The COVID-19 Mad Dash Home

The hiking and camping in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument had been chilly, rainy but sublime. That’s canyon country. Sublime, regardless of the weather. We hiked canyons, neoprene socks keeping us warm in swollen creeks. We read books by campfire. Scrambled up slickrock overlooking the desert. Sniffed the sage. Photographed the Henry Mountains. Star gazed. Fell asleep to coyotes howling. We frolicked, sauntered and skipped. Napped.

After those blissful two weeks of camping and hiking in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument we rolled into Bluff. The town was quiet. Quieter than usual. We drove to the visitor centre very much closed. I turned on my phone, a message from my sister waiting. She was wondering where we were and if we knew what was happening. She suggested we come back to Canada as the impact of COVID-19 was growing, and growing swiftly.

Southern Utah was closing and Moab and Bluff was urging travelers to stay away. We live in the Yukon, full of small, isolated communities so we understood their concerns.

Obviously, we didn’t want leave. Spring had just arrived. We were headed for Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa, to spend a few weeks camping and hiking there. It’s one of our favourite places in Utah. Temperatures were reaching +20C. How could we leave now?

We sat in the parking lot of the Bluff visitor centre, googling COVID-19 and listening to NPR. It didn’t take long to understand the situation we had just driven into. There was only one responsible option.

We filled our water jugs in Bluff and headed North, stopping in Moab only for gas.

The drive from Bluff, Utah to Tagish, Yukon is nearly 4500 kilometres. There is a lot of splendid wilderness and it was achingly difficult to drive by it all without exploring, without even stopping. We drove past a few wildlife refuges, several national forests, a couple national parks. It seemed so blasphemous not to visit. John and I don’t like to drive more than 100-200 kilometres a day when we’re traveling. Now we were driving 800km a day.

And if the mad dash back to the Canadian border with a looming pandemic wasn’t worrying enough, we were camped in a national forest just outside Salt Lake City when the 5.7 earthquake hit. We were listening to a podcast about the locusts in Africa when the truck started shuddering. Fortunately, we are somewhat accustomed to earthquakes living in the North. We laughed at the sense of an imploding world. What else could we do? Locusts, a pandemic, an earthquake. We got up, cooked up some oatmeal, made coffee and continue North.

On top of the great distances we were driving, we were traveling on Interstates since they are most direct. 130km/hr speed limits, however, seem excessive at the best of times and in times of a pandemic, seem absolutely outrageous. Now was not the time to get into an accident. But pandemic or not, earthquake or not, people were going, and going as fast as they could.

We played a lot of Neil Diamond to soothe our agitated souls. Our 4-Runner has her original tape deck so we pick up tapes in thrift stores. Neil Diamond and Brian Adams have been with us for six years and we still haven’t tired of them. A few weeks before going into GSENM I bought ABBA, Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray.

The day we returned in the Yukon we stopped at Little Atlin Lake, to stretch our legs, finally able to relax. A raven flew overhead, croaked at us. A lynx strolled by, weaving among the poplars.

We were home.

And we were happy, even if we arrived at the beginning of an unseasonal cold snap that would end up lasting the two weeks we would be self-isolating in a cabin.

Don’t Listen To ‘Influencers’

I was sitting in a coffee shop browsing the web recently, sitting out a deluge. I came across an “influencer’s” blog which rated Capitol Reef National Park as the least interesting of Utah’s 5 national parks.

She’s mad and not to be listened to. Clearly, she has not taken a deep dive into the park to unearth the magic of this place.

Too many people are blindly following others instead of discovering their own backcountry magic. So many people are going outside only to recreate the same, wrought, posed instagram pictures.

Capitol Reef is stark and magical, full of intrigue. There are a lot of great hiking trails and a lot of backcountry routes, canyons to explore, even peaks to scale. It is not boring. Don’t listen to influencers. Just because they might have a hundred thousand followers doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.

While I’m ranting, I’m also tired of seeing ‘Must See’ articles in magazines and blogs. When I see them I make a point to remember not to visit them. That’s where all the people will be.

Instead of focusing on what other say are ‘must see’, seek your own adventure.

