Canyon Dreams, Part 3



  • “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

In Salt Lake City I attended an expo sponsored by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).  On display was Ed Abbey’s beat up old Chevy pickup, with a few beer cans thrown in the back, for effect, I guess.  In his books he usually threw them out the window. Ed Abbey:  Writer, philosopher, wilderness lover, anarchist, curmudgeon. A park ranger in Arches National Monument before it became a national park.  Author of Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang, and several other pieces. Someone who wanted to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam.  A wilderness warrior hero to some, an anarchist dangerous subversive to the establishment.   He died a few years back and asked that his body be laid out in some remote desert to be food for wildlife.  I think his comrades complied, and kept the secret of where his bones now lay, surely bleached by the sun.

Before moving from Minnesota to Utah I had read Desert Solitaire and was taken in by the stark prose and the radical philosophy espoused.  Which begs the question:  can a true lover of wilderness truly be a radical?  Another way of looking at it is how can you not be a radical and truly love the wilderness?

In the late 1990s I found myself in Northeastern Utah as the Director of a Tri-county mental health center. A vast frontier territory the size of New England with Mormons, Cowboys, Oil Drillers, Ranchers, Ute Indians and even some meth dealers who hung out in the back country in trailers hiding from the law.  In this vast territory there are only 40,000 or so people, some living in towns like Vernal, Roosevelt, Duchene, and Manila.  The lower elevations are desert dry scrub featuring sage brush and cactus, middle elevations host some grasslands and trees, and the High Uinta Mountains run across the Northern border between Utah and Wyoming.  It is a land of many climate zones and stark beauty featuring red rock, alpine forests, and treeless mountain peaks.  The Green River runs through the territory featuring world class trout fishing and recreational boating and tubing.  Up river Flaming Gorge Dam impounds a large reservoir that produces hydroelectric energy.  The town of Manila, named after some event in the Philippines, was established when the dam was being constructed.  The whole area is about as remote as you can get in the lower 48. It booms and busts with the oil cycle. When I was there it was during a bust time.  Now, I’m sure it is booming as oil drillers seek to drill and frack every square inch of the territory.  When you go to the laundry mat they have separate washing machines for “greasers”, the overalls the roughnecks wear in the oil fields.

While there I took several day hikes and a couple of overnight campouts.  One day I decided to see how high up into the mountains I could go.  I drove my pickup up rough roads all the way to a parking area by Leidy Peak, up around 9000 feet.  Shepherds were watching over sheep that were grazing in high alpine pastures.  It was right at the tree line.  I put on my day pack and headed for the peak.  I soon got a whiff of something burning.  I turned the corner and saw the carcass of a horse someone had set on fire. I looked around and saw no one.  I speculated on what happened.  Most likely, I thought, some cowboy had ridden his horse up here, the horse stepped in a hole and broke his leg, and in the style of the old western movies, put the horse out of his misery with a bullet to the brain.  Why he set the horse on fire is a mystery.  Life is full of mysteries.

I turned away from this ugly scene and proceeded up the mountain trail.  There were cairns to mark the way.  Suddenly I heard hoof beats.  I turned around and coming straight up the trail behind me was a herd of mountain goats. I stepped aside and they whizzed right past.  They were resplendent in their white wool and dark horns.  That was my first and last encounter with mountain goats.   In 2010 a mountain goat attacked and killed a hiker in Olympic National Park.  They note mountain goat attacks are a very rare occurrence, but had I known there was even a remote chance of being attacked, I would have been less sanguine about my encounter.

A much bigger threat in the high country are from lightning strikes from afternoon thunderstorms. Klare and I had taken this same route around Leidy Peak at a later date and got chased off the mountain by scrapple, rain, thunder and lightning.  The wild can be a dangerous place.


Wild animal attacks and lightning strikes are dramatic dangerous events.  More insidious are the self-inflicted dangers trekking into the wild violating some what should be well-respected rules.  One weekend in Vernal I decided to explore for a trail I saw on the High Uinta map that followed a wash, then meandered up the woods to a plateau.  I parked my pickup at the trailhead.  No one else was around.  I proceeded to violate some rules:  I had not told anyone where I was going; I carried no water or food; I had no cell phone; I thought I’d be out just a short time and could easily find my way back.  I followed what looked like a trail up the wash, but the route soon disappeared. There were no cairns or markers. But the map says the trail should be RIGHT HERE.  What is it they say?  The map is not the territory.  As the trees and brush grew thicker I decided to bush whack up the hill to the plateau. It was tough going but I eventually came to a clearing and walked out over to the edge.  I could see my pickup down below.  The map indicated there was a trail off the edge of the plateau, which would have be a shortcut to the parking area.  I zig zagged across the edge looking for a way down.  In the meantime I was sliding on loose shale, skiing sideways ever lower. I ended up on my butt.  As I tried to get up I only worsened my situation by sliding farther.  I stopped and assessed the situation.  I thought to myself:  what a dumb way to die.  The way I saw it I had three choices:  continue sliding down over the edge falling over likely breaking a leg or worse;  remain here and hope to attract some attention if anyone else pulled into the parking lot, and, if not, starve to death and hope someone would find my bones on the hillside;  or, try to scoot up the hill on my butt until I could grab something and get to my feet.  I chose the third option.  Fortunately I was able to inch my way gradually up the slope, grab a tree root, and pull myself up to safety.  Whew. Damn map.  Like an idiot I violated some rules and still lived to tell about it.  Finally getting back to my pickup I reflected on how easy it was to get into trouble by just going for a weekend stroll through the wilderness.

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