These past few days have been a roller coaster of emotions. The feeling of falling in love to the memory of a mother who passed to the excitement of new adventure. It’s been hard to keep everything in check while crossing my T’s and dotting those I’s. I’m on the road with plenty of windshield time and self-reflection. Adventure has a way of bringing this out in me.
Ahead, the Henry Mountains rise nearly 7000’ above the Colorado Plateau. To the west, the anticline known as the San Rafael Swell steps into the sunset. The La Sal Mountains to the east, stand tall above Arches National Park and the mighty Colorado River. SR-24, one of the most scenic roads in the West, is a gateway to fun, an open door to adventure.
The fun of heading south after a winter of ups and downs, snowfalls and rapid snow melt enlivens me. It’s desert season and blooms of Indian Paintbrush and Evening Primrose prove my point. Snow melt from high desert peaks bring river flows up and a desert to life. The desert, in all its grandeur and all her majesty, brings me back to life.
A life during the birthday week is filled with mountain biking, canyoneering, SUP, hikes and off-the-beaten-path adventure builds me up while hopefully, never knocking me down. The thoughts of a passing mother have temporarily done that, but not before she gave me life, support and the freedom to chase my dreams.
Checking the rearview mirror it’s all dark. Looking into the side-view mirrors the scenery hasn’t changed much except the solid, yellow line is now dotted. I pull some fresh desert air into my lungs, catch a glimpse of Mt. Hillers, punch the gas and speed by the only car I’ve seen this last hour. My first stop is the gateway to adventure: Hanksville, Utah.
Hollow Mountain is where I fuel up; grab some ice and other necessities I’ve left behind. The store is unique in that its carved into the sandstone that makes this area so beautiful. The sweet lady at the counter, in her twangy voice, offers a hello and continues, “You’re always in here this time of year, aren’t ya?”
“Same week every year. I celebrate my birthday in these parts.”
“Well, happy birthday. The coffee is on me. Safe journeys.”
I oblige and let her know I’ll be back through. I kick the truck in reverse and head to one of Hanksville’s original eateries, Blondie’s. I walk inside wearing my green cotton T-shirt with large whiteface letters “WHERE THE HELL IS HANKSVILLE?” The town salon owner working her second job says, “Hanksville is right here.” I smile and laugh.
We chat about the latest town happenings and she informs me I can keep up with them online at loveofcolor.weebly.com, as she wants to keep the town connected ‘to the outside world.’ I order a jalapeno burger and fries combo, pick the booth with the best view of the Henry’s, the last mountain range to be mapped and named and ponder skiing from the summit of Mt. Ellen for the second time.
But I’m not here to ski. This trip is about stand up paddling the Dirty Devil River and reconnoitering a 65-mile bike ride through Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park. Looking through my notes I read about the origins of the Dirty Devil name.
In 1869, General Wesley Powell explored the Green and Colorado Rivers in what was called the Powell Geographic Expedition. When the crew set out up the confluence of the Dirty Devil and the Colorado, a boat mate shouted to another, “Think there are trout in the river?” The return response was “No! She’s a dirty devil!” The name stuck.
The Dirty Devil is characterized by particularly saline, chocolate colored water. By the time the river reaches Lake Powell, the Devil spits about 150,000 tons of salt, annually. It’s no wonder most people who venture down this river bring all of his or her water. We did not, which led to the most delicate ears buzzing with expletives echoing off the Kayenta walls. The River is a remote and committing adventure. It’s a churning mud bath with plenty of peaceful and Zen-like moments. The scenic float, with its dramatic landscapes is best observed by looking up and around, even though you will find yourself looking down at your board often as you catch every sandbar and river rock.
The best time of year to float the Dirty is March and April when run-off is high and the river is at more than 100cfs. Anything less and your paddle becomes a Devil’s walking stick and your SUP a barge. But nailing the runoff is not easy. One needs to persistently watch flow rates and pull the trigger last minute. A recommended 150cfs for SUP’s with a minimum of 95cfs for those that want quicksand between their toes.
We found our toes tickling the Devil numerous times. The river channel was difficult to navigate and with the many tricks in the Devil’s bag, we often found a barely submerged rock, immediately launching us onto the front of our Bad Fish SUP’s or, running in reverse off the water treadmill, dunking us in the Willy Wonka-like chocolate river. But the treat of the adventure was looking around at Mother Nature’s creativity of carving Waco’s and Sandstone walls upwards of 400 vertical feet. We would lose ourselves in the moment of the pristine grandeur until our SUP’s grabbed bottom, launching us off and into the cold water.
