by Steven K. Roberts
June 29, 1987
Calf Creek (Garfield County), Utah
This is hard-core wilderness. The Escalante River area is a violent, convoluted land, a twisted marriage of desert and mountain with much infidelity on both sides. Madness happens here; the land kills the unwary without remorse, yet delights the eye with so many absurd contrasts that there never develops a sense of figure-ground. This is far away from everywhere, hard to get to, and not the way to cross Utah if you’re in a hurry.
At Calf Creek, which feeds the Escalante, there is a campground with 12 sites and a high-pressure spigot of cold clear water. We claimed the last spot, set up our porta-condo, and went for a short walk. A 5-mile round trip trail led to the falls, but we had only two hours until dark.
A few minutes along the tame path, carrying only my cane, I had that same craving that besets one accustomed to spicy huevos rancheros when confronted with unadulterated grits. A ravine beckoned from the left, smothered in a chunky salsa of twisted rock, rolled boulders, and cactus — angling up a few hundred feet to the base of stark white tortilla cliffs. ¿Por que no? I veered off with Maggie following, picking my way around the obstacles until they became so closely packed that I began springing from each to the next, shoe sounds sandy on soft rock, echoes from the cliff touching my words with portent as I pointed out the sights to my suntanned sweetheart.
Cliff base. Drawn by the pheromones of naked rock, I felt my way to a mighty crack and entered — climbing higher, sweaty, rising into the body of earth and sensing, somewhere ahead, the exultation of a peak. As the passion rose, Maggie called to me… perhaps jealous.
“I don’t want to go up there.”
“OK. Why don’t you go around the other way? I’ll climb to the top, walk along the edge, and find a way down to meet you… it’ll be more of an adventure.”
Hesitantly, with a worried face and a glance upward, she agreed — already looking small against the massive impassive folds of untamed land. She nodded, took a step away from me, then turned and said, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” I called softly, my voice carrying along the great concave wall. For a moment our eyes locked. But my beard, dripping sweat, tickled hot sandstone; Maggie waved and walked away. I looked up, had a brief thought about madness, and climbed. And climbed.
The ravine grew treacherous, with steep slopes of loose rock, boulders wedged precariously overhead by their corners, blind alleys of slick stone. I slipped once, cursed, scratched a knee and hung panting to a scraggle of rasty plant life… then pressed on. “I’m not coming down this way, that’s for sure,” I muttered, inching my way up, up, much further than it looked from below.
Thirsty, already regretting my foolishness in hiking empty-handed, I reached the top… or the illusion of same. Through wrinkles of cactus/sage/sand/rock I climbed on, quickly now, until at last I was on something approaching a level plain of rocky sage. Ahead of me, the sun was turning colorful in preparation for the evening’s sky show.
Then I turned around.
Everything looked the same. A maze of ravines and gullies radiated from my feet, the land so complex that there was hardly a clue to the location of the cliff that had seemed so grand and imposing from below. No matter. I wanted a different route down anyway. Thinking of Maggie, I set out for the most obvious promontory — a journey of some 15 minutes that was complicated by unexpected obstacles of vertical stone, deep creases, and impenetrable thickets of something hard and manzanita-like.
At the edge, dizzy, I looked down a few hundred feet over a boulder-strewn slope, and there, far away, was tiny Maggie — a speck of pink and brown like a cool Baskin-Robbins sundae against a backdrop of designer desert colors. I whistled the Morse code MV, “dahdah didididah” and she looked up, returned the call, and for a moment all was sweet: communication, the sight of my lady in this wild land, bas-relief rock in the low-angle light of evening. “I’ll head over that way,” I called, echoing. Squinting a half-diopter of correction, I could just catch her wave.
What had appeared from below as a simple cliff edge, however, was anything but. Progress parallel to the distant thread of Calf Creek was an exhausting process of climbing back up to level desert, picking a new crenelation to explore, and struggling down through another series of obstacles to a promising descent… only to find, after many minutes and another 10 cc’s of sweat, that a sheer bone-shattering drop blocked the way. The first time, it only made me nervous.
The second time, it terrified me.
Sunset was nearing. My mouth was as dry as the harsh land underfoot. I found a wide crease in the ground that had to lead all the way down and plunged into it, slipping on slickrock, tossing the cane down and retrieving it, descending parallel vertical walls with fingers and toes, crawling through thorns. Water. I needed water. This had to go down. “Dahdah didididah!” I whistled, stumbling too noisily to listen for a response. Deep crack, wiggling through, dropping hard a few feet with the dim awareness that this could be a trap. Sliding in sand, this has to do it, leaping a mini-abyss and approaching the knee of a gulley.
I looked down with a moan at a vertical drop of some 30 feet. Oh no… “Maggie!” I called, not sure what I’d say if she answered. “Maggie!” I listened, probed with my ears; all was silence but for a faraway truck and the distant goddamn laughter of carefree campers. So close…
Back up. Scared now, the light fading. The places I had descended with the aid of gravity were places I would never consider climbing; I threw myself at them and clung spiderlike to cracks and stones, clawing, panting whimpers dry and painful as the air chilled. My shirt stank. Topside again, deeply aware of being in trouble. Now what? I called again, found my way to an unfamiliar promontory, waved my shirt, called for Maggie, called for anyone, cried — for the first time in my life — for help. No response. Just the same goddamn laughter from distant people with plenty of water and nearby sleeping bags.
Delirium hits fast. I staggered the desert, none of it familiar, the sunset colors deep and beautiful like a female assassin in a James Bond movie. Just me and my cane and an injured ankle; no water, no ham radio, no flashlight, not even a way to make a fire. Cold nights out here in high desert… Maggie would be frightened by now, probably thinking about search parties and helicopters. I tried another crevasse, ripping my skin uncaring, losing the rubber cane tip, running clink clink stumble curse over rock only to teeter on another brink, turn, struggle back up by feel and trick-light, thinking of narrow flat places where I could sleep, thirst, die unseen in the desert like a sick animal — an idiot hiker without a water bottle.
High country again. Running now, gotta find a footprint, how the hell did I get up here? Deer trails, a sun-bleached antler. Nothing familiar; the twisted rock leering at me, wanting my moisture. I licked my sweat to ease the mouth, stabbed toes deeply with cactus needles, pushed on into twilight ignoring pain. “Maggie!” Goddamn laughter down there, gotta get to it, gotta find my woman, need a hug, need a gallon of water, need to stay alive.
“Foots!” I cried suddenly. “Foots!” In the sand was an impression of my tattered Avocet cycling shoe, unmistakable, aiming at me. Tracking in a frenzy like a hungry dog after a wounded rabbit, I ran tripping through the cactus, crying “foots” in exhausted glee at each shoeprint. On slick rock I lost the trail, but it had to be here somewhere; I sniffed around in the near dark and picked a route, last chance, plunging into the chute, sliding, shouting, riding a mini-landslide, jumping into blackness on the dubious advice of echo-less shouts. The cactus needles in my foot, the cuts, the throat — none mattered, for this one was going down, down, one bad jump and an awkward fall into rocks, nothing broken, limping through sand, a tree branch in my face… the road!
Clinking the cane on sweet asphalt I race-walked in parched ecstasy to the campsite, number 12. Maggie. Running now, dropping cane, sweaty hug, trembling, a beer drained in seconds, more hugs, tears, stories. Under the cold spigot I lay, inhaling sweet water; the cliffs a dim sinister shape against starlit sky; the thought of me still up there absurd, frightening.
And sleep, oh the sleep. Warm Maggie comforting, skin the opposite of rock, moisture intoxicating in the sweet sweet night. So close…
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