Sunday, November 27, 2016

Endless Swell: San Rafael

Rubbing sand from our eyes, we duck behind a house-sized boulder and consult the map. Scrawled on a sheet of wrinkled scrap paper with barley legible notations, this map serves as our only guide in a trail-less chunk of desert wilderness.

Thirty miles west of Green River, Utah, the 2,000 square mile San Rafael Swell is a giant wave of rock rising from the surrounding desert's flat expanse. Unlike an ocean's gentle, rounded swell, time and the elements have morphed this swell into a maze of broad valleys and mesas, vertical walled canyons, and innumerable nooks and crannies. Though cleaved in two by I-70's fifty busy feet of pavement, there is little easy access into the Swell's vast wilderness. Existing roads leading to the interior are relics left by the hunt for uranium in previous decades. Ranging from eye-ball rattling washboards to impassable sandy washes, these roads guard a place with human history dating back at least 1500 years. Pictographs and petroglyphs can be found on the many cliffs and boulders of the landscape. Rotting fence posts and sun bleached bones of cattle hint at cattlemen's use in the 1800 and early 1900s. Graffiti from outlaws such as Butch Cassidy remind one of the ease with which one can get lost or lose others. This solitude is the reason for our visit.

A poor forecast sidelined our existing plans and saw us seeking alternatives. Our requirements were simple: some level of physical difficulty and one or more nights out, devoid of people and cell service. If the spot was blank on our personal maps, all the better.

A friend's eyes lit up with excitement when asked if he might have an idea that fit our requirements and the crude map we now held was the result. Notations such as "Endless Fun" and "The Vortex" started my imagination churning.

Ahead the road was washed out and deeply rutted. We pulled over and parked in a barren pullout two hours from asphalt. Dust billowed from any less than vertical surface upon slamming the doors. As we walked, the road continually deteriorated before ending in a grove of cottonwood trees flanking a small, muddy river. The San Rafael.

Various canyons, their walls soaring upwards, wandered away to our side and we checked our map before continuing. Golden leaves crunched under foot while a clay tiled walkway cracked and crumbled with our steps, leading us from the river toward the canyon on our map.

Fading footprints were the only signs of previous visitors and even those soon vanished all together. I felt  calm, yet invigorated. Ahead lay a place that few had seen and this thought's novelty made me acutely aware of our surroundings. A tickle of wind, scale like rock textures, a whiff of minerals or decomposition depending on the cleanliness of the pool we were approaching all pulled us deeper up canyon with little noticeable effort.

As the shadows reached our side of the canyon, we stopped. To continue would require scrambling up to a higher level and away from a water source. That could wait until morning. We made our camp on a rock balcony above a seasonal stream as the wind picked up, adding a bit of extra crunch to our dinners. Hoping for partial refuge from the blowing sand we pitched our tent. Frequent gusts made us brace for a sandy cascade that never arrived. Then the canyon gently sighed and magically sand coated every surface within our tent in that single soft breath.

At some point I woke wondering why someone was shining a light in my eyes before realizing a full moon had risen. Dawn arrived and we rinsed out our eyes. The Sandman had been generous.

Scrambling up the canyon's side to bypass a waterless fall, the map indicated we were nearing "The Vortex" and our pace subconsciously increased until we stood at a doorway to nature's cathedral. Standing in the middle of the space and gazing upwards, sculpted rock walls arched to a circular confluence of blue sky and passing clouds. I wondered if this view wasn't similar to that from within a fishbowl.

We laughed while our yells and animal impressions echoed off the walls.

Not what it seems, look again...
After our brief stay, we backtracked to find an escape that would lead us beyond "The Vortex" to the area of our map labeled "Endless Fun". This is the point where we find ourselves hiding in the wind shadow of a boulder ruminating over the map. The wind has returned, stronger than last night, and our world between the canyon's walls is saturated with sand.

From this point we are within a few hours hike of burgers at Ray's and showers at home. The prospect of spending what remains of the day and another night with sand coating every surface of our bodies and gear isn't appealing. We turn our backs to the wind and bail, leaving "Endless Fun" for another visit.

Reminders of childhood
Hiking out I don't feel any disappointment or regret over our decision, but I do have a lingering feeling that our map has an error where "Endless Fun" is written.

Perhaps this error was made with intention. Perhaps on the next map we get, "Endless Fun" will be labeled a little further up canyon just beyond where we'll reach on the next trip. Perhaps we will develop a deeper connection to those who explored these canyons in generations past. Perhaps we will return again and again finding more wonder and invigorating calm on each visit. Someday, perhaps we will realize that "Endless Fun" and the entire San Rafael Swell are synonymous.

Friday, November 18, 2016

A Different Adventure

There seem to have been some rather major events recently. For starters, there was an election with an awful, embarrassing result. An hour of daylight vanished. We bought a house.

Oh, we got engaged!

Time was successfully spent making a house into our home. A place of refuge and tranquility. 

Items once buried were uncovered. 

This, however, has not been without new challenges.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Falling Up

Despite the lack of blog activity outside of the Iceland posts, life has not been lacking in bustle and there's dozens (thousands) of photos, and the memories attached to them, hiding on my hard disk.

