CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK, Utah – What we were about to do seemed very wrong:
On this mostly sunny day on a dry dirt road, with both of us in good physical condition, we were parking a fine-running vehicle with a half-full gas tank. We were abandoning our Nissan Frontier near Devil’s Lane, hiking out 7 miles and attempting to hitchhike back to Durango.
But this didn’t happen without warning. Judy and I cast our lot days ago. Decisions made Saturday limited our good options Tuesday to zero. We gambled, we lost.
When the weather allowed us to return, we’d have to achieve one of two daunting tasks: driving up the near-vertical Bobby’s Hole or driving out the infamous, truck-chewing Elephant Hill. Either way, a potential meal for a tow truck.
Four days dominated by rain, hail, snow and cold had come to this. Our relaxing Easter weekend desert vacation had gone badly awry. The desert gods had deftly set their trap, and we had knowingly snapped it shut.
Funny, those bad decisions that placed us here seemed like good decisions at the time. Where did we go wrong? Let’s see ...
Friday evening, April 22
Weather predictions are moving targets subject to interpretation. Canceling a scheduled trip because of something that might happen is just an excuse, right?
A quick flashback: It’s November and I’ve been invited to go canyoneering in Utah. The forecast is something like 50 percent chance of rain and snow. I decide to stay home, and a good time is had by all who go. A friend later emails me something to this effect:
“Note to self: Never make decisions based on a forecast.” He is joshing, and he isn’t saying be reckless and don’t leave yourself options, but that feeling of missing out sticks with me.
The forecast for Blanding, Utah – a town in the general vicinity of where we’re thinking of going on our four-day getaway – is something like this: Saturday, 20 percent chance rain; Sunday, 60 percent chance; Monday, 20 percent chance; Tuesday, clear and cool. So even if the desert backroads get a slight soaking, they dry out pretty well on Monday, and after the sun hits Tuesday for a couple hours, we’re ready to roll.
Saturday, April 23
We head west from Blanding under partly sunny skies, still discussing where exactly to go. We have several low-altitude options. We also have a plan that begins at high altitude (8,300 feet) and drops us down to a low-altitude campsite (6,200 feet).
The latter option is the Elk Ridge road, which begins near Natural Bridges National Monument. It heads steeply up for five miles, and at around 8,500 feet elevation splits the Bears Ears, a landmark visible for hundreds of miles.
Flashback No. 2: It’s May 1993, and I’m heading toward Dark Canyon. My Chevy Blazer is stuck in a snowbank and mud on the north slope of the Bears Ears.
Do I go for help? Wait for help? My final choice: I continue with my three-day backpack trip and hope the road becomes passable in the meantime. Deep within Dark Canyon I hike through a vicious thunderstorm. When I return to the Blazer, my desperate hope is correct: The rain has melted away enough snow that I have a chance.
The tires spin and grab, the truck sways in the mud for an exhilarating moment, and then I am free. I have cheated fate and a possible huge towing fee – not to mention the wrath of the U.S. Forest Service, which had erected a “Road Closed” sign that I had driven around. Bad boy. Good fortune.
From the Bears Ears, the dirt road heads almost due north for about 20 miles to the far end of Horse Mountain. It follows the crest of Elk Ridge, staying above 8,000 feet through a forest of ponderosa and aspen.
From a junction at elevation 8,300, one road drops northwest down 2,000 feet in 10 miles into Beef Basin; another heads northeast toward Dugout Ranch and meets up with the paved road that leads from U.S. Highway 191 to the Needles district of Canyonlands.
The skies have darkened and a drizzle puts the windshield wipers to work. It’s real chilly at 8,300 feet, and it’ll be warmer at 6,200 feet. Without knowing the exact moment that we really made this choice, we both feel that our path now takes us into Beef Basin.
That evening in the tent, I’m just drifting to sleep when the tapping begins on the rain fly. We’re not yet aware how familiar this sound will become. I exit the tent, throw the cloth fold-up chairs in the truck and cinch up the fly.
Sunday, April 24
Our welcome to the day, as we lie in our bags, is a roll of thunder.
