Gap: The desert humbles, inspires

Trek Semester
 
Written by Noah and Annika. 
 
When one imagines the desert here is a typical scene that comes to mind: endless golden dunes of sand, minimal water except for perhaps the tiny blue-green island of an oasis, a desolate wasteland: Bears Ears national monument, while a desert, was none of these things. Vast expanses of red rock desert, Pinyon Pine, and Juniper forest as far as the eye could see, but what influenced our journey most was water.
 
Our first night in the field, it rained, so we immediately got familiar with our tent mates for the next 18 days. Following this, we then rappelled into Fry Canyon. This means we walked down the canyons water-carved twists and turns until we came to a canyon that slotted so abruptly and steeply we need to use a harness and ropes to descend. To our surprise, several sections of this canyon were filled with cold, deep water.  We swam across a large section where water collected in an impressive slot canyon–all the while, laughing, yelling, and singing to stay warm!
 
 After our first two days, we began to trek around Fry Canyon, Found Mesa, and Gravel Canyon. Some days we entered the canyons to trek through their bottoms where we experienced wet boots but kept spirits high. On other days we hiked our way along canyon rims, which were dryer but were not without their challenges. Heavy early expedition packs, many, many steps up and down small ledges, doing our best to avoid crushing cryptobiotic soil (a bacterial/fungal coating that keeps the desert sand from blowing away), and the occasional prickly pear cactus which, as the name suggests were very thorny, all contributed to challenging and rewarding hiking days. 
 
Our navigational skills were put to the test on the day we followed a dirt track and had to use the slight bends and curves of the mesa to identity our position on our maps. We arrived at an area along Gravel Canyon where we decided we would like to descend to explore the bottom of the canyon. However, before we could, we needed to scout for water. This caused an hour-long scouting expedition. Later, when we returned to camp we discovered that we had managed to miss several deep potholes full of delicious, life-sustaining water a mere hundred yards from camp–whoops!
 
We camped for the evening and had a layover day there. We spent the next day on our first “solo.” During solo we sat on our own for 4 hours, observing nature, reading, writing, napping, and generally contemplating both life’s great questions and what we would have for dinner that day. Later in the day, we descended into Gravel Canyon. To achieve this we use a “hand-line” or a piece of nylon webbing to assist us in the steeper sections of slickrock. Once at the bottom of the canyon, we continued to walk, climb and scramble our way further up the canyon until we found a nice spot to settle down and read for a while. The rest of the afternoon in the canyon was composed of a class that examined the role that power and privilege play in outdoor spaces and the outdoors industry. We also learned about the Ancestral Puebloan people who lived in these canyons for thousands of years before white settlers displaced them. This lovely day was finished off with Spa Day at camp, where nails were painted, hair cut and braided, feet and faces washed…
 
Unfortunately, this lovely day was contrasted by quite an extreme evening!
After dinner, and our evening meeting we returned to our tents or to our sleeping bags where we had decided to sleep outside. I personally struggled to sleep as high winds kept rattling the edges of our tent and eventually I moved outside in an attempt to sleep better. This turned out to be a mistake as not long after, at approximately 2:50 AM mountain time, a storm came upon us and the desert winds and rain showed us its true colors. 
I, of course, only have my own recollection of this but the experience was shared, startling awake to raindrops, or friends having just been woken by such, a mad dash to the tent, doing your best to pull your sleeping bag, sleeping pad and whatever else along with you, screaming, crying, singing and laughing madly with your tent mates, doing your best to hold the tent up, praying it would not fall, our brave brave instructor Sydney running over and helping to prop up our sometimes questionable knots, small rivers forming and flowing through the tent, before eventually drifting off to an uneasy few hours of sleep in the early morning hours after the worst was over. 
 
We awoke to the scene of water everywhere–the canyon below flash flooding, various items from our kitchen blown off the edge, everyone wary, tired, and glad it was over. We enjoyed a light breakfast of granola bars as it began to rain again before we were sent to a nearby cave one of the instructors knew the location of, while the I-Team worked with one student who wasn’t feeling well and planned what we should do for the day given the circumstances. This was our last day of this ration, we had planned to make the journey to the bus, our reration food, and access to civilization that day, but with the canyons flooding, would we be able to make the crossing required?
 
