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.
Day 1, March 20, 1998
Arches National Park: After 10 months of planning, we've finally begun.
It seems unreal that we're actually doing this.
Day 6, March 25
Lockhart Basin: I can't figure out why this isn't part of Canyonlands National Park. Unparalleled beauty. Why is everyone so emphatic about keeping people off the cryptobiotic soil when cows destroy everything with their feet? I'd get thrown in jail for picking up a piece of pottery, but it's okay for a cow to step on it and destroy it.
Day 7, March 26
Lockhart Basin: We were dropping into a drainage and four desert bighorn sheep were standing 100 yards away. Magnificent creatures. We are lucky to have been presented with such a spectacle. Oh yeah, speaking of luck: Yesterday, in a rocky section, Mitch looks down and sees a face in the dirt...the face of a 1926 liberty silver dollar. Lady luck along for the ride?
Day 8, March 27
Lockhart Canyon: The wet sand is like mud, sometimes as deep as our boots. We've left footprints that'll be here for a long time-not exactly the Leave No Trace idea we had in mind-so we have decided to stay on cattle trails.
Day 12, March 31
Indian Creek: Getting sucked into the
quicksand-like creekbed makes for slow going, but Mitch (left) and I try to make a game of it.
Day 13, April 1
Needles District, Canyonlands National Park: Why is it that even out here you have to deal with airplanes? I never considered myself a wilderness elitist who'd complain about things like airplane noise, but after being out here for two weeks, you notice things. That's what happens when you're living the good life!
Day 19, April 7
Butler Wash Wilderness Study Area to Beef Basin: In a trip full of superlatives, how do I describe what this day was like? We thought we'd have to find a way around this pouroff when we realized the watercourse went through it-a beautiful, small natural bridge spanning about a dozen feet. It's not marked on the topo map and, given its extremely remote location, we believe we may actually be the first white men to lay eyes on this bridge. Our own bridge! We're calling it the Seldom Seen Bridge after another of Edward Abbey's Monkey Wrenchers.
Day 24, April 12
Dark Canyon Plateau to Youngs Canyon: For the fourth day in a row we found tracks from a NOLS group that was out here a while ago. I'm sure it would've taken a couple of days to find the route into the canyon if we hadn't followed the footprints.
Day 30, April 18
Red Benches: We saw our first cactus with a flower-a beautiful, deep ruby-red blossom on a hedgehog.
Day 31, April 19
Red Benches: Apparently, we're at an old cowboy winter camp. We found horseshoes, boot heels, a buckle, a metal button and some old bottles. So when does this stuff become historic or artifacts? How about the graffiti dating back to 1920?
Day 34, April 22
Poison Spring Canyon: We spotted two big collared lizards, one of which was bold. He postured, bouncing his head up and down while turning himself bright colors-blue under the "chin," yellow and green around his head.
Day 41, April 29
Granite Creek: The sunrise was so sweet, watching the sun peek out behind the La Sal Mountains. And I finally could see where we'd be going into waterpocket fold.
Day 42, April 30
Mt. Ellen: Two days of earning joyful turns on Mt. Ellen's north and south summits in corn snow. How strange to look away from the snow, down on the huge desert scene spread out all around us.
Day 47, May 5
Lower Muley Twist Canyon: We made it halfway through our trip! Tonight we celebrated with a double meal of chili plus chili cheese tostadas. The beauty, the desolation, the absolute grandeur of the desert, the critters and flowers-most would've been missed traveling any other way.
Day 54, May 12
Escalante River: I never had any idea how many birds are in the desert. While we ate dinner, we watched a young bald eagle soar around the canyon, then get harassed by ravens and some smaller birds. A mockingbird serenaded us all night.
Day 56, May 14
Coyote Gulch (left): Rattlesnakes, scorpions, poison ivy, quicksand, thorny scrubs, deep water. We fought tooth and nail for 27 miles through the Escalante River valley. The reward: Coyote Gulch, a desert oasis with its clear running stream, lush vegetation, and cool shadows. So many times today I needed reminding that this is still the desert.
Day 60, May 18
Fiftymile Mountain: We're at the edge of Kaiparowits Plateau, the most unknown terrain of the entire trip. We have an idea where we're going. That's part of the appeal, part of the excitement.
Day 62, May 20
Monday Canyon: In the first two months of travel, we've found: $1.47 in change, seven tent stakes, two pairs of glasses, two hats, two bandannas, three license plates, more beer cans than I'd care to count, and lots of cowboy garbage.
Day 65, May 23
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: I threw up this morning and had diarrhea. The water we got at Navajo Canyon must have been poisoned. I hope this doesn't get any worse!
Day 69, May 27
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: The National Monument sign, which is pretty new, has already been shot, torched, and otherwise defaced. These people had better get used to the idea that the days of treating public land like it's their own are over.
Day 70, May 28
Kodachrome State Park: Quite a few folks stopped to ask if we were okay or to offer water. One fellow asked if we needed any LSD. We didn't. Our usual response: We needed a cold beer, which we never did get.
Day 73, May 31
Paria Canyon: I feel better, but the diarrhea's worse. If it doesn't get better soon, we're going to have to bail.
Day 77, June 4
Bryce Canyon National Park: Being here makes it easy to forget we're in the desert. The ponderosa forest, the crisp, cool air-it seems more like the Sierra until you see the gorgeous pink cliffs. Unmistakable Utah.
Day 82, June 9
Upper Kanab Creek: We walked from a cold, rainy meadow at 8,200 feet with deer, elk, and coyotes, to a sunny, sage-covered hill with the sound of (can you believe it?) traffic. We got hammered by hail, sleet, rain, wind, thunder, and lightning, but now it's sunny and even warm.
Day 86, June 13
Uinta Flat: The DEET I've been carrying (and haven't used) leaked. My knife handle, toothbrush, and clear ditty bag melted.
Day 91, June 18
Zion National Park: Detour! No one's been allowed in the Virgin Narrow yet because of the snow in the mountains (flash flood danger), so we changed our route and entered the east side of the park. The bugs were bad. Where's the bug spray when I need it?
Day 94, June 21
Zion National Park: We made it! Open the cabernet. But I'm not ready to leave this all behind. I feel like I should keep going, walk to California. This is the good life and I want to keep living it.
Day 95, June 22
On the road:I haven't been in a car for over three months, and driving 75 miles per hour on I-15 is freaking me out!