Darkness was closing fast, and our time was running out. A raven called in the blackening canyon.
Canyonlands National Park covers over 500-square miles of red, Utah desert. Driving between its borders can require hours of time and a 100-mile detour. In one of the most remote sections of the park, we found ourselves in a race against time. With shadows growing and moon rising, we took a last look at the grand arch and scrambled back—5.4 miles of sandstone, riverbed, cliffs, ledges and dirt separated us from the car.
The thirsty waterfall came first. Down the ladder, across the boulders and into its dry riverbed we flew; we had to get out of the canyon before dark; we had less than two hours to do it.
Kristen fell when the black bird called. Neither one of us could see it. Maybe it startled her, or maybe it really was just an unbalanced rock that sent my old Tennessee friend face-first towards the dirt. But whatever the raven did to her, I took it as a good sign. At least it was reassuring to have its presence known.
“Two miles,” I shouted. “We’ve been two miles since the top of the arch.” An official park sign noted the distance—one of just a handful on the trail. Our only real guidance on this nearly 11-mile round trip came from the ever-lessening stream of cairns strewn around the trail, which was more boulder than dirt. “We’re making great time!”
As Kristen scrambled up, no worse for the wear, I knew that time and distance were being cheated. We hadn’t exactly followed the trail down from the waterfall. Rather, we’d stuck to the dry riverbed where elevation ran cleanly down and the trail’s twists-and-turns were neatly avoided. The bird, I thought, was acknowleding our cleverness.
The reality is that the clock was not on our side. The journey up to Druid’s Arch—the crown jewel of Canyonlands and one of its most inaccessible giants—had taken over three hours. Even cheating, getting out in just two hours was a crude gamble. To get caught was to risk a cold night under red stone walls, under the gaze of mountain lions, and I had no intention of doing that.
So we climbed and scurried, scrambled and leapt down the boulders until I felt a pop.
My leg was giving out.
The trail didn’t start this way, limping down rock faces. In fact, it barely started it all. After tackling an eight mile hike through nearby Arches National Park on Saturday, there wasn’t much fuel to burn on Sunday. We decided on a short hike at Canyonlands…until temptation called.
“We’re on the trail that connects to Druid Arch,” I explained. “We could go where we set out for, which is less than a mile ahead, or we can go another three miles to see it.”
“We can conquer Canyonlands.”
Mount Whitney was on my mind. And even though another three miles forward really meant another six miles ‘round, I didn’t want to lose again. I didn’t want to be so close to a monumental achievement without giving it a try. That’s when we decided on Druid. At a fork in the trail, we turned left. We turned away from the easy road and took the hard.
The reward was spectacular.
The reward was also hard earned.
“Why are you limping?” Kristen yelled. The old running injury had been bothering me since South Dakota, but I’d so far managed to soldier through. And there was no way that a bum leg was going to stop us from making it out of Elephant Canyon before nightfall.
It’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it. Bones might not heal, but sore muscles can vanish for a while. “We’ve got to make the gates before dark,” I thought, as I bounced up and down another boulderfield in the riverbed. “Or, we’re toast.”
Just as we hadn’t planned on hiking to Druid Arch, I hadn’t planned on hiking at night. Our only light sources—should the need arise—came from two dying cell phones.
Before long, a bend in the path came. It presented two options: follow the obvious main trail left towards a high bend, or follow the riverbed right around a blind curve. “Trust your instincts,” I thought, remembering the black bird. The hunch paid dividends, knocking 30 minutes off of the return hike and sending us to the foot of the two towering sandstones cliffs that form a hairline gateway into Elephant Canyon. And though light inside of the walls was growing ever dim, beyond the gates, the sun was still shining.
We made it out, but only just.
As we crossed the rocky threshold into a meadow, the moon’s faint sliver perched over the canyon behind. Somewhere inside, the sun’s last rays were vanishing through the arch.
Kristen and I were treading slowly down the dirt path when a familiar sound rang out. It was the old bird, gliding high over the canyon walls. I could see it this time, tipping its wings in a final, victory salute.