The World, and Life, in a Canyon, Part 1

Silver Falls Canyon

Let's say it starts with one drop of water, one drop, which falls onto rock and stone and forms not only the foundation of life, but also the beginnings of canyons.

That drop joins others, the waters join to run over the rocks of the Earth, smoothing them in summer, splitting them in winter, breaking them apart year after year, which, in short, is how canyons are made. It is also a little bit of what life is like, too. And if it was life I came looking for here, then it was also, of course, canyons.

The world of canyons are inverted worlds, not unlike mountains but also the exact opposite of them, really; rather than standing above the world, separated by insufferable cliffs, in canyons you stand far below the world, unreachable but for tracing the canyon from beginning to end. Which is just what Porter and I did.

Wretched and claustrophobic, abysmal and dark and damp and ghastly and always cool, bottomless at times and serenely beautiful, canyons are, I believe, the places we came from. Their depths are filled with the sound of water echoed off cliffs, far away rapids, the echoes of voices or barks that never exist, and owls and croaks, canyon wrens and the flapping of the wings of birds. Their walls mirror not only the age of elements and erosion but also, in strange ways, where we came from and where we are headed. They present an unwinding riddle, a riddle in which each turn in the canyon's wall presents both some answers, but even more questions.

On Saturday morning, after a crazy Friday of work, driving, shopping, a quick stop-in at Central, more shopping, and finally a five-hour drive through Scipio, Salina and Bicknell and past lines of anxious deer hunters and deer themselves, which loiter conveniently alongside the highway, and a final drive up and over 10,000-foot high Boulder Mountain, which in the late night was illuminated brilliantly by stars and the Milky Way overhead, not to mention fields of yellow aspen and patches of ice and snow, Porter and I awoke at the head of Silver Falls Canyon in the Escalante — God's navel, as Edward Abbey called it — laying in the red earth of creation and watching the sun spark on high, deep-red cliffs above us. Behind us sat the Circle Cliffs, orange in the sunrise, far to the east were the Henry Mountains, and below us and down canyon was Silver Falls Canyon on its way to wed the Escalante, which in turn winds to the Colorado, which pools up in the stagnant heap of "Lake" Powell — actually a reservoir, and one John W. Powell would not like named in his honor, if he were around to see it happen — which gives way to Marble Canyon and the Grand Canyon and points beyond. So you get the idea.

Silver Falls Canyon

This morning, with the red sand in our hair — in Porter's white fur he actually turns a shade of peach — and empty bellies and cold, numbed fingers, we pack up the final essentials, drive the truck as far down the canyon as we can, until it becomes an impassable realm of sand and boulders, and set ourselves into the belly of the Earth.

Silver Falls Canyon — why it is called this I have never learned — is a narrow defile where water, drop by drop, over millions of years, has carved a channel hundreds of feet deep through Chinle, Navajo, Wingate and Kayenta sandstone. The different layers of the sandstone lie one on top of the other and where the canyon has cut across and through the layers you can easily pick each one out — Kayenta is red to brown and forms slopes, Wingate is red to dark red cliffs, Chinle is red, brown, purple or gray and forms slopes, and Navajo is the classic, vertical orange, white, and red sandstone.

At the head of the canyon, where we have parked the truck, the canyon is wide and not really that interesting, not if you know what's up ahead, anyway. We follow the mostly dry streambed into the belly of the canyon ever so slightly as the walls close in on us, down from 50 meters wide to 30 meters wide and several hundred, maybe 1000, feet deep. At times there is a small trickle of water in the bed, springs which flow from the canyon walls. The North Fork of Silver Falls Canyon joins the main canyon after a cool hour of hiking in the shadows, then after a half hour on the right there is the remains of a huge abandoned meander of the river which now stands alone as a tall butte off to the side of the canyon.

The canyon is choked with some massive boulders that have fallen from the cliffs above. There are pools and puddles and quicksand and tall cottonwoods turning green-to-yellow. It is, I think, a very beautiful place.

