Where the Buffalo Roam

 Pinyon Pine on Hell’s Backbone, Shot on 120 Ilford Film. Purchase a Print  Here .

Pinyon Pine on Hell’s Backbone, Shot on 120 Ilford Film. Purchase a Print Here.

Friday, September 21, 2018, Escalante Mountains

I woke up in a copse of Ponderosa pines rising out of red soil. Jeremy Harding made cowboy coffee and brought me a cup, as friends do. I ate for breakfast oats and granola and almonds and cashews, and a Honeycrisp apple. Jeremy and I rode our bikes along Thunder Mountain Trail, admiring the hoodoos and taking in the high desert. After completing our ride, Jeremy went home and I drove via dirt road from Red Canyon to Tom Best Spring, where I filled my hydration bladder and bathed—in that order. For lunch I had half an orange and two beers. I drove on, wending my way up Steve’s Hollow. I set camp near a trickling stream in a thicket of yellowing aspens. For dinner I ate rye crackers, sardines in olive oil, Tabasco sauce, and a Roma tomato, stacked atop one another. I also ate hummus and half of a homegrown cucumber. Now, for dessert, I’m enjoying a Padron cigar and lavender-chamomile tea. I’m in Dixie National Forest, not far from Bryce Canyon. I arrived last night, and for the next week I will wander by Jeep, bicycle, and foot the land between here and the La Sal Mountains, alone.

Saturday, September 22, Blue Spruce Campground

I guess it’s the autumnal equinox. And the moon is nearly full. And my biorhythm is peaking, according to the biorhythm calculator on the Interwebs. But who pays attention to such things?

This morning I drove for two hours in four low up Steve’s Hollow toward Barney Top, cutting and clearing logs along the way, hoping to find a way over the mountain and down to Escalante. No such luck. The road became impassable, had to turn around. I came down the hollow, drove back to Tom Best Spring to fetch my Dr. Bronner’s Soap, which I’d inadvertently left there, then found my way over the mountain via Old Escalante Road.

In Escalante I bought fuel, four hardboiled eggs, six raw eggs, chocolate-covered raisins, a tomato, a bag of spinach, a small salad, and a chocolate-chip cookie. I ate the cookie and the salad. I then followed Hell’s Backbone Road to Posey Lake, where I caught two trout using hardboiled egg as bait. I hesitated to kill those fish, to cut their heads off while they blinked their eyes at me and flapped their tails and gasped their gills under my grip, though I didn’t hesitate to eat them. I camped on Pine Creek and fried them over a fire with sliced potato and onion. All told, I suspect I won’t be field dressing any squirrels or rabbits, as I had planned. Getting hard for me to stomach slain sentience.

I sat in thick moonlight for an hour or two, smoking tobacco and drinking beer. Bathed in Pine Creek and washed my clothes. Tomorrow, I think, I will find the Great Western Trail and hike a portion of it.

