I PROMISED THE TREES MY RELIGION (~85 miles on the Hayduke trail)

The Hayduke is an ~800 mile route across Utah, from Moab to Zion. It goes through several national parks and wilderness areas, and has many alternates. Knowing that the Hayduke is more of a route than a trail, we conservatively planned on five days to complete ~eight-five miles. It took us six days. We began our hike at the northern end of Salt Creek Canyon in the Needles District of Canyonlands and ended near Hite Marina at Lake Powell.

This is the first time I have hiked such a short section of a long trail, and in a group. I wasn’t really sure how the experience would go. There was no particular goal involved; no mountain summit, no Canadian border or state line. We didn’t even start at the beginning, or the end, of the Hayduke. Our plan was simply to hike “section 3”, about eighty-five miles of the route. For me it takes about a month on a thru-hike to reach the point that a shift of consciousness occurs, and two months to become fully grounded in the experience. I knew I would not have that experience on this hike, but I did hope to learn something new about myself as I wandered the wilds of Utah.

It was an easy first day, ~twelve miles to our permitted campsite in Salt Creek Canyon. Our packs were heavy with the added weight of a bear canister, a new requirement for Salt Creek Canyon. The weather forecast called for some rain, and possible snow. As we got closer to our campsite, we hoped we might find an alcove, or overhanging cliff, nearby so we could camp without setting up the tent. The last half mile before our camp wound through overgrown willow saplings, and through what seemed like more of a recently flooded marsh than a canyon creek. Pink marking tape, tied periodically to the willows, marked the trail as we pushed the last mile through the brush to our campsite. We emerged from the thick vegetation to a signpost with the number of our campsite, and to our amazement, there was indeed an overhanging cliff, a beautiful alcove, to camp under. The evening was warm and we all hung out talking about the next day’s miles and the sites we’d see along the way.

The next morning was cold and we woke to a light drizzle. The drizzle slowly turned to snow as the temperature dropped. We hiked on …more snow, then sleet, occasional hail; not exactly what we had expected, even having seen the weather forecast ahead of time. We were all beginning to feel a little desperate as we approached Four Faces, a petroglyph and ruin site, where we found a perfect overhang, up high and out of the weather. We stayed for several hours, drying out our clothes and getting warm, while we waited for a better weather window. I wondered how many others had sat here throughout time, under this same overhang, huddled out of the weather. A small twinge of connection to another time began to tug at the inner parts of myself.

Bits of blue sky began to shine through the clouds, and the falling snow slowly subsided. We packed up and took a moment to greet the Four Faces petroglyph at the ruin site below, before venturing back on trail. The wind was cold, but there was promise of better weather on the horizon. Our desperation slowly turned to smiles as we approached the “All American Man” petroglyph site. We stopped for photos. Multiple layers of history filled the canyon. After a series of selfies, with this strange figure, we marched on, through the fallen snow, across the mud, and deeper into the canyon. The skies grew white and the snow, wet and heavy, fell with the furry of what felt like a full blown blizzard. Maverick, our permit holder for Salt Creek, marched ahead quickly, having brought very few bad weather layers. Neon and Marie fell behind, then Neon out of sight. Visibility became difficult. I stopped to wait for Neon. Maverick was gone. Marie passed. I hollered into the white, snowy, fog, “nEoN…”, and again, but no response, I turned back and headed down the trail in the direction we had come from …”nEoN…”, nothing… After a few minutes I thought I heard something, it was Neon. He had stopped at an overhang to rest and eat.

He packed up and we headed back down the trail. After a bit we came across Marie wandering up a different trail. She had lost track of Maverick and wasn’t sure which direction, at a fork, was the trail. She followed us, and after a few minutes we came across Maverick waving at us from an alcove he had stopped to wait for us at. The snow was still falling heavy and we were all a little frazzled in the wet, cold, experience.

