Utah by Dirt: Seeking the Secrets of the Desert

Mountain biking near Green River, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe
Mountain biking near Green River, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe

Hot, harsh, arid wastelands, nothing but sand, sky, and rocks.  Majestic, sweeping landscapes, teeming with a life that seems it shouldn’t be, and more things to see, experience, and explore than one could imagine to fit in a lifetime.  These are two ways to describe the desert, neither wrong, and neither giving the whole picture.  A land of contrasts, with razor thin lines between polar opposites: pleasure and pain, life and death, success and failure, bleakness and beauty. The desert is a truly desolate and wondrous place.  It has so much to offer, but it loves to keep its secrets.

Growing up in Utah, I have lived always in close proximity to this arid land of seemingly endless possibilities for exploration. And though it has always held a place in my heart, I don’t think I have always given it the credit it deserves.

I was exposed to the wonders of the desert right from the get-go. My Salt Lake City upbringing was punctuated by trips to the Glen Canyon area with my family nearly every other weekend from the time I was a toddler up until my early teens.  My parents had a boat, and often we would venture in it up one of the countless side canyons and set up camp on a beach as far away from people and civilization as we could manage.  As a little kid, I explored with wonder appropriate for such a place. I would aimlessly wander up side canyons and linger over wet mossy seeps in the walls, climb on rocks and stare at the multi-colored lichen on them, catch small frogs and lizards, and search for scorpions and rattlesnakes under every rock and bush—only to run away whenever I actually found them.

Hiking in Utah's slot canyons; Photograph by Max Lowe
Hiking in Utah’s slot canyons; Photograph by Max Lowe

As I grew a bit older, I became more focused on activities in themselves and started to neglect the little things.  I would spend my day focused on learning new tricks on a cliff jump into the lake, or hiking all day to a specific arch or high-point, overlooking the small creatures and plants and the beauty of the un-named cliffs along the way.  As happens with anything you’ve been doing with the family for as long as you can remember, it just seemed so ordinary and normal.  The desert started to fade from my consciousness, as I spent less and less time there and instead stuck to the mountains, most often on skis or a mountain bike. As the mountains and the activities I did within them took my focus and imagination, I spent a number of years with hardly any visits to the desert, and those I took seemed to be with far less enthusiasm as it deserved… I mean it’s cool, but it’s just the desert, you know?

Don’t get me wrong, I still loved the desert, but being exposed to it so early on led me to believe it far more ordinary than it was, not fully grasping the unique and delicate beauty it held until later in life. And oh, what a fool I was.  Over the last several years, the desert has become fascinating yet again, as I have been getting reacquainted through a number of mountain biking trips and some river-running adventures.  Throughout more recent journeys to the arid places south of my home, I have yet again found myself in constant awe at all that exists out there, sometimes hidden in plain sight, and fascinated by the desert’s many contrasts and juxtapositions.

Hiking in Escalante National Park, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe
Hiking in Escalante National Park, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe

Life that takes hold in such a seemingly vacant and hostile place, but is so easily found if you take a moment to look. Pour some water on a dry patch of cryptobiotic soil and watch it spring to life, swell up and turn bright green as it almost instantly starts photosynthesizing. Or stand outside as night falls and listen to the sounds of hundreds of bird, frogs, and insects chattering away as they come out of their daytime hiding places to busy themselves during the cooler temperatures of the night.  In some places the dramatic, crimson cliffs throw the beauty of the landscape in in your face, while others hide sights which can surpass their majesty, tucked deep in slot canyons that often get lost in a seemingly bland, flat landscape of sand, rock, and sage, which you might not even notice until walk almost right up to the edge.  The more you find in the eroded twists and folds of the desert’s mazelike terrain, the more you feel as though you’re only scratching the surface.

Utah by Dirt was a great trip that has only reinforced my recently rejuvenated fascination for the desert and all it has to offer through its balancing contrasts.  The moments of action are leveled by the wonders observed in the times of stillness in between.  We would stare in quiet reverence as the golden light of dawn shatters the darkness of the night with its first strike on the cliffs above, working its way down to wash over the vast landscapes below, signaling a start to a morning off flying down spines and ridges on a mountainbike.  We pondered the geological forces that created the many layers and striations in the rock walls around us while unwinding from an exciting day of whitewater rafting. And almost the epitome of the hidden treasures and paired opposites that the desert let us witness on this trip: the lush and green Escalante river bottom, invisible from flat and deathly hot plateau above.

The river flowing high gave life to this hidden oasis: tall cottonwoods towered over the green banks and snakes and turkeys scrambled around through the shrubs.  Despite this, the muddy water would clog a filter instantly, so simply getting drinking into quite the affair; not wanting to wait for sediment to settle out, a couple of us went to pump water at a clear running spring nearby and found our path blocked by the high-running river, turning a 15-minute walk into a two-hour adventure to climb up, around, down, and back—all because our path to water was blocked by … water.

The desert has a sense of humor, it seems, as it sometimes won’t give things up easily.  This was all to hydrate and prepare for the our exploration of gorgeous, twisting, turning, slot canyons that fed into the river bottom, formed by fluvial erosion as water working its way down to the river. These brought even more striking juxtapositions:  water that was somehow inhabited by frogs and bugs, though cold enough necessitate wetsuits to prevent hypothermia despite the skyrocketing temperatures of the rock in the sun up above, and nerve-wracking rappels into still and silent golden sandstone cathedrals.  None of it could be seen from above, or really until we were already in it, for that matter.  All hidden in plain sight and perfect example of what can be hidden in the desert if you take the time to walk around, pay attention, and look.

Up Next: Canyoneering in Escalante

Previous: Rafting the Colorado River

Previous: Mountain Biking the White Rim 

The Adventurists blog series “Utah by Dirt” is sponsored by Toyota 4Runner, which provided vehicle for this adventure.

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