Sit back, dear reader, with your cigar and your feet to the fire and allow me to cant an elegy to blessed water that rained upon us after sloshing through hellish mire.
Recently my hiking partner, Death Valley Jim, and I traveled down a big ol’ slot, Buckskin Gulch slot canyon in Utah. In a recent post I talked about walking through the mile-long pit of sludge that is the portion of that canyon called The Cesspool, and posted a video of the experience. We had arrived at Buckskin Gulch just after a storm so the slot was gloriously muddy and The Cesspool, an extended portion of the canyon that never sees sunlight, was crotch deep with fetid mud. We saw a dead mouse lying beside a puddle and one can only imagine what horrors lurked at the bottom of the Cess. We assumed that a great radioactive dragon would rise from the depths and threaten to slime us. We managed safe passage without awakening the beast, but if on a dark and starry night you feel something slither past your thigh in the muck, know that we named her, “Cessy”.
By the time we’d hiked 10 1/2 miles (from Wire Pass to the Middle Route landmarks) photographing the towering slot walls, scrambling down rockfalls, and sloshing through Cess, I was eager to stop. We both longed to eat a hot dinner and camp, but we had little hope of that becoming reality because we had already dry camped the night before and had depleted our water supply. The plan was to eat more cold food for dinner and reluctantly soldier on another 7 miles or so until we reached the end of Buckskin Gulch at its confluence with the Paria River where we would find fresh water to filter and good camping. Little did we know that powerful forces were at work making different plans for us.
As we emerged from the dark cavernous Cesspool the canyon widened, on a high ledge we saw petroglyphs of hunters and bighorn sheep. We were at what is called the Middle Route, an ancient indian trail that crosses the canyon. The Middle Route is known to be the saving grace of those who are caught in Buckskin Gulch during a surprise rain storm. If a lucky hiker can climb to a high bench in the Middle Route, their life can be spared as the flash flood rages through the narrows.
There is actually nice camping on a bench at the Middle Route, but to climb all the way out of the canyon one needs a measure of technical climbing skills. The natives carved Moki steps into the sandstone and these are still serviceable hand and footholds, however eroded. The petroglyphs are carved on high ledges that some hypothesize were accessed by ladders of some sort. How I ached to climb the ancient moki steps and explore the Middle Route. I wanted desperately to stop hiking and let history permeate my imagination while contemplating the mysterious origin of the petroglyph of a falling man and ladling hot rehydrated food into my face. Then we heard voices…
On the life-saving-middle-route-camping-bench stood two day-hikers discussing the probable fate of a climber they’d seen trying to enter the canyon from the ledge. After a short pleasant conversation with the hikers (named Paul and Janet) about our hiking plans, they casually reached into their packs and produced THREE LITERS OF WATER and offered it to us. (I’ll pause for a moment for you to be astonished and a few more seconds for quiet reverence for a treasure of such overwhelming divinity.) There we stood in front of that water like lambs in the glory of archangels. I could have cried. I did NOT want to hike another seven miles. I DID want to rehydrate some Mountain House and stuff it in my face. I DESPERATELY wanted to take the time to leisurely contemplate petroglyphs and put my hands and feet on those living-history moki steps. ALL of this suddenly became possible with the presentation of three unasked for liters of water. And if that wasn’t enough they also produced two Honeycrisp apples. I mean, what?!!!
Oh, no. That isn’t the end of the story. Not by a mile. I asked Paul and Janet if they knew which ledge had the moki steps. They said, “They are right over there. And by the way, we also installed a couple of new safety ropes. So feel free to use them to climb the otherwise-death-defying route to the ledge and go exploring like we know you’ve wanted to do all day. We’ll be here for another 40 minutes or so which is just long enough for you to have a total blast that you never would have had the opportunity to experience if we had not been here at exactly this place in this wide world at exactly this time in the history of the universe.” (I paraphrase, of course, but that is how the experience of them lives in my memory.)
