The shoulder seasons of the spring and fall are a great time to pick up a copy of Edward Abbey’s classic book Desert Solitaire and escape the dreary weather to Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.
The desert is the perfect cure for the perpetual pall of grey that envelopes us as we’re about to enter winter or are just breaking from its grasp.
This past fall I did just that, flying from Vancouver to Salt Lake City, Utah, to meet up with my friend Dave, who picked me up on his way down from Banff before we continued south to the desert. We brought a couple of pack-rafts with us and had a rough idea of where we wanted to spend a week exploring. Warm days and cool nights are ideal for rambling around the seemingly endless array of canyons and dry gulches that braid out in all directions through the 136,000-hectare park.
Edward Abbey was a ranger in neighbouring Arches National Monument in the 1960s before it became the drive-through spectacle it is today—now less a wilderness than a car-choked museum that hems in the ubiquitous natural arches like paintings at The Louvre. Though he was stationed there, Abbey wandered far and wide.
In Desert Solitaire, Abbey describes how to get to know the desert he loved in his classically dry and humorous tone, “In the first place, you can’t see anything from a car, you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus.” The roadless days of Arches from Abbey’s time is no more, so in order to get a truer sense of the wilderness he described, we begin our 160 kilometre hiking and paddling circuit by heading into the remote Maze area of Canyonlands.
Descending 600 metres on foot along a rocky trail from Island in the Sky (the Canyonlands Park entrance area), we reach the Green River, inflate our pack rafts and paddle 45 kilometres to a notch in the soaring canyon walls. We do our best Abbey and “crawl on hands and knees” up through bands and boulders of rust red and creamy yellow sandstone from the river bottom, before topping out and descending into the Maze.
We quickly see how this place got its name as countless narrow canyons spur off in all directions. Without a map you could spend days in here walking back and forth into steep and impassable dead-ends. We hike along sandy gulches framed by Juniper and golden cottonwood, the tops of canyon walls arcing over us so only a moving band of light reaches the Maze bottom.
One day we climb to the top of Pete’s Mesa and gaze over layers of sedimentary rock that have been eroded by water, wind, and time into psychedelic serpentine shapes that seem to stretch into eternity. A thunderstorm hits, driving us back down into the bottom of the Maze. It’s our first experience with a flash flood, as the dry gulches fill quickly with water that pours in thousands of spouts over the impenetrable sandstone from all sides. The tent we’ve left at the bottom is thankfully high enough up the bank to be spared the torrent.
A few hours later, the water has evaporated into the desert air. Our shadows dance against the wall we are camped by, flickering to-and-fro to the rhythm of our campfire flames. The stars are clear in the night sky and it feels like I’m in a different time and place.
I’ve forgotten the overcast browns and greens of Canada's West Coast, replaced in my mind and soul by the clean lines and rusty rock of Abbey’s Country.