Posted by: stacylynn12 | June 2, 2012

Canyon Country

“These days away from the city have been the happiest of my life… It has all been a beautiful dream, sometimes tranquil, sometimes fantastic and with enough pain and tragedy to make the delights possible by contrast”. ~ Everett Ruess

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A desert, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “a region rendered barren or partially barren by environmental extremes”. This does not seem entirely correct to me. For sure every desert that I have ever spent time in has been a land of extremes. A few places have indeed been quite barren but most have teemed with subtle but strong forces of life. The very nature of this land of contrasts all but ensures that one slows down and carefully observes these sublime surroundings.

I find the desert to be at times viciously harsh and at others utterly peaceful. The heat of a desert day can be oppressive and relentless, forcing mortal creatures to desperately seek shade and reducing humans to sluggish grumps. As the sun sinks below the expansive horizon, the temperature drops and the dark sky slowly fills with a million stars.

The Colorado Plateau, a large geographic region that encompasses much of the Four Corners area of the southwest, is characterized by pinyon – juniper forests, red rock canyons, mesas, striking cliffs, sweet sagebrush and of course an intense dryness. I swear my skin is beginning to grow scales. This place is a geologist’s dreamland; the secrets of millions of years lie hidden in the strata of the landscape.

We begin our desert adventure in Mesa Verde, Colorado. The cliff dwelling ruins are spectacular and we enjoy wandering back in time and imagining what life might have been like for the Ancestral Puebloan people who inhabited these lands long ago. The highlight of our time in this park however comes in the form of a present time, natural phenomenon… the Annular Solar Eclipse.

An annular eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, totally or partially obscuring the Sun for us Earthlings; and when the Moon’s apparent diameter is smaller than the Sun, causing the Sun to look like a ring. We join a ranger led program and are lucky enough to view the eclipse and it’s “ring of fire” with special viewing glasses and a very cool, high tech solar scope. It is spectacularly awe inspiring.

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Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park

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Climbing steep ladders to the cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde

Canyonlands National Park is next on our desert tour. The kids work hard and earn their 5th Junior Ranger badge. They are pleased as punch with themselves. The weather is scorching. 103 on one thermometer. Thankfully it cools to a chilly 85 in the next couple of days and we do a hike… the kids experiencing their first slot canyons. They are eager for more.

We travel to the San Rafael Swell and arrive late in the day. This is a spectacular and much less well known or visited part of the southern Utah desert. Randy and I have visited this area on two previous occasions and we are drawn back again to its magic. We drive out a dusty, dirt road to a sweet “backcountry” campsite.

The next day we have a romping good time in Little Wild Horse Canyon. The kids oooh and ahhh as we enter the twisting, narrow slots and wind our way through this amazing landscape. “This is awesome!” and “This is sooooo amazing!” are exclaimed repeatedly by kids and adults alike.

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Joshua delights in the slots of Little Wild Horse Canyon

Back in camp, the lunar landscape is eerily calm. I feel certain this is what the moon must look and feel like. There is not a hint of a breeze. Our entire world is absolutely still. There are no birds singing or crickets chirping. No bugs buzzing. No human voices, vehicles or other noises common in our modern world. The deafening silence is haunting. Until of course one of our kids scream.

We go to bed under starry skies. The morning dawns a different day. The tranquil silence is broken by strong winds that whip the surrounding desert into a dust filled frenzy. We break camp, decide to brave the wind and head to Ding and Dang, hoping it will be calmer in the canyons. This is a hike we have done before… pre kids… and we loved it. Now with our two hearty hikers in tow it is the perfect trip and we are so excited. It’s a 5 mile loop, up one canyon and down the other and the best part about it is that they are both filled with obstacles! Obstacles are fun. They are obstructions in the narrow canyons that one has to navigate by climbing up, down, around or over. With our rock climbing skills and our experience on the previous trip we are certain we can do it safely with the kids and they are thrilled at the idea of conquering the obstacles.

As we head into Ding Canyon the wind abates a bit but now and again rears its gusty head and we are forced to squint and hunker down or get eyes and mouths full of dusty sand. Worse than the dust though are the ominous clouds overhead. We are watching them closely and they seem to be changing direction every 5 minutes. We cannot figure out the weather pattern but we know that dark clouds and slot canyons don’t mix. This is flash flood country. If a sudden unexpected storm arrives, a slot canyon can quickly become a death trap as water rushes through them taking out everything in it’s path. We keep watching the sky as we hike the beautiful wash leading us toward the narrows. We encounter our first obstacle and the kids jump for joy. This stuff is enough to make a kid out of anyone.

As we approach the first slots we stop to have a family pow wow. The skies have darkened and we have even felt a few rain drops. It’s a brilliant opportunity for a lesson in risk assessment and decision making… critical skills for outdoor adventurers and well, life in general really. We look at the clouds trying to assess which way the storm is moving. We study the terrain looking for escape routes should a flash flood happen but as we are about to enter a slot canyon, 5 – 6 feet wide and over 100 feet tall, there are none.

We hem and haw, talk about about how a serious thunderstorm is unlikely but still possible and about how much we all want to go on. In the end we decide not to. It’s hard to miss this opportunity but it seems prudent. We hope someday our kids might remember this little impromptu lesson and make a similar decision. It could save their lives.

Disappointed, we trudge back to the car. The winds have increased and dusty sand has found its way into our ears, eyes, noses and other places you probably wouldn’t imagine. We need a respite so we decide to head into Hanksville, the closest town, and see if there are any hotel rooms available for the night. We are in luck. The Hanksville Inn has two rooms left. We go inside, shut the door and breath a dirt free sigh of relief.

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Dust storm!

