Blizzard at Moon House
On the triumph and tribulation of winter desert camping
The following essay is excerpted and adapted from Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands, by Jonathan P. Thompson. We’re running it now to celebrate the big storm heading toward Southeastern Utah.
It is probably a fool’s errand for someone who is pushing fifty to try to understand why he made a certain decision that led to near catastrophe when he was in his early twenties. We were young, I guess, and like most youngsters felt invincible. Maybe we didn’t check the weather forecast, which, in our defense, was more difficult then because we had no internet. Perhaps we did check the forecast, and it called for a record-breaking snowstorm to be followed by a record-breaking cold spell, and we—David, Craig, and I—scoffed at the forecasters because what the hell do they know, anyway? After all, we had camped in canyon country at Christmastime for years, and we’d never had a problem. Why would this time be any different?
So, on a mid-December day in 1990 we threw our backpacks into Craig’s Isuzu Trooper and headed west out of Durango. We arrived on Cedar Mesa a few hours later, went past the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, which was still in a doublewide trailer and closed for the season, and turned down the Snow Flat Road, which more or less follows the same route that the Hole-in-the-Rock party took in 1879 on their way to Bluff. Had we been a little more thoughtful, we might have asked why the road was called Snow Flat, and might have questioned the wisdom of driving down a path with that name on or near the winter solstice. We weren’t all that thoughtful, apparently. The road at the time was un-graveled dirt and rocky-rough where it dropped off of the piñon-juniper-covered flats down the sandstone, but posed no problems for a Trooper when dry. After venturing nearly eight miles from the pavement on a backroad that got nearly zero use in the winter, we turned onto an even lesser-utilized two-track that, like many roads in this part of the world, wound erratically through the trees for about a mile or so where we would begin what was meant to be a brief solstice-time respite from the chaos of the world.
By that time, camping in southeastern Utah in the dead of winter had, for me, become a bit of a tradition, or perhaps a perverse, sadomasochist ritual. Once, in my years of early memory when I was around five or six, my dad took me camping at the mouth of Arch Canyon when there was a good eight inches of wet snow on the ground. I wore jeans. I always wore jeans, shitty jackets from TG&Y, and some stupid-ass moon boots, probably hand-me-downs from my brother, insulated only with foam rubber that held the moisture, and the cold, against my cotton-sock-clad feet. If I thought that crawling into my sleeping bag would help, I was wrong. It was little more than a sheath of nylon, with very little insulation, and probably also came from the sale rack at TG&Y. A giant bonfire might have fended off the chill that burrowed deeper and deeper into my bones, but my father refused to build a campfire for any purpose other than cooking, because campfires suck your attention away from the stars and the moon and the sounds of the night. I wasn’t yet cheeky enough to point out that low-level, chronic hypothermia is not so conducive to stargazing, either.
A decade later, for Thanksgiving, my father and his friend Jim Whitfield took my brother, his friend, and me behind the Abajo Mountains so that we could backpack into Upper Salt Creek in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Typically one would access Salt Creek via a jeep road that led partway up the canyon, but Whitfield and my dad chose instead to drop into the upper reaches of the canyon from above, probably to avoid encountering any humans, particularly of the jeep-driving variety. At the time, a fight was raging over whether to put a nuclear waste dump nearby, and a decade later the Salt Creek road would become another focal point in the public land wars of San Juan County when the National Park Service would consider closing the road in order to protect the riparian ecology and limit access to the archaeological resources in the canyon. But at the time the road was getting more and more traffic.
We couldn’t leave until after work, so most of the drive took place after dark, and when we finally arrived at Whitfield’s “secret” car-camping spot for the night we encountered a bewildering sight: a vintage Toyota Land Cruiser parked in the little pullout, and a skinny, bearded guy standing in front of a campfire, looking as surprised to see us as we were to see him. Whitfield was enraged. Not being the type to drive away politely and find another campsite, Whitfield jumped out of the truck and confronted the man, while we watched tensely from the car, certain that this wouldn’t end well.
Whitfield was an intense and brilliant and passionate man who didn’t always mesh harmoniously with other human beings. He was an artist, a pioneer of Arizona rock climbing, and a follower of star-maps who lived in a rusty old singlewide trailer while he built a tower house up on the McElmo Dome west of Cortez, out where the bean fields end and the BLM land begins. His favorite aphorism, which he repeated often and in all kinds of company, was, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. Fuck ’em if they can.” We cringed as we waited for him to lay into the poor dude verbally, maybe even throw a punch or two.
