Canyonlands NP, Needles District:
I decided on a day hike from Elephant Hill trailhead. The trail ends about seven miles – or three to four hours later – at Druid’s Arch.
I passed by sandstone domes and open canyon, representative of much of southeastern Utah. The sandstone smoothed into blunted heads, stained with desert varnish in places. In one stretch, a narrow slot canyon begrudged about three feet of daylight above. It widened enough for some trees to take root in the incongruous day-dark.
Writers have come up with all kinds of names for the Needles: spires, towers, pinnacles, hoodoos, castle battlements, and well, needles. I passed one stand of these tall, toothy formations, which resembled a crowd of 20 or 30 judges, Olympic judges. In the heat, my mind played games and the judges looked like they held up cards rating my progress on the hike. Of course, they gave me mostly 2’s and 3’s. I could’ve sworn I saw a -revetment1 in there somewhere, too. I guess they thought I was out of shape.
I squeezed through a gap and stood in an amphitheater of Needles, 360 degrees of broken castle wall, the battlements regularly spaced. The Needles themselves were formed by a complex process of erosion.
Miles to the north, between the breaks in what once were great blocks of sandstone, the cliffs and spires of the Canyonlands Basin burned auburn, a well miles across. Beyond that, the La Sal Mountains vaulted above the rims of the highest cliffs here in Canyonlands. They stood snowless now, and I could make out the stony, elephant grey world above their tree line. Canyonlands is a vertical world, a perfect perpendicular to the horizontality of the rolling red plains southeast of here.
I traversed the amphitheater until I reached the other side. The needles seemed small from the far side, but towered in great walls once you stood against then. In a pass between two spires, a Utah juniper stood as threshold guardian. its gnarled, swirling gray bark, with a branch or two still living, coiled out of bare, chalk rubble and sand. The juniper has the ability to shut off water to some limbs to conserve resources. There was a drought on. Some trees in the stand beyond it were full dead. With the grain of the bark twisting up the trunk like frozen water, the innards of a whirlpool pouring up toward the sky, a juniper was easy to spot. These trees are so tough they drill like corkscrews into solid rock. I came across a dead stub of a juniper trunk, thick as bridge cable, spiraling out between two boulders, as if the rock had evolved into wood in the span of a single generation. The dead trunk made a convenient handhold as I bouldered up some pretty serious stone. Even dead, the tree served a purpose.
I thought about people who died that had served a purpose, too. I seemed to have been surrounded by a higher than normal preponderance of suicides in my life. Some of the best examples of people I knew had been suicides, overdoses, drunk driving deaths. They’d show me what not to do. They were more powerful examples to me than just about anyone living, scarecrows in my distance, toward which I could either walk, or take a different path.
Some say that nature doesn’t exist to give us meaning, that there’s no divine purpose in nature, and that there’s no message or meaning the natural world tries to convey. They may be onto something. Maybe it’s the interpretations we put on the natural world that create the meaning for us. That dead husk of a juniper didn’t call out to me – “Hey, grab a hold of me. I may be dead wood, but I’m still useful, aren’t I?”
Well, whatever. I’d climbed up from the giant saucer of sandstone hemmed in by the Needles. I was above the amphitheater now, standing between two needles which looked delicate from miles away, but stood sturdy as buttes up close. Outside the amphitheater, cliffs on fire staggered in and out, like a line of thunderstorms I’d skirted through the Oklahoma Panhandle on the way out here. One would jut out, then some shadow, then another cliff would extrude farther out, then more shadow. A peninsular escarpment, mottled with green, waded out into the vast bowl of Canyonlands, becoming its own dry Lands End. The parallel to the storm cells a few days before seemed exact. In the distance, I made out the White Rim Sandstone that formed the lowest tier of cliffs above the Colorado River.
I turned my back on all that red and white and green geo-jazz and squeezed through the pass between two of the needles. I entered into a gentler world of soft, sandy trail drawn on either side by cryptobiotic gardens of black crust. Flowering prickly pears seemed more like radishes to me as I passed them by. I gazed up at the melting sky. On the baked strata of the needles, ivory caps crested like mushroom heads on top of russet bands. Cliffs and spires towered over my giant fungi garden lit by white sky. Whether the sandstone bands were white or red depended on what had washed down from the mountains millions of years before. Swelled with iron, floods of debris occasionally overwhelmed the ancient coastal dunes of white sand that stood here in the way back when. It only takes a smidgen of iron to dye a rock red.
Beyond the white capstones at the bitten off tips of the Needles, the land opened into a rolling, light green plain of grass. Smaller pinnacles stood like dolmen stones in the distance. Others jabbed out like swollen thumbs or delicate vases. West by southwest, more cliffs were tickled semisweet with green. And low mountains, the Henry’s, stood due west.
After a long trek through soft sands, I arrived at Chesler Park Viewpoint. Off trail, the sand grew crispy and hard like the frozen crest of stale and dirty city snow. The crust was imprinted with the stirrings of night things – desert cottontails, kangaroo rats, scorpions. Rice Grass waved its amber tendrils in the wind. I wandered for awhile, and then hiked back to the trailhead.
One needle spread its ivory top like a ship with timbered striations. It ground up against the uppermost decks of other hoodoos, battling Men of War stoving hulls. I had to climb down a dry cascade of boulders by some dead wood. So many decisions poured into each step. And yet, if I didn’t think about it, my feet moved without the need for minding. I have evolved over hundreds of millions of years this brain, with more connections between its cells than stars in the visible universe. Yet it didn’t do much good out here. I can think, only to have to lay my thinking down in favor of a desert intuition that guides me though rock and sand.
I passed back through the vast corral walled in by the Needles, and between them, I caught a glimpse of the deeply ferrous, three-tiered cliffs topped by ruby mesas that crumbled into talus.
I slipped through the skinny slot where broadleaf bush and shaded evergreen dotted the sandbox floor. A small-leafed, deciduous tree pretzeled up in all directions from some boulders in the middle of the slot. It could have been an errant aspen, but in the shadows, I couldn’t be sure. Where the slot narrowed to about two feet wide by 30 feet high, the walls were sanded smooth and flat, black with manganese varnish. The narrow passage reminded me of the eternal shade of the gangways that ran between the apartment buildings of my North Side Chicago youth. Those were the places we’d run and hide in dangerous games of ditch, or kick the can, or witch-witch.
Up ahead, a jam of rocks and tree limbs offered a stairway up out of the slot, into the sky without cloud. Thin sandstone pedestals, murdered with red, upheld wide bands of buff Navajo sandstone, jutting out over the tan strata beneath it like melting cheese over a medium rare patty of ground beef. I guess I was hungry. I stopped and nibbled on a protein bar. Water was another matter.
On my way back to the trailhead, I ran out of water. Over the years, I’d come to count the water in my camelback through gulps. When I started out at Elephant Hill, I figured I’d have 15 gulps before I’d have to double back, and I was already on my ninth gulp. Gulp.
Fear kicked in and I decided I was on the wrong trail since I didn’t recognize the landmarks around me. But by this time in my hiking life, I didn’t panic. I convinced myself to stay focused, knowing that the trailhead was just over the next box canyon. And soon enough, my vehicle, parked at the trailhead, winked its familiar metal glint.
Always stay on the trail. Trust the path, even when you think yourself lost.