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Grand Gulch Backpack, essay by Alan Silverstein

This is one small piece of a 22,000 word story that Alan Silverstein ( about his leave of absence last year called "July - December 1994: What I Did on My Mid-life Vacation".

October 7-14, 1994: Grand Gulch Backpack

Voices of the ancients. A passage through the netherworld. Thirty miles, one way, below the Utah desert. No idea how it would be; and oh, how it was... Seven people, four nights, an encapsulated eternity of rich natural experiences.

Friday morning: Depart for Denver. Meet trip leader Pat Berman and off we go in her 4WD to Blanding, SE Utah, by way of Moab. Sleep out, pretty cold, at Devils Canyon campground. Saturday morning join with two others in Blanding. Spend the day in a preliminary exploration halfway down the road to Natural Bridges. Locate and walk three or so miles up South Mule Canyon and return. Lots of Anasazi ruins and drawings. Moderate bushwhacking. A warm-up, a taste of things to come, nearly five hours afoot.

That evening the rest of the group assembles at Kampark in Blanding. "The Seven Dwarves", we decide. Our first dinner together, at the grassy campsite surrounded by desert and debris. Final assembly of heavy backpacks... Including group food and gear. Final showers.

Sunday: Awake in the desert. Time to leave behind the twentieth century. This includes ham radio. Nobody out there to talk with, no point in carrying it. I take my camera though.

Some vehicles shuttle to the Collins Canyon exit point, but I'm with Pat to the Kane Spring Ranger Station. Learn that the main branch of Grand Gulch runs over 50 miles down to the San Juan River -- which then meets and becomes an arm of Lake Powell. Zillions of dry side canyons. The main channel is usually dry too, an intermittent stream. This system doesn't reach up to drain any high peaks that hold winter snowmelt.

Bad news: The main gulch should be soon evaporated from the last rain, and occasional springs are questionable. Water is a big concern. Carry all we can, cut the trip a night shorter, be prepared to push on to the end. We do sight many small muddy pools. We could have stayed longer, but are never sure, as we walk, what is ahead.

We'll enter a south fork, Bullet Canyon. Seven miles down to Grand Gulch proper, 20 more down to Collins, and a quick exit, two miles up and out, still 17 miles upstream from the San Juan.

We wait for others at Bullet trailhead, 6400'. Nervous about what I'm carrying and what I'm not. Leaving behind lots of stuff, like a tent and long pants. Survive with tarps and polypro, hope they're dry and warm enough (they are). Decide to take my Leatherman tool -- 8 oz -- not needed once, but that's OK, good karma. Capacity for 1.5 gallons of water -- 12 pounds -- will it be enough? Carry my favorite aspen branch walking stick. Nice toy, very handy...

We launch just past 10am. Quick drop into Bullet Canyon from the north rim. I'm already slower than the group. Never was fast with a full pack, never went this far before with one either. Nervous feelings. We blow by the first couple of ruins without seeing them. I don't care, they're low on my list, I'm here for the canyons not the artifacts... But this changes. The ruins grow fascinating, enigmatic, captivating.

Down the canyon floor we walk. This is easy. A big "pour-off", dry falls in slickrock... This is hard. Then it gets worse. Virtually no trail. Big boulders choking the deep canyon. Up and down, around, up, down. Whee!

Bushwhacking begins, gets steadily worse for the next day. All trails here are primitive. Surprising jungle down in the depths, the desert basement. Fortunately few plants have thorns. Everyone's bare legs are scratched and scraped.

All the rock here is sandstone, even on the canyon floor. This drainage doesn't reach any other kind of material.

The canyon twists on forever, hiding itself behind each bend. I learn that to know my position, I must carry the map in my hand and keep constant track. I enjoy this game, so I do it for the rest of the trip. It helps me find ruins and other features.

Happiness and relief on reaching a campsite below Jailhouse Ruin at 1515. Five miles behind us in 5:10; 25 more ahead. The water supply here is "good". That means a few clear, deep pools full of living things. "This, boys and girls, is why we carry water filters." Pump up plenty.

Weather is typical for Utah in fall -- warm days, cool nights, dry, dry, dry. Still time for a hike before dinner and dark. The jail cells in the rock wall are really turkey pens, I think. Like all Anasazi ruins, silent, full of mysteries. Ancient by human standards...

The Old Ones left here by about 1280 AD, probably due to drought. What do the circles painted high on the wall mean? Why is it so torturous and dangerous to reach the second level balcony? What stalked them so they had to live high in these crevices? Why did they mark so little on the walls in 200 years, 10 generations; and what do the curious designs mean?

