There were bad omens hanging around the beginning of this trip. While the plan was perfect, as usual, things didn't go correctly from the get go. SPAM? Who the hell wants SPAM as a lunch meat? Well, when you're two hours behind schedule leaving Page and WalMart doesn't sell those handy chicken pouches, you take what you can get. On the road, down towards Kayenta. Dinner plan? Sonic. Twenty minutes after taking my order, my chili dog finally comes out the drive-through window. Twenty minutes? Really? I guess it must be rush hour here in K-Town. Oh well, I got the food, time to make tracks.
About twenty minutes later, just north of the pass at Monument Valley, I spot a red F-150 on the side of the road, barely visible in the gleam of my headlights. Randall's truck? I wonder to myself. I tell myself that I'll drive on to Mexican Hat, and if his truck isn't there I'll head back this way. But not a half mile down the road, I notice two fellows walking towards the truck, carrying something that appears to be a gas can. Crap! I'm by them before much else can be determined, so I turn around and head back, thinking I can help out my fellow hikers. As I pull along side, however, I realize my mistake. This is not Randy and one of his carpool partners. Rather it is two middle-aged drunk Navajos, carrying a plastic bag full of beer cans. Oh hell. But now that I've stopped, I can't just take off without seeming like an ass, so they hop in.
"Thanks man," they slur, but I inform them I'm not heading towards Kayenta. I let them know I was just searching for my friends that were in the red truck parked just down the road. I have to wonder if I am hallucinating, though, for as I drive towards the pass again there's no red truck! Tonight certainly can't get any better. I hastily get rid of the drunks on the pass ("Be careful out there," I say) and spin around yet again, heading northward for the San Juan and hopefully Cedar Mesa.
Stopping for gas in Mexican Hat, another obstacle literally blocks my path. Some poor foolish truck driver has jammed his Mayflower trailer all the way across Highway 163 at the Shell station, wedging the right front corner on the asphalt where the highway drops away into a dirt parking lot. I observe the spectacle while gassing up, an after a short parking lot bypass, I'm on the highway again, rolling towards my destination.
I finally mount the switchbacks of the Moqui Dugway and make a beeline for the Muley Point lookout. I pull off at the point just before Muley Point proper, lay the rear seat of the Explorer down, and nod off to sleep at around 11:30pm, Utah time.
The alarm on the cell phone wakes me up at 6am, the sun just barely lightening the eastern horizon. I leave the warmth of the truck to take a leak, and then I'm back inside to make some breakfast. It is then and only then when I discover that one of the drunks from the night before knocked my bag of bagels out of the truck. Hell. I guess it is Cliff Bar breakfast for me.
Getting things together in my truck, I notice a pair of headlights moving along the rim to my west, headed my way. I couldn't figure that anyone else would be moving around except maybe members of the HAZ crew. Sure enough, a convertible Seabring rolls into my little point, and out steps Vaporman (Brian) and rushthezeppelin (Chris). It is freaking cold, but we do some brief handshakes and walk out to the rim and check out the view. Pretty damn dark, but we ooh and ahh for about thirty seconds before scurrying back to our vehicles and hit the road. Over the dirt and back to the pavement, where we head north to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station.
Brian has some minor issues with the bathroom door while Chris and I putzed around with our gear. As Randal arrives, Brian gets the word he was trying the wrong door. As he goes off to change I greet Mike and Anne. They head off into the newly-opened ranger station. I still need to get into my hiking clothes as well, so I head into the other restroom just as the sun begins to crest the horizon. After my quick-change, I proceed inside where the gang is standing around the counter, talking to the rangers. After finalizing our permit info we settle down to watch some backcountry ethics movie. That's new from my last trip, and it basically "don't poop in the ruins, don't walk on the midden", all stuff I already know. We're anxious to get done, and we bolt as soon as the video is over.
