Authors note: I finally decided to compile all five parts of the Coyote Gulch tale articles in one place. I have re-edited a bit to improve tone and style (I hope), fixed a few grammatical and other errors I missed the first ten times (sorry about that), changed some pictures/images around, but overall it is basically the same as the original, only all in one place. The one major change is a rectification of a significant error in judgement by me the first time around. In the first two parts I referred to my good friend Kat only as “my companion” rather than by her name. I subsequently corrected that with a major mea culpa for the last three. Check out the authors notes on the originals if you want the gory details, but for this complete version, she is Kat from the get go. Those individual parts will still be available on Medium and will have bonus content for the superfan! The bonus content being the original un-re-edited, error filled posts, plus the authors notes I began each with. For this complete version I will only include this one.
People have asked me if this really happened. (A grand total of 4 people have asked me that so far, as I have said many times, I am not a very popular writer). The answer is absolutely, 100% yes, this is a true story. In some details in fact it is extremely accurate. The GPS record of our travels allowed for a very precise reconstruction of our actual trek path and dates/times/locations are exact down to the minute. Of course in others I have improvised a bit. The order of events is basically correct and the descriptions of feelings and emotions as well. Where I have taken some liberties (mostly because of memory gaps) is in the dialogue. Try and recall a conversation down to the last word you had last week and see how far you get. Between my memories and Kat’s we tried to reconstruct dialogues as accurately as possible, but no doubt if I had a recorded audio version of events I would find many things that would not match up. I could have chosen to write this with no dialogue, however I thought it would be much more interesting to the reader in a narrative format rather than me droning on in third person. I feel I was correct in that decision and in my opinion this is the best piece of written work I have ever produced. Unfortunately only a very few people have actually read the complete tale or even any of the parts, but I have gotten some of the most important (to me) compliments and appreciative comments from those that have. Hopefully this complete version will garner at least a few more views. As you do read try to remember that this was my big summer vacation trip and was supposed to be a fun and relaxing first visit to a western desert. I can’t say it wasn’t fun and I guess I did get to relax some when this part was over. That said, it was also the first time I actually legitimately thought I could/would die (not the first time I actually legitimately almost did die, just the first time I thought I might) and felt the most afraid I ever have. All pictures are by Kat. I can’t thank her enough for most likely saving my life and her kind assistance with the writing/editing of this story. As with all the individual parts, and everything else I write from now until the day I actually do die, this is dedicated to my late wife Victoria. I love you baby and think about you every day.
Chapter 1: To the Edge of Coyote Gulch
“Where will you be heading into the gulch at?” asked the National Park Service Ranger stationed behind the counter at the Escalante visitor center upon hearing our request for a backcountry permit. When my companion Kat replied “40 mile trailhead” the old woman’s head snapped up sharply and she fixed us both with a hard gaze. “You do realize the trail there is a 45 degree descent. Are you both capable of handling that, with packs?” We nodded as she gave us the once over, appearing satisfied with what she saw she handed over the permit and we turned to leave. A 45 degree descent sounded challenging but that was exactly the reason we had made the long trip out to the Utah desert, to test ourselves against some of the most difficult backpacking conditions to be found in the United States and prove our mettle. At the time I was grateful for the heads up and warning, later I would curse the old woman for what she neglected to tell us. The 45 degree descent into the gulch was a one way trip, it simply was not possible to return up out of the gulch the same way.
The excursion into and out Coyote Gulch was to be a half day trip only. The plan was to hike down in, make our way the short three mile hike to Swiss Cheese Falls, possibly further to some Native American ruins than turn around and come back. The way we had figured it the entire journey from trailhead/car to the falls and back should take no more than 4 hours and in all likelihood much less than that. We would be back in the car and on our way to our next destination, the painted desert in Arizona, by lunchtime. We set off around 8:30am with only two daypacks lightly provisioned. In my pack I carried one full 3L bladder of ice cold water, the pantlegs to my convertible hiking pants (I thought), and my t-shirt. The only other thing I brought on my person was a small backpacking knife which I had clipped to the belt at my waist. I wore a hat and the shorts I mentioned to which I thought I had brought the zip off legs. Kat, an experienced hiker/backpacker and navigator with some military style training in the later also carried a small daypack. In her pack was a full bladder, our GPS, a pen flashlight, one bag of freeze dried chicken and rice backpackers meal, and one full 1L bottle of water. Crucially she also packed our emergency survival kit which was very well stocked for just about any survival situation. Little did we realize at the time just how important that kit would become.
We spent the first hour navigating through desert terrain reminiscent of the surface of Mars. Large, smooth rock outcroppings interrupted the desert scrub at regular intervals. The way was not difficult though it took quite a bit of time to make it over or around some of the larger rock formations. The only wildlife we encountered was one small rattlesnake, a not at all uncommon site for this part of the country and in this terrain. We were guided the entire way by rock piles, stacked at regular intervals to serve as guideposts for hikers looking for the trailhead and descent point into the gulch. At one point the rock piles seemed to branch in two directions and we choose the leftward path. I still have no idea if our fortunes would have been any different had we gone the other way. Eventually we made it to the top of the trailhead and our entryway down into Coyote Gulch. The title image above shows the view from the top. Yours truly can be seen looking over the edge in wonder and with more than a bit of trepidation.
Below me lay at least 200 feet of smooth rock face with some intervals of jagged rock outcroppings angled down at least 45 degrees, as the ranger had mentioned. In some places the angle steepened to close to 60 degrees, and in others sections almost flat areas poked out. These would be our stopping/resting points during the long, frightening descent. Much of that downward trek was spent sliding down on our asses as slowly as we could muster using both the friction of our backsides on the rocks and our feet as makeshift brakes. About halfway down we stopped for a much deserved rest. “Should we turn around?” Kat asked, somewhat sheepishly, then continued “I am not sure I can make it back up.” I let that sink in for a few moments before replying, frankly I had been thinking along very similar lines, “I was thinking the exact same thing and probably, yeah we should, but we are almost at the bottom, and we came all this way, why turn back now.” She nodded and we gathered ourselves for the final push to the bottom.
At the next stopping point we were greeted by a wondrous site. On the canyon wall immediately in front of us came into view a giant petroglyph.It had not been visible at all until we reached the very spot where we stood. Later I would learn that it was most likely a phantom petroglyph, visible only from certain vantage points, at certain times of day, and at specific times of the year.
There does not seem to be any other mention of this particular petroglyph online as a fairly intensive search turned up zero information; no other posted images or even mentions. Given how massive, imposing, and downright awesome it was, that seemed and still does seem extremely strange.
Chapter 2: Into the Gulch
The long difficult descent was over, sweaty and exhausted we had finally reached the bottom, and were officially in Coyote Gulch. It seemed a paradise compared to the barren desert from which we had come. A small river meandered down the center of the gulch and massive canyon walls towered on all sides. In places the walls were vertical and in others they arched back over the gulch partially engulfing it like a domed roof. I had never seen anything like it, it was both totally open and yet enclosed and claustrophobic at the same time. A few pictures are included below, and at various points throughout the story that were taken at different locations, and hopefully give some idea of the beauty and massive scale of the place.
The river was never larger than a few feet across and only rarely more than 2 or 3 feet deep. In the rainy season it can become extremely dangerous and runs very fast and deep but just then it was a calm, pleasant, peaceful stream. Evidence of it’s constant ebb and flow was everywhere. Debris was scattered about and water lines in the rocks suggested massive surges of very high water for extended periods. The river was our constant companion during the long treks that followed, and it would be our savior in the trial that was soon to come. For now however, we simply walked downriver at a moderate pace, enjoying the scenery and marveling in awe and wonder at the many splendors, taking pictures where we could. Strange petroglyphs dotted the walls of the canyon in many places, areas of sand that seemed like beaches appeared around some bends in the river while thickets of trees and brush were dominant in other stretches. There was a well worn trail that ran along the river and it was also possible, and in some places necessary, to walk directly in and through the river. As with the desert there were long sections dominated by smooth and jagged rocks. The river always ran fastest through these parts and it carved deep holes in the floor and etched long gashes in the walls of the canyon. The peacefulness of the place is very difficult to describe in words. It was once sacred land to the Navajo and while there one can understand fully why it was considered such. Unlike the desert above which can be deathly quiet, the canyon floor was bursting with life and the noise of birds and crickets was more like what I was used to hearing in the midwest forests I frequent. The biggest difference were the echoes. A single bird call could sound like ten as the noise of it bounced back and forth down and around the canyon. Several times larger animals could be heard rustling through the underbrush. Given the abundance and diversity of tracks we were fairly certain black bear, coyote, and deer were plentiful. We even spotted what must have been mountain lion tracks, a large female and her cub by the look of them. Later coyotes and mountain lions would become an all too real threat but for now it was awesome to think we shared the same space as them if even for just a little while.
