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Adventures in Canyonlands

On car troubles, nuclear power, and life in the desert

“Next services on I-70 110 miles,” warns the sign on the side of the highway just outside Green River, Utah, the longest stretch of Interstate in the country without a gas station.

And that’s one of the reasons I love Utah. Despite twenty-first century safety culture, where our own cars harass us if we don’t buckle up, the Beehive State is one of the last places in the US that respects our God-given right to risk an untimely death.

photo of canyonlandsPhoto by PDTillman The author has traveled to the desert every season for the last several years.

The gas gauge reads three-fourths full, which I figure is enough to get me to my destination and back out again, while the spare tire I bought two weeks earlier gives me that extra dose of confidence.

It’s late August and I’m coming back to the desert again, as I’ve done nearly every season for the last few years since moving to Colorado. I’m not sure what my obsession with canyon country is exactly, but it might have something to do with having spent most of my life among the sopping treescapes of the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. Enchanted for decades by the curve of emerald leaves and lush, frilly undergrowth, I’m now fixated on the stark bonework beneath.

I take the Hanksville exit and hurtle south on Highway 24 for 50 miles, the San Rafael Swell heaving off to my right. I pass the turnoff for Goblin Valley State Park and its globular mud fungi and take a quick left onto a nondescript red dirt road. The wooden sign at the intersection reads, “Horsehoe Canyon 32. Ranger Station 46. The Maze 4WD 80. Doll House 4WD 87. Hite Crossing 4WD 107.”

I’m at the brink of nowhere and my goal is to reach the middle, the Maze. The most difficult to access region of Canyonlands National Park, Backpacker Magazine has ranked the Maze as the most dangerous hike in America. My plan is to drive to its edge, set up camp, and enjoy a few days of backcountry exploration.

Though I’ll only be out here for four days, I’ve brought a week’s worth of food: pre-cooked packages of Tandoori rice and Mushroom Lo Mein, hardboiled eggs, salmon jerky, string cheese, almond bars, dried bananas, and a bag of kettle chips. Also, seven gallons of water, as temperatures still reach into the mid 90’s.

For the next 25 miles the road is flat, though recent heavy rains have left stretches of goopy mud furrowed with tire tracks, which I either jerk the wheel to avoid or stomp on the accelerator to plow through. Cows graze on the patchy rangeland to either side, hoofs punching through the thin crust of cryptobiotic soil that the National Park Service insists my boots must never touch.

At a fork in the road, I stop at a kiosk plastered with a series of posters and maps. One sign cautions travelers that if their GPS tells them this is the way to Arches National Park, “It is dead wrong!” Instead, the left fork, Lower San Rafael Road, takes you to Horseshoe Canyon in a few miles (a detached unit of Canyonlands), and the town of Green River 45 miles later.

Another sign reminds fans of the movie 127 Hours hoping to retrace Aron Ralston’s route through the nearby Bluejohn Canyon that if Search and Rescue has to come looking for them they’ll be paying out of pocket, which, if a helicopter is involved, can run as high as $20,000.

Breaking the silence, I laugh out loud at these naïve city folk flocking to the desert unprepared, expecting others to save their asses when the going gets tough. I have no way of knowing that, before long, I’ll be needing a rescue of my own.  

I take the right fork and bump along for another twenty miles to Hans Flat Ranger Station, considered the most remote such facility serviced by the National Park Service in the lower forty-eight. It’s basically a glorified double-wide trailer with a radio antennae on top, an American flag clinking in the breeze, a picnic bench, and a concrete pit toilet.

I go inside to buy the permit. The ranger, a tanned woman in her early fifties, asks me where I’m headed. Looking at the map spread out on the counter, I randomly point to the Flint Seep campsite 15 or so miles in. She asks what I’m driving and, when I tell her, she smiles and shakes her head.

“You won’t make it,” she says almost cheerily, and instead suggests the North Point campsite three miles down the road.

Scrutinizing the map, I see it’s another 25 miles to the border of the Maze District. With a sigh, I accept that I won’t be getting there this trip, though I vow to come back in the spring with my mountain bike. I’m disappointed, but I don’t let it get me down — there’s still 1.25 million square miles of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to explore.

I tell her I’m looking for some long day hikes and she tells me there is only one official route nearby, the 7-mile North Trail Canyon. As she fills out the permit, I’m both resentful of having to lay out my itinerary for the government, and secretly relieved that someone will know where I am.

I get back into the car and head down the road, which almost immediately degrades into shelves of jagged rock. For the next quarter-mile I crawl over and around various obstacles, and then the road settles back to dirt, as if that first rugged section had been designed to weed out the faint hearted.

