Falling Into Grace – Introduction

“There has been a deep peace, vast calm and fury, strange comradeships and intimacies, and many times my life and all my possessions have tottered on the far side of the balance, but as yet, from each such encounter I have in the end come away, unharmed, and even toughened.” – Everett Ruess

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A young man leaves his comfortable home and loving family with only the most basic of provisions, and journeys into the wilderness in search of an idea that may exist only in his heart. He remains steadfastly true to himself and his ideals through hardships, adventures and misadventures that still stand tall in the annuls of Western exploration and lore.

Why? Why sacrifice the good and easy life, the most basic comforts of home and the love of family and friendship? For Beauty? If so, what kind of Beauty holds that kind of sway?

Was it for artistic expression, for freedom? Maybe it was a self-imposed exile, knowing he would never fit in to conventional society. What did he see, what did he feel, that so moved him? What drove this young man to explore, joyfully, the cracks and crevices, the bedrock and sand, the light and the sting of a harsh environment, and how did the spectacular landscape of the American southwest influence him, and he the landscape?

And am I asking these questions of Everett Ruess, or of myself???

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Falling Into Grace – April 17, 2011 – Upper Escalante River, Utah

“Once more I am in the desert that I know and love – red sand, twisted cedars, turquoise skies, distant mesas.”Everett Ruess

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My eyes slowly become aware of the increasing light, as the east side of my tent begins to glow. Wow, dawn already? It feels like I just laid down…But the bladder is full, and dawn is my favorite time of day, might as well get up and enjoy it.

But the surprise is on me when I unzip the tent fly – that’s not the sun lighting up my tent and the canyon walls; no, it’s the full yellow moon, beaming down from a crystal clear sky, brighter than certain parts of the day. In fact it is only 10:30 p.m., and I did only lie down two hours ago, before the moon rose. I’m still on Eastern Time, and exhausted, which is why I retired so early, but now that I’m up I can’t help but enjoy the magical moonlight. The world is completely different – the canyons are bathed in a diffuse, soothing, even warm, glow, and the cottonwoods have morphed from green to silver, the river from sandy brown to a sparkling, muted gold. There is no breeze, and the only sound is the gurgling of the river 50 yards away.

For the first time I feel some quiet peace. It was a struggle to get to this point, to this campsite, nestled along the banks of the wild and remote Escalante River in southern Utah, above the cottonwoods at its confluence with Death Hollow. It’s a long way and another world from Pittsburgh, and I’ve been overburdened with the logistics of the ambitious trip I’ve planned. Almost everything has gone smoothly up to this point, including getting all the necessary supplies, a cheap upgrade to a 4WD SUV, picking up a Wal-Mart bike en route, hiding the Wal-Mart bike for a shuttle at my projected hike endpoint, and hiking in seven miles with a full pack. The only fly in the ointment was hitting a deer along Utah Highway 12 this morning just outside of Torrey. The damage was not trip threatening, I lost the front driver side quarter panel, but all the lights still work and the airbag didn’t deploy, and the deer even limped away from the scene.

The deer was the first sign that I need to slow down, this full moon is the second; it’s time to start listening when the universe wants me to hear. I understand now, in stillness, why I rush, why I don’t always make the time to listen – fear. In this case, fear of being alone in the wilderness drove me to fly down the upper Escalante, to get camp set up before dark. Fear drove me to camp here on this high sandy knoll, not down in the perfect camping site under the cottonwoods, next to the river – thunderstorms are in the forecast tomorrow, and I don’t want to worry about flash floods (okay, this is probably a good fear, especially when solo.) Fear is probably what woke me after only two hours of sleep – fear of the more ambitious adventure still to come further down the river. I’ve got to get these concerns hemmed in if I’m to enjoy this trip, and not just rush through it. But I wonder what I missed in my haste…

I think about why I’m here; the reasons are many and varied. I’ve been reading some of the great western writers – my hero Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Craig Childs, and especially Everett Ruess, and I’m fascinated by the pull of this landscape on these folks, especially the seemingly sane but ultra sensitive young man who never intended to be a writer.

What is it that drew him here, to this “harsh,” remote land, again and again? What is in the water and sand and rocks and that big  western sky that brings forth such a pure passion that it spouts forth in poetry and art? Even measured against other poets and artist, ER surely perceived and appreciated more beauty than most:

“I have seen almost more beauty than I can bearER wrote in his stirringly passionate and descriptive letters to family and friends. Everett traveled the mountains and forests and coast of California, but it was the red rock canyon country, the desert southwest, that most inspired the young man. “The most important thing to me is still the nearly unbearable beauty of what I see. Beauty has always been my god; it has meant more than people to me. And how my god, or goddess, is flouted in this country.

After four years of wilderness travel, the landscape seemed to seep into and shape the young man; “The beauty of this country is becoming a part of me. Alone on the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before. I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the red sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world. I have really lived.”

So I too, must see, I too, must experience, firsthand, this place; if I can, if it still exists, if it ever existed. Perhaps it’s too late, perhaps it’s been tamed, like most of the great rivers and forests of the West; perhaps it’s been penned in between barbed wire fences and political boundaries, given over to four-legged bulldozers and capitalists, roped off and restricted behind no trespassing signs, enforced under the full penalty of law. Perhaps it was lost irrevocably when the concrete and asphalt ribbons opened it up to “progress”, that dirtiest of words. ER would surely cringe knowing that Monument Valley is now dissected by an asphalt highway.

But surely remnants still remain, hidden from the developers’ blade and the cattle rustlers’ profits – the West is still a BIG place. Surely it is still possible to find adventure, beauty and peace in this iconic landscape. I start by soaking up the shafts of moonlight on my bed tonight…

There is, however, one thing that I do know for certain in my heart – I know I must see, feel, and touch whatever it is I am looking for – alone. Solo. One on one, mano y mano. I have a suspicion that the impressions of this landscape, the beauty of these mesas and buttes, the thrill of the vivid desert colors, are much deeper, more heartfelt, more important, when alone.

But alas, the umbilical cord connecting me to twenty plus years as a paid analyst is hard to cut – my quantitative brain shouts down my heart “That is just a hypothesis! It needs to be tested!” For all I have are some artsy words on paper, and a mystery from 75 years ago – I need some proof of my own…

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Falling Into Grace – April 18, 2011 – Upper Escalante River, Utah

When on of us says, ‘Look, there’s nothing out there,’ what we are really saying is, I cannot see.” – Terry Tempest Williams

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Up with the sun (the real sun this time, not a lunar impostor!) and good camp breakfast of oatmeal and granola bars, coffee and a fruit smoothie, then it’s toes in the river again, today by 9 a.m. I’m finally starting to get comfortable with hiking in the water itself, not on a trail. It helps that I’ve brought real canyoneering shoes, not my hiking boots, whose thick leather drains poorly and dries even slower. These 5-10s, with high ankle supports, are proving just as sturdy as my old reliable Vasques, but are dried and ready for more this morning when I slip them on. Plus the special soles hold like glue to the slick underwater rocks.

It takes a while, but after an hour of sloughing through the cold Death Hollow current, I finally start to let go; my re-entry into wilderness consciousness begins. It helps being without a heavy pack today, too – is this what a prisoner feels after realizing she is free??? Forget about lists and itineraries; just pay attention to where you are now and what is going on right now.

And now I really do start to see things – snakes and albino frogs, lizards and birds; I even find an American Dipper nest, tucked into a crack in the sandstone about four feet above the creek, complete with yellow outlined gaping mouths begging to be filled with aquatic insects. Ahh, the American Dipper, epitome of every good, clean western river, the nest that John Muir never found through decades of searching – and here I am stumbling upon one in all its glory just as I am emerging from the fog of civilization!

I explore any little side canyon that catches my fancy – there is no destination today. Most of my sidetracks dead-end, but I find a great lunch spot at the top of a mustard yellow abandoned meander, the pinnacle surrounded on three sides by a dry wash. Desert varnish colors dark every overhanging dry streambed, the color of my salami and cheese tortilla lunch that taste so much better than when at a dinner table.

How much did I miss yesterday as I barreled through the first part of my trek? I didn’t hear the singing river or the chirping birds, I didn’t feel the cottonwoods swaying with the wind, nor did I notice the sweet smell of sage, the scent of the high desert, the smell that most brings me back to the fond memories of these arid lands.

