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.


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