After a few miles I find the turnoff that leads to the campsite, but instead of turning into the little cul-de-sac, I keep going to see if I can make it to Cleopatra’s Chair or Panorama Point, both about ten miles out. Not a minute later, I stomp on the brakes to avoid dropping onto a section of road that appears to have had a massive bite taken out of it, feasible to get down but nearly impossible to get back up. I return to the campsite and set up my tent with an impressive view of the canyon 1,000 feet below, which I’ll be descending into the next day.

The next morning, temperatures already in the 80s and climbing, I set out on foot along the road for a mile until I reach the North Point trailhead. The trail declines slightly for about a half-mile and then flattens out. Moments later, I sense a void, and I’m standing at the verge of a cliff, a chasm between me and a rock face hundreds of yards away. A chunk of the rim has been carved out which I realize, with mounting horror, is the trail down.

It’s less a fear of heights than it is of edges. I don’t mind being on top of a 14,000 foot mountain, so long as it’s a gradual climb up and down. But sheer drops into nothingness can turn my legs into those of a wobbly toddler. 

My rule for any of my solo treks is that I have to push past the first uncomfortable trailside drop off I come across, though the second one is fair game for retreat. Once, in the Needles District of Canyonlands, I made myself crawl on my belly along a ledge to get past a particularly nerve-wracking stretch of trail.

“I can do this,” I say out loud. “I can do this.” I summon the courage to peek over the brink and spy a sandy wash a few hundred feet below that I assume is the trail.

“I don’t know if I can do this.” I take a step back and sip some water, stalling. My every instinct tells me to turn back while I still can, but I’ve been hiking for less than an hour, and calling it a day isn’t an option.

I inch over to the notch and am relieved to see that the next switchback is only about ten feet below among the boulders, the same with the next one, and the one after that, all the way down the rocky pitch to the wash. I remind myself that I can always turn around if I have to. An extremely steep stretch of trail, no doubt, but the switchbacks are perfectly engineered to avoid all vertical plunges, and I make it the bottom without incident.

It’s in the 90s and my eyes tear from the sun as I pass orange cliff faces, collared lizards, and the occasional trickle of an alkaline stream crusting the dirt white. A couple of hours and several miles later, I’m at the bottom of huge bowl surrounded by three hundred foot rock walls.

All at once I get a sense of how remote I am: I figure the closest person is at the Ranger station ten miles away, with maybe another dozen or so humans within a 30-mile radius in all directions. The nearest paved road is 50 miles away, the closest town, Hanksville, 70 miles to the southwest.

If I get hurt and can’t make it back to camp, maybe one of the Rangers will come looking for me. But not for three days. I can probably ration the jerky, but I’ve already drunk most of my gallon and a half of water.

Having once again proven whatever it is I have to keep proving to myself on these trips, I turn back, returning to camp before sundown without so much as a blister. Since I’ve already used up the only official hiking route and have been advised not to drive any further towards the Maze, I decide to find somewhere else to hike the next day.

In the morning, I pack up the tent and drive the 25 miles to Horseshoe Canyon, the detached unit of Canyonlands. I count about two dozens lizards along the three-and-a-half-mile trail through a sandy wash to the most stunning array of petroglyphs I’ve ever seen: Broad-shouldered yet armless triangular figures, like someone in a sleeping bag with his head poking out. A bullheaded, horned monster. Some one-eyed ghost thing. A dog with six toes on each paw.

photo of petroglyphsPhoto Josh Schlossberg Petroglyphs in Horseshoe Canyon, a detached unit of Canyonlands National Park.

I camp out that night near the trailhead, images of human-animal hybrids floating before my eyes as I drift off to sleep in a sleeping bag of my own.   

Regretfully, the next morning it’s time to head back to “civilization.” I continue along Lower San Rafael Road towards Green River, just over 40 miles away. It’s classic Roadrunner and Coyote scenery in every direction, buff monoliths, rusty reefs, cloistered canyons, and open range. The road is impeccably groomed and I don’t see a single car for thirty miles.

About twelve miles outside of Green River I feel a jolt, like I’ve run over a rock. The bumps continue and I pull over. Sure enough, the front right tire is flat. I smile, having prepared myself both physically and emotionally for this exact circumstance with my brand new spare.

I dig the jack and tire iron out of the back, crank the car up six inches, unscrew the lug nuts, and yank off the wheel. Inhaling the fresh rubber scent of the spare, I align the holes with the bolts, which is a bit tricky since there are twice as many as on the original wheel.

Odd. No matter which way I turn the wheel, I can’t seem to get it to fit. A runnel of sweat glides down my ribcage. At first incredulous, I now accept the inevitable: the tire shop sold me the wrong damned wheel.