Now in the present, I notice and enjoy the silence. I haven’t spoken in over 24 hours, since the brief conversation with the family exiting the Escalante as I entered. I consciously make as little noise as possible, like being in church; it just seems the right thing to do. Let the wind and the river speak, the animals, and even the plants and rocks – we humans speak enough already. I apologize for the interrupting jet airplane, disturbing the peace from 30,000 feet, with its single monotonous note and its cloudlike tendrils; it is an interloper on the pure here, and it can neither carry the crescendo of the wind, not inspire the imagination of the clouds…

I get the sense from re-reading Everett’s letters that people in Everett’s time (read, before the rise of TVs, computers, and 4G networks) had much better imaginations than “modern” man; indeed, our lack of imagination was identified as one of the root causes of the terrorist attacks by the 9/11 Commission. Today we demand a You Tube video, a color PowerPoint presentation, or at the least, a commentator from a 24-hour “news” channel to tell us what we are seeing, what we should be feeling, and how we should react; no wonder we’re so easily led by false prophets and self-serving politicians.

While these technologies have many advantages, including reaching much wider audiences in dramatically reduced time, almost instantaneously, they have also had the negative consequence of reducing our capacity to take a few words and mull them over in our own minds, to try to project what we would feel in that situation, what we would do given these circumstances – we have lost a large degree of our creative empathy. Everett writes blandly, matter-of-factly, of enduring a desert thunderstorm or a severe bout of poison ivy, relying on his reader to understand what that means; there is no need to expound further on the topic; I’m not sure today’s reader can grasp the sting of the sand in the fierce wind before the storm, the earsplitting thunder coursing through the canyons, the blue static electricity of lightning setting the sky ablaze, or the sweet smell of life renewed after rain in the desert.

My own diminished sense of imagination requires that I, too, must experience a desert thunderstorm before I can truly understand, and it’s another reason why I am standing in the desert now, not reading Everett’s words from the comfort of an easy chair. But be careful what you wish for…

At camp this evening I cool my feet in the fine sand, enjoying wine and the writings of Ruess with dinner (from my camp thermarest easy chair, ironically!), watching the evening alpenglow on the high sandstone cliffs across the river. What a great day, what a great way to decompress!!! I really needed a day like this; the stress I’ve been under lately has been relentless, but the glory of unaltered nature has worn through the tough veneer of humanity, slowly, inevitably, like the rivers that carve this sandstone. The wilderness calls to me, and I finally begin to heed its call.

Ruess heard the call also, but his response wasn’t limited to vacation days and long weekends.

“God, how the wild calls to me. There can be no other life for me but that of the lone wilderness wanderer, it has an irresistible fascination. The lone trail is best for me.”

Everett Ruess was born in California in 1914, the son of an artist mom and minister father.  Through them he developed an interest and skill in wood-block carving, painting, sketching and writing. During the summer break of his sixteenth year, he set out on his first solo journey away from home, a three-month long hitchhiking, backpacking and camping loop, starting in Los Angeles, up the coast to Monterey, then east to Yosemite and the Sierra, and finally south to Mono Lake and back home.

After graduating from high school he headed out again, this time towards the canyons and mesas of the Four Corners region. For eleven months Everett traveled, usually by foot, pedaling his art (a tough sell at the height of the Great Depression) and picking up odd jobs as necessary. With a family of burros (though never more than two at a time) and occasionally a dog for company (but never another human), Everett explored the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, southern Utah, Zion National Park, the ruins at Betatakin, Keet Seel and Canyon de Chelly, and all places in between.

Returning home, Everett enrolled for a semester at UCLA, probably at the urging of his father, but lasted only one semester before giving in to the call of the rover. Young Ruess loved the freedom he had while traveling and delighted in the country he saw. The lure of wild places was intense and the joy he found there is reflected in his writings and artwork. Trips to Yosemite and the Sierra followed, to the redwoods of northern California, and the Pacific Coast, and included an extended stay in San Francisco, where he hobnobbed with artist Maynard Dixon and photographers Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams.

In April 1934 Everett’s older brother Waldo dropped him off in Keyenta, Arizona. For several months he wandered Arizona, spending quality time with the Navajo Indians before continuing on to Navajo Mountain, where he packed into Rainbow Bridge and then back to Arizona to participate in a Hopi dance ceremony. Everett traveled next to the Grand and then to Bryce Canyon, where he spent a couple of days before crossing over the Escalante Mountains to Escalante, Utah.

Sometime in early November 1934, the unassuming young man rode into the small Mormon town of Escalante on a burro, his legs nearly touching the ground, leading another burro laden with his gear. He spent the next several weeks camping near the town on the Escalante River, mixing with the locals and exploring the nearby canyons. Apparently he planned to spend the winter in the lower canyons of the Escalante, and on November 11, 1934, he set out along the Hole-in-the-Rock road, heading east. It was the last anyone would ever see of him…

After not hearing from him for three months, his parents alerted the residents of Escalante, and a search was initiated in March of 1935. Several canyons were checked before Everett’s burros were located near the foot of the cattle trail leading out of Davis Gulch. Since his camp gear, food and painting supplies were not with the burros, the searchers speculated that Everett left them and struck out on foot to explore the surrounding country. Bootprints matching Everett’s size were found throughout Davis Gulch, at the top of Hole-in-the-Rock road, and near the Kaiparowitz Plateau. The search continued for several months before being called off.

Although the main search ended, various individuals kept looking for Everett for many years. Tantalizing bits of evidence continue to surface from time to time, but none of the evidence has proved trustworthy. A human femur bone was discovered near Twilight Canyon by a boating party led by river runner Norm Nevills, who speculated that Everett’s body may have washed down from the Kaiparowitz Plateau. Another river runner, Harry Aleson, found an old Mackinaw jacket with potsherds in the pockets in a cave near the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon that he believed could have been Everett’s. In 1957, archaeologists found camping equipment in Reflection Canyon, a couple of miles south of the Escalante River; but the gear could not be positively identified as Everett’s. And in the mid-1970s, a California climber reportedly found a human skeleton with a broken hip and collarbone wedged high up in a crack near the rim of Davis Gulch. He collected some of the bones, put them in a sack, and gave them to a ranger at Lake Powell; but the bone mysteriously disappeared. Most recently, in 2009, a body discovered on Combs Ridge was claimed to be Everett’s, complete with the story of an Indian overcome with guilt who confessed to know who murdered Everett, but forensic testing concluded that the body was not that of Everett’s.

Reports from people claiming to have seen Everett alive came from Moab and Mexico, but all sightings led nowhere. It seems unlikely that the final disposition of Everett Ruess will ever be determined. Shortly before his disappearance, Everett wrote that “when I go, I leave no trace.” These words, written at an encampment near Navajo Mountain, proved prophetic and puzzling; for more than his artwork or writing, Everett’s mysterious departure has ensured his status in history, legend and myth…

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Falling Into Grace – April 19, 2011 – Upper Escalante Canyon

“Once more I am roaring drunk with the lust of life and adventure and unbearable beauty. I have the devil’s own conception of a perfect time; adventure seems to beset me on all quarters without my even searching for it.”Everett Ruess

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Up early today, pack up my tent, still wet from last night’s rains, and on the trail by 8:45. I’m trying to make good time, I’ve got a big day ahead, but the going is rough. There are many tricky river crossings, some of them midthigh (I’m glad I’ve got my hiking poles), and on land I often lose the trail in the dense willow and cottonwood thickets. Many times I’m literally crawling on hands and knees (not fun with a full, unwieldy pack!) What was that quote from Abbey about not seeing anything in the desert until you’ve drawn blood crawling through it? “You’ve got to…walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.”

Well, I’m there Ed…and I do encounter some stunning beauty. The five miles of the Escalante directly north of Highway 12 contain a natural arch, a natural bridge, a fantastic Anasazi ruin viewable from the trail, and the beautiful emerald necklace of cottonwoods that follow every twist and turn of the river. The sunlight filters through Escalante Natural Arch at the perfect angle, sunbeams lighting the emerging cottonwood leaves in electric green. I wish I would have camped in the spacious wide valley just west of Sand Creek, the valley dominated by the red, desert varnished stained vertical cliffs to the north and the arch and ruins to the south. Pictures will have to suffice until the next visit, as this valley is on par with the Hop Valley in Zion National Park.

