On the trail: Seeing the light(ning)
October 13, 2010
CANYONLANDS, Utah – There are a lot of writers in this valley better than me at expressing the splendor of Utah’s high desert wilderness, but I doubt few could boast a more spiritual experience than I savored last week.
I hooked up with some friends in The Needles section of Canyonlands National Park for a glorious week of hikes and bike rides. We dodged rain on Tuesday despite a 60 percent chance, so I was slow rousing my comrades out of tents the following morning despite an ominous forecast of thunderstorms after noon.
We hiked the 5.5 miles to Druid Arch and lazed in the early afternoon sun at the geologic marvel. As we headed back I decided to go my own way to add a 3-mile loop to create a total trip of 14 miles. Within 20 minutes of taking a path less traveled, the wind picked up and clouds roiled in a way I knew something was going to hit the fan. Soon after my trail left a dry, sandy gulch and started a slow ascent up a sandstone bench, it started to sprinkle.
As I followed the cairns that led up increasingly steeper pitches on the slickrock, the wind sent sheets of rain my way.
And by the time my route scaled a steep slickrock saddle between two canyons, I was engulfed by flashes of lightning with milliseconds before the deafening reports. To my chagrin, the trail stayed on a high slickrock bench with precious few cavities to hide.
“Great,” I thought, as I walked in a useless crouch against the next lightning and thunder, “friends will try to comfort my wife and daughter by saying, ‘He died doing what he loved.’ What a crock. This is terrifying.”
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At that instant, my trail passed through a crack in another beefy slickrock saddle. It was roughly 50 yards long and narrow enough in most places where I could touch both sides. It offered only partial shelter from the rain, but I was thankful for escaping the lightning.
It took 15 minutes before the storm had ambled far enough north that I felt comfortable leaving my sanctuary. Then I experienced the payoff: the pour-off pools on the rock walls towering on all sides of me were gushing, potholes on the slickrock floor spilled to create cascades, and small streams flowed down every crack to converge in Big Spring Canyon.
To my delight, the water in the main canyon remained negotiable.
To my further delight were the sounds. Disney couldn’t have created a more beautiful chorus than the water rushing down.
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