Raven

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, June 14, 2015

We are standing at the trailhead with daypacks and raincoats, scanning the sky, semi-dark and changeable. There is not a soul in sight on this middle-of-nowhere hike in south central Utah, on a mini-expedition we’ve selected from the lodge’s friendly little handout. Canyon country.

The weather’s not great, but at the same time, it’s interesting and not too hot. We read the trailhead warning signs about taking water and coming prepared for any variety of situations and discuss the fact that even though it’s not entirely clear which direction to go since there is a trail going left and one going right, it’s a relatively short loop and probably doesn’t matter. Right?

We choose left, a well-trod and cairn-marked path heading into a wide canyon. It’s 11 a.m., and we’ve brought plenty of snacks in anticipation of stops for petrified wood and the promised deep and narrow canyons. I am feeling bolstered by the fact that we did not have a flat tire on the drive in, because all morning a dull sense of unease has been present.

Within half an hour of gloomy April weather, we’ve donned our coats and settled into the silence of the place, a silence broken only by the sound of our feet. It is a vast, humbling and head-filling quiet. We note again what must be the tricky nature of this loop, which seems to be going in the wrong direction.

Finally, heading squarely into the deep canyon, we pick along through the rocks of a riverbed until something notable is at our feet: a dead raven, perfectly splayed, wings outstretched. Its head, almost surgically severed, is missing. How strange, we say. And in spite of what might unequivocally be taken as a sign to flee and not look back by all the sign-savvy peoples of the world united, we trek on, remarking how lucky it is we are on the right trail and have not turned back. Right?

Around hour three of what is supposed to be a five-mile loop, we emerge from the canyon into a crossways valley and a road. Huh, we say. A road. We go left, tipped off by a lone cairn, and wander what appears to be farther and farther away from our point of origin.

This is how a short hike becomes long and a long story becomes short.

We take the cairn, which turns out to be, despite the lodge’s assurances to follow them, an evil trick cairn. Continuing on past a tiny hut containing a dubious character, we take to looking over our shoulders for the next hour as we follow sandy footsteps deeper and deeper into bushwhack territory. Finally, hitting the Escalante River with zero trace of a well-trodden path, we stop, look around and slump. Four and a half hours in, and it becomes plain we have to turn back. After skirting the tiny creepy shack, we bump into a backpacking father and son who have followed the river in. We assure them we are OK, but soon after that, back in the middle of the deep canyon, we run out of water, leg cramps to prove it. When we pass the raven again, we stare a little longer this time and then look up, watching long shadows make their way across the spire tops. The sky has cleared and turned a deep shade of clear blue. We probably have two hours to go and are crawling along, in utter disproportion of our eagerness to get home.

Somehow, impossibly, I manage to lead us off the trail again, and onto the wrong side of a butte. An important butte to be on the right side of. Right?

Two things are on my mind now, 1) if it gets dark, we will spend the night in the desert, which would not be so bad if 2) my daughter were not likely to do whatever is necessary to make sure we are accounted for. Adrenaline, not one of my addictions, kicks in and I begin running across the big valley until I intersect the real trail at last.

Nine hours after we set out, we are back at the car, just as the sun is setting. An hour and a half after that, after getting lost just one more time for good measure, we are back at the lodge’s restaurant eating the last of their bread and butter while the chef regales us with tales of the Wolverine, a notorious loop that is so notoriously hard to find.

All I can say is this: good thing it wasn’t mid-July, the sun blazing, torching through all the remaining common sense filaments of two intelligent people too cavalier to see the signs. Right?

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