Despite the distracting scenery and the tedious fight through the tangles, I still average 2 miles per hour and get to my bike hidden at the Escalante River Highway 12 trailhead by 1 pm. A very quick trail lunch of powerbars and almonds, and then its time to mount the bike for the 15 mile ride back to the car. I know I’ve got a big uphill the first five miles, so I’m anxious to get moving. I flash a smug smile at the tourists and day hikers gawking at the guy pedaling onto the highway with a loaded 50-pound pack.

But the joke is on me – you CANNOT pedal up a 10% grade (probably not even a 3% grade) with a fully-loaded pack! Holy shit, my lungs feel like they’re going to burst as it takes everything I’ve got to get up to the Kiva Coffeehouse, a quarter mile from the trailhead. I’m panting so hard a wide-eyed minivan full of Europeans offer me a bottle of water, which I gladly accept – I don’t think I’ll have enough water if this is the effort required to get to the top of the fold five miles away. On the steepest sections I have to stop and push, still panting hard, but thankful to be off the bike, where the pack just crushes my ass to the seat.

My god, I’ll never make it 15 miles. Well maybe if I can just get these first five in, it will be all downhill, and the pack will push me right down to the trailhead in a big head of steam. I concentrate on just the next bend in the road; surely it will get easier then…

But it doesn’t. Each bend is crushingly more depressing as I realize how far I have to go. As I round one bend, I can see Highway 12 winding up out of the canyons and over the ridge high and far away, and it seems like its getting further away the harder I pedal. My heart is racing, adrenaline is pumping and my breath is coming in short, deep gasps, when I realize I’ve got to stop. There is no way me and the bike and this pack are getting to the top of this hill together. I look for a landmark…

At milepost 72, only three miles from where I started (the hardest three miles I have ever pedaled) I drop my pack under a stately desert juniper, which does a fine job of concealing it. I take only my bike tools and spare inner tube, water, and a powerbar, and the return to the bike sans pack is a joyous reunion, the way biking should be, free and easy. What was I thinking, pedaling 15 miles with a full pack? I’ll get to the trailhead without the pack, and then return with the car to pick it up. But my mind has already raced ahead to start questioning all of the other assumptions I’ve made on this trip. Yikes, did I plan too aggressively?

As with all mountain passes, it’s not an easy climb even without the baggage, but I make good time and enjoy the ride to the top. Ahh, it’s all downhill from here now! Wrong again!!! I had read and been warned about the notorious spring winds in the Escalante region, but I didn’t know that they were always headwinds. Honest to god, while descending the 10 miles from the pass to the car, I was pedaling as hard as I could in second gear on my smallest front chain ring, battling the insistent winds that had to be a constant 30 or 40 mph. It was just as much effort to pedal downhill as it was uphill, unbelievable! Man did I underestimate the energy I’d need for a simple bike ride!

Through sheer determination I make the trailhead turnoff, and 15 minutes later, the car, such a welcome sight. I won’t make the Escalante Post Office today, to pick up my rafting gear mailed out the week before (the paddles don’t fit in my duffle, and the weight was way over 50 pounds anyway), but Ryan at the PO confirms my package arrived just this morning – woo who! And it feels good to let my big iron horse do all the work as I retrace my pedal strokes back to milepost 72 to retrieve my gawd-awful heavy pack.

There’s a stop at the scenic overview looking down at Highway 12 climbing out of the Escalante River drainage. Boy does it seem a lot bigger and more foreboding now that I’ve climbed that sucker under my own power. I snap a few pictures, my perspective of what is laid out before me now dramatically changed – because I experienced it, firsthand.

I also call ahead to Escalante Outfitters, where I am scheduled to occupy a tent spot in their campground tonight – after this day, I need a bed, so I upgrade to a one room cabin. There is no running water in the cabins, but the hot shower in the bunkhouse gets rid of all the sand in my ears and the firm mattress soothes shoulders sore from two nights on the ground. I’m sure I’ll sleep well tonight, especially after a few beers and a pizza in town.

But I don’t; I toss and turn, despite the comfort of a mattress, waking up a number of times to make lists and check equipment, to make sure I don’t make any more mistakes or forget a vital piece of equipment on the next leg of my journey. Mostly, I’m afraid again, afraid I may have bit off more than I can chew on this next section, especially if this first, “easy” leg is any indication…

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Falling Into Grace – April 20, 2011 – Town of Escalante, Utah

“An element of loneliness is necessary in wildness.” – Randy Morganson, longtime Sierra backcountry ranger, subject of “The Last Season”

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Logistics (lodge-iss-tics) – the planning of a trip’s intimate, inner workings; the details that never make the headlines, but make the headlines possible; the most overlooked and unappreciated aspect of adventure travel. Logistics is what you are really paying for when you hire a guide – someone to do the planning, from the romantic (planning a scenic route with lots of highlights) to the mundane (figuring out how much oatmeal and toilet paper you’ll need for 8 days in the outback.) I want to do this trip truly solo, I want to consider every detail, just like Ruess must have had to do before he set out into the desert.

Ironically, he never wrote about the boring mundane of planning; who knows, maybe he didn’t plan, maybe he just winged it (and maybe that’s why he never came back one day.) But I cannot do that, there is just too much risk to simply set out into the wilderness solo without a solid plan; so logistics takes on a paramount importance for me, and here it gets its’ very meager due.

My planning has been meticulous; every detail, from finding the Wal-Mart closest to Interstate 15 to pick the bike up at (so as to waste as little time as possible in the true wasteland of America, the Wal-Mart parking lot) to detailing out every day’s backcountry meals, mileages, and routes in a 11×17 spreadsheet. This and all of my reservations, travel needs and maps are bound in a plastic covered booklet, organized in chronological order based on when they will be needed. I know exactly where to go in every town to get exactly what I need, no more, no less, in the minimum amount of time. This will maximize my time in the backcountry.

Last nights’ was a fitful sleep, awake as much as resting, leaving myself more notes on logistics to take care of in the morning – sleep deprivation is an inherent cost of solo planning. I arise at 7 a.m., pack quickly, get my permits and leave a typed-out, super detailed itinerary with the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center personnel. Then it’s off to the Post Office to pick up my paddles and other oversized rafting equipment, next to the grocery store for perishables, Subway for breakfast (eat in) and lunch (take out), the gas station for a fill up, and finally, at 10:30 a.m., the wheels of my front quarter-panel missing Jeep Liberty leave the pavement at the beginning of the Hole in the Rock road.

My mind is racing with more details, too many details, things I don’t want to forget, to really appreciate the spectacular scenery of the high desert plateau, known to the Indians as Kaiparowitz; the Straight Cliffs line my entire view to the right, while the Henry Mountain glimmer in the distance on my left, and the cracks in the plateau beckon untold adventures. Instead I’m focused on keeping the car out of the ruts while following Steve Allen’s excellent guidebook, with its detailed beta on the Hole in the Rock road. It’s only when shifting down into 4WD low while scaling a grade that fills the entire windshield with only blue sky that I appreciate the good break I had at Enterprise Rent a Car when I got an upgrade for only $3/day extra – ain’t no way a 2WD sedan would have made it to Egypt. That was the first of many breaks, all of which seemed to go my way this trip. Someone’s looking out for me on this trip, as I’ll soon realize and appreciate more when I make the time to notice…

I arrive at the windy Egypt trailhead parking area slightly before noon, again not truly appreciating the stunning view as I pack up all my rafting gear, extra water, and enough whiskey for two expeditions. It’s only 3-1/2 miles to the bottom, but the first section is very steep; my 5-10 Canyoneers are immediately put to the test as hiking boots, and they respond in fantastic comfort. I lose the trail often, distracted by the scenery, but I’m out to make time today, and I’m at the bottom of Fence Canyon by 3. I hide my rafting gear in a cleft along a sagebrush flat, covering the opening with tumbleweeds and sticks, and then quickly retrace my steps back out of the canyon.

Freed of my burden (offset by now hiking all uphill, though), I’m able to enjoy the canyon country more; I stop for pictures of the desert lupine, the patterns of wind in the sand, a dust devil spinning on a far off plateau, a majestic Golden Eagle riding the thermals. Sand and sage fill my nostrils, as the green cottonwoods of Fence Canyon recede further into the cracks in the desert and the sky becomes bigger.

