Ranger Kathryn's Arches

March 27, 2011

Twelve reasons why I prefer dirt roads

Dirt road from Horseshoe Canyon to Hwy 24 — Henry Mtns in background

Paved road heading toward Goblin Valley State Park, UT

Not having driven on a paved road for nine days, it was a bit disheartening to return to smooth surfaces as I exited Horseshoe Canyon. I found myself surprised at my new preference for dirt roads; what about them attracted me? It certainly wasn’t the washboard bumps or the frustrating unmarked forks. Here’s what I have come up with so far:

Driving dirt roads keeps me more attentive. Watching for rocks, washouts, cows, or encroaching sand dunes in my path makes driving more engaging.

Dirt roads take me places that paved ones can’t. I cross streams by getting the tires wet instead of using a bridge. I get to cool trailheads that most of the populace won’t.

Dirt roads aren’t as environmentally jarring. Not only are there fewer (or no) signs telling me how and where to drive, but the natural surface is the same color as the surroundings.

Dirt roads allow me to be more in touch with the earth. It’s like going barefoot, in a vehicular sense. I can sense the lay of the land better, as huge earth-moving machines haven’t altered the contours or sliced through hills.

Speed limits are self-imposed instead of sign-imposed. This is not an invitation to recklessness but to increased awareness of my vehicle’s handling and the road’s condition.

Dirt roads have little traffic. It’s rare to meet another car or truck. Most of the time, I’ve got the road to myself.

Dirt road sights are more interesting. Calves and cows, blooming plants, kangaroo rats, decrepit old buildings, hawks, tornado-twisted trees… all up close and personal.

Dirt roads demand more personal responsibility. Only some of these roads are on the map, so it’s up to me to prepare myself for travel in an unknown area. This feels right, as well as keeping me sharp.

Dirt roads embody a certain sense of adventure. I don’t feel this on paved roads, usually, but dirt roads are the equivalent of question marks: Where will it lead? Does my vehicle have high enough clearance? Will I be able to turn around? Is there any gas?

Dirt roads keep the riff-raff out. I mean, you’ve got to want to be going somewhere if you’re on dirt. People who drive dirt drive it with purpose. Not a lot of sight-seers, and only a few hooligans with Jeeps/OHVs. Lots of local ranchers and other colorful types.

Dirt roads invite me to be aware of the weather. Precipitation in any form alters the road surface. High winds can deposit deep sand drifts. The local municipalities care for the paved roads, but on dirt I need to be aware so I won’t get stuck.

Dirt roads invite interaction with other drivers. When I encounter another vehicle we always acknowledge one other — it’s that “wave without lifting your hand from the steering wheel” motion. This never happens on paved roads.

Feel free to add anything I’ve forgotten. Did you know I love your comments?

The theatre of nature

On the Ides of March, Barrier Creek is still frozen solid in the shade. It's nearly 70 degrees and I'm in shorts and tank top -- for one day only.

Rolling over in my sleep, my cheek hit the cold pillowcase. I pulled the ten-degree sleeping bag more tightly around my head and burrowed deeper into its coziness. Light from the setting full moon was peeking around the curtain edges, though, telling me that it was a good time to get up and make tea.

I keep the matches next to my bed so I can light the propane lantern without exiting my bag. That accomplished, I could now see my breath, so pulled on the nearest fleece and slipped out of my cocoon of warmth. The glorious luminescence flooded in as I pushed the curtains aside. I’d like to say I ran to the door to get an entire panorama of a 5:47 a.m. moonlit desert, but it was only two steps away.

A milky bluish glow illuminated every knoll, sand dune, nook and cranny. Venus was a brilliant dot above the eastern horizon, and Ursa Major oriented me to true north. The vain queen Cassiopeia looked regal on her throne. In a pre-pre-dawn aura of light, the outline of the La Sal Mountains shimmered to the east.

For the first time in many days, it was perfectly calm. Shivering involuntarily in the 28-degree chill, I realized that my comfort-based mindset is slowly relaxing its grip on me. Since my job was to hike the canyon every day regardless of how bad the conditions were, I adjusted my expectations and did what I came to do.

“Discomfort is the price of admission to the theatre of nature.” — Tom Brown, Jr.

Describe a time you sacrificed your comfort in order to truly experience nature. Was it worth it?


March 23, 2011

Horseshoe Canyon: Radio Glitch

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 11:02 pm
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“600? 681.” Pause. Nothing.

“600? 681, Grandview.” Long pause. Nothing.

I, volunteer #681, was trying to contact the Hans Flat ranger station (#600) on channel 2 (Grandview) for my twice-daily check-in. I could hear other radio traffic, but obviously was not transmitting. If the ranger station an hour away didn’t hear from me for a day, they’d send someone to check on me, and I did NOT want that to happen. I was fine.

Sunrise over the La Sal Mountains, as seen from Sheep Camp

I switched to the relay channel that the NPS put up, and couldn’t get anything on that either. After reading the entire radio manual in the trailer, and trying everything I could think of — including trying to radio Arches National Park whose traffic I could hear, and having them call Hans Flat — I shrugged and gave up. I’d be in a pickle only if a real emergency arose, but there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.

I drove to Hans Flat on Day 3 for a potluck and a hiking expedition, and walked into the ranger station carrying my radio. Within minutes Gary had checked its innards, reprogrammed it, and rendered it fully functional. Whew. Now 681 could call 600… and she hopes it is only twice a day for routine check-in.

Have you ever been out of touch with civilization for long? How did it feel? What concerns did you have?

