What are We Gonna Do Now Man?
Authors note: This is part 4 of the continuing tale of my recent “vacation” in Coyote Gulch. It is not necessary to have read the previous three entries to understand and enjoy (I hope) it though I do think they provide some good context and background. In any event the link to part 3, from which you can find parts 1 and 2 is included below. (And yes, the title is a reference to the movie Aliens). This will be the second to last installment in the series and is where things take a much darker turn. I genuinely feared for my life at times and Kat has told me she had similar thoughts. Thinking back neither of us can agree if that fear was truly justified but fear needs no justification, and unjustified or not it produces the same feelings of terror, dread, and anxiety. No pictures are included in part4 as none were taken from this point of our journey until 2 days later.
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.”
To be continued…..the final installment (I think)