WE HAD SPENT THE LAST SIX DAYS thinking fairly hard about where we were headed. This wasn't the type of trip where we could turn our brains off and crank out the miles. Even in areas that should have been fairly straightforward, we had a nagging, underlying sense of being Off Route. This type of traveling is certainly worth doing and results in a feeling of accomplishment when you find that your choices or instinct are correct. It's frustrating when your choices are incorrect, your gut is way off, and you need to pay for that right away. But mostly it's just exhausting. I have the mostly helpful ability to endure long bouts of physical strain, but extended mental stress makes me want to sit down and pout. Or fucking scream.
Our sixth day began on a dirt road, where we had slept after road walking for miles in the dark the previous night. While loading up, a truck appeared, which surprised us. I went straight into courtesy mode, clearing my shit out the way so the truck could pass after we chatted. As it nudged by us, though, the two women in the truck mostly avoided eye contact and definitely didn't stop or crack a window. We felt we were in the type of country (quite remote) where it's universally recognized that if you see someone else, you say HI, Where are you going?, or Need Anything? But off they went, and with them the prospect of the lift we were 8% sure/hoping we might be able to secure for this leg. We talked shit about them for a minute or two, returned to our packing, and began our many more miles of road walking.
I actually enjoy road walking. But this stuff wasn't very fun because we were following the tire tracks of the truck that should have given us a ride. Additional mild shit talking bubbled intermittently. My traveling companion and I were fairly beat up and tired, I was hungry (aka Ultra Light), and the road miles were ticking by more slowly than seemed right. I had developed a nasty blister on my heel (which surprised me, given the exceedingly "broken in" condition of my shoes), and my companion had screwed up his knee during our night walk. But on we trudged, and I looked forward to eventually saying LATER to the road and walking in a squiggle of a wash I had been eyeballing in map form for a few weeks.
Upon reaching The Squiggle's start, my companion was O-U-T. His knee had deteriorated to the point of dreading each step. He wisely surmised that this was the place to call it, not somewhere along the obscure route we hoped would "go" somewhere over there in that direction. A wheeled vehicle could reach where we were at the moment, but only a helicopter and/or intrepid team with a litter could reach where we were headed. I let 65% of the situation's reality absorb into my skin and suggested we "think through" the rescue to avoid bankruptcy and/or headlines.
Lucky for us, my companion was carrying an InReach device. We figured right off the bat that hitting the panic (aka SOS) button was to be avoided if possible. We also had to be very careful with the wording of our satellite texts to avoid a misinterpretation with unhelpful results. I suggested we designate my wife as Dispatch. To her credit, she is very slow to Freak Out, and knows that it's not serious until I say It's Serious. After a series of texts back and forth between us, Dispatch, and my companion's girlfriend, we had a solid Plan A and B. But nothing would happen until the next morning at the earliest, so we powered down the InReach and tucked under a snug overhang for the night.
The country we were in was bone dry, and it had been so since sunset the previous day. No wet washes, no potholes, no springs. We figured it would probably be this way, so we tanked up at a small spring where canyon rim walking had ended and road walking was soon to begin. We ate water-intensive dinners, drank tea, and filled dromedaries and bottles. Now, far from that sweet spring, it was necessary to ration, given we would no longer be descending into another canyon with (presumably) water. Our water needed to last the night for sure, and probably the entire next day. A dry dinner was discussed, but we weren't willing to live that way quite yet. So we settled on sharing a freeze dried curry and sipped our bottles gingerly.
That night I dreamed I'd continued on the route, leaving my companion behind. The bulk of my dreams, on beds within walls and without, are what I call "problem solving dreams." I'm often looking for an entrance or an exit of some sort, or searching for a person or object. It's a rather exciting way to spend eight dark hours, but it isn't very rejuvenating. In this dream, I was on my own in a steep ravine, and lost as hell. I spent some time searching for the way out, but mostly just lamented my decision to try to complete the route. I was hosed, and I totally deserved it.
