Survival is a Good Thing

A couple years ago this month I went on a camping trip to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. Nine days. Went up with a couple friends, met a couple more there. Nothing we haven’t all done lots of times. But it was the rain that almost made this trip a little too exciting.

We were deep in the Monument, exploring the side canyons off Cottonwood Wash Road, when the weather turned bad. Dark clouds, gusting wind. Not a big deal, really. All we had to do was hunker down and wait it out. We had tents and rain gear after all, not to mention plenty of food and rum.

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The problem was that we were “dying” to hike this particular slot canyon. Now, a slot canyon is just like it sounds, a narrow slot carved into solid stone, sometimes with a stream in the bottom, sometimes just sand. These slot canyons can be hundreds of feet deep and narrow down to only a few feet wide. It’s not uncommon to look up while hiking in the bottom of one and see a log jammed in twenty feet overhead, proof of how deep and vicious the floods can be. Every now and then people drown in them. The sky overhead can be sunny and clear, but if there is a storm in the distance and it is situated so it drains into the slot canyon you’re in…well, let’s just say there’s often no way out and you’re looking at a quick trip to Drownsville.

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On the way in on the first day we were even talking about a troop of boy scouts who drowned in a slot canyon near Lake Powell a few years back. “Why didn’t the Scoutmasters just look at the sky?” we wondered. “What kind of fools would hike into a death trap with rain on the horizon?”

I’ll tell you what kind of fools. Us. Our kind of fools.

There were plenty of patches of rain in the distance when we pulled up to the trail head in the truck. But none of them seemed to be actually raining upstream from our canyon. The fact that storms in the desert appear and disappear within minutes and are capable of dumping a couple inches of the wet in a few minutes naturally wasn’t relevant in our situation.

The oldest and wisest among us, a retired Catholic priest we call Padre, who would clearly have a direct pipeline to the source of natural disasters, said he wasn’t going. Told us he was too old to get killed foolishly. I told him not to worry, that we would be careful, but he seemed to think that statement didn’t make a lot of sense. Perhaps General Custer told his mother the same thing when he set out for his last horseback ride.

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Anyway, we dived in. I watched the sky nervously as we walked, although I could see only about two degrees of it so a hurricane could have been brewing a hundred yards away and we wouldn’t have known it. But I was “being careful.” Whatever that means when you’re doing something dumb that seems like a good idea at the time.

Fortunately, we made it out alive. We didn’t even get rained on. Our resident retired priest actually seemed disappointed to see us moving without the aid of 10 million gallons of foaming water. Apparently he had spent his time working up a screen play about our foolish deaths and already had a working title: Four Went In, None Came Out. The movie was going to star him, of course, and he was certain it was going to be a big hit. But he managed to hide his disappointment well.

From where we stood the canyon continued on. Though not as narrow and containing places where the intrepid could climb partway up the side in case of flood, it would still have been best to avoid it. Fortunately, I finally got the message, telling them all that if I got myself killed my wife would kill me. I was out. Padre and I would drive down and pick them up at the other end.

Before they left, Joe, who is otherwise a somewhat sensible fellow, ignored the gray skies and asked me if I would take his rain coat for him because he was too warm. No problem. I took it and Padre and I walked to the truck while the other three headed off to another date with foolishness.

Padre and I were sitting comfortably in the truck when the rain came. Not just rain, though. Hail. Which soon turned into sleet. I kept picking up Joe’s jacket and saying, “Here, take my jacket for me,” and bursting into gales of laughter.

They showed up good and wet 15 minutes later, we all had a good chuckle and it was time to go back to camp.

Except the road wouldn’t cooperate. The Monument is heavy on sandstone and shale. Which means a lot of the ground is this very fine silty stuff that when it gets wet turns into massively thick, clay-ey mud with exactly the slipperiness of greased ice. The truck tires immediately turned into huge balls of mud with zero traction. The landscape there is hilly and steep and often times one side of the road ends in a steep drop off, perfect for rolling a vehicle down, over and over until it’s little more than a crumpled tin can.

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It was exciting, to say the least. Turn a corner, truck starts sliding sideways, death looms, people yell and cry. Someone kept yelling, “Oh, God, oh, God!” and it wasn’t our priest.

Fortunately, we did the first sensible thing of the day: stopped the truck and waited for the road to dry enough that we could finish the drive. We survived the ordeal, but it was through no fault of our own.

I’m telling you, survival is a good thing.

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