“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life …”
— Henry David Thoreau, “Walden: Or, Life in the Woods”
I went to the desert, my Walden, my escape.
I often do this. What better place to be quiet and contemplative? To see incredible vistas? To lie in my sleeping bag under the stars, straining to hear a sound beyond that of my own breath?
I have been going to what we call “The Waterfall Desert” since my children were old enough to give it that moniker. For years we camped in the exact same campsite – ideal during the toddler years because there were no places where a child could drop into nothingness.
As they grew older, we branched out a bit, but I have a special fondness for the original home. So that is where I returned last weekend, wanting to lie on the warm slickrock, sleep under a million stars and hike until I dropped.
I actually said that.
Careful what you wish for.
Friday afternoon, my stubby-legged dog, Elvis, and I packed up delicious decadent food and a truckful of down and headed west. When we arrived, he was as excited as I and ran all over the slickrock until I was ready to take a pre-dinner hike.
Off we went, down the wash to the sand pits where the children spent hours of their youngesterhood. There was a minimal amount of snow, but running water everywhere. The sounds of dripping and flowing created a cacophony that is beyond rare to hear out there.
Even better: frozen waterfalls hung around every bend.
I couldn’t wait until the morning to really go.
I woke up at 4:00, snug as a bug in the back of my truck. I wrote. Elvis slept in until 7:00. Lazy f-er.
We ate breakfast in the sun and debated whether to wear shorts or pants, running shoes or flip-flops. Let’s stop right here and thank the powers that be that gave me the good sense to opt for more coverage rather than less.
We set off in a northerly direction across the top of the slickrock, running, jumping, scampering. Joyous to be alive in this stunning landscape.
After getting cliffed-out, we dropped down to cross the main creek, just above the waterfall. It was deep enough and the current strong enough that I had to carry Elvis across so that he didn’t get swept over the raging falls.
So far, so good.
We dropped into the drainage to follow the creek. In some places we walked in sand, in others, we had to wade through the running water up to my knees, over Elvis’ head.
Still fun, still happy.
When we arrived at the bottom of the drainage that would take us back to camp, we went up.
This water was also raging – almost as much of a river as the main creek. A total anomaly. In all my years, I had never seen these side creeks run.
Scrambling around the desert, although fun for Elvis, is somewhat of a challenge; jump-ups and pour-offs are not easy for someone with such short legs. So traveling up a drainage involves a lot of lifting and reassurance. Tasks that I am completely up for, but do tend to get exhausting, especially when, as he gets more and more frustrated, he runs the other way after I’ve already climbed over something so I have to do it again after catching him.
I was starting to feel sorry for him and I was getting a bit worn out – it was February, and February means I’ve been sitting on my arse for a couple of months cursing the snow outside my window.
We reached a dead end of sorts – there was no more traveling in the bottom of the creek – it was time to climb out. As we did, I was sure, due to my incredibly strong (irony) sense of direction, that we were going to be damn close to our campsite. But when we got on top, all I could see for miles in any direction were more canyons, more slickrock and the sun, directly overhead.
So I knew it was noon, but it gave me no indication whatsoever as to which way was south. Plus, all of the landmarks by which I should have been able to orient myself were blocked out by higher points of sandstone.
Suddenly, I was lost.
But not panicked. Yet.
Mild anxiety kicked in when I got to a place where I couldn’t move forward any more as everything was a severe drop-off. I was not about to go back the way I came since I had worked so hard to get here. In hindsight, it would have saved me hours and miles.
Finally, I found a cairn and started following a maybe-trail. I was still imagining myself to be on a triangle of small canyons surrounded by two roads and the main creek. How hard could this be?
Up and down, over and under, and crossing flowing water again and again. I was back in the bottom of a canyon, unable to see the sun and get my bearings and also unable to differentiate one creek from another.
Miles and hours later I was filled with dread. The words “Aron Ralston” ran through my mind while I watched Elvis for warning signs of a heart attack. I stopped enjoying the beauty. I craved other people.
Finally, finally, I came upon a road. I let myself relax just the tiniest bit as I followed it, assured that soon I would come to the primary road and hop right back to camp. I ignored the fact that nothing looked familiar.
Miles later, I hit another road. From here I could finally see some of the landmarks that I know so well. But they were in all of the wrong places. Nothing made sense.
I walked a couple of miles further and thought, “If I’m where I think I am, this road goes on for a very long way before it hits the main drag.”
With visions of carrying my 30-pound dog on my shoulders, I took a deep breath and left the safety of the road to travel once more across the desert.
This time, it worked. Not only did I land on another road, but also I heard voices – human ones. And they were laughing; they weren’t lost like I was.
Shamefaced, I approached their camp and said, “Where. The F—k. Am. I?????????”
One of them even looked familiar, I think she was from Cortez, but I didn’t want to catch her eye in case she recognized me. This situation was much too mortifying.
They pointed me in the right direction and told me my camp was very nearby. Well, it was nowhere near as close as I hoped, but eventually I did make it there, approaching my truck on my hands and knees, hugging my tires in relief while Elvis collapsed in a pothole.
Suzanne Strazza is an award-winning writer in Mancos, Colo.