I Don’t Cairn
Updated: Mar 22
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. John Muir
When I was at the University of Denver in the late sixties; come spring, a few of my friends gathered at the Stadium Inn would speak with Dionysian enthusiasm about a place called Coyote Gulch. Frankly, once the wrestling season was over I was restless to get in a few weekends of “corn” at Loveland and Arapahoe before launching into the climbing season in Eldorado Canyon. A ten-hour drive over to the desert in Utah to hike down a gulch was not a high priority in my busy “academic” schedule. It would be another decade before I discovered Edward Abbey, the Four Corners and the Colorado Plateau as a back country ranger in the canyons of the Escalante. Back then there were no registers, signs or trails and you felt pretty much as though you were truly at one with “the ancients” in a seemingly limitless, evanescent landscape of dried and pressed primordial seas.
Clearly, however, I wasn’t the only one wandering around out there reading Desert Solitaire and Slickrock. Another very popular little book was On The Loose. I think these books alone did more to encourage the Gore-Tex and Vibram invasion of the Colorado Plateau than anything else (besides overpopulation). I shudder to think what Abbey would say today if he saw what has become of his old stomping grounds. I know his pal Phil Hyde (the photographer of Slickrock) was very concerned about the impact his photographs might have on would-be hikers and canyoneers. Another friend of mine, the wilderness photographer Dave Bohn, presciently cancelled all workshops in and publications of images of places he considered sacred, anticipating the havoc to be wrought by the likes of REI, Patagonia, Backpacker Magazine and a host of other for-profit organizations got up in green but with a bottom line dependent on their unfettered access to this cathedral we call wilderness.
So, fast-forward several decades. I’m a “senior citizen” and The Escalante River is now a National Monument and the outdoor magazines can’t publish enough articles about all the cool, “unknown” places to go to with all the latest gear they advertise unabashedly. One highly recommended place in which to try out your new sandals, ultra-light pack, anti-sun shirt, GPS and propane stove is Coyote Gulch. Early this spring some young friends asked me to show them the way down into the gulch via The Crack.
Most people decide to hike into the gulch from the trustworthy Hurricane Wash trailhead. The Crack involves a bit of route finding and something of a scramble. It is a surprising way into one of the most beautiful places on the planet. If the Grand Canyon is Beethoven’s heroic Ninth Symphony, Coyote Gulch, by contrast, is Schubert’s lilting Arpeggione Sonata. It is protected by a geographic remoteness, an abusive dirt road of forty miles littered with sundry automotive parts; another three miles of sandy 4 wheel drive track and a variety of obscure access routes. Like all good things, you have to suffer a bit to get there; even via Hurricane Wash.
We spent the night at the trailhead and the next morning, after signing the register, my buddy took off down the hill and led us to The Crack in exactly half an hour! He simply followed all the cairns, which I proceeded to knock down as he disappeared apace far ahead of me. When we got to The Crack I was satisfied to have destroyed all the evidence and he was angry that I had done so; actually I was taken aback at his umbrage. This new, direct route did not sit well with me. Fast is good in F-16’s, Ferraris and computer chips but not in the wilderness. As Aldo Leopold said, “The elemental simplicities of wilderness travel are thrills not only because of their novelty but because they represent complete freedom to make mistakes.” The freedom to make mistakes… and suffer the consequences; this is the essence of our current dialogue.
Elimination of suffering, inconvenience, hardship and death seems to be one of the principal preoccupations of all modern societies, which is generally described as “progress.” Running water, paved streets, electricity, garbage disposal, schools, clinics and mass transit go a long way to ameliorate miscellaneous inconveniences and suffering but they should not be confused as keys to happiness. The Buddha said something to the effect that “life is suffering.” Of course he did not mean a simplistic translation of the Hindu word “Dukkha” to mean unceasing neurasthenia, broken bones, loss of loved ones and economic woes and so forth, but a complex paradigm of existence which would include a transient form of happiness, materiality, pain and suffering.
I have no desire to obfuscate things by going into the realm of deep spirituality but I do not think such things as pain, suffering and inconvenience should be dismissed out of hand in a discussion about wilderness. They are integral elements in a rich wilderness experience. Clearly, if we were to eliminate all discomfort, anxiety and danger in the wilderness then we would no longer be in wilderness. Duh? Remember the 1960’s swimming coach (Doc Counsilman of Indiana) who re-introduced the second century Hebrew expression, “According to the pain is the gain”? Despite our aversion to cliché, these brief words pare down a significant aspect of existential satisfaction.
The first time I hiked down into the gulch by myself it took me a couple hours to find The Crack. I didn’t know where the hell to go in that vast shimmering panorama of slickrock and sand. I saw the dark cut of the canyon a mile or so to the north of course and headed in that direction meandering around dunes and domes in my uncertain path. I ended up a quarter of a mile west and had to work my way along the edge to finally discover The Crack. “Aha, so this is The Crack,” I was happy to exclaim when I finally found it! This is the experience every person wanting to go down into the gulch should have: discomfort, anxiety and relief.
