A little while back, a friend of mine referred to the Jeep as “The Golden Bullet”. I thought this was a good monicker for our trusty steed, though, privately I had been calling him Hayduke for a some time. Hayduke the Golden Bullet it is.
George Hayduke famously plotted to sabotage Glen Canyon Dam in Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, and even though Abbey is ambivalent about cars and the hordes of witless tourists they bring to the wild places in this country, he still has a soft spot for beat-up 4x4s, and I hoped the old XJ would pass muster with Rudolph the Red as I entered his beloved canyon country.
With Overland Expo winding down for me, and feeling impatient, I packed up quickly after my final class on Saturday morning. Inspired by tales of African deserts shared among my students, I felt the distinct pull of one of America’s great deserts just to the north. Keeping to US89 this time, the route would take me through Page, Arizona, west over the Colorado river at Glen Canyon, and into Utah’s Kaiparowits country.
My goal? Keep to the dirt and the solitude as much as I possibly could before I was pushed home by time and obligation. I wasn’t entirely certain what the fuel situation would portend, so I stopped briefly at the Flagstaff WalMart for an $11 jerry can, filled up with fuel, restocked the cooler and laid rubber for Utah.
About 30 miles west of Page, and 45 minutes past some decidedly average, but excellent enough Thai food, is a clearly marked turn-off for Cottonwood Canyon Road. This well-trod gravel two-track would take me north into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument along the Cockscomb, and where I would decide my fate among the dozens of Bureau of Land Management roads that offered further adventures.
Needless to say, getting on the dirt, no matter how well maintained at first, put me in a different frame of mind.
No more speed, no more amnesia – only discovery.
Nearly all the miles that lay ahead were new to me, and I had no agenda other than to find a good campsite. It was mid-afternoon, and even though the forecast called for high winds, the sun was shining and the road was empty.
As Cottonwood Canyon Road and Grand Staircase unwound under my Firestones, I paused at turn-outs along the banks of the espresso-muddy Paria River, and winced in shame when I thought I had murdered a 6-foot long rattlesnake basking in the road on a blind curve. Further inspection revealed it had been dead for some time, and a few more miles found me at the intersection for Grosvenor Arch.
The arch marked my decision point. A short drive west was Kodachrome Basin State Park, a hot shower, and a level campsite. But I had been to Kodachrome the year before, and paved roads lay that direction. So, with evening swiftly approaching I elected the dotted BLM road to the east, truly into the unknown, and I carried only the dim hope of stumbling on a decent place to rest my head.
One of the benefits of solo travel is the distinct lack of negotiation. The variables I weighed were mine and mine only, so the choice was a fast one. With the Jeep running cool and remarkably smooth, Hayduke only seemed to egg me on.
This is ridiculous anthropomorphism, but sometimes I swear this truck is happiest when we’re on the dirt in four-wheel drive and finding new adventures. It’s probably just projection.
Working my way east into more and more rough terrain, I finally turned due north onto the final leg of Paradise Canyon Road, and was greeted with stunning vistas and a discouraging sign.
Paradise Canyon Road follows the top of a hog-back ridge just west of its namesake, and the more famous Escalante Canyon and Collet Canyons. The views stretch both east and west from the ridge onto the endless sage plains.
I passed up several excellent campsites with stunning landscapes in all directions, but drawn by “around the corner fever” and with no schedule to speak of, I pressed on as the light continued to fade.
Soon, I dropped precipitously from the ridge into Paradise Canyon itself, and the going got much more tricky.
The road itself was not particularly onerous – except for some relatively steep sections, it was wide and mostly well-graded. I engaged low range only in a handful of places, mostly to take advantage of engine braking on downhills. But, the soft, silty soils that made up the road surface were clearly susceptible to erosion, and the wet spring had thrown some surprises in the mix. This road would be completely impassable in a rainstorm.
On off-camber corners, and in places where the road bottomed out across seasonal streams, the spring runoff had carved deep, narrow, and square-shaped channels across the track. Some were too deep to tackle head-on, and carefully angled approaches proved necessary. These obstacles seemed to get more difficult the further I progressed up the canyon, and the more the road narrowed and suffered from lack of maintenance.
In other words: perfect. And then:
This was clearly a problem. Maybe the sign had been right after all? In the photos above, in the upper right you can see an alternate route that someone had blazed before me on the downstream side of the bridge. But even that had been washed out below, and I didn’t feel comfortable tackling it alone, especially with the sun rapidly disappearing and my need for a decent campsite impending.
I shut off the engine, pondered my options for a moment, and backtracked on foot for a short distance. I noticed some faint tire tracks leading into the grass on the upstream side of the creek bisecting the road. Following them for a while revealed a crossing that looked doable, but would it rejoin the main road on the far side? Only one way to find out.
Having dispatched this obstacle, it was after 7:00pm and the dinner bell was ringing. But no obvious campsite revealed itself, and I resolved to put on a few more miles.
But as the road climbed slowly out of the headwaters of the canyon, it only narrowed, and convenient turn-outs were not to be found. I finally drove upon two different spur roads, but one only dead-ended in a grim, sandy wash (which nearly bogged me down as I tried to reverse out of it), and the other at a slimy stock watering tank. Neither felt “right”, so with increasing urgency I pressed on into the darkness.
Paradise Canyon Road finally descended off of Death Ridge (seriously) and intersected BLM Road #300 about 20 miles south of the town of Escalante, Utah. (Say it like the locals: “Escul-ant”.)
I was fighting cattle wandering across the road and definitely not finding my dream campsite. But it was now actually nighttime, so what did it really matter at this point? Feeling worn out and ready just to park in the flattest patch of sage I could find, I stumbled on a barely perceptible trail leading off into the pitch-black. I thought, “I’ll explore this one last track, and if it doesn’t turn out, I’ll give up.”
When a fire ring and a level parking spot materialized in my headlights, I thankfully shut down the XJ and broke out the hatchet and the firewood. A ham sandwich and two beers later, I felt much better.
“The fire. The odor of burning juniper is the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth, in my honest judgment; I doubt if all the smoking censers of Dante’s paradise could equal it. One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West. Long may it burn.”
— Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness