We definitely hit the reset button in town, taking a triple zero—so much time in bed that my muscles grew stiff. I ate too much. I think my stomach has shrunk, eating only a handful of nuts at time on my backcountry snack breaks. I’m not sure cooked food agrees with me anymore, or maybe it was all those carbs in the pizza I ate. When we made it back to our route, the heat was oppressive and my muscles were cranky. I felt sleepy in the sun, but my spirits were high. I was excited to be back out in the wild. Rest is an important part of adventuring, and I’d forgotten just how important until these last couple of weeks.
We were heading down Round Valley Draw by early afternoon. The sun was high and hot—a perfect time to drop into a deep slot canyon. There was a rope tied to a chockstone that we used to lower our packs. Neon climbed down the chute first, then I followed behind. It was like entering another world, an underground world. The light slipped in through the narrow slot overhead, reflecting and dancing around the wavy curves of the canyon walls. Water is one of earth’s best sculptors.
After a couple of miles, the narrow slot opened up into Hackberry Canyon. It was still early, but I was so sleepy. We found a soft patch of sand, out of the creek bed, and set up camp. We were asleep before six o’clock. A long, deep, sleep followed, like only the backcountry can bring. I had strange dreams and woke to a sub-freezing dawn.
We spent the afternoon walking through deep sand, and shallow water. The canyon walls changed from pale yellow-tans to reds. We followed cow tracks along the creek, passed an old cowboy cabin, wandered through sage and cottonwoods, and camped on red soil between cactus and sage. The ground was hard from dry clay, and lumpy from cow tracks. A bee buzzed up and down and back and forth around our camp. We wondered if perhaps we were blocking its path in some way. A chorus of frogs sang through the night.
We made our way down the creek, through cottonwoods, to the end of Hackberry Canyon and to the Paria River canyon. The wind whipped through the canyon, the cows stared at us, sounding in a low, deep, moan as we approached. Their voices echoed off the canyon walls like ghosts lost in time. The canyon sides were shades of red, and the riverbed white with thick alkaline salt crusts. We crossed back and forth over the muddy Paria River, walking its banks of mostly firm mud. The afternoon grew hot with pesky flies, occasionally swept away by the wind. Up and down cattle paths, along the river, hot winds, and cottonwoods.
We collected slightly less muddy water from Kitchen Canyon Creek. It was heavily guarded by cows. They moaned at us as we approached, running upstream, turning to see if we were still there, then stopping for a stare down. I moaned back, and told them they could have all the water in the Paria, but we had to share this water. They disappeared through the brush and trees. As we made our way back to the Paria, they came out of the trees ahead of us, turning and sounding in their deep ghostly moan again, then running off up river. We found a sandy patch under the shade of some cottonwoods to camp. The frogs started early—an evening lullaby that always sends me softly off to sleep.
The morning brought more of the same—red canyon walls, river crossings, sand, firm mud, flies, and wind. We came upon the same group of cows. They would stare, and give us their deep bellowing moan, then run upstream. A little while later, we’d see them again. This repeated several times through early afternoon, before I decided to give them a “woohoo” in a soft, slightly high, feminine tone, like I was singing, instead of calling back to them in a deep moan like their own. They stared at me, shifting their feet slightly, here and there taking a step backward or sideways. But they just stood there, staring, instead of running off ahead of us. We passed, and they stayed put this time. That was the last time we saw them. I wondered, was this the end of their route, or did my woohoo mean something to them.
We turned into Sheep Canyon, its walls smooth and a pale yellow-tan. Its creek ran orange, heavy with clay. We left the cottonwoods behind and emerged into a pine, fir, and juniper forest. The tall walls with these trees reminded me of the Sierras. A mountain lion’s tracks crossed the creek, huge prints in the mud. I felt as though I’d been transported. Each canyon can be so different out here.
We camped in the shade of a big wall, junipers to my left on the sand bank, fir and pine to my right high on the cliff walls. Beltane eve—we cheers’ed over a little gin, in this wild place, a yellow alpenglow lingering on the cliff walls. The frogs began their calls as the sky grew dark. I tossed and turned, thinking about those mountain lion tracks. When I woke to pee there were so many stars in the sky it seemed unreal, like one of those long-exposure photos. I looked up to the other side of the cliff—just then a bright white streak traced along its edge, flaring into a bright green flash. I heard myself let out a loud and astonished “Woah!” I crawled back into my sleeping bag, still tossing and turning, looking up occasionally to watch the sky. The Milky Way seemed to grow thicker and more dense through the night. Peering up through canyon walls at the night’s sky has been a real highlight on this hike, or maybe it’s just southern Utah, but one things for sure—the skies are different out here.
We crossed Willis Creek first thing in the morning. Its waters flowed orange into Sheep Creek. Upstream of Willis, Sheep Creek ran clear. I wondered if Willis Creek was flowing orange from snowmelt off the cliffs in Bryce. We made it to our food cache by second breakfast. It was May Day, one of my top favorite holidays, and what better place to be than out here with all this beauty, and a fresh resupply of food!
I find myself much more relaxed at this point in the route, ~four hundred miles from where I began. I have no worries about water, or where I will sleep. I’m comfortable squeezing a few more days out of my allotted food rations. I’ve even come to dance across scree and cross a river with little contemplation. The wilds of this earth have always been my first home. I wander from them sometimes, but I always return.
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