But the situation de-escalated when Whitfield realized he knew the guy from his days as a boatman on the Grand Canyon in the seventies. The guy explained to Whitfield that he was now an adventure guide operating out of Moab, and he had two clients sleeping in a tent nearby, so if he didn’t mind keeping it down as he drove away to find another camp, that would be great. Whitfield, smiling maniacally, slapped the man on the back in farewell, jumped in the truck, slammed the door, revved the engine, and drove, horn honking, straight toward the tent containing aforesaid clients. As we careened toward the nylon dome two heads popped out, eyes wide open. Whitfield slammed on the brakes, kicking up a cloud of dust that hung suspended in the headlight beams, then tore out of there and pulled into another campsite just a few hundred yards away. Whitfield and my dad then started drinking tequila, and every ten minutes or so Whitfield led us in a howling session intended to drive the offending party away. Whitfield wasn’t angry at the guy for occupying a campsite on public land. He was mad because the adventure guide was making a business out of carting his clients out into lesser-known places on public lands and thereby profiting off of the solitude and the scenery.
We spent the next day on a long, chilly hike across the mesa and partway down into the canyon. The adventure guide and his customers were nowhere to be seen, much to all of our relief. My pack felt unusually heavy and cut painfully into my shoulders, but I stoically refrained from complaining or even inspecting the pack to see what the problem was until we arrived at camp under a drippy overhang below the rim. It turned out Whitfield had snuck a full-sized cooked ham into my pack before departure.
A year later, when I was sixteen, we left my dad’s house north of Cortez, Colorado, in the pre-light dawn on Christmas Day in Whitfield’s pickup. My father and Jim rode up in the cab, while I rode in the back with the two dogs, Chaco and Moqui. Before we started driving it seemed like a survivable, if not quite rational, situation. Sitting in the cab would have been warmer, sure, but I would have had to listen to the two adults argue while breathing my dad’s cigarette smoke. So, my back pressed up against the cab, I wrapped myself in sleeping bags and put one dog on either side of me. As soon as we hit the highway and got up to speed I realized my mistake, and when we dropped into the San Juan River Valley and were enveloped by the fog there and ice crystals began forming on everything, including the exposed parts of my face, I thought I was going to die. But I was young and stupid and stubborn and proud, and there was no friggin’ way I would break down and pound on the window and beg for rescue.
When we got to Page, Arizona, home of Glen Canyon Dam, the sun came out and the temperature rose above zero and I was able to unclench a few of my muscles just in time to see the colossal concrete plug: three hundred feet thick at its base, fifteen hundred feet long at the crest, a symbol of the effort to control what was once a muddy, wild, tumultuous river, that impounded billions of gallons of water and flooded hundreds of miles of sublime canyons—a crime against the gods. Like most sixteen-year-olds I was a bundle of angst and insecurity, of hormonal mania and uncertain identity. I was fragile and sensitive and flailing around for a sense of who I was. I was an ardent reader and devotee of Ed Abbey, despite all his flaws—even then he was a little too macho for my taste—and fancied myself as some mélange of Seldom Seen, Bonnie Abzug, and Everett Ruess. I even had a copy of Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, which probably put me on some FBI watch list. I often fantasized about some cataclysm prompting me to vanish behind the Slickrock Curtain, a la Ruess, the young man who headed into the canyons of the Escalante River drainage in the 1930s and never returned. In my fantasy I would one day reemerge as a stronger, more confident human being who had somehow managed to write several pseudonymous novels while feeding off of lizards in the bottom of a canyon. My resurrection would so delight and surprise my friends that they’d abandon their lives and join me in canyon country, where we would devise our plot to take down the electrical grid, to blow up the dam, to clear away the debris and help the world start anew.
We turned off of the highway onto a straight gravel road that followed a giant geological fold in the earth. After what seemed like days of driving we finally stopped in the small town of Escalante, went into a little store where a bunch of old dudes were hunkered around a stove, got some Fritos and a healthy serving of stink-eye, and continued down the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail to the trailhead. We shouldered backpacks in the afternoon sun, mine feeling especially heavy, and headed down a sandy wash. I reveled in the newfound warmth, but it wouldn’t last. The wash soon hooked up with a deep and curvy canyon with vertical walls that kept the sun’s beams at bay and the canyon bottom in a permanent, frigid shadow. At the first creek crossing I broke through the ice and soaked my cheap-ass tennis shoe and cotton tube sock and spent the rest of the hike with a numb foot. When we got to the first night’s camp, Whitfield reached for my pack, opened it up, and produced a twelve-pack of Budweiser. He had done it again.
