Sunday, May 30, 2021

Footprints in the mud of time

When I visit ancestral Puebloan ruins I look for handprints in the mud mortar. It brings me closer to the time and place. Look, there, the prints of actual people from hundreds of years ago; tough people who hauled rock, water, dirt and branches up the side of the canyon.

I didn’t spot any clear impressions of hands or fingers at Horse Collar Ruin in Natural Bridges National Monument. I saw something far more unexpected, and maybe more rare: footprints on the roof of a kiva. Way cool.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

That which does not kill you almost kills you

You know that thing I wrote the other day about getting outside your comfort zone? Unlike me, you shouldn’t take that to mean you should also get outside your physical abilities zone. Like I did. Twice, not having learned the first time.

Yesterday I set out for Fish Mouth Cave on the eastern side of Comb Ridge. Everything was hunky-dory until I reached a big slab of steep slick rock just before the cave. I imagine it was about a 40-degree incline and about, mmmm, five stories high. With nothing to hold onto. And in full afternoon sun. By the time I realized it would be easier (but farther) to zig-zag back and forth, creating my own switchbacks, I had wiped myself out. Lactic acid was soaking my leg muscles. I had to sit before they buckled and I went tumbling.

Once I had stopped climbing my aerobic system was able to get through to my consciousness and complain it wasn’t all too happy either.

I sat and wondered how long it would take to recover enough to get down off the rock and back to the Rolling Steel Tent.

Obviously, I lived to tell about it.

The view from half way down

Then this morning, forgetting yesterday’s lesson, I stood at the rim of the Sipapu Natural Bridge Trail, in Natural Bridges National Monument. The sign said it’s 500 feet to the bottom of the canyon in less than a mile and, more significantly, 500 feet back up. Looking at a couple of ant people way down there, I thought to myself, “Well, other people do it. So can I. Because, hey, there are some stairs and ladders and stuff.”

So down I went. Easy-peasy. Feeling great. Look at that natural bridge, will ya. Astounding. I continued on to Horse Collar Ruins.

At the ruins I found the footpath up the side of the canyon. No huffing and puffing. I explored the ruins, meditated a bit, then headed back. Everything was fine.

Then I got back to the short ladder at the base of Sipapu. Oof! Then there was a mild uphill climb, with handrails, to the next bench. Double oof! Crap, if I’m having trouble at the beginning of the climb, then what?

That top ridge is only part way up

I sat and rested, looking at the next ladder and the handrail-assisted climb up some slick rock. I watched some other old farts make the climb. Well, if they can do it…

Holy crap. I stood holding the upper end of that railing, legs screaming, heart pounding. This was going to take a while. Climb, rest, climb a little more, rest a lot more… 

“I can make it to that next sitting-sized boulder,” I told myself. “Then the next one.” I try to look like I’m just pausing to enjoy the view, not like I’m about to die.

I’m fine. Really. You go on, kids.

A twenty-something couple scampered up. “Do you need anything,” they asked. “To be about 40 years younger,” I replied. I got up and headed for my next short-distance goal. (Like they say, how do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.)

Never had I ever been so glad to see the Rolling Steel Tent waiting for me. And never (well, since yesterday) had I been so glad to flop down on the World’s Most Comfortable Bed.

So, here I am, reevaluating my plans. Cedar Mesa is filled with ruins I’d love to see in person, but getting to them requires hikes like today’s. Or worse. How insane am I? About this hiking stuff.

Unexpected discoveries and changed plans

(This post was written earlier in the week, but I was out of cell range. Then Blogger said there was trouble posting the photos. Then I was out of cell range again. Life.)

On the map, the stretch of US-95 between Hanksville and Hite Crossing looks like just another stretch of desolate Utah. No one had told me otherwise. Man, was I surprised! Miles of tall, sheer red sandstone cliffs. Exactly the kind of scenery I love.

The story goes that back in the 1930s a rancher borrowed a bulldozer from the government and started turning the old animal/foot/horse/wagon trail through North Wash into a proper road. The government finally took over the project and the highway was finished in 1976, earning it the name Bicentennial Highway. (Back then they were naming all sorts of things in honor of the Bicentennial.)

I saw a picnic area ahead—Hog Springs—and pulled in so I could enjoy my surroundings longer. Oh, what’s this? A trail up the canyon? Let me see what this is about. Curiosity turned into an impromptu hour long hike. And muddy sneakers, because the bottom of the canyon is marshy in spots, fed by the eponymous springs. I imagine this was the type of place the Southwest Basketmaker peoples got the reeds for their baskets.

I continued on to Hite Overlook and, okay, a sweeping view from a cliff edge, Colorado River below, but it didn’t speak to me.

Natural Bridges National Monument was my goal. I had been there before but only saw it from the ridge. This time I would hike into the canyon.