We were heading for a particular section of river known as Swiss Cheese falls. It got this name for obvious reasons as the force of the river had created a section of holes very reminiscent of swiss cheese through which various small waterfalls and rapids rushed and swirled. Beyond the falls lay Coytote Natural Bridge, another famous stone formation resembling its namesake, and some Native American ruins, both of which we intended to see if possible. We postulated that it was likely another egress point existed near the Natural Bridge and tried to use the GPS to nail down an exact location. However, we could find nothing in the topography that suggested a way in or out. It was at this moment that I said something which I would later greatly regret. I had noticed that Kat was powering on and off the GPS at each use. I was convinced that I had read or heard somewhere that it actually used less power to leave the device on at all times and I relayed that information to her. Unfortunately for us she took that bad advice to heart and the GPS would remain turned on for a very long time after. This one poor decision, based on stupid advice, reverberated with repercussions that almost doomed us.
Swiss Cheese Falls was a disappointment to say the least. The river ran fast there but the “falls” were really nothing more than a series of 6–12 inch drop-offs into deep but small pools. It did look like swiss cheese but, much like the cheese, it was dull and kind of boring. We moved on quickly hoping to find the exit we thought must exist near Coyote Natural Bridge and make our way out of the Gulch. As we drew closer and no exit point revealed itself I began to feel my first inklings of unease. Nothing serious yet but I was getting antsy and wanted out of the gulch. I had my fill of the place and it had been almost four hours of trekking at this point. Half the day was already gone and I was eager to move on to our next adventure in Arizona. I began to needle Kat perhaps a bit too aggressively about an exit. Naturally she responded in kind and a war of attrition began that would not see an end for a very long time. There were moments of truce where peace and calm dominated but these were dotted by explosions of anger and recriminations (mainly on my part) and long stretches of stony silence between us. For now we were both irritated and upset and we both wanted out. With no apparent way out forthcoming we continued pressing forward to the Bridge. At a place very near it we saw two persons approaching, a man and a woman. They would be the first and last people we saw for a very long time. They seemed relaxed and jovial. They carried only one small pack and a bottle of water between them. The woman wore no shoes and they both strode down the river toward us at a leisurely pace. Given their attire, attitude, and gear it seemed obvious that they had only just entered the gulch and did not intend a long stay. I was confident that they must have come down a fairly easy trail and my mind was put at ease as I contemplated that same way out for us. In retrospect we should have stopped them and pressed for details but instead all we asked in passing was “Did you come in by the Bridge?” The man responded by pointing back over his shoulder and saying “ten minutes that way” in a thick German accent. Later I questioned if he had even understood us but for now both of us were excited to hear his answer and did not think to ask for further clarification or details. We both had heard exactly what we wanted to hear, a way out, and only ten minutes walk ahead.
We made the Bridge approximately fifteen minutes later. It was evident within the first five minutes or so of our arrival that there was no easily visible or accessible entrance/exit point anywhere within 200 yards of it. I was extremely irritated at this point and threw a major hissy fit, stomping the ground and cursing. I slung additional recriminations at Kat blaming her for poor planning, for not knowing how to use the GPS, for anything and everything I could think of. Given the things I said, the language I used and my attitude she took it about as well as anyone could. I credit her with extreme self control for I could not have taken such abuse as calmly as she did. That is not to say she did not respond with anger, for certainly she did, and she gave as good as she got. After about five minutes of heated back and forth I stormed off exhausted and furious, vowing to find an exit no matter how difficult the climb.
I made it about 50 feet up what looked to be a path but turned out to be nothing more than an animal trail before returning defeated. Having regained some semblance of sanity we talked strategy and options for a bit before deciding on a course of action. We would try and find a route out here at the arch taking any available path. My first foray up had been a disaster but I had noticed at least two other possibilities on my way back down and it was toward one of these we headed now. We wasted close to an hour trying various routes up, all were very dangerous and difficult. An injury to either one of us at this point would have been disastrous but we pushed forward anyway so eager to get out of the gulch were we. Finally we admitted defeat and returned to the base of the arch from where we had started. Only two options remained at this point, return to where we had first entered the gulch and try to make our way back up or press ahead. Unfortunately the way forward led only to an exit climb which, according to the information we had, could not be completed without ropes and gear we that we did not have. There really was no choice and we decided to backtrack to our entry point and try to make the dangerous ascent out from there. It was now close to 2pm and the sun looked lower than I liked but at that moment sunset was not our worst enemy, a rapidly dwindling supply of drinking water was.
Chapter 3: Never Getting Out
The decision was made. We would be backtracking to the original spot at which we had first entered Coyote Gulch from the desert above. I estimated the distance at about four miles and was beyond ticked that we would now have to return the same way we had come. Even if everything had gone according to plan we would have had to return the way we had come thru the gulch and had known this from the beginning. The end of the trail led to the Escalante river confluence to a place called Hole in the Crack, the trailhead at the far end of the canyon. It was not traversable without ropes and harnesses, so was never an option as a way out. That said I had staked my hopes on a finding another way near Coyote Natural Bridge and that had not happened. Backtracking is a personal pet peeve of mine and having to do it drives me crazy under the best of circumstances. Under our current conditions it struck a nerve that began a cascade of anger that would continue in one form or other until we reached the very end of our journey. That however was a long way hence, and for the moment I was simply really, really mad, as angry as I had been in a very long time. Once again I let fly with a string of cursing, general pissiness, and unfounded accusations directed at Kat. Mostly I was ticked about the distance we would have to retread, but underneath it was a current of anxiety and maybe even a little fear. On top of that I was exhausted and thirsty, dehydrated slightly, not to the point of sickness but just on the edge of it.
I will be the first to admit that I struggle with anger issues and have for most of my childhood and now in my adult life. Usually these days I am able to control it but I still have to fight and focus to control my rage in situations of high stress. Anxiety, exhaustion, fear, dehydration are each potent stressors alone but when combined they were like a force of nature and the battle to remain calm, which I often lost, was constant. After I had regained a little of my composure this time I asked Kat to have a look at the GPS and find out the exact distance we would need to trek back to reach our presumed exit point. It took her about five minutes of fiddling with the thing to return with an answer, “0.85 miles, according to this.” I was flabbergasted, shocked, utterly stupefied, I simply could not believe it had not even been even a mile. (Later we would learn that the actual distance walked was 2.87 miles. The 0.85 mile figure was for a straight line, as the crow flies). It is a quite common phenomenon when hiking in desert terrain to significantly overestimate distances traveled and underestimate the amount of time required to make it anywhere. The terrain can be so difficult, with loose sand, crumbling rocks, boulders, and rock formations to navigate through and around and dangerous wildlife (mostly snakes) to watch out for and avoid. At that moment, however, I was not thinking clearly and my miscalculation only served to increase my anger even more. Once again I lost it stomping about and wailing like a man possessed. To her great credit once again Kat handled the situation with what I now consider absolutely heroic aplomb and reserve. Essentially she left me to my own devices throughout it all, figuring I suppose that like the baby I was acting, I would eventually wear myself out. A short time later she was proven right and I collapsed from exhaustion and thirst.
