Driving out of the small town of Hanksville, Utah, I gaze out my window at this foreign landscape. Various geologic formations make me think that I’m no longer on earth. James informs me that the grey coloration, and the out of this world rock formations are the Mancos shale, a sight that I have yet to come across in my life. My thoughts begin to wander: we are going to a farm? On this grey, desolate, barren landscape, how could anyone get anything to grow in this moonlike soil? I begin to drift off further away from my seat in the van, deep with thoughts of doom and gloom over the past weeks readings regarding the future of our planet, society, and the world my grandkid may get born into. Little did I know a start to the solution awaits me…
It is estimated that life began on Earth around 3.8 billion years ago. Since the first signs of life entered the fossil record, there have been five mass extinctions where large sums of species abruptly vanished. We as humans are currently causing the six mass extinction. Around 27,000 species go extinct every year, and in the past hundred years alone, the species extinction rate has increased a 1,000 times that of background rates typical in Earth’s history. This is primarily due to the fact that one third of the land area on earth has been converted to agriculture and urbanization.
We can’t afford to convert much more land for agriculture, because habitat loss for species of the world is so severe. In the last fifty years, topsoil has been lost at a rate of 760 million tons per year, while there are more hungry mouths to feed. Mother Earth hasn’t even begun to show her true wraith and powerful potential. When she decides to punish us for our actions, her power will be felt on every corner of the globe. This large-scale destruction of the natural world is primarily accredited to our species fundamental tendency to produce, consume, and create greed, and corruption with minimal concern for the future.
Thai coconut curry for dinner, turkey avocado wraps for lunch, Triscuit cream cheese apple sandwiches for snacks, and, of course, the staple: oats, Nutella and peanut butter for breakfast. The pleasures of eating don’t have to be sacrificed in the backcountry. In fact, they can only be intensified (hunger is the best spice after all). Yet, the joys of eating aren’t limited to simply taste. Each meal is an opportunity to grow, both individually and as a community.
It all starts with breakfast. The leader of the day (LOD) creeps out of their nest a half hour or so before the rest of the group, lights the Wisperlite (the good one), puts on water and prepares to bring life back to the campsite. While waiting for the water to boil, the LOD finds little to do but enjoy the serene morning calm. Upon boilage, they pleasantly wake their slumbering comrades in whichever way they see fit: a wakeup call, singing a classic camp song about birdies, or by playing a ditty on the ukulele. The campers follow suit, rubbing the crusties from their eyes (and bowls), wiping the drool from their cheek, dishing up and grubbing out. What makes breakfast unique is the universal acceptance of peace from all parties. Hardly a word is spoken as each member individually greets the morning sun. Nothing is shared but the moment.
A breakfast of particular significance was had the morning after our resupply, above Horseshoe Canyon. We awoke instantly to a rising sun- no need to wait for it to creep into the subsurface of the canyon- a rarity. Once bowls were filled, each member moved toward the edge of the terrace to watch the sunshine descend upon the 180 degree panorama of dim, ancient sandstone, warming our bones in the process. To our left, the east, the La Sal mountain range protruded above the arid mesa, filtering the sunrise’s orange rays. To our right, the snowcapped peaks of the Henry Mountains received it’s warm glow, emitting an aura of golds, auburns and pinks. We watched as the same solar radiation vividly painted the vista with color, awakening the depths below. Though little was said verbally, we mutually cultivated a sense of togetherness through the power of our shared experience. Breakfast: a time for the individual.
In the morning as we geared up for our first real day of river travel with packs on, I admit, I was not looking forward to plunging my feet into the Dirty Devil. The day started looking up when the morning sun reached our class circle, warming my bundled body. With thoughts of tar sands, fracking, and renewable energy floating around our minds we left Angel’s Cove, walking towards the river. Mud has been both our medium of travel. It has also been our medium of learning as we explore the geological and cultural histories of this area.
The first foot-to-river contact sent yelps into the air and chills up my legs. As the day continued and the sun warmed the river water I started to really enjoy myself. It turns out, river walking is really a game; there are almost no rules except that the mud must not prevail. With a newbie’s eye, anything looks good enough to step on, but the mud is tricky.
In some places we can see ripple marks along the mud that lies just below the water’s surface. Shallow pools gather here, warmed by the desert sun. Breezes etch their mark along the soft, brown surface until our footprints force them deeper. Walking along through these patches always seems like a great idea, as the heated water warms chilled toes, but as your feet regain feeling, the shallow pools squirt and ooze as they cover your feet in brown.
A safer bet is to seek out muddy zones that are slightly raised above water level. These are easy to see from far away and helpful as a destination goal when crossing the river. Walking across a semi-dry surface is always desirable here in Dirty Devil Canyon. Sometimes the slightly raised mud provides safe passage and other times it sends us back into the water after swallowing our feet. It’s easy to forget that just because we can’t see water, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. After yanking a foot from the mud, the footprint slowly fills with opaque water from below.