But first there was a 20-minute road construction delay. I was first in line and got thinking about the woman holding the stop sign. Unlike others assigned this duty, she didn’t have a cooler, radio, walkie-talkie, chair or anything else. It was just her and her sign, and a small water bottle in the pocket of her safety vest, on the side of the road. At least it was overcast instead of horrible summer heat. I wondered what she thought about while standing there alone. How boring the job was? How well or poorly she was getting paid to do it? Was she thinking about friends and family? Humming to herself? Doing complex math in her head? When the pilot car finally arrived, another sign holder got out of the passenger seat and traded places. Ah, okay, it’s not as dismal as it could be.

I had decided I’d stay at the Natural Bridges campground if a spot were available, or develop Plan B if it weren’t. But plan B—or whatever comes before Plan A—presented itself almost immediately after turning off the highway. Oh, a road up to Bears Ears National Monument. With dispersed camping spots. Excellent!

That night I realized Memorial Day Weekend was impending. Aw crap, crowds. I also realized my supplies were too low to stay put. Hmmmm… Hike then go to Blanding for supplies, or Blanding then hike. The second option meant backtracking, which part of me hates doing. I decided on Blanding first. Then I could check out the ruins along Comb Ridge before returning to Natural Bridges.

So here I am, in the parking lot of a fairly nice grocery, writing this post. I figure I’ll do laundry while I’m in town, maybe even wash the Rolling Steel Tent.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Busy day

A weekend in May is not a good time to be anywhere between Zion National Park and Moab. Crowds, man. So I hunkered down in a boondocking area at the beginning of Hole-in-the-Rock Road just outside Escalante. There were many others there, but I managed to block my view of them with strategically placed junipers.

As soon as the sun broke the eastern horizon I took off for some hikes I’d planned. (Tip: if any section of your route runs east, don’t try driving first thing in the morning. Especially if your windshield is a little dirty.)

There were only a handful of cars at the Escalante River trailhead on Highway 12 when I pulled in at 7:15. That was good. 

Less good was the temperature. Still in the upper 40s. Maybe lower 50s. And most of the river was still in the shadows of the cliffs. Ordinarily I could just put on a few extra layers and peel them off as the day warmed. But this hike required wading across the river several times. So shorts. And if my legs were going to be cold, then the rest of me might as well be. Or not. I couldn’t decide.

So I made breakfast and waited. By the time I’d done the dishes it seemed a little warmer, or I was a little bolder. I stepped outside in shorts and tee. Mmmmm, bearable. Let’s go.

The first river crossing is just beyond the trailhead. I guess it’s good to find out first thing whether the water is too cold. You can scamper—or Frankenstein walk—right back to your vehicle and rethink your life decisions.

The water was, um, brisk. Once your feet go numb you can’t really tell how cold the river is. And it made me feel tough. Onward.

The goal of this hike is the Escalante Natural Bridge. It’s an easy, pleasant, mostly flat, walk through cottonwoods and sage. The river crossings became fun, like a kid playing in puddles. I looked forward to each one.

I didn’t see any other hikers on the way out but passed several on the way back. Early bird… worm… et cetera.

Next on the agenda was a hike to Calf Creek Falls. That trailhead is at a campground. But the place was packed. Nowhere to park. I was not the early bird there. Oh well, some other time.

I continued on to Boulder and the beginning of the Burr Trail—a highway that takes you through the middle of Capitol Reef to the Water Pocket Fold. It’s like driving through Zion National Park with no one else there. The red rock cliffs are stunning, and the switchbacks at the eastern terminus are either breathtaking or nerve shattering, depending on your point of view.

Can you see the road snaking down? 

Heading south on Notom-Bullfrog Road I pulled into the trailhead for Upper Muley Twist. The sign said 4x4s only. I got out to walk ahead and see what the story was. 

There was a short sandy slope into the canyon that would probably be a problem for the Rolling Steel Tent to get back up. I walked about a quarter mile farther and didn’t see what the big deal was—either roadwise or scenerywise. I’ve become jaded. “There’s only great scenery, not amazing scenery? Waste of time.” Besides, I had two more nearby canyons on my list.

The first of those was Surprise Canyon. Did it get that name because someone was surprised there was a canyon there? Was there something surprising in it? Was an old pioneer or prospector taken by surprise by bad guys?

As for me, I was surprised at how much my strength and stamina have improved since my first post-cancer hike. My attitude has improved, too. I use to be a don’t-walk-if-I-don’t-have-to kind of guy. But now? Another canyon today? Sure.

This looks like a nice place to chill before heading back

However walking in the sandy wash on the way back pretty much did me in. So I passed on Headquarters Canyon just a mile or so down the road.

