Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Wonders on the Wilhite Trail

Turns out I was completely wrong about the monotythic redness of the rocks. They are green, blue, pink, yellow, and thousands of shades of every color of the rainbow out here in Utah’s canyon country. Add rain and the rocks transform into wild creatures of iridescence that sparkle and defy categorization.
Through the Wingate layer.
Only the rocks are categoriezed. Each layer has a name and an order, mapped out in stratographic columns. We teach the elementary school students the rock layers by relating the shapes and colors to a layered sundae. The Wilhite Trail skips along the whipcream softness of the Navajo Sandstone before plummiting strait down the stacked-on-end kit-kat candy layer of the Wingate.
Seeing the layers and ancient environments they reflect.
I am on a solo backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park. As I switchback down from the top of the Island in the Sky towards the White Rim Road along the Wilhite Trail, I imagine a giant sea here and then great sand dunes, roving dinosaurs above and the scurring trilobites way under my feet.

As my mind often does as I hike, I reflect on my week. All the field trips for students in the park. All the things I've learned.

This week’s field trip was to Delicate Arch. At 3 miles round trip, it’s a long hike for students. As sweep, I hike with the students in the back of the pack, which we all know is where the magic happens.

“One thing I like about you being my friend,” a student says to me as we trail behind the rest of the group, “Is that you jump around to different topics. But you remember my questions and then come back to them.”  The field trip has been going on for two hours and we are already friend-level.

“My big wonder,” he says, “is how did the rocks get this way.”
How did these rocks at the end of the Wilhite Trail (called the Holman Slot) get this way?
The student has other “big wonders” that he wants to talk about. Some of which humanity has been grappling with for many generations (and some of which I tell him he has to ask his parent about.)

The important thing that sticks with me is this phrase “my big wonder.”  I keep thinking about this conversation as I hike. I wonder a lot but someimes I don’t have a “big wonder.” Most of my wonders are small, and involve petty insignificant details. Even out here, backpacking in the spaciousness of the canyonlands where it should be easier to remember the insignificance of our tiny concerns. Yet, for hours all I can think is, “Will the wind ever let up? How can it be so cold? Are those clouds going to dump rain? Will the wind ever let up?  Wow much longer can I keep glueing these shoes back together? Will the wind ever die down? Will the sand and sunscreen ever get out of my eyes? How can there be this much wind?” Big wonders get pushed aside, as I lean into the wind.

The wind intensifies. I worry about finding a sheltered campsite in my at-large backcountry camping zone. It should be easy enough, yet the requirements are that I have to be so far from the road and there are a lot of cliffs I can’t make it down, a lot of cryptobiotic soil that is off-limits.
Watching the rain clouds pass over.
Finally, a campsite is found and the rain starts falling just as I get the last stake of the tent in and toss my pack inside. I listen to the weather roll through, soft rain falling on my tent, and watch the sky. It’s only 5:30 PM. Plenty of time for “big wonders” tonight.
Sleeping out under the stars, there is time for Big Wonderings.
There is something about watching the sky that allows one to take a step back. To imagine the big time frames. Beyond the where do I want to backpack next weekend. Making a 5 year plan doesn’t seem so daunting. Maybe I will even contemplate our place in the universe. I wonder at communities and how they form complex webs to sustain us and make our lives meaningful. I wonder at mass extinctions and the vastness of the sky and outer space. I wonder about language, about Parks, at