For the next few days we hiked down the bottom of the canyon in what would one day become a popular part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But monument designation—and the resulting uptick in visitation—was still a decade away, and solitude was easy prey. Just as I was about to succumb to the chronic, low-level hypothermia that had first set in when we entered the canyon, we reached the canyon’s confluence with the Escalante River and suddenly the sunbeams came back, emanating from brilliant blue. Chunks of ice floated lazily past on the murky green stream. I sat and listened to the soft gurgle of the current and soaked up the warmth of the sun. Then Whitfield said we should get to the night’s campsite. I looked up at him curiously. He motioned with his head to a flat spot at the base of some cliffs—on the other side of the river. The water was thigh-deep. I was wearing jeans. As I struggled against the icy current, I envisioned my Ruess fantasy coming true, in the worst of ways: the frigid waters swallowing me up and carrying me down to Lake Powell, where my flash-frozen self would sink into the murky depths and the mythical giant catfish that lurk at the bottom of the reservoir would slowly devour my carcass.
I was just another hormone-addled teenager at the time, but I was also geeky and sensitive and sentimental and, though I’ve never been good at expressing it, full of emotional highs and lows. I was also madly in love, at least as in love as a sixteen-year-old can be, with a girl who was a year older and eons more mature than I. That dramatically changed my experience of that trip. At night, in addition to longing for a warm bed, I longed for J—’s warm mouth and soft skin. At the end of each day, after we set up camp and before night fell, I wrote letters to her, describing the beauty I saw and felt, the way the sandstone glowed far above me, the way a natural stone bridge framed a leafless cottonwood and, behind it, a burnished streak of desert varnish. I learned from those letters that, as much as I wanted to think of the desert as my metaphorical lover, my feelings for the desert were only complete when I was sharing them with someone else. But I also learned that the desert provided a bridge of sorts between me and other people, a medium through which I could express my emotions and thoughts and feelings. I learned both the power of words and their inadequacy.
On the last morning of that long trip in Escalante country, I awoke in the dark-blue light of dawn, and as I looked up at the canyon walls I noticed a break in the stone where a person could make it to the top. I got up, stuck my little notebook and a pen in my pocket, and started climbing. The top part of the climb was on a ramp of slickrock, which led to a sea of slickrock, pocked by potholes, hundreds of them. Navajo Mountain loomed to the southeast. A little more than a century earlier, just about a dozen miles from where I sat, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Hole-in-the-Rock expedition would gaze out trepidatiously on the same scene. Elizabeth M. Decker was one of the expedition members and described what she saw, writing, “It’s the roughest country you or anybody else has ever seen; it’s nothing in the world but rocks and holes, hills, and hollows.” And a decade after I sat there those same lands would become the epicenter of the nasty and ever-escalating fight over how best to manage public lands.
All I could see and feel at that moment, however, was a beauty so overwhelming that it threatened to swallow me up, a beauty that blotted out the cold and struggle of the previous few days and the adolescent angst and the worries about the future. Instead of writing anything down, I simply cherished the sun’s warmth, held it in, sat down on the stone, and was still.
I felt so much, understood so little.
On day six, we ran out of food, save for a few stalks of celery, a can of Vienna sausages, a tin of peanut brittle, and a box of freeze-dried potato-pancake mix. The powdered mix was supposed to be combined with eggs, flour, and oil to make it palatable, none of which we had. So, for the final night’s supper and the next morning’s breakfast, my father the gourmand combined celery, potato-powder, and “sausages” in a pot and warmed it over the fire. Thankfully, he left out the peanut brittle. The result was an insipid yet strangely rubbery and gelatinous gruel that positively slid down the throat—and not in a good way.
I choked it down with the knowledge that we’d soon be back out in the world of cheeseburgers and a warm bed. After breakfast on New Year’s Eve we packed up and speed-hiked back up the canyon towards the truck. We stopped for a lunch of peanut brittle, our only remaining food, and as we savored the sweet crunchiness Whitfield proposed extending the trip by a few days. My dad was on board. They turned expectantly toward me. I broke down in tears, all the misery of the cold and my soaking socks and my sore shoulders and sleepless nights coming out in a torrent of sobs. They thought that was kind of funny, but they relented and we made it back to the truck and I rode home in the cab, triumphant, secondhand smoke be damned.