She implored me to drink and a measure of calm returned as the water I gulped down in great gasps brought me back to my senses. She began to walk back the way we came and after a few seconds of quiet contemplation I followed. Drinking water quickly became our next big concern. It was plentiful in the river we walked beside but not potable without treatment. The brand new water filter bought specifically for situations just such as these sat unused back at the car. Once again the haste at which we had prepared for this “half-day hike” had caused us to stupidly leave behind a critical asset and key survival tool. Luckily Kat had packed her very well thought out and stocked survival kit. In it she had enough water purification tablets to keep us well supplied with drinking water for at least another day and a half even under the most strenuous of environmental conditions. That said we had no desire to press our luck and began at least a modest effort at water rationing. Mostly this involved Kat forsaking her deserved ration so that I could have more. Her stamina was unbelievable and I was continually amazed at her fitness level and ability to remain functional under what would be considered severe privation conditions for many. Credit part of that to a genetic condition which blessed her with an overall higher fitness level but cursed her with an inability to sweat normally. While she could survive water deprivation that would fell most and had an aerobic capacity near that of an olympic athlete the decreased sweating caused her to overheat easily and we needed to be cognizant of this especially as the heat of the day continued to build. She had already nearly collapsed at least twice from heat exhaustion and was only saved by the cool river waters when we stopped to rest. Mostly I was at fault for these near disasters. I had been pushing us at a relentless pace due to my eagerness to get out of the canyon and the few times we paused to rest, while I stopped to drink or sit down she was busy with various organizational or navigational tasks. Consequently she rarely got a real break. My fitness level was also quite high so I was able to keep up a high pace even with all the energy I was wasting with my various temper tantrums and hissy fits. I had spent most of the summer training, climbing, hiking, camping anything to get ready for this trip and was probably in near the best shape of my adult life. There was one big exception to this, my right knee. I had tweaked it fairly badly about month before the trip and if bent just the wrong way would send tremendous spasms of pain up and down my leg and back. It happened very rarely and seemed to require an unlikely confluence of bending and twisting. It had held up great until then and to be honest I had almost totally forgotten about it. Slowly, this had started to change and the pain was near constant though still at a reasonable level. Luckily we had brought our hiking poles and leaning on it as I walked relieved some of the pressure but it was yet another nuisance to add to our ever growing list of worries. The climb out was going to be hard enough at 100% health, at anything less than that it could prove impossible.
The trek back went quickly and we made good time. Near the beginning of that walk Kat had remarked that she was getting a low battery signal on the GPS. It was still showing 3 out of 4 bars and our concern level was low however it had been left on up until that point at my earlier suggestion. Given the speed at which it had drained, it was clear I had been in serious error and from that point on Kat would use the GPS only sparingly. As we continued the short hike back she was only powering it up every so often to check our progress. We were becoming agitated again and both felt that we had traveled at least as far as we had come with no sign of our original entry point. We had been scanning the canyon walls closely and there had been no splits that could have caused us to lose our way. There was only the one river in and we now followed the same river back and yet the way out continued to elude us. Only at one point did we pass anything even resembling a possible way up and out. I made a comment about it as we passed, “what about trying this” I asked half jokingly. “Bad plan” Kat replied almost immediately and I readily agreed. It was a very steep and narrow crack, choked with fallen rock. There seemed very little chance we could make it that way so we continued on. Little did we know at the time but in fact that “bad plan” had been our entry point. We had walked right past it, remarked on it even, and still not recognized it as where we had come from.
The sun was clearly getting lower in the sky now. Out west, this time of year, the sun sets a bit earlier than back east where we both came from. Shadows began to build on the huge canyon walls but they provided little shade on the canyon floor and the heat was relentless. It was around 4 pm and approaching the hottest point of the day. Even in the canyon, which is much cooler than the desert above, temperatures could soar into the mid-90s in the late afternoon. In parts the temperature would drop very quickly, literally within a few feet we would be burning up one moment and then encounter a cool spot where it dropped into the low sixties and because of the rapid change, it felt almost chilly. The rapid temperature cycling added yet another layer of stress to our already massively stressed bodies and psyches and we still had not even made it up and out to the desert floor where another close to 2 hour hike through the burning sun awaited us. Foolishly, neither of us had eaten breakfast but hunger was not yet a real concern. We had snacked on a couple protein bars and Kat had packed some Qamar al-Din (a favorite Middle Eastern drink base that makes for a good traveling/hiking snack because of its relative stability and high sugar content — think fruit roll up but a foot wide, wrapped in wax paper not cellophane, and made of real fruit not pectin, five added sugars, and acetylated monoglycerides). It was actually quite tasty and provided a burst of energy reminiscent of a candy bar but did not result in the same annoying sugar crash as it wore off. Thirst however was ever present and we drank water at a furious clip, at least I did, Kat as always drank very little or so it seemed to me.
Eventually we both decided that we should turn around again and head back in the direction of the Coyote Natural Bridge and Swiss Cheese Falls. The distance we had traveled was much further than the 0.85 miles indicated by the GPS and we surmised that we must have missed the exit we had been desperately searching for. Shortly after this second turn around I noticed a tree that looked familiar. I had mentioned it during our initial hike into the canyon, shortly after reaching the canyon floor that morning. An image of it is below. This very picture would be the clue that confirmed we had missed the entry point and that the “bad plan” crack had actually been it.
When I first saw it I remember thinking it looked like a man frozen into a tree. For some reason I imagined an ancient Native American cursing a man who had done some horrible misdeed, forcing him to live for the rest of his days in the shape of that angry looking tree. The man’s arms stretched out to the left and right had curled in agony as he froze in place. It had given me a bad feeling that morning and I had moved past it quickly. As I recognized it for the second time I mentioned my morning musings to Kat. She replied that she remembered it as well and in fact had taken a picture of it. It slowly dawned on both of us that we could confirm this by simply looking through the digital files on the camera/phone where that picture was captured. If indeed this was that tree then we had missed the exit point and would need to turn around again to find it. It also meant that we were quite close as the time stamp on the picture suggested it had been taken very shortly after entering the canyon. It took only moments to confirm all of this and she had several other images taken prior to this one before it. We were able to use those pictures to slowly make our way back to the exact spot we had landed in that morning and from where she had taken the first picture from the floor of the canyon that day. It was the “bad plan” crack. Neither of us could believe it. How could we have been so stupid? The huge phantom petroglyph visible on the canyon wall that morning (see part I for much more on this) was no longer visible at all. This was part of the reason for the miss as I had been desperately scanning for signs of it the entire time. Mainly though I think we missed it simply because it looked so different from this direction. It is hard to explain how something so vivid in your memory from a time not that long ago could look so entirely different from how you remembered it, and yet it did. The crack from below looked absolutely nothing like it had looked when descending through it from above, nor how we remembered it once we had finally reached the canyon floor.
A small measure of relief washed over us both as finally we sensed at least the possibility of a way out. Kat wisely suggested we fill up all of our existing water bladders and containers with tablet treated water so as to have the maximum available for the long hot trek back through the desert to the car, assuming we made it to the top of course. After about 30 minutes of preparation we were ready for an attempted ascent up and out of Coyote Gulch. I was very hungry at this point and munched a huge portion of the Quamar al-din figuring I would need the energy to make it up. My knee was aching badly now and Kat knew how much it hurt as I had been relying on my hiking pole for stability, and of course complaining about it loudly, for the last section of our hike. We had no illusions about the difficulty of it and had both commented many times during our descent about the perceived impossibility of using this way to get back out later, yet we still held out hope. We had spent much of the summer in the climbing gym and at various rock climbing sites bouldering (climbing without ropes) and had each progressed to well beyond beginner if not yet expert level climbers. Holding on to this hope we began to climb and at first made good progress. The traverse up bad plan crack, as we now called it, was relatively straightforward and none too difficult. From there things quickly began to fall apart as the way became ever more difficult. There were simply too few handholds and footholds to get any sort of leverage or balance from. The few that were available were worn so smooth as to be almost unusable or extremely tenuous at best. I pushed as hard as I was able and took some risks that I probably should not have, would not have, if the situation were not as desperate as I thought it was. Still, however, neither I nor Kat, could get past even the mid-way point back up. Eventually, reluctantly, we admitted defeat and made our way back down mostly be sliding on our backsides until we reached bad plan crack and ended up on the canyon floor from above for the second time that day. This time however it was just past 5 pm and the sun was even lower in the sky. Our one way out of the canyon and only real plan of escape had been foiled. It felt just then like we would never get out.
Chapter 4: What are We Gonna Do Now Man?
Defeated, we stood trembling, sweaty, and exhausted near the base of the canyon wall we had just attempted, and failed to scale. It was simply not possible to get up and out of the gulch that way, not without harnesses and ropes at least. The park ranger that had warned us about the dangerous descent, what seemed like weeks ago but was only a mere two days prior, never mentioned the impossibility of climbing back up the same way. My knee was on fire and again I was near dehydration and needed to drink badly. The chemically treated water was quickly going from warm to hot and became more disgusting with each degree its’ temperature rose. I should have been grateful we had any potable water at all given our terrible decision to leave the water filter back at the car but just then I was not. I was scared and angry and for the first time I saw a glint of concern, maybe not yet fear, but serious concern in Kat’s eyes as well.
