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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

The River's Message

 
They suggested that we do our less intensive hiking between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.  They, that all-knowing, all-powerful yet vaguely defined group of experts, advised against strenuous activity on the arid, bleak terrain of the Canyonlands during these five hours.  Push yourself in the early morning, late afternoon and early evening, they recommended.  These are the times of the day when the temperature is relatively cool and comfortable, and the sun's rays are not as stifling as during the heat of the day.

We met at my house on Thursday afternoon, and gathered together our supplies for the trip.  There was the usual assortment of weathered boots and overstuffed backpacks, vinyl tents and bundled sleeping bags and compact stoves and faded hats.  Among our supplies, I also noticed an abundance of water containers and a recently purchased water pump, which we were eager to test in the welcoming waters of the Green River in Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah.

By early Thursday evening, we had been on the road for about five hours.  As we crossed the Colorado border into Utah, and turned off Interstate 70 onto State Highway 128, the sun was dropping over a ridge to the southwest.  Sometimes, the most spectacular sunsets leave me with the most persistently nagging feelings of emptiness.  Maybe our almost utter desolation on 128 amplified these feelings.  Maybe our drive through the creepy ghost town of Cisco captured my spirit, and enhanced the sense of loss.  Or, maybe I was accepting the uncertainty that lay before me in the Utah desert.

That night, we set up camp along the Colorado River in a sparsely populated and wonderfully scenic campground.  Tents were pitched, sleeping bags were unrolled and a feast was prepared and devoured.  Our conversation under the stars focused on the next day's events.  In my own mind, I figured that we needed to break camp, pause at a convenience store in Moab for any last minute necessities and stop at the ranger's station inside the park for a brief chat with the resident park ranger.  According to my calculations, we could accomplish these tasks between the hours of 5 and 7 a.m., and hit the trailhead in earnest at 7:30.  Assuming that we ambled along at a modest clip on the trail, I reckoned that we would be able to eat our lunches on the banks of the Green River, as our feet dangled in the soothing flow of these mighty waters.  Moab in the morning, the Green River by early afternoon.

Canyonlands National Park is the largest of Utah's five national parks.  First designated as a national park in 1964, it spreads across 527 square miles.  The late Edward Abbey called the place "the least inhabited, least developed, least improved, least civilized, most arid, most hostile, most lonesome, most grim bleak barren desolate and savage quarter of the state of Utah--the best part by far."

The Colorado and Green rivers meet in the heart of the park, then continue south as the Colorado through the Cataract Canyon Rapids.  These two rivers form the River District and divide Canyonlands National Park into three other districts.  Island in the Sky lies north between the rivers, the Maze is to the west, and the Needles is to the east.  When we had planned this trip, our novices' eyes and minds settled on the Upheaval Dome trail in the Island in the Sky district.  It was ten and a half miles from the trailhead to the Green River.  Hey, we thought, we had spent the last five summers hiking our way through the Rocky Mountains, over rugged terrain at high elevations and up and down a handful of fourteeners.  Plus, I had recently run my first marathon on the hilly streets of San Francisco, and felt my endurance was at an all time high.  Ten and a half miles at about 5,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level did not seem problematic. 

At about 10:30 a.m. on Friday, my feet hit the Upheaval Dome trail for the first time.  Needless to say, my estimated times for the morning's activities were laughably, and soon to be painfully, wrong.  As we began our 1,300-foot descent into the canyon, our confidence held firm, even though it was apparent that we would face the height of the heat on a sunny day in the desert.  During the bulk of this tremendous descent, which is accomplished over a small proportion of the ten and half mile trail, we moved cautiously over a ground of unstable footing into the canyon. 

After we completed the descent and stood on the canyon floor, we indulged ourselves in the first water break of the day, and glanced back at the wake of our recent descent and at the watches on our wrists.  Recalculations of our estimated time of arrival at the Green River were made, and we pushed onward, a bit more warily than before.

Over the next few hours, we settled into the rhythms of backpacking.  Our gear was shifted this way and that until it eased into relative comfort on our bodies.  We walked with a water bottle at the ready, and now began to occasionally douse our simmering necks and foreheads with a splash or two from the bottles. 

About 2:00 p.m., the magnitude of our miscalculation beat down on me.  I plodded down the washed out riverbed that was our trail, and began to feel the impact of my gear.  The shoulder straps on my backpack tightened on my trapezius muscles as if they were under the control of a sadistic and unforgiving mad scientist.  It felt as if somebody had started wringing my quadriceps muscles like they were straining to remove the last drops of water from a once wet towel.  A trace of dizziness kept trying to invade my cranium, but was warded off by what was left of my will.

Finally, at about 3:00 p.m., we hit the halfway point.  We staked out what little shade there was, and collapsed on the sandy floor of the riverbed.  We were a demoralized and broken bunch, and the occasional gusts of wind whipped the desert sand through our cracked and tattered bodies and threatened to annihilate the spirits of the three pathetic remnants of human beings sprawled over the canyon floor.  I made a salami and cheese sandwich, and realized that we forgot the condiments.  As I ate the sandwich, the inside of my mouth quickly began to resemble the painfully dry landscape around me.  Soon thereafter, I quit eating the sandwich and listened to the labored breathing of my companions and the Utah desert.  Within minutes, I was sleeping.

When we began the second half of the day's hike, our sights were clear and without any illusions.  About five miles lay between us and the Green River, and we were well aware that it was going to be difficult.  I fell back upon some of my mind and body tricks from the marathon experience.  One of these tricks is a question and answer session with myself about how various parts of my body feel.  For example, "How do your quadriceps feel?"  "They hurt, which is fine, because after twenty miles of running or seven miles of backpacking, pain is expected."  With this acceptance of my return to a state of agony, I became more focused on the movements of my limbs, and less distracted by the pain within them.

We devised a new strategy for the second half of the hike as well.  We hiked for about 30 to 45 minutes at a time, and then paused for about ten minutes under the closest rock providing a modicum of shade from the irrepressible sun.  This strategy was proving successful, and as we neared our destination, clouds began to cover the sky and the sun became less of an unrelenting foe.  Instead, the fleeting winds from earlier in the day became more regular and persistent.  Mother Nature's final salvo was punishing, but we were so close to our destination at this point that my instincts took over and propelled us up the final slope of the trail.  Before us lay our reward, one of those priceless gifts that only the natural landscape can provide, most often to those who endure great pains over long distances.  At 6:30 p.m., the Green River flowed below us through the awe-inspiring canyon.

In Herman Hesse's 1952 novel Siddhartha, Vasudeva the ferryman makes the following observation:  "Yes, it is a very beautiful river.  I love it above everything.  I have often listened to it, gazed at it, and I have always learned something from it.  One can learn much from a river." 

As I stood on the barren ridge above the Green River, the wind roaring through the vast canyons around me, I could hear the faint cry of the water.  The day's strenuous activities had dulled my senses, and I was only able to dimly perceive the river's rumblings. 

Since that day on the river, I have often thought about the river's message.  What was it telling me?  Was it congratulating me on my endurance or taunting me for my foolish behavior?  This summer, I am heading back to the Green River, with a canoe in tow.  I hope to ask more questions of the river and be able to more clearly listen to its responses, which may mean engaging in the less intensive kinds of activity between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

  

Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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