The advertisement ran, "Explore our newest national park by jeep, plane and boat—six-day trip, everything provided." Since I have an enormous capacity for physical exercise as long as it is taken vicariously, this seemed to fit my needs; something or someone doing all the work. The park in question was Canyonlands outside Moab, Utah, officially opened last September, and the advertiser was Mitch Williams, who runs Tag-A-Long Tours, one of two groups licensed to guide in the area.
I arrived in Moab several days before the start of the very first package tour of four travelers in two jeeps, with all the malaise of the confirmed city dweller venturing forth to confront nature. Mitch and Chief Guide Joe Lemon, who met my plane, spotted the true tenderfoot the moment I stepped onto Utah soil, and hastened to reassure me. "This is the Taj Mahal of the Canyonlands," said Mitch, "the most beautiful country you'll ever see. Just bring your clothes and toothbrush; we supply everything else."
As I followed Joe around Moab, watching his preparations for our safari, I was extremely heartened. There were brand-new tents and air mattresses, sleeping bags with clean sheets, specially designed duffel bags and a grub box—even portable toilets and a shower. (As it turned out, the last two conveniences never left their packages.) The meat for the trip had been packed in a portable icebox and then left, box and all, for two days in a butcher's freezer at 30° below, eliminating the need for ice. The utility jeep, a dowdy '57 model known as the Old Green Lizard, was loaded with the entire wherewithal for the tour, Joe Lemon accomplishing this somewhat Herculean task much more easily than my father used to pack the family car for a picnic in the park—an occasion, I recall, always fraught with drama and grim emotion. Our other jeep, driven by Mitch, was a white Wagoneer with air conditioning. This was the first-class section, where the passengers and their duffel bags rode in comfort.
Next day I met the other travelers, Mr. and Mrs. Carl A. Rohn of Salt Lake City and Neal T. Amarino of Denver, all experienced campers, as I learned when Peg Rohn turned up wearing a straw hat with "Bryce Canyon" lettered across it and culottes she had had made for a camel tour of Egypt. As we stood in a cluster by the jeeps on a windy but delightfully warm day, Mitch announced, "Now, we don't assign permanent seats. We'll change around during the trip. Who wants to start with Joe in the Old Green Lizard?" Well aware that all the necessities of life were with Joe and forgetting the air conditioning, I happily volunteered.
Shortly after we left Moab, Joe pointed out a large potash plant on the banks of the Colorado River. I would pass it, he said, when I was on the boating section of the trip. And I'll be sorry, I decided, because that will mean the trip is almost over. A dim-witted optimism in the face of impending disaster has always been my most redeeming quality.
The dust of the Wagoneer led the OGL over unpaved roads no rougher than the average Manhattan street, and red bells provided vibrant accents along the way. We were not yet in the park but on land still in the public domain and, except for an occasional stake or pile of rocks that marked a uranium miner's claim, there was not a sign of life. Indian handprints painted on a red canyon wall were the vestiges of other centuries. Far ahead we could see Dead Horse Point, a scenic overlook of the vast and rust-colored land we had now entered, and I thought, somewhat smugly, how nice it was to be in the scenery instead of just a distant observer. We passed a crumbling red-rock wall, built years ago by Joe's father-in-law for his cattle. The father-in-law had one steer, Joe said, who once wandered off for about a week and came back leading 16 calves.
As we bounced through a dry wash at the limit of his father-in-law's triumphs, Joe announced that from now on it would start getting rough. It soon did. The lead jeep suddenly came to a stop in front of a large jumbled pile of boulders choking the trail and I, for one, thought our trip had come to a permanent halt. We all de-jeeped to inspect the impasse, Neal and Peg busily photographing. Then the Wagoneer's engine snarled, and Mitch jockeyed it up the rocks, lurching, crunching against an unyielding boulder and finally shuddering to a halt at the top. The Old Green Lizard followed, crawling over the rocks like its namesake. I didn't believe it could be done, but soon enough we were navigating even worse obstacles, with the four tourists remaining inside the jeeps and scared witless.
We lunched standing out of the wind in a dry wash, eating sandwiches, peppers, pickles and onions spread out on the tail gate of the OGL. A fire was built and coffee made—cowboy-style boiled coffee so full of grounds that I dumped most of mine in the red sand. (A day or so later I was drinking and spitting grounds with the others.) Peg fixed a sandwich and was halfway through—we were all starved—before she realized she had been eating the label as well as the lunch meat and that it was liverwurst, which she didn't like. She also discovered that she had lost her camera case and most of her film at one of our morning halts. Despite her broad hints we did not turn back, and the missing equipment was periodically mourned for the rest of the week.