Sunday, September 23, McGath Lake

Two nights ago I encountered an aspen tree carved with a name and the year “1960.” Today, one carved “1973.” If trees could speak English, if I could understand Tree, what stories would I hear? What pain have they seen?

~~~

I’m on the east bank of McGath Lake, smoking a Macanudo, drinking pale ale. I arrived at noon, picked one of three available campsites (all vacant), disassembled and swept another, for it was shoddily built. I then cleared the area of trash left by those Trump-supporting rednecks (How can I make such accusations? Because I’m a redneck, too, partially, and empty Keystone Light cans and tracks from oversized tires evince that people of certain political bent were here.) and I hiked to Dry Lake along the Great Western Trail. I passed a group of bear hunters and their hounds. They had been on the trail of three different bears—two small boars, one large sow—took no shots. I caressed the bear spray on my hip, wishing I had instead a .357 Magnum. Today is the first I have arrived at my destination before 5pm, so I’ve had time to wander and relax while the sun is up. I have the lake to myself. I’ll be in no rush tomorrow, unless a storm comes. The access road is treacherous when dry. I’d hate to essay it when muddy.

Mountainous slopes of aspen, fir, and pine, rising to 11,000 feet, surround McGath Lake. The aspens glow in pale green, lemon yellow, and burnt orange. The conifers are typical Crayola “forest green.” Cumulonimbus clouds, grey on bottom and white as swan down on top, float overhead, nonthreateningly, against a baby blue tapestry. The sun crawls west, low in the southern sky. The surface of the lake is glassy, except where roused by the wind, and in migrating channels appears scalloped and spangled, like the surface of hammered aluminum. A small island of reeds, green and gold, shimmies in the breeze like one large Hawaiian grass skirt. The aspen leaves shudder and croon all at once, then fall silent again. A squirrel barks yonder. A bird chirps. A small flock of loons floats and fishes. And, of course, four black cows graze the bank opposite me. Each creature, plant, and stone moves and breathes in its way, animates the world, emanates light, or reflects it anyway. Particulates of tactile life, not ideas in that abstract concept “life.”

Thales said, “All things are full of gods.”

~~~

For dinner I made chicken-flavored ramen noodles and boiled them with cabbage, squash, spinach, onion, green pepper, orange pepper, and one organic egg, the last of which I bought in Escalante. I topped the finished soup with a slice of Roma tomato and a spoonful of chili paste. I ate it while watching light from the rising moon illuminate clouds in the east. For dessert I ate chocolate-covered raisins.

While this may sound like a gourmet backcountry meal (and it is), it’s rather simple. The noodles, of course, are cheap and lightweight. And the veggies all keep fine for a few days in small cooler without ice. Mine are root cellar perishables—carrot, potato, cabbage, squash, apple, orange, onion, egg. The mountain air is cool enough to preserve them for a week, maybe two. Besides the air, the water is cold. Whenever I camp near a stream or lake I chill a couple of beers overnight, and in the morning I throw them in the cooler with the veggies. Why fuss with ice when it isn’t needed? Why settle for freeze-dried soup if you don’t have to?

Monday, September 24, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

For breakfast: oatmeal with honey, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, Honeycrisp apple, chocolate-covered raisins; coffee; cigar.

Why should I document my diet? I have no idea. Doing so comes natural, I suppose. Preparing food comprises a decent part of my day, and eating it is a noteworthy occasion, something I thoroughly enjoy. But now that I think about it, you can learn a lot about an animal by its diet. Hunters examine the scat of prey to determine where it lives, where it’s been, where it might be going—how it survives. But I’d rather not make an account of my turds, or at least it didn’t occur to me to do that. From a man’s diet one can glean not only what that man likes, but also whether he is grateful or wasteful, deliberate or thoughtless, sensitive or dull. His moral and ethical sensibilities might even be revealed. But read not too much into the tea leaves, for soothsaying, according to the Bible, has always been of the devil.

~~~

Traveled Route

  • Orem to Panguitch to Red Canyon

  • Red Canyon to Steve’s Hollow

  • Steve’s Hollow to Escalante

  • Escalante to Pine Creek

  • Pine Creek to McGath Lake

  • McGath Lake to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Intended Route

  • ?

Did laundry in Lake Creek, bathed. A fine September day. Cumulous clouds drift in every direction, beyond every horizon, beyond eyesight. Was unseasonably warm last night—60° at 9pm at 9500 feet elevation.

~~~

Sunlight fades. I’m in Escalante National Monument, near onion beds, according to my map, though I explored the beds and found no onions. Only sage and rabbitbrush. My campsite is littered with gemstones. Tiny pebbles, embedded in red soil, glitter in light. They appear in peach and pink and yellow and white and black, each of them sparkling, varying in size from about that of a man’s thumb to a pencil eraser. Quarts, agate, topaz? Joplin will know.

