The Hiking Report from Moab:

Thoughts on Jeeps, Sandstone, and Hiking Hazards

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Travel Dispatch, Southeast Utah:

Greetings from Moab, where I’ve been hiking in Arches and Canyonlands, GPS scouting routes for our online Trips section. Right now I’m huddling in a defensible corner of Eddie McStiff’s brew pub, trying to get me some Wi Fi after three nights of dirt camping and power day hikes.

This place is rockin’. In fact the whole town’s a zoo, the press of touristicus suburbianis and herd-like mainstreet traffic jarring to my newly re-aboriginalized senses. It’s a bit like trying to walk through a cattle drive.

Southern Utah tourism always jumps from zero to 60 every spring, right about the time Easter arrives There’s never any build-up, just starting-gun land rush. And no place catches the tidal wave quite like Moab. For one it’s the unofficial spring sandbox for mountain town dude culture, and then there’s the annual Easter Jeep Safari, which draws 35,000 four-wheel-drive – uh, enthusiasts – from across the country.

So when I say the town’s a zoo, I’m being about as restrained as I can be short of chemical sedation. It’s much worse than ‘zoo,’ more like armageddon, brought to you courtesy of Detroit on steroids – a cross between Nascar, Rose Bowl, and Road Warrior, with a hefty dash of AARP and Good Sam Park thrown in, just to broaden the market appeal beyond the full-on earth-ripper hardcore set.

From my card-carrying tree-hugger perspective, the Easter Jeep Safari (and it’s autumn twin, the Moab Jeep Jamboree) is a gen-you-whine Dante’s tour of Hell’s levels, an environmental nightmare writ large upon the land. If Heironymous Bosch painted sandstone scenes that moved, this is how I imagine they might look.

Show trucks line Main Street for a mile, perched on their trailers like airbrushed candy apple billboards. Bizarrely modified Jeeps bounce along the highway shoulders, half monster truck, half moon buggy, barely avoiding rollover as they sprint illegally between trailheads. Every dirt road around town is dotted with trailer-park cities, dust clouds rising from the circles being spun around their edges. I missed the fashion news this spring, because the world scene has apparently undergone a radical shift toward mullets, logos and zippered suits. From the bar to the hostess station, there’s a titanic struggle underway, as leather and Naugahyde fight valiantly against waistlines and plumber’s butts.

It looks as if the Naugahyde’s losing. So I am outta here before this place really explodes on Friday night.

Up till now however, escape for a poor lonely hiker like myself has been pretty easy, thanks to the cliff-rich Four Corners country and nearby National Parks. Indeed, I’ve just spent the last three days oblivious to all this motorized mayhem, wandering through some of the finest acreage in Slickrock Country.I marched off a 15-mile day in the Needles, on a trail that climbed over iron ladders and through long rock slots between twisted sandstone towers. Then I trekked out to the confluence of the Green and ColoradoRivers, scrambling down over cliff bands and out across long sage flats to watch the waters mix, green with brown, in the literal heart of sandstone country.

Yesterday, above popular Potash Road, its campgrounds swarming with tightly packed revelers, I found a wild canyon and spent the day completely alone, clambering up logpile ladders, scrambling around pourovers, shimmying my way through narrow slots, and chilling my swollen feet in quiet sandstone potholes. Imagine that: Wilderness solitude mere miles from Jeep Safari central. All for the price of a little steep scrambling. And so I remain an optimist.

But one thing I was reminded while trotting around Moab, is just how rugged this country is. I remembered the first time I ever hiked in Southern Utah. I’d already been a mountaineering guide for five years, yet I got lost (in LostCanyon) for 48 hours, confused by the negative, incut topography. I never found the canyon I wanted. I never found the water I expected. I spent two dry days dodging pissed off rattlers and running transects through the pinyon groves trying to find my truck.

And it’s still that way in the Four Corners. Even the easy, signed trails like LathropCanyon, or Syncline Loop, or Druid Arch, or Confluence Overlook, have steep, exposed scrambles, or jumps across deep slots, or sketchy hopping on rotten boulders, or subtle routefinding challenges. I’m always surprised that hiking accidents aren’t more common here, yet all the trekkers I saw were very lightly laden, even well distant from trailheads. Some were literally carrying nothing. Here’s a peek into what can happen if one of those hazards rears its head, and you’re not ready. From the NPS Morning Report, March 21st: 

Hiker’s Body Found After Extended Search (Mt.RainierNational Park)

A three-day search for a missing hiker culminated on Wednesday morning with the discovery of his body about a mile from the Kautz Creek trailhead. David Ossman, 45, of Mukilteo, Washington, evidently arrived in the park on Monday morning for a day hike. He was not planning to be out overnight and was dressed lightly in blue jeans, a flannel shirt and a jacket.

Remember, if you’re going ultralight, only momentum keeps you safe. Without movement, you’ve got big trouble.

Stay safe,

Steve Howe