The sun shone brightly a half decade later when my two companions and I dropped into the canyon as if to go to Moon House, a Puebloan cliff dwelling built in the 1200s with a spectacular pictograph that seems to show lunar cycles and perhaps a lunar eclipse. Had I written about the trip at the time, I wouldn’t have mentioned Moon House, nor given anything resembling specific directions to it. It was still relatively unknown, and I had adopted my father’s self-imposed prohibition against writing about “secret” places except in vague terms so as to keep them kind of secret. Not that it would have mattered, really, since there was no internet and I had no platform on which I might reveal the place. Nor was Moon House all that secret at the time. All the locals knew about it and weren’t shy about directing visitors to the spectacular site. The artifacts that once sat in the pueblo’s rooms and blanketed the ground outside had long before been pilfered and pocketed and carted away.
Now a Google search of “Moon House” will turn up hundreds of hits, detailed directions to it, and even YouTube videos. The site is now so popular that the BLM has instituted a permitting system and a twenty-person-per-day visitor limit. In 2016, during the drive to get Moon House and nearly two million acres around it protected as a national monument, Josh Ewing, the executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, told me: “A lot of people wish we had a time machine, and could go back twenty years. For a long time, the strategy of protection was to keep it a secret. The internet came. No more.” Exactly. My ban on revealing secret places in my writing stands, but Moon House is secret no more.
When we passed by the pueblo thirty years ago, however, we saw no one. We decided not to visit the dwelling yet, because we needed to get camp set up before dark. So we continued down canyon until we found the perfect spot: a sort of stone cul-de-sac that sat a couple hundred feet above the canyon bottom and another couple hundred feet below the canyon rim. It was south-facing, protected from the wind, and offered some overhangs under which we could huddle if necessary.
We spent the next few days exploring, playing hacky sack, eating, and trying to stay warm. Craig and Dave were on winter break, but I was taking what would have been my sophomore year of college off—a gap year, as the kids call it these days—to try to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t figure it out then, and I still haven’t figured it out now. Dave told us about bands he had seen in Olympia, Washington, and about the hippies at his college. We talked about the escalating tensions in the Middle East. The first Iraq War would break out a month or so later, the one with its own brand and slogans and marketing campaigns, as though it were a video game, and we were anxious about it. We had all been born during the Vietnam War. And we came of age during the Reagan era, and we all despised just about everything that the era had produced: the conspicuous greed, injustice, imperialism, warmongering, dismantling of the nation’s safety nets, the celebritization of some cheeseball millionaire named Donald Trump. We never could have guessed that Reagan was only the beginning of the slide of America into a populist and inequitable cesspool run by corporations. What we did know is that if war did break out, and if the draft were reinstated, we wouldn’t go. Maybe we’d head down to Mexico, or just hunker down out here, behind the Slickrock Curtain, until it all blew over.
Daytime temperatures were in the forties but felt warmer in the sun. Nighttime temps were frigid at best. I had long before graduated from the TG&Y sleeping bag, but only to one from Kmart, which continued to be woefully inadequate for the long winter nights. I refused to sleep in tents. I told myself, and others, that it was on principle, that a tent formed a barrier between me and the sky and the earth. Really it was because I was too damned poor to afford a tent that was light enough to carry on a multiday backpacking trip. So, instead, I’d put my sleeping bag on a cheap foam pad and cover myself with a tarp to keep the moisture out and a little bit more of the warmth in. When we first started backpacking together in junior high school, my friends usually brought tents. But I guess my stubborn stupidity rubbed off on them, because by this time they were also equipped inadequately.
As a result, night became not a time to sleep and dream and rest, but to endure. Days were oriented around that goal. We hiked, climbed, and played hard from morning until sundown, in hopes of wearing ourselves out and increasing the chances that we’d pass out from exhaustion after we dared to crawl into our sleeping bags. For dinner, we’d eat a lot of hot food, usually consisting primarily of complex carbohydrates (ramen noodles). Then we’d go to bed and shiver and pray for sleep, or for morning’s light, whichever came first. Comfort came in the form of a sky so dark and stars so densely packed together that there was nary any space between them. There are few places on the planet where light pollution is almost nonexistent. Some of those places can be found on Cedar Mesa.
