In search of spring
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
I learned early on that spring in the Pacific Northwest consists of a series of soul-crushing weather disappointments. We’ll have a promising day of sun and hopeful blossoms will emerge and then it’s back to the dreary rain.
Spring takes its sweet time here. It requires patience. I’m not patient. So every year when the calendar says it’s spring, I finagle my way onto an Allegiant flight to Las Vegas, wild-eyed for the canyon lands of the Colorado Plateau.
Vegas is my least-favorite place on earth, but this David Lynch-like city is the gateway to the wonders of the Colorado Plateau. And so it was that I recently found myself hauling a duffle bag the size of Nova Scotia across McCarran Airport onto the shuttle bus of the damned.
My idea was to slip into Coyote Gulch for a few days, a place I had visited an undisclosed number of decades earlier. Coyote Gulch is in the Escalante River drainage in southern Utah, about as far as you can get from what passes for civilization in the lower 48. An idyllic Eden, the gulch has a perennial creek flowing over sculpted sandstone terraces beneath soaring arches and flying buttresses of eon-etched stone. It’s a dream land. I was eager to go back.
I pulled into the Grand Staircase-Escalante Visitor Center to pick up a backcountry permit. When I told the ranger I’d like a permit for Coyote Gulch he held aloft a sheaf of more than 100, all issued for Coyote Gulch in the last two days.
Spring break. Four hundred 20-somethings in the canyon. Lots of LSD and whiskey, the ranger said. Not what I had in mind. So, after a moment or two of deliberation, I decided a hike up the echoing canyon of the Escalante River might be a better idea. Less LSD, but more silence. More opportunities to listen to the canyon wren.
I walked for days beneath the gargantuan walls of the canyon rising 400 feet above me, crossing the river a million times, camping in vast and magical alcoves, rolling out my bedroll beneath ghostly petroglyphs.
I had a hankering to see Death Hollow, a near-mythic tributary of the Escalante a few miles downstream. Passage down the river was complicated by shelves of ice in the depths of the canyon, making the repeated crossings a tactical challenge. A howling wind rose in the canyon and the thin sliver of sky filled with roiling dark clouds which let loose in an epic thunderstorm just as I reached the mouth of Death Hollow.
The hike back to camp was wild, the torrential rain transforming the landscape. Waterfalls emerged out of thin air, streaming down the canyon walls on all sides. The river rose quickly, making the crossings even more interesting.
Then, just as suddenly as it began, the rain stopped, the clouds passed and the sky overhead was blue again. The air was filled with the incense of wet sage, the sweet fragrance of spring.
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