Bouncing over the trail again, I was, for the first time in years, grateful for my overweight padding. The OGL nosed into washes and buckjumped up the other side like a horse scrambling on a steep hill. Often nothing was visible but the hood of the jeep as we seemed to crawl vertically up a bank; at other moments the OGL canted over on its side like a small boat heeling in a strong wind. It was obvious that if family cars tried this entry to the park the trail would soon be littered with the bleached remains of broken axles and punctured oil pans. Both our jeeps had steel plates over their vital organs as well as special winches on the front bumpers to haul themselves by their bootstraps, so to speak, over boulders and out of holes.
Through all the wrenching and jolting of the ride the pervasive power of the land was insistent. Before we started Mitch had explained that this was all red-rock country, but that, I was finding out, was about as descriptive as saying the ocean is made of water. There was the surprise, across the multihued canyons, of the snowcapped peaks of the La Sal range in the distance. There were the ever-changing shapes of the rocks, some looking like eroded Maillol ladies on tiptoe, others like wind-rubbed kings of the Nile. Watching the scene was a variation of that lazy childhood game of finding forms in summer clouds. Others, of course, had been aware of this long before me; Joe pointed out some of his favorites—an Egyptian pyramid and a ring-necked pheasant. Later, however, when the North and South Sixshooter Peaks came into view, neither of us could see the resemblance. "They're old cowboy names," he said. "I guess they'll be changed one of these days. Like the formation the park service now calls Delicate Arch used to be The Schoolmarm's Bloomers, and the rocks they call The Doll's House were once The Pregnant Park."
From a vast and austere area where nothing seemed to grow, we now entered a land of bulbous, rusty rocks and sage. Near the top of a steep hill Joe stopped the OGL, got out and motioned me to follow. He jumped ahead over the huge, smooth rocks while I cautiously crawled after him. We rounded a scarp, and there, above my head, was a Moki Indian ruin, its slightly curved facade nestled snugly beneath an overhanging ledge. Far below was a soft green valley with Indian Creek a silver ribbon winding through it, and beyond was the distant panorama of red rocks and green hills. We could see Mitch's jeep carefully fording the creek, looking alien in the irenic scene. We visited many Moki remains in the next few days, but none ever matched, for me, the unexpected delight of this one. I envied the Indians who had lived there.
The wind had been rising all day and was now a definite nuisance, but we pushed on, climbing through pi√±ons and juniper over visibly faint but extremely tactile trails to a dead end above Lavender Canyon. Joe and Mitch held a quick conference and decided, because of the wind, to abandon the planned campsite on the edge of the canyon in favor of something more sheltered. They found a spot in the pi√±ons and cedars and started unloading gear. After he had the fire under way, Mitch called to Joe, "Where are the tents?"
"Oh," said Peg, "we don't need tents! It's more fun sleeping out under the glorious stars!" Joe and Mitch gave in without a word, and I didn't have the courage to demand a tent for myself. We picked out sleeping sites, being warned not to get under the trees or we'd have needles in the face all night. All on my very own I chose a nice, flat, smooth area. I learned later that night that it was smooth because a jet stream of wind kept it that way.
Dinner—potatoes and onions from the Dutch oven, grilled T-bone steaks and peas, all liberally seasoned with ashes, thanks to the wind—was good and very welcome. There was no tendency to linger around the fire engaging in jolly camping activities; we were all exhausted and scurried for our sleeping bags. As I rather dubiously undressed I kept chanting reassuring lines to myself from Mitch's brochures—"We will sleep under the stars and marvel at the beauty above.... You will sleep better in comfortable sleeping bags with air mattresses and clean sheets than you do at home." I squirmed into my comfortable sleeping bag on its brand-new air mattress and gave a sigh. So did the air mattress. I was gently but definitely deposited on very firm terra firma.