There's more time left this evening. Scramble up the slickrock high above the ruins. Cautious clever passageways through cliff faces. Emerge on a naked isthmus of rock; cross out to an unclimbable knob. Sheer drops abound around. The view is precipitous and panoramic. Hundreds of feet to the valley floor. Return to camp in just 23 minutes; incredible.

Monday morning: The outside world should be at work today. Is there another existence? The Anasazi knew of none. Or did they travel afar? Life here is all canyon walls and depths, bare and essential. But -- spread out one person's pack on a hangar floor -- separate everything -- behold what Twentieth Century Man must carry for safety and comfort! All neatly nested, hierarchical by day, inaccessible; scattered at night like detritus.

We break camp at 0830 and resume the journey. Today we'll meet the main stream of Grand Gulch. Actually in less than two hours after exploring another ruin. At the junction it's lush and overgrown; another world hiding below the canyon rim. The main gulch is littered with harder pebbles, not sandstone, but chert, agate, flint. It must drain other kinds of formations. But it's so lush here I don't notice the change for awhile.

Ditch our big packs, take our lunches, go see the Green Man panel and some ruins enroute. It's 1.4 miles up the main gulch with a short sidetrip into Shieks Canyon. We down comestibles on a boulder in the shade admiring the mystery of the artwork high over our heads.

How did it get there, thirty feet up a cliff? What does it mean? So many unknowns. We're free to speculate. I vote for rickety scaffolding (there are no tall trees here). I think each member of the tribe was allowed just one drawing or handprint in a lifetime, perhaps a rite of passage or of initiation. The artwork does not confirm or deny. The ghosts are silent.

We reshoulder our full packs at the Bullet junction and pick up the pace at 1340. Now comes the thickest of the thicket. We wind and push, up and down, through and around, looking for the easiest option when there is any choice. The gully floor is irregular, the water channel a brush-filled crevice, the trails are braided. Progress is slow and difficult. A wrong turn leads to frustration. It is some miles before the wash widens to become a highway.

Still it is fun and fulfilling to walk through this wilderness. There are social moments and quiet times hiking alone. Choices to be made, to follow the streambed around a curve or a sandy shortcut trail up and down.

Pass Green House Canyon; hard to even see the entrance through the tamarisk. Pass the Totem Pole, a sandstone spire. It's interesting, looming ahead for a while. No blisters yet, maybe I can do this after all! Still the mind boggles at the distance yet to cover. We stop for the evening near the Step Canyon mouth; 6.1 miles walked today plus the lunchtime sidetrip, in 7:40.

The few good campsites are taken. We settle on the south side under cottonwoods, just across from and west of the side canyon, a bit lumpy, but acceptable.

There's water nearby but it's brown and unappealing. Twenty minutes of hiking, nearly a mile up Step Canyon, takes some of us to little Necklace Spring -- really just a clear perennial pond with a muddy bottom. Great pains not to stir up our water source! Pump, pump, and return home for dinner as it's getting dark. Another long night of needed rest.

Tuesday morning: The group explores rock art on the west wall of Step Canyon, then the Two Tier Ruin on a high ledge just east of its mouth. Spectacular architecture for building with rock and mud. Like most ruins in the Gulch, there are still corn cobs, pottery sherds, and stone tools on the ground. Some are neatly placed on random rocks, on display. Some sherds and tools are even noticed on the canyon floor, in the streambed!

Pot pieces are up to an inch across. They're surprisingly thin for hand-made goods. Perhaps they needed to be light, or thicker walls shattered when fired, or the pottery mud was scarce and carried from afar.

At 1015 we depart our camp west, downstream to Dripping Canyon. There we drop packs and explore nearly a mile north to another little spring in the creekbed. Likewise at Cow Tank Canyon, no spring here, but a glorious huge curving sandstone wall above a deep narrow shaded floor. More rock art. And, petrified wood appears in this drainage! Not very good stuff, but interesting. We see pieces of it all the way down to Collins.

The drainage widens past Step Canyon. A stronger streambed appears. Now most of the walking is on firm sand and pebbles, with only intermittent overgrowth and detours. This is a slow but welcome change. Further downstream it gets even wider, sandier, softer. We choose our paths more carefully, now seeking firmer footing.

We pass Longhouse Ruin without exploring; at this point time feels short. We pass our journey's halfway point. Next attraction is the Big Man panel. We're miles from anywhere modern, at the center of a lost civilization. A steep sandy scramble takes us to the life size caricatures, surrounded by odd shapes and patterns. More mysteries.