The bus outside Denali National Park where Chris McCandless died is a great example. It’s become a pilgrimage for so many and I’m perplexed as to why. I am as intrigued by his story as everyone else but I don’t know why people flock to the bus. Why not find our own adventure, following the calling of our own souls, instead of following the footsteps of someone who became famous because he died?

I have purposefully posted a generic could-be-anywhere-in-Utah photo instead of posting pictures of Capitol Reef’s wild and weird landscape because exploring and discovering is what going outside should be about.

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Sauntering In The River

It is quite delicious, the Paria River.

At times the canyon constricts so the walls are a mere one-metre apart.

Canyon walls loom 800 feet.

And the river is the trail.

In February, the Paria is cold thanks to the ice still lingering in the shadows of the canyon. We came prepared, with 3mm thick neoprene socks and two puffy jackets each. Where the sun fell down to the canyon floor we were warm. Where shadows fell we were chilled and nearly shivering. After only an hour of hiking in the river our feet fell numb but still we hiked on, deeper into the canyon. Once inside Paria Canyon, it’s hard to ever want to leave her sensual belly.

Despite February being cold it is a marvellous time to visit. For the days we spent camping and hiking in the Paria, we were alone. And the quiet solitude of the canyon was worth the toe-numbing cold.

Hypnotized By Buckskin

A 28-kilometre jaunt through the world’s longest slot canyon was almost too much beauty to bear.

There is so much shadow and light playing between the canyon walls, colours of red and orange and yellow that would make you believe you’re tripping.

But there is so much more.

There are petroglyphs of bighorn sheep.

And bits of dead animals scattered on the canyon floor, from birds of prey perching high up on the canyon walls and dropping their leftovers – jackrabbit legs, cottontail rabbit tails, the feathers of songbirds, perhaps even the wings of other raptors.

The silence inside was also delicious. Even a soft whisper echoed loud so for much of the day we hiked in silence, relishing it. That silence is missing in our everyday lives. And we need that silence to hear our inner voice.

The hoof prints and poo of a wayward cow deep in the belly of the slot canyon had us a bit perplexed. Was it lost or simply seeking out a water hole? The tracks made me uneasy. I know what to do when I meet a grizzly on the tundra but what do you do when you meet a cow in a canyon barely a metre wide?

Perhaps most remarkably, beyond the Wire Pass and Buckskin confluence, we were the only humans in the belly of Buckskin, despite its beauty and well-known status.

California Condors

We spent four wondrous days sitting on cliffs above the Colorado River, the pink Vermillion Cliffs behind, watching California condors.

Now, if you don’t know how amazing this is, let me explain.

In the 1980s, there were only 22 California condors left in the wild.

Twenty-two.

That’s it.

People have been fighting to bring them back from the edge of extinction and now approximately 300 exist in the wild. 100 of them are found in the Colorado River corridor.

These birds are magnificent, with 9.5 foot wingspans, a lifespan of 60 years. Their bald heads and necks allow them to feast away on carcasses without messing feathers. I could go on.

They’re existence is still very tenuous. I am so grateful to those who have fought and worked for these birds. It would be a sad, lonely place without condors in the sky.

I am delighted beyond expressing having had the opportunity to spend so many days watching 22 individuals go about their lives – including some mating displays.

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Reprieve

After a really crummy summer – health-wise – I seem to have gone into remission from lupus. No inflammation. Not even a twinge of arthritic pain in a knuckle. Even my blood work was perfect before we left home for this road trip. This is a first in six years.

I am ecstatic of course. Before becoming ill I was a morning person, going out for 20-30 kilometre trail runs with my malamute before work. Then lupus came along and put an end to all that joyous freedom.

I have forgotten how magnificent it is to wake in the morning and not feel pain. My hands flex into fists again. My knees lift me out of bed without trouble and carry me down the trails. I am again leaping out of bed as soon as the sun is rising, crawling out of the warmth of my sleeping bag to stand out in the cold above a canyon and watch yellow light fall across the land.

While on the road I have been keeping in touch with two friends each battling far worse autoimmune illnesses than me. It is nice to speak with others who understand what autoimmune illness does to your body, your mind, your spirit. This illness is difficult to explain to people who cannot feel our joint pain or understand the full weight of fatigue – fatigue that is much more crushing than your “I’m jet lagged” tiredness or your “oh, I couldn’t sleep last night” fatigue.

