Labor Day weekend honors those horny-handed men and brawny women who do the real work that gets done in America, hauling up to the pay office every two weeks in Cadillacs emblazoned with union decals to collect their fat two-week paychecks (five days’ work, another five on sick leave). A drone myself, I’m completely shameless about piggy-backing on the American working class’s great day, which I ordinarily honor by doing less useful work even than usual—better yet, no work at all, including flipping a hamburger or turning a hot dog on the outdoor grill.
“Oh yes!” Don exclaimed from beside me, as we gazed together across a series of parallel sandstone canyons separated by hogback ridges grown over with piñon and juniper trees and draining southeast toward Vermilion Creek, obscured from view by towers of sand and rock. “This is my kind of country—absolutely!”
Nine hundred and ninety-nine people out of a thousand—perhaps more—would have seen nothing in this arid, broken patch of extreme northwestern Colorado but featureless and (in the flat light) colorless desert, as unappetizing to the soul as it was uninteresting to the eye. Don Eason, though, is one in a million: He could even think of something to do with all this terrible-looking country.
“I’m guessing Vermilion is just beyond that second ridge,” he suggested. “Let’s hike over there and see.”
I hated to break my Labor Day observance but figured what the hell. The country did look interesting—all that teetering, fallen, and broken-off rock—and I needed to be in shape for the next real work I had in mind: a four-day hike in the Grand Canyon with Tom Sheeley, just three-and-a-half weeks from now.
“Let’s do it,” I agreed with Don, screwing the cap back on the water bottle and dropping it into my daypack.
A few million more like us and the tourist industry could be bigger than the dot-coms once were, making good money off insane people who find fascination in a handful of dust. (If they weren’t happier finding it on their own, of course.)
The weekend so far had been all about nothing much—which is, of course, what life mostly should be. It’s the locals, for the most part, who enjoy Nine Mile Canyon, 80 or 90 miles away by line of sight over in eastern Utah; since gas wells in the vicinity and working ranches in the river bottom, even more than the primitive roads, seem to spoil for tourists the fairly extensive and accessible display of Fremont petroglyphs advertised by the Bureau of Land Management, by the merchants in Roosevelt and Vernal, and on the internet. Me, I don’t object to cattle drives through camp or the rattle of pipeliners’ trucks on the road. Twenty, maybe fifteen years ago, I used to drive in my 1970 Land Cruiser to the mouth of Nine Mile Creek and wade at the willows’ edge in the Green River, just above where it enters Desolation Canyon with its 2,000-foot-tall cliffs. Now, the Nature “Conservancy” has bought the old ranch upstream from the river and hung a NO TRESPASSING sign on the closed gate. So much for progress. Who wants to live in a damn nature preserve—when they won’t let you into it, especially? Herding Americans are in thunderous flight from reality, in the direction of the theme park of their choice. They are welcome—and more than welcome—to them. Don Eason and I will find other places to go.
Now, in the last days of August, Nine Mile Canyon was fresh and watered looking, the grass growing softly green on the terraced crimson rock. The road down from the north rim had been bulldozed where the creek crossed, and the watercourse showed signs of a gully washer in recent days. I parked the pickup truck up the nameless canyon opposite the one they call Prickly Pear and unloaded the camp gear in the dust, while Maureen set up her kitchen nearby. Afterward, I built a fire, and we sat beside it to eat our supper, holding the plates in our laps and keeping the red and white wine bottles between us, while an owl called before taking flight for the night and bats dipped, squeaking, overhead. Finally, when it was full dark, we spread the bags in the truck bed and fell asleep on our backs, looking up at the Milky Way tilting in cross section between the black cliff walls.
The steel panels gripped us in a mold of desert cold, and we awoke early in the chill dawn to build the fire back from the coals and boil coffee for breakfast, while the sunlight crept downward, descending from one rock terrace to the next until it touched and spread across the gravel floor of the canyon to lie at last across our shoulders.
“This is the most beautiful place you ever brought me to,” Maureen said.
“You say that about every place I take you,” I told her. “That’s all right, you needn’t explain. A woman’s prerogative, et cetera.”
“I used to say before we were married that anybody could take me out to a nice restaurant, but only you could bring me to somewhere like this.”
We made a hike up Prickly Pear Creek in the hot sun, following beside the downhill tracks of elk on their way to water the night before at Nine Mile. I was sweating; when a grader clanked past on the grade, followed by a company truck, the dust from their passing settled like a film on my damp skin. Three weeks from now, I’d be doing this for a living, so to speak, in the depths of the Grand Canyon, with a 50-pound pack on my shoulders and the thermometer standing at 92 or 93 degrees. Down in the Big Ditch, every day is Labor Day.
I’d estimated the drive from Nine Mile over to Irish Canyon at three hours. Instead, the trip took six, going north by way of Vernal around the eastern end of the Uinta Mountains; over Flaming Gorge Dam, past Dutch John, and across the Wyoming line; and from there south by southeast on washboard roads into Utah again, and on to northwestern Colorado, where we met up once more with the Green River at Brown’s Park.
“Talk about a backwater,” I told Maureen. “Butch Cassidy hung out here with his Wild Bunch, and Brad Willford, in Kemmerer, tells me they have a feuding tradition here so fresh you have to be careful whom you invite to the same dance together. It’s all part of Dinosaur National Monument, actually.”
“I didn’t realize dinosaurs lived in the desert.”
“It wasn’t a desert when they were around. Then the climate changed, and the dinosaurs all died off. Since then, this has been mainly snake country.”
“You mean there are snakes around here?”
