“Why go to the desert,” Edward Abbey once famously asked. “Really, why do it?”
He had his reasons for not going: The roaring sun, fetid water holes, patient buzzards, pink rattlesnakes, dreary wind, and rain like lead shots.
And I had mine: The long, sleepless, red-eye flight across the Pacific Ocean and the road trip down the length of Utah. The hundred-degree heat that would, I feared, trigger an avalanche of the hot flashes ruling my life of late. The hard, hot ground on which we’d spend five more sleepless nights. The tossing and turning and groaning and sighing husband beside me in our narrow tent—who didn’t want to come in the first place.
And, then, there were the more modern reasons to run from the desert of Canyonlands National Park: The lack of electricity. The lack of running (potable) water. The lack of indoor plumbing. And let’s be real: the loneliness of no cellular service and the isolation of no Internet. No phone calls to my best friend. No texting. No Words with Friends. No email. No posting selfies to Facebook.
“Why the desert, when you could be strolling along the golden beaches of California?” Abbey asked. Or, in my case, the more appropriate comparison would be Hawaii, my home. If I wanted a water adventure, why not just rent some kayaks and paddle the white water of the clear Pacific Ocean?
Because I won the trip in a raffle. A six-day, five-night adventure for two down the Colorado River through 527 square miles of wild and remote Canyonlands National Park.
We put in on a day in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I clambered aboard a bright, yellow, rubber raft that Jamie, one of our guides, rigged with a dirt-stained, rickety picnic umbrella. My husband, opting to paddle himself downriver, stepped aboard an inflatable stand-up board.
Within hours, the umbrella collapsed in a heap of sticks when the first of what would be numerous wind-bursts blew down the narrow river valley, and I rolled out of the raft into an inflatable kayak, the self-bailing holes in its bottom leaking the cold Colorado River like welcome air conditioning vents.
We slid by 4,000-foot skyscrapers of rock that, I learned, were built on 300-million-year-old fossil-rich limestone and shale deposits.
We hauled out of our rafts and kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to see 185-million-year-old petrified wood, formed in the days when a large population of dinosaurs roamed the area. We rolled the fossilized remains of extinct organisms around in our hands. We stepped over bouquets of cryptobiotic soil, a knobby, black crust made up of cyanobacteria, one of the oldest known life forms on Earth that put oxygen into our atmosphere and paved for the way for our very own human existence.
When the sun dipped low in the sky and we stopped to set up camp, we watched bats and moths flit over the river’s surface and beavers work a woodpile, while we ate salmon for dinner.
The next day, we floated down the river in our PFDs. I watched as art emerged out of the rock—profiles of faces and sculptures of animals and totem poles of hoodoos. All formed by weather cycles of freezing and thawing combined with rain. But the hoodoos formed into thin spires of rock growing five to 150 feet out of the ground and looking like, well, people. Or goblins.
The ocean I love so much once rolled through the Colorado Plateau here, leaving behind layers of evaporated minerals—salt, gypsum, and potash—as seen in a white stripe running through layers of rock.
We hiked to see the pictographs and granaries and dwellings of peoples who forged an existence out of this ancient rocky land long before we would think to run rafts down it for pleasure.
We camped under a hole in the rock wall, a place known as Liberty Bell Arch, and we played horseshoes. After dinner, we ate chocolate cake made in a Dutch oven, and our guides Peter and Lars played guitar and read poetry.
For about 30 minutes that night, we heard thunder and saw streaks of lightning in the distance. We never saw a pink snake. I never felt a hot flash.
We ran our first rapids on day three—Upper Brown Betty—after passing The Confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers, where we all jumped in the water and splashed about.
We would run more rapids the next day and the next, and we would hike to a waterfall and dollhouse and through a maze and among some hoodoos.
Through it all, we saw peregrine falcons and ravens and great blue herons and western grebes and geese and ducks and bighorn sheep and beavers and otters and rabbits and squirrels and whiptail lizards and the dried footprint of a cougar.
We ate chicken and tofu curry and pork loin and Portobello mushrooms and burritos and spaghetti.
We made friends with two Dutch women, an English family, and a whole bunch of hoodoos that, most assuredly, put a spell on us.
On our last night, we watched as meteors fell from a razor-sharp sky that sparkled with more stars and constellations than we had names.
“But there was nothing out there. Nothing at all,” wrote Abbey in The Great American Desert. “Nothing but the desert. Nothing but the silent world.
[Author’s note: This event happened three years ago this week. It was one of our favorite vacations ever. Every now and then I read the essay I wrote about it that was originally published on The Eddy, here.]