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I crest the canyon lip back at the Egypt trailhead at 5 p.m., greeted by a gusty wind that tries to send my sombrero back into the canyons. The horizon stretches endlessly, a seamless transition between rock and sky as numerous thunderstorms darken the skies near the Straight Cliffs and far off to the snow-capped Henry Mountains; but for now it is dry here at Egypt. I’d love to set up my tent to prepare for the rain, but I’m waiting for the winds to die down, and besides I’ve got a lot of gear and food sorting to do, a task that is interrupted and made harder by an idle backpacker who is waiting for a ride and decides to talk to me for a half hour. I feel bad being rude to him after 15 minutes, and in different circumstances I would love to talk to him, but trying to decide whether to bring polypro long johns or just wind pants or figuring out how many heavy powerbars I really need for the next 8 days isn’t easy when someone is yapping insistently. He’s worse than a wife! I’m relieved when his wife finally shows up, and finish packing in peace.

An hour later and the wind certainly hasn’t died down; in fact, it’s picking up. I scout for a location on the plateau sheltered from the wind, but it doesn’t exist, so I find a place where it doesn’t blow quite as hard – this will have to do for tonight. Finally the tent is fully staked out in the howling winds, everything is packed and planned, my logistics nightmare is winding down, and I’m satisfied I’ve done all I can do tonight – it’s time to just do this tomorrow. Finally I can let go a little bit…

Bummer, it’s too late for the leisurely end to a long day that I wanted, but I catch the last of the sunset from my spectacular perch; I do get some good views while downing a couple Polygamy Porters (“Why have just one?” I agree!) as the last rays of a very busy day rapidly recede.  A little bit of peace and quiet and some time to reflect, too, enough to wish I had someone here to share this view and beer with…

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Everett never complained about the hundreds of miles he traveled through some of the harshest terrain, he didn’t bitch about the scorching midday desert heat, nor of violent cloudbursts and hail pelting him without shelter. He “suffered philosophically” through his annual bouts with poison ivy that left him incapacitated for days, and through days without food or water; he endured the cold desert nights, the sore feet and saddle sores, and food poisoning, and drank dirty, tepid water; he abided, even reveled in these hardships in his quest for Beauty, never once complaining.  “Whatever I have suffered in the months past has been nothing compared to the beauty in which I have steeped my soul. It has been a priceless experience.”

No, Everett complained about only two things – the lack of good music, and his longing for acceptable companionship.

“I have an endless hunger for good music”, Everett quipped to his brother in 1932. Poor Everett was simply born too early to quench the first thirst – the Walkman and especially the iPod would surely have been in his pack, loaded with the symphonies he loved so much while in civilization. Hmm, to what degree would the purist Everett have been seduced by our modern technology, I wonder???

But there is one thing that technology will never replace, I am sure – the human touch. Friendship, camaraderie, a stirring conversation, or just a warm body to lean against while silently watching the sun set on an endless desert vista; Everett craved to share what he saw, what he felt, what so inspired him.

“It’s the feeling of comradeship and sharing that I miss the most out here”  he confessed to a friend in 1935. “A friend is indeed a wonderful treasure. A true companion halves the misery and doubles the joy.”

Sounds easy enough, just post a flyer at the nearest trading post, “looking for a hiking pardner.” But just as in his relentless pursuit of beauty, Everett set the bar high for companionship, too – he didn’t want just any company, simply for company’s sake; he longed for intelligent companionship, someone to whom he could really talk, from his soul, someone who might empathize with Everett’s heartfelt beauty and appreciation of what only he felt. “True, I have had many experiences with people, and some very close ones, but there was too much that could not be spoken. My friends have been few because I’m a freakish person and few share my interests. My solitary tramps have been made alone because I couldn’t find anyone congenial – you know it’s better to go alone that with a person one wearies of soon. I’ve done things alone chiefly because I never found people who cared about the things I’ve cared for enough to suffer the attendant hardships.

Everett’s lack of acceptable companionship haunted him. “Often I am tortured to think that what I so deeply feel must always remain, for the most, unshared, uncommunicated. Such is my cry, such is my plaint, and I know there is no reply. Mine seems a task essentially futile. Try as I may, I have never yet succeeded in conveying more than glimpse of my visions. I am condemned to the need of putting this fire outside myself and spreading it somewhere, somehow, and I am torn by the knowledge that what I have felt cannot be given to another.

Lonely on my spectacular perch, the cold wind stinging my face, muscles aching, I understand a bit of Ruess’ plaint tonight. Trying to find a few friends who can wrangle a two week vacation at the same time in this day and age is limited to only very wealthy friends or the voluntarily poor – my friends are working men, and the working man must work, not wander. So my friends remain chained to their desks, not freed on this cliff with me.

Also, at my age, in my mid-forties, it is getting harder to find contemporaries who can keep up with me. I work hard to offset my sedentary desk jockey career, and I recognize how lucky I am to enjoy good health. But I also recognize that I am certainly not exempt from the inevitable march of time, so I’d better take advantage of these gifts rights now, solo if necessary, before they erode. I can understand too ERs struggles with companionship. I struggle with my own inability to share my (very limited) wilderness experiences. My times in the wide opens spaces, under the big sky, breathing deeply of fresh mountain air or desert sage and pinyon, these are the most vivid of my existence! True, most of my existence is locked up in a beige cell, which maybe makes being outdoors that much more exhilarating. But even aided by digital photography and video, which Everett didn’t enjoy, I still can’t convey it properly, respectfully, to someone who wasn’t there with me. Imagine how frustrated someone as sensitive as ER must have felt, to have a heart nearly bursting with joy and beauty and laughter, the kind of high that inspires – no forces, it can’t be contained! – one to sing out loud in celebration, because this kind of joy just cannot be kept inside, it cannot be caged! Everett’s singing and laughter surely filled many a canyon, but highs only last so long – sooner or later the music and laughter slowly fade, like an echo down a solitary canyon, until all that is left is the inevitable silence, a stark, heart deflating reminder of how alone he truly is…

I don’t feel too bad for Everett, though, for can any of us truly share our experiences, our feelings, with another? ER recognized this, too, for “no two can completely understand one another, or if they do, it kills their love, which is in reality only a projected form of self love.”

And ER admitted that he didn’t always long for company; “It is true that I can be happy alone and many times I’ve felt relieved to be in solitude. I look forward to my trip tomorrow because it will take me back into the solitude again.”

I’ll add that I’ve done enough solo adventure travel now to know unequivocally that it is still much better to go alone than to not go at all, as ER certainly agrees.  “I have found it easier and more adventurous to face situations alone. There is a splendid freedom in solitude, and after all, it is for solitude that I go the mountains and deserts, not for companionship. In solitude I can bare my soul to the mountains unabashed.”

I wonder if ER would have found my company interesting tonight, or would I have been too Type A, too focused on my lists and gear and my upcoming adventure, too busy to really listen; after all, didn’t I just send away some possible good company with my cold shoulder?

I zip my down jacket up tight around my neck as the sun sinks below the Straight Cliffs; the cold finally forces me to my tent, which the wind still trying to send into the abyss. But the guy lines are taunt, and there is a quiet sense of accomplishment for company tonight, and that’s really all I need. I’m still on track, everything is going as planned, and I enjoyed my own company tonight…

But it is a miserable night for sleeping – the winds howl all night, each time filling the tent with more sand. I bury my face in my bag to keep my mouth and nose and ears from filling with sand with each gust. A few thunderstorms move through, too, raining hard for a half hour at a time and waking me each time – I bet I get three hours of sleep, tops…

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Falling Into Grace – April 21, 2011 – Egypt trailhead

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Up before dawn, begin packing my wet, sand filled tent and sleeping bag – wow, there must be five pounds of the grainy red stuff in there. Big day today, too, no time to wait for the tent to dry out, pack it and stash it along with all my other gear under a big juniper not far from the trailhead. Now it’s just me and my biking gear, eating breakfast and dropping bottles of water along my route from Egypt to the Redwell trailhead. I want to avoid the worst of the headwinds, which really seem to pick up in the afternoon, so there is a sense of urgency in my step this morning, and the Jeep leaves a big rooster tail behind me down the dirt roads.

It takes an hour and a half to drive to Redwell, but I’m on the Wal-Mart Granite Peak Roadmaster 2000 ($80 for 40 pounds of pig iron) by 9:15 a.m. It feels more natural to be pedaling, the wind in my hair, the sage in my nose, the silence of the wide open plateau, versus the noisy mechanical steel horse that got me here. Ahh, progress towards freedom!!!