I tipped my hat to Paul and Janet climbed the heck out of those crazy ancient moki steps without a care in the world, P&J’s red rope wrapped around my wrist holding me safe.
Meanwhile the climber on the ledge had made his way to the indian trail and was attempting to descend. He was having quite a bit of trouble and managed to enter the canyon via quite a bit of butt-sliding and near leg-breaking falls. Paul scrambled up and talked him through it as best he could. The climber seemed to have impaired judgement about his ability to make the climb, but Paul met him with a tremendous amount of patience, grace and good cheer. The climber only rested in the canyon for about 20 minutes before Paul and Janet declared that they needed to start climbing out of the canyon to reach their car by nightfall. With great effort and teamwork Paul and Janet assisted the gentleman out of the canyon. We heard from them later that the proceedings to the rim and back to the car ultimately took the threesome several laborious hours. Jim and I are certain we watched two people save a life that day. There is no doubt in my mind that Paul and Janet were angels.
Thanks to those two beautiful people Jim and I were able to relax that evening instead of hike and we were able to reflect on the likely possibility that we had been spared tending a man with a broken leg or worse. Instead, the worst thing I had to contend with was Jim’s cranky mood.
Jim had barely slept the night before and barely eaten all day. (Don’t ask me why. Boys are weird.) Thus he was out of sorts. What a buzz kill. So, at dark I reached deep into my bag of tricks, projected my headlamp onto the canyon wall, played some music on my iPhone, and declared that we were going to shadow dance. AH-MA-GOD what fun we had! If you are ever in a slot canyon after dark do all of these things with your headlamp: make shadow puppets, shadow dance and call it a Slot Rave, make your own shadow as tall as the canyon and wrap your fingers over the rim, pose like movie posters (for example “Horror Movie” one person’s shadow is huge and menacing, the other person’s shadow is tiny and cowering). Oh, in the name of all that is slotty, do these things and you will die happy. How we laughed!
When returning to civilization I found that Paul had “friended” me on Facebook. I had the opportunity to thank him again for the water that enhanced an already great trip. I also expressed my appreciation for the kindness he showed the climber who was in need of assistance far more than he seemed to realize. Paul humbly asked that if I was to share this story, that I consider including his heartfelt testimonial about his and Janet’s frequent tendency to find themselves in coincidental situations that enable them to be of service.
“To borrow a phrase from the legendary Paul Harvey, I’d like to give you the “rest of the story”. Like you, Janet and I are the adventurous type. We have always had a love for the outdoors and many of our trips have taken us into places where you can easily go a week or more and see no one. We love remoteness for sure. But with it comes risk. Not only for ourselves but for others that we might encounter along the way. With that said, now I would like to give you “the rest of the story”. Janet and I are committed Christians. Before each and every hike we take into “risky” areas we ask that if there is anyone who might have a need or in any way require help of some kind, that He would allow us to be His hands and feet and to assist or help whomever it might be. We don’t go “looking” for people to help. We just assume that if there are any, that He will connect us up when the time is right. When I think about the “timing” of the five of us coming together at the middle route all at precisely the same moment, I believe with all my heart that God recognized our willingness to be His hands and feet and placed us at that spot precisely when we needed to be there. This is not the first time things like this have happened for sure. So, it was really a gift from God that we were able to assist and in the process give Him the credit.”
Whatever your faith, I think we can all be grateful for beautiful people, Trail Angels, who only seek to be kind.
As is the case with most stories, Jim remembers these events through a different lens. Also, he chose to write about different details of our hike through Buckskin. I encourage you to pop on over to his blog and enjoy his photography and detailed description of the scenery we saw, as well as hear his interpretation of the people we experienced. He has a photo of the falling man petroglyph as well as a closeup of the moki steps, which I do not. It is here: http://deathvalleyjim.com/2015/10/28/buckskin-gulch-and-wire-passmy-love-note-to-utah-part-2-grand-staircase-escalante-national-monument/