On day three we woke up once again to blue sky and cold that eased once the sun blasted our camp. We did a morning hike, came back to camp, and ate some lunch, barely noticing the wispy sheet of clouds that drifted across the blue. Paradoxically, the clouds brought warmth, and the temperature rose a good ten or fifteen degrees, enough so that we could gleefully shed our jackets and heavy sweaters as we played hacky sack, ending up in shirtsleeves by late afternoon. It was so crazy that Dave, always the photographer of our expeditions, took a picture to remember it by. This was before cell phones and digital cameras and Instagram. In more recent times Dave would have climbed up onto the mesa top in order to get reception so he could post the picture to social media to gloatingly show our friends how damned lucky we were. Maybe he would have checked the weather forecast in the process, and maybe we would have hastily fled so as to avoid the coming tempest.
It was our last night, so we had a big dinner, using up as much of the remaining ramen as we could. We were so tired from a string of sleepless nights, and it was still so warm, relatively, that we didn’t even bother washing our dishes or organizing camp, as we usually did after dinner. We just left the stove and our dishes and our food lying out on the rocks. Then we turned in, I under one overhang where I thought the radiant heat from the rocks would be strongest, and Dave and Craig under another. For the first night that trip I wasn’t shivering or even praying for sleep: it came on its own, the bliss of oblivion softly overtaking me.
I slept deeply at last on that final night of the Moon House trip. And I dreamed. I dreamed I was in a supermarket, and I was walking up and down the aisles looking for something that would warm my cold feet. I went through the produce section and picked up an orange and realized it would not do the trick. I went down the cereal aisle and examined the ingredients of Lucky Charms. No dice. I tried the canned beans next. Finally I woke up to utter darkness. The flickery bright lights of the supermarket were gone. The produce was gone and the Lucky Charms. All that remained of the dream were my cold feet, even though the rest of my body was cozy and warm. And then there was the sound of water dripping very close to me. My feet were not just cold, it soon became clear, but also wet, along with the lower third of my sleeping bag—the part that stuck out from my little overhang. I found my flashlight and turned it on.
“Oh, shit,” I muttered quietly. Snow fell in big flakes, and already the ground was covered with at least six inches of the stuff. I didn’t have a watch, so I had no idea what time it was. I curled up into a fetal position so that my feet would be in the warm and dry part of my bag and clenched my eyes shut and tried to wish it all away. It did not work. After thirty minutes, maybe an hour, I heard Dave call out in a whimper. I yelled back, relieved to have someone awake with whom to share my misery. I got up, put my clothes on, stuffed my soaking, heavy sleeping bag into the stuff sack, and trudged through the snow to our kitchen. Everything was buried, the stove, our dishes, everything. We dug out what we could find and hauled it up to an alcove above the camp where we were able to get out of the snow and cook up our last three ramen packets while we waited for dawn’s light and strategized our escape.
We determined, for reasons which I cannot remember, that the route we had taken to get from the car to our camp would be impassible in those conditions. Instead, we would climb straight up to the canyon rim, walk up the canyon to where it got shallow, cross, then double back to the car. We had gone up and down the sandstone benches that made up the canyon walls in the preceding days, so we weren’t concerned about the technical difficulty. After all, it was just a bit of snow.
Soon after we started, however, we realized that it was not just a bit of snow. When the initial wave of the storm hit sometime at night, the stone was still warm from soaking up the sun all day. That meant that the first flakes melted upon landing and cooled off the stone enough that the ensuing flakes stuck and piled up on top of the moisture. Then that lower layer of liquid froze, creating a thin and very slippery layer of ice between stone and what was by now a foot or more of snow. What should have been a fairly straightforward friction-scramble turned into a treacherous expedition that involved hauling our full weight, plus that of our sodden backpacks, up a series of cliffs using only shrubs as handholds. Several near-death experiences later we clawed our way onto the rim where we were greeted with a parking-lot-flat plain of snow-covered sandstone. Having survived our own mini-Hole-in-the-Rock moment we gave each other gloved high-fives.
“Onward,” I declared, setting off into the snow with green-chile enchiladas dancing in my head. I took one step, then another, but something was wrong with my legs or the earth or both, for the ground had tilted away from my foot, which landed on nothing but air. Soon the snow-covered stone plain rushed toward me and smacked me in the face. I lay in the snow, the weight of my pack holding me down, for a good fifteen seconds before looking up, only to see Craig repeat my actions. We had entered some bizarro world where gravity’s pull was variable across space. In fact, the sandstone we were walking on was not flat at all, but undulated wildly due to the potholes all over the rim’s surface, and the snow and the flat light rendered those undulations invisible. We were faced with a choice: either we could crawl back to the car, or stagger like drunks making their way across a ship’s deck. We painfully chose the latter and lurched and teetered across whiteness, the snow dampening the sound of our anguished cries.
