I think of my son as a “city guy.” That is to say, as an adult, he doesn’t seek out hiking or camping experiences. He’ll take NYC, Boston, Pittsburgh, or Chicago. Perhaps it’s my fault. Yeah, I know it’s my fault. After all, there was Salt Creek Canyon, the summer of 1981.
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“Hey, Mom, look how far this drops down!” Allen pointed to the bottom of the canyon, while leaning forward on the sandstone ledge. I masked my alarm, took a quick step toward him and yanked his skinny eleven year old frame away from the edge.
“Don’t get so close to the edge,” I warned, my tone as tight as my grip on his arm. The confident physical education teacher in me was used to being in control. I found, however, this trail notched up my maternal instincts and flooded them with my fear of heights. Now we were lost! One wrong turn. One missed cairn. That’s all it took.
How did we get ourselves into this predicament?
We’d arrived at Canyonlands National Park on a mid-July afternoon. The campground was mostly empty, with temperatures soaring close to 100°. After the tent was set up, we went to check with the rangers and choose a hike to do before supper. We three, my partner Barb, my son Allen and I, were eager to begin exploring this incredible place.
Pointing to a large map at the Visitor Canter, the park ranger cautioned, “Stay out of Salt Creek Canyon. We’ve had flash floods and a Jeep recently sank, up to its doors, in quicksand over there.” He also pointed out another area where a Boy Scout was lost. He explained that search parties were out looking for him and didn’t want new tracks to confuse their efforts. He suggested a five mile jaunt that began and ended near our campground. With map in hand, we headed back to our site.
Sweat ran down my arms as I packed our water bottles, three nectarines and a package of red licorice in the mid-day heat. Barb, to my amusement, added a first aid kit, a rain jacket and a wool hat to the pack, which we’d take turns carrying. A physical therapist, by occupation, she had been to NOLS:National Outdoor Leadership School. She believed in being prepared for anything. Soon the three of us were off.
Our chosen trail snaked through the sandstone formations. I loved the look of the weathered, rounded stone, but the gritty surfaces gave little purchase for good hand or foot holds. We ascended until we were high above the canyon floor. The wide vista was breathtaking, marked by the twists and turns of canyon walls that stood, intermittently, around us. Some time during the third hour, we realized we were no longer on the trail. Cairns, marking the way were nowhere in sight.
On this high precipice, there were two choices-go forward or go back. No longer the carefree hikers we’d started out to be, Barb and I knew the seriousness of our situation. Allen, in his youthful exuberance had to be constantly warned to “Slow down!” We negotiated slim ledges with baby steps. My hands became clammy. My racing heart pounded as we inched our way along the worst stretches.
“Maybe we should turn back. It’s a long way even if we start now, ” Barb, the more experienced hiker, sounded worried. She nodded toward Allen. Poor kid, he’d been hiking for five hours already. The stakes in this hike were being raised. It was already close to six p.m.; we should have been eating supper at the campsite by now. I subdued my own rising panic, not wanting to alarm my son. We discussed it in whispers, then committed to going forward another half hour. We reasoned that we might be closer to the end of the trail than the beginning…but…we didn’t want to be up there when darkness fell. It was imperative that we get off that high wall and down into the canyon.
As luck would have it, shortly after we’d made the decision to continue, a way out miraculously (in my mind) appeared ahead of us. A metal ladder, wedged into a vertical crack and anchored into the sandstone cliff, rose up to meet us. I nodded a thanks to the heavens. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I knew I could face anything once I was a flatlander again. In turn, each of us gripped the hot metal rungs and descended.
Back on terra firma, our spirits lifted. We chose a route we hoped would lead us out of the maze of small canyons to a distinguishable landmark. We walked on the sandy bottom, interspersed with small brushy vegetation. Before long, we saw something familiar in the distance. A natural hole in the canyon wall, marked with petroglyphs, it is a famous arch in the park’s literature. Our map showed it as the portal to Salt Creek Canyon. Oh No!
In the forbidden canyon the trail was the stream. All we had to do was follow it. At some point a side trail should break off and lead us to the ranger housing area. We needed to find it! Undergrowth scratched our legs and grabbed at our clothes as we bushwhacked along the stream bank, in search of the elusive side trail. When the growth became too thick, we ventured into the foot-high stream.
