Tales of the Trail: On the Way Out

The following story first appeared in Jim’s newsletter, Wild Wind.  

The swallows are already swooping and diving in the canyon when I awake. The rain from the night before is long gone, but the smell of wet slickrock fills the air. The overhang I’ve slept under has provided a cozy shelter from the storm. I watch the swallows from the comfort of my sleeping bag, hating to move as if it might shatter the peace of the stillness I find myself in. Somewhere a canyon wren’s trill spirals down the sandstone walls.

      This is my last morning out. It has been a short trip. For six days I’ve been wandering Cheesebox Canyon and exploring its nooks and crannies. It’s a place I’ve been meaning to come back to for several years. After the past few days, I know I’ll return once again. It’s a wild place, part of the vast White Canyon roadless area which many concerned citizens have been trying to protect through passage of America’s Redrock Wilderness Act. The solitude has been wonderful, the scenery incredibly beautiful, and the feeling one of complete awe.

     The hiking has been difficult with a full pack. In fact, sometimes it was more climbing, leaping, stretching than it was just walking. But I needed that. After a serious back injury last summer and not being able to backpack, I was excited to put the pack on and feel good about it.

     But now it is time to head out. I rouse myself out of the sleeping bag and fix a quick breakfast. In no time I’m shouldering the pack and walking a ledge above a sharp narrows. In minutes I come to the junction with White Canyon. The pack must be lowered by rope down a small cliff, and then I follow with an easy downclimb. In the rocky wash of White Canyon I turn downstream and follow its smooth, streaked walls.

      On a previous trip Leslie and I had walked nearly the entire length of this canyon as part of a 5-week loop hike with a couple other canyon systems. It’s easy walking and the silence is soothing. My footsteps are the only sound, crunching lightly in the sand or scraping across the bedrock ledges. I poke along and after just a few bends in the canyon find myself wondering about the ledges overhead. They look like a likely place for shelter, a place that may have been used hundreds of years ago. I’m in no hurry so I decide to take a look.

     Stashing the pack, I find some good toeholds and climb up the wall to one ledge, and then another above it. After a couple more pitches I’m on the level I want to explore. It’s easy to walk the sandstone ledge now and several minutes later I’m under a protective overhang. The remains of a rock pithouse excite me. And then bits of pottery, some painted, and chips of rock that have been worked. I was right. This was someone’s shelter hundreds of years ago. On the back wall are rosy displays of cliff art left by the resident artist. I sit down. My mind flies back to another age.

     Eventually, I check out another higher ledge and follow it around a bend in the canyon. I find a hidden spring with some more rock chips nearby and enjoy poking around the secret nooks that never see footprints anymore. The climb down is always more difficult for me, so I find an easier spot and soon have retrieved the pack.

     Another bend or two of the canyon and I’m studying a high notch with a natural bridge, actually more of a hole in the wall. It looks like I might be able to make my way up to this hole in the rock. I should give it a try anyway.

     After leaving the pack this time, I must crawl under a pile of gigantic room-sized boulders before scrambling up a jumble of rockfall. It doesn’t take too long before I’m under the overhang where the hole is. I find that there is a beautiful pool of water directly beneath the hole reflecting the smooth walls of the keyhole above it. Fifty feet below me is another one. It’s cool in the shade of the rock ledge and I could stay here forever, but then I notice that I could probably climb up into the hole.

     I pull myself up the smooth, sculptured walls into big swirls of stone. Deep tubs of water lie in the bottoms of some of these swirls, but I’m able to climb around or jump across. Soon I pop out in a little bay. I think I’m in paradise. Just above me is a hanging garden dripping water onto the slickrock. A shady overhang provides good shelter. The view is spectacular. I don’t find signs of the old ones here, but I can’t help but think they visited this unique spot.

     Much later, I make my way down White Canyon to the old trail coming down from the canyon rim. It’s the hot part of the day so I find a shady spot, take a soak in one of the canyon’s pools, and hang out until the day begins to cool. When the sun starts to sink over the rim, I will climb up the trail and sleep on the slickrock overlooking this favorite canyon. It will be a good place to say thank-you for the last several days.

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