Saturday, October 5, 2013

I’m not a complete idiot, I’m only part of one; probably the dumbest part. To prove this let me first give some details about my car: it is a Honda Element which has All-Wheel-Drive (AWD). This means that it will drive using just the front wheels until it detects slippage, at which point it will engage the rear wheels to try to get me out of whatever mess I’ve gotten myself into. This works fairly well; I double my chances of having something grippy under my wheels and manage to get out of most ditches this way. I’ve driven down the Skutumpah Road when the washes were still deep and wet from the rain we’d had and managed to scrape by along the gravely creek beds. I’ve also driven over the mounds of sand that had blown onto the road to horseshoe canyon with no problem. So today I decided I’d head down the roads behind Factory Butte and see how far I could get before time or terrain turned me back. It ended up being terrain.
I drove down a road cut into the side of a tall mound of soft grey earth to get to the floor of the valley. Rain had taken the same course and eroded a 2 foot deep rut in the center of the road. Straddling the rut I left the car in second gear in anticipation of having to hit the gas to get over the bump at the bottom of the hill where the rut veered off across the road. I hit the ditch at the bottom hard with good momentum and turned the tires perpendicular to it and they jumped right over the far side. I continued along this road for a way, passing over small washes. In the distance I saw a much larger wash across the road and thought to myself very clearly “I shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to anyway”. The front tires dropped off the ledge and skirt under the front bumper scraped the sand. I instinctively hit the brakes which killed my momentum going through the wash. I put the car in first and tried to recover some speed at the base of the ditch and managed to get the front half of the car out of the wash. I was going too slow though and the rear tires tried to push me the rest of the way out but just dug into the sand. I put on the parking brake and got out to take a look. The right rear and front left tires were dug in and the other two were barely making contact with the ground. I got in and spun the tires hopefully one more time with no result. I got out again and walked along the wash thinking about how much it was going to cost me if I couldn’t get out of this myself. I found two flat rocks lying in the sand up the dry creek bed. I wedged them behind my rear tires and got back into the car. In reverse, I managed to rock the car until the rear tires were on top of the rocks. I put it back into first and popped the clutch. The car lurched forward with enough momentum to jump out of the ruts I had worn by spinning the tires. I stood on the gas until I was on flat ground again.

At this point I decided that I was going to head back before I got myself stuck farther down the road. I found a place to turn around and came up to the wash again. It was steeper on the exit from this direction and I was worried about getting stuck again. I turned off the car and walked down into the wash to plan my passage. I wanted to be able to drive faster through the sand but the ledge was too abrupt and would hit my front bumper. I took a large stone and beat it against the ledge until I had formed it into a more gentle slope. Then I found some more flat stones and buried them in the sand in spots where I thought I might need some extra traction. I could see the tracks from where I had come through before so I could estimate where the tires would hit on the slope. Preparations finished, I got back in and started the car. By the time I hit the wash I was in second gear going about 12 mph. The front tires dropped into the wash and the nose of the car pitched down into the sand but I kept on the gas. I ran over the first of the rocks that I had placed and the front of the car lifted up enough to clear the ledge on the exit side. Just as the front tires came out on the other side they slipped in the sand but by that time the rear tires had gotten to the buried stones and I had enough traction to push myself the rest of the way out. 
I followed the road back up to the junction where another trail breaks off to the other side of the valley. My spine still tingling from the near miss down in the wash I was glad to be headed back towards the main road. I looked off across the valley to the golden buttes in the distance; the sun was on its way down now and they were glowing in a way they hadn’t been when I passed this junction before. So of course, I kept on straight and headed back down into the valley again along the other branch of the dirt road. I told myself I’d turn around if I had to pass through any washes on this side but no sooner had I told myself that than I came around a corner looking down into a narrow ditch at the bottom of a hill. This one didn’t have a steep drop off so I rolled right over it and up the other side without hitting the gas. The road led down between the two golden buttes and I stopped just under the smaller one to get out and explore. 
The buttes were in the midst of a sea of grey earthen swells. The earth of these hills was softer than even the muddy mounds in the Badlands of South Dakota. With each step my boot would sink a half inch into the dry cracked earth, sometimes an inch. The surface was brittle and crunched under my feet but beneath this thin layer the ground was spongy. Trying to climb a slope to get a better view of the buttes was a struggle against the loose ground crumbling under my feet. I found that I was able to kick the toe of my boot into the earth to make a foothold as I climbed.
At the top of a tall mound I could see that the larger butte was a horseshoe shape with steep cliffs on all sides. That is except for a slope of fallen conglomerate rock stacked up against a cliff on the inside of the horseshoe. If I could get to that I could probably climb up the rest of the way and get on top of the butte. I slid down the crumbling hillside, chased by tumbling pebbles loosed by my footfalls. At the base was a field of gravel that supported my weight much better. As I walked across the crunching gravel I looked down at the stones; some of them appeared to be hollow. I picked one up for a closer look and discovered that they weren’t stones at all but were in fact the shells of some ancient mollusk. I was walking on the floor of an ancient sea, long since evaporated.
Atop the butte the ground was perfectly flat and strewn with small black rocks. I noticed a plant that I’d never seen before. A narrow stem supported a bulbous pouch; from the top of the pouch dendritic flowering branches grew, some with their own pouches. The tallest that I found were about a foot high. I saw some that had been broken off just above the pouch and I imagined small rodents chewing the tops off to get at the water stored inside. I took out my knife and slit one of these plants down the side. The blade followed the grain of the stem and cut through the pouch easily; there was no water inside.
I approached the edge of the butte facing away from the valley toward the San Rafael Swell. There I could see deep canyons cut by the streams running down the side of the uplift. Though the canyons were above me, they were turned on their side and I could see into them as if I were flying over them in an airplane. The largest one issued forth a wide silty creek. I checked my map and saw that it was named Muddy Creek. The inner gorge of this canyon looked intriguing and I made plans to follow the course of the creek into the canyon the next day. The series of canyons got smaller and smaller as the swell dove under the grey earth of the valley. Looking out over this lunar surface I could see Factory Butte over the cliffs that I had driven down from earlier on the other side of the valley.

1 comment:

  1. These photos, and stories are amazing. If I didn't know any better, I'd think you ARE on the moon. wow! Now, as to your first sentence, I'd saw it was true only if you didn't realize how the rest of the story disproves it. Now you just need to come up with a creative title for this post. Perhaps "Utah or the moon, you decide" :) Regardless, fantastic story telling and photos. Thank you for sharing this experience as you go...