We didn’t wear watches, cell phones were still the thing of science fiction, and the thick blanket of clouds had devoured the sun, wiping out its place in the sky, so we had no idea how many hours our journey took, nor how many hours of daylight remained. As we spied the red Trooper through the heavily falling snow, however, we knew that we had made it. I let the vision of a cheeseburger, this time with hot, greasy fries, fill my brain again. If I drooled, and I might have, the saliva would have iced up on my chin. When the engine fired up on the first try, we celebrated yet again. The celebration ceased shortly thereafter when we discovered that the two-track we had taken to the trailhead had vanished, the snow having totally obscured the unmarked path that wound through the trees. We may have followed the two-track back out, and we may have not. If it’s the latter, I do hope that the snow buffered the impact the tires might have had on any cryptobiotic soil.
Obstacles that were hardly noticeable on the way in, before the blizzard, had become magnified by the snow. Take, for example, the barrow ditch we had to cross to get from the relatively established Snow Flats/Hole-in-the-Rock road onto the little two-track. On the way in, Craig just drove through it, probably not even bothering with four-wheel drive. On the way out, the front wheels made it through the ditch, but the back ones started spinning wildly, and the angle of the car took the weight away from the front wheels, causing them to spin as well. My shitty foam sleeping pad finally had a purpose. We put it under one of the back wheels, and sagebrush under the remaining three, then Dave and I pushed while Craig piloted the beast onto the road, where the tires regained traction. No sooner had Dave and I gotten comfortable, however, than the vehicle slowed to a stop, the tires spinning futilely once again. Craig killed the engine. All three of us, perplexed, climbed slowly out of the vehicle, trying to comprehend what had stifled our forward progress. The snow on the road was so deep that the Trooper’s front bumper acted like a plow, pushing the snow until it piled up enough to stop the vehicle. We weren’t about to surrender and, instead, developed a routine: We kicked the snow away from in front of the bumper, and while Craig drove, Dave and I pushed the Trooper from behind to get it going again. Once the vehicle was moving, we’d sprint around the vehicle and jump into the back seat. Thirty seconds or a minute later, the car would slow to a stop, and we’d jump out and start the cycle all over again.
It was frustrating and exhausting in two senses of the word: it was tiring and Dave and I were breathing in large quantities of exhaust. Each time I jumped back into the truck I grew progressively more lightheaded from fatigue and carbon monoxide inhalation. Which is perhaps why I might have only giggled deliriously rather than burst out crying when the Trooper, at the place where the road gets roughest and steepest, started spinning its wheels and fishtailing before sliding backwards off the road and into the ditch. In retrospect, I think we could have gotten the vehicle moving again with a little ingenuity and a lot of muscle. But by then, I think we figured: What’s the point? Walking surely would be faster than all of this stop, start, exhaust-huffing nonsense.
We consolidated all of our remaining food—half of a box of Wheatena-brand gruel, a couple ramen packets, and a pack of peppermint chewing gum—along with a bottle of water, the camp stove, and a sodden sleeping bag, and put it all into one backpack and came up with a plan: Craig, who was the freshest among us, since he’d been driving, not pushing, would be our advance scout, breaking trail and plunging forward to the highway, where he’d flag down a passing motorist and have them wait for us. Dave and I would follow, slowly, trading off the heavy pack as we went. If we reached the highway and saw no cars, we would continue up the highway to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, which was closed for the season. What we’d do next was up in the air, but the possibilities included breaking into the ranger trailer where perhaps we could find enough warmth to keep us alive through the night. We’d worry about the consequences of breaking and entering into federal property if we survived.
Snow was still falling intensely when we set out on foot, but we were in high spirits, all things considered, thanks to having a plan. Although the going had been tedious, we did cover some ground in the car, leaving us just three or four miles to the highway, and another five miles or so to the ranger station. That would be easy, we thought, despite the fact that we were going on a good eight hours without caloric intake. In the beginning, the going wasn’t too bad. The snow was maybe two feet deep at the worst spots, and the cloud cover kept the temperature high enough so that our extremities did not get frostbite. And then things took a change for the worse.