But progress is slow, painfully slow, sometimes walking where the wind fills the depressions in the road with loose sand that buries my rims. The washboard road grates my arse, my knees begin to scream from not getting full bottom extension on the too small bike, despite the seat being raised well above the safety line, and I bottom out the front toy shock with a dull thud too many times to count. I pedal on despite the discomforts, wondering if this is how ER felt traveling by mule, which couldn’t have been comfortable.

My progress is measured by the water bottle stops. Rather than carry all the water needed on my back, I’ve stashed empty juice bottles every 7 or 8 miles. It’s great to get to a water stop and wash the sand down my throat with the cool water, and gives me manageable milestones to look forward to. At the Egypt road turnoff I enjoy a banana in addition to water, the boost needed for the last 10 miles, which are the roughest and hardest.

I do avoid the worst of the headwinds, though, which seem to peak in the late afternoon, and arrive back at the Egypt trailhead at 12:30, just a little over 3 hours to complete the 26 mile bike ride. It was actually a fun ride, the scenery a great companion, but my butt is ready to get off the bike. So the bike is chained to the same juniper that hid my pack, and I take a quick lunch break and morph from biker to backpacker.

Wow, the pack is extremely heavy, loaded with 8 days of food and all my backpacking gear; not sure I could have managed all the rafting gear on top of this, too, I’m glad I ran it down canyon yesterday. I know the way down without a map today, so I shoulder my load at 1:30, and make it to camp at the confluence of Fence Canyon and the Escalante River by 3 pm, keeping with my philosophy of getting heavy loads off my back as quickly as possible. Wow, I rock, covering thirty miles today, by bike and backpack, in less than 6 hours!

It’s now time to slow down…I rinse in the river, exfoliating as much sand from me as I can. Camp tonight under the cottonwoods is awesome; I find a great spot against a big yellow sandstone wall, tucked away from the trail and out of the wind. I wrap my pfd around a tree, lean back and enjoy the hummingbirds and swifts and phoebe’s, the sunset on the canyon walls, a Packit Gourmets’ Big Easy Gumbo dinner (complete with hot sauce, a lucky bay leaf, and okra – okra! – fantastic!), and a warm whiskey glow while I do absolutely nothing until nightfall…

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Falling Into Grace – April 22, 2011 – Fence Canyon confluence with the Escalante River

“Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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There is something spine tingling exciting about a challenge. Taking on something new, something unfamiliar, something that scares you – your mind must be sharp, your senses must be alert, your homework had better be done thorough. Ratchet that up a notch if you’re solo – there’s no one to bail me out from here on out, buddy, hope you’re ready! And so the chills run deep and the sky seems bluer, the whole scene next to the Escalante River this morning is in high-definition focus, far from the murky autopilot of everyday routine.

It begs additional honesty to the question – why do this solo? The biggest reason I’m out here alone is because I just need to get away from a few things – I just want a little release from the pressure cooker of the last eight months. My company has been acquired by an unwanted suitor, and surely job eliminations and relocations are part of the touted “synergies,” and I left for Utah just as the selection process was getting hot and heavy. A good time to not be there fighting for my job? I don’t know, and frankly, after 24 years in a corporate interment camp, maybe this will be the kick in the ass I need to free myself. I’ll leave that to fate this time, I just don’t want to be asked even one more time “so what’s going on with your job?” Aghhh!

Ahhh Everett, if only it were that easy to pack up a mule and wander out into the desert to do some painting on a whim! Drop out of school, ramble up the coast, spend some time in the mountains, rove the red desert, and write home to mom and pop when you need money or supplies. You had it made, buddy!

But that is not fair, either – Ruess made his way wandering during the Great Depression, probably not a worse time to try to make it as an artist, and his poverty and constant “undercurrent of starvation”, while of his own choosing, were real burdens that cannot be understated; at least I eat well every night. ER must be commended for not using the economic hard times – nor a basic lack of food and water – as a crutch.

Me, I have “responsibilities” – gawd I hate that word – most of which I consciously chose, most of which I would choose again if given the chance. A wife and two great kids to support, a house to maintain, mine the only job in the family. An excuse? Maybe, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find that answer in the desert, too.

There is one other issue I want to put aside also, at least for a while, if I can. My wife is courageously battling a terrible disease; she is going through hell, and we are both struggling with issues that rock the very core of our existence. On the practical side, the price of modern medicines’ miracles is health insurance, and in this backwards country, where we only value things that produce revenue (production over poetry; “The gross national product measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile” says Robert Kennedy) – health coverage is still a privilege, and its steep price is freedom. So I will continue to work in my beige holding pen in indentured corporate servitude for as long as I must…

To her credit, my wife actually encouraged this trek. I know I am not the one suffering, which makes her encouragement even more profound, but since September 24, 2010, when round II started, it has weighed heavily on me, more so than the first round. The last six months have seen the lowest of the lows, a long period of fear and depression, struggling through the shock, anger, suffering, and lately, just trying to deal with this thing head on. It takes a heavy toll on your spirit – I need a break from thinking about chemo and radiation and living wills and a murky future; my battery light is flashing its low warning, and is in need of a big recharge. I need to spend some time in the right now, to see the present in glorious color. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, no one will ask how things are going at home, with that pitied look on their faces and a worried, furrowed brow…

But while it might be easy to get away from others, it is very hard to get away from your mind, from the worries that haunt you at night – unless you are distracted by something big, something unfamiliar, something risky, something that forces you to confront it and only it.

Hence I’ve planned a challenging solo journey to the most remote desert in the US, to test my outdoor skills, to learn some new ones, and to put aside, at least for the present, the worries of cancer and career…

So today I am 100% focused on a new challenge – packrafting. My Sierra green layer of rubber laminate emerges from the organized pile of camping and rafting equipment, and I fill it up by squeezing a giant garbage bag of air into the valve. Yes, it works, you’ll just have to take me word for it, or watch the videos on You Tube. What an ingenious solution to carrying a heavy pump into the wilderness!

It takes me a couple of hours to pack, repack, and adjust all this new equipment, plus I’m a little cautious since it’s the first time I’ve done this. But all my camping gear, a weeks’ worth of food, and all that whiskey actually does fit into my drybags, and is soon strapped to the front of my packraft. Tighten the pfd, put on the helmet and grab the paddle, it’s time to shove off!

The upper portion of the Escalante River isn’t much wider than what we call a “crick” back home, very shallow in places. I’m doing my best to avoid scrapping bottom in the shallows while learning how to control my craft. As in anything new, it’s a process of trial and error, but more or less controlling a packraft is intuitive – I’m having fun!

There’s a mandatory stop at Neon Canyon, only a mile from Fence Canyon. I proudly dock my packraft at the canyon mouth and walk up canyon about 20 minutes, enjoying the narrow red slot streaked with dark desert varnish that contrasts so vividly with the green leaves of the cottonwoods. Progress further up the canyon, without rope at least, is stopped at the Golden Cathedral, a fantastic water filled alcove where the hanging garden pour-off has eroded holes through the roof. The light, the water, the shapes, the impossibility that these shapes and textures and reflections have come together randomly – it’s too easy to see a god of beautiful creation and mercy here. Wonder and awe…

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Back on the water, each tributary adds a little more water to the Escalante, and the challenges begin to mount with the rising din of the growing rapids. I’m still most worried about wearing a hole through the bottom of my raft, but I’m also having to learn how to navigate rougher water. I’ve never had a desire to become a river rat, ever since a few bad trips on the Class III Youghiogheny River back home, but the packraft’s promise of getting me out into the deep wilderness has too much pull. Paddle, paddle!

And my little craft does great, dealing with my neophyte-ness and ignorance gracefully, teaching me as I go, providing thrills and freedom, exactly what I wanted. There is only one portage, where a bleached white cottonwood hull spans the river, not allowing passage. That’s okay, it gives me the opportunity to figure out how to best negotiate a portage, and also to make sure my thermarest is securely in the bottom of the boat. I pull into Moody Canyon at 5:30 and set up camp – wow, what a day, I can’t believe I’m doing this! I’m tired and sore from paddling (upper body sore, a new feeling for the backcountry) and I have to spend some time taping up my blisters – blister on my hands, not on my feet! After a great Packit Gourmet dinner of Austintacious tortilla soup, wafer cookies and whiskey, I retire to my snug tent and reflect on the great day while listening to the bullfrogs and crickets; I haven’t had this much fun since Tom and I spent a long hard day exploring Grand Gulch off trail. Holy shit, I’m in the middle of nowhere now, true wilderness, and I probably won’t see another person until I hit Coyote Gulch. It’s exhilarating and freeing!