Feels good to be back in the desert, among juniper and pinyon. I feel at home here, safe. I can see for miles, the heat is comforting, and the wind doesn’t throw its voice as it does in the mountains. No flies or mosquitos. No animals to be wary of. I’ve spotted the tracks of a bobcat, but she’ll venture nowhere near humans, unlike those brutish mountain bears. Dehydration is about the only thing to fear, and maybe venomous reptiles. Although I’ve yet to see a rattler in the desert, while I’ve seen several in the mountains and foothills. Tonight I will sleep on the desert floor, no fire.

~~~

Why should I do this? Why should I wander solo across the Utah landscape? It’s hard to say. Impulse, maybe. Intuition. Solitude. To see what I might find, internal and external.

What have I learned? Next time there must be no vehicle. Must go by foot, off-trail, with backpack. Must suffer more, work more, endure more. This has been a vacation, drinking and smoking every day—and a good vacation!

When I get to the Henrys I may hike to the peak of Mount Ellen, to make up for the relatively easy going so far.

~~~

It’s dark now. The desert moon overwhelms, rich and shiny as an ancient gold coin. I attempt to make a photo, but for what? Representations fail. I sit facing north, in unmitigated silence, and can just make out the Big Dipper, just as I could last night while looking across McGath Lake. I watch the light drench the land as the moon climbs over my shoulder. So still. So still.

~~~

2am. I don’t think I’ve ever been immersed in a more beautiful night. The silence is so thick that I hear nothing but the ringing in my ears, evidence of that barely detectable matrix of Being, and the occasional whoosh of wind as it glides up and across distant canyons and mesas. The moon glows like the sun of another solar system, and I am on another planet. The scattered and tufted clouds, tinged in a luminescent pink and violet and midnight blue, move across the blackened sky, beyond innocence, making everyday dreams seem as doldrums.

~~~

Ants encroach, I flick them away. I hear every so often the metal on my Jeep creak, the fluids in its belly gurgle and glop. The sound of entropy. Left alone, in time, its guts would spill out, its shell become dust. A skeletal scrap in the desert.

~~~

4:30am. Can’t sleep. The moon is so bright I can read a book by its light. The wind now whips across the swale. My back is in tremendous pain, as usual. It appears a storm is brewing. I worry these clouds are collecting atop the Henrys.

Tuesday, September 25, Henry Mountains

Finally slept from 6 to 9:30am. Swept camp and tried to clear the scar of a fire pit made by earlier campers. Fires are restricted in Escalante National Monument, and for good reason: they stand out like blackheads on a ruddy teenager. If campers learned only how to build and leave a clean fire pit, the wilderness would be better.

First, they build them too large, twice the needed size. Then they burn trash, which results in coal and ash that never degrades. And they apparently burn logs up to the moment they pull out of camp, leaving behind huge black chunks of charcoal, which they douse with sand, negating any pit that might’ve been there. That said, most do not dig a pit at all. They merely shift the nearest rocks (probably with their feet) into a shape that resembles a circle.

If campers would time their departure and need of heat and not burn trash, their fires would burn down to a fine white ash that easily disappears with the wind and rain. If they built proper pits—or, better yet, improved existing pits—the land would be scarcely populated with usable, aesthetic structures. But that requires thoughtful intention. As it stands, most campers, judging by their fire pits, are hasty, lazy, thoughtless, and disrespectful fools. I don’t know what’s worse, that they disrespect the earth or their own intelligence.

Not a cloud in the sky this morning.

~~~

I’m hiking Muley Twist Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park. I don’t understand these so-called landmarks, these natural features, these tourist destinations. They are highlighted on maps and advertised in brochures as though exceptional to the landscape itself, and they aren’t. Traverse one canyon rim and you’ve traversed them all; hike one slot canyon and you’ve hiked them all. And yet one can never see enough. The tourist destinations become items on a checklist, keeping one focused on the thing to do rather than on the totality of nothing to do. Nothing to do but wander the desert. Oh well, ‘tis better for me. I’m less likely to encounter (other) sightseers when exploring any area not highlighted on a travel brochure or listicle.