A century and some before our hypothermic travails, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints called on 250 acolytes to pack up their wagons, tether up their cattle, and go east to colonize the southeastern corner of Utah. They were sent not to make the desert bloom, but to serve as human shields to buffer the colonies of Dixie against the potentially hostile Indigenous peoples and the greed of the cattlemen and gold miners. In early December 1879, they set out with eighty-three wagons and more than 1,200 head of livestock onto a sea of sandstone.
Just a dozen or so miles into the trip, they reached the 2,000-foot-deep gorge of the Colorado River and what to any rational human being would have been the end of the road. These folks, however, were not guided by reason, but rather were impelled forth by something else entirely, call it devotion or delusion. Instead of turning back, they began the arduous process of building a road where no road should go. It was called Hole-in-the-Rock for the narrow chasm that opened up into a steep ramp down to the river. The entire journey was supposed to take six weeks. It would take that same amount of time and then some to complete the construction project.
While the expedition waited for the “road” to be constructed, a group of four men went ahead to find a route. Unburdened by the wagons and the families and provisions, they anticipated a quick and relatively easy journey. Instead, they found their way blocked by the various crinkles in the landscape, forcing them to backtrack and to spend an inordinate amount of time finding their way around the obstacles, the biggest being Grand Gulch. There was no feasible way to get people, cattle, and wagons through the gorge, so they had to go around it as their provisions were stretched thin.
Two days before Christmas they found themselves in the midst of a raging blizzard somewhere near the south flank of Elk Ridge. They had never been to this part of the country, the maps of this area remained blank, and any recognizable landmarks had been blotted out by the storm. Their horses’ hooves bogged down in the sticky mud, then in deeper and deeper snow. On Christmas Eve, one of the scouts, George B. Hobbs, wrote, “We had cooked the last food we had, consisting of a slap jack baked in a frying pan and about one inch thick.” And the next day, things looked equally grim: “It was Christmas Day 1879, which found us on the side of the Elk Mountain without food, in the midst of a piercing cold … It surely looked like our bones would bleach not far from that point.”
As my two friends and I trudged through the snow in the days before Christmas in 1990, I kind of knew how Hobbs felt. That may sound like a stretch. After all, my buddies and I were doing this for “fun,” not because some church leader ordered us to do it, we had a lot less ground to cover, and we weren’t lost. Still, we were not too far away from a bleached-bones scenario.
The Snow Flat Road and the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail that we followed skirts a one-mile-by-one-mile square of private land as it makes its way across Cedar Mesa. From property line to property line, the entire square, save for the southwest corner, has been chained. Chaining is a particularly barbaric method of clearing a juniper and piñon forest. Two bulldozers drive side by side, maybe one hundred yards from each other, dragging a huge chain between them. The chain topples and uproots and tramples all in its path, whether it’s the micro-world of cryptobiotic crust, tiny cacti, mariposa lilies, or centuries-old juniper trees. The purpose: to turn a living, vibrant, diverse forest into a pasture for cattle grazing. The aftermath, however, is not a green field where cows munch happily away, but a dusty plain that looks as if it was the site of an incendiary device detonation—and it remains that way for years, even decades, afterward, the grazing itself serving to keep the wound from healing. These apocalyptic parcels are neither uncommon nor confined to private or even state land.
On that December day, the chained area was a big, uninterrupted field of white spreading out to our left. Before we reached the area, as we walked through the forest, the snow had been shin- to knee-deep. But the chaining had destroyed the natural snow fence of the trees, allowing the wind to blow the snow from the chained area onto the road, where it drifted up against the trees on our right side. That meant that the snow, for that mile-long stretch, was thigh- to waist-deep, the pack was now saturated and heavy, and we were expending huge amounts of energy just to take each step forward. The snow had stopped falling, and the clouds were giving way to pale blue skies, which allowed us to finally see the sun just as it dipped toward the western horizon. We could literally feel the temperature dropping from somewhere near thirty degrees Fahrenheit down into the teens and, finally, as the sun disappeared, to below-zero frostbite territory.
One of the Hole-in-the-Rock party members later described that trip as “all harmony and hustle.” I would not characterize our Hole-in-the-Rock Trail trip that way. We sure as hell weren’t hustling, and the only harmonizing we were doing was when Dave and I would cry out various expletives in unison, followed by a verbal description of whatever vision of food had come into our heads—smothered green-chile burritos, French fries, pizza—followed by wailed whimpering. We were out of water. We hadn’t eaten anything since daybreak, just prior to beginning our journey, and now, at day’s end, we were reduced to pouring dry Wheatena, which had the consistency of sawdust with less flavor, onto our tongues and trying to wash it down with snow. We chewed our last pieces of gum and then swallowed them, desperate for whatever calories we could get.