We cruise to the Government parking area en caravan, and after dumping after-hike essentials in Randy's truck we pile into the Explorer. A rough ride up to Bullet, but we make it all relatively intact, and after forcing the Explorer to disgorge the cargo we're finally on the trail. Across the rim and then down into Bullet we speed. We make good time to the chutes, and find them somewhat less intimidating that previously thought. They are still skimmed in ice, however, so we take some care, and with Chris forging the path we make our way down. Descending another slickrock drop, and then we're at the boulder fall. I had to sound the alarm as several of the party started to descend into the boulder fall. We take the upper bypass and soon thereafter we find ourselves at Perfect Kiva in time for lunch.
We took ten for lunch, and after relaxing and soaking up the sun, we headed towards the ruin. Randy had brought along some old 1800's photos of the Wetherill excavations, and he heads up a side draw to get a good angle down into the ruin. The rest of us walk up the slope and enter the Perfect Kiva alcove.
This is the first serious ruin we've come to along this stretch of canyon, and everyone is pretty well excited. The ruin is in fairly good shape, though there is some evidence of recent digging south of the kiva. Artifacts are piled up on the "display rocks" around the site. Ugh. But despite that, it is still a neat place, and the view is outstanding as well.
We head back down and head around the corner to Jailhouse. Dropping our packs again, we attempt (and fail) to find a way into the upper level of Jailhouse, leaving us only the lower section to explore. None the less, it is pretty cool. There are shelves masoned into the cliff inside some of the rooms, and the "jail cell" is just unique. There is an enormous rock literally covered in pot sherds and lithic flakes on "display." Sad yet impressive at the same time.
We find very little water below Jailhouse, and while I tank up, everyone else pressed on. I caught up with Randy and Mike not too long afterward. We hiked on, winding and weaving, until we crested the big alluvial ridge. From there we could see the junction of Bullet and Grand Gulch. On, down, and to the campsite where we get things set up for the evening. Dinner was varied, with an experimental dehydrated bean mix for me, freezer bag cooking, and Mike's expired Mountain House lasagna. Yum. After dinner a few of us head up Grand Gulch to check out Wall Ruin, which both Brian and I had seen on previous Grand Gulch trips. What a great site! Chris and Brian figured out the devious route up to the upper level, which provided great views up and down the canyon, as well as access to the rest of the site.
Our evening was short due to rapidly falling temperatures, and after a long, cool night of fitful sleep for most, we were up at the crack of nine. Randy offered to share his Jamaican jerked chicken dinner leftovers for breakfast, but no one took him up on his generous offer, so he scarfed most of it down himself. While Anne and Mike warmed up and shook out the cramps of the previous night, Brian, Chris, Randal, and myself scaled the ridge to the north to gain access to a small set of ruins that we had spotted the evening before, walking back from Wall Ruins. Chris took the most direct route possible, scrambling like a monkey up the slickrock face, while the rest of us took a more cautious route to the top of the ridge. There was found a wall perched on a boulder, seemingly impossible to get to. We pondered the mystery of the wall for a few minutes before heading over to the end of a ledge, where the combination granary/living structure was built into the cliff. Did it serve as a watch house, protecting the junction? Or was there more to the story behind the stone, mud, and sticks? Chris went off, determined (but eventually unsuccessful) to find a way to the boulder-top ruin, while the rest of us eventually made our way back down to the canyon bottom.
We finally hit the trail around 10:30, with the sun hitting the stream bed. We meandered here and there, occasionally staying in the wash, occasionally following well-worn trails out of the wash bottom to cut off meanders or just apparently irritate and tire us. We had to make a huge detour around a sandstone fin that jutted south; covering half a mile on the trail to gain 50 yards of lateral distance. We took plenty of breaks, and by noon we were near the mouth of Green Spring Canyon, at the base of a tall hoodoo. We have lunch looking up at the hoodoo and some ruins, and after we've eaten, Brian, Chris, and I scampered up to have a look-see. Not really much to say about it; one storage room and one Glen Canyon Linear petroglyph nearby. I head back down to the rest of the group while Brian takes a nap and Chris nearly falls to his early death off a sand hill. Tragedy avoided, we all regroup and press on downcanyon.
