Utah houses many of the most magnificent geological wonders in the world. The rock formations are simply dazzling to the eye. The state boasts over fifty state and national parks. And if you like rocks, it’s a visual smorgasbord. The Vermillion Cliffs, for example, located just south of the Utah border in Arizona, are aptly named for the brilliant and varying shades of red earth. It’s a vibrant sight from the highway.
On a visit in the summer of 2008, my husband and I headed west from Moab on a road to Dead Horse Point State Park. Just before the park entrance, we saw a dead pigmy rattle snake. This was our third trip to the Southwest, and I had never yet seen a rattler, dead or alive. They come out at night when they do their hunting. At night, rattlesnakes are fearless, and you don’t want to encounter one by surprise.
We decided to turn around and drove over to see why this park got its name. Dead Horse Point is situated atop a plateau at an elevation of about 6000 feet. From the point, layers of geologic time may be viewed, revealing 300 million years of the earth’s geologic history. It’s as if God had taken a knife and sliced mountains and chunks of land right down the middle so that all the erosion of time could be viewed for free by anyone who was passing through.
According to the legend, Dead Horse Point was used to corral wild mustangs that were roaming the mesa. Cowboys rounded up these horses and herded them onto the point. They fenced off the neck with branches and brush, creating a natural corral surrounded by high cliffs. Cowboys then picked the horses they wanted and left the rest to die of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2000 feet below.
Death was the last thing on our minds the next day. We woke up early, ready to enjoy our last day in Utah. Why did I put on my winter-weight hiking boots? Well, I didn’t have any lightweight boots. And the truth is, our treks in the southwest recently hadn’t been that long. Otherwise my feet would have overheated, and I would have known enough to get summer boots.
That day, in particular, I wasn’t planning on doing any serious hiking at all. It started out innocently enough. A sign in the parking lot said:
|“Upheaval Dome/Crater View
|2.5 mi (4 km)
|300 ft (91 m)
|15 minutes to 1 hour
Piece of cake—a relaxing walk along the rim of this crater. It was too hot to do anything more exerting that day. We thought we’d start the day with this stroll to view the inside of the crater. We were pretty tired from a week of hiking and were anxious to fly home. This would be our day to decompress.
At 10:00 a.m., we used the restroom and then studied the billboard. With the whole day to kill time, we could dawdle. In our fanny packs were water bottles and our packed lunch which, luckily, we carried with us. We had no idea that because of our overconfidence and lack of preparedness, we would soon be swallowed up by this crater we had intended to observe only from above—and were lucky to get out alive.
“Be prepared for a hike as demanding as it is dramatic,” the guidebook warned us. “Expect the initial descent and subsequent ascent to be steep and rugged, though both are brief. The ascent is on a particularly rough route, mildly exposed in two places where a burst of gymnastic effort is necessary to avoid an injurious fall. Alleviate these difficulties—plus gain the benefit of some timely post-exertion shade—by looping clockwise. The counter-clockwise hikers we’ve met here were distressed, admitting the trip was more time-consuming and arduous than they’d anticipated.”
This book was, unfortunately, in the car, of no use to us sitting on the front seat. We had intended to relax this last day, and we certainly weren’t prepared for a grueling hike on a hot day in July.
I was wearing the wrong boots.
We took the easy walk up to the rim and on our way back to the car thought, Hmm…not much of a challenge there. It’s only 11:00 in the morning. Let’s be adventurous and see where the trail to the left leads.
Gene and I are big risk takers. Some of the risks I’ve taken with him were thrilling, like running rapids in Canada when we were too tired to portage. And some were stupid, like taking up smoking again with his brand, Camel regulars, so we could share. This was one of the latter variety; you don’t mess around unprepared in canyon country in July.
We turned to the left and began the counterclockwise loop, another reason why, as we were nearing the valley floor and met some hikers on their way back, we were “distressed.”
“How much farther?” we asked them, as we were struggling through some boulders.
They looked at us like we hadn’t read the book and offered, “Oh you’ve got a ways to go. Might have been easier to go clockwise.”
I was realizing how the sun would face and torture us all along this counterclockwise loop.
“Gene, we should have asked for some water,” I whined, already starting to project disaster and panic as I sneaked a peak to the left and saw where we needed to be before the sun went down. Oh no! All the way up there?