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Falling Into Grace – April 23, 2011 – Mouth of Moody Canyon, at the junction with the Escalante River

“It seems that only in moments of desperation is the soul most truly revealed.” – Everett Ruess

Wow, great sleep last night, finally – 10 hours. I leisurely break camp, watching the orange-crowned warblers in the trees, enjoying my breakfast (including an awesome fruit and protein smoothie) in the tent vestibule as a light rain moves in. I explore Moody for a while, looking unsuccessfully for the spring – is that it right next to camp at the canyon mouth? If so, I’ll take my chances with the silty Escalante River water, and I drop a pill into my Nalgene. I’m figuring that today will be like yesterday, thinking I will only get better on the water, so I’m in no hurry to get moving. I say my goodbyes to the Moody Canyon camp and shove off under a drizzly, cloudy ceiling just before 11 a.m. But quickly, everything changes today…

I’m not sure how I didn’t see this from the Port of Moody Canyon, but my first rapid, the one that lulled me to sleep last night with its soothing gurgle, turns out to be a 5-foot drop. There’s no avoiding it, no time to stop and portage, so I face my bow towards the fall and prepare to paddle hard through it. I’ve seen packrafters handle worse on You Tube.

But those packrafters had experience – I don’t, and after maintaining uprightness down to the bottom of the falls, I just can’t get out from the tumbling water. It quickly fills my boat, which has bogged down and is no longer making any forward progress. Stuck, and now panicking, I thrash around, trying desperately to get freed of the trap. It does no good, and I only succeed in somehow getting myself thrown out of the raft. I keep a death grip, one hand on the paddle, one hand on the boat, even while underwater. I’m surprised the water is this deep, and this cold – it shocks me, spurring even more adrenaline, and I’m not sure how I get free of the waterfalls hydraulic. A minute later I’m safely on the rocky shore, trying to calm down.

My first reaction is a nervous laugh that no one hears, so I let out a whooping “Holy shit!” Because of the drizzle, I am dressed in my gore-tex rain gear and hiking pants, but I’m thoroughly soaked, and it begins to sink in that maybe this isn’t something to laugh at – I’m in the middle of nowhere, and I might be in over my head. I empty my nearly full raft while wishing I would have gotten the packraft spray deck – would I have made it through that rapid if I had it? No use musing, I don’t have it…

I remember when I was teaching my sons to ride their bikes; a fall is inevitable, and I knew I had to get them right back on their bikes so that they wouldn’t dwell on the fall. So it’s right back into my green packraft, before I can think too much on this.

The ominous beginning is just a portent of a bad day – the light drizzle builds to black sky thunderstorms, and I take another swim after another surprise rapid. I’m on high alert now, focusing only on the next river challenge, adrenaline pumping. And then I come to the infamous portages near Scorpion Gulch. Boulders the size of houses choke the river, often times not leaving enough room for a raft to squeeze through. So I pull the raft out, untie my gear and move gear and raft around the obstructions. This is not a nice easy walk along a sandy river bank, but a scramble over the rain-soaked boulders and through the shoe sucking quicksand to the next raftable river section. And it takes me three trips for each portage – first my heavy drybag, next my backpack and paddles, then the raft itself. The process is repeated countless times today, no doubt more than would normally be necessary because I’m now gun-shy from my two swims; lots of hard work…

With all of the excitement today, I have totally neglected my map watching duties. I haven’t figured out a good way to keep my zip-locked map handy, and I’ve tired of pulling it out at portages, so I’ve not been counting canyons or looking for landmarks. I’d planned to get to Camp George Canyon, but around each bend comes nothing familiar that I can find on the map, and I realize I have no idea where I am. Great, just as a clap of thunder reminds me that I would like to be exiting the water well before dark, to set up a good camp out of the flood zone and dry all my clothes. Now I’m watching the time, too, its 4:30, and the sky to the west is completely black. Surely my canyon is just around the next bend…

But it is not; every landmark I’m looking for never materializes. I’m cold now with the sun completely clouded over, and I decide I will make camp at the next acceptable spot.

Acceptable in this case means I stop on a rocky sandbar before another big portage – I just don’t want to unpack and make the three trips – and use all that valuable daylight – doing another portage. Camp will be right here tonight, wherever here is.

The first action is to get out of all my wet clothes and get them drying. My drybags worked great, despite being submerged, and I’m really glad I double bagged my sleeping bag, base layer, and down jacket, which quickly warms me. Now for a tent spot…

Damn, there is nowhere on this little sandbar that is above the debris line – the canyon walls become too steep too fast, and the best I can do is tuck in to a rocky section next to the cottonwoods. There is debris from the last big flood still ten feet above me in the trees, but it’s the best I can do. I’m sure the thunderstorms will pass once the sun’s energy dissipates, right?

I take some time before dinner to try to figure out where I am. I can’t climb up high enough to get any unmistakable landmarks, but I know the river is flowing west here, and there is a small, pointy mesa that might be on my 7.5 USGS topos. But there are two possible places on the map where I think I might be, the most likely one only 6.5 river miles from Moody Canyon.

Holy shit, did I only do 6-1/2 miles today, in 6 hours? I guess that might be true, given how much time I spent in the water, and how many portages I did. Ouch, if that’s the case, I’ve still got a long trip in front of me, and if the remaining 22 river miles are like today, I might be in trouble. My spirits sag as the lightning flashes to the west and the thunder rumbles through the canyons…

The panic begins to rise as the rain starts to fall; I retire to my tent, stowing all my gear to dry under the vestibule. Okay, I’m kinda lost, I’m not doing too well on the river, with a boatload of river miles ahead, I’m shivering and worried about hypothermia, I’m starving because I didn’t have time to eat today, I’m camped below the debris line, and I’m completely alone in a remote wilderness – no one can help me, I’ve got to get out of here on my own. I double check the map – there is not way out from here except via the river; any walk up any side canyon would not have reliable water, and the topos lines are too close together to guarantee I wouldn’t box myself in to some dead end. I’ve got to stick to my plan and run the river down to Coyote, there is no other choice.

I have to settle down, so I launch into doing what needs done – get my bed and warm clothes set up, keep drying my outerwear, and get dinner going. I cook in my vestibule again, in a soft rain at this point, but with the thunder still rumbling in the distance. I decide tonight on my old camping standby, Barilla spinach and cheese tortellini; the familiarity and fillingness calm me. A few cookies, and a few more core body degrees added by my down jacket – and a few sips of whiskey – and I’m much calmer.

Definitely out of my comfort zone now, my focus shifts to what is really important to me. I think tremendously of my family. It is Easter eve – I’m sure the boys, age 11 and 8, are excited to look for their baskets in the morning, and I’m sure my wife has done a fantastic job

with their baskets, filled with exactly what they want. My god, what am I doing out here??? I should be home with my family, goddammit! What the fuck am I doing out here, playing some wilderness survivorman hero? How selfish is that? What if I don’t return? What if my kids have to grow up without a father, like I did? Christ, how many times has my heart terribly ached, missing the guidance and strength of my dad, who died when I was just a kid? What the hell, why would I even take the chance of doing that to my own kids, doing it voluntarily? How selfish it that, goddammit???

“STOP IT!” Nobody is here, so I verbalize my command out loud. “Stop it, dammit, stop it!” Calm down, I am NOT going to die. I can do this – I’ve worked out for months, I’ve trained, I’ve prepared, this is doable. Tomorrow, I will get up early, I will be in the river by 9 a.m., and I will fucking just pound it out, through sheer determination and sheer strength of will – JUST FUCKING DO IT!

Always remember there is nothing worth sharing, Like the love that let us share our name.” – The Avett Brothers, from “Murder in the City”

My fears back in check, I say a silent prayer, thankful for all that has happened today to get me safely to this point, and thankful for my wonderful family – I know they are thinking of me, I can feel their prayers in return, and I channel their love deep inside, knowing nothing ever more certain in my life than of the importance of love and family…

What we think we know and what we remember about Everett Ruess mostly remains with us because of his extraordinary letters to family and friends. First, it speaks to me that Everett’s family kept his letters. His mother was the first to recognize these were not ordinary letters, evidenced by her attempts to get them published, which they were in 1940. Indeed, they have stood the test of time…

Everett truly valued his family, this much is evident by the volume of letters he wrote to them. My god, all of the letters I’ve written to my family in all of my years wouldn’t stack up to a fraction of those he wrote in just a few months. Everett wished he could share what he saw, what he felt, what he experienced with his family; he challenged them, to get out of their ruts, to pursue their dreams; he asked for their advice and opinion, and he gave his, freely, whether it was asked for or not. This freedom is only found within the bounds of a close-knit family.