But I’m thankful for the monument designations. The federal government protects a few hundred millions acres across 12 western states, preserving as it were the old American West, the final frontier, the land of sand and glen where pioneering spirits can test and find themselves in the wild places, even if only as simulation, equipped with topographical maps and four-wheel drive and gourmet camp meals that include organic eggs laid by free-ranging chickens.

Would Abbey lament his legacy? His advocacy for wilderness popularized the wild places. He ranted against industrial tourism, and now those off-trail haunts he wrote about are destinations for spectators. There’s even Hayduke Trail, named after Abbey’s beloved monkeywrenching protagonist, an 800-mile route that wends from Arches to Zion. What is this place? A Disneyland of rock formations? A museum of natural beauty? A citadel, a playground? We came, we saw, we loved, we left. And our Instagram accounts prove it.

~~~

I picked up a pamphlet while in Escalante. What’s with the Escalante Canyons Art Festival? When did it begin?

Why do small towns, when faced with a struggling local economy, try to attract tourists rather than fortify their economies from within? It’s happening right now across the Mountain West—in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Colorado. It appears small townships would become the next Moab, Jackson Hole, Sun Valley, or Breckenridge. They market and advertise their free and wild spaces, compete against other locales, try to lure in spenders like fish. Billboards and budding coffee and adventure shops tell the story. But while a tourism economy may solve some economic problems, it incurs a host of others.

A tourism economy increases a town’s dependency on variables out of its control. Tourism is generally seasonal, so the town must endure fluctuations in revenue. And it strengthens the umbilical tie to Mother America, which also serves as a ball and chain. For if the national economy tanks, so too does discretionary spending, i.e., tourism.

If a town is successful in creating a tourism economy, real estate prices explode, which benefits land owners and developers but disaffects and impoverishes the average citizen who works in the retail and service industries, which become the town’s economic staple.

Tourism mars a town’s surrounding natural beauty and burdens the environment—rivers, lakes, mountains, deserts and oceans. The town pays construction companies to build trails and roads and trams and rides and parking lots, selling as it were its body to the high bidders. Then each attracted tourist brings with him the roving desire to wander farther and farther, to escape the other tourists he increasingly encounters. So with greater economic success comes greater development and destruction of the land that is advertised as beautiful and untouched.

People seem to forget that what humans need is not money, but food, water, shelter, and clothing. Culture and community. It’s clear these towns are concerned with revenue, not economy. If economy were their concern, they would focus their attention inward and catalyze citizens to provide for themselves in a direct way.

Most of these small towns have sufficient land to grow grain and produce, raise cattle and chickens, and grow and cut timber. They could take the money they spend on television commercials, billboards, and Facebook campaigns and spend it instead on public training, offer courses that teach citizens how to grow gardens, raise chickens, hunt, log timber and construct buildings. They could produce their own textiles with pottery, basketweaving, woodcarving, and the shearing, weaving, and stitching of sheep’s wool. They could mine and smelt ore. Of course, they’d need to become proficient at fermenting grapes and grains, and growing coffee, tobacco, cannabis and opium, for without such the people would suffer. And because these towns tend to have populations of 2,000 or fewer, the impact would be minimal.

Resist, man! Resist! Let the rest of America leave you behind! Save yourselves! Become like the Amish while you still have a chance! And militarize yourselves, too, so you can keep the fucking tourists away when they come crawling to your quarters in search of all those beautiful things their cities lack.

~~~

I’m driving up a wash in four low, trying to access the Henry Mountains. I think at some point the wash climbs through a canyon in Tarantula Mesa and connects with the main road to the Henrys. Beautiful scenery. Enjoyable driving.

~~~

Well, I thought I would take the backroads. I’ve encountered a large arroyo, about four feet deep and four feet wide, impassable to the Jeep. And though I could perhaps find a way around it—or get the shovel out and fill it in—I suspect I’ll find more such arroyos on the way. I don’t mind digging in the desert sun, but even if I fill in this arroyo I could get stuck in the soft and loose soil. Do I turn around, or press forward?