Soon it’s hailing. We spend most of the morning in the truck, reading, trying to complete an impossible Sudoku, playing a game from the past: hangman. At about 2 p.m. there’s a break in the weather and we bravely head out on a hike.
A planned half-hour stroll turns into a two-hour walkabout. The sun stays out and we begin shedding. Judy sets a record with five layers of multicolored clothing – red, green, black, two shades of blue – tied to her waist.
It’s raining as we go to bed, and continues intermittently. The loud tapping, the wind whooshing through the surrounding piñons and junipers, the thud of water dripping from the juniper branches above. This is a cacophony of noise, no soothing lullabye.
Making matters worse, particularly in Judy’s mind, is the feeling of being trapped. Our road out is taking a sloppy wet kiss from the sky, and we fear for its immediate future.
Monday, April 25
Only a few scattered white clouds break up the big blue morning sky. Like the geological processes we see around us, that gives us a huge uplift.
The road will dry out today. Our worries are over. The trail awaits our bootprints.
We have seen no one in Beef Basin, but during an all-day hike into a deep and spectacular canyon we encounter one other group. Not a small group. Including instructors and students it’s a contingent of 17, an outdoor education practicum from California State-Chico. They’re in the midst of a 21-day desert trek, and they’re experiencing every kind of weather. Already this semester they’ve done three weeks of winter camping and three weeks of rock climbing. After the backpack, they’ll spend three weeks on a river.
I want to return to college.
It rains again at dinner time, so we take spaghetti and wine into the truck to finish. It’s still raining in the middle of the night when I notice the tapping on the rain fly has softened. But it hasn’t stopped. It is snowing.
Everything I know about desert roads tells me we will not get out the way we came in. Not tomorrow.
The snow/rain doesn’t stop until 4 or 5 a.m.
Tuesday, April 26
When the sun rises above the receding clouds, we dry out the tent, the pads and the tarp on nearby rocks and the camper shell top. I scrape the half-inch of slush off the windows.
We study the map and ponder the choices.
We can wait a day. But now, even a day of sun likely won’t dry out the road. Not at 8,300 feet on a north-facing slope, where it likely snowed several inches.
There’s no cellphone coverage here, and if we don’t get out today, friends will notice. They might even worry, and they don’t know exactly where we are.
Only a few miles from our campsite a road heads north toward Canyonlands. That road offers a way out, but it’s over Elephant Hill. Can a four-door, long-bed Frontier with no after-market wheels or tires or winches handle Elephant Hill? We’re not certain.
Another possibility: We can avoid Elephant Hill by leaving the truck near the Joint Trail, hiking through Chesler Park to Squaw Flat Campground, and trying to hitch a ride all or part way home. Maybe a ranger or someone headed toward Monticello will have room.
We’re not even certain the roads around us are dry yet, but we pack up and head toward Canyonlands.
To get there, we have to drop into Bobby’s Hole – a quarter-mile-plus of steep road over loose boulders and rock steps. Did I mention steep? It’s at about an 89-degree slope. A mountain goat would look for an easier path.
By the time we bounce to the bottom of Bobby’s Hole, the trap is set. I take a look back up the unrelenting, boulder-filled slope; then I try not to think about it. Later, we’ll see the national park map, which says of Bobby’s Hole: “Frequently impassable for 4-wheel-drive vehicles.”
We pull off the main road just past the Joint Trail, pack up food, water and camping gear, and begin the 7-mile trek to Squaw Flat.
Impossibly balanced rocks, tall spires, arches, former oceans in millions of years of layered geology – I try to appreciate it, but the weather is changing for the worse, and this is not a stress-free occasion.
It’s about 5 p.m. when we reach the campground trailhead and look around for folks who might be heading toward Monticello. We strike out twice before we get very, very lucky.
Doug and Liz, a couple from Tacoma, Wash., turn us down – they’re camping here for several days. Then they reconsider. They remember the time two strangers helped Liz after she fell into a crevasse while skiing. They pack us in their Honda, and we are off to Monticello.
We take them to dinner at a steakhouse, fill up their gas tank, then find a motel. We begin calling our Durango friends in search of a ride home the next day. Good fortune on our first try. Thank you, Eric Backer. Our kind neighbors, the Fords, are fine with keeping our dog for another evening. My employer agrees to keep my job until 3 p.m. Wednesday. (Addendum: I made it.)