“Don’t worry. We’re doing fine,” he said, trying to allay his own growing fears that we had gotten in over our heads. I had a veritable battle going on inside my head: Can I do this? Or will I lose myself in fear and panic, both of which used to drive me into caves of denial, avoidance, and despair?
We were soon to confront a situation that would require a serious change in attitude on my part. Unfortunately, though, I didn’t rise to the occasion; I found myself falling into those familiar caves and trying to take Gene with me.
The walk along the canyon floor seemed endless. Gene was distracting himself by studying the Chinle formation on the banks of the wash that meandered all along the valley floor. As we neared the back of the mountain that we would need to climb in order to get back, all we could think about was reaching the car in the parking lot.
It was at this point that I turned into a harpy of major proportions. My mother had needled my father relentlessly to quit drinking, and those nasty tapes found their way to my vocal chords in magnificent stereo.
“Gene, for Chrissake, what are we gonna do? It’s five o’clock already! How could you get us into this mess? We’ve eaten all our food, we’re almost out of water, and we have a damn mountain to climb! In three hours it’ll be dark, and of course you didn’t bring any headlamps. Did I leave anything out, Sherlock?”
I was shaking with fear and panic. No need to look up at the cliff; we were at the base in its shadow. The sun would be going down soon. It didn’t help to see the shed skin of a huge snake on the side of the path. I knew there were deadly snakes in canyon country. And they come out at night when most intelligent people are roasting marshmallows around a campfire.
Gene is different from me temperamentally. The more I continued hammering away at him, the more his fear and rage built up inside. At some point, he took off in another direction. He just snapped. And he was carrying the water.
“Gene! Come back here! Where the hell did you go? You bastard! You have all the water!”
Listening for his footsteps, I stayed on my path, wishing I had worn a megaphone. I finally gave up yelling, convinced he felt no remorse for leaving me in the lurch to make it out on my own.
This is where I drew on the strength that I had gotten from many angels over the years. I wish I could have looked over my left shoulder at the brilliant sunset and enjoyed the shadows and colors moving across the rocks, transforming their shapes as they went. But on this day, sunset meant dusk was coming, a very tricky kind of light followed by darkness. My adrenaline fully kicked in and I was on a mission to survive. I channeled all my rage into a fierce determination to get off the mountain.
Thank goodness for cairns—small piles of rocks marking a pathway to show hikers where to go. I don’t remember when darkness set in but I do know that those cairns saved my life—the cairns and enough common sense to keep going up instead of across which is what I think Gene was doing to find an easier way out.
Or maybe he just needed to get away from me.
I loped my way up, following the trail marked by the cairns. Ignoring the pain in my legs and feet, moving forward and up was my only option. I had no water and was terribly thirsty, but I didn’t dare sit down to rest. I just kept snaking my way along the switchbacks that were endless, until finally I reached the crest of a hill.
Walking through a juniper grove I saw a hiker approaching me and asked him for some water. He gave me a whole liter, for which I was grateful. It was 10:00 p.m. I made it refreshed into the parking lot and flagged down the last car that was leaving, asking them to call Canyon Rescue to come get Gene off the mountain.
I lay on the cool floor of the public bathroom waiting for the squad to arrive. They went right in with whistles and an hour later they walked out with Gene. He was too dehydrated to walk, had been drinking his own urine, and had just been sitting there in the bushes…waiting. Thankfully he hadn’t passed out and could respond to the whistles.
When I saw them bring him down I ran to him in relief. But those feelings were short lived as the enormity of our mistake sunk in to me. We drove back to our campsite and slept; I think we were in shock. I forget how long it took for six of my toenails to loosen and fall off, but it was painful.
I hated him, briefly, afterwards and though I never seriously thought about leaving him, it did take me a while to sort it all out. I was able to see my part in our disastrous communication that day and I took full responsibility for pushing Gene to the edge; he, too, accepted full responsibility for a horrendous lapse in judgment.
Anger, panic, and poor judgment got the better of both of us that day. And I managed to come out a hero. But for every instance of that sort of thing there have been ten more where he’s rescued me at great risk to himself. And of course it’s the risk itself that seduces us both. I’m at home with him. I can unravel and be myself with him. Our adventures have taken us to many places, but so often they were just staging grounds for learning about ourselves.
I was certainly wearing the wrong boots on this trek and I lost some toenails because of it. But that was a small price to pay for what I found from the experience.
We were still the right fit for each other.