Sunday, October 6, 2013

After getting back to my car yesterday I drove further down the road towards what I thought was a crossing of the creek that would lead me into the canyon I intended to explore. I stopped short of the crossing when I ran into some loose sand with bumps my undercarriage couldn’t clear. Looking at my map, the crossing should only be a quarter mile down the road and I’d walk there the next morning. I spent the rest of the day reading and writing in my car after taking a long afternoon nap.

The next morning I woke up and opened my eyes exactly 3 seconds before the sun came over the cliff in the distance and lit up the inside of my car. The night had been cold and the fog from my breath on the windows had frozen. I got up and made a quick breakfast while the sun melted the frost and I watched drops of water run down my windshield. After eating, I filled up two canteens and put one in my camera bag and clipped the other one to my shoulder strap. The ground felt hard at first and I wondered if the cold had frozen some residual moisture in the sand but when I kicked the ground with the toe of my boot, I broke through a thin upper layer to soft, loose sand. 
I walked up the road hoping to find a bridge over the creek. From the top of the butte yesterday the most interesting features of the canyon appeared to be on the right side of the creek so I would need to cross at some point to get there. I was following some dirt bike tracks when they abruptly doubled back and I looked up to see the dirt road plunge off a 3 foot ledge into the waters of the creek. There was about 40 feet between me and the ledge on the opposing bank. The water wasn’t high but it was stretched out across a 15 foot section of the creek bed; too far to jump and nothing in sight with which to make a temporary bridge. Walking around a bend in the creek I saw a spot where the water was deeper but only a few feet across. The ground below looked fragile but solid so I began to climb down to the creek bed. The first block of earth I put my feet on crumbled; not completely unexpected and I was relieved to see that it was dry. The ground below that was slightly dimpled with pits that looked like raindrops or the bottom half of a bubble that had popped. I jumped down to this lower level and immediately sank up to my knees in quicksand. I tried to turn around but my legs couldn’t move so I rotated at my hip towards the bank and grabbed onto the crumbling ledge. I managed to get ahold of some tall grass that gave me just enough leverage to pull one of my legs out of the quicksand. It gurgled and sucked and tried to take my boot off on the way out but I was now able to lay my leg down on the surface and get just enough support to free my other foot. I dragged myself up the bank, shoes and legs covered in mud. Luckily my pantlegs had stayed down and mud hadn’t flooded into my boots. I covered my legs and feet in dry sand hoping to soak up the moisture from the mud before it soaked through completely; it would dry and break off as I hiked.
I found another narrow section of the creek where the ground was rocky enough that I could approach the water without sinking into the mud. After testing the solidity of the opposite bank by tossing a few rocks I leapt across and climbed up to the dry sand. The bank was thick with rabbitbrush and tall grass so I walked towards the edge of the butte that ran along with the creek where the brush wasn’t as thick. I could see the pinnacle on the uplifted earth that held the canyon over the cliffs ahead so I knew I wouldn’t get too far off track this way. Following the edge of the butte I lost sight of the creek and could no longer hear its babbling. The sun was still low so I could stay mostly in the shade as I walked.

Eventually the creek bent and intersected my path again. I clung to the wall of the cliff and edged my way along the bank and the path opened up again for a while. Coming around another corner though, I saw that the creek had cut a sheer cliff into the butte and I wouldn’t be able to pass without crossing or climbing over the butte. Not eager to repeat my failed attempts at crossing earlier I chose to climb the butte.