The next day we are showered and ready to brave the desert once again. The wind storm has passed and calm has returned to the land.

We drive south a bit to another desert gem… the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, or “Escalante” for short. In a bold political move, President Bill Clinton declared this area a National Monument in 1996. Randy and I were fortunate enough to coincidently be there during this historic declaration. Unfortunately, we didn’t see Mr. President as he made the announcement from the Grand Canyon. Hmmm…

Escalante is one of those places one must work to enjoy. There are no roadside overlooks or easy paved trails. Hell, there are barely any paved roads in the Monument. It feels raw and wild.

My sister, Jennifer and her hubby Geoff just happen to be traveling for a week in southern Utah too. Despite no cell phone reception and spotty Internet, we manage to concoct a plan to meet up in the middle of nowhere. They share one of their favorite “top secret” “backcountry” camping spots with us and show us some very cool dinosaur tracks they discovered years ago.

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Dino track!

After a short and sweet visit with Auntie Jen and Uncle Geoff we dive further into Escalante and explore a part of the park we haven’t visited before. We make another dusty drive down a rough dirt road where Bessie’s hoosh-bahs are put to the test. The Bull Valley Gorge hike rewards us with stunning slots and challenging obstacles. Yahoo!

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Josh in Bull Valley Gorge

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Obstacle! Randy and I climb up and over while we stuff the kids through the small crack on the lower right side of the top boulder.

We spend the night in Kodachrome State Park, just outside of the Monument. After 5 nights of primitive camping the paved campground with picnic tables and bathrooms with flush toilets seems like utter luxury.

From there it’s on to Bryce Canyon NP then Zion NP. While these places are both incredible in their natural beauty, we are slightly overwhelmed by the crowds. We’ve been excited for weeks to hike in the famous Zion Narrows but there are so many people it feels a bit more like a Memorial Day parade than a hike in a wild and natural place. It is a stark reminder that it is all too easy to love our wild places to death and, even more pertinent for us at the moment… that we are going back to the city.

One of the many blessings we have received over the course of this year away is the extraordinary amount of time we have spent outside. In the almost 6 months that we camped our way across Alaska, Canada and the “Lower 48” (which is how you must refer to it once you have been in Alaska), we spent only a handful of nights in hotels. We also stayed with our families for approximately a month of that time so all in all we camped for somewhere around 140 nights. Much of our overseas time was spent out of doors as well. The tropics lend themselves to outdoor living. We cooked, cleaned, played, sat, studied and often slept outside. We observed the skies and tuned into the cycles of the moon. We felt the seasons change. It wasn’t always pleasant. There was cold and rain, bugs, heat, humidity and dirt. Sometimes I wanted the sanctity of my indoor home. Every once in a while I even wished for air conditioning. But we had none of that. And really, I’m glad. It is all too much time we spend indoors in our city life. We are too removed, too insulated from the natural world.

In the age of Richard Louv’s Nature Deficit Disorder and the No Child Left Inside campaign it’s easy to see that the problem has grown immensely. One study I glanced at showed that kids spend on average only minutes each day in outdoor, unstructured play but hours in front of a screen. Our travels and time spent out of doors has reinforced my already strong belief that nature and spending time in it is an integral component in raising healthy, creative, critical thinkers.

It’s not always easy to describe and often impossible to quantify but the positive effects are nonetheless real. I see nature’s influence in my children’s drawings, in their language, in the questions they ask. I see them riding their bikes, hiking on trails and swimming in lakes and rivers and I know their bodies are benefiting from nature. They are not the only ones who benefit.

Today is my 41st birthday. I awoke in Zion National Park. It is by no means a wilderness experience. The campground is bustling with people and cars zoom by on the road just a few hundred feet away. But I sit outside, drinking the coffee my husband made me while my children are intently focused on making birthday cards. I watch the light change as the sun crests over the brilliant towering, red rocks and I am mesmerized by the trees. The breeze and the sunlight have transformed the leaves into a million shimmering, dancing reminders of the peace and calm that exists, if only we can get outside to see it.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” ~ John Muir

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Bessie’s wild campsite in the San Rafael Swell, Utah

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Life in camp

“I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.” ~ E. Ruess

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Little Wild Horse Canyon

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Little Wild Horse Canyon

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Cottonwood in the Wash, Little Wild Horse Canyon

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” ~ John Muir

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Josh in Canyonlands National Park

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The desert is hard on bike tires… Randy doing repairs after 4 flat tires caused by desert thorns.

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Baby Robins!

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Romping in Deer Creek – Escalante, Utah

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Siesta in the desert heat

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Secret spot in Escalante

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” ~ John Muir

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Biking the roads of Kodachrome State Park… Randy and I drive the “Sag Wagon”.

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Josh in Little Wild Horse Canyon

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Bodhi in Bull Valley Gorge

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Escalante roads

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Bryce Canyon Hoodoos

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

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Bryce Canyon National Park

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The Zion Narrows

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Hoards of hikers in the Zion Narrows

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Fun in the Zion Narrows

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Responses

  1. We thank you for sharing your life with us this past year with your blog. So much of what you write about speaks to us and fills us with joy. Much love, hugs and safe travels~ The Korry’s

  2. Aaaawww, Stacy. What a beautiful post. I was choked up and almost in tears by the end of it. You are an amazing and talented writer. I hope you’ll continue that path when you return to the big city, which I will selfishly admit we’re very excited about. 😉 Happy, happy 41st! Love to you and the boys, Nancy, Ray & Ian
    xoxoxo

  3. happy birthday!! Love you!! look forward to celebrating with you in a few days!!

  4. Happy Birthday Stacy!!!! Amen to all of this. Can’t wait to see you guys.


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