My second full day of Utah consisted of driving from Arches National Park to Grandstaircase-Escalante National Monument. Waking up late actually makes the story for this adventure of mine. From Arches to the trailhead of The Golden Cathedral in Grandstaircase-Escalante was a 6 hour drive by itself. We left around 11 A.M. and arrived at the dirt roads around 4:30 P.M. WARNING: All-wheel drive and high clearance vehicle recommended. Oops, definitely driving a Honda offroad for the next 25 miles. I usually (well, most of the time) am able to drive my car on these dirt roads despite the recommendations, but had to come to a complete stop 23 miles in when the road turned into a limestone washboard. It's currently 5:30 P.M. when we see a raised Tacomo easily maneuver over the rocky road. I asked the couple making their way out how the hike into the canyon is like and affirmed the hike was what I had read on google: difficult.
Sometimes you don't realize the enormity of your situation until some type of retrospect. So let me paint the picture for you. It's currently 15 minutes 'til 6 P.M. and I'm 2 miles away from the trailhead. The hike initially progresses down a slickrock of 1100 ft. elevation change to a 3 mile trek into the desert with constant landscape changes between cyrptobiotic soil and sandstone. You then reach a cliff overlooking the entire canyon with obvious signs of heavy vegetation. Once hiking down a sand dune into the slot canyon, you cross a river 4 times while being surrounded by dense shrubbery looking for the mouth of Neon Canyon. The last mile hike is then spent fenced in on both sides by the canyon's towering walls of eroded sandstone. That's a total of a 7 mile hike (more or less) just to get where I wanted to go before sunset at 8:30. Time was simply not on my side.
I decided to hike alone after setting up a plan with my friends Travis and Courtney if I didn't make it back. I honestly don't know where the determination was originating from. I just grabbed the 3L Camelback and my camera and booked it. I really wanted, more than anything, to get to my destination despite the warnings from hikers making their way back. I didn't care about the difficulty of finding a prominent trail in the sand or rely on cairns for a sense of direction. I did, however, out of precaution, mark an estimated direction of where to head back towards the trailhead with a compass: 320 degrees, NW.
The thing that I loved about Utah so far was the weather. The sunny skies in the desert could rapidly turn into a thunderstorm, which it did. I thought nothing about it. It didn't occur to me that if it were to produce heavy rainfall a flash flood could have wiped me out inside the slot canyon or even when I were crossing the river.
By the time I was inside the canyon, all I was thinking about was making it to the Golden Cathedral with plenty of light left to at least get a few photos. The entire time I was doubting my sense of direction even with the help of some camping canyoneers. My stamina was dropping and a sharp pain on the back of my left foot began to be apparent when I reached the Golden Cathedral. I made it a little after 8 P.M.
Everything about the Grand Cathedral was grand. It's eroded triple arch formation from pour off created this enormous center mouth where people can rappel down into the pool directly below it. Travis and I were talking about taking a dip, but with sunset approaching, definitely a bad idea. As with any location, I took my time and recuperated a bit while snapping photos. You possibly couldn't imagine how pleased I was with myself for making such good time.
The trek back was brutal. The water temperature dropped each time I crossed the river. Walking with a headlamp through the dense vegetation was no parade either. I was leading my tired self back purely on memory. I was climbing out of the canyon than hiking up switchbacks because I lost the trail a few times. My left foot was killing me and I had about 5 or 6 miles more until I reached the car with my awaiting friends.
I promised Travis and Courtney I'd be back by 10. When the article said you needed to have excellent navigational skills, they weren't kidding. I was fucking lost. I didn't know where the trail was anymore when I made it out of the canyon and back into the desert. The constant change in terrain fucked me over. I was reliant on spotting cairns in this dark, vast empty landscape with who knows what's around me. I honestly veered off the trail and gave up search from one cairn to another. Survival mode was pushing into full gear and the environmentalist in me couldn't have cared less about stepping on the vegetation and cryptobiotic crust. I had a pocket knife in my right hand while holding my phone in the other with the flashlight and compass app on. Keep heading northwest.
I began having thoughts of reevaluation. Where was I going in life? Why didn't I just tell her how I was feeling? How could I have hiked to this place and take photos I'm not even proud of? How am I going to die and have accomplished nothing? Fear and anxiety were accompanying me on the way back to the trail head. Sand was making its way inside my shoes, through my socks, and in between my toes. I was limping. I felt so uncomfortable. All I really wanted at this point was to collapse in exhaustion.
I made it back to the slickrock and climbed the 1,100 ft. elevation gain in hopes of finding the trailhead. No luck and no service. I was where I was suppose to be but where was the damn trailhead and parking lot?! Right about now I was giving up hope. I was crying for help only to hear the canyon echo it back. Yelling for my friends' names was futile. So I sat on a rock admiring the view of the entire canyon lit up by the stars contemplating defeat. I wanted my life to mimic spontaneous adventure as Jon Krakaeur writes of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild. What a shame to think I believed I was going to die out in the desert.
How I managed to find the BLM dirt road back to car through Google Maps with no service is still unknown to me. I got back to the car limping with a bruised achilles and tired legs. I didn't even want to know how long I could have lasted with my current rations. I was finally reunited with my friends after hours of mental and physical tormenting. Somehow, by luck, I survived getting myself out of the desert. Call me crazy, but the experience left me craving more.