Before I can process what this means, I hear the rumble of an approaching vehicle coming from the opposite direction. It’s a flatbed pickup and it grinds to a halt in a roostertail of red dust.

“Trouble?” asks a bearded man in a baseball cap and camo jacket leaning out of an open window.  

“Haven’t decided yet,” I say, and explain the situation.

“Want me to take a look?”

Prideful as I am about my command of certain topics, car stuff isn’t one of them, so I take him up on his offer. Kneeling down beside me, he tries to line the wheel up to the lug bolts, and like me, fails to do so. A part of me is pleased that I’m not the only one who can’t figure it out. He asks me to jack up the car a bit, which I do. It still doesn’t fit.

He tells me to “give her another crank.” When I do, the jack punches through the dirt and the car settles with a crunch, both of us leaping backwards.

“How about you grab the tire and we’ll get you patched up in town,” he says, standing up and dusting off the knees of his jeans. The only other option is to call a tow, but even that’s not possible without cell coverage. So I pick up the flat, shove it into the back of his pickup, and get in.

“Really appreciate it,” I say, glancing at the empty gun rack behind me, wondering where the rifle might be.

“Wasn’t about to leave you stranded out here. Especially not on this stretch.” He goes on to tell me about a shooting that took place within a mile of here, where a county worker driving a road grader was shot dead through the window by a madman hiding by the side of the road.

“Interesting.” I stare straight ahead at the red road, wondering why anyone would share such a disturbing story with a stranger who just got in their car. Then I figure that, as the stranger by the side of the road, I’m the one fitting the profile of the bad guy.

He fills me in on the details. Back in 1988, Scott Joseph Merrill, 29, fired multiple shots into the grader’s window with his .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle, eight of them hitting and killing Charles Watterson, a 62-year-old married father of 6. Merrill then stole the contents of Watterson’s wallet, dragged his body off the road, and dumped it in a ravine.

When police searched the area, they found footprints with a small chunk missing from the tread leading to a remote camp in the desert, where officers found Merrill’s driver’s license. The same footprints were found outside a motel in Green River, where they apprehended Merrill, who had recently come into town via train.

At the trial, Merrill admitted to murdering Watterson, but said the law shouldn’t apply to him because he had been commanded by God to “deliver justice.” After pleading no contest and accepting a plea bargain, Merrill was sentenced to life in prison.

Once we exhaust the topic of homicide, my driver introduces himself as Gary. Born and raised in Green River, he’s married to his high school sweetheart, with whom he has four kids. For work, he’s a hunting guide and mechanic. He’s the exact same age as me.

I compare our lives. Instead of sticking around my hometown, I’ve lived in almost a dozen different towns around the US. While he’s married with kids, I’m childless and in a long distance relationship. He earns his living by the sweat of his brow and I do so from behind a laptop. One thing we do have in common is that both of our lifestyles bring us out into the middle of the desert alone.

When he learns I’m a journalist, he nods approvingly. “So what do you think of the nuke plant?”

He’s referring to the Blue Castle Project, a $13.4 billion, 1,100-megawatt nuclear power facility proposed for a site four miles east of Green River.

Though the project has been in the works for ten years, according to Ashley Soltysiak, Policy Director for HEAL Utah, a Salt Lake City-based environmental organization opposed to the facility, its future is unlikely. A few factors — including a lack of financing, little interest from utilities to purchase the power, Blue Castle Holdings declining to make payments on water rights, and the recent bankruptcy of Westinghouse, the contractor that was to design the reactor — makes her think the proposal is stalled.

I decide to dodge the question. “At least two sides to every story. What’s your take?”  

“We need it,” he says. And then quickly adds, “I understand the concerns, though.”

Feigning disinterest, I look out the window at an island of salmon rock. “Such as?”

“Accidents happen. But they’re pretty rare.”

“Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. Fukushima,” I say. “That’s three in sixty years.” Not opinion, just facts. Still, I look at him out of the corner of my eye to see if he’s getting rankled, in which case I intend to shift the conversation back to a safer topic, like murder. Instead, he shrugs and cocks his head in acknowledgment.

I continue. “Then there’s the waste issue. Gotta put that stuff somewhere.”

“We’ll figure it out,” he responds. “New technology coming out all the time.”

Though our technology isn’t anywhere close to safely disposing of radioactive waste, the future is always uncertain, so I let it slide. I’m about to mention water, of which power plants require massive quantities, when he brings it up himself.

“They keep saying the river’s going to go dry,” he says.  

“You don’t think so?”

“Been watching that river my whole life.” He waves his hand vaguely off to the right where, across a mile of desert, the Green River cuts through the sandstone. “More than enough to go around.”

The state of Utah concurs. In July 2016, the Utah Court of Appeals denied HEAL Utah’s appeal of a previous court ruling that had determined water withdrawals to cool the plant wouldn’t harm the river.  