Harris Canyon

Geography, I think, is a place that we as a culture have to learn to love. Thirty years ago Escalante and Moab and San Rafael and Zion and their red sandstone walls were shit. I mean, no one cared about these places, no one loved them, and almost no one cared for them. America was in love with the Rockies or the Pacific Coast or other places which the consciousness of human sensibility had already learned to love — places which we were told were beautiful, and we believed what we were told. Southern Utah definitely did not hold that place, and the parks that were here then, like Arches, were lonely, dusty outposts frequented only by uranium miners and the first bunch of river runners. And then, in the late 60s, something happened. People like Edward Abbey, Charles Bowden, Wallace Stegner and Ken Sleight came along, people who could understand the lay of the desert, read it, and relate it to the rest of the world in a way that helped us to understand that what appears to be so famished, bare, and grotesque as a desert is in truth a thing of beauty, too.

Long before any of them — and long before anyone even cared to listen — there was Everett Ruess. Ruess, as a teenager during the Depression, traveled the West by hitchhiking, or on foot or leading a burro. He went from town to town, visiting artists and befriending intellectuals, selling his writing, sketches, or wood block carvings and moving on. In October, 1934, at the age of 20, Ruess walked into the Mormon settlement of Escalante — which was then and still is a very small and remote area — and befriended locals, who put him up for several weeks and listened to his stories of travel. On November 11, Ruess set out south on the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, headed towards Arizona and canyon country, and was never seen again.

Ruess' tale is perhaps the most intriguing mystery alive today on the Colorado Plateau. It was not simply the case of a city kid — Everett was from L.A. — who walked off a cliff at night or was robbed and shot by bandits or wandered off to live with the Navajo on Navajo Mountain. Ruess, historians believe, was smart enough not to do anything too stupid, and yet the wonderfully articulate letters he wrote home were full of allusions to suicide or wishes of escape and disappearance from civilization; they were both prophetic and puzzling. The search for Ruess was one of the largest manhunts ever at that time in Utah, yet it failed to produce little more than a few bootprints in the sand. The allure lives on: Even today, there are Everett Ruess "sightings" all the time.

How much George Brigham Hobbs liked the Escalante is another question altogether. Hobbs spent his 24th birthday in 1883 with a mule and a horse marooned at the bottom of Silver Falls Canyon during and after a blizzard. Hobbs was ferrying supplies to Mormons living on the other side of the Escalante, and he and his mule and horse had walked with the food across the Wolverine Bench, into Silver Falls Canyon, and had planned to cross the Escalante River, head back up Harris Wash on the other side, and continue to a settlement then called Montezuma. But the blizzard halted his progress, and Hall spent five days in the sunless bottom of the canyon, sure he was going to die. Perhaps as a way to pass the time, or as a monument to his life, he chipped his name in two-foot high letters on the wall of the canyon beneath an overhang tall enough to comfortably fit a ten-story building underneath. Hobbs likely had less of an appreciation for the beauty of the Escalante than holiday-makers like myself do.

After the Hobbs inscription, and the small marker erected by his family in 1957, the canyon narrows even further, and follows wild swings and oxbows, and the smooth walls above take on the muted colors of the late morning. Porter and I, tired and sore after a solid morning of hiking with a pack — I had the pack, he didn't — arrive in more quicksand at the mouth of the Escalante River, the superhighway of the desert. I take off my shoes and wade into the cold water.

Canyon in Escalante

My original plan for this trip was to hike down Silver Falls to the Escalante, then down the Escalante to Choprock Canyon, up Choprock and then overland, back to the mouth of Silver Falls. But I was following directions from guide book I was not used to. The directions said, basically, go down to the Escalante, take a left, then hike up the fourth canyon on your left. 'Forth canyon on your left' is fine if your idea of a canyon and the author's idea of a canyon are same thing, and that assumes you can even find the canyons; many of them are lost behind the thickets of tamarisk and cottonwoods that line the banks of the Escalante. But I was not sure that our definitions matched, and the belly of the Escalante is a lousy place to be stuck in. So I was sitting there, at the confluence of the Esclante and Silver Falls, rubbing my sore feet and lathering on sunscreen, watching Porter play in the quicksand and snap at flies that hummed in the sunlight, and I did something I rarely ever do: I decided to change my plans, and do something entirely different. And that is where I started to write this story.

Read next week to see: If Jeff's brain explodes from all this esoteric thinking, if he gets lost and dies in the wilderness, or if he find Nirvana and promises to himself never to tell anyone about it.

Part 2

For more information on the Grand Staircase/Escalante area, visit the Garfield County Travel Council or call 435-676-1160.

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