Salt Creek

I can’t describe the morning at Cathedral Butte as cold. But I watched Salt Creek Canyon come to light still wrapped in my sleeping bag. After all, it was late October, in Utah, a mile and a half above sea level. The canyon below was just as inviting as when we’d arrived last night—which threw me a bit. In the rocky phantasm of Canyonlands, it should not have been remarkable. After all, it was just another jagged gash through the plateau, revealing stone colored like blood and bone. I was expecting something deeper, narrower, more forbidding. So the sloping, sinuous walls, the inviting open canyon bottom, caught me off guard. I was, though, expecting the endless, preternatural silence drifting up from a thousand feet below. It was exactly why I was here.

Not needing to move right then, I stayed in my bag and settled into my anxieties. While I enjoy empty places as much as anyone, I only sip at that elixir. Any misanthropic stones waiting to pin me to a canyon wall won’t find me alone. I also like knowing where I’m going—even if it’s extrapolated from a map. Following a shimmering karmic spirit is fine for dancing with hippie chicks at Burning Spear concerts. But it doesn’t find a spring in the middle of a thousand acres of baking rock and blearing sunlight. What was emerging below was terra incognito. And if I read past the symbols on every every map I’d consulted, the cartographers cared less if I found my way around in it.

Every single one had bad data. One showed two points on the trail eight and one-half miles apart. On the ground, those points cover more than half of a 28 mile canyon. Another showed the road there bisecting Cathedral Butte. No. The road skirted north of the butte just as you’d expect. Another showed Abbey’s Triple Arch down a side canyon. In some alternate universe perhaps. In this desert Abbey’s Triple Arch is over 100 miles north northwest.

Not that we could get lost. The stoney gash runs due north. Something like a trail runs through the bottom. There was one way in, one way out. So it was far better than The Maze, a section of Canyonlands, that remains, still, one of the least mapped areas in the country. In The Maze there is sometimes one way in and no way out. No, Salt Creek looked like a cakewalk. Even by comparison to other parts of The Needles.

I fretted too about the speed of light. Not as the universal constant C. But as a function of the planet rotating into the sun’s light and out again. Our packs were heavy; the distance set each day fixed. Bad maps could mean daylight washing over us, dissolving into darkness, long before we blundered into camp. Even now we should be moving. The smeared edge between dawn and daylight was rushing toward us at 1100 miles an hour. When it reached us, we needed to be stumbling over rocks and roots in a rapid plunge down the canyon wall. I dropped my comforter and stood to let the chill seep in. Since I wasn’t about to face the mystery alone it was time to wake my backpacking buddy.

Salt Creek sounds like a terrible place. Maybe not as bad as Arsenic Springs. But bad. For two backpackers who had never been in Canyonlands, though, it might have been close to perfect. The section we planned to walk required a steep descent for the first 1100‘. Or the first mile. Depending on vertical or horizontal measurement. For the first 1100’ the trail was steep, rocky and littered with roots and sticks. Then it spilled out onto a wide flat canyon bottom thick with sage, weeds and piñon pine. So it was easy terrain, easy navigation and—most important—it was empty.

So far, we had encountered one other backpacker. Roxy was a nomad. She’d discovered what most of us suspect: having a job is expensive. We’re taught that, because we’ve accumulated a huge pile of cheap goods and services, as wage earners life is full and easy. It’s a shell game. Having a three dollar Salad Shooter is one thing. A different picture emerges when you factor the cost of key elements for getting and keeping a job—housing, healthcare, energy and education. All four have risen faster than the rate of inflation. The situation is sustainable for the Wall Street robber barons who skim their share off the top. Or for the few who have managed to claw their way into the upper middle class. For the rest of us the prospects are more bleak. Roxy had read the writing on the wall. She had unleashed herself from being a wage slave. Now she lives in a little truck named Mitzi. Various dispersed camping areas in Utah keep the rent near zero. She maintains an inexpensive existence, supporting herself through photography, writing, or occasional part-time work. She spends the rest of her time enjoying some of the most incredible scenery on the planet.

Roxy had started down the trail at full light. Mary and I caught up with her just after we hit the canyon bottom. Strolling along together in the now bright morning light, we broke the silence getting to know each other a little better. I disengaged here and there to take in this missing slice of rock.

