Determined to show their neighbors the wilderness treasures in their own backyard, two hikers set out on a bizarre public relations campaign and manage to create a 500-mile hiking route in the process.
“At first, I couldn’t figure out what I was following,” says 34-year-old Mike Coronella, recalling a single moment a year ago when he was hiking deep in hidden Beef Basin, Utah. “It looked like a pair of bike tracks, but they kept turning in toward each other like figure eights on a ski run.” He eventually deduced that the tracks belonged to a deer-a dead one, as it turned out. The ruts in the sand were from its hind legs dragging along, which tends to happen when a hungry cougar is hauling away its dinner.
Realizing he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and could easily end up as the unseen big cat’s next kill, Mike rushed back to camp. He recounted the experience to hiking partner Joe “Mitch” Mitchell, 28, who, of course, wanted to see for himself. When they returned to the area, they saw the carcass steaming in the cold desert afternoon, having just been freshly spritzed with warm cougar urine.
It doesn’t take a genius to ask the obvious question: Why would anyone in their right mind return to the scene of a predator kill and risk running into a set of protective fangs and claws? To understand, you’d have to know Mike and Mitch and the reason they were so far off the beaten path in the first place.
Mike and Mitch are passionate-make that obsessive-about wilderness and were one day taking stock of the wild lands situation in their home state. With conservation dissenters angered over the Grand Staircase-Escalante’s national monument designation in 1996 and Utah congressmen generally fighting for wild lands development rather than protection, Mike and Mitch thought Utah’s unspoiled territory needed a champion or two, someone to step forward and show folks the incredible resources right under their noses that deserve protection. The duo also thought it would be nice to generate some interest and donations for another dedicated wilderness proponent, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). And there were a few personal itches they wanted to scratch: Mike’s desire to hone his photography skills and jewelry-maker Mitch’s search for rock art to use as inspiration for his wearable creations.
The result of their dreams, determination, and sheer luck is the 514-mile George Washington Hayduke Route, a rough and rugged but hikeable “trail” that others can follow, if they have the grit. The entire route is on public land and links a few national parks, some national forests, and a fair share of wilderness study areas.
In the end, despite a three-week stretch of snow, dangerous desert crossings, sponsors that fell through, maps filled with great unknowns, and El Niño’s unpredictable side effects, the duo accomplished their primary goal. Publicity they generated through Backpacker’s BaseCamp Web site and local newspapers got lots of people jazzed about sampling the Utah backcountry for themselves.
The 94-day trip was “so sweet,” as Mike puts it, that they’re doing it again. Spring 2000 is the target date to begin mapping the next leg of the Hayduke, named for Edward Abbey’s infamous The Monkey Wrench Gang character. They plan to begin in Zion National Park, dip down into Arizona’s Grand Canyon, cross their initial route, and wind up in Arches National Park. Once again, along the way, they’ll show those willing to look that there’s a great big undiscovered wild world out there waiting to be explored, marveled at, cherished, and preserved.
To find out more about ways to preserve Utah wild lands or to donate funds to the cause, contact: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 1471 South 1100 East, Salt Lake City, Utah 84105; (801) 486-3161.