We stood silently, glumly, for many minutes as we caught our breath and I gulped down the sickening tasting water as fast as I could stomach. I knew, or hoped I knew, the water was at least safe, but that knowledge brought little comfort and each time I drank now I had to struggle to control my gag reflex. When we both had finally recovered, we had a serious discussion of our remaining options. The way back toward where we had turned around at Coyote Natural Bridge was out and the way up and out here was clearly impossible so we had but one choice, continue on in the opposite direction from which we had turned this morning and try to make it out at the other end of the Canyon at a place called Hurricane Wash. Neither of us had any idea how far it might be to the Wash as it is known locally. When planning the trip, Kat had originally considered entering the Canyon from there but had felt the distance from the Hamblin Arch and Swiss Cheese Falls, two of the main features we had hoped to see, was simply too far for us to hike given the environmental conditions and our own current fitness levels. In any event, now it seemed that we would have our chance to see the Wash as it was our only remaining way out. In addition, we would have to pass the Hamblin Arch as it was in the direction we had to travel, and a mere 0.2 miles from where we stood. Unfortunately, nightfall was not that far off and once the sun went down we would have no choice but to stop and camp for the night. Foolishly again, we had brought but only one small pen flashlight between us and the GPS batteries continued to flash low. Ominously, only 2 of the 4 bars on the display remained lit. Earlier it had occurred to me that we could use the flashlight batteries in an emergency to power the GPS. I mentioned the idea to Kat and for the first time in a long while she had flashed a smile and nodded her head in agreement, “excellent idea Dan” or something like that she had said. My pride in my own ingenuity was dashed quickly when she pulled out the flashlight only to find it was powered by AAA batteries not the AAs used by the GPS.
One flashlight, a much too quickly dying GPS, chemically treated water, very little food (a freeze dried chicken and rice backpackers meal for two), no camping supplies, and one well stocked survival kit were all we carried between us. Moreover, the sun was setting much too rapidly for either of our liking and we both knew haste was in order. Just then however, Kat needed more rest and I volunteered to scout ahead a bit to see what was in store for us around the first bend in the canyon wall. I moved off as quickly as my aching knee would allow, and as I rounded the first curve and scanned ahead, not more than ten feet away lie a deer, sleeping peacefully in the shade of the canyon wall. It woke quickly as it sensed me but rather than run away immediately as I had assumed it would, it simply stood its ground and stared at me. I returned its gaze and as I looked deeply into the creature’s dark black eyes I felt a sense of calm come over me. I had been angry and afraid for so long that it had ceased to feel unusual, it had become my new everyday resting state, but suddenly all that anger and fear were gone, and for at least a brief moment, a sense of normalcy returned. All I could think about was that deer, standing so close, staring at me not in fear but in what seemed to me to be curiosity. After what felt like an eternity, but couldn’t have been much more than 30 seconds, I slowly backed away and turned back the way I had come.
I found Kat re-packing the little supplies we had left and then beginning to move in my direction. One thing I had learned in the short time I had known her was that she had an affinity for packing and organization in general. Not only in the sense of being quite good at them but also taking a certain pleasure from the activities associated with them. In that respect we were very different but just then I very much appreciated it as we would need to be as organized and efficient as possible if we were going to make it out of the gulch before nightfall. I hurried toward her carefully so as to not further injure my damaged knee and quietly whispered what I seen. Together we both crept forward as silently as we could and as we rounded the curve the deer was still there. This time however, after only a few moments it bounded away across the river and then quickly out of site. I told Kat then that I felt it was an omen, the deer was a sign that we were meant to be out of the Canyon and soon. “Sure, I hope so too” was all she said in a sad and hushed tone that suggested she was more than a little skeptical. We began to walk in the direction the deer had gone and began what would become the longest part of the trek yet, the path to Hurricane Wash.
We moved as quickly as we could but were slowed considerably by my knee. The pain was severe and seemed to be getting worse. Many times I had to stop and rest to gather myself. The GPS said we would have to walk 1.9 miles to make it to the trailhead at Hurricane Wash and our presumed way out but to me any distance seemed too far. When I thought then of how far we might still have to walk to make it back to our car after getting out at the Wash I despaired even further. In the few moments I was not consumed with my own pain or despair, I still would notice the majesty of the place and was filled with awe and wonder. Those times passed very quickly however, and never did we consider stopping to take a picture though the scenery in many places was more unimaginable and beautiful than anything we had seen in the section of the gulch from which we had come. It is a testament to our own fears and desire for haste that one of the main reasons we had traveled to this destination was completely forgotten. No pictures were taken again until a full 2 days later. My anger was building again, egged on by pain, anxiety, exhaustion, thirst and now hunger I would explode into a rage for minutes at a time, cursing and wailing and moaning like some deranged lunatic just escaped the asylum. In those times of rage my adrenaline would surge and I would push myself forward at a rate much beyond what was healthy for my damaged knee and no doubt I injured it even more but I felt nothing, only the crisp heat of my rage burning through me like a fire. After each outburst I would eventually calm and then the pain would always return anew and worse than before. How many times I went through that same cycle of rage and then calm and then rage and then calm over and over again I cannot say but it was very unhealthy. I had begun to have small attacks of arrhythmia, a heart condition I have suffered from on and off, since my early 20s. Normally, it is not dangerous though it can be quite frightening at times. I had not had a serious attack in years and had not noticed a skipped beat in as long as I could remember. Honestly, I thought perhaps I had been miraculously cured. My clean living and high fitness level had done what years of medication could not. Sadly, I now found out that was not the case. I had not mentioned this condition to Kat since we had met and become good friends almost six months ago. She was aware of my near death in 2015 from necrotizing pancreatitis but I had assured her I was fully recovered and suffered no ill effects. Though the arrhythmia and that condition were unrelated I can bet at that moment she connected them in her head and had serious doubts if she had made a good decision in choosing to ask me on this trip.
Her face drained of blood when I did tell her then. “That is not good, not good at all, why didn’t you mention this before?’ she implored. As she had asked me this question, she looked as scared as I had yet seen her. I tried to calm her fears and told her everything I knew about it and stressed that it was not dangerous and had really been a non-issue in my life for a long time now. She tried her best to believe me but I sensed she thought I was downplaying its severity or at best leaving out some key pieces of information. In truth I hid nothing and did not lie but I empathized with her position and totally understood where she was coming from. If she had told me something similar I can only imagine what the impact on my own fear and anxiety would have been. “You do realize there is nothing I can do for you if you pass out or have a heart attack out here, don’t you? There is no way I could leave you and I could not help you.” she stated matter-of-factly. “I know that, and if that does happen you had better keep going, keep pushing on because you will do me no good just standing there, watching me die. At least if you go on you might find help and send it back for me.” We both knew there was very little hope of a rescue in that scenario but saying the words made had made me feel better. Our cell phones were completely useless in the canyon and there was little chance of getting a signal even in the desert above. If she had to hike out alone to find help for me it would be 24–48 hours at best before even a chance of a rescue could be expected. Even without the arrhythmia, the stress I was putting on my heart and circulatory system was tremendous and dangerous and If I did not find some way to keep myself calm, I might do to myself what thirst or hunger or wildlife so far had not, end my vacation prematurely and my life permanently.
We pushed on until I could go no further and asked for a rest. I needed to eat and Kat suggested we break into the freeze dried backpackers chicken and rice meal. These meals are designed to be hydrated with boiling hot water then eaten. Even in that ideal condition the best of them is less than gourmet to say the least. The prospect of eating one with lukewarm/hot, chemically treated water, did not exactly have me drooling but I was hungry and food was food. Driving the hunger was a total lack of energy, I was completely spent, as tired as I ever had been and I had nothing left to give. I simply could not go on without something to give my body energy. It was after 6pm now and we had been hiking and climbing essentially non-stop and mostly at a brisk pace for almost 9 hours now. Moreover, my various outbursts and temper tantrums must have had me burning calories at an enormous rate. Little did we know then we had only reached the half way point and had another 9 grueling and sometimes terrifying hours to come.