As darkness fell, Craig’s form, a quarter mile ahead of us, faded. It occurred to me that no one knew where we were. I had told my dad that we were going to Utah. He knew that meant somewhere in San Juan County, but San Juan County is as big as New Jersey—which is meaningless to me, since I’ve never been to New Jersey. He probably figured that his son was too intelligent to venture eight miles down an unimproved dirt road and backpack another few miles into an obscure canyon, so he wouldn’t think to send a rescue party this way to find us. He figured wrong. Bleached bones, indeed.
Darkness had fallen by the time Dave and I reached the highway. One lane of the road had been plowed, which lifted our spirits somewhat, but the fact that there were no tire tracks besides the plow’s hurled us back into despair. The chances that anyone would choose to drive down the one lane of this road on a cold winter’s night were almost zero. Craig was nowhere to be seen, but we could see his footprints leading north, to Plan B, as in Breaking into federal property and possibly setting it aflame. We followed. By now we didn’t even have the strength to whimper.
After a half hour or so, we saw our shadows spread ahead of us on the glazed ice. For a split second I thought it was a hallucination. We both spun around. A pickup truck was behind us, slowing to a stop. “Get in,” the driver said, and we complied. As I opened the passenger door I noticed that it was a BLM truck. The driver was a ranger. My father had called the Monticello Field Office and told them that we were out here somewhere and asked them to keep an eye out.
We drove up the road for about a half mile before encountering the tall, dark figure of Craig. The ranger drove within fifteen feet of him, the headlights on bright. But Craig, possibly hypothermic, possibly so determined to reach the destination, was oblivious. Finally, the ranger beeped the horn and Craig lurched to the side and spun around, his eyes as big as saucers.
On Christmas Day, 1879, Hobbs and party noticed a pyramid-shaped hill and climbed to the top. From there they could finally see recognizable landmarks, the Abajo Mountains and Comb Ridge, and they knew that they would survive to reach their destination. They called the hill Salvation Knoll.
Our Salvation Knoll turned out to be a ranger driving a Ford Ranger, something we probably laughed at since we were delirious and maybe close to death. The ranger drove us into Blanding and dropped us off in front of a hotel. I was a little out of it, but I think it was the Elk Ridge Cafe and Hotel, which had been owned by the notorious Cal Black up until his death several months prior. At this point we were still on hypothermia’s edge. Our clothes had been soaked through with snow and sweat before the temperature crashed and froze them, and the truck’s heater had not quite thawed us out. We didn’t have enough money on us for a hotel room, so we asked, shivering and bedraggled, if we could use their phone to call our parents, collect, so we could get a credit card number and, by the way, do you think we could get some food? We got only the stink eye in return, and I suppose I can’t blame them. At the time, the public land wars, even in San Juan County, had reached a lull, what with instigator Black dead and George Bush Sr. in the White House. Still, we were young, Colorado, enviro-hippy, atheist college kids who had materialized on a freezing winter’s night. We could have been Satanists for all they knew, or liberal backpackers intent on destroying their way of life.
So we told them about our trek and the snow and the car sliding off the Snow Flat Road and our long walk and the BLM ranger picking us up, and maybe when we said BLM they flinched a little, but by then it didn’t matter because we had told them a tale of woe and pleaded for help. And when it sunk in that we were in trouble and that they had the means to help this trio of pathetic, wet, stinky, frozen dirtbags, their collective demeanor shifted dramatically. Clearly they were the kinds of people who were inclined to lend a hand to those in need. I also like to think that they were swayed by the fact that our troubles played out on the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, near where their ancestors had faced their own travails. They let us make phone calls, rented us a warm room, and even reopened the cafe and served us red-chile enchiladas, which was pretty much exactly what we had been craving.
And as we sat under the glare of fluorescent lights in the carpeted restaurant area, our plates stacked high with much-needed calories, I felt something welling up within me. It might have been gratitude, but then, it also might have been religion.
The Land Desk relies entirely on reader support. We have no ads, no funds from fancy foundations, no grants, and no big benefactors. To receive every dispatch, unlock all the archives, enable commenting, and support independent journalism, consider becoming a paid subscriber or, better yet, a Sustaining Member (and get a tote bag and a free, signed copy of Sagebrush Empire).