These letters, they are not “miss you, wish you were here” idle chatter; they are extraordinarily well thought out, with nary an idle phrase – nearly every letter drips with deliberateness and purpose. Nobody would devote this much effort, this much time and energy, into something and someone that they didn’t care about, deeply.

My biggest regret in reading Mr. Ruess is that there is no evidence, at least at this time, of the responses people sent to Everett. How did they react to his descriptions, to his challenges, to his criticisms? We will never know, for Everett choose not to keep them, something I can totally understand – my favorite camping chair sits idle right now in a banged up SUV 20 miles from here, because out here, in the desert, in the wilderness, you bring only what you need, only what you must carry. Return letters, once read and digested – and I’m most they were most appreciated by the lonely Ruess – well, certainly they’d make better campfire tinder than pack mule burden.

I have no doubt however, that Everett’s family buoyed him, too. They hoisted him on their strong shoulders, enabling him to continue along in his pursuit of…well, I will not venture to say here that his family understood what he was pursuing anymore than we do now, but even this lack of understanding did not stop them from supporting young Everett. ER’s family’s support, whether monetary, or simply providing basic supplies, allowed Everett to repeatedly step forth into the uncaring wilderness with neither adequate funds, equipment, or experience. His family gave him a bedrock platform of values and support to launch a pursuit of his dreams, even if he couldn’t articulate what those dreams were. They gave him a receptive audience for his letters and paintings and poetry, too, knowing that at least a small circle of people would actually care what he had created. Surely this allowed him more liberties to express, unabashedly, more beautifully, his emotions, his thoughts, his feelings, much more so than an academic, or worse, commercial audience.

So I must amend the list I have been amassing over the years, a list of what makes a truly memorable – dare I say it? – what make a great wilderness experience, possible. A bedrock of family, close friends, and kindred spirits that will be there in spirit with you if they can’t be physically with you – yes, they are needed, not so much for the company and the companionship or logistical accompanionment, but because their faith in you will pull you through when your faith in yourself is put to the test…

Tonight I send my love across the cosmos to all who care and are thinking of me, and in return I open my heart to their love, and the peace and calm that fills my soul soothes me to a deep, much needed sleep. Three thunderstorms score a direct hit on my campsite tonight – each time I awake with a start and keep an ear out for the ominous rumbling of a coming flash flood. I wonder what I should save if I have only one trip to safety – my tent, my food, or my raft? What was I thinking when I wanted to experience a thunderstorm in the canyons? Well at least I can now confirm that, yes, each time the canyons are lit up for a second in that eerie, blue-light glow, replaced quickly by pitch black, each time the thunder rumbles unnervingly long through the canyons, each time the rain pounds so hard on the tent I swear it’s gonna burst through, that yes, it is much more vivid and real and scary than I imagined in the easy chair – certainly my heart didn’t flutter as much then as it is right now! But the floods never come, the rain and thunder subside,  and each time I quickly resume sleep…thank you, Lord!

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Falling Into Grace – April 24, 2011 – Somewhere along the Escalante River, exact location unknown

For us the wilderness and the human emptiness of this land is not a source of fear but the greatest of its attractions. We would guard and defend and save it as a place for all who wish to rediscover the nearly lost pleasures of adventure, adventure not only in the physical sense, but also mental, spiritual, moral, aesthetic and intellectual adventure.” – Edward Abbey

This morning it’s all business as I methodically eat breakfast and break camp. I’m thankful for the decent nights’ sleep, mostly a gift of exhaustion, but also a product of my resolve, and today I enact my plan to just do it. The boat is loaded and I’m only slightly behind my planned 9 a.m. launch, clad in gore-tex and long pants as the rain continues today.

I dig into the water, concentrating on the river and how my craft reacts to it. I realize I’ve been unnecessarily fighting the river instead of going with the flow, and I’m much better at anticipating the best line through the rapids, much like picking the right line far in advance of a steep mountain biking descent. My confidence returns as I float semi-gracefully through the rapids that yesterday gave me fits. Just do it…

I need a name for my packraft. I haven’t seen a soul since Neon Canyon two days ago, and it felt good to shout to the canyons out loud last night. So this morning I’ve taken to talking to my packraft, a la Tom Hanks talking to Wilson; it’s actually comforting (although I’m sure to an outsider it might seem like I’m losing it.) But it’s rude to talk to someone without knowing their name…

I’ve been re-reading Edward Abbey’s classic chapter from Desert Solitaire, Down the River. Abbey has some strange and memorable conversations with his rafting companion, Ralph Newcomb, making me long for my own Newcomb. Well, I do have one, and my little green packraft is now christened Newcomb. Raft Newcomb.

“Nice job, Newcomb!” I exclaim after skillfully avoiding a boulder that I would have hit yesterday. “Sorry, Newcomb” after I lose the deep current and scrape bottom, and big whoops of congratulations when descending tricky sections. Talking to Newcomb makes me feel a little better, even if he does have a rubber soul.

The thunderstorms continue to pop up today, and my only stops are to put on the rain jacket when it’s cloudy or take it off when the sun is out. I’m paddling hard, making good time; now all I need to do is find out exactly where I am…

I never do find Scorpion Gulch, which is leading me to a sneaky suspicion that I passed it yesterday. That would mean I am actually further along than I thought. I notice I have been traveling almost due east for quite some time now, too (oh yeah, my compass is hooked to my life vest for easy access today), and I know from thoroughly studying the map last night that there is a long west to east stretch – but that was a lot further downriver from where I thought I was. But wouldn’t you know it, while shivering through yet another boomer, an unmistakable landmark – a pinnacle pointing like a finger straight up, on a narrow gooseneck – is confirmed at a rest stop on the map, and I am much further down the river than I thought I would be. Woo who, Newcomb and I celebrate, me through chattering teeth as the rain pours down, Newcomb in his silent, subtle manner.

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The day just keeps getting better, too. The clouds move on and bright sunshine appears, and the canyons are getting deeper and more spectacular with each bend. And at 2 o’clock, I round another bend and am greeted by Fool’s Canyon, my destination today, well before I’d ever have thought when I shoved off this morning.

Fool’s Canyon is spectacular, a perfect, flat camping area under some cottonwoods, complete with a crystal clear flowing spring, surrounded on all sides by deep red cliffs, now silhouetted against the bright blue Utah sky. I strip out of my soggy clothes, decorating the sagebrush to let them dry in the sun, and I don’t replace the wet clothing with anything, setting up my camp au naturel, my reward for doing so well today on the river, and a definite benefit of being this deep in the wilderness. My only audience is an eyrie of three – yes three! – Peregrine falcons, who are wheeling and tumbling and screaming high up amongst the red cliffs, engaged in the most basic, primal instinct, the universal destiny and life force of springtime mating.

Wow, it is a fantastic show, and it alone justifies the extra weight of bringing my binos. Well all the excitement has worn me out, so a midday siesta is in order. Swear to god, there is not a cloud in the sky when I zip up my tent, and I have barely closed my eyes when yet another thunderstorm sneaks up on me. The canyons all seem to culminate in the Fool’s Canyon delta, funneling and intensifying the wind; I barely have time to react as the gusts try to send me and the tent back into the river. I do my best to anchor the tent with my arms and legs, and for fifteen minutes I’m a human guy line, not sure the tent will survive as it bends almost horizontal to the ground, the poles straining against the gale. But survive intact it does, another notch in my REI Half Dome’s illustrious ten-plus year career of getting me through storms.

And honestly, when I finally unzip and get back outside, the storm has passed and the blue skies have returned. Wow, wild weather, indeed, and I’m sure that’s not the last of it. Of course now I have to relocate my tent, out of the wind, tucked amongst the boulders and fully staked down. So much for a nap – I can’t catch a break!