I’m sure it will come as no surprise to any readers who have made it this far in this tale to learn that we had packed no utensils with which to eat this one meal that thankfully we had remembered to include. Without a spoon or fork the only way to get the unappetizing looking mixture into our mouths was by squeezing the bag. The “meal” came out in large clumps of mush that looked a bit like mashed potatoes. Surprisingly, it had tasted better than I had expected and I eagerly shoved three or four large “servings” in my mouth in rapid succession. The effect was almost immediate and the sensation of energy returning to me was felt powerfully. It had been like a wave of warmness moving up from my toes and down from my head to meet at my chest very near my heart. Never had I felt anything like it and to be honest I hope I never do again, at least not under circumstances such as we had been in at that time.
After we had both eaten our fill, me a lot, Kat not much, we simply sat for a while in grim silence. We had found a section of the canyon where it became quite wide in the middle and a grassy knoll had sprung up strewn with logs. The remains of campfires could just be made out suggesting that this spot had been used in the past by previous hikers who spent had perhaps spent the night in this very spot. They were obviously quite old and it cheered us very little to think of others being in that same spot before us. We had no idea where they might have entered the canyon from and we had not seen a soul since our encounter with the German tourists what seemed a lifetime ago. After about ten minutes, we were both ready to make our final push for what we thought would be the trailhead and our way out. Kat smartly suggested we collect as much water as we could now. We could hear falling water from where we sat and a fast moving section of the river was close. After collecting the water and adding the purification tablets, we set off. The GPS now said we had close to a 1.5 mile hike to our destination. That section of the trek is dim in my memory now for some reason. I remember feeling OK at first, the meal and water giving me energy and optimism, but that feeling wore off quickly and it became a slow slog through difficult and often muddy terrain. Kat would check the GPS from time to time to get a sense of how far we had left to go, every time I was stunned by how little progress we had made. My knee still ached but surprisingly it seemed to actually be feeling better. In one of the few good breaks we had it seems that during one of my rages I might have somehow “popped” whatever had come loose or gotten out of whack, back into place. It would bother me some at times from that point on but never did it become the trip ender that I thought it could when it was at its worst. Mostly I was tired, worn out, and scared. I tried not to think about what would come after we found the trailhead, not to consider how far we no doubt still would need to travel to make it back to our car. I was 100% focused on our destination, Hurricane Wash trailhead, the way out.
Finally, we had arrived, at least according to the GPS but an exit was not immediately apparent. All we saw was a very large and apparently climbable rock formation to our immediate right and a marshy area ahead of us. I suggested we split up to investigate each. I moved forward gingerly toward the marshland and Kat moved much more quickly to begin the climb up the rock. The canyon walls still loomed large on all sides but the area was a bit more open than most we had traveled through to get there and I remember the sun illuminating much of the area. It was near dusk at this point but still daylight, and the heat in the more open areas was always the most oppressive. I was sweating profusely, swatting bugs away, and wiping sweat from my brow as I moved through some tall grasses following the river. As the grasses finally gave way to open land I saw a sight that scared me badly, the river split in two here. We would have to go one way or another and with no exit in sight and with little idea of where we were that choice could have major ramifications for our chances of emerging from the gulch before nightfall. I called to Kat as I could no longer see her on the rock. Getting no answer I began to climb a small hill moving in her direction as quickly as I could. That is when I noticed another curious thing, a small wooden post with two wooden planks either nailed or screwed into it. Both had writing on them I could not make out but I needed to make sure Kat was OK first before investigating further. She met me about half way and we turned together to go look at the strange sign. The planks had been hung facing the direction the river split. One said “Hurricane Wash” the other “Red Well” and each had an arrow carved into them pointing in the general direction of the river fork they were presumably meant to indicate. They said nothing else, no distance, nothing. I was perplexed and looked over at Kat who was deep in thought, I had told her about the split in the river and we had both seen the two signs. “The confluence. Of course, this must be the confluence, where Hurricane Wash officially enters Coyote Gulch and that means we are at the Hurricane Wash trailhead.” As she spoke she became more excited, “the way out has got to be close.” We did a quick sweep of the area and finding nothing quickly decided to follow the sign that pointed toward Hurricane Wash. The other way toward Red Well led much further away from our car and we did not ever consider it a serious option.
With a newfound optimism, we set off at a brisk pace again but it became clear fairly quickly that the way out was not as near as we had hoped. The canyon walls loomed as high as ever and around every bend we thought there must be a way out, we were continually disappointed. What we did not know at that time was that the had indeed been the trailhead back at the confluence but the distance from the Hurricane Wash parking area to the trailhead itself was at least 2.5 miles. The sun was getting dangerously low now as we continued to walk on. We tried at least two spots to get up and out that looked promising but both ended in cliff walls that could not be scaled. Footprints had led up both but it seemed they must have been lookout points or hangout spots not paths in and out of the canyon. Eventually the canyon walls did seem to be getting lower and we would occasionally see glimpses of the sky in front of us. Previously all we had seen in all directions were more canyon walls. This should have lifted our spirits but did not for each glimpse of the sky only served to remind us how close the night was as the sun sank lower with each sighting. The river became smaller and smaller and soon it was nothing more than a trickle. It was a good sign that we were closing in on the end of the canyon but it also meant we would have no more chances to top off our water supplies. Once or twice we discussed the merits of turning back for more before making a final push but the ever falling sun and our own desires to leave kept us from it. Kat was checking the GPS from time to time and at some point the battery display had ticked off one more bar and was down to its last. Kat did her best to keep it off as much as possible but having no idea where we were or how far we had left made not checking every so often an impossibility. At one point we came across a small wire fence with a locked door and a sign on it, “No Dogs” it said. Ridiculously, the locked door only spanned the trail which was not much more than two feet across at that point. Around both sides of the fence and trail at least three feet of cleared space, covered in people and dog tracks could be seen. We were encouraged by the ever increasing number of visible tracks and whenever we questioned if we were still heading in the right direction we used the tracks below us for reassurance and to help guide our way. Suddenly, after what seemed an eternity we emerged into an open rocky valley. On each side smooth and craggy rocks stretched upward but they at least looked climbable. In front of us the path continued forward and I rushed ahead thinking this must be it. I passed between two huge walls of stone and then the way narrowed considerably. The great stone walls remained as high as before and it was clear this was an entrance to a slot canyon. I hurried back to relay to Kat what I had found. She had been fiddling with the GPS while I had scouted ahead and looked worried when I told her what I found. Now it was really getting dark we had perhaps 30 minutes until total darkness descended. We were lucky in that it would be a full moon that night. We had camped in the desert the night before and one of the reasons we had selected the dates we had was because of the full moon. Kat spoke “I can’t tell if that slot canyon leads out or to a dead end, and I sure as hell don’t want to get lost in one at night. If it rain upstream or there are areas where it splits and we get confused, we are done for sure” with obvious trepidation. In a slot canyon even a seemingly tiny amount of rain can cause a torrent of water easily capable of sweeping a person away and drowning them as the canyon walls act like a funnel accelerating the water as they narrow. She bit her lip and continued, voice trembling slightly “Dan, I can’t go in there. I won’t go that way.” “But Kat that has got to be the way out.” I replied angrily. “If we don’t go in there what the fuck are we gonna do. How are we ever gonna get out of here.”
The only other option had been to try and climb up and out and then make our way through the desert. I protested a bit more before giving in, realizing it was a lost battle, she had made up her mind and I was not going to change it. We both began scouting for a way up on what we very much hoped was the correct side of the valley. If we went up and out on the wrong side the slot canyon might prevent us from ever being able to get back to our car. Kat said she was virtually certain of the correct side and I could do nothing but agree. We had maybe ten minutes of daylight left now and quickly settled on a path up to try. It was tough going but eventually we found ourselves perched on a smooth rock breathing hard. We needed a break and here we would be forced to take one, night had come, it was dark, there was no more sunlight and the moon had yet to rise in the sky so it was very dark just then, 8:15 pm. I despaired “Oh man Kat we are fucked, we are well and truly fucked now. It is dark as shit out here I can’t see a Goddamn thing. How in the fuck are we supposed to make it to the top of this rockface let alone navigate across the desert to God knows where or how far in the pitch fucking black. We have one tiny ass flashlight between us, the GPS is almost dead, and I am fucking spent, “ or something to that effect I had said. The fear was probably evident in my voice but I went ahead and said it. “I’m scared Kat. Fucking freaking the fuck out.” How she replied caused my own anxiety and worry to triple in an instant. In a tone more depressed than I had ever heard her speak she said. “I’m scared too Dan, I’m scared too.”
