As I turned off the exit onto Route 191, my mind began to wonder. I gassed it and knew that we would be in Moab in less than a half hour. Would we get a spot? Would the weather hold? Was it a bad idea not to bring a topo map? It didn’t matter now; we would soon arrive and all the questions would be answered in due time.
A stop at the liquor store for the proper provisions and we headed out of town on Highway 128 towards Castle Country, the Fisher Towers and Onion Creek. Despite having been to Moab several times I had yet to make it to the Fisher area. Skip and Jeff were also not familiar with the landscape here. Advice from friends and some research cemented the idea that we were overdue. So on a mild March afternoon, we turned at milepost 20 onto the graded dirt road of Onion Creek.
Near the entrance was a small BLM campsite and some horse corrals, but I knew that there were at large campsites just ahead. The only rule was to camp in designated sites only; I had read that there were six of these hidden in the canyon. The sun began to shine down and we were full of energy… beers may have already been cracked at this point. We drove through the first of 15 or 20 stream crossings and began to crane our necks for an open site. My enthusiasm began to waver as the first five spots had been spoken for… hopefully six was open. We splashed through the stream a couple more times before finding it too was full.
“Fuck, man!” I pounded my fist against the steering wheel. “We might be SOL.” I immediately regretted my outburst; no reason to dampen the mood. My companions were still hopeful: there is always somewhere to camp in the desert! I kept on driving over a dicey looking bridge before pulling into an empty spot. We jumped out of the truck and nosed around… fire pit and an obvious tent area looked tempting, but there was no sign marking it “designated.” We knew the BLM rangers weren’t adverse to doling out $75 tickets for such violations. We piled back in and kept on truckin. Soon we were rewarded with a pleasant surprise.
Site #7 was empty and off the road. We popped the hatch and pitched our monstrous Kelty tent under the only two trees nearby. Soon enough the contents of the truck were strewn about on the ground: coolers, camp chairs, firewood and packs all found a home under the trees or by the fire ring. The cork on our bottle of bourbon was popped and we cheers-ed our discovery: turns out there are 9 at large campsites; the BLM must have added the three to the old total. The sun was peaking through the clouds, and although the wind had a chill to it, our spirits were warm with desert vibrations.
I threw my rain jacket on and shouldered my daypack. There was another stream crossing just down from our camp, and we decided to spend the remaining hours of afternoon following its flow east. The sand was wet from a recent downpour, and the stream water was icy cold. High banks of red, green and gray soil gave way to the large rock outcropping of Fisher Mesa over our heads. We followed the streams twists and turns, marveling at batches of quicksand or rockslides, blissfully unaware that the road was just 50 feet away from us much of the time. A quick glance behind us showed that the weather was about to turn, we could see the skies darkening and vapor flowing over the mountains to our south.
I couldn’t believe it but sure enough it was snowing. Well, not traditional snow, but groppel (small, round pellets of snow) was coming down on us at a good click. We continued upstream despite the change in conditions; we all had our rain gear on and weren’t ready to turn back. Soon enough the groppel subsided and we got a few minutes of calm air. It wasn’t long before it began raining, not heavy but a steady downpour. Our crew turned back and headed down the road towards camp. As the rain reached its crescendo we saw the sun glowing powerfully behind the mesa. Our pace quickened to meet its rays. Just as we arrived back at camp the drops ceased and we had a few minutes of sun before night began to fall.
After dinner and a few beers we retired for the night. My mind had been calm but as I sat trying to warm up my sleeping bag I began to think of the next day. Our plan was to visit the Onion Creek side canyons and explore them as much as time would allow. The night air was quite chilly, but my head was swimming with the pictures of places I’d yet to see and barely noticed the cold that would normally have made me quite uncomfortable. As I began to drift off I hoped that we would be able to explore some of the places I had been reading about… little did I know that we’d not only see those, but other places that we hadn’t even planned on.