As the 9 students huddled in the cave we questioned what we would do. Would we go? Would we stay in this cave? To calm some nerves and fill some stomachs an interesting collection of food was prepared– including Ready Rice, hot cocoa or coffee, quesadillas, and pretty much everything we had left. More talk continued. We had joked about rain a few days before… Were we cursed? 
 
Finally, word came, we would be walking to the canyon crossing and would attempt to cross White Canyon if it was not flash flooding too severely.  
It was a tense few hours of walking along the wet canyon rims but we did our best to keep spirits up. Eventually, we came to the crossing, the current was swift but the stream was narrow and barely knee-deep. We learned stream-crossing position and crossed. 
Soon we were picking up food, new fuel, soap, and water purifying supplies. We settled in for the evening, with the final event of the day being the briefing for our next plan for the next 9 days of the expedition. We learned the next day we would be ascending Jacobs Chair a Mesa topped rock formation we had been able to see the entire time. 
 
At the beginning of the expedition, our Instructor team (I-team) explained to us that “the desert has a way of humbling you.” Halfway through our Bear’s Ears expedition, we all thought we understood what they had meant; the rain, wind, sand, clogged Whisper Lite stoves, and naturally occurring orange-colored drinking water had shown us that life in the desert wasn’t always easy. What we didn’t know at re-ration was that we still had nine days left in the desert to let it humble us.
 
The day after re-ration, we had one of our most strenuous and memorable hikes of the expedition: hiking up to Jacob’s Chair Mesa. For the first half of the expedition, Jacob’s Chair served as a beacon of stability during the long and usually hot hiking days. From each campsite and the treks in between, we could see new angles of Jacob’s chair, or what we liked to call Jacob’s toothbrush–as it resembled one. Finally, on the day after re-ration, we had the opportunity to get up close and personal with this chair that we had been staring at for the previous eight days. Given the fact that Jacob’s Chair Mesa is located in the opposite direction that we would generally find water (the canyons), we had to dry camp for a night, which meant that we would have to carry full dromedaries of water with us while we hiked to the top of the mesa. With full rations and an additional 12 pounds of water weight, we slowly waddled up the side of the mesa, reaching our destination for the night in the mid-afternoon. By the time we got to camp, we were dusty, sweaty, and semi-soaked from leaks in our dromedaries. Despite our fatigue, we also felt accomplished, strong, and in deep awe of the view from the mesa. From our campsite, we could see everywhere we had hiked during the first section of the expedition. 
 
These moments of awe — the moments of watching the sunset behind the mesas in the distance, the moments where we realized what we had just accomplished — were what humbled us each day in the desert. The blisters, cacti, heat, sun, the endless sand caked onto every inch of our bodies made the days challenging, but also made the days rewarding. The desert is a notoriously harsh environment, but that harshness, the challenge it provided us, made the awe of each day more recognizable.
 
The rest of the expedition, after Jacob’s Chair, was filled with similar moments of awe, accomplishment, and strength. We trekked up and down 10 large canyon drainages in one hiking day, we scaled an unnamed Mesa and then proceeded to hike along its top for 12 miles before descending a steep drainage to our campsite, we also did a long day hike to the confluence of Lost and Dark Canyons, which thankfully weren’t as spooky as their names imply. These days took a toll on our backs, legs, and knees, but filled our spirits with confidence and energy. 
 
When the I-team told us at the beginning of the expedition that the desert would inevitably humble us, I don’t think any of us really understood what they meant. Now, having spent over half a month in Bear’s Ears, we know what it means to be humbled by the world around us. The desert gave us mental and physical grit, it gave us sunshine, rain, flash floods, a newfound appreciation for clear water, and most importantly, some pretty rad tan lines. When the tan lines fade, though, we’ll all still be left with a newfound feeling of accomplishment and understanding, for the desert humbled us, and what a beautiful gift that was!