered setting the bottle on the counter but, apparently, that’s as far as it went. The rain had let up a little, but it is still drizzling.
Sometimes, it’s best to admit to a bad idea. And retreat.
I decided there’s no way in hell I’m staying down there alone all night in the rain with the bugs and no tent. But, since I was already down there, I might as well get some fishing in. I set up my rod and reel, selected a lure and started fishing upstream. Fishing is like hiking for me. It’s meditation in motion. All other thoughts—bugs, rain, backaches—all melted away. Soon I found myself in my favorite part of the canyon. The creek there sweeps into some seriously tall red rocks cliffs. The bottom of the cliffs is a red rock bench—smooth and level like walking on a sidewalk. The creek dives and splashes through series of cascades and troughs as it hits the sandstone and redirects itself. It’s easy walking and easy, unobstructed fishing.
Suddenly I realized it’s not raining. But it is. All around me I could see a delicate curtain of rain falling. But not on me. I looked around and realized the flat rock patio I’m standing on is completely dry. Finally I looked up and, 125 feet or so above me is a huge slab of rock, a sandstone roof, directly over my head. I started giggling. There was no rain, no bugs and I had a huge, dry flat area to camp next to the creek in complete warmth and dryness—while all around me the world got soaked.
And there it was. A magic moment. That is the reason I venture out there, seek some modest form of adventure, and take stupid ideas and run with them. Magic moments can fill your soul and refill your spirit. They are moments frozen in time that you carry with you forever. It’s a full moon rising at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, a blazing sunset above timberline beside an alpine lake, a star-blown sky and absolute silence in the Utah badlands. It’s a long perpetual summer twilight on a northern Montana lake, a bighorn drinking from a stream below you, a swim through a narrow slot canyon with walls erasing the sky, gaudy red desert sunset light that seems to stick to your skin like dust. They all are spontaneous moments of pure joy and beauty. And they make this otherwise ordinary, dull life something special.
To finish my story, I had a wonderful late afternoon and evening. I made a nice camp on my own private patio, got out my camp chair, stripped out of my wet clothes had a snack and a cocktail. The splashing creek and the falling ran were my happy hour music. I read a little, wrote a little, and for an evening, forgot all my worries.
Of course there was a fleeting thought before I drifted off the sleep. Something about having a hundred tons of porous sandstone soaking up water 125 feet directly above my head…