Saturday, March 26, 2011

The White Rim Road

Whitecrack: The trail at the end of the road.
I love having a job which forces me into the backcountry. (I love having a computer which I can toss into a bag and carry into the backcountry. Shhh… don’t tell. I know, I’m a disgrace to backpackers everywhere, but most backpackers aren’t trying to turn in their dissertations in a week, and when you have to work away from home for three days, you can’t afford to lose those extra hours of study time.) At the start of the week, every force of nature seemed determined to thwart our White Rim orientation trip. If 50mph winds and flurries of snow weren’t discouraging enough, every time I set foot in the visitor center, it seemed another wrench had been thrown into our plan: LE wouldn’t be available to help us shuttle vehicles around the road closure and headquarters loaned out the only vehicle large enough to carry our group of seven; then, the bicycles were all in disrepair; when we concocted a plan using two vehicles, they told us every driver had to be certified in four-wheel driving before departing. I was up to my ears in scheduling, hiring, and training the regular staff, and it seemed like it would just be easier to back out of the trip and try to catch up on my workload. I felt nothing like a backcountry ranger.

Then, twenty-four hours before our scheduled departure, our trip leader and I had the same brainstorm: if we started one group out by vehicle and a second group by foot, we could meet in the middle and swap out. I spent a couple hours rearranging the schedule and cranked out something which would get us through the rest of the week. Thanks to Bobby’s outstanding preparation, we shifted right into the new plan and on Wednesday morning I was cramming my pack full of as much long underwear as I thought I could carry, telling myself that the job and dissertation weren’t going anywhere in the next few days and it was time to go, go, go.

Ready to go... as soon as that storm blows by.
I led the second group down the Wilhite Trail, 6.1 miles to the White Rim road, where we would meet up with the group in the early afternoon. We hit a minor glitch when everyone showed up expecting the others to have planned our group dinner. After some rummaging through our nearly naked cupboards we managed to pull together a basic pasta dish. One of our seasonals had just arrived in the park 36 hours earlier, but gamely volunteered to contribute and carry a 54-ounce jar of pasta sauce. Between his pasta and my pack half-full of cookies, at least we wouldn’t starve.

Much to my embarrassment, I took the first big spill of the trip—and the second, for that matter. Ten minutes down the trail I misjudged the angle of some slickrock and tumbled face-first into the dirt, tearing the skin off my knee and gashing open a treasured pair of hiking pants which had cost me a huge five dollars at Sierra Trading Post. Later that night, this time in front of the whole group, I hopped on a bike for an evening ride and as I turned onto the road I burrowed my front tire so deep in the sand that I spun the bike to the ground, swallowing dirt for the second time that day. I’m dirty, I’m sunburned, I’m wind-beaten, bruised, and bleeding. And it’s the best day of work I’ve had in a long time.

Traveling the White Rim has made this space three-dimensional for me. From above, the road seems painfully flat, following the table-topped White Rim sandstone for miles upon miles. Driving over the Murphy Hogback, however, seemed more like driving up the table legs, over the top, and straight down the other side. To our left as we rode our counter-clockwise course, the towering Wingate formation pushed the Island into the Sky; on our right, the sheer cliffs of the White Rim kept the river completely out of reach as we rolled along a sandy, rutted, barely-one-lane track through the desert. A half dozen foot trails come down from the Island and two or three routes provide access below the White Rim, but for almost a hundred miles, we stuck to this historic road which snakes between the layers in an ever-changing view of Canyonlands. From the time we passed two backpackers near the top of the Wilhite until we met a party of Jeeps at the Airport campsites, we spent nearly 50 hours without seeing any people outside of our group. We’ve endured high winds and hail, near-freezing temperatures, gritty oatmeal, crowded spaces, and torn clothing, to claim those moments when the air is still and the sun is setting and all we have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

Tired crew back at camp.
Tonight, as I snuggle into my tent, praying that the wind stays calm so I’ll be able to sleep through the night, my head is full of the big thoughts which creep in while gazing at a sky speckled with innumerable stars. I’m working, but I’m not thinking about who’s going to open the visitor center in the morning or whether my stats reports are up to date. I know that’s waiting for me up above, but today’s job is simply to drive, to watch, and to learn about this new place so I can tell our visitors about what they’ll see when they drive down that White Rim Road.