Monday, 13 April 2009

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Extracted from

America’s Outback: Southern Utah

Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

Two hikers squeeze through Peek-a-Boo Canyon in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Published: April 12, 2009

IF the name Dry Fork Coyote Gulch doesn’t give fair warning that this is not your average hike, then the haunting drive to the trailhead will remove all doubt. The sandy Hole-in-the-Rock Road is one of the few routes that even attempt to enter the biblical expanse of desert in southern Utah called the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and when I made a pilgrimage there last summer, I didn’t pass a single car, let alone a sign of human habitation.

But my total isolation didn’t really strike home until I stepped from my 4x4 onto the edge of a mesa above Coyote Gulch, a ravine whose golden sandstone hides three gorgeous, narrow slot canyons. The lonely trailhead offered none of the familiar national park comforts like ranger huts or wooden welcome signs — certainly no dubious snack vendors. There was nothing but expanses of rock stretching toward the horizon, which at 10 a.m. were already glowing like embers under the intense Utah sun. Only a few stone cairns far below indicated that there was any hiking trail at all.

I gamely reminded myself that this was precisely what I’d been looking for — a landscape unchanged since 1872 — and set off into the piercing light.

I’d gone to southern Utah on the trail of an improbable outdoor adventurer — Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh, who at the ripe age of 18 joined the last great voyage of exploration in the Old West. This Gilded Age Hardy Boy made it through the raw desert in May and June 1872 with a group of amateur explorers who were hardly more qualified than himself. In his later years, Dellenbaugh traveled the world as an artist and writer, and helped to found, in 1904, the esteemed Explorers Club, now on 70th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

But I was fascinated by his teenage adventure, largely forgotten today, when he and his friends found the first route through southern Utah’s maze of canyons, discovering the last unknown river in the continental United States, the Escalante, and the last mountain range, the Henrys. They were the first to peer into that phantasmagoric expanse of Bryce Canyon and the first to cross what is now Capitol Reef National Park.

At one particularly tricky canyon crossroad, they tried to convince a Ute Indian to act as a guide, “for the labyrinth ahead was a puzzle,” Dellenbaugh later recalled. After the man wandered off, the group pressed on anyway, trusting to their spirit and wits.

This corner of the southern Utah has since been immortalized by the painter Maynard Dixon, the novelist Zane Grey, the photographer Ansel Adams and countless Hollywood westerns. And yet, it still qualifies as the best-kept secret in the West. While millions of travelers are drawn every year to Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, Grand Staircase-Escalante and its surrounding area offer a seemingly endless choice of natural wonders that lie blissfully forgotten and empty. It’s America’s Outback.

SHORTLY after starting the Coyote Gulch hike, I had to wonder if I might not disappear into the desert void. Back in the town of Escalante, some rangers had given me a printout of directions to the three slot canyons.

“These are unmarked routes,” it screamed in bold print. “Hikers must pay attention to landmarks so they can find their way out.”

I had lost sight of the first stone cairns almost immediately, as I stumbled down to the dry river wash at the bottom of the ravine. (“Water is scarce,” the printout helpfully noted.) After a few false leads, I made it to Peek-a-Boo Canyon, whose hard-to-spot entrance was surrounded by what looked like a shallow pool: I took a step in and sank straight up to my thighs in thick mud. As the sun continued to climb in the sky, I wished for my own Ute guide — or at least a GPS tracking system.

Hugging the canyon wall for shade, I pressed on heroically and found Spooky Canyon, named for its otherworldly atmosphere. It was only an 18-inch-wide crack in the rock, but to me it yawned like the gateway to Shangri-La.

As I squeezed inside, the air was immediately cool and fragrant. The sky appeared to be an electric blue sliver far above, and the reflected light made the golden sandstone seem to glow from within. I remained utterly still, in a lizardlike state, knowing that I couldn’t hide in there forever.

Finally, I drank the last of my water and staggered across the rock like a sun-struck character out of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” I was parched, scratched, encrusted with mud — but triumphant. Out there in Coyote Gulch, I had a sense, however distant, of what Dellenbaugh and his companions had been up against back in 1872.

Back home in Manhattan, I had often walked past the Gothic facade of the Explorers Club and thought with more than a twinge of envy of the halcyon days of travel. The club’s founders had grown up after the Civil War, when you could hop on a train from Grand Central and plunge into the West like a character from a dime novel. They were a tough bunch who set off with little more than their hobnailed boots and a month’s supply of bread and bacon.

Frederick Dellenbaugh, fresh from high school in Buffalo in 1871, heard that John Wesley Powell was looking for men to join his second expedition down the Colorado River. Powell had become a celebrity for conquering the Grand Canyon in 1869; this time, the white-water trip would be combined with the mapping of the Colorado plateau. Hundreds volunteered, but Powell liked to pick his crews from friends and relatives, and Dellenbaugh, who was connected on Powell’s brother-in-law’s side, became the expedition’s artist.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I am passin by~~~