What is Canyonlands exactly? Canyonlands National Park is a high, arid desert. It is a wasteland of deformed plants, senseless heat, ugly rock, and vast distances impenetrable by car. This primal landscape is in the region around the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Think of that confluence as a crotch. The Needles District is the right hip socket. The Maze forms the left hip socket. Island in the Sky is the mon pubis, or mons veneris if you like. Or maybe more like the pubic bone. The Park Service refers to these areas as zones—each distinct. Some assert that the rivers form a fourth zone. This is questionable. But the riverine environment is special place in the southwest. A short distance from the river the environment becomes completely different and completely hostile.

The geomorphology of Canyonlands is bewildering. In a time out of mind, the Laramide orogeny lifted a huge section of what is now the western United States. The Colorado Plateau was just one part of that shift, but unique in that the immense rising rock layers remained horizontal. Jointing occurred, of course: all monoliths crack. With the Pleistocene era came ice ages and other increased precipitation. Water flowed through those joints, excavating canyons to form Canyonlands. Now it is a desert again, a place wild, remote and challenging. If you can overcome fear and deprivation, its most remote corners offer a lifetime of exploration and solitude.

In those impenetrable convolutions, Salt Creek is almost a gift. From our trajectory it was the closest access point into a remote corner of Canyonlands. While most other canyons twist and turn and undulate, Salt Creek cuts an open, obvious route through the plateau. While other canyons are narrow and intimidating, Salt Creek is open and inviting. But that’s not to say it is easy.

The climate in Canyonlands is formidable. In summertime, the rocks are an oven. Temperatures in the shade can exceed 100°F. Add convection and radiant heat from cliff walls, and temperatures can become lethal. Winter nights can plunge well below freezing. Snowstorms can close trails and make slickrock sections impassable. Storms any time of year can be abrupt and violent.

We picked October—one of the few months there you might call mild. But even October is suspect. It can bring days with a 40°F temperature swing. Mid-afternoon might have you stripping down to shorts and shirtsleeves. A few hours later you are squirming into your fleece, preparing for a chilly fourteen-hour night. And, by October the summer chubascos have long passed. Runoff that fueled seeps and springs has dried up. Water can start to be hard to find.

The most easily passable section of Salt Creek has four designated camp sites. (Three, really. SC1 and SC2 are practically on top of one another.) Each of the four is a reasonable distance from a reliable spring. We soon discovered that as you approach each spring, the canyon bottom becomes a jungle. We emerged from the first one with Kirk’s Cabin just over the rise. The spring there was flowing, a prodigious rush of water. Water in the desert. Always a miracle. My anxiety eased a little. Roxy made the turnoff to SC2. Mary and I continued on, now the only two people in an empty canyon.

The only two people at this moment. Salt Creek Canyon saw human habitation for thousands of years. We passed small ruins close to the trail. Spurs lead off to even more dwellings or granaries. You have to imagine The Ancients prizing a canyon like this. In fact much of Canyonlands, and the surrounding area, is chock full of cliff dwellings. I chuckle almost every time I see one. Modern parents view houses as an environment hostile to their kids. Too many stairs. Bedrooms on different floors. Too hard to see into the backyard. Too close to the street. As house hunters they reject one misfit structure after another. The real estate agent must find one that is not a deathtrap for their—apparently—incompetent children. The Anasazi would have shaken their bewildered heads. I picture them watching their kids scamper up a notched log to a cliff dwelling while Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia explain why they can’t move in.

My parents would shake their heads too. I wasn’t yet school-age when I was running around 300 acres of Pennsylvania woods like an idiot. We flew out of the house on summer mornings, sometimes not remembering to go back for lunch. We got stung; fell out of a few trees; skated on thin ice; and picked up snakes. Simple things. Childish things. My parents never thought to teach us that the world would coddle us. No one thought at all that it would hover over us, attending our every need.

I stumbled along thinking about that as the largest dwelling in the canyon, Big Ruin, passed by to our left. We skirted a wash and came to the towering triangular rock marking the side trail leading to the ruin. But we had bitten off a lot. Camp was too far to let us go see the pile of children’s bones at the bottom of that cliff.

Bones and ruins. My friends in archeology chip away at the life of The Ancients. Details about that life emerge slowly. Far too slowly. The key to our future lies in our past. We can try gleaning morals and edicts from ancient texts coated with a sacred veneer. But without understanding the real lives of the people written about it’s all for nothing. It would be like trying to understand the antebellum South by reading Faulkner. Interesting, but useless. The bones of the past contain the real story about how we should interact and cooperate as humans, and how we should exist on this planet. We can ignore the story they tell to our peril. Sack the priests and the politicians. Let’s listen to the archeologists and anthropologists and neuroscientists. We could do no worse than we’re doing now. But just as I’m ready hand the keys of understanding over to the archeologists, I see a pictograph like American Man. Then I think we will never understand what happened in these canyons.