When I came out of a bad dream in the morning I found that I must have been in mortal combat all night with the sleeping bag. I was off the ground cover athwart the dead mattress, and the long flap that the instructions say is supposed to be held over one's face by two forked sticks was briskly slapping mine. My pre-coffee mood was not improved when I squeezed suntan lotion instead of tooth paste onto my brush. But a hefty breakfast cheered the inner woman, and I started off with Mitch and the Rohns in the Wagoneer feeling quite sanguine. We climbed steadily, sometimes leaving the trail to make new ones of our own, usually ending at unexpected and breathtaking views—private, and without benefit of guardrails, souvenir stands and litter. With Peg making sotto voce asides about how her girdle was rubbing, we climbed up to Elk Ridge, with snow patching the ground above and below the boggy road. Then, suddenly, we slipped down from 8,000 feet into a sagebrush basin. There, in a snug bowl with magenta cliffs as a backdrop, we lunched. While Joe made the fire and coffee we scrambled over rocks and up to the Moki ruins that studded the cliff walls. Others had been there before us, digging under the foundations for artifacts, and the masonry wall, with its builders' fingerprints intaglioed in the mud between the stones, was not far from collapse.
Out in the wind again after lunch, with tumbleweed skittering and scarlet Indian paintbrush or waxy sego lilies adorning the trail, we aimed for The Needles Country in the park. We swayed down a rock-strewn hairpin trail just wide enough for the Wagoneer into Beef Basin. I missed the variety of sounds that came from under the hood of the Old Green Lizard—snarls, whines, growls, groans and clanks. The OGL chattered away at every obstacle; it had the personality of a mule that knows it can do the job but doesn't much want to.
Mitch decided we would drop in on the McKinneys—Alice and Mac, who were mapping the Moki ruins for the government—and soon we pulled up at a trailer and shed with no electricity or indoor plumbing but with the running water of a nearby spring. After coffee the McKinneys led us on a Moki expedition. At times we had to study the cliffs with binoculars, so well were the buildings camouflaged. Other ruins were unprotected in the basin, crumbling amid the sage and with the wind blowing the red sand off sherds of black-and-white pottery. Mitch and the McKinneys held a conference as we braced against a near gale and, taking pity on our pinched and disconsolate faces, agreed that we should spend the night indoors at the trailer. So we were a cheerful crew the rest of the afternoon as we jeeped over the rugged trails.
Back at the McKinneys, where the room seemed to rock gently after the jeep motion, we were assigned sleeping quarters. Peg and Carl got the trailer bedroom, and Peg informed me that at home she and Carl had separate rooms because he was such a virtuoso snorist. Exhausted but ravenous again, we had dinner in the living room while the wind gusted, and if anyone snored that night I suspect it was me.
Came the dawn and the smell of coffee, and I parted reluctantly from my warm bunk bed. The others were already out, splashing around in the horse trough, but I decided I wasn't about to part with my nice warm dirt and slathered on the cologne with a liberal hand.
I rejoined Joe in the Old Green Lizard, and once again we headed for the park, but the route was blocked by a monstrous pile called Bobby's Hell Hole Hill, where the trail looked like something only a suicidal mountain goat would attempt. As I resisted the impulse to faint peacefully away, we lurched forward, hood straight up, Joe braced and leaning out of the window like Casey Jones at the throttle, wrenching the jeep round the turns with his tattooed arm. Somehow we reached the top, and I gave a premature sigh of relief; what goes up must come down, and that was even worse. When we made the bottom after a last heart-leaping slew, I examined my teeth. I had a better dentist than I had thought.
Soon we were actually in the park, and ahead like a threatening horde of red giants loomed the huge stone formations of The Needles. This is a fantastically jumbled and sculptured land. Mitch led the way, with occasional stops to literally scrape his way through the boulders at each side of the trail. Joe would hold the OGL almost vertical, his right foot twisted across both brake and gas. We nosed over the top of one hill and into a great, green basin encircled by majestic, multicolored formations. It was a natural, colossal Stonehenge. Below and on all sides were the cumbersome shapes of Elephant Canyon in all hues of red and beige. We drove around the park, observing constant changes in the rocks, and de-jeeped to hike to always spectacular panoramas opening from rifts in the massive walls. Finally Mitch led us across the basin to descend. As he eased over the top the underside of his Wagoneer was exposed as clearly as if it were on a grease rack. We jolted after him, bouncing like popping kernels of corn and the lashed equipment in the rear pushing firmly against the back of the seat.
Our evening camping spot was a relatively sheltered area in the lee of a cliff in a narrow box canyon. After the pot roast was in the Dutch oven, Joe and Mitch pitched tents that showed every indication of becoming airborne until the tent stakes were anchored with large rocks. "Break out your Scotch, Alice," said Mitch. "Let's have a housewarming." I did, and we huddled under the rock wall before the fire, changing positions like sparrows on a phone wire as we tried to keep warm while dodging the smoke that the wind capriciously shifted.