“I care about the land. I wouldn’t live here if I didn’t.” He yanks the brim of his hat up and down, as if greeting someone on the side of the empty road. “We’re just tired of seeing our kids move away because there’s no work for them.”

I think of Moab, once a quiet desert village and now a congestion of hotels, restaurants, and gift shops. “Even with all the tourists?”

“That’s fine when you’re young, but you can’t start a family on those kinds of jobs.”

We cross the railroad tracks and pass the first house I’ve seen in days, a modest ranch home. And then a whole block of them. We’re officially in Green River, population 929.

We turn onto the strip, which isn’t much, just gas stations, a few restaurants, some cheap motels, and the occasional empty, boarded up shop. I figure the town has looked roughly the same for the last fifty years. Would a nuke plant change all that?

“Are most people around here in favor of it?” I ask.

“In Green River they are,” he says. “Moab’s a different story.”

While both towns are home to working class folks, Moab tends to attract more “outdoorsy” people and enviros, along with owners of tourism and recreation businesses who depend on Utah’s well-deserved reputation for natural beauty. A large percentage of Moabites, and many of the 1 million people who visit the town every year, want to see as much of Utah kept off limits to industry — oil, gas, mining, and nuclear — as possible.

Gary and other many other Utahns might be in favor of more industry, but they don’t want to see Utah despoiled either. They appreciate the land, if not in a romantic way, in a personal way, as their roots run deep in that sandy soil. The whole reason they want this development is so they can afford to keep living in the desert they love so much — the desert that outsiders such as myself only visit a few times a year.

Whatever your opinion on nuclear power, it’s hard to deny the irony of city dwellers enjoying the most consumptive lifestyles the world has ever known forbidding rural folks living much simpler lives from generating their own electricity.

Halfway down the strip, Gary pulls over at an auto repair shop. He grabs the wheel out of the back and I roll it over to a guy in dirty coveralls. Without looking at me, the mechanic sets it in a machine that separates the wheel from the tire. As he works, he talks to Gary about a State Trooper they both know who’s moving out of town.  

I have nothing to contribute to the conversation, so I stand there self-consciously, suddenly aware of how much the mechanic’s and Gary’s work clothes contrast with my quick-dry, breathable polyester t-shirt, zip-off hiking pants, and sandals.

The mechanic pinches a small nail out of the inside of the tire and drops it into my open palm. I think back to the day before leaving on my trip, where I had to fill up the right front tire with air because it had run low. Turns out I had picked up the nail somewhere in Denver and the slow leak was to blame for deflating the tire to the point where it was susceptible to a flat. Here I was blaming the desert for the damage, when root of the problem had come from the city.

I toss the newly patched tire in the back of Gary’s flatbed. “Got time for lunch or do you have to get back?” I ask.

“Gotta eat somewhere,” he says.

Gary chooses a restaurant overlooking the Green River that doubles as a Bed and Breakfast. The server, a blonde woman in her 40s, comes over and greets Gary by name.

After taking our orders, Gary tells her that she should sell the restaurant — apparently she’s also the owner — and get a job as a receptionist over at the nuke plant. I’m not sure if he’s joking, though she seems to consider the proposal before going off to the kitchen.  

While eating our lunch, Gary explains the best way to cook catfish as we watch the river flow by, robust and healthy, much higher than I would’ve expected for summer in the desert. But will it always?

Then we’re in the pickup again, heading back on Lower San Rafael Road, and before I know it, I see my dusty car. Gary insists on replacing the patched wheel himself and reminds me to check it after driving on it a while. I try to offer him money for his time, but he declines. We say our goodbyes and he scrawls his phone number on a scrap of paper in case I’m back this way again and “run into any more problems.”

Back on the Interstate, I pull over a half hour later and, indeed, the tire is leaking a little bit, but not too badly. I end up stopping every 100 miles or so to top off the air on the 350-mile trip back to Denver.

The next day, I drive out to my local tire place to see if they can do anything about the leaking patch and exchange the spare for one that actually fits. The mechanic looks at the car and tells me the patch did as good a job as it could, but there’s been too much damage and the whole tire needs to be replaced. I tell him he can use the new spare.

A few minutes later he comes back and tell me I’m good to go. “The new tire fit alright?”

The mechanic shakes his head. “Used the old one. Fit like a glove.”

Josh Schlossberg
Josh Schlossberg is an investigative journalist living in Denver, Colorado.

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Great line: “the stark bonework beneath’. I love it too. Your story echoes some of my adventures in the vast wilds of the Utah desert. Enjoyed it!

By Catherine Spader on Sun, October 22, 2017 at 12:06 pm

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