Horseshoe Canyon: Sheep Camp

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:50 pm
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Sheep Camp at Horseshoe Canyon trailhead -- my home for nine days

The adorable 15×7 foot trailer (nicknamed ‘Sheep Camp’) beckoned me: “Come, stay awhile.” In 1994 the Park Service parked it behind some sand dunes and attached a solar panel, and rangers and volunteers have been living in it ever since when they patrol the canyon for a stretch of time. Somehow I had envisioned a dusty old hantavirus-laden box which I’d share with small critters, but this was a camper’s delight.

I unlocked the door and found sweet quarters for my solar- and LP-powered wilderness habitation. A tiny kitchen, bench seats, and lofted bed welcomed me. Ruffled blue curtains covered the three windows. A couple of propane lanterns (mantles intact) graced the walls, and a battery-powered radio pulled in a few Salt Lake City stations. Water containers and an ice chest were brought from the station an hour away by a ranger. The outhouse at the trailhead was nearly a half mile off; I’m not shy about peeing behind a blackbrush.

Kathryn surveying her kingdom from Sheep Camp

After reading a bit about the rich local history, I fell asleep my first night wondering how many Basque sheepherders slept on this knoll. Up to the mid-20th century, thousands of head of sheep were grazed in this canyon. This spot made a good camp for the shepherds since it was near the livestock trail that leads down 750 feet to Barrier Creek, the only water supply. Today this rough trail provides the access for most hikers wanting to see the rock art; I would become quite familiar with all 6.5 miles of it over the next nine days.

Comments: Have you any clear memories of a particularly delightful cabin or campsite you’ve occupied?

May 5, 2010

Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon

The "Great Ghost Panel" at the Great Gallery; tallest figure 7 feet

It’s only been a couple of years that I’ve been wanting to hike into Horseshoe Canyon, in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park, to view some of the finest pictographs in North America. An hour-plus on paved roads, an hour on mesa-top dirt roads, and several hours of hiking took me there today.

Love those last three words... an NPS afterthought?

Because we did not get our summer monsoon rains late last summer, and we have had no flash flooding this spring, this 6.5-mile hike feels a lot more like a 10-mile hike as deep soft sand fills the wash now. It’s challenging to hike in, but at least the temps in the 60s and 70s made it more bearable. This hike is brutal in the hot summer months.

Sara and I headed down with anticipation, keeping our eyes open for rattlesnakes that might be sunning themselves on the path. We saw only dinosaur footprints marked by cairns. (This did not disappoint us.) Occasional bird calls from halfway down the canyon enticed us onward. We had the place to ourselves; there was no noise other than our boots on the Navajo sandstone and intermittent puffs of wind rustling the blackbrush. A single primrose along the trail dispensed its perfume as we passed, and I knelt down to inhale deeply of this ephemeral scent. Signs of a higher water table greeted us at the bottom, as Fremont’s Cottonwoods were abundant.

Hunting panel at Horseshoe Shelter - that's some pretty large prey!

The first panel of pictographs appeared as we stood at a fork in the trail and wondered which way to go. Dashing for the canyon walls, we found a hunting panel with a bow-and-arrow man. In this vicinity, that means post-1100 A.D., the most recent of this canyon’s art. My heart formed an immediate connection with the artist as I struggled to grasp his lifestyle.

Small center figure -- suppliant? beseeching? It's the only one with legs in the entire panel

We walked, mostly in silence, a couple of miles upstream before the prize came into view: “The Louvre of the Southwest,” a 200-foot panel of life-sized figures painted by Archaic peoples who lived between 2500 B.C. and 500 A.D. I stopped dead in my tracks and my jaw fell open. No matter how beautiful it looked in my books, I was now HERE. Goosebumps rose.

a compelling figure

Image after image of elongated, limbless, floating creatures decorate the east canyon wall. Some are solid, some are extravagantly embellished, some are bug-eyed, some are eyeless, but all the torsos are just staring staring staring right back at me as I explore every one in turn. To me, the most riveting is the spectral outline (header photo) surrounded by dark figures. Was this a shaman? An important person? Part of their mythology? How do I interpret this without imposing my own cultural constraints on the artists of thousands of years ago?

We wondered aloud how the ancient people experienced this canyon, and whether it was significantly different thousands of years ago when the rock art was painted. What was the climate like? What water source did they depend on? How many Archaic people inhabited the area? What pigments did they use? Did these hunter-gatherers create incredible rock art because they had time on their hands? And… what were they trying to preserve?

A view down the long panel

The NPS has fashioned comfy stone benches underneath a stand of cottonwoods, and provides two chained ammo boxes of surprises: one with exquisite interpretive literature and a journal to sign, and the other with a pair of binoculars to view the mural more closely. We plunked ourselves down and pulled out our clementines, almonds, and pretzels… and gazed at, contemplated, scrutinized the Barrier Canyon Style art before us. An entire subset of rock art was named after this type site, as the current Horseshoe Canyon was formerly called Barrier Canyon. It is the epicenter for southwestern pictography, and it had our full attention.

Eventually another human being came into view. Rats. We weren’t the only ones in this canyon on a gorgeous spring day. Vacating the area to give him some private moments with the figures, we headed back downstream a mile to a site with further rock art in it.

Alcove Gallery: least impressive rock art, most impressive space. See Sara for scale.

This breathtaking alcove might be eight stories tall; the space was magnificent. I can’t describe it except to say that I instantly felt a strong connection with this space/place, and wanted to linger as long as humanly possible to experience its beauty and uniqueness. Very few spaces have had an effect that powerful on me. With great sadness I viewed the 20th-century vandalism incised over some of the pictographs here.

Thank you, Archaics!

Time to head back to our car; it felt far away in both space and time. Our hearts were full, however, and profoundly changed for having had this opportunity to interact with the images left on porous rock by a nomadic people two to four millennia ago.

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