We woke up early and carried our gear above a particularly rough section of road to make it easier on the rescue crew. We received an InReach text from my wife stating that a San Juan County Sheriff's Deputy would be driving out in a RAZR later that day. We were to stay put. My companion's knee was just as bad, and he was very much looking forward to the ride out. I turned my phone on to check the time and it dinged at me: a rare blip of service. I texted my wife for details that were hard to get via the excruciatingly slow InReach keyboard.
Something about easily communicating with the outside world made me feel more confident and In Control. Although I was sure of the answer I'd get, I asked my wife what she thought of me continuing on to the truck without my companion. To my utter bafflement, she thought this was not a terrible idea. That was all I needed. I rejected the possible moral of my dream and pushed down the small fearball in my stomach. I made sure my companion had what he needed, inquired if what I was doing was a Dick Move ("no"), and off I went down The Squiggle.
By this point in the trip, it was no surprise to be walking in an area devoid of human prints. Before too long, I was following the fresh-ish tracks of a solitary coyote through the beach sand of the dry wash. I sipped the last of my water and began inspecting rather closely each pocket of stone for some of the wet stuff. Nada. On I walked down the tightening wash. I scrambled around a small dryfall and decided to walk up to its base just in case. I was greeted by a beautiful, tiny spring with seeps above it. Not deep enough to dip in a water bottle, but hey - I've got the skills to handle that. I filled one bottle, drank a few sips, assumed water would be plentiful from this point forward, and resumed my walk downstream.
A horizon line loomed and my heart sunk: a big dryfall. I walked to the edge, scanned the walls below, and saw nothing but sheer drop. I tried not to mope and walked around a bit. And there it was: two small stacked rocks. I assumed it led me somewhere along the rim to hopefully an entrance. But just to be sure, I looked over the edge near the cairn. There I saw a two foot wide x twenty foot high vertical chute. The Entrance! The beta I had gathered for this route down to the river corridor comprised of two key words: "It" and "goes", spoken by a friend who had done it years ago. I had to trust that maxim and heed whatever clues I stumbled upon.
The Chute was too tight to descend with my pack, so I lowered it as far as I could and then dropped down to it. I considered doing this a few more times, but my pack was pulling me down faster than I preferred to go as I strained to drop it to the next modest flake of stone shelf. I processed the next step for a half-second, then hucked my pack the final fifteen feet. It jounced down the slope spectacularly, sending paddle sections and water bottles this way and that. I dropped down to the slope and began the process of gear recovery. All was found except the water bottle I had recently filled, so I was abruptly back to DRY status. I looked up the chute and was mostly certain I could get back up, with my pack, if the need were to arise (I hoped it wouldn't).
I zigzagged my way downstream, bypassing and descending moderate dryfalls. I was feeling good and assumed the crux of the route was behind me. I thought ahead to the rest of the day, wondering if there'd be water in the main canyon floor, what the climb out on the other side of the river would be like, whether I would be spending another night out, and, mostly, if the building storm clouds would let loose before I hit pavement. I came to a fairly sketchy cliff band I needed to descend to stay in the drainage (which I assumed was the route). It was committing, but doable. I made it down and slipped right back into mentally-patting-myself-on-the-back mode. I noticed a nasty-looking waterhole, considered quenching my substantial thirst, but bullheaded on. As it faded behind me, I said (out loud) "you will return to that water." On I went, and then, of course, the drainage disappeared over the largest dryfall yet, with a view of an even bigger drop.
By this point, I was dehydrated, hungry, and concerned. There wasn't a whole lot of walkable real estate around this dryfall. I tried a couple different terraces, both of which pinched to nothing. I was following bighorn tracks, which is nine times out of ten an indicator of a way out. This bighorn seemed as confused and stuck as I was, though. I tried one more layer of the cake and it too ended. The moves I was making were increasingly sketchy and not well-conceived nor well-executed. I spoke out aloud again: "You have to stop. You need water."
