Wednesday, February 15, 2017

To Sky

Locals call it “ISKY” and pronounce it like it rhymes with “I fly." As if “sky” is a verb. To sky.

The paved road to Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park leads up to the top of the mesa. From this high point, the vastness of the canyons is awe-inspiring. The mesa is wedged between two great western rivers, the Green and the Colorado. Most visitors remain high on the overlooks. Yet, a half dozen trails plunge over the edge intercepting the White Rim Road, which winds 100 miles on a shelf between mesa top and canyon bottom. Popular with jeeps much of the year, one major access point to the White Rim Road is still closed due to snow. Do other hikers read “Road Closed” signs as “Welcome Hikers in Search of Quiet”? It’s my choice as a first solo overnight backpacking trip this season.
View from the rim.
Driving to the trailhead, the parking area for Mesa Arch is full of cars. Photographers stand around shoulder to shoulder to shoot the sunrise through the iconic arch scene featured on countless postcards and posters.

In contrast, only a few sets of footprints stretch out ahead of me on the Lathrop Trail. 
Snow along the mesa top amidst native grasses.
Soon enough the trail reaches the edge and appears to drop off into the abyss. Heights that make my head-spin until I look away and angle my wide-brimmed hat down low so that only the trail directly in front of me is visible. The calming mantra that I use to deal with fear of heights, “Left-right, don’t look down, left-right, don’t look down.”
Lathrop Trail pours over sheer Wingate cliff.
Time to just keep following the trail, soaring over the edge rather than contemplate falling. The trail itself is smartly constructed, steep but never sketchy.
Not as bad as it first appears.
I say my silent thanks to the NPS, trail builders and maintenance crews for keeping this trail feeling safe through such impossible terrain. Despite not having backpacked for two months, the weight of two days water and winter gear settles comfortably against my spine as the body remembers how to stay balanced and strong yet gentle on a steep descent. Perhaps the Washington PCT section K wasn’t as long ago as my head thinks it was.
Soon enough, it’s time to look back and marvel at the tops of the cliffs and the power of legs, and feel the joy of being alive and small in a place of towering sandstone.
Past the White Rim Road, the Lathrop becomes a jeep road on its path down to the Colorado River. Pools of water harbor caddisfly larvae, hidden in their self-made tubes of sand and stone.
Caddisfly larvae
A sign says cottonwood populations are in decline along the Colorado River due to invasive tamarisk and upstream dams. Apparently these gorgeous old trees aren’t being replaced by new seedlings. The NPS planted small cottonwoods protected by fencing and put up a sign to ask visitors to water them. Hopefully this will work because I can’t imagine a future without these gorgeous trees along the river corridor.
I startle a flock of birds and they fill the air with a sudden burst of energy.
Back up along the White Rim Road, the openness of this landscape invites exploration. Yet rambling is restricted by the sensitive nature of the cryptobiotic soil crust. Soil here is literally alive, the tendrils of cyanobacterial life holding the dirt in place and creating favorable conditions for moss, lichen, and plant life. So I resist the urge to tromp around freely unless sandy wash or rock present corridors through the crypto. Fortunately, continuous stretches of smooth flat White Rim outcrops form an alternative to the jeep road.
Air still and silent except for the echo of footfall on rocks, as I leap across cracks and crevices.
The cattle tank I get, but an ironing board? What use would smartly-pressed clothes have out here?
My permit for the “at-large” backpacking zone requires camping 1 mile from the road. A distance that at first seems reasonable until I reach the edge of the cliff and find I’m still only 0.7 miles as the crow flies from the road. Around the edge of the bend, my White Rim rock path meets a sandstone butte and the cliff falls away into the sky and vastness. I stop.
Looking for a camp
A raven swoops down so close that I duck. Then she circles back down below the rim between spires and jumbled boulders. I wait to see if she will come back, wondering if I should perhaps find a different place to be for the night, but she keeps circling down below me on currents. I stay.

Colors change as they do each evening. From this spot, feelings of awe wash over me. Pulling out topo maps, I can connect a few dots in the vast landscape of spires, mesas, and layers of canyon. The La Sals peek out behind taller cliffs, their warm pink snowy glow melting my heart. An overlook that I visited the previous evening with a new friend is just across the river. Anchors of familiarity providing comfort.
To connect the dots.
Colors that seem like the first time I’ve ever really seen them. Maybe it’s being alone with the expansiveness of these canyons. But maybe it’s finally not feeling lonely, because of these growing connection to these landscapes and the people I’ve me here. Maybe it’s falling for this place, as I seem to do every time I move.
To camp.
Temperatures plummit as the sun drops. By 6 PM, I am zipped up snug into sleeping bag. Watching stars come into focus, satellites traveling their arching paths, marveling at the quiet and absence of light pollution. Feeling supported by the ground and open to the sky.

The Lathrop Trail in Canyonlands National Park is 6.8 miles to the White Rim Road and 10.8 miles to the Colorado River. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight camping. Carry all your own water. Even if fresh surface water is present, leave this precious resource for the caddisfly larvae and other wildlife. January provided cool temperatures with bits of snow at higher elevations and complete solitude (no other people seen on this trip).


  1. I can't get over no snow in your pictures. It's been so cold and snowy I haven't been able to motivate for an overnight.

    1. Too rainy, too snowy, too wet . . . all those things here. Time for me to set sail.

    2. No snow at these elevations. Cold at night, but warms up during the day. The La Sals are at 200% snow cover, but some think they will melt fast given warmer temps this year.

  2. Good to see you out and about again . Too cold I guess ? Been too hot here to get out too much but starting to turn so I'll be getting out soon as well . Know that feeling you described re body feeling the weight of the pack again !

    1. It was a relief to finally be back out there. I don't think I've had that good of a night's sleep for a few months. Strange to feel more comfortable outside in the open than in town in a "real" bed.

      Yes, it finally warmed up above 20F at night, which is about my limit with this gear and for being solo for me.

      Hope you get out soon too!!!

  3. Replies
    1. Best night without the hammock yet. Using the tent to prop up the legs helped, as did a softer sandy spot. Still miss the hammock, but out here its just too hard to find well-spaced trees even for me.

  4. Have to say I'm a little jealous you beat me out for first 2017 overnighter. I'm anxiously looking forward to it. I had a small window of good weather and looked for a possible nearby option but couldn't find the right place. BTW did you ever test out the new pack? Since it's a new season I'm thinking I'll give it a go. Looks like you choose a fab place.

    1. "Wish you were here, Jan" is what I kept thinking on this trip. See ya soon (I hope!). :)

    2. Oh, no! Surely a not quite right place is better than no place at all!

  5. Pictures are stunning! I didn't know there were that many shades of orange :^)
    And of course you found caddisfly larvae! out there in the middle of the desert.
    Enchanting place, thanks for the peek into your world.

  6. The rocks out here really are spectacular. It was fun finding the caddisfly larvae- life has a way of thriving in little pockets. Just have to find the hidden spots.

    Hope you are doing well my friend and enjoying preparations for your upcomming trip!

  7. Keep building receptivity, great work and more important now than ever. Forget the Hatch Act. Stir the primordial soup, and pretty soon there will be wondrous results emerging and spreading their wings, just like the Caddis only bigger.

    1. Thanks for the support, Lime. Haha- yes sure does feel like stiring the primordial soup sometimes. :)