Somewhere between our put-in at Angel’s Point and the take-out of Poison Spring, I found myself reflecting on the journey to make this trip happen. Two days prior to pushing off, our second shuttle vehicle cancelled. This left me roaming the streets of Hanksville meeting locals and lifers, listening to stories of the quiet and remote life they lead. I’d learn it took some time to convince the only two democrats in Wayne County that grazing on BLM lands was a way of life. Staring at cactus spines and burrs puncturing a cow’s face, I’d wonder what kind of life they really live? Looking beyond the leftover stubs of grass I see Factory Butte, North Caineville Mesa, The Swell and the Henry’s; I realized their life wasn’t really that bad.
Later that night, my life turned cold and dark and horrendous. Temperatures plummeted into the high 20s; leaving me performing sit-ups and push-ups at 2am. A 50 degree summer bag and a bivy on cold, non-insulated ground wasn’t the right call. The only call I had right was the view of the Milky Way and the cosmos abound. With daylight hours away, life really wasn’t that bad minus some frozen toes.
But the frozen toes prepared me for Day 2, a 16-mile push in colder-than-normal water and a 15mph headwind. We’d all assume ‘tuck positions’ to become more aerodynamic. We paddled harder to stay the course. We’d tip over and bleach our skin and clothes with the Devil’s alkaline water. But never once did we let the Devil get the best of us. The headwinds would kick and we’d fight right back. A tail wind would gust and we’d jump to our feet and set sail. We’d tip over and under through Class I and II rapids. We’d bottom out but not before looking up, towards the heavens.
A sense of peace and tranquility would overcome the group as we paddled an oxbow bend around the Dirty Devil Airstrip. Bentonite, copper, magnesium, manganese, and iron minerals and oxides would paint the landscape. The canyon choked and the rumbles of rapids would echo off canyon walls, bringing a sense of electricity and excitement. Rapids are far more fun than 36 miles of flat water paddling.
We’d make camp and settle in for the night dining on ‘boil-in-a-bag’ Palak Paneer and sweet and sour dishes. Our ‘bartender’ would concoct makeshift margaritas. We’d fall asleep to warmer temperatures and a starlit sky. Orion hovered over the rim of a sandstone monolith. Scorpio would crawl across the Milky Way just like the scorpion we witnessed crawl up and under a rock. A sure sign of the Devils reincarnation.
The Devil would appear in my sleep as I tossed and turned with eerie dreams. I’d wake with hopes of the sun rising but the Dirty little Devil was only playing tricks. I’d reignite the campfire and practice yoga for what seemed eternal. The sun never rose. Falling back into my devilish dreams I’d reawake with thoughts of the reincarnation of El Diablo crawling into my bag and stinging me. I relit the campfire and waited and waited and waited until the first sign of sun.
Hours later, under the predawn light, I’d fill a 20L dry bag with river water to screen and filter some of the 150,000 tons of salt and sediment for consumption. The Devils cocktail is better left alone but we had no choice. We had no fresh water. There is no fresh water.
But none of the previous days efforts would thwart us from our payoff. The final 4 hours of paddling brought some of the most magnificent scenery we’ve yet to see. Desert varnished walls over a mile long and hundreds of feet high. Arches, alcoves, ducks and bighorn sheep complemented the sterile landscape. In all its grandeur and all its glory, the Devil showed its imperfections, and its tranquility.
We’d tame the rapids, rip the oxbows and navigate fallen chockstones before enjoying one last mile of calm flat water to the take-out at Poison Spring.
Kendall, an adventure buddy of many years would turn to me on the final stroke and ask, “So where did you get that green t-shirt with WHERE THE HELL IS HANKSVILLE?”
Funny he should ask for now he understood where Hanksville was, what Hanksville is and why I LOVE one of the greatest gateways to adventure. I’d open the door to my truck I left 3 days ago on bike to pedal 35 miles to meet the OK3 airplane and the Dirty Devil Crew, offering everyone a t-shirt resembling the colors of the landscape as a token of my appreciation for looking into the Devils eyes and seeing its past, its present, and its future.
I’d also catch a glimpse of myself in the rear view mirror; scruffy, dirty and tired but filled with joy and excitement. The darkness that once existed has turned to light. Navajo sandstone walls rose above a Coyote Willow lined river. The sky, deep blue and polka dotted with white puffy clouds, looked like a fresh water river of thirst quenching fluids. The man in the mirror who battled winds and sand dunes; changing itineraries; cold, sleepless nights; and digging his truck out of precarious situations smiled back, devilishly.
Shaking his head slowly up and down, he’d place his paddle to the ground and extinguish his flame with a desert warm IPA.