Old movies often present quicksand as a large mud hole that swallows up bad guys and their horses. I always wondered what it was really like. I found out that evening when we attempted to walk in the water. As we waded, random places seemed to suck our feet down. It was scary and called for a quick weight shift, lifting the foot and moving toward the bank. Needless to say, we avoided the water as much as possible. When we did slosh in the stream, my thick hiking boots became infiltrated by the sandy, watery mix, causing my heels to be rubbed bloody. So much for “waterproof” leather boots.
Barb took the initiative, ferreting out the side trails. Disappointment swelled with each false lead. We walked, sang, and told jokes until it became difficult to see. Allen, a trooper, never whined or complained. The moon had risen behind us as the sky darkened. At one point, Barb decided to cross the stream to investigate a promising looking path. Allen shouted to her when she reached mid-stream, “If you start to sink, throw us the flashlight!” I guess you could say he was a practical boy. I appreciated the comic relief.
It was yet another dead end.
Distant thunder and flashes of light warned us of an approaching storm. Wrong place. Definitely wrong time. To reach higher ground, we climbed to a spot fifteen feet above the stream. It was close to eleven p.m.; we were exhausted, hungry and starting to get cold. We divided up the remaining nectarine; the licorice was all gone by then, and gave Allen the wool hat and rain coat. We found a large rock slab leaning against an upright wall. It created a crawl space about twenty inches high and seven feet wide and long. It gave us just enough room to lie, side by side, flat on our backs. Soon the skies opened and the storm crashed upon us.
Disturbing thoughts ran through my mind as I lay staring at six tons of rock six inches above my nose. I wondered if I should leave the daypack or camera outside to indicate we were there, should the heavy slab choose this time to slip from its perch and squish us into oblivion. I mostly worried about Allen. Could I keep him safe? Images of snakes seeking body warmth slid into my unguarded thoughts. I fought back claustrophobia and distracted my wayward mind by counting the seconds between the rumbling of thunder and the crackling of lightning. The sound of rain, combined with exhaustion, compelled me into a fitful sleep. It didn’t last long.
A loud whooshing noise shocked me awake. I reacted instinctually, shaking Barb while yelling, “Flash flood. We have to get out!” She wrenched Allen from his well earned sleep, pulling him along as she slid out behind me. We scrambled even higher on the rocks to a flat, mesa-like area and listened to the water running below us. It was about three a.m. The rains had moved further south. We had read about flash floods and how they can be generated some distance away from where it’s raining. In retrospect (what a fine thing!) we were not in any immediate danger, but the noise of the rushing water below us generated enough adrenalin in me to fuel a 10k run. Once we realized we were safe, Barb gathered some yucca stalks and coaxed them into a small fire. Allen, still groggy and cold, curled up by me and soon fell back asleep. Barb and I sat shivering, awaiting the sunrise.
Ironically, in the dark, we had stopped exactly where the side trail split off. At sunrise, from our higher vantage point, we could see it clearly. Was it Providence? I’d like to think so.
My heels looked like raw hamburger as we started out at first light. I didn’t know how long I could continue in those boots; each step felt like sandpaper assaulting my blistered, bloody heels. When we had gone some distance, Allen, who was used to going barefoot, offered me his sneakers and walked without shoes the last half mile of sandy trail. The child, I worried about taking care of, was taking care of me.
We were greeted by a ranger as we neared their housing area. It took us three hours to get there.
“Are you folks out for a morning hike?” he asked.
We collectively rolled our eyes and grinned at his natural assumption, then went on to describe our misadventure. He told us that the lost boy had been found the previous evening and the search party, who’d been out for twenty-four hours, had all gone home. They hadn’t even known we were missing!
After some food and rest, we returned to the Visitor Canter. Consulting a better map of the area, we calculated that we’d covered twenty-one miles. I still shake my head over that. We emerged from the experience relatively unscathed, wiser and grateful for the gut feelings that urged us in the right direction each time we needed to make a decision.
Barb and I returned there several years later and hiked the same five mile loop we had intended to take that fateful day. We found the exact spot where we went wrong, where sloping terrain and intense rainfall can wash away the stone cairn. The entire hike took us two and a half hours. We, Barb and I, still hike, still love the national parks and the adventures we find there. Allen, now fifty, well, you know. He’s a city guy.