On the trail: Never fool with the weather gods
October 18, 2011
CEDAR MESA, Utah – I tried to trick the weather gods during my annual fall desert trip this year, but it backfired.
October weather is impossible to predict. The ragtag bunch I meet for hiking and partying at varying locations in southern Utah has shied away in recent years from the once-sacred Halloween gathering. We got tired of slogging through the rain too many times on hikes, dealing with consistently cold temperatures and, worst of all, bracing against chill winds.
Our rendezvous times have correlated with our age: The older we get, the earlier in October we meet. This year, I proposed that we gather the first week of October, figuring the odds were in our favor. I met up with two brothers-in-law from Iowa and a life-long friend from Portland. We gathered at Cedar Mesa, the high ground south of Natural Bridges National Monument and west of Blanding in southern Utah. It’s an amazing place, but our timing left a little to be desired.
The mesa is deceptively high at elevations as high as 7,000 feet. We prepared for rain the first night, stringing up a tarp between pinon trees, superheating coals in our campfire and covering our wood supply. Good call. It rained for a while, dribbled most of the night and eventually dropped below freezing. Fortunately, we carried ample antifreeze in 12-ounce cans.
Overcast skies worked to our advantage the following day by keeping temperatures cool on what was designed to be a 15-mile hike linking two prominent canyons. Alas, the rain that fell kept the stream flowing higher than anticipated and slowing our progress. We had to abort the loop hike but finished off the other branch another day.
Our second full day together started off wicked. Hard, wind-driven rain gave way to snow when the temperature dropped 15 degrees right before dawn. The snow finally let up, but we aborted plans to hike. Instead we piled into one of the guy’s month-old Ford Explorer for burritos in Mexican Hat and wandering on backcountry roads. The tricked-out Explorer performed well but met its match at a stream crossing with thick, gooey mud at the approach and the far bank. We got stuck but thankfully avoided getting high-centered. We eventually backed our way out of trouble.
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Another day, more snow and nighttime temperatures well below freezing. The same storm system that plagued us dumped 3 feet of snow in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to our east. The Iowa boys had to leave on day five. The Portland guy and I concluded we’d had enough of Cedar Mesa. We hightailed it for the Moab area – trading our solitude for more crowded conditions and frigid weather for warmth.
By the time I returned to the Roaring Fork Valley on Oct. 12, the desert weather was ideal, and the weather gods were laughing.