Again after dinner there was none of the lingering-around-the-fire that I dimly remembered from distant Girl Scout days. We all retired to our tents—Peg and I to one, the men sharing two others. As we undressed Peg said she hoped that Carl's snoring would not keep Neal awake, and that, of course, it would be a miracle if she slept, because she never could; that was her great problem. Over the flapping of the tent I heard creaks and groans from her corner and saw that her corselet was hung on the ridgepole with care. She groused that the zipper was on the wrong side of the sleeping bag and that when she tried to get in her nightgown scrunched up as she slid down. With minimum faith we wished each other a good night's sleep, but to my later surprise I popped off instantly. I awoke at one point with the tent slapping me rhythmically on the top of the head, a Utah form of the Chinese water torture. As I sat up I dimly perceived a white form swaying above my head, like one of those ghosties or ghoulies that go bump in the night. After a brief fright I correctly identified it as Peg's corselet. From the other side of the tent came the sound of a miracle. Zoink, whee, goink, gobble, snort. Peg had gone to sleep after all.
The next day's journeying was distinguished by the most hair-raising obstacle course of the trip and its most magnificent spectacle. I had been warned back in Moab that Elephant Hill was a thriller, and as we inched and backed and slid over its loose rocks I regretted that I had not bought and filled out one of the Last Will and Testament forms that were on sale at the checkout counter in the supermarket where we provisioned. When we were safely through this ordeal-by-jeep I had to use my left hand to unclench my right from the door handle, and Joe said quietly, "I know how you feel. I was scared myself the first time I drove this one."
A few miles farther on we pulled into a cottonwood-shaded canyon, drove to its end and then started walking. Suddenly, there against the clear blue sky, delicately soaring, was Angel Arch, a breathtaking form buttressed by a demure winged figure, together yielding a sense of peaceful grandeur. Carl speculated, as he did on every similar occasion, about how many years it would take before the arching span collapsed. The exercise must have given him some odd inner satisfaction.
After a lunch we started into Horse Canyon. As we stood shivering in the wind, eying a strange formation in the canyon wall known as Paul Bunyan's Potty, Mitch called a conference. The sky had filled with surging black clouds and we were about three hours from Moab. He wondered if we would prefer to sleep in town. Would we! With a sense of reprieve we started back out of the canyon. A pale lemon sun, dashing in and out of the clouds, faintly penetrated the red haze. With our bedrolls thumping up and down on the roof of the OGL, we jolted along in a gale until we hit a smooth dirt road. Joe stopped, grabbed a beer can opener and got out to disconnect the front wheels from four-wheel drive. I realized then that the jeeping phase of our trip was over.
The next morning at the airport we learned that the winds had registered 75 miles per hour. Any lingering qualms I may have felt at plumping for town over tent quickly evaporated. We joined Pilot George Hubler in the Cessna Sky Wagon to be flown, with sightseeing asides, to our rendezvous with the boat on the Green River. Dipping over the lips of canyons, George thoughtfully tilted the plane to offer rarely viewed arches—Wishbone, Table and, of course, the incomparable Angel. At times our wheels seemed to brush the top of the sage as we skimmed over a butte on our descent into a canyon, the better to see the unique rocks or weird jumble of the land. Suddenly we dropped over the rim of a canyon, made a turn between its walls and glided in to land on the narrow floor. "That," said George, "is what you call threading the needle. Every time I come in here I wonder why I do it."
He led us off toward the river and into a barbed-wire fence. Tex McClatchy, our boatman, was on the other side, accompanied by some interested white-faced cattle. "They've repaired the fence since we were here last!" said Tex in a tone of one basely betrayed. We followed that solid wire barrier into tamarisk thickets, pushing through the whiplike growths that had a sneaky way of striking back in unprotected posterior areas, and finally reached the river, where a homely boat with wooden benches was nosed into the bank.
Once we were in the river Tex cut the engine and we drifted in large, lazy circles downstream. When the sun broke through, the river was indeed green, a shade of olive drab. We stopped to explore ruins not visible from the water, inspected flowering cactus and edged up to rocks covered with dinosaur footprints. "This," said Tex as we idled gently, "is the lazy way to see the Canyonlands."
Drowsy in the warm sun after a good lunch, I sipped at my water jug. "I'm thirsty, too," said Peg, "but I don't want to use my water up so soon." Even when I assured her that there was more water in the storage area, she persisted in playing Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat.