Hiking in a group is a very different experience than hiking alone, or as a pair. There is a different feeling of responsibility, expectation, and order to the experience. For myself, when I am alone, or hiking with Neon, I feel completely grounded in the rhythm of the experience, fully competent, and with little worry about speed or obstacles in my path. But in a group, the dynamic is very different; the worries, tension, and control become paramount to the experience. And for myself, my personal speed and rhythm become compromised. I no longer feel fast, moving along with the path of the sun and the rhythm of my body. I become fully aware that these other animals posses a speed and a strength that I have never had. I begin to feel weak, and my rhythm and needs rushed. My strength has always been my perseverance, and long-term will and determination, but rarely short-term speed or brute strength. No, my strength is my will, and my ability to find a way through the obstacles in front of me, without using brute strength or speed to plow through the moment.

I’m sure it is different for everyone, but I’m perfectly comfortable alone. I don’t feel lost or lonely; I feel part of my surroundings, not separate or isolated. I feel competent, grounded in the rhythm of the earth and the sun. I become the tree, run with the elk, and fly with the birds. I become as timeless as the rocks, the stars, and the wind. Something very giddy, calm, and excited overcomes me. It passes through me as if everything else is moving and I am standing still. And when I am fully grounded in the experience, I am completely transported, floating above the landscape like a dream or a vision. It is truly a gift, that as an artist, would do me wise to capitalize on this strength: my rhythm, my speed, this connection to the landscape …and to find this in my connection with a group.

The day, moving toward evening now, finally broke into full blue sky. We dropped our bear canisters at the Cathedral Butte Trailhead, to retrieve at a later date, and ventured into the cross-country route to Dark Creek Canyon …over a rise, up a wash, and then steeply up loose sand and rock, seeming nearly vertical at times …and this with the weight of 4+ liters of water added to my pack. I began to feel that rushed, where the heck are we going, and is this really the best way, feeling. This can’t possibly be the “route”. There’s nothing sustainable or maintainable about multiple hikers scaling this vertical loose sand and rock. But everything was moving so fast. It felt more like being chased by a lion than being part of a migration.

We reached the plateau. The sun was low on the horizon. With some discussion and pointing we settled on a campsite. I thought there, Neon there, Maverick there, Marie settled on a rock slab as to not puncture her air mattress on the prickly pear that covered the area. Neon and I finally agreed on a location for the tent. I cleared the area of rocks and pine cones, as he squished his face and said, “You want the door to go thEre?”. I said, “well, yEAh, I don’t want to climb out of the tent, uphill, and into a tree truck when I get up to pee in the night, so, yeah, then the door would face this way!” He shook his head and pulled out the tent stuff sack. He opened it, reached inside, and then some quiet, then loud, exclamations came forth. “What, is that not the tent?” I said. He looked at me. I paused. I thought about the rain last night. The cold, wet, snow today. I looked at the sky …and then said, “Well, that simplifies things then. With no tent, we can have our heads the direction you want and it will be even easier to get up to pee in the night.” We all laughed, ate, and spread out our stuff. The winds blew heavy in the night, with little snow. Our anxieties about the weather and no tent allowed for little sleep through the night, but we woke rested enough and promptly started our day to warm our bodies in the ice cold morning.

The day took on a new rhythm …breaking and hiking periodically together, and sometimes in pairs. The day seemed to pass quickly, alternating between hot sun, and cold wind with dry snow flurries. Up steep ridges, down rocky ledges, through washes, overgrown sage and willows, and up again. Toward the end of the day we hiked through Ruin Canyon and up to a ridge with a ruin watchtower that looked out over the surrounding ridges and creek valleys. I began to feel again that connection to another time tug at the inner parts of myself.

The night was cold with some snow. By morning my water had partially froze. Our route followed the middle of the ridge. We wound our way through the trees. It felt like a labyrinth intended to obscure the way. We broke through the trees to a view of high cliffs above, and a ramp of rocky ledges ahead of us. This was our way up.