Chapter 5: The Long Road(s) Home
As I think back now I am taken aback at how much Kat’s words just then affected me. She had been my rock in a sea of fear and instability, the one constant that kept me from totally losing all hope and sinking into total despair. I had great confidence in her navigational abilities and knew she had been through some years of military style training. Survival situations like the one we found ourselves in were something for which she had prepared. All of that was in a previous life however, many years ago, yet it was clear she remembered much of what she had learned.
Her calm demeanor rarely wavered no matter what new calamity befell us, so when she spoke those four words “I’m scared too Dan” the gravity of our situation, the actual danger we faced, became more clear than it had any time until that point.
If she was afraid, I should be terrified; at least that was how I felt about it then. It was just after 9pm, we had been hiking virtually non-stop for over 12 hours, night had fallen and it was very dark, the moon had yet to rise and I felt a cool chill. Extreme temperature variations between night and day are very common in the desert. There are many difficulties specific to desert conditions that backpackers can expect, but the wild temperature swings can be one of the hardest to deal with. The past two days and nights we had spent exploring various slot canyons in the area had not been bad at all in that respect. While the temperature had soared to near 100F at the hottest points of the days it had not dropped below 65F or so at night. I was praying that our luck would hold but the chill I felt then suggested otherwise. For what seemed the hundredth time that day (now night) I cursed my poor planning as I had not packed a long sleeve shirt thinking it would not be needed for our “half day hike.” Luckily, Kat bailed me out once again and produced a warm button down from the bottom of her pack that happened to fit perfectly.
After slipping on the shirt, we sat down on the large, smooth, flat rock approximately half way up the canyon wall then and palavered for quite a long time. It was too dark to get very far anyway at that moment and we needed time for our eyes to adjust, and for the moon to rise, though mostly we sat because we did not know what else to do. I was near panic state and Kat implored me to remain calm though I could sense her own internal struggle. “The absolute worst thing you can do in a survival situation is to panic, remember that” she had said many times over the course of that day, and she said it again as we sat and tried to determine our next course of action. It turned out that Kat had the location of our car locked in on the GPS and had been checking our position relative to it for quite some time. After she told me about the car I was elated, we could just start hiking toward it using the most direct path we could manage and would be there in short order. Kat quickly disabused me of that notion. The GPS battery situation was bad and getting worse, it was flashing just one bar and we had no idea how much longer it would be operational at all. With no replacement batteries on hand, once it died it became that much useless dead weight. We could only turn it on in very short spurts and only when absolutely needed. With no landmarks but the moon to navigate by, trying to make a point (the car) would be nearly impossible without having access to the GPS data on a fairly frequent basis. If the GPS were to totally die and we were only part of the way there it could be disastrous. Kat suggested that there was, however, possibly an alternative. The last time she had turned on the GPS and zoomed in on the area around the car, she thought she had seen a road in the topographical map. A road would be a much less risky target as it appeared to run parallel with us and the car for quite a long distance, so no matter if we strayed quite far in either direction we would eventually intersect it. Even without the GPS to guide us, as long as we continued to trend in the correct general direction, and did not get completely turned around we had an excellent chance of finding our target, the road.
While we talked the moon had gradually begun to rise and now the landscape was illuminated with an eerie glow. Long shadows flitted across the rock studded landscape at irregular intervals, interspersed by narrow slices of soft, dull light.
It was still very dark and hiking was going to be slow and dangerous but it would not be the death wish it would have been had we been in the complete black of a new moon.
As we both saw it then we had two options, set off for the road at once or make camp there, on that rock, and wait until first light to begin our search for the road. At first Kat pushed hard for the second option. “The number one rule in any survival situation is to stay put. Stumbling about blindly without a clear understanding of where you are heading or why is never the right decision.” I had heard the same thing a number of times and it made sense so I nodded silently in agreement. Kat continued “If it were me here alone I would not go on, I would camp and wait until morning.” she said bluntly. I don’t believe her words were intended to hurt, but the way she said them and with the situation we were in, they did sting. I felt as if she was blaming me somehow or insinuating that her chances would be better without me dragging her down. The fact that the last part of her statement was almost certainly true and we both knew it made it that much more painful. In this instance however, I believed she was wrong. There were several advantages to waiting until morning; the additional rest would do us both a lot of good, the light would make trekking much less dangerous, and in the day there was a reduced risk of wild animal encounters. However, in one very important aspect it made things much more dangerous. Specifically I worried about the heat and our water situation. We had refilled everything we had just prior to finally exiting the gulch but how long would even that much water last when the temperatures soared into the mid-90s? We had no idea how long it might take us to make it to our waiting car, but we did know there was no chance of finding additional water between here and there. I pled my case and made my point, and to her credit Kat listened and reconsidered. After quite a bit more back and forth she finally came around to my point of view and we made preparations to depart.
Our decision had been made but before us a more immediate task remained unfinished, completing our ascent out of the canyon. It would be no easy feat as in all directions the way up was steep and dangerous. We would need to move slowly and with extreme caution, particularly as we only had the one flashlight between us. We eventually settled on a method whereby one of us would lead for a few yards, then turn and shine the flashlight to the ground to show the way for the other. Kat led more than she followed which made sense given the difference in our visual abilities (her night vision was far superior), and the method seemed to work OK from a safety perspective. It was however, exceedingly slow and frustrating and our progress upwards was glacial. As we inched higher and higher up the canyon wall the number and density of animal droppings on the ground beneath us increased exponentially. I had never seen such a high concentration of animal shit in my life outside of a zoo or county fair and it worried me greatly. In that part of the country and in that terrain the only animals capable of producing so much shit with the size droppings we encountered were mountain lions, bears, and/or coyotes. A close encounter or even sighting of any one of them was a highly anticipated treat at the beginning of our hike that day, but could be very dangerous if it happened while we still were struggling to make our way out of the canyon. The area was mostly solid rock so few tracks were visible, but I thought I could make out at least two distinct variations of shit. In my mind I pictured a mountain lion and her cubs striding briskly through their territory on patrol for any prey or guarding against invaders. Other than the droppings and the few scattered paw prints, there had been no direct evidence of animals, and we had not seen nor heard a thing since nightfall. In fact, as we progressed upward the eerie silence that is so indicative of the desert became more and more noticeable. The only sounds were our labored breathing, my beating heart, and the occasional gust of wind.
In places we needed both hands and/or the use of our hiking poles as leverage to make it up the steep slope. In these sections the flashlight would have to be put away as we did not want to risk dropping and losing it if one of us were to try and hold it in our mouth. It was very slow going especially in these parts but the risks of rushing things were so great that we were both uncharacteristically happy to take things slow. Up and up we went, after each peak was conquered that I assumed must be the last, another always seemed to appear in the distance. Finally, the ground began to flatten some, imperceptibly at first and then much more noticeably. We had made it back to the desert floor approximately 14 hours since beginning our hike that day. It was then that I first realized exactly how tired I was, I wanted to so badly to drop down right there, curl up in a ball and go to sleep. Kat noticed too and asked how I was feeling. “So tired.” I replied, “I’m not sure how much further I can go.” Her eyes and head were downcast too and her breathing was labored but she tried her best to encourage me. “Just a little bit further, then we can rest” she said, for the first of many times that night. All either of us could think about was finding a relatively safe flat space to sit down and rest. I desperately needed to take off my shoes and let rest my aching feet and Kat looked as if she were about to drop from exhaustion or dehydration. She continued to drink much less water than I did, and not for the first time I feared she was pushing herself too far with her rationing. As we hiked in the general direction of the rising moon, which coincidentally aligned well with where the GPS indicated the road would be, the rock gave way to patches of scrub brush and sand, pockmarked everywhere with snake holes. Each square foot of open ground seemed to harbor at least five of them. I imagined with some disgust all of them underneath the ground just below our feet slithering and squirming, or poised in hiding, waiting to strike at unsuspecting passersby. I called these areas snake pits and Kat always advised caution and moved very slowly as we made our way through them. We had already seen a live rattlesnake on our desert trek into the gulch (see included picture)
and a bite now would mean certain death. Luckily, snakes are less active after sunset but as mentioned earlier it was atypically warm at night during our visit, and night had not fallen that long ago. The sand still radiated a heat I could feel on my exposed legs. The bushes, shrubs, and small rocks strewn across the snake pits provided ample hiding spots for any waiting in ambush, and the meager light from our single flashlight offered little comfort. Kat typically led the way through these areas moving gingerly one careful step at a time, checking with the light thoroughly first before proceeding. Luckily the snake pits were usually fairly small and many could be completely avoided without much difficulty. Little did we know at that time that in order to make it to the road we would have to cross nearly a half mile of open desert terrain identical in every way to the “snake pits” we now feared and hiked around whenever possible.
