For the second time in less than a month the X was barreling down a desert road. And again, it was Skip, Jeff and I who were making the journey to a new place. This time our destination was the sleepy little town of Escalante and the namesake river hidden in the badlands beyond paved roads. The music was cranked and the windows rolled down as we cruised along Highway 12. For those of you who have never made the drive from Capitol Reef to Escalante, let me tell you that this might be the most scenic stretch of road in America, no lie. The truck teetered on the precipice between canyons on a stretch known as “Hell’s Backbone.” The road is paved but that doesn’t make you feel any safer. It’s always good when just getting there provides a certain rush.
When we pulled into the visitor center it was just passed 3 o’clock. Our departure had been delayed that morning due to one of the occupant’s desire to kill a bottle of tequila as preparation. Selah. Minutes later we had procured our backpacking permit, and soon we were on our way down Hole-in-the-Rock road. Back when Utah was still just a big empty space on a map, Mormon settlers blazed this trail through some of the toughest country in the Lower 48. To this day, Escalante remains one of the least visited places in the USA. All the more reason for us to go there.
I turned the X onto Egypt Road and tried to maintain a steady 20 miles per hour. There was a rattling sound coming from underneath our feet that had me concerned, and I drove like a little old lady trying to avoid any further damage. Soon enough we arrived at the trailhead. It was busy; at least 8 other vehicles were parked in the sandy lot, the passengers nowhere to be found. Packs were shouldered and we headed down the steep slickrock bench towards the Escalante River… the adventure had begun!
The path was marked with intermittent cairns and we did our best to follow it. A couple times I stopped to take a look at the topo map to reconfirm we were on the right path. Deep sand and slight confusion slowed our progress, but soon enough we were at the edge of Fence Canyon. “Don’t want to go over that edge” was Skip’s comment as we peered down the sheer walls, the floor of the canyon some 200 feet below us. The three of us switchbacked our way down the rocks and eventually bottomed out in Fence. Huge cottonwood trees towered above us, the leaves a vibrant green color with branches just beginning to show their buds. Water was everywhere; a stream trickled melodically from pool to pool. The water was crystal clear and cold as ice. I hoped that the river would be at least a few degrees warmer. We rounded a corner and saw the remnants of a backpackers’ camp: a few stumps were dragged into position around the kitchen area, and just beyond was a large, flat sandy spot perfect for three tents. No need to waste time searching further, this was it. Tents were pitched and I took a satisfying gulp out of my flask. The time was just before 7pm, and there was enough daylight left to go explore.
We swapped out our boots for water shoes. Exploring along the Escalante River usually means exploring in the river, and it was time to get wet. I tiptoed my way into the water- cold as hell! Soon I had been soaked up to my waist, and we plodded down river. It wasn’t but a few hundred feet until we saw our first group of neighbors. Several guys and their dogs had taken up residence beside the river. Three tents were pitched and a case of Bud cans was chilling in the river. They even had speakers set up and were jamming out in the waning sunlight… well done by them! We exchanged some smalltalk about where both groups were exploring before heading further downstream. They, like us, had come to explore Neon and Ringtail Canyons. The light was fading fast as we made our way across the floodplain towards Neon.
We could see the mouth just south of us as we crashed through thick flora on the banks of the river. I heard voices, and soon enough we walked straight into another campsite. These folks had pitched their tents right in the middle of the trail. I felt a bit rude walking through their camp during dinner, but hey, when you’re on the trail that’s how it goes! A few feet beyond them there was another camp set up; two younger guys were already nestled into their sleeping bags. Jeff noticed they had a store bought Ganja Brownie. Must have been from Colorado, land legal herb. We figured they were tripping out in their sacks so we didn’t say much, just kept on trucking. Finally we headed up Neon.
The canyon is gorgeous. Huge alcoves at the bottom of magnificent red and orange walls, the tops of which glowed neon hues in the waning light. Deep pools of water lay still; no streams running here. A half mile of twists and turns later and we were at the foot of the Golden Cathedral. The formation is a double natural bridge that towers some 40 feet over your head. The bridges were originally huge potholes in the slot canyon above us, but thanks to Mother Nature the bottoms dropped out and the Cathedral was born. The dim light wasn’t good for pictures, but the sense of awe made up for it. Only a few minutes were spent in this special place before we doubled back. It was getting downright dark at this point.
As we walked towards the river I heard something high overhead. At the top of the walls and out of sight there were some desert bighorn sheep baa-ing at us. I think they were telling us to get the hell out of their canyon and back to camp, and we were happy to oblige. With the sun now set our first steps into the river were icy cold. We hustled upstream as fast as we could. 4 crossings had brought us to the mouth of Neon, and we quickly had two of them behind us. That’s when the trouble started. I was leading the pack, and despite the full moon and my headlamp, managed to take the wrong path. We came to a spot on the river we didn’t recognize. Jeff took the lead and crashed his way through the thicket towards the “right” spot. Once again we came to the river bank; it seemed right this time. All three men plunged into the river and scrambled out the other side. However, it was quickly decided that we hadn’t come this way. No bother, we would just make our own trail.
Jeff led again and this time the foliage was a dense wall. I could hear him struggling in the darkness just feet ahead of me, smashing and kicking his way through the willows and tamarisk that had closed in around us. “Fuck man! Sticker bush!” Jeff did not sound happy. He rubbed at his arms and legs were the stickers had sunk in. Not convinced of the painful power the bush possessed, I took a run at it. “FUCK! Definitely a sticker bush!” Skip kept our spirits in check by laughing at our foolishness. Frustration was setting in but we had no one but ourselves to blame for being slightly lost. We adopted the “Ah, screw it” mentality and just plunged back into the river. We fought the current and headed upstream, the moon now reflecting brilliantly off the water. The rock walls glowed eerily around us. It was a very surreal moment in time. Three men, lost but not really lost, tromping through an icy cold river in the middle of the lonely desert.
Eventually we got our bearings straight and beelined for camp. Our next door neighbors laughed as we tried to explain ourselves on the way past them. When we hit camp, I flopped down on a log, exhausted from the long day of driving and exploring. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten dinner at 10pm in the backcountry, but man did it taste good. None of us had the energy to stay up and shoot the breeze, so into the tents we went. I drifted to sleep with the sounds of night outside my tent- a toad croaked his midnight song and crickets chirped… soon enough I was out cold, dreaming of another full day to come.