I continued on southward toward Bullfrog, down on Lake Powell. I saw a promising turnoff and discovered a large gravel lot near the rim of a mesa with a camping spot in the corner. And—surprise, surprise—a cell signal. Weak but useable. A good place to end the day. 

Been off pavement lately, Al?

Sunday, May 23, 2021

My first e-bike ride

My eldest sister, Karen, and her husband, Niels, live in Saint George, Utah. I visited them when I passed through there, parked in the side yard for the night, and used their shower. They also took me to dinner.

To my surprise, these oldsters have taken up bicycle riding. Well, electric bicycles. Well, Niels rides a bicycle and Karen rides a tricycle. But they mostly use pedal assist mode, not fully motorized mode. And they don’t stick to just the flatter lands.

Karen asked if I wanted to try the e-bike. Sure. She led the way through the neighborhood to the top of a mesa, peddling the entire time. I only twisted the throttle a few times, usually when accelerating from a stop. And during part of one long uphill section. It was about a five-mile ride.

Karen and I after peddling up by the Saint George airport

It was an interesting experience, not only because it was my first time on an e-bike, but also to see what a peddling machine my 80-ish sister is.

“You know,” she said, “they make mountain bike versions of these that would be better suited for your lifestyle.”

I let her suggestion/sales pitch slide. E-bikes are cool, but my main problem (besides price) would be charging one. I have just enough solar power to run the stuff I have, not enough for a bike too. And I’d have to get a carrier, and chains and locks, and worry about it getting stolen anyway. Besides, walking has become my thing. 

Minimizing again

I don’t remember when I bought my 20 liter Marmot backpack. I certainly wasn’t into hiking or backpacking at the time. I think I originally got it to use with my motorcycle. Maybe. I don’t know. Old man memory loss.

Anyway, it’s a good pack but larger than I need for my short hikes. I really only need a hydration pack with room for snacks and a few emergency items. And since that Marmot wasn’t designed for a water bladder, the 3 liter bladder I bought flops over and strangles itself when it’s half empty (which I guess is one way to judge how much water I have left).

So I stopped at Utah Canyon Outdoors in Escalante to see if they had a pack that would better suit my needs. I came away with the 10 liter Gregory you see on the right. It’s half the size but still holds 3 liters of water. It also has fewer pockets—and pockets inside pockets inside pockets—where I can misplace things. And the bright blue is a happier color than the somber, masculine gray of the Marmot.

I’m keeping the Marmot, though. I’ll probably need it someday for a more involved hike. In the meantime I’ll use it to store the Gregory.

Fixed that problem

Last October I realized the plug on my portable fan had come apart. I acquired a replacement plug but never got around to connecting it, because the weather cooled off and I didn’t need the fan.

I found that replacement plug the other day while looking for something else. Oh. Yeah. I should finally fix that, what with summer on its way. It’s not an elegant repair, but it works. Someday I’ll do a proper job with solder and heat shrink.

Saturday, May 22, 2021


It was downright cold this morning. And the sun was barely up. That meant digging out the winter wear. Gloves were going to make camera operation difficult, and since I had no advanced intelligence on Cottonwood Narrows I decided to just take my phone. Darn, I wish I had used the better gear. I could’ve re-hiked the canyon, but the light had changed, spoiling the mood.

Most geologically interesting trailhead parking lot yet

It annoys me when clichés are accurate

I proudly imagine myself to be one of those who doesn’t fit the mold. I mean, look at me, I live in a van, fer cryin’ out loud. So I sigh and gnash my teeth a little when some overused bit of pop wisdom applies to my uniqueness. 

No! I’m different! I’m original! I’m quirky! My truths can’t be summed up in a threadbare aphorism!

But sometimes I have to hang my head and admit, yeah, okay, that fits me. Ew, it makes me feel so… ordinary.

Current case in point:

The adventure begins where your comfort zone ends.

There I was, driving along a sketchy dirt road into the heart of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—a huge uninhabited area, sort of the middle of the middle of nowhere—when I realized my quest for interesting hiking trails had taken me out of my comfort zone. Several times. Rats. But yay! The braver side of me has been gradually beating the fearful side of me into submission. And it has been fun.

Off into the beautiful desolation I go, clichés be damned.

A short one

Willis Creek is on Skutumpah Road, which is very sketchy in places and only a little sketchy in others. This little slot canyon might not be much, but the driving experience and skills gained getting there were probably worth it. The Rolling Steel Tent continues to impress me with the terrain it's able to handle.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

No playing outside today

It had been windy and sort of cold all night. I spent the morning draped in my down quilt, editing the Hackberry Canyon video. 

It was still very windy when I finished, and I just didn’t want to deal with it. Not good hiking weather—at least for me. Not even good tall vehicle driving weather. 