Press on to Pollys Island, an old oxbow. Another 6.7 miles traversed today, just in the main gulch, in 6:15. I'm getting used to this way of life.

Camping spots are limited again. I decide to sleep out in the open, on a slickrock terrace just above the streambed. Garden level. Strangely enough this means it will be colder tonight than higher up, but it's worth it. Two others join me.

Precious water is available here in numerous small potholes on the rocky floor of the wide canyon. It's brown and unappealing. We learn from others that it's evaporating fast. Also that dogs and llamas bathed in it today. Filtered through a cloth, pumped through a filter, it's palatable, it's water, the stuff of life.

Before dinner I go out exploring again. (The group wonders what the hell I'm on to have such energy.) The map shows the Government Trail climbing a short way up Pollys Canyon. It doesn't, the map lies, I ascend anyway. The slickrock scrambling is fun and challenging. Carrying only a camera, I reach the canyon rim at the trail's drop-off point just before sunset. The panorama is afire, beyond description, beyond belief.

I've been at the bottom less than three days, yet there's a curious claustrophobia. I don't perceive its presence until it's absent. I look out from the heights to distant well-known summits. The serpentine canyon below is exquisite, miniature; pastel curves, and beckoning green on its floor. I wish I could stay longer, but I must go. I run down the trail in nine minutes to the streambed and stroll back upstream to camp for dinner. "Five stars," I tell the others. I was gone just 45 minutes.

Wednesday morning: There's frost on our sleeping bags. The group is asynchronous; we'll meet a mile down at Wrong Side Ruin. The others hike the Government Trail. I bushwhack, full pack, around Pollys Island, the old oxbow. Huge sage bushes slow the going. One lone hidden panel displays over 60 handprints, different colors, different sizes. A greeting? A warning? A lost message across the lonely centuries.

We meet and disperse again from the ruins. If there is no water down the canyon, we'll rest in the evening and hike out tonight. I save my energy and plod slowly. Follow the streambed in quiet meditation, skip the shortcuts. Twenty minutes behind the group at the Big Pouroff lunch stop. Massive drops, huge pools. The gallon of water in my backpack feels silly, but it's insurance; I don't mind it any longer.

We visit more ruins in a low cleft. "2804 Grand Gulch Boulevard," I muse. My speculation continues. Why here, not there? Why such small rooms? Why this apparent textile mark in the mud wattling?

At Bannister Ruin at 3pm there is water in the streambed. A small pool, but it's clear liquid. It suffices to spend the night. I don't mention to anyone the dead worm at the bottom, it doesn't matter. Our camp is now nearly 25 miles from the Bullet trailhead. We walked 6.8 miles in 6:25.

Bannister Ruin features a roofed kiva in good condition. Also an upper level with a single-log railing! Now unreachable. They must have had a ladder.

It's early yet and I feel strong. I take off to explore the heights above on the other side of the canyon. Traveling light again. It's a slickrock puzzle. Find a way to the first level just above camp: A quarter mile down the canyon and walk back on the next shelf. Then up a gully to the next layer and go downstream again. Look for passages that zig-zag through the cliffs.

I come to where I'm sure I'm done. One big slab leans against the sheer wall. No other route clears this cliff band in either direction for a mile of visible canyon. Check it out... It's easy! Up to the next layer. And up again.

I reach relative flats high above the gulch. I can see the distances again. There are higher islands set back from the edge, but no immediate access. Lo and behold, there are fresh boot tracks here! Where did they come from? Not the way I came.

The return to the ground floor is fast and uneventful. The entire outing took just 1:40. Dinner is simple and filling once more. I decide to sleep out again, not under trees, but up on a terrace below the ruins, across from the group.

It's the last night of this mind-bending adventure. It's also getting late in my sabbatical. I spend some time alone in the dark sitting among the ruins, under the moon, watching the Earth turn. Try as I might, I cannot hear or see the people that dwelled here so long ago, not even their ghosts or echoes. They must have experienced many such nights. The scene is the same.

Thursday: We head for our exit point. I feel strong, good, and peaceful. We regroup at our low point, 4800', the Collins Canyon junction.

A short walk downstream sans packs shows us the Narrows. Here an oxbow was abandoned only yesterday in sandstone standard time. The entire gulch passes through a slot higher than it is wide.

Back to our packs, we begin the trudge up and out Collins Canyon. It's "only" a 300' gain in two miles. It goes by slowly and feels long. Emerge at vehicles by 1145. We were in the depths one hundred twenty one and three quarter hours; a lifetime.

