To the Back of the Beyond in Canyonlands National Park
Out in the Desert
We drive up a bouncy dirt road to Sego Canyon in eastern Utah. We had heard that this isolated canyon had truly out-of-this-world petroglyphs (carved images) and pictographs (painted images) dating back to the first century A.D. The day is cool and breezy with clear skies, clear all the way to the next galaxy.
Walking up the short trail to towering sandstone cliffs, we see them. They look quite eerie. In for a closer look, we cannot help but think of an outer-space connection, or at the very least a different dimension from our particular time and space. Several figures have gourd heads with huge eyes that occupy well over half of their faces. Some have smaller heads with antennas jiggling upward. But one figure has a very painful lightning bolt in its slit-open belly. "What on earth is that?" I ask. Silence.
We drive on to Moab where I am to give a reading and signing of my book Desert Rims to Mountains High (2013), but my mind isn't into it; I still remain focused on the ancient rock art of Sego Canyon.
We camp and hike during the next few days in Arches and Canyonlands national parks, but it is the six mile hike into the Needles section of Canyonlands that proves to be most memorable. Perhaps the extremely windy night rattling my tent like the South Col of Everest helps set the mood for me. We stop to see Newspaper Rock on the way into Needles. This petroglyphic newspaper crammed with animal and human figures erases centuries of time. Not even squawking ravens disrupt the spell.
We continue on to the Chesler Park trailhead perhaps thirty-five miles southwest of Moab. Shouldering our packs, we immediately start climbing high into the desert sky up sandstone steps and out onto slickrock with stone cairns marking the way. Here and there grow clusters of desert paintbrush flowers along with white-flowered pepper-grass and purple scorpion weed. Canyon wrens trill out desert notes that help translate the essence of this place.
Onward and upward we hoof, stopping from time to time to take a few swigs of cool, clear water. Finally the Needles come into view. Amazingly they resemble the New York skyline from the Jersey side, but with no smog, no "filthy clutter of the cultural apparatus," as Edward Abbey remarks in Desert Solitaire (1968). But instead there are plenty of brightly flowered pin-cushion cacti.
Soon we descend into several cool sandstone slits, one of them being fifty yards or so long. They prove to be quite a relief from desert heat that approaches by now ninety degrees. But all to soon we walk out into the glare of the sun with pinyon pines and junipers hissing in the wind. We take a snack break in a narrow arroyo of a died up stream bed that has a curious piece of exposed gray granite that is rippled with centuries of flash floods created by the prehistoric violence of black thunderstorms.
With just one mile to go, we stand up and begin to pick our way through rocky crevices up to a higher ledge where we meet a back-country ranger. She carries four gallons of water--one for her and three for possible stranded hikers/campers who had run out of water. That's some thirty pounds of weight in addition to energy foods, fruit, first aid materials and other items. She explains that she is a seasonal ranger who would be absolutely delighted to become a permanent ranger out in the desert. Her last name is, appropriately, Muse, a veritable desert muse.
Within a half hour we at last reach a high and windy viewpoint above Chesler Park. We pick a spot in the shade of an over-arching sandstone cliff to be amused by a large raven who cannot quite control his wind-ruffled feathers on a ledge high above sandstone spires studded with pines and junipers.
Have you ever done back-country hiking?
© 2014 Richard Francis Fleck