We were making good progress. Our packs were getting heavier, but we had plenty of daylight left on a straightforward trail. And then it went in an odd direction. A large salient butted in from the right. The trail should have skirted the salient. Instead it veered right toward the cliffs. I watched the golden crowns of the cottonwoods drift left, wondering why we were going the wrong way. The answer was at the base of the cliff.

Pictographs in the Southwest seem standardized. Handprints. Snake or water symbols. Those and a few other things meet my untrained eye at site after site. American Man was different. American Man was red, white and blue. Maybe it wasn’t a man. It might have been a penguin. The head was tiny with maybe a feather or an antennae poking out. The body was rotund. American Man occupied an alcove low down on the cliff. American Man made no sense at all. Was it a shaman’s vision? A protective symbol? Just graffiti, the work of a bored granary guard? Whatever the case, I needed to sit down.

We sat for awhile. No answers came. The changing angle of the light on the cliff wall suggested it was time to move on. We stood, gathered our gear, and walked another 30 yards to find the trail going straight into the cliff. I stopped. Mary stopped. I looked for where the path skirted the promontory, heading back toward the line of cottonwoods. It didn’t. I stared at a few cairns that pointed a way up the cliff. At first they made no more sense than the pictograph had. With no other options I ducked under a juniper bough and started climbing the slickrock. And there was the notch.

Red, white & blue. Rotund body. Tiny brain. Did the Anasazi predict modern America?

Red, white & blue. Rotund body. Tiny brain. Did the Anasazi predict modern America?

Of course, it had all been too easy so far. So a little hardship was in order. We worked our way up the notch. At the top I turned to catch my breath and could not believe my eyes. The notch windowed a world that was remote and wild and beautiful. The outside world was gone. Only a feeling of loveliness and belonging remained.

What was left then was a spring, a campsite and four faces.

On the shakedown cruise for this trip, a quick hop up and down Secret Mountain near Flagstaff, we had managed ten miles a day on full packs. Not far after American Man I began to tire. I was pretty sure we hadn’t gone eight miles yet. At first I couldn’t work out why. Then I remembered we now had far more water and a bear container. The water was because no one would say that the springs were permanent. We had the bear container because we had too.

Black bears come down from the Abajo Mountains at summer’s end to gorge on berries. Closing in on hibernation, they have to pack on pounds. Berries bring them to Salt Creek. But as omnivores they’ll eat anything. Even backpacking food. To protect the backpackers and the bears, Canyonlands implemented a bear container policy. If it’s edible or scented, it goes in a bear-proof container. A hard-sided bear-proof container. They do not consider a bag made of ballistic grade cloth, reinforced with aircraft grade aluminum to be hard-sided. So we didn’t have a light, collapsible, tie-on-anywhere container like an Ursack. We had a thing called a Bear Vault. It was heavy and unwieldy. And I could only strap it to my pack in the very spot that threw off my center of gravity.

The water and the Bear Vault began weighing on me. Then we ended up in a jungle. Which meant the spring was close. But it made me wonder if we’d also made a wrong turn. I could feel my brain function dribbling away. Exhausted, I sat down and consulted the map. No. We hadn’t missed SC3. The spring was further on; camp a short piece beyond that on the other side. I left the oddly quiet Mary to cool her heels and went ahead to scout. The good news was that the spring was not far, and it was gushing. The bad news was that the trail was now obscure, vague cairns leading here and there. I saw no way through. We were going to fail at the simplest task: finding a marked campsite, in an open canyon bottom, on a well-trodden trail. The map and the GPS agreed that we were in the right spot. But in my exhaustion I just could not see the crossing.

There was nothing to do about it now. I returned, collected my pack and Mary, and we began looking for a place to stash ourselves overnight. Someplace away from the spring. Someplace that avoided walking across any cryptobiotic soil. We found a hidden spot under an alcove and settled in for the night.

