10 o’clock at night, standing alone on the bank of the Colorado River in full flood stage. Can I swim across? Theoretically, yes. Emotionally, no. I conducted an inventory of my emotional reserves and made a rational decision: I’m not going. I measured, and my cajones weren’t big enough.
This trip I had brought a Space Blanket, so wrapped myself up in that and slept soundly, while learning that sleeping in a Space Blanket keeps you both remarkably warm and remarkably wet, becoming quickly soaked in your own perspiration.
Next morning I hiked upstream to allow for the fast current, eased myself into the brown water, and swam across with no incident, and without regretting the previous nights decision. I busted butt up Red Lake Canyon (what lake?), across the various fins and valleys the Needles are renowned for, including the infamous Elephant Hill jeep road, reaching Squaw Flat Campground by mid-morning where I had a friend waiting for me with food supplies for the rest of the route.
Except instead of my friend, there was a note pinned to the campground sign which read: “You didn’t show up so I left. Hope everything is OK.”
No food and 45 more miles to go wasn’t that OK. Kaput again. Busted. Without further ado I put out my thumb and began the long hitchhike back to my car, pleased that I had extended the route, but also noticing that by failing at Spanish Bottom last year I got a direct boat ride back to the start, while failing at Squaw Flat meant it would take hours to hitch all the way around. My second ride was pretty good though, peaceful because there was no radio in the car. I asked why, and he explained he stole the car two days ago and had already sold the radio.
Out in the middle of Elaterite Basin, Peter and I walked directly to exact location of The Drop. I basically can’t remember what I did yesterday, or the name of the person I met two minutes ago, but when I’m 80 years old I’ll remember exactly where this spot is; it is etched in my memory, like a knife scar on the cheek of an old cowboy.
It’s a great little spot, an anomaly in a horizontal ribbon of unbroken overhanging cliff. We down climbed it, and were soon frolicking, relatively speaking, in the bottom of Horse Canyon. Water, trees, beautiful scenery, peace, and traces of people who called this home 700 years ago. These ghosts from the past possessed a different technology than ours; one that enabled them to not only live here, but to practice their art. Their cultural technology can only be imagined, has to be imagined, because what they painstakingly drew clearly was not intended to be of this world.
I love the Maze. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. There’s nobody there.
Earlier while crossing the Green, Peter and I were lamenting our poor gear selection. Our pool toy air matts were woefully inadequate; why hadn’t we brought packrafts? Packrafts were the obvious choice. We’re good friends with Andrew Skurka, expert packrafter – what is he going to say to us when he finds out we swam across these freezing cold rivers instead of packrafting them?
Now grinding out of the Maze proper into the Land of Standing Rocks, we were congratulating ourselves on our clever choice of river gear. “Good thing we didn’t bring packrafts!” we kept saying. Damn things weigh a ton and would be a hassle to carry.
Dropping out of the Doll House we catch our first sight of Spanish Bottom, 3 miles downstream from where the Green and Colorado Rivers have come together. It’s big, brown, and moving right along.
“Dang, I can’t believe we didn’t bring packrafts” we suddenly think. “Packrafts are perfect; they would have made this so much easier.”
The Triple Trek is such a great route. It’s either too hot or too cold, too much water or not enough water. It’s impossible to figure out.
Fortunately, there is a solution; a Middle Path: we walk up to a young couple camped there with their canoe, and ask for a ride across. Sure, why not? Peter and I paddle their canoe, which is vastly easier, quicker, and dryer than paddling an air mattress, and even though we had to work the ferry pretty hard, soon we are across, saving at least an hour. Our friends will paddle back across, while we crank up the Red Lake Canyon trail into the Needles.
Next stop is the Needles Visitor Center, mandatory on the route because it has the only water for the next 24 miles. The last three miles are on a road, and two cars stop and ask us if we want a ride, while a third asks us if we need anything. We stock up with 3 liters of water each, and consider the next seven miles which are on a road. We’ve been self-propelled up to this point, but there is no particular reason to walk this road. This is a great route, and one can experience it even better while making new friends in a car that is driving down a section of pavement.
Peter and I both like to hitchhike. I like the feeling of casting one’s fate outside one’s control, rather than being in control all the time. “Trail Magic” is a time-honored tradition among thru-hikers. And unlike a “supported” trip, one has to be fully capable of not receiving anything.
This attitude adjustment is how I finally completed the Triple Trek in 2001. After two complete failures, and even though they were some of the best trips of my life, I really needed to get this done. So I gave up on the “IAD” (In A Day) plan, put a sleeping bag in my pack, and in the shorter and cooler first days of October 2001, decided to just hike this sucker.
It was remarkably easy. I hiked down to the Green River and kept going – just hiked across it – the water was only waist deep! Instead of hammering to get to Spanish Bottom by nightfall, that night I slept long and peacefully next to a tiny spring in the heart of the Maze. The following day a canoeist gave me a lift across the Colorado, and I continued my pleasure cruise up into the Needles, spending the night in nowheresville out on the Lockhart Basin road. Finally, a new distance mark on the Triple Trek! The third day all I had to do was descend an unknown canyon, cross the Colorado above the Confluence with the Green, and climb out on the Lathrop Trail.
This all happened. It went very well. I was entirely happy to cruise this in 2 1/2 days and leave the IAD style to the next person. I loved this route – it’s creativity, it’s history, it’s discovery – and mostly the purity of it’s “desertness”. The desert is an environment where paradoxes are not an afterthought but its structure. Beauty and harshness are as linked as is the preciousness of life and the lack thereof; the warmth of the desert is it’s deadliness, and sand and gravel are everywhere even as the desert feels so clean.
But that next person never came along.
No one went near this route, so I went back with Peter. We hiked the Lockhart Basin road, which seemingly goes nowhere, then instead of eye-balling it like I had done 14 years ago, we checked the GPS coordinate on his iPhone and entered Horsethief Canyon at its easiest spot. When we got to the huge impassable pouroff, instead of wondering if we’d have to back-track 20 miles with no water as I had wondered, I already knew it could be passed on the right. At the canyon mouth we inflated our mats, mashed thru the Tammies, and were soon drifting down the Colorado, with three miles of of River before we had to make the other side. After 10 minutes, a sport boat (power raft) came downriver, and since we were a sight to see floating on our yellow pool toys with packs on our back, he slowed down and asked what’s up. We were going to Lathrop Canyon, albeit quite slowly. He said, “Climb in”.
So we did. It was cold and raining – it would have been a long and unpleasant three miles in that river – and his clients got to spectate us, which was rather more interesting, or maybe bizarre, than the usual sights on the tour.
I love the climb up Lathrop. It looks like there’s no way it will go – giant sheer cliffs of Wingate topped by Navaho sandstone apparently make any exit impossible – but follow the cairns, and soon you are on top, on the Island in the Sky. You’ve done it. You’ve experienced all of Canyonlands National Park, which you’re not likely to forget.
“Alas, those verses one writes in youth aren’t much. One should wait and gather sweetness and light all one’s life, a long one if possible. But it is not enough to have memories … one must be able to forget them and have patience until they come again, and become like the blood within us … “ – Rilke