Friday, April 29
The forecast for Saturday is cold but mostly clear. Time to put truck rescue plan into action.
But which plan? We’d considered everything from a friend’s offer to fly to Needles Outpost, to a hike in the way we’d come out, to a drive in from Beef Basin.
The final plan: Drive to the Elephant Hill trailhead and mountain bike the 8 or so miles to the truck, then drive out via Bobby’s Hole. If the truck gets stuck or flips or whatever at Bobby’s Hole, we can mountain bike back to Elephant Hill and have the truck towed out.
Saturday, April 30
It’s my second trip over Elephant Hill on a bike – last time was 1986, before shocks – and it’s still difficult, particularly with a 20-pound pack on my back. My cleat gets stuck in the pedal as I dismount on a steep section and I fall on my side, a rock shoving itself rudely into my exposed back.
Judy makes certain I’m OK, then says, “Don’t do anything stupid.” I don’t need to be told this, but she’s right: Now is not the time for heroics. That will come later.
The excitement, the worry, the stress, the anticipation of the last four days has built to this next hour of our lives. Can the Frontier handle Bobby’s Hole, is there enough gas, is the truck still there? Yes to the latter, and it is just as we left it.
We transition from 30-pound mountain bike to 3,000-pound vehicle and drive south. I’m encouraged with the truck’s performance as we scale some minor technical climbs.
It’s all about traction, and that thought is re-enforced when the tires slip momentarily on one rocky step, screeching just slightly and leaving the smell of burning rubber for us to enjoy.
Soon, there it is, lurking for us: Bobby’s Hole. I am thankful for the warm-ups, which have given me a chance to refresh on 4WD basics:
b Don’t high-center.
b Don’t make radical turns, particularly near a rock.
b Don’t lose uphill momentum. Backing down a steep, rocky, hole-pocked slope is loaded with bad outcomes.
We stroll a couple hundred yards up the twisting road along the desert hillside. There is no one else around. Butterflies are flittering. Judy compares it to a raft trip when you hike to an overlook to scout a serious rapid.
I see nothing on the slope that scares me. We can do it. If the tires grip the slope, we can do it.
My trust is in the vehicle, and I am never so thankful for automatic transmission. The truck handles each rock step and each divot with almost no hesitation. There is a moment or two when I hold my breath, but it’s mostly smooth going. We are at the top! The truck is free! Were it a sentient being, it would be dancing along with us.
All is well. Four days of worry are over. My camera with the dead battery begins working. Now all that’s left is the long slog out of here, the backtrack to Elephant Hill to pick up the other car, and the drive home from there. All in all, this will become a 13-hour mission.
Heading up out of Beef Basin I am more convinced than ever that it would have been impossible and dangerous to exit that way Tuesday. At Dugout Ranch we pick up a gas container we’d hidden under a juniper earlier this morning, just in case.
At Elephant Hill we separate. Now by myself in the Frontier, I program my iPod to play through the car speakers some AC/DC – good staying-awake music. But when I place it on the seat it emits an unfamiliar “beep” and switches to another song. There are 1,124 tracks on my iPod. There is no reason for this, but it has switched to the song that has been in my head for much of the day.
“I can learn to resist anything but temptation.”
Weird. Perhaps my truck is sentient.
Does this mean anything? Just a 1 in 1,124 coincidence? We could not resist the temptation of driving down into Beef Basin despite the weather. Is that the message?
You could call it a mistake to chance the weather, but you could call it a mistake to ever leave the house. Life gets dull if you never venture out onto the edge.
We were inconvenienced, suffered from the cold and wet and the fear of the uncertain, but the only permanent damage appears to be the 3-foot-long indented scratch on the truck shell courtesy of a tight spot and a juniper branch. We can live with that.
Neither of us got stuck on a canyon wall or had to saw off an arm. We didn’t run out of food or water. We never shook from hypothermia. We didn’t drive the truck off a cliff.
The desert gods had given us a severe test. I’d like to believe we passed.
JUDY PEEL/Special to the Herald
JUDY PEEL/Special to the Herald