~~~

I turned around, made my way back to Notom Bullfrog Road, and advanced via the route well traveled. Why?

Because I don’t want to get stuck out here. It’s one thing to break down, which is a possibility given the age and condition of my Jeep. And I think if I did break down I’d handle it. I’d await darkness; the moon is full, so I could navigate easily enough by night. I’d load my bicycle with several full water bottles, load my backpack with more water, a water filter, a jacket and some food. Then I’d pedal to the main road, just a couple miles away, where I’d likely encounter someone and hitch a ride into Caineville. Even if I encountered nobody, the ride is a flat thirty miles, which I could cover in a day. Then I’d make some phone calls and figure out the rest. It’d be an adventure.

It’s another thing to get stuck, which suggests negligence and recklessness. If I got stuck, I’d have to seek help and get unstuck. That’s a phone call that would piss off the misses. And most of the people I’ve encountered on these roads are out-of-state tourists driving machines far less capable than my Jeep. I’d hate to try to find one willing and able to tow my ass. Overall, it’s discourteous to drive solo and take unnecessary risks in such an obscure region. God knows I don’t want some foolhardy shithead coming into my camp or flagging me down begging for a ride and a tow. Nobody comes to the desert looking for such close interaction with such crazed creatures.

~~~

Now I’m on the road to Henry Mountains. This would be a good place to bury a body if you wanted to get away with murder.

~~~

I came across a spring surrounded by animal tracks and feces, wild onions growing from it. Pulled one, ate it.

~~~

There’s a herd of buffalo that roams the Henry Mountains, one of only four remaining herds in North America. I’ve read it is often spotted on the southern slopes of Mount Ellen. Perhaps out on Tarantula Mesa. I’d like to go there, if not for the bison then for the mesa itself, to see whether it deserves its given name. But I don’t have enough gas. I must work my way over the mountain toward Hanksville as directly as possible.

~~~

8:18pm. I’m camped at Nasty Flat. My stomach is grumbling. Hope that wild onion wasn’t infused with Giardia. If so, I won’t be hiking Mount Ellen tomorrow. Would hate to get caught on the summit with my pants down.

I’m at 9500 feet elevation again. Same as two nights ago. Much cooler here, though. I watched the sun set across the broad southwestern sweep of canyon country and the Colorado Plateau. First instinct was to reach for my iPhone and snap a pic. Again, why? Representations fail. I put the camera away and watched. The right thing to do. So still. So still.

~~~

9:20pm. The moon peeks over the south ridge of Mount Ellen.

Wednesday, September 26

8:20am. The sun peeks over the south ridge of Mount Ellen. The sky is clear, pale blue. I can see the layered strata across the desert bed, an ocean of stone in colors of tangerine, peach, white, gray, gold, copper, bronze, rust and red. I see Boulder Mountain, the Escalante Mountains, the Pansaguant Plateau. I feel good. I had for breakfast eggs, potatoes, squash, onion, tomatoes. Coffee. Climbing Mount Ellen is in order.

~~~

I’m standing atop Mount Ellen. The climb was not four miles, as I had heard. A mile, maybe. More like a nature stroll than a mountain climb, since the road dumps one so close, but a decent challenge nonetheless due to the thin air. I think a person cannot claim to have climbed a mountain unless he starts at the base, makes his way off trail. While I walked to the peak of Mount Ellen at 11,500 feet in under an hour, to truly climb her from where she protrudes in the desert would take two, probably three days.

Mount Ellen’s peak is a pile of lichen-covered rocks the size of Dutch ovens. With every step they wobble and teeter. Strange to stand upon something as sure and solid as a mountain and yet feel at any moment, should the earth shift, you could be swallowed up in a quicksand of oversized granules.

Thursday, September 27, Moab

 Juniper Trunk in Castle Valley, Shot on 120 Ilford Film. Purchase a Print  Here .

Juniper Trunk in Castle Valley, Shot on 120 Ilford Film. Purchase a Print Here.