There are some things that only happen in the back country. Pooping in cat holes, wearing a pair of underwear for an indefinite amount of time, and becoming master of the one-pot meal are among them. You might even develop such a strong attachment with your one utensil that even after returning home you choose that one over the drawer of acceptable substitutes in your kitchen. But before you make your way home to that kitchen, try to find some time for another backcountry activity. Something like Star Surfing.
It’s a simple game with simple instructions. First, wait for a clear night and find a spot with a good view of the stars. Then, pick one star from above and do your best to memorize its placement. Now look away, and start spinning in circles as fast as you can. After several rotations, make a sudden stop, strike your best surfing pose, and try to find your star again. You’ll find that it’s quite the challenge to stay stable while pinpointing your star.
This is exactly what our small group decided to do on our fifth night in Horseshoe Canyon. We were “getting crazy on a Saturday night.” Around 9:15 that evening we gathered in the middle of our alcove camp. There was no moon to be seen and the stars popped from their canvas of darkness. One by one we started to surf on the sandy ground. Only a few seconds after the first attempt, laughter began reverberating off the sandstone walls around us. From the sidelines, we could see the look of concentration on our friends’ faces as they started to spin around. We’d watch it change into a smile as they tried, and failed, to stay stable. We’d watch that smile then morph into a full on grin as they pulled themselves off the ground. I hadn’t laughed that hard for a long long time.
Our second day in the backcountry was our first day hiking in the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon. Within the first hour of our trek, Ben stopped in his tracks and stooped to grab something half buried in the sand. Amid a mosaic of stones and pebbles, the shiny red glint of a small specimen had caught his eye. It was a flat triangular thing, maybe an inch from base to tip, and it had clearly not achieved this form through the forces of nature. All eight of us crowded around for a show and tell that would spark a whole new topic of intrigue in canyon country. “It’s the tip of an arrowhead! Ancient people made them out of chert,” Ben informed us. He pointed to the once razor sharp edges and drew our attention to scalloped ridges indicative of human handiwork. We passed the artifact around and each took a turn imagining the prehistoric person who had created it. At this point, we realized that frequently scanning the ground was just as important as gaping at the immense beauty of the canyon surrounding us.
During this first section of our course, we read Singing Stone by Tom Flieschner. At the end of this book, he asks, “How do we live here? How should we live here?” in reference to the high deserts of the Colorado Plateau. Initially, I thought that maybe we shouldn’t live here. Maybe the delicate soils of the desert can’t tolerate our impacts. Perhaps the water sources in this region are too scant to support any sort of human population. But people lived here before. They lived here for thousands of years! The Colorado Plateau harbors a great deal of evidence that the Ancestral Puebloans and the Fremont people utilized an intimate knowledge of the land to support their civilizations.
The word ‘desert’ implies ‘deserted,’ ‘forsaken,’ ‘abandoned.’ Before coming to the desert of the Colorado Plateau, I imagined this place as an expanse of lifeless rocks, with a few tumbleweeds blowing in the wind. I was shocked to find that this place is not deserted at all. This area gets only seven inches of rain each year, yet biodiversity flourishes. There are more than cactus here- I have seen flowers of every color, many types of grasses, shrubs, and even trees. How can all these plants grow out of this parched sand? How can so little water create so much life?
Nestled in the canyons along the Dirty Devil River is a hidden paradise; cottonwood trees dominate the riparian zones and sandy washes between layered cliffs of Navajo, Kayenta, and Wingate sandstone. I was surprised to find deciduous trees here with such broad leaves, as they need so much water to survive. They reach their taproots deep into the earth, and their branches high towards the sun. Their fresh green buds contrast sharply with the surrounding rock layers that have been here for over 200 million years. Ravens and hawks nest in their branches, beavers build dams from their wood, and owls live in the holes of their trunks. Hundreds of years ago, native people ate these spring buds, and made scurvy-preventing medicine from the tree’s inner bark. Today, we make camp under their cool shade, watch their cotton-covered seeds float in the sunlight like a light snowfall, and step across the silvery blanket of their dead leaves on the dry earth.
It was day three in horseshoe canyon, after a grueling two miles the previous day, it was time for a layover…
What exactly is a layover day? Well, the possibilities are endless, but essentially it meant that we were camping in the same (gorgeous) spot as the night before. So there was nowhere we had to hike to on this day.
As our fearless leader of the day, Katie, woke us up a whole half hour later than usual, we got to bask in the early morning sunlight eating our oatmeal, granola, dried fruit, and various hot drinks while pondering what the day had in store for us.
After a leisurely morning, we stuffed the brains of our backpacks with water, food, and journals and set off to go exploring. Just after lunch, we found ourselves face to face with a slot canyon!
We slid into it one by one; instructor Ben was the first in line. Him being the biggest member of our group, we knew that if he could fit, so could the rest of us. It started out pretty narrow; we sat with our backs pressed up against one wall and our feet on the other. We quickly learned that friction was our friend in sections like this, the more parts of your body touching the wall the better.