Having 1290-some miles under my belt in the past 33 hours, I planned to take hike #1 at the closest trailhead. Courthouse Towers beckoned. It was 6:20 pm, and a lovelier evening could not be imagined. I had memorized much of the park map over the past five months, so knew that it was an “easy one-mile hike with return over same trail” through towering fins that remind one of skyscrapers on Park Avenue. The tennis shoes I’d been wearing for a couple of days were perfect, as was the temperature and the attitude of the hiker. I had my water along. Being new at 5000 feet, I started at the downhill end so I could have energy for the return. O joy! My first steps are taken! Twenty minutes or so of picking my way nimbly through a large ancient wash yielded discoveries of ephemeral pools in potholes, teeming with tadpoles and water insects and larval crustaceans who have to hatch, mature, and procreate before the pool dries up. It felt as if I were walking on the back of a millennia-old whale, crusted with lichens, smeared with red sand, divots missing where erosion was most active. Layers of ancient tidal flats and beaches were underfoot.
The farther away from the parking area I got, the more alive the desert became… and the more silent. I was working my way slowly uphill, easy walking, following cairns carefully placed there by generations of previous walkers. Every once in a while a breeze would come up; it was as if it were trying to push on these giant sails of ancient sailing vessels, humming and whistling as it did. When it died in a few moments, the stillness was overwhelming. I stopped — held my breath. If it weren’t for the one or two birds in the canyon, not one sound would be heard. I am told that the sound of the desert is equivalent to the sound inside a recording booth, and I do not doubt that for one second.
I picked my way further up the canyon, noticing that it was getting steeper and narrower. Had I seen a cairn recently? There were still shoe prints beneath my feet, however, so I pressed on. In another ten minutes I looked up and before me was a steep box canyon that was clearly a dead end. On my drive up, I had gone to the overlook of the trailhead at the other end for a view of my destination; I knew this canyon was not it. Others had been caught in the same predicament, though, judging from the waffle prints in the sand. I surmised that the REAL trail might be around the other side of a bookshelf-like projection a few minutes back, so abandoned the box canyon in favor of Plan B.
The second canyon, around the ‘bookcase,’ ended as the first one did. The same waffle footprints trekked there. It was now about 7:20 and I knew sunset was 8:40… but also knew that it could get very dark very quickly. I would take no chances. I started scouring for rock ledges under which I could sleep, if an emergency required it. There were plenty. Scorpions and midget faded rattlers already used them.
About now I am imagining my children rolling their eyes, saying, “Can you BELIEVE Mom got lost on her first easy walk?!?” “Yeah, so much for Ranger Mom!” “Well, she never was very good at directions…” I made the unanimous decision with myself to return to civilization, did a 180, and marched downward. The stillness was so marvelous that I began to place my feet where they would be most soundless. I slowed down and really, really listened to the wilderness. The surreal nature of my surroundings began to sink in as the sun slowly descended below the fins, leaving me in a shady glow that penetrated my whole being. I figured I’d find the last cairn and solve the mystery.
Cairn-imps should be strung up by both thumbs. Some industrious child had felt like stacking rocks where rocks should not have been, leading me off course on my ascent. It became apparent that I needed to have taken a left fork instead of the right fork I had inadvertently taken, so I moved the cairns to their proper location and built three more of my own to reinforce the proper wash in which to walk. And then I looked at the sun, looked at my watch, and walked up to where three Rock Wrens were chattering and playing. Two fins that intersected like a massive prow of a litho-Titanic were leading me back to my car. I reflected on my first important lesson of the desert: Side canyons are incredibly easy to get lost in. Don’t lose your cairns. Ignore footprints. And don’t forget to listen to the silence.