This debate is about whether or not to place cairns between the parking area and The Crack going down to Coyote gulch. Should people suffer or not? As I have already suggested, I think people should suffer. But there is another issue to be considered which is the environment. Should the environment suffer? Of course not; we should all do everything we can to mitigate the increased, overpopulating ravaging of the environment. In this particular case however, I would maintain that a trail is not necessary through much of the terrain leading to The Crack. In the first quarter mile down the slope from the parking area there is an old jeep trail, which we all have followed for forty years. From the bottom of the hill over to The Crack, a distance of about a mile perhaps, there is probably as much sandstone as sand. One is meandering between and around outcrops of sandstone occasionally walking in sand and often on rock. There is no crypto biotic crust to be concerned about vis a vis random trespassers. In this particular situation even the most demanding bio-protectionist would probably agree that random trekking to The Crack imposes minimal hazards for the environment.
An interesting example of over-maintaining a trail occurs in Capitol Reef National Park on the trail up to Cassidy Arch. At several points along the slickrock are bright yellow arrows painted on the white sandstone pointing us in the right direction so we don’t wander and get lost. Some visitor probably got a bit lost and never found the arch and registered a complaint and the park responded, like the government always does, over-zealously, with a surfeit of stencils and yellow paint. At least we can all agree that cairns are better than yellow arrows. Furthermore, Cassidy Arch is one particular gem hidden in a convoluted landscape within a national park.
This debate reminds me of a time when I was working as a crane operator on the waterfront in Camden, New Jersey right across the river from Philadelphia and one day, on a whim, I decided to pay a quick visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum during my lunch hour. I specifically wanted to see the Arensberg Collection of Duchamps. I literally ran up the steps like Sylvester Stalone and breezed past the Three Standard Stoppages and several other Readymades to spend a few minutes with The Large Glass, and Nude Descending a Staircase. I hurried back to work. I missed the ETANT DONNES! This is what I had really wanted to see: Duchamp’s last great piece on which he had worked secretly for twenty years. I ran right by the dead-end passage with the wooden doors at the end behind which is the most significant art piece of the Twentieth Century. Of course, I would not have missed it had there been signs and arrows pointing me to the secret corridor. Dang!
The point of wilderness in modern societies is to provide a moment’s contemplation of what once was. Abandon goals; the only objective is already achieved in simply being there. Like somebody once said to me about sailing; that just being in his boat was sufficient, not the getting there. I mean, it is like insisting that our only goal is to reach the summit of a mountain. Of course, our western European cultural egoism demands that we achieve some recognizable objective but, for those of us beyond the age of Egoism, we know that playing the sonata, climbing the mountain, being in wilderness….that is the goal….not the summit, not winning, not finding some arch.
It has been argued that there are people who have only a limited time in which to drive down from Salt Lake or Denver and hike into Coyote Gulch and that without cairns their time is wasted in stumbling around among the dunes and slickrock trying to find The Crack. I confess that I am not particularly sympathetic to this argument. This is not much different from the tourist at the park visitor center who says he only has three hours to see Capitol Reef, what should he see? He is not being fair to himself or to wilderness. I’ve only got five minutes; which page in War and Peace should I read? Would that sound stupid or what? Expecting to get to The Crack quickly is sort of like the guy going to the opera: he has been busy all day and then his cab got stuck in traffic and he barely gets to his seat in time for the curtain to rise. He has not read the libretto or studied the score and he is still angry at the traffic; he is ill prepared for the miracle of Mozart. We should not rush into wilderness any less prepared.
There is a place near Torrey, Utah, up the Sand Creek drainage, which some people call Hell’s Hole and it is reputed to be the most beautiful place in the county notwithstanding it’s unfortunate name. Supposedly, it is a spectacular cascade coming off Thousand Lake Mountain down into a pool of numinous profundity. I have tried to get there two times and failed. Each time however, was a lovely walk of new discoveries. Perhaps Emily Dickinson was right? Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’re succeed. I may never find Hell’s Hole but I would much rather it remain secret than to see cairns and arrows making its discovery irrelevant.
The thing is, must we always capitulate to technology and overpopulation pressure? For example, originally you had to hike up Pike’s Peak. Now there is a road to the top. Are we happy now? The Swiss have railroads and telepheriques all over their mountains. Are we, in fact, inching toward Swissification of our diminishing American wildernesses? Forty years ago, very few people even knew about The Crack. Now of course, it is part of a National Monument with a trail register at the parking area. Ten years from now I will not be surprised to see a fully marked “official” trail down to The Crack with some cables and ladders so as to make the descent easier. I mean, there is already a full-blown bathroom down in Coyote Gulch at the base of Jacob Hamlin Arch. And now they talk about “the trail” in Coyote Gulch. “Don’t camp within fifty feet of the trail,” they say. I used to think the riverbed itself was “the trail.” As far as I am concerned, if you are gonna go down into Coyote Gulch you should not be taking shortcuts across every meander. Walk in the water for god’s sake!
As Thoreau was wont to say, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Cairns, paint, signs and even maps belie a genuine sense of wilderness. I for one refuse to change my definition of sacred, wild places. My several dictionaries describe wilderness as: “an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region” or “a mostly uninhabited area of land such as a forest or mountainous region in its natural uncultivated state, sometimes deliberately preserved like this” and, “a wild region in bewildering vastness, perilousness or unchecked profusion.” I think we need to re-acquaint ourselves with the real definitions of wilderness and fight tooth and nail for these definitions of our increasingly few wild lands. No cairns, no paint, no signs. Period. No pain no gain.