I’m back in the desert, now with Jeremy. It feels good to be back. I came down Mount Ellen, drove to Hanksville, filled the Jeep with gas, looked for a route, any route, from Highway 95 directly across the canyon country toward Moab or Monticello. But that would require a bridge span those vast canyons of the Green River or the Colorado River, maybe both, depending on latitude. No such luck. I thought about working my way down to Hite, up into the Maze, back down to Hite and around to Moab. But I’d have needed two or three days to do so. I opted after deliberating to drive SR 24 to I70, then follow I70 to Crescent Junction and hang a right into Moab, take a day to shower and ready my bike for The Whole Enchilada.

Almost as soon as I arrived in town, I wanted to turn back. I visited Joplin and he told me my rocks were of quartz, and that quartz is uninteresting. No problem there, but then he informed me, unsolicitedly, of Trump’s latest chicanery. Something about a press conference and the Supreme Court appointment of a rightwing Ivy-League conman accused of rape. No surprise there. What else did beer-drinking prep-school frat boys do in the ‘80s? I immediately got sucked into the media, and I found my peace replaced by a black emptiness. Then I caught myself. I closed the laptop and turned off the radio. I slept on a couch, resupplied at City Market in the morning, then came as quickly as I could into the desert to meet Jeremy at Dewey Bridge, near the confluence of the Dolores and Colorado rivers. We set up camp and fished. We gathered wood from a downed cottonwood by the river, strapped it atop Jeremy’s Subaru with a bike tube, and hauled it to camp. We talked by fire, and sat in silence. So still. I again find the quietude unbelievable.

Tomorrow we ride.

Friday, September 28

A baby rattler winded through camp this morning. The first I’ve seen on red sand.

Jeremy and I set out… and… and I’m too tired. It’s now 3:20am Saturday. We rode 35 miles today, from Burro Pass in the La Sal Mountains to a taco cart off Main Street in Moab. And because we shuttled ourselves, we drove four hours, too. No longer can I complain that my trip has been easygoing.

I could see from the trail Mount Ellen, where I stood just two days ago.

Saturday, September 29, Dolores River

Trees Identified on Trip

  • Ponderosa Pine

  • Blue spruce

  • Utah juniper

  • Rocky Mountain juniper

  • Douglas fir

  • Quaking aspen

  • Whitebark pine (According to my Audubon field guide, whitebark pine grows in Oregon, but not in Utah. But I saw one, just one, alone, on the west slope of Mount Ellen at 11,200 feet, as crooked and solemn and elegant as Mr. Miyagi’s bonsai.)

Fauna Encountered on Trip

  • Muledeer

  • Merriam turkey

  • Great blue heron

  • Woodpeckers

  • Pinyon jays

  • Squirrels

  • Peregrine falcons

  • Turkey vulture

  • Midget faded rattlesnake

  • Elk

  • Ringtail cat

Yesterday was my first layover on this trip, though I hardly lay over. Jer and I rode The Whole Enchilada, covering 35 miles, dropping 7000 rocky feet from Burro Pass to the Colorado River.

This morning I had for breakfast a peanut butter and honey sandwich, half an orange, some apple slices, iced coffee steeped with cacao, and a cup of merlot. I also smoked a cigar. THIS is more like a layover, though I intend to drive home tonight.

I’m now sitting on the banks of the Dolores River, having hiked up, eating sardines, drinking Peroni, brushing away the minnows that nibble at my feet. Feels almost like acupuncture. People pay good money to have minnows nibble their toes, Jeremy tells me. He also tells me it’s tarantula mating season. Males are on the prowl. Wish I would’ve visited that eponymous mesa back in the Henrys.

The wind moves over the mouth of my beer bottle, produces a low whistle, and rustles the stands of willow across the water.

~~~

5:16pm. Homeward bound. A sad and grateful sayonara to the dunes of sand. Already I’m full of nostalgia. I light a cigar and drive the American Road.