For all the desert’s dreamlike beauty, to travel here…was not just to pitch yourself into oblivion; it was to grind away at yourself until nothing was left. It was to aspire to the condition of sand.William Atkins in The Immeasurable World
When I planned a trip to Nevada earlier this month I never imagined that rain would be following me and that flash floods and other dire warnings would send me racing for sunshine, but that is exactly what happened. After leaving the Ruby Mountains I headed south to the first hotel room I could find, where I spread out some of my wet gear and tried to figure out what I was going to do next and where I was going to do it. I was close to canyon country, one of my very favorite hiking destinations, so that seemed like a reasonable choice. The next day I checked into a hotel room in Moab, Utah, where it was 107 degrees.
I cannot say I did not think this thing through. It was August in the desert of the southwest. I had a comfortable air conditioned hotel room in a tourist town where I could dine at my favorite pasta place and visit the book store. Things could be worse.
The next day I drove to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, where there was no air conditioned hotel room nor pasta place, no book store apart from the visitors’ center. I found a lovely campsite with some shade provided by a juniper tree that spread above the picnic table, which lowered the temperature from 105 degrees to maybe around 100. I felt like a piece of beef jerky, stretched out to dry.
I am a hiker, extreme heat or rain. That is what I do. Druid Arch had been calling to me, but when I inquired of the backcountry ranger about trail conditions and recommendations, his response was, “No, you can’t do that.” Like most autonomous adults I am never happy about being told no, but he followed it up with, “I wouldn’t recommend it. It is the hottest trail in the park.” Then he went on to explain how the sun not only beats down from above but warms up the red rock to as high as 130 degrees, producing radiant heat so that the hiker is heated from above and below, rather like a convection oven. I would be well roasted by the end of my hike. Instead I chose an eight mile loop, assuring the ranger that I had six liters of water with me and a pack full of salty snacks.
Thus began the hottest hike I have ever taken. I had been hiking about an hour when I noticed that I was not thirsty, which seemed odd, since the sweat was pouring down my back and dripping onto the backs of my legs. I do not consider myself an expert on hiking in extreme heat, but I knew enough to figure out that if I was losing fluid I should be replacing it. I resolved to drink a liter an hour, whether I felt like it or not. Interestingly, when I did that, the thirst returned.
The route I had chosen started out by crossing sand with an occasional scramble over slick rock outcroppings. There was some shade, and when I found it I would pause and rest. Just like forcing myself to drink water, I would stop whether or not I felt like I needed to do so. Sometimes a cool breeze would blow underneath the juniper tree or the overhanging rock. It felt like a precious gift. I would press my body against the rock and savor the marvel of coolness. The experience became a kind of meditation for me as I continued my hike. “Pause and rest” became my mantra.
By late afternoon I was nearing the end of my eight mile loop, and the shaded spots were becoming increasingly difficult to find. There was another challenge I had not anticipated. After several hours in the sun my abundant water supply was scalding hot. It was not too hot to drink, but I had to sip it slowly, like a cup of hot tea. While hot water still provides hydration, it did not provide any cooling benefits, and with shade in short supply by this time, I was immensely grateful that I had not chosen a longer hike.
Without shade and with only hot water to drink I was starting to get a little worried, when I scrambled over an outcrop of slick rock and saw the parking lot in the distance, my bright blue RAV 4 the only car in it. It looked like the blue flame in the hottest part of the fire. I got in and turned the air conditioning on, then drove back to camp.
When I arrived I took out a cold beer from the cooler and sat down at the picnic table beneath the tree. I began to ponder the journey I had just taken, for after such a trip pondering is the right thing to do. It seemed a little crazy that I had gone for this hike under such extreme conditions. But there I was, sipping a beer, a little tired, but no worse than I might have been in cooler weather. Had I wanted ease I might have stayed in Moab, where I could eat pasta every evening and have access to all the books I could possibly want. Instead I would be having grilled kielbasa for dinner and had a few books with me, more that I could read in my remaining days in camp. Like the desert monks, I had gone into the wilderness. I may not have discovered the secret of the universe, but I had a cold beer and some shade. That was all the pondering I needed to do.