The only water I had seen was the awful mud pit I had passed by earlier. As I picked my way back to it, I assessed my options. I had absolutely no idea how to descend this drainage. I was losing my confidence that I was in the right drainage at all. I wasn't totally sure I could get back up the cliffband. Even if I could, what were my options? Ascend the entire drainage, including The Chute? Then what? Walk back to where my companion may still be but probably not? Try to find another way to the river? Walk the many, many miles to the nearest pavement? None of these options seemed viable. I uttered my conclusion: "Dude - you're fucked." At that moment, Death felt slightly less abstract than usual.
I trudged upstream and scooped a bottle full of brown water. I drank it down. I sat and stared at nothing in particular. I scooped some more water. I unearthed my map and looked for clues. The contour lines were too close together in this drainage. There's no way down.
In my more hydrated state, I recalled my friend's two key words about this route. I remembered that John Wesley Powell (or at least members of his party) had (supposedly) ascended this route. I widened my map study beyond the drainage and noticed slightly spread contours on the side of the main canyon. Maybe that was my huckleberry. I took some more sips of mud, tucked the map away, and encouraged myself up: "Come on, bitch."
My first test was getting back up the cliffband that hadn't been very fun to come down. I walked right up to it and started climbing. "Go, go go!" And then I was above it. I gave myself an actual pat on the back (albeit a very quick, light pat). On I marched, postholing up the sand slope and skittering on loose rock. I noticed a single small rock on a much larger rock and was 94% sure someone had placed it there. A surge of confidence hit me and I felt like I had received a whispered invitation to an elite club of wanderers. I trusted my continuation would serve as humble acceptance. I cut through a pass of sorts and received a wide open view of the main canyon. Super Steepness, but a boulder-choked gully upstream a bit sure looked promising. I picked my way down oh so gingerly. It wasn't certain that I would reach the bottom until... I did just that. I squatted, kissed a cobblestone, and didn't budge until my lip marks evaporated.
It was a straightforward stroll from here to the river. Lightning flashed in the building clouds, and my next two items to worry about were (1) a flash flood in the canyon I'd soon be ascending, and (2) the thirty miles of muck I'd have to drive before hitting pavement. I inflated my packraft and paddled downstream to the exit canyon, a steep, boulder-choked draw we had descended seven days prior. We had struggled getting down it, and I knew it wasn't going to be a cakewalk going up. But at least it was a known variable. I exited the canyon at dusk.
Next up was an overland wander to the truck (in the dark). I set my pack down and unearthed my companion's GPS unit, which had the truck's location marked, and my headlamp. I haven't used a GPS much in the backcountry, and it took me a while to get the hang of it. I realized as I made my way that I had set the backrest part of my pack in a prickly pear patch. Barbs dug in as I walked. I was staring at the GPS screen too much and was getting off track somehow. There was frequent lightning, which illuminated a prominent formation that we had seen from different perspectives throughout our trip. I headed that way, as I was pretty sure we parked near-ish it.
I got very close to the truck, but it took me a very long while to actually find it. The lord's name was spoken in a raise voice. I was getting back into dehydrated, poor-decision making mode. In my frantic pacing, my head lamp finally caught one of the truck's reflectors. It was raining by this point, with near-constant lightning. With a huge sigh, I laid my pack down in the truckbed. I fished out the keys, and got in my companion's truck. I went to fire it up, and realized that I didn't have an actual key -- just the clicker. I screamed very loudly. I took a breath, went back to my pack, and found the key loose in my pack lid. It had separated from the clicker during my pack's bounce down the canyon.
The drive out was s-l-o-w and tense. The many side canyons I drove across were beginning to run. It was raining steadily, with occasional down bursts. I turned music on, sipped the last of my water, and marveled at the surrounding landscape with each lightning flash. Three hours later, I came to a stop sign. Then I was on pavement, with two hours to go until I'd be home. I stopped off at a 24/7 truck stop, ate a couple of hot dogs and drank a Fanta. I made it home, crept into bed beside my wife, and didn't fall asleep for an hour because I was still totally amped.
Note: I created a painting from this trip, available for purchase.