Finally we found a flat rock in the open and sat down. We both threw off our packs quickly and sat down hard. Slowly and carefully I removed both of my boots. They had not come off once since I had laced them up at the campsite that morning and my feet ached badly. Almost immediately both feet seized up with terrible cramps that sent shockwaves of pain shooting up both legs. I cried out and Kat gave me a look that said wtf are you doing “Quiet, we don’t know what’s out here and howling like that gives away our position to anything hunting within miles. On top of that you sound injured making you an even juicier potential target” she hissed. I could understand her concern and knew it was legitimate so immediately hushed up the best I could. The pain was intense but compared to my earlier knee problems it really was minor and slowly the cramps eased and I was able to put my shoes back on. I drank as much of the still warm and horrible tasting treated water as I could manage and shut my eyes. Kat was there then sitting next to me, I think I leaned up against her and then, almost immediately, fell asleep.
It felt as if I had only just closed my eyes when I felt Kat shaking me awake. “Get up Dan, it’s time to go,” she whispered softly close to my ear. Slowly, grudgingly, I opened my eyes and began the slow, painful process of gathering my belongings and preparing to move once again. The very short (15 minutes according to Kat) time I was able to “sleep” had done nothing for my energy level and I felt as tired, or even more so, than before I had drifted off. Kat had already begun moving away and as she turned to wait for me I headed in her direction as quickly as my tired legs could muster. It was approximately 10pm and our water supplies had continued to lessen but at a slower pace than during the heat of the day. The air was still terribly dry, so dry that my eyes crusted shut from time to time and I had to blink repeatedly to force tear generation, however the cooler temperatures made it overall much more comfortable than it had been earlier that day. My temper had also cooled along with the temperature, mostly I think because I was so tired. All I could think about was putting one foot in front of the other and continuing to trudge along. Unfortunately the landscape was brutal and dangerous. Chasms opened up suddenly without warning in front of us and we were forced to navigate around several very large and steep drop offs. The slot canyon which we had avoided entering was evident to our right always and we feared that it could block our path if we needed to trend more in that general direction to stay on a path for the road. The GPS continued to flash only one bar remaining battery power and was turned on very sparingly. Snake pits grew more and more numerous and it was harder and harder to avoid them completely. Whenever we were forced to move through one my heart rate increased and my nerves frayed just a little bit more. I argued vociferously for more speed, thinking to get through as quickly as possible but Kat pushed back hard and reminded me of the potential danger. She always approached and moved through the snake pits the same way, slowly and deliberately, checking every step thoroughly with the flashlight before proceeding. If I wasn’t so tired I might have gone mad from the tension. As it was all I could think about was our next potential stopping point to rest.
Eventually we came upon what looked to be a decent place to break. It was in a slight valley and thus sheltered from the wind which had been increasing as the night wore on. It was also an area of mostly smooth and flat rock a far distance from any snake infested areas. Animal scat was abundant, but as with before it was impossible to tell from what or how many animals it might have been. We sank down immediately and removed our packs, sitting in silence as we caught our breath and drank deeply of the remaining water. After only a minute or two of sitting quietly I had an eerie feeling, as if we were being watched. It came specifically from above us, to our left and rear. I motioned to Kat silently with my hands to come closer and whispered “I have a bad feeling Kat, something behind us and to the left.” She nodded in agreement and replied, the concern evident in her voice “I’m feeling it too. I think we need to get out of here now.” We stood and gathered our things as quickly and quietly as we could and moved out in haste continuing in the same general direction as before. The feeling of being watched would continue for me until we made the main road which at that time was still many long hours away.
The landscape was changing quickly now, the rocks giving way to desert sand and scrub brush at a rapid pace. Suddenly we found ourselves standing in front of an expanse of desert, a giant, seemingly never ending snake pit that stretched beyond the horizon in every direction but behind us. “We need to cross that to get to the road” was all Kat said. I can’t remember my exact words in reply but “fuck a nut” is probably pretty close and sums up how I felt about it quite nicely. Before us was nothing but scrub brush interspersed here and there with small rock formations and sand. Pockmarking the sand every six to twelve inches were snake holes as far as the eye could see. At night with only a single flashlight, as far as the eye could see, was not very far, however the moon had risen to its peak and there was not a cloud in the sky. It lit the desert floor like a dim sun providing just enough light to give every object a suggestion of it’s reality but not enough to allow for absolute identification of anything. I remember hunching over then and bending down at the knees, resting my arms on my thighs and holding my head in my hands. I was deep in thought, about what now I can’t recall, but I think it was mostly me battling my exhaustion and my fears. We had no choice but to go forward and sitting there thinking about it wasn’t going to get us back to the car any faster. I stood slowly and looked at Kat, “Ok, you ready?” I asked softly. She appeared to be in the midst of some quiet contemplation as well, but she turned and looked back “Let’s move” was all she said then began slowly moving into that snake infested expanse slowly but with purpose. I sucked in a deep breath then followed after a moment, as I tried not to think about what lay below our feet. We were so close I could feel it but I wasn’t sure my exhausted body could make it and my frayed and jangled nerves were hitting their breaking point as well. It was exactly 11:39pm and we had been hiking for approximately 15 hours. The road we were searching for lay a scant 0.3 miles in front of us according to the GPS but it may as well have been 30 given how tired and weak I was feeling. My memories of that desert crossing are hazy. I do recall that we stopped twice and each time I put my head in Kat’s lap and slept for a few moments. The fear of snakes was ever present like a black cloud pressing down from above adding another layer of suffering to what was already a painful physical battle.
I remember Kat calling out “I found it, it’s here, thank God, it’s the road.” and me stumbling up toward her expecting a large cleared expanse.
Instead I saw two barely visible tracks, the spacing and width looked right for a car or truck but the tracks were faint and clearly no one had driven down this “road” in many months. Kat was ecstatic and seemed convinced we were saved, I was not so certain to say the least and let fly with a few choice curses to let Kat know it. She would not be deterred however by my pessimism and bounded off following the tracks in the direction the GPS indicated a main road (the main road) should be.
It was officially now the next day, September 7, 12:24am. It had taken us 45 minutes to cross just 0.3miles and we had been hiking for approximately 16 hours. That pace did not bode well for us making the car before daylight and we would not survive long in the heat of the day given our ever dwindling water supplies. We needed to pick up the pace but we both needed rest badly so after a short time following the very faint tracks, Kat suggested we stop to rest and build a small fire. It would be a rare treat, a celebration of sorts on our finding the road. I had not heard such a great idea in a very long time and quickly voiced my agreement. As she went about gathering the small sticks and brush needed I lay back on the sand for just a moment to gather myself. I had not intended to fall asleep but once again my exhaustion got the better of me and before I knew it I had dozed off. I awoke with a start only a moment or two later to the smell of smoke and the feel of warmth along my feet and legs. I had not felt the heat of a flame since we had been in Utah and it was so very nice at that moment. I simply stared at the flames in a daze and watched them dance and flicker as I drank more of the nasty tasting water. “I need to pee Kat.” I remember saying and then getting up and walking just a few feet behind us to relieve myself. Just as I was zipping up I heard the first howl. It was bone chilling, like something out of a horror movie, a high pitched, long, lonely sounding call.
Not a bark and not a meow either but somehow a hybrid of the two, like a dogs ego with a cat’s id made audible. To me it sounded like death on the wind.
