I think September is the time to be in the mountains. March and April, in the canyons. This stuck when my friend Josh said it, last year, hiking down the Escalante river. Now we were back in Utah, driving a rented black Jeep Wrangler down a dirt road to Paria, a ghost town where part of The Outlaw Josey Wales was filmed, in the wide Paria valley. The jeep threw up a plume of dust. The road turned white.
A woman sat in a folding chair under a tree. A small muddy river zigzagged the wide valley. The ranger had told us not to expect clean water here. We left six gallons of water at the jeep, and each of us (Josh, Kjell and I) carried 4 or 5 liters.
The mud along the river would occassionally suck up around our shoes. Josh and I wore closed-toe sandals. Kjell wore flip flops, and he almost immediately lost one in the mud, and continued barefoot.
We set up camp that night just up the Hogeye, a side canyon with a small stream, clear water and good to filter. There was an old sleeping pad and an empty gallon jug under a rock nearby. Dried cow poop dotted the trail. The canyon walls were much closer, and in the evening shadows we cooked gnocci and pesto with dried mushrooms.
Next morning: some mild bushwhacking and bouldering up the Hogeye. At one point we passed a deep emerald pool between the rocks. It was warm in the sun but cool in the shade. At a pourover we ate salame and cheese and rye crackers.
A few storms came through. We waited the rain out under an overhang. The heat of the day disappeared, and I put on my wool shirt. We were climbing now, and the high walls of the canyon were coming down to meet us. The upper hogeye disappeared in the sandy wash. We filtered our last bit of water on this side of the ridge.
The path, too, disappeared into the face of the ridge. We scrambled up broad slabby rock, and looked for footprints in the patches of sand, and occasionally consulted the map for landmarks.
The top of ridge opened to a plateau dotted with juniper trees and sage brush. We could see the triangular Calico peak to the south, a long, reddish cliff to the west, and the spine of the Coxcomb to the east.
Across the plateau, called Lower Death Valley on the map, all washes ran down to the Hackberry river, where we were heading, so we followed one, gradually descending into another canyon, dropping into steeper and steeper pour overs.
We passed an arch, the one clearly labeled landmark on the map. We were close to the Hackberry, and according to what the ranger had told us, close to water. I had just run out of my 3 liters; Kjell and Josh were both low as well. Around a bend in the canyon, and ahead I hear Josh: We’re fucked! Our path abruptly ended at a cliff, an enormous pour over. Below we could see mud. 100 feet down? 150?
We spent an hour or so backtracking and testing out a few side canyons, to see if they led around to a different route, up and around the pour over. It was getting dark. We discovered a tiny puddle of water, so small we joked about trying to filter it. An hour later, finding no route, we did filter the puddle, and it steadily refilled itself, yielding plenty of water.
Clutch puddle, we referred to it, jokingly. It would have been a different night without it.
Next morning: fresh and ready to navigate, we found the route. A tiny ledge, easier to see in the daylight, brought us to a slide of rocks we could scramble down.
A few more boulders to jump around, and the canyon joined the Hackberry, with a cool, fast-running stream, and unlike the Paria, clear and filterable. We dropped our packs and spent a few hours wading upstream to explore.
The Hackberry joined the Cottonwood creek, in a much larger valley. We camped surrounded by sage. In the darkness, by the tents, tufted evening primrose bloomed.
Next morning: the Cottonwood creek joined the Paria, and we hiked upstream back to the jeep.