I found other things to do within the confines of the Rolling Steel Tent. Who says  approximately 325 cubic feet is too small to live in?

Even though I don’t much enjoy walking on sand

Drive even farther from civilization on a road labeled "Impassible When Wet?" Okay.

Hike a mile or so in loose sand? Okay.

Discover a lovely spot by a creek with towering cliffs? More than okay.

And my pal, Lou, performed the music.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

This ’ll do

I had planned on camping in a meadow, with large cottonwood trees, next to Mammoth Creek, just outside Hatch, Utah. This place.

Alas, there was a chain across the access road. So, what other sure-thing camping spot did I know of in the area? Well, there’s the place on the way to Bryce Canyon, off Toms Best Spring Road. I had stayed there a couple of times before.

So here I am, back at the exact same site as last time. Among the pines at about 7,800 feet. It’ll be nippy tonight. But very quiet.

Wire Pass + Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Gulch is a very popular hike in southern Utah, northern Arizona. It’s also, at 45 miles, one of the longest slot canyons on the planet. But I’m not a long distance hiker nor an overnighter. At least not yet. So I just sampled Buckskin Gulch. Wire Pass is one of the ways to get into Buckskin Gulch. I managed to not twist an ankle.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Putting the 'sand' in sandal

I walked in the creek because it was the trail. Then I walked in the sand because it was the trail. My waterproof sandals aren’t sand proof.

An old fart meets and old fart on the trail

Part way into a couple of recent hikes, where the footing got dicey or the grade got steep, or both, I started wondering if I’d committed to more than I could handle. Should I keep going or turn around here? Is this trail only for those younger people I see scampering up sand hills and hopping rock to rock? Are the people who rated these trails barely old enough to drink?

But then I’ll see fellow old farts coming the other way. I don’t know how far they went, but it’s farther than where I am at the moment. And I see people who look like the farthest they’d ever walked before was from the sofa to the fridge and back. If they can do it, so can I. So I press on. And feel better about myself because I did.

So many ways for us old folks to misstep

Catching up, sort of

What happens when I hike nearly every day? And shoot a lot of video? And take a lot of photos? And plan the next hike? I get behind on things.

Since my last post about the short walk up on Kolob Terrace I’ve hiked Wire Pass and some of Buckskin Gulch, did the quick Toadstools hike (because, what the heck, the trailhead was right on the highway), and hiked some of Lower Hackberry Canyon.

So here are some sample photos. Videos are in the works. 

Buckskin Gulch


Lower Hackberry Canyon

Monday, May 17, 2021

Morning stroll

Here’s a tip if you want to boondock near Zion National Park and also escape the heat and see some incredible views. From the village of Virgin, drive up Kolob Terrace Road, through a couple of corners of Zion National Park, to the end at Kolob Reservoir. 

There’s free dry camping along the shore. You won’t be alone, but they’re mostly quiet anglers. The water was low when I was there, creating more room for camping.

UPDATE: Camping at Kolob Reservoir is now restricted.

After a peaceful night I was heading back to civilization and a cell signal when I decided to pull into one of the trailheads. I hadn’t researched these trails but I knew most of them were of the more serious type, some requiring rappelling and wading, along with more strength and endurance than a 69-year-old novice like me. 

But I decided to walk a little way to learn what the deal was and flex my legs. The path was easy and mostly flat for the first half mile of lightly wooded terrain. I turned around when the trail dropped into a gorge. Back at the trailhead, people who looked like models in Outdoor magazine were loading packs with ropes and wetsuits. Yeah, not my thing. Besides, I learned later I should’ve had a permit.

I’ll turn around here

Tuesday, May 11, 2021


Monday I climbed approximately fifty feet by way of a series of paved switchback ramps. About a third of the way along it became drudgery.

Wednesday I climbed approximately fifty feet up into a geologic formation by way of a vague foot path through sand, gravel, rocks, and boulders. It was fun the entire way.

I had to find and navigate the route—onto this rock… around that bush… across this sketchy gravel patch… squeeze between this boulder and the cliff face… boost myself onto that ledge… side step along here… find a foothold there… It was steeper and more difficult than Monday’s ramp, but it was mentally and physically engaging. It was a little test, not a chore.

We know repetitive stress can mess us up physically. But repetition can also mess up our minds. Doing the same thing over and over and over—whether difficult or easy—numbs the brain. Dumbs the brain. Makes us robotic—sometimes to the point we don’t realize we’ve become meat-based Roombas. We only know there’s a lot of drudgery. And an endless supply of dust bunnies. Such were my fifties. 

Then my sixties arrived, along with awareness and a craving for change. Better late than never. No more trudging up the ramp of respectability and expectability to… what? More of the same?

I jumped the railing and scrambled away.