Before I had registered what it could be I heard more howls and rustling and possibly breathing or growling, and fighting. Within seconds it finally hit me, coyotes, and a large pack by the sound of it, between five and ten large animals and what sounded like pups. I turned around quickly and spied Kat not more than a few yards away, her face had drained of blood and fear was etched in her eyes. She only said one word but her tone and body language spoke volumes, “Move” she said. And then we moved, she stomped out the fire as I gathered up our belongings as quickly as I was able. It took maybe a minute but it felt like twenty and I imagined the coyotes moving toward us, running towards us, hunting us. Finally the fire was out and we had all of our things, “Don’t run Dan.” Kat hissed as quietly as she could for me to hear, “Remember that, never run.” It took every bit of self-control I had not to take off at a fast sprint but I was able to calm myself some and instead we both moved off at as fast a walking pace as we could manage. I took a quick stock of my belongings trying desperately to think of what I might use to fend off a coyote attack. My only ‘weapons’ were my small backpacking knife I always carried clipped to my belt when trekking, and my hiking poles. Together they did not amount to much, but the knife at least provided some cold comfort and I pulled it off my belt and unfurled the blade for the first time that trip. Kat had to turn the GPS back on to make sure we continued to follow the road in the right direction; if we erred now or panicked we would surely be lost or dead. Then, just as I thought things were at their lowest ebb the worst news possible
“It’s dead Dan, the GPS is dead.”
“Fuck Kat, God Damn. Holy Shit” and quite a few other choice phrases, I cried out in a panic. “Move, just keep moving, do not stop, for anything, and for God’s sake, shut the fuck up.” Kat implored. I kept moving as she instructed though I did not need her to motivate me in that regard, and tried my best to follow the tracks in the road but I truly feared we were going in the wrong direction. After what felt like only a minute Kat called for us to stop as apparently she had a similar impression. “Stop, I need to take compass reading, get our bearings, I think we might have veered off the road.” The last thing I wanted to do at that moment was stop given the coyote pack I felt was still right on our heels but I had no choice in the matter. If we were to take a wrong track then we were surely done for. I took up what I felt to be a defensible position near her and waited as she worked to use the compass and her navigational skills to assess our current position and determine the right way forward. After what seemed an eternity, but could not have been more than two minutes, she turned to me and said “We have to go back, we have veered off course.” “Jesus Christ Kat, are you fucking kidding me? Back, towards the coyotes?” I asked with obvious fear and trepidation “Are you sure, I mean fucking 100% sure?” I pressed hoping for a change of heart or re-evaluation. She never wavered and replied quickly, “I’m certain. Let’s move, follow me, quickly, but remember don’t run.” Those few hundred yards or so back towards the coyotes were without question the most difficult I have ever had to face. The fear was palpable in both of us and I felt as if any moment tens or hundreds of glowing eyes would appear before, encircle us, and attack. We did not, however, see a single coyote though the sound of them was still obvious and seemed to be coming from everywhere all at once. Noise travels funny in the desert and it was difficult to tell if they were moving further away or getting closer. We however continued to move back in the direction from which we had come, trying desperately to locate the exact spot we had veered off the road. Kat had her compass out as she walked trying to get a bearing on something, anything to give a clue. Finally we spotted it, an obvious fork in the road, we had taken the leftward track which led where we knew not, but the track we wanted to take was also clear and we bounded up onto it, changed direction back away from the pack, and moved as quickly as we could in what we hoped was the right direction this time. After two or three minutes of a very fast walk Kat called for a halt so she could get a good compass reading. Once again I was amazed at her composure, she did not even appear to be sweating or breathing all that heavily as she did her navigating. I, on the other hand was a wreck, covered in sweat, fear heavy upon me like a wet blanket, I still grasped my knife with a death lock grip and my head was on a swivel for any sounds. Fortunately I heard nothing until moments later when Kat spoke “We are good, keep moving, not much further now.” she said, the expectation and excitement evident in her voice. I was much less sanguine about our situation. “Jesus Kat, even once we get to the road, we have no fucking idea how far from there we have left until we make the car. The GPS is dead, without it we have no fucking clue, and those fucking coyotes are still out there, I can feel it. We are not even close to out of the woods yet. Let’s get real here, we are still royally fucked.” This time I think my pessimistic tone and always say die attitude hit home some as Kat visibly sagged. I pressed, “I don’t suppose you managed to check the distances, you know from this so called road to the main road, whatever and wherever the fuck the main road is, and then from the main road to the car?” I paused to let that sink in some then continued, “Because it could be miles, I mean many miles from the main road.” “You might be right” Kat replied after a moment’s reflection. “There are actually two possibilities of where we end up on the main road and I am afraid we might be at the wrong end, in which case we might have another ten miles, possibly more, before we make the car.” That last bit was stated bluntly, with almost no emotion, like she was relaying any other fact of little consequence. “I didn’t want to tell you because I knew you would react badly.” “React badly, are you joking, react badly, for the love of all that is good and pure, why in the fuck does that even matter, how I might react?” I practically screamed through gritted teeth. It took every ounce of self-control I had not to yell but my fear of attracting the coyotes was greater than my anger and I held back some. I was however enraged, furious, as mad as I had been at any time until that point. In retrospect my anger was completely unjustified and I feel terrible about how poorly I behaved for the remainder of our journey together, but at that moment I wanted nothing more than to part ways and make for the car myself. Instead I took off walking/jogging at as rapid a pace as I could muster. Given my current physical state this was not all that fast but my adrenaline was surging and I quickly created quite a large distance of separation between Kat and myself. Eventually my fear of the coyotes and of being alone got the better of me, and I slowed allowing Kat to catch up. My anger was still fierce though and would remain so until we eventually reached the car.
It was not long before we intersected the main road, it was exactly 2am and we had been on our feet for a little over 18 hours. What should have been a joyous occasion caused only more frustration as the reality of how much further we might still have to go sunk in. Kat’s words played over and over in my head. “We might be very close or we might be another seven to ten miles from the car, depending on which side of the road we came out on.” Ten miles, ten fucking miles, if we really still had that far to go I was quite certain I could not make it. The magnitude of it was overwhelming, the seeming impossibility, I was hurting too badly already, too exhausted, too thirsty, no fucking way could I make it another ten miles. I threw my hiking poles to the ground in frustration and anger and stormed off again following the road toward what I hoped was our waiting car. Kat followed after a time, patiently picking up my discarded and greatly weathered hiking poles without a word. She seemed totally unfazed, calm as ever, more so than at any point of our entire long journey together. With the fear from our recent encounter with the coyotes gone I wondered whether that was due to exhaustion, dehydration or a kind of zen that very obviously eluded me. The next mile was easy hiking, or would have been had we not been on our feet for nearly a day. Instead, it felt endless and there were multiple times that I was tempted to stop, even suggesting the same to Kat upon a few occasions. She would remind me of the coyotes or say something to spark my temper, which had still not cooled from her earlier revelation regarding the distance to the car, and I would be off again.
At one point I pulled out my knife, held it out in front of me, and screamed for the coyotes to come and get me, challenging them to a duel of sorts. Were it not so stupid and potentially dangerous it would have been a hilarious site to behold.
Kat gave me plenty of space and rarely pressed me with respect to my many outbursts, even when they may have been detrimental to both of our long term survival chances. I am still not sure if that was smart of her or very, very stupid. In any event her gambit kept me moving and thirty minutes later, we arrived at the trail head we had turned down earlier that morning, and six minutes after that, the car. The relief was overwhelming, overshadowed only by the fact that it would take another three hours to make it out of the park and back to civilization. For the first time that night, we had shelter from the cold and predators, and while not cold, fresh water un-polluted with the taste of iodine and dead algae. My last sharp memory was of opening the trunk and seeing the legs to my zip off pants sitting exactly where I had left them yesterday morning just before setting off. “Son of a bitch,” I mumbled to myself softly before relaxing into the front passenger seat and closing my eyes, “son of a mother fucking bitch.”
Kat would drive another three hours from that point out of the park, only stopping for one fifteen minute nap and once or twice to grab an item that I needed from the back. I would spend the those same three hours dozing, or attempting to, while being repeatedly jerked back to consciousness as we traversed the crater-laden dirt road out of the park. Upon reaching the town of Escalante (at 5:50am), we pulled up to the Prospector’s Inn, a small place that appeared to be slightly past its prime, but at that point we would have taken anything with a bed a and a shower and gladly stopped to check in. The inn’s proprieter was a very kind man and graciously allowed two travelers without a reservation to check-in at 6.30am in the morning after hearing a brief excerpt of our tale from Kat. We would learn from him later that morning that two girls who had set off on an adventure very similar to ours had not been so lucky — nor had a number of other people given the same erroneous information about the Forty-mile Ridge entry point by the National Park office.
Recent internet searches have suggested that no changes have been made in park policy or visitor center information with respect to the 40 mile trailhead entrance point to Coyote Gulch.