Over our morning oatmeal we talked about how to fix our problem. The question was whether we could do this at all. As someone approaching sixty, with a sedentary job, maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. It was hard to say. Past experience said I would get tougher, And we had a rest day built in. Mary was in better shape. But she was older and had undergone a parade of medical procedures over a lifetime of running, hiking and climbing. The worst thing now was a neuroma. Hundreds of weekends carrying her children through the Rockies, plus some marathons, had left a jangling bundle of nerves in her feet. And now that neuroma was screaming. Without a heavy pack she might be okay. With it, who knew? The problem wasn’t making the next camp. It was only eight miles away. The problem was getting back. What if we couldn’t? On the other hand, staying where we were was not an option. At-large camping in this section of Salt Creek was not allowed.

By the time the stove had cooled, we’d decided that we would leave out gear stashed, day hike to Angel Arch, and return. Roxy was heading to this end of the canyon. If we could find her at the end of the day we could share her spot at SC3 and be semi-legally camped.

We snaked our way back to the trail and immediately found our mistake. The trail didn’t cross the wash above the spring or below the spring. It crossed it at the spring. Sure enough a quarter-mile beyond was the patch of dirt that was SC3. Fiddlesticks. Nothing to do now but head to Angel Arch.

Salt Creek has a smattering of arches. This section of Canyonlands sits over the same Paradox Formation, a salt bed, as Arches, affected by the same plastic flow. But here the arches are few and farther between. Here the salt bed created clustered pinnacles: the needles. What arches we’d seen so far were distant. We had neither the time, the inclination, nor the technical gear to get to them. Angel Arch was different. A little ways down a side canyon, it occurs where the arch-bearing layer of rock neared the canyon bottom. And by all reports it was spectacular.

So off we went on a perfect autumn day. We loped up the canyon like we were ten years younger and fifty pounds lighter, burdened with nothing more than water and snacks. The air was clean and fresh. The silence was enveloping. Golden cottonwood leaves spangled in the slanting light. The canyon, which had been arrow-straight up to our secret camp, now twisted through oxbows. The trail had worn into a trench some places. Other places it disappeared and we slowed to pick our way through the thinnest patches of underbrush. Delighted, as only two simpleminded people following a simple plan can be, we wove our way through the rock formations.

After six miles I flagged a little. A side canyon opened up on the right. This had to be the one with Angel Arch. It wasn’t yet noon. We would definitely get back before dark. I sprawled onto the sand and laid my head on a patch of green grass. Munching a Snickers bar, I watched cattail seeds drift on the breeze. Except the seeds, nothing stirred. Happy, I got up and walked ahead to see if we were where we were.

We were. In fact, a neat wooden sign, with an arrow pointing the proper direction, proclaimed: Angel Arch.

I fetched Mary and we headed down the side canyon, partly following an abandoned road, the mile-and-a-half to our goal. And what can I say about it? There it was: a partial hole in a rock. A million years of erosion had formed a random opening in a sandstone monolith. I admit that in the big scheme of things it wasn’t all that much. There are longer arches, taller arches, thinner arches. Some have round openings like portals. Some have double openings. Some are triplets. Some span watercourses. (Though the technical minded call them natural bridges.) Angle Arch wasn’t any of those things. But we couldn’t take our eyes off of it. It may have been the most beautiful arch I’ve ever seen.

Some thoughtful person had laid a gnarled gray piñon log across two piles of rocks. I sat down on the ad hoc bench, the only occupier of a bench for miles around. The silence was so thick I could have propped my staff against it. The canyon was in the middle of it’s imperceptible autumnal exhale. Summer’s fecundity was over. Winter would soon bring an even more profound silence. We existed in that moment, in the pause between, far from anywhere, and no with no place to be but there. Either trailhead was fifteen miles away. The one to the north was maybe even more remote, through more rugged country. This was ours alone, at the perfect time. Aside from that, I have no explanation for the beauty of Angel Arch. These arches, indeed this entire land of hoodoo rock, wants for no explanation and I offer none here.

A slight layer of cirrus clouds had scrimmed the sun all morning. That could not obscure the fact that the shadows were growing. I no longer had any idea which way was west. But I knew the largest shadow was creeping out from under the foot of the west canyon wall. We had to be back at the spring before it climbed out of the canyon. Without haste, we picked up our water bags and headed back.

As we wound through the oxbows the light shifted from it’s afternoon blue hue, to the golden hour. When is the golden hour? Along an ocean beach you could time it with a watch. In these stone labyrinths, it depends on where you’re standing. In the oxbows, the stone walls and autumn trees were already glowing. But after passing the Upper Jump, a twenty-five foot waterfall in a narrow bottom lined with cottonwoods, we emerged into the wider canyon and blue light again.