Time and water are starting to wear on our minds as we pass more ruins as well as Step Canyon. There's supposed to be water in Dripping Springs Canyon, as well as Cow Tank Canyon, but I've never been through this stretch before so I am a little apprehensive. The miles grow longer and dustier as the wind picks up, flinging sand into our faces. The wash bottom is like walking on a beach, and each trail out of it is like climbing a sand dune, only to walk back down the backside 100 feet later. The group is definitely showing fatigue, and by the time we reach Dripping Springs Canyon in the middle of a gale, we all decide we're done for the day. At first we attempt to camp near a giant cottonwood near the mouth, but Chris, the only hanger in the group, points out that it is too massive to get his hammock webbing around. We all need water; no one has more than .5 liters left, and we've got 6-ish miles to go the next day. According to my map, there's a spring up the canyon, "just around the next bend." Everyone dumps their packs and takes only what they need; water bottles and purification equipment. As we head up Dripping Springs Canyon, the group begins to take on a somber mood, and all conversation evaporates. Everyone is in their own private grind looking for water, as the wind continues to sandblast us. Our mouths are dry, and grit gets in our eyes, our noses, our ears. Finally I round a corner, Chris and Brian just ahead of me, and Chris lets out a cry. "There's a pool here!" The most beautiful sound of all in a dry desert canyon. That special magic of water in the arid country. "We're saved!" I exclaim, but only half joking. Water is a sacrament.
We continue upcanyon just another few dozen yards where the scummy potholes turn into deep, clear pools with some flow to them. I dunk my bottles and drop in iodine, and then sit back on the warm rock and just enjoy that sacred, all-important ritual of gathering water in the desert. Randy, Brian, Anne, and Mike all pump for several minutes while Chris has already scooped water for iodine treatment from another pool just upstream. Puffy clouds are rolling in, and Randal taunts them. Insults their parentage and their ability to do anything at all. Oh, but we would rue those statements, but for the moment they brought laughs.
We had all tanked up and sadly turned our backs on the oasis. The clouds began building again, and the wind was still fierce as we headed back downcanyon. Another potential campsite was spotted, one with enough flat space for us to all camp together and trees for Chris to hang. We dropped our water, went to grab our packs, and set up for the night.
It was another cold one, with the winds howling like banshees and the clouds racing overhead thicker and fiercer. After dinner, there was little talking. It sounded like an airplane was going to crash into the canyon, what with the wind and all anyway, so bedtime came at around 8:30pm. Two hours later I was awakened from my slumber, glad I had a warm water bottle stashed between my legs, by Brian. "Hey, you guys might not hear it because it is real soft, but its snowing!" Hell. Why would he know this, you might rightly ask? Why because Brian didn't have a tent, and was sleeping on a tarp in his bag, exposed to all the elements. I clutched my warm water bottle tighter and attempted to drift back to sleep.
I woke as dawn was once again just barely lightening the eastern sky. I wanted to put some miles under my boots early; I was dreaming of a Navajo taco at Goulding's. Plus it was frozen-ass cold outside, and I knew the sooner we got moving, the sooner we'd start to warm up. While most of the party was reluctant to get a move on, after taking some sensible emergency warming actions, we got pretty well rousted and began to pack. We hit the trail just as the sun came up on our campsite, though it had been illuminating the rock art panel on the cliff above us for over an hour.
The hike wasn't bad. Cold, but not bad, as the snow kept the sand together. We decided to abandon all but the most serious meander cutoffs and stick to the stream bed to help save our legs, so we zigged and zagged with the wash. Rock art and ruins floated by, out of reach, until we came to what Randy's GPS called mysteriously "Big Ruins."