I walked over 40 miles total, but gained only 2000'. Visited eight ruins, saw three more. Images still digesting. Bushwhacking I didn't expect. So many questions about the Anasazi, without answers. Cool curves, overhangs, gorgeous river cobbles downstream. Ruins perched high. Stars, cool air settling at night, little stagnant pools...

Retrieve our vehicles at Bullet. Pat and I shower at Blanding and decide to press on for home. Great dinner at the Dinosaur Cafe in Fruita. Denver 0005, I'm weary. Pat lets me sleep on her floor.

Sidebar: Email Sent Later

...The memory becomes very special. Odd. Especially when you are aware of the moment being special, or at least of it having the potential to become special, and you pay attention, and you soak it up, but you can't really grasp it all, and it's elusive, and you don't feel anything magical, really; but later, the moment is indeed magical in your memories. Weird.

I found myself all ready for bed at 9pm. I was as well exercised and sleep-saturated as I have been in years. We had backpacked five or more miles every day, and done side trips, and I had slept or rested up to ten hours each of the last five nights. (After all it got dark by 7:20pm and not light enough to see until 7:10am.) I'd had a huge dinner and a nice bit of socializing with the grubby group in the dark, gathered around an orange Cyalume in lieu of an illegal campfire.

I had time and energy left. It was warm and breezy. I got up and meandered up to the ruin in flip flops. I took them off and tried to sit comfortably on a rock, feet crossed in the dust, leaning back against the kiva wall without disturbing it. Studied the ghostly canyon in the moonlight. Closed my eyes and tried to reach the spirits of the people who lived in that place for ten generations over 700 years ago.

I didn't see or hear anything but the wind rustling cottonwood branches. I felt the slow eternity of the place. The interplay of centuries of nothing changing with the fleeting moments of breezes and raindrops and flash floods. I imagined the entire year of 1514, these rocks and beams almost as they are now, but unvisited. Night after night just like this one. Nothing happening. Another year, and another. Still, I could not grasp the essence. Perhaps it is sufficient that I tried? That I sensed an essence that needed to be grasped?

Too intense to consume, but yet so simple and stationary. Once more, the raw experience was trivial, but the memory grows profound. There were no ghosts. There were no voices. There were no answers. There were only questions and a brooding patience that had settled like dust over the centuries.

As I write about this, it sounds like the experience was deep and meaningful. I almost remember it that way too. But I also recall getting up in frustration, almost in boredom, sooner than I expected, because I could not keep my mind from wandering at random to other times and places, because there was nothing really to be experienced there at the kiva, except the stillness, and I couldn't take that into myself enough to own it.

I remember thinking how silly it was to expect a miracle on cue, to suddenly see or hear or touch the people who built that ruin, who slept countless nights on that spot, who were born and died there, seeing much the same canyon as I did hundreds of years later, in gentle darkness as well as in harsh daylight. (For the world is dark as much as it is light, but you must witness this to be aware of it.)

I remember thinking how odd it was that not only was I finding no answers, but in fact I was so relaxed (though not at peace) that I couldn't even focus on the questions -- my own questions about why I was there, and where to go from there. Even the questions didn't matter. My mind was empty, yet full of scattered trivia and distractions. What did their pictographs mean? Should I try to start early in the morning and get ahead of the group instead of chasing them all day? How were my daughter and my house and my car doing, miles away in another world above the rim? What was it I was trying to do here, anyway, and why couldn't I even focus on that, and grasp that issue?

I walked back down and laid down and watched the world turn for a while until there was no point in staying awake. I figured out that the bright stars disappearing behind the cliff seemed to dim gradually over several seconds because their cliff-edge images on my eyes were at least 1000 times smaller than my pupil, and I was actually seeing their shadows sweep across my lens as the Earth turned. Ah, numbers, you can always find distraction in numbers.

The high cirrus clouds at sunrise the next morning were captivating and beautiful. I don't think anyone else, sleeping below in the trees, noticed them. I wasn't even looking for anything then, but suddenly I found the most incredible sense of beauty and vastness. For a few minutes, anyway, until it was time to get up.

All of this was just a short paragraph in a very full chapter that comprised our journey afoot through the gulch. It was a busy and stimulating time. And when I got home, of course, the chapter was closed and the pages got squeezed thin again.

But this time, at least so far, something has been different. I'm hanging desperately onto that feeling of peace and eternity I couldn't even grasp when it was in front of me deep in the canyon. I don't feel all the way back yet, and I don't want to feel it. I want to be changed.

How very odd indeed that I couldn't stay quiet inside and out for even an hour in that remote, eternal spot; but now the memory clings like a powerful dream.

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