Hiking through the changing light was another reason I was here. The sixty hertz hum of fluorescent lighting, and its pallid green glow, are a standard part of our built environment. And one of the worst things humans have done to themselves. We need sunlight on our eyes; sunlight on our skin. We can get enough of that in a few minutes to keep our sleep cycle on track, and boost our vitamin D uptake. But we still miss out on a meaningful diurnal cycle. We miss the subtlety of wakening to increasing light. We miss the small comings and goings of shadows and clouds. We miss the natural clocking of the sun arcing across the sky. Now it’s all about alarm clocks, flickering blue computer screens, and bad lighting. After only three days away I didn’t miss it.

Cottonwood and rock spires on the way through the oxbows near Angel Arch

Cottonwood and rock spires on the way through the oxbows near Angel Arch

We had just refilled out water bags and settled in by the spring when along came Roxy. We kibitzed. She had spent her day coming up from SC2. She had two nights scheduled at SC3 just to bang around this end of the canyon. Like us, she was wondering if she’d bitten off more than she could chew. Two lithe, fit backpackers, male and female, appeared from the Angel Arch end of the canyon. We all talked for awhile. It took a moment before I realized we were living an age-old tradition. I don’t go into the wilderness seeking community. But there around the spring the chatter made me relaxed and happy.

The zero percent body fat couple had not bitten off too much. They were making for the trailhead—nine miles away—yet today. But how? The bearded half of the couple demonstrated that he could hoist his pack on his pinky. They scooped up a few cups of water, adjusted their gaiters, and motored on. Mary and I had packed far too much. If we were going to do this over any distances we needed to start paring weight. Still, I wondered about the wraiths that had just vacated. One of their tricks was not having a stove. They soaked their oatmeal overnight, eating it cold in the morning. Uh-huh. That part didn’t bother me. But they were doing the length of the canyon in two days. Was there any chance too see anything? Was there any sense of solitude? Even more, was there any sense of longing to be here, or of belonging here?

While I pondered that Mary and Roxy resolved our camping problem. We would stay stashed away under the alcove tonight. Tomorrow we would join Roxy at camp and on one of her side trips. I was looking forward to it. The night sky was seeing the barest sliver of a moon. Our view would be better from out in the canyon. The stars would be resplendent.

Just before the sun slid over the rim we took a few steps from the spring to see The Four Faces. They had been watching us the whole time. The faces could just as well be on the handbill for a farcical theater as on a rock face in the middle of nowhere. Each had that type of not-quite-human expression. Each head has an upper body,—clothed—earrings, necklaces. I studied them for some clue, some meaning, but like American Man they offered none. Just past the faces were the crumbling walls of another granary. Were the faces the evils granary thieves would suffer? As silent as the stone, they did not respond to my telepathic question. And all other context, including the people who painted it, is gone.

Our third morning got off to a slow roll. Nobody seemed ready to jump to their feet. Fine by me. I am a natural early riser. But I am also a natural slow starter. With most of my days spent managing a schedule jammed to the hilt, life outdoors is a welcome change. Eat when you are hungry; rest when you get tired; stop when the sun goes down. We spent the day enjoying that rhythm. We did nothing more than revisit American Man. Without too much effort we could have pushed to explore any number of little things. It was enough to have the sun on our faces, the smell of dust and juniper in our nostrils, and the emptiness, the loneliness, the loveliness of the canyon to ourselves.

Back at the Four Faces Spring, in the waning day, Mary and I moved our gear to SC3. By the rules, we still were not camped legally. But it felt better to be able to sleep where we risked no damage to this fragile landscape.

The desert looks tough. But that is an illusion created by exposed rocks and spiny plants. Life here hangs on the edge. Heat and sunlight are intense and relentless. Water is a miracle. When rain does come it often falls from the sky as if poured from the bowls of God’s wrath. The wind can be just as fierce. And that’s only the summer. Winter brings the other extreme. Its a wonder that any soil remains at all in these high deserts. It does only because of cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria predates almost all land organisms. Cyanobacteria paved the way for a terrestrial existence, helping clear earth’s atmosphere of carbon dioxide. While it may now be less important in more plant-rich corners of the world, here in the Colorado Plateau it remains essential. During rare wet moments, cyanobacteria moves through the soil binding it with rock in an intricate web. A few lichens, mosses, algae, other bacteria join in to hold it all in place. Without it, the wind and water would scour away the soil leaving bare rock and sand: a true wasteland. When you step off the trail it may look like you are stepping on dirt. In some places you are crushing an essential living crust centuries in the making.