Tonight is a leisurely camp, the kind of camp I envisioned every night when planning this trip – unlike last night’s, that’s for sure! Great dinner again, this time Packit Gourmets’ Chicken and Dumplings, and a nice and proper celebratory whiskey buzz while watching  darkness envelope the canyons. Of course there are more thunder boomers overnight, but I’m very secure in this tent site, and they don’t bother me in the least…

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Falling Into Grace – April 25, 2012 – Fool’s Canyon camp, Escalante River

“It is our choices…that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” –  Dumbledore to Harry Potter

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Glorious sunrise over Fool’s this morning. The spring water filtered from the canyon is the sweetest tasting water of the trip, and breakfast is good and unhurried; I have only 8 river miles today, it should be an easy day. Had a bit of a scare when I awoke and found Newcomb deflated, but then I remembered I let a bit of the air out yesterday afternoon while he rested in the sun; add to that the big temperature drop from yesterday to this morning, and I realize it isn’t a hole, he just needs a little topping off.

The morning is awful quiet, though. I anticipated a lot more birdsong from the yellowthroats and yellow warblers and towhees and wrens; it is strangely silent as I sip a cup of steaming joe. Too quiet, I sense something is amiss. And just then, from directly behind me, comes a rush of wind, faster than a thunderstorm gust. My heart jumps into my throat as two ducks whistle not ten feet over my head, wings beating fast, hearts beating even faster, flying as if their life depends on it. And it does, for right behind them, flying just as hard, comes another whoosh, this time storming down from high above – a Peregrine falcon in hot pursuit.

The ducks are making a beeline for the river 100 feet away, loosing altitude quickly, but the Peregrine is gaining, maneuvering towards the ducks like an F-16 screaming at a target in Top Gun. The ducks have the advantage this time, and they plummet to the safety of the river just outside the talons of the masterful aerial hunter, who pulls up, screaming, and climbs back up high to his kingdom amongst the cliffs.

Wow, now that was absolutely incredible, pure adrenaline, I have never seen anything even remotely like what I have just witnessed!!! Raw, pure nature! That’s why I’m out here!

So what was I saying last night about the thunderstorms not bothering me??? I should have looked at the river before saying that…

This morning the mild-mannered Escalante is a roiling, frothy, chocolate muddy milkshake, probably flowing at twice the cfs it was when I exited from it yesterday. Yikes, so much for my nice, easy 8 miles today…

And it is NOT an easy day. I need all of the skills I improved upon yesterday to help me today, but even so, I’m still dumped a couple of times today; things are just coming at me a lot faster. Neither of the swims are bad, there is no panic, but there is very little grace left in my paddling either – I take one set of rapids half in, half out of the boat, in somewhat control, but just tired and not looking for grace points today – I just want to get to Coyote. I am also painfully aware today of how sore I am – fingers blistered, arms aching from constant paddling, and my back sore, mostly because my seat back has ripped off completely and now dangles uselessly from the hull, instead of providing support.

It’s too bad I’m fatigued today, because the scenery is spectacular, the best of the trip. The glorious Escalante River canyons are putting on their best show, deep red and yellow gorges set against the big blue sky. I try to take as many pictures as I can, but the river doesn’t let up, and there are not big enough calm sections to get my camera out of the double ziplock bags. So I must be content with enjoying them in between bouts with the rapids. To offset my lack of pictures, I do get a glimpse of a large, sleek, brown-furred animal sliding gracefully into the water near a muddy bank – could that have been one of the river otters the Park Service is trying to return to the Escalante?

Wow, so many side canyons I wish I had time to explore, too, especially Stevens. I had planned to at least climb up to Stevens Arch, and possibly up to the Grotto, but dammit, I’m just too tired. I’ll probably regret that later, but I know at Stevens Arch I have only one more river mile to go, and I’m ready to get back on dry land.

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I’m not really paying attention again, back on the river, and I almost float right by Coyote Gulch. Luckily, two dudes are splashing down the Gulch at it’s confluence with the Escalante, and I exit promptly. It begins to sink in, while talking to the teenagers, that I did it, I survived the 40 mile river float down the Escalante! The adrenaline helps me drag a fully loaded Newcomb about 300 yards up the Gulch to a fine camping spot I find tucked under a huge alcove above the stream.

Before I can make camp, however, I have to trudge up the Gulch a bit further. The two guys I met at the river warned me that there is a really steep part around a waterfall, and they are skeptical that I’ll be able to get up it with my raft and all my equipment. They offer to help when they return from their dayhike, but I figure I’ll check it out first.

The waterfall itself is pretty steep, and maybe 60 feet up along the creek, and it’s mostly hidden behind giant boulders. But I quickly find a hiker path to the left of the creek, looking up canyon. I remember reading about this side trail in one of my guidebooks, identified by a log step, another benefit of my detailed planning. Yes, it is very steep, and I will have to be careful, but I can definitely do this tomorrow. I can now return to set up camp.

First things first, there is a little prayer of thanksgiving before I make camp in the alcove; I haven’t yet forgotten that two night’s ago I wasn’t sure if I would make it this far. Wow, the scariest part of the trip is behind me, I can surely walk out of here now, so I let my guard down, and I realize how tired I am. I relax in Newcomb with my feet up, my hat down over my eyes, and doze into a contented, dreamlike state.

I can’t tell if the voices are in my dreams or real; I’m hoping they are dreamlike, but five minutes later two guys are scaling the banks of “my” alcove. Darn, looks like I’ll have company tonight – I guess my wilderness solitude is over.

But Avery and Nick, two Texans from Dallas, turn out to be really nice guys. We exchange small talk and ribbing about our respective football teams (and of course I have the last word, given the Steelers’ more numerous Super Bowl victories), then turn our attentions to setting up camp; the alcove is more than big enough for all of us to have plenty of privacy. I enjoy a great dinner of tortilla soup again, and then notice the sweet smell of ganja that’s drifting over from their camp. So I make my way over to their side of the alcove for happy hours, armed with my whiskey.

Avery and Nick are pretty mellow at this point, and we share some great conversation, perhaps made more so because of my complete lack of conversation over the last five days. Turns out we have a lot in common: they are both working for Texas Utilities (I work for a utility, too) and they are both at the point in their careers where the demands of their career path are taking too much time away from family, friends, and wilderness. It’s the classic modern male pincer, caught between the monetary rewards and financial freedom that comes from a bigger salary, but at the price of taking away all of your time – so far from the epic struggles of man versus the elements, the wilderness, so repeated in mythology! What have we lost with today’s comforts???

Each of them will be facing hard decisions, as both want to start families, both want to provide well for their families, but they also want to not lose their souls, too. Tough, tough calls ahead, for each of them. I wish them all the best in their struggles, knowing firsthand how hard it will be. Better toke up now boys, and have another swig from this here bottle, and get your asses outside to places like this while you can. Keep a little bit of the lessons of these wild places close to your heart, too – you’re going to need ‘em, boys.

I know what ER would do, were he in their shoes, for he was clear in his thoughts on work versus freedom, and to his credit, he chose his freedom. Here is where my respect for Mr. Ruess reaches its apex, for it is very difficult to withstand the highest bidder, but Everett did so, splendidly. He gladly endured voluntary poverty for the sake of his freedom.

“Work is a malevolent goddess, made impossibly conceited by unlimited and untempered flattery.”  Everett simple would not, could not, have endured a nine-to-five existence. Many steeped only in the value of production would accuse Everett of being lazy, but he was far from that – simply look at the effort he put into his letters. This kind of effort, put into something as “simple” as a letter, is only facilitated by having time; first and most important, the time to have the experiences. Second, time to digest and filter and understand these experiences, and third, time to reflect on how to best convey them. So work had to go. That’s one of the reasons he wandered, to be on his own timetable, not on the company dole or under a deadlines’ gun.

Everett’s brother Waldo, older by four years, did, however, have a job, did raise a fine family, did take care of his responsibilities, and he too, did wander and explore – indeed, he integrated work and wandering, living in ten different countries and visiting over 100 in his long 98 years. Perhaps Everett could have learned a little from Waldo about balance, perhaps he would have learned this from Waldo, had not his passions consumed him at so young an age.  I wonder, if I could gather up all of Waldo’s adventure in his 98 years, including all of the subtle adventures centered around family and commitments, and weigh those against all of the illustrious and intense adventures that Everett packed into just his short twenty years – in whose direction would the most adventurous scale tip? The smoke and whiskey fills the grotto, clouding my judgment, so I leave the question unanswered…

I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and happy hour tonight, and I understand why ER pined for quality companionship after long stints in the wilderness. Yes, it adds to the experience, and I’m thankful to have found some like-minded members of my tribe, way out here in the middle of nowhere. Of course, that is where I always find my tribe. But my body is tired even if my soul is refreshed, and I retire early again…

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