Nameless Canyon lies in a forgotten corner of the San Rafael Swell. It’s in that vast track of wilderness that Orrin Hatch and John Curtis want to sell out from under me. Don’t bother looking for it on a map because you won’t find it. It doesn’t have a name and is indicated only by a concentration of topographic lines squiggling together and ganging up on the blank spaces nearby. I’m not telling how to get there because if you are not willing to go look for it on your own, you probably don’t belong there. And, to be honest, I don’t want you there. Go find your own gang of squiggly lines to explore.
My day in Nameless Canyon begins at dawn. Armed with 130 feet of rope, some slings, a knife, one and a half quarts of water and a bag of jerky I leave my camp for the five mile hike to its head. Long shadows spring from the skeletal frames of dying junipers caressing the sand and shattered rock that I pick my way through. The slickrock domes glow pink against the skyline. A light breeze tussles my hair and a burro brays crazily on my left. Annoyed but unafraid, I veer right. An unseen snake gives me a warning rattle and I amble back left. This would be a bad place to provoke the snake. The burro trots off, grudgingly.
The sun is higher as I negotiate the petrified dunes. They are steeper than they looked at a distance but not unmanageable. Sweat stings my eyes and dampens my shirt.
An old, tattered, sun-bleached sling clings to a juniper above a 40-foot dry fall. I cut it loose and stuff it in my pack, replacing it with one of my own. I’m not the first here, nor did I expect to be. My sole expectation is to be the only one here. At least today.
The canyon narrows. I am about an hour below the second rappel. I can still walk rather than climb, but sideways, shuffling. With my back pressed against one wall there is perhaps two-inches of clearance between my chest and the other wall. I hold the rope in my leading arm, the pack in the trailing. The walls rise vertically, 100 feet, 200, sheltering me from the now oppressive sun.
The canyon widens, allowing me to walk normally. The grade steepens. It twists left and leads to a muddy pool, about 100 feet long. I take a few tentative steps and am in water up to my waist. The water is cold. It probably held a thin sheet of ice earlier today. Another two steps and I am swimming. A kind of frantic one-arm dog paddle, the other trying to hold the pack above the water. The rope over my shoulder doesn’t help.
The canyon continues beyond the pool but has narrowed to the point that I won’t fit. Reversing the rappels is not an option. I have seen no side canyons offering the chance to escape. This is not some safe, sanitized E-ticket ride at Disneyland. Those with enough days under the sun, enough miles on their boots understand that, embrace it.
I begin to ascend the crack. Wet clothes, wet shoes, wet rope, pack dripping. Forty-feet, 50, at 60 feet I can finally fit my body back into the crack. I’m bleeding now. Both knees, both arms. My thick pants are shredded by the cheese-grader-like rock. I continue, feet against one wall, back to the other, far, far above the canyon floor. Far below the rim.
Eventually I work my way back down, but too soon. I am stuck, chest and pelvis. For five minutes I struggle thinking “this will be a horrible way to die.” It is a long time to entertain thoughts like that. Finally I free myself. The rest of the day is uneventful. But not. It would be the most unforgivable of sins to refer to that blaring, silent symphony of rock and sun and sky and sand as uneventful.
As I write this I am sitting at my camp. The sun is sinking into those same petrified dunes my day began on. A juniper fire wards off the coming chill. I am still bleeding from several places. The only part of me that doesn’t ache is my hair. The burro is back, still braying and eyeing me with thinly veiled hostility. I haven’t seen or heard another human in four days. I couldn’t be happier.
I think of what this place would be like with good roads, with ATVs crawling over the surrounding dunes and the inevitable drill rigs squeezing out the few drops of oil beneath my feet in order to feed their insatiable appetites and vomit on the ragged jeans I discarded near the fire.
Earlier in this essay I said, “I don’t want you here. Go find your own gang of squiggly lines to explore.” I would like to revise that. You see, there is another gang of squiggly lines just over that ridge to the north. In a week or two, or maybe three, I will be healed enough to go investigate them. I would now like to extend an invitation to Senator Hatch and Congressman Curtis to join me. To get a first-hand look at what they seem so eager to sell so cheaply. I can guarantee them an interesting day. I cannot, however, guarantee how it will end.