As daylight condensed into darkness, we talked about our options for staying. I was feeling good again and suggested staying until Friday—stopping at SC1 on Roxy’s permit. Roxy seemed a little short on food and leaned toward getting out early. Moving a loaded pack was going to aggravate Mary’s foot problem and I sensed that she’d rather experience that for one day, not two. We settled on getting up before sunrise and attempting to reel in the entire nine miles back to the trailhead tomorrow.

Meanwhile with dinner done, and all edible or scented items packed into odor-proof bags and stored in bear vaults, I settled into my favorite desert activity: star gazing.

I have no astronomy skills. I don’t have a telescope. I can’t pick out, or even name, more than ten constellations. And I can’t keep track of how those ten move around as Earth spins and orbits the sun. None of that lessens the thrill of laying out at night in the desert under the stars. On moonless nights it is a resplendent canopy; the Milky Way seems bright enough to read by. At times I can imagine that I hear the cosmic hum from those balls of flaming gas. Is that the leftover sound of the angels that sang them into existence? Or just my tinnitus? It doesn’t matter. The effect is calming. And the scale, in time and distance, puts my ego back into it’s proper place. I fell asleep on our last night in Salt Creek watching Ursa Major slowly rotate above the canyon wall.

When I woke, the Big Dipper was scrapping the wall. Orion had rotated into view. The alarm was going off. It was pitch black. I had given no thought to daylight savings time and the alarm was set an hour early. I reset and watched the Dipper fade as the the morning progressed from astronomical dawn to workable light. When the first ray of sunshine pierced the canyon bottom we were already moving.

I’ll admit to a twinge as we passed the spring. I felt pretty certain that I would never see it again. Not that I wouldn’t want to. But so many spots on the map tugged at me. I still had unturned stones in Arizona. Utah had revealed a few secrets, but so much remained. I had left Colorado and New Mexico almost untouched. So there was a lot left to see. And like this canyon, I was getting into autumn. That made me feel like I had squandered my visit here. Maybe I should have worked harder to see more, to poke into a few remote corners. But maybe that was just greed, the desire to see it all, touch it all, know all of it.

With that we reeled in the Four Faces, the Notch, and American Man in short order. The day seemed to be going almost too well. Mary and Roxy strolled along singing show tunes. I meandered behind fussing with the camera. Big Ruin came and went. I realized that we would get out today. Soon enough the century-old cabin marking Kirk’s ranch came into view. A moment later we were at the first spring—maybe the only permanent water in Salt Creek—refilling our bags. Four miles to go.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in that last mile. As we moved up from the spring to the park boundary, through the little jungle marked with pink ribbons, the canyon rim started looking formidable. Going downhill with a fifty pound pack is hard. But it doesn’t engage my cardiovascular, my weak link. Uphill is a struggle. Mary was already gone by the time I started through the sloping peach and buff colored rock. Her challenge was getting out before her neuroma became debilitating. Roxy was behind me, girding herself for the heat and the ascent.

It was warming up fast. I wondered whether the heat or my lungs would get me first. But it was neither. Just a few days of walking had done me a lot of good. With almost no effort I made it to the steepest section and the shade of piñon pines and junipers. As I neared the top, I felt like I could keep walking for four more days.

And then it was over.

When Roxy appeared a few minutes later, we took the requisite photos; exchanged phone numbers; loaded our vehicles. We kicked the tires for awhile then parted on our different paths. Mary and I headed back through the wire gate, down the dirt road, past the tiny climbers at Indian Creek, on to Moab. Moab meant paid camping, running water, a diner, a Laundromat, hot showers. We were in no hurry to end our vacation. For us there would be more hiking at Canyonlands. There would be two more nights camping in open empty spaces. We would hunt for ruins and petroglyphs near Bluff, Utah. And then it was back to soft beds, heating, air conditioning, plugging back into the grid. Society. Civilization. All that rot. But for Roxy it was more of the same. Winter was coming. She would still be living in a truck. The Utah deserts are no place to spend winter that way. For a moment I felt some alarm for her. Then I thought more about our days in the canyon, about what each of us were heading back to—at least for the short term—and began wondering who had the better deal.

Looking south while passing through The Notch just after American Man

Looking south while passing through The Notch just after American Man

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