The sun I’ve been frolicking about in these past few weeks have been divine. And I am most definitely grateful for where I am – physically in the desert and in my health.

Southern Utah In Late October

Oh, Utah, you always exceed expectations.

This was our four visit to Utah and still she amazes us.

Below is a brief recap of some of the wonder and joys and discomfort we experienced during the three weeks we traveled in southern Utah.

  • Sleeping in late when camping at temperatures falling as low as 9F/-15C
  • Squirmed our way through a few slot canyons and scrambled through many other canyons
  • Watched a couple of female desert bighorn sheep trot across the P-J forest
  • Skirted around a sun-bathing on slick rock rattlesnake
  • Spooked a jackrabbit in rabbitbrush
  • Hiked past a herd of female mule deer and startled one great big buck
  • Watched the sun rise and set almost every day
  • Was serenaded by canyon wrens and nuthatches
  • Found Ancestral Puebloan ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs
  • Read books by headlamp
  • Ate a lot of oatmeal breakfasts, Luna bars and trail mix for lunch and dinners of rice and beans
  • Wished upon a shooting star; marvelled at many more
  • Found free showers
  • Ate lots of cookies while sitting on rocks
  • Drank litres of tea
  • Found frozen waterfalls
  • And we met a dog that purrs. And no. That is not a typo. A dog that purrs!

All in all it’s been a good few weeks.

#thesimplelife

A Typical Day For These Two Dirtbags

John and I have been running off with our backpacks and our Toyota 4Runner for quite a few winters now, traveling around western US and once down into Baja, Mexico. (We’ve been backpackers for more than 20 years as well in Canada). We enjoy the simplicity of living outside, out of our truck, without WI-FI or cell service, just books and each other for company. But there is a question we hear so often from our parents and family and some of our friends.

“What exactly do you do out there?”

This post is for them.

We wake with the sun, no matter how early or cold. Sunrise over a southern Utah canyon should not be missed. It’s best to find a lovely lookout for breakfast, to enjoy the views while shivering from the cold late October mornings.

With bellies full and caffeine fuelled, we head off hiking, scrambling, crawling and clambering down into the belly of a canyon in search of Ancestral Puebloan ruins, pictographs and petroglyphs, sites 800+ years old.

Our day of hiking and scrambling is broken by long pauses on slabs of rocks, drinking in the sun’s heat and the canyon views, the sandstone cliffs, listening to the song of canyon wrens. Some days we come across mule deer grazing, or spot a few desert bighorn sheep on a cliff. Maybe a rattlesnake will force us to detour into the willow thickets.

And after a full sunrise to sunset hike we settle down for a quick rice and beans dinner, followed by peppermint tea and a good book, enjoying the stars and Milky Way, wishing upon shooting stars, though what more could we hope from life?

With bellies full of good food, hearts full of awe and wonder, good books, cozy sleeping bags and one another, this simple life is all we truly need or want.

Sleep comes early after a full day’s adventure so we are well-rested by the time the next day’s sun reappears.

And so we rise and repeat.

And it is really as simple and quiet as that.

Imagining Parks Without Roads

After a 26-kilometre trail run across the east end of Zion I spent the following day wandering Zion Canyon. From the campground I hiked the trails and the road, foregoing the shuttle bus to the trailhead of the Narrows. It is quite a fantastic way to experience Zion Canyon and other than the shuttle buses the roads and trails running alongside it are quiet. There is plenty of wildlife and birds to see. Wild turkeys and mule deer wandered in the shade by the river. Great blue herons fished the pools.

What a shame there is a road at all crawling up Zion Canyon. Imagine if it all traffic was cut from Zion Canyon, including the buses and the only way in was to walk or bicycle. The same could be said for Arches National Park, the Island In The Sky in Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and the South Rim of Grand Canyon.

Ambling canyon country never gets tiring. Life slows when we are outside. Thoughts clarify. Life is simplified. The calm we find outside we cannot replicate elsewhere. And the longer we linger out-of-doors the more of it we yearn for. The harder it becomes to go back to the confines of four walls. The paved roads of the national parks would make excellent hiking trails.

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