The sun was feeling warm now and my jacket hot. I started to get that rushed feeling as everyone plowed forward. I finally stopped, packed away my jacket, and took a moment to review the route. I chose a line on the rocky, fourth-class, ledge to ascend. We all climbed up different areas to the top of the ledge. Looking up, more ledges, and snow, lots of snow. It quickly turned into a race for the top, and best to just get up, and not think too much about it. Up snowy slopes, more fourth-class ledges, and through the trees.

As we ascended the fourth class ledges through the snow, I told the trees that I loved them, because they held the ground together and helped make the air I breathe. They stand tall into the sky and bring my thoughts to something old, perhaps even ancient; reminding me of the cycles of nature when we were just another entity, an animal roaming the earth. I reached for a branch, testing its strength before grabbing tight. My foot slipped a little on the icy sandstone. I pulled hard on the tree limb, and whispered, “I promise you my religion, just don’t let me fall”.

It was all very exhausting, and tricky in the snow. After a few more ledges and steep snow slopes we stopped for a break. It seemed we were through the worst of it …until we came to another ledge, just a little too steep to get footing on in the snow. I reached deep into the snow and grabbed tight ahold a prickly bush, pulled hard, and up I went. My hands so cold now, they hurt. I had to stop and breathe warm breath into my fingers. They were burning. But there was more rock ahead. It all started to look like a wall, and a wall of snow. There was nothing to pull on except the trees and the bushes. We moved around a corner, steep on the cliff. My foot holding on a thin ledge of snow that sloped off to the valley below. I wedged between a tree and the rock face. Neon was already up. “How’d you do that? I can’t do that!” I looked back at where we had come from, and then tried pulling up the rock. Neon said, “Use that pocket finger hold right there, then grab that dead tree branch.” “With this pack on? I don’t think so!”, I said. I tried. It wasn’t working. Maverick was right behind me and held my back as I tried again. I stepped up, pulling on the pocket hold, held from behind, I grabbed the branch and I was up! I swung around the branch, stepped up again and I was atop the rock, but quickly became tangled in the branches of the bush above. I was pulling, trying to use that brute strength I don’t possess, when I decided to catch my breath, balance, and reach back to gently remove the branches that were caught on my pack, and then I thanked the trees for holding on. I heard Maverick yelling below. It didn’t sound good. “Did you slip?” I asked. More yelling. I couldn’t tell what was going on. I broke free and moved out of the way. “Is everything ok?” “I slipped and lost one of my trekking poles”, he shouted. Finally we were all up and Marie was waiting for us. I looked ahead, hoping that was really the last of it.

We moved across the slopes and finally made it to the Trail Canyon trailhead. There was still a little snow, but there was also trail. We quickly descended down the trail and into the canyon. We camped at Woodenshoe Canyon. It poured down rain through the night. We were drenched and cold, but warm enough, or at least we didn’t actually freeze rolled up in our ground sheet. The next day we made it through the rest of Dark Canyon. Across trail, through the creek, traversing the limestone ledges and the trails above the narrowest parts of the canyon. We camped at the base of the Sundance Trail, our trail out of Dark Canyon, and to the road walk back to the car. The night was warm, and thankfully dry.

We woke in good spirits and climbed out of the canyon. I felt as though I’d just exited a wormhole. It took a few minutes, but I shook off the experience, looked at the map, consulted the gps and took course across the landscape. Polarized sunglasses, check! Headphones, check! I looked behind me, everyone was there, check! And off I went …transported, gliding across the landscape like a hawk hovering in the wind. It all came to life. I wondered what I had learned, and then I let go, stopped thinking, and just walked…

Salt Creek Canyon views

Salt Creek Canyon views

Salt Creek Canyon

Break Time!

Peekaboo, Salt Creek Canyon

Four Faces, Salt Creek Canyon

The All American Man, Salt Creek Canyon

More snow on day 3

Ruin Canyon lookout

Pottery in Ruin Canyon

Morning shadow, entering Dark Canyon

Dark Creek Canyon narrows

Henry Mountains in the Distance

Desert color on the last day

Oh, those colors!_

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