“Just the faded midget rattler. Don said to bring along salt and pepper and plenty of hot sauce and keep my mouth shut, and Maureen wouldn’t know the difference.”
The river wandered away from the road in a southwesterly direction toward the high, purple Gates of Lodore at the head of Lodore Canyon, so named by Andrew Hall, a youthful and poetic member of John Wesley Powell’s party who had been reading Southey’s Cataract of Lodore. (Universal literacy may actually have been realized by 1869, without anyone at the time having been aware of it.)
It was past seven in the evening when we reached the campground at the north end of Irish Canyon, on the improved dirt road between Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Maybell, Colorado. (The canyon takes its name from a party of Irish felons who robbed a bank in Rock Springs and escaped with their loot to this place, where they celebrated egregiously in the manner traditional with their forefathers.) The Easons, having finished their supper, had nearly given us up for lost. But they left the circle of warmth around the fire to welcome us and help raise our camp in a drizzle of rain.
“This is convenient,” I told Don. “But not exactly up to our standards—yours and mine—for roughing it.”
He grinned. “I thought we’d pick up and move over behind the ridge tomorrow morning, if we can persuade Nancy and Maureen to sacrifice the concrete camp tables and pit toilet they’ve got here.”
It seemed unlikely, but you never know. With any luck, the toilet would stink to high heaven, and we’d discover a faded midget under the rain fly in the morning.
The original plan had been to make a trip over to Trachyte Canyon in south-central Utah, west of Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell, which Don—an experienced outdoorsman—had hiked the previous spring. When the heat caused us to reconsider our plans, he had investigated Dinosaur Monument on the internet and come up with Irish Canyon as an alternative. Though I’d driven this road many times in the late 1980’s and early 90’s on the way south to the U.S.-Mexico border, Vermilion Creek was an unfamiliar name to me. At the time, I’d wondered idly what attracted Don to it; now that we were here, though, I didn’t care. If he was interested in Vermilion Creek, then so was I. It’s part of what makes good hiking companions.
Next morning, we had left the ladies in camp for them to discuss homeschooling curricula and plan the book on wilderness camping for females that they are writing together. Taking Brendan and Cullen with us in the Montero, Don and I drove by two-track around the eastern end of the canyon and into the desert, where, after a few miles, we’d come on the Vermilion drainage west of the main creek. Taking with us water and Brendan’s binoculars, we explored downstream a mile or so until, at a bend in the wash, Don halted and pointed toward an angled notch hardly perceptible in the forested ridge ahead.
“I knew the creek had to cut through that monocline at some point,” he said. “My guess is we could come round the other end of Irish Canyon and approach it from the south, on this same road.”
The four of us looked at one another. True explorers are born, not made.
“Let’s try it tomorrow,” I proposed.
That night, we had a coyote in camp. Maureen, in a panic, shook me fully awake at a little past midnight, but I was already halfway there, alert to the sound of Don’s voice and the glow of his flashlight through two thicknesses of tent wall. Don had heard something around the picnic table and, looking to investigate, had seen a set of yellow eyes peering at him. The fault was mine entirely. Lulled by the luxury of a developed campground, I’d neglected to secure camp by locking the garbage bag away in the cab of the pickup. Such unpardonable carelessness in the wilderness could have cost me and my bride our lives; even here in Irish Canyon, bears were as likely as not to be about, drawn by easy pickings made available to them by unwary tourists. In outdoor activity as in every other, relaxation must never be allowed to degenerate into slackness. At breakfast, I felt abashed, and neither Don nor I mentioned the incident before—taking Maureen and Brendan along with us this time—we climbed back into the Montero, in search of Vermilion Creek’s own Lodore, if it had one.
“Look down, beneath your feet,” Don—an inveterate rockhound—advised.
The four of us stood on an eroded bluff overlooking a modest ranch hugged by a bend in the stream, to which we had just been denied access by the rancher’s NO TRESPASSING sign affixed to a cattle guard. The cliff was composed of decaying conglomerate; between the spaced junipers, an assortment of rock bits—red, black, amber, and white—intermingled with fragments of petrified wood lay scattered. Only a brilliant end-of-semester essay on the work of a popular scientific author whose name I forget had saved me from a failing grade in geology, but Don (an engineer by trade) is a man possessed of a first-rate scientific mind. I paid close attention, therefore, while he identified each sample for me, sadly aware as I listened that most of what came in one ear would go out the other, in less than a quarter of an hour. We got back into the Montero at last and drove off slowly in compound low, into a thick forest of dwarf trees where the dirt track seemed always in danger of losing itself.
The road gave up the game in exhaustion after a mile and a half, expiring on a circle of bare clay scarcely big enough to make a turnaround. We continued on foot along a game trail and came, after a hundred yards, to an outcrop of rock overlooking a valley in which a creek bed constrained by badlands meandered. The bed was mostly dry, but here and there patches of damp showed and, at the outside bend, a trickle of water ran for a distance of 15 or 20 feet past a lone cottonwood sapling overhanging the bank. Upstream from where we stood, at the north end of the valley, a pair of red walls seven or eight hundred feet high opposed one other across a narrow cleft, from which Vermilion Creek came wandering.
“There it is,” Don Eason said, quietly.
“The Gates of Vermilion,” I suggested; “The Vermilion Gates.” Neither sounded at all right, and, like most 21st-century Americans, I hadn’t read my Southey.
It didn’t matter to either of us, though. Standing forward upon our rocky verge, contemplating the high crimson split in the dark extensive monocline, we felt as proud and satisfied and excited as John Wesley Powell, Andy Hall, and the rest of their party must have felt nearly a century and a half ago, barely 150 miles into their wild adventure.
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