We continued drifting until we passed an unexpected traffic sign on the rock wall—TURN LEFT, ½ MILE. Tex explained that we were nearing the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers and that the reason for the sign was that many boating tourists had become confused, turned right and ended up in the rapids—where they were swamped and occasionally drowned. Then we turned, not left as the sign directed, but right toward the rapids. We passed through a little riffle, the boat's bottom bouncing over the rocks, but we were about a mile and a half from where the real rough water, 30 miles of it, began. "The Colorado's higher than it's been in about five years," said Tex, "and those rapids are really ferocious now. We'll camp about a quarter mile above them."
He found a beachlike sandbank across from Spanish Bottom, an old outlaw hideout. Again after dinner we followed our habit of going right to bed. This time even the dishes were left for daylight. While I worked out the intricacies of my new sleeping bag—it zipped up the center from the inside giving a definite mummylike sensation—Peg again announced her pessimism about the possibilities of sleep. Since our tent was pitched on a slope, I found I had a tendency to slide down, probably abetted by the fact that I am somewhat bottom-heavy. But I braced myself and popped off to sleep, awakening once in a huddle at the bottom of the mattress. As I started squirming back upward I heard a freight train coming. It turned out to be Peg not sleeping again.
The morning, when I finally fought my way out to meet it, was lovely. We stood around the fire eating our grilled pork chops and scrambled eggs, congratulating each other on the beautiful weather. I should have known better—early morning in Utah is apparently when old Mother Nature takes time for a good laugh. While we were packing the boat the sun disappeared, and it started snowing.
Fortunately it was only a flurry. Tex arranged us in strategic spots in the boat and asked us not to wander, because the water-jet motors would be on shortly, thrusting us upstream. Gone was yesterday's lazy drifting and serenity. The motors roared against the current, the wind was cold in my face and caused my eyes to tear, and before long I was searching the locker for a blanket. I had already craftily claimed the only available cushion. As we neared a narrowing of the river called The Slide, Tex said, "It'll thrill you, but it's not really dangerous. No rocks, but just lots of turbulent water. The whole Colorado River has to squeeze through there, and some small boats have to be towed." We idled up into a backwater where The Slide fanned out so Tex could check the trash coming through and plan his route, then returned downriver to get a good run at it. Starting upstream at full speed, we aimed, it seemed to me, directly at the boulder that was one boundary of The Slide. As I was fighting against closing my eyes, the motor sputtered and died. Tex and Neal scrambled for the side and pushed us off the rocks. We went back and started again but only for a few yards. "I've got sticks," Tex announced, and we drifted downstream while he removed the debris.
Once again we aimed and roared directly for that looming boulder. We seemed to graze its side as we labored against the current, but suddenly we gave a few quick bounds and were through. It was short but rough. "If you try to go up the center," said Tex, "it's much more of a fight."
I was so cold that I was quaking. We stopped and built a fire to thaw out, but the thaw didn't last. By the time we stopped again for lunch I had nothing left in my duffel bag but dirty underwear. I was wearing two shirts (one wool), two sweaters, a lined ski parka, a wool poncho and a blanket—and I still shook like an idling Model T. The sun turned coy again and went behind a cloud, and the air was as clammy and chill as that butcher's freezer in Moab. Intermittently we were peppered with rain and sleet. Peg gave Carl her head scarf, and she pulled an accordion-pleated rain hat down over her face to the tip of her nose and gazed earnestly at the scenery. Her view must have been somewhat obscured by the floral patterns on the plastic.
Tex, I decided, must have come from a long line of postmen, for neither the rain nor the sleet kept him from his appointed sightseeing rounds. We were shown Indian paintings, natural arches, weird rock formations and more dinosaur tracks. Through it all he was greeted by an apathetic silence. Even with the rain, however, the scenery was so compelling that it managed to penetrate my misery. We were still about 10 miles from Moab when the sleet started to come down in earnest. Something dropped over my head, and I discovered that Tex had left the wheel to sling me a waterproof poncho. Finally the potash plant loomed ahead, and I gave a sigh of relief. Salvation was now countable miles away. The only canyons I ever wanted to see again were those of Wall Street.
I settled back to distract myself for the next half hour by slipping covert glances at my companions in misery—soaked, shivering, helplessly woebegone. At last we pulled up to the dock at Moab, and Joe was there with the Wagoneer to collect us. He put out his hand to help me step from the boat, but then dropped it. He was doubled up—laughing.
Canyonlands National Park
Salt Lake City
Great Salt Lake