There happened to be a pile of rubble stacked up against the cliff next to me almost all the way to the top. The stone in the pile was mostly conglomerate which would break off in unexpected places as I grabbed onto it to climb. Handholds that appeared to be large buried rocks were actually thin sheets that would pull out of the sand when I put my weight on them. After scaling a particularly exposed ledge I found myself sitting on a slope consisting entirely of loose gravel. Every time I moved to reach for a handhold the extra force I put on my feet would push the gravel down the slope and I’d slide closer to the ledge. I was getting tired so I decided to just sit still for a while, not advancing up the slope but not sliding closer to a fall. As I rested I tossed a few stones over the ledge to see how far they would tumble. The smaller ones got caught behind larger rocks and stopped pretty quickly so I kept throwing larger and larger stones until I got one that careened all the way to the bottom, 80 feet below. With that I decided to descend the slope and return to the bank of the creek to find another way; from my perch I had seen a spot a little way back where the water wasn’t so wide. 
Making my way down to the creek I knew I wouldn’t be able to jump the span so I decided to remove my boots and socks to wade across. The rocks on the creek bottom hurt my feet but the pain from the ice cold water quickly exceeded that of the sharp rocks and I ran the rest of the way across. I found a sun baked stretch of sand on the other side to walk along while my feet warmed up and dried off so I could put my boots back on.

The brush on this bank was thicker so I ducked my head down and crashed through the dead branches of the box elder. The tall grass was trampled down and the dead branches of the brush were tangled with mud; it appeared that during our torrential downpour last month this entire basin had flooded. Little runoff ditches streaked the ground and I used them as short trails under the tangled sticks. Occasionally I would see the heart shaped prints of a deer that had come the same way and I was encouraged to know that a local thought this was as fine a trail as I did. I could also use the prints to see where the deer had run into saturated ground and broken through the mud. It all appeared like dry, cracked pottery on the surface but some sections still liquefied on contact.

I followed the bends of the river, climbed up and down piles of boulders and crashed through tunnels in the brush on the banks for what must have been about three more miles before I reached the mouth of the canyon. The red cliffs rose so abruptly and the opposing walls of the canyon were so close together that it appeared that a great gate had been left open for me to pass though. The sunlight reflected off the walls and the interior of the canyon glowed. I saw that the deer I had been following had come this way too and their prints disappeared into the water and reemerged on the opposite shore in the meander ahead. I realized that I too would have to cross the water frequently to progress up the canyon as the creek rushed up against sheer cliffs on alternating walls. I took off my boots and socks again and left them sitting on the bank at the entrance of the canyon; I hadn’t seen anyone for two days here and I doubted anyone else would come now, much less want anything to do with my mud caked boots. 
Walking down the bank the mud forced itself between my toes and my feet sank into the ground until they hit the gravel 4 inches under. The ground under the flowing water was more firm and the creek washed the mud off of my feet as I crossed. Of course I sank right back in when I reached the other side, but I saw that the deer had as well. I continued this way, crossing slowly and carefully, then rapidly and haphazardly when I couldn’t bear the pain of the cold water anymore. In the sunny areas the mud was warm and felt good as it enveloped my frozen feet.
The walls of the canyon climbed higher and higher and the red gave way to a stained orange, streaked with desert varnish. Along the banks fallen boulders had been eroded into precarious, tall monoliths by the passing floods and little pools held water from the last rain. As the canyon deepened and the sun started its afternoon descent the shaded areas grew larger until the earth was cold everywhere I stepped. I climbed up on a rock a little over a mile into the canyon to rest my feet. I had been telling myself that I would go back after each bend of the corridor but each turn revealed something beautiful in the distance so I had kept going. The path ahead was heading northwest and the sun lit one wall of the canyon completely down to the water. I sat and watched the reflected light from the ripples of the creek race across the cliffs above until I could feel my toes once more; then I turned back.
I retrieved my boots at the mouth of the canyon and scrubbed my feet with sand to remove the mud. On the walk back I followed coyote tracks instead of the deer tracks. They sometimes intersected and I wondered if the coyote could tell how old the deer tracks were and if they were worth following. The coyote is lighter on his feet than the deer and he led me into a few mud pits on my way back. I cut short the meanders of the creek and followed the base of the butte that I had climbed to the top of yesterday. I passed the ancient sea floor and the painted purple domes. Finally I saw the tire mark of a dirt bike and followed it back to the road and to my car. 

No comments:

Post a Comment