We drop our packs in the wash and head up the sand trail to the old floodplain. Group of Boy Scouts from Colorado is already up in the ruins, and the scoutmaster is reading from some rock art pamphlet, telling the boys what each dot and figure means. I'm more than slightly skeptical. The Boy Scouts seem interested, though after the Scout Master leaves, some of them begin throwing corn cobs at each other. They don't seem too impressed when I scold them either, but when I point out a huge lizard, everyone comes to see. At least they are interested in the outdoors, I just wish they'd be a little more respectful of the site.
It is warm in the alcove, and we don't want to head back down to Anne and Mike down in the wash, but the thought of Navajo Tacos drove us on. Down we went, where we again ran into the Scout Master. They'd come up from a camp at Polly's and wanted to visit the Big Man Panel. They'd overshot and ended up at Long House. We dig out the map and set them straight. They disappear downcanyon, and after giving them enough time to clear out we picked up our gear and followed suit.
The Big Man Panel wasn't far downstream, maybe a mile, but it was obvious how they could have missed it coming upcanyon. It is on a north facing wall on the east side of the canyon. They cruised right on by it. The climb is steep to get up to the panel, which is near the top of the cliff, but we cajole all of the crew to make the climb. It was well worth it, and we stand in awe of the amazing ancient art. Even the Boy Scouts seem impressed. They head down another way, while we linger. Randal shoots a group shot, and then we made tracks back down to the canyon bottom.
After a brief consult, we decided to lunch at the base of the Government Trail. Boots on the sand, we put the miles behind us, passing arches and overhanging walls. It seems like in no time at all, we encounter Polly's Canyon. Just after, we find the canyon bottom turns to slickrock with some puddles of melted snow. A perfect lunch spot. I faced the unfortunate task of having my SPAM and mayo burrito, while the rest of the gang munched on items that looked a little more appetizing. The scouts had made it back to their camp, and we could hear them cavorting just upcanyon. The Scout Master (who had a Swiss accent, by Randal's reckoning) came by to jaw for a little bit. He'd been Scouting for about 20 years, and had been all over this stretch of country; Fish, Owl, Road, Kane, Collins, The Maze, Moab, etc. He'd never been between Government and Bullet though, so we had something in common. We talked for a while, and then he went back up to Polly's to check on his charges. We shouldered our packs for one last push, and headed up the Government Trail.
We passed mushroom rocks as we ascended, and finally connected with the actual Government Trail after a little bit of "exploration." It was quite obvious when we found it; well constructed and wide. We chugged on up and out of the canyon, coming up from below the rim of the world. Features started appearing on the horizon like Moss Back Butte, the Henry Mountains, and the Red House Cliffs. We finally crested the last rise and there we were on a slickrock plain, dotted with tinajas. We'd made it out of Grand Gulch.
We still had some miles to go though. Randy's GPS showed about 1.5 miles (as the crow flies) from the rim to his truck. Brian's trusty photocopy of the Falcon Guide map showed 3.2 miles. I was banking on the BLM ranger's estimation of 2 miles. In either case, we had some more time to go with weight on our backs before we could drop our packs and suck back a beer or two, to say nothing of those Navajo Tacos. The last leg was on.
It was a sand slog across the mesa top on an old wagon road. The wind howled at our backs and we had to stop to rest our legs every half mile or so. Every time Randy would check his GPS, and it would seem the truck was barely getting any closer. Brian and Chris surged ahead, while the rest of us ground across the sagebrush plains. The views around us were astonishing; Navajo Mountain, the Rainbow Plateau, Skeleton Mesa, The Red House Cliffs, the Kaparowitz, Woodenshoe Butte, and the Bears Ears. Finally we crested a rise and saw metal in the distance! The trailhead! Chris and Brian were there, waiting for us. I signed the register and we trudged the last quarter mile up the road to where Randy had parked. What a glorious sight that was. We were finally able to drop our packs one last time. All who wanted to cracked a beer in celebration. One hell of a trip indeed. All that remained was to complete the shuttle. Once we'd done that, it was on to Goulding's, where Randy learned he was supposed to be in Denver. Ooops. Hard to top a Grand Gulch trip followed up by Navajo Tacos, though! One hell of a trip!