Longread: The F%$^hell Canyon Saga
A tale of old roads and misadventure in Southeast Utah
Warning: This essay, excerpted from Sagebrush Empire, contains inappropriate language, inappropriate behavior, bad decision-making and gastrointestinal turmoil. Do not proceed if any of that bothers you. But if you’re okay with it, we hope this cautionary tale will provide a distraction from Election Day hijinks—after you vote, of course.
You won’t find Fuckhell Canyon on any map, yet just about everyone who has spent a little bit of time out here in Standing Up Country has their own version. I’m sure even Al Scorup, the Mormon Cowboy, found himself up a slightly more mildly named canyon in a blizzard with some starving cows once or twice. We gave this particular place that name because those were the words that emanated from our mouths, pretty much in unison though not in harmony, just as we tossed our loaded backpacks to the ground on the edge of that canyon in disgust and exhaustion. We muttered the words in the opposite order, as well, but Hellfuck Canyon just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
It was day one of a seven-day journey.
It was the early 1990s and we were in college, G—, C—, and me, and spent far too much time reading books written by white guys who were long dead and we drank far too much coffee and thought far too much and we all had weird imprints on our foreheads from where we banged them on the tables after spending another hour trying to decipher another Hegelian passage. So when spring break came in early- to mid-March, we welcomed the opportunity to leave the books and words and booze-parties behind and slip behind the Slickrock Curtain for a while and stare at sandstone and think about nothing at all. Naturally, we gravitated toward southeastern Utah, where two of us had spent so much of our youth, as it was an easy drive from our school in Santa Fe.
But spring in Bears Ears country can be tricky. Up on Elk Ridge patches of snow might still cling to north-facing slopes into May, and even the roads across the top of Cedar Mesa can be muddy. Just about everywhere else can get crowded, since the Patagonia-wearing Salt Lake and Durango folks are likely to be on break, too. We also wanted to go somewhere new to us. There were no smartphones or internet or Google Earth to look at, so we unfolded a map depicting all of southeastern Utah and pored over it for hours trying to find a good loop through canyon country. It wasn’t the ideal situation. The map covered a huge swath of landscape, and though it had contour lines on it, they would prove mostly to be cosmetic flourishes, with little connection to what was on the ground.
There was another option available to us: a guidebook. C, much to my dismay, owned a copy of Michael Kelsey’s guide to hiking on the Colorado Plateau. Guidebooks were—and really still are—anathema to me. There’s an old saying about the desert: Never write about the places you love in enough detail to lead your readers there. Guidebooks were made to flagrantly violate that mandate, particularly Kelsey’s, which cover just about every damned side canyon of a side canyon of a side canyon in the whole region. Besides, Kelsey’s tone could be a bit maddening. He always referred to himself as “the Author,” as in, “It will take an experienced hiker four to five days to traverse this stretch. It took the Author five hours.” I suppose there was also a bit of envy on my part. The bastard had found a way to make a living, however modest, by hiking in and writing about canyon country.
So there was no way I would use the guidebook to find a route. However, I did consent to using it in a sort of backwards way: We could find a canyon on the map and then look in Kelsey’s book. If the Author didn’t write about it or hadn’t been there, it would rise to the top of our list. In this way, we were able to come up with a few options that looked doable. The leading candidate was a canyon that G and I had long wanted to check out but hadn’t because of access challenges. Getting in from the upper branches required high-clearance vehicles, which we did not have, and getting in via the mouth only seemed possible via a boat, which we also didn’t have. The map seemed to suggest another option, but we couldn’t tell if it would go or not, and Kelsey had nothing on it. So I did what any twenty-two-year-old would do in this situation. I called my dad and asked if he knew anything about the route.
Funny you ask, he said. I was just there. I hiked to Xxxxxx Canyon and back in a day. You’ll have no problem getting there, even with loaded packs.
With that information in hand, we plotted our route. We’d park our cars at an unnamed Canyon and camp there, wake up early and get to the canyon mouth on day one, then proceed up the canyon, where water was plentiful, for the next several days, before coming back the way we had come. We would eat lentils, tortillas, peanut butter, and oatmeal. And this time, we had a new weapon in our sustenance arsenal: homemade instant beans. G and C had cooked up a huge pot of Dove Creek pinto beans, branded Anasazi Beans back then, and then laid them out on window screens to dry. This ingenious trick would allow us to carry large quantities of this nutrient-packed wonder food and whip it up in a few minutes on a camp stove without burning too much precious fuel.
Or so we thought.