Summer and early fall offer overly warm days and loose, dusty trails in our desert home and free time is spent escaping to the cooler air and shade of the mountains. Most of the focus is surrounding our bikes and the exploration of new to us trails or locations, though occasional days spent in a boat help to rest our legs.

Wes, wet behind the ears
Whether for a single day or many, escaping four walls and air conditioning is of utmost importance.

Jackson, WY, Crested Butte, the Abajo Mountains of Utah. All different and fantastic.

Jackson has easy access to highly developed trails and decidedly less developed trails that have the feel of mini adventures.

Tales of recent grizzly sightings and trail-side berry filled piles of you can guess what were reminders that those of us with two legs and two tires are not atop the food chain in these parts.

Crested Butte feels akin to visiting an old friend. There's a comfortable feel to the town and trails, yet plenty of chances for a fresh experience to deepen the relationship.

And the Abajo Mountains. Secluded, spectacular trails and an entirely different character from the more popular La Sals. We avoided an alpine ride in Colorado due to a threatening weather pattern. Our friends went anyway and had great weather. We huddled under brush hiding from hail and felt claps of thunder shake the ground.

A fall takes grasp, the miles and miles ridden all spring and summer begin to catch up and my desire for other activities increases. A trail run here, a climb there, and the mandatory driving in the mountains when nature's golden confetti is released.

A while there is still room for a ride or two, the enjoyment stems more from the crisp air and the crunching of leaves under tires than from speed or the excitement of obstacles.


Days continue on with more and more pace. Now the stars are still up when I wake for work and the sun is casting long shadows when I get off. There are benefits, however. The Big Dipper is a friendly sight in the wee hours of the morning and I can enjoy an evening show while still making it to bed on time.

Now, most of the leaves have fallen in the high country and the wait begins. Can you guess what I'm waiting for?

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Meeting a significant other's family and parents is always a bit nerve wracking. Having your birthday occur during that same time period may make it even a bit more stressful.

Ask Keri, she'll give you first hand knowledge.

Recently my parents made a trip out west to tour around southern Utah and experience the natural treasures carved into the state's landscape. Not passing up this opportunity, Keri and I drove down to St. George to meet them for a few days of exploration and birthday celebration.

Bacon cracked and sizzled in the buttered pan. And stayed there, stuck in the overly thin frying pan. The pancakes I was making failed in an equally miserable manner. No amount of fiddling with the heat or oil could keep them from sticking. Birthday breakfast wasn't going very well. Plan B and our Egg McMuffins were missing cheese or other ingredients. Keri's birthday wasn't starting quite as planned.

Thankfully, exploring the sinuous and seemingly rhythmic walls from within a slot canyon is a magical experience that morphed the morning's cuisine challenges into a laughable memory.

My parents had never been is such a place and we were excited to be able to share in their encounter with this Dali like world. Our path wove in and out of the creek as we hiked up canyon, wading across the ankle deep water a dozen times before sandy banks reared up into vertical walls.


The path and the creek became one.

Clumsy numb feet occasionally stumbled over unseen rocks and clambering up wet ladders or around boulders felt more challenging that it should.

 We continued our narrow sighted hike until our feet longed for the warmth of sunlight and we returned the way we came.

Tuna steak, champagne, and chocolate cake were waiting at home. Surprise!
(I think she knew what was planned, but she played along)


The next day found us getting dropped off at Zion National Park's eastern entrance. We were on the prowl for fall colors and a bit of isolation.

We mostly ran, though sometimes hiked when lungs or legs or earth required, and enjoyed the beginning of desert fall. We lounged in the lawn at Zion Lodge and ate ice cream while my parents returned from their own adventure.

Leaving the park that afternoon, we stopped by the visitor center to grab a permit for our visits grand finale.

"Do you have a rope?"


"Is it long enough?"


"Do you have wetsuits?"

"Drysuits," I reply with a grin.

"Even better," says the park ranger as he hands us our permit.

My parents laughed at us preforming drysuit yoga in synchrony. They'd been gracious enough to drive us through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel to the head of the canyon we'd soon be descending and being mocked seemed fair payment.

Besides, the more that eyes are rolled the worse it gets!

A muted splash echos up from the shadowy chamber I'd tossed our rope into and Keri starts rappelling towards the splash's source.

Extra air in our drysuits keeps us buoyant as we roll on our backs, slowly drifting through dim dream-like hallways filled with water. We continue down canyon, making more rappels, eventually dropping into an aqua pool and finding ourselves in bright sunshine.

Our hike out took longer than the descent as we negotiated a pathless jumble of boulders within the creek bed. The same water that made us shiver in the dark became our relief from the sun when we dunked our heads to keep cool.

Hide and Seek

Making our way back to the road, my parents once again picked us up and we drove into the mountains and golden fall foliage.

Panoramic vistas with a kaleidoscope of color contrasted starkly with the environment we'd spent the morning exploring.

We ended our stay with dinner and the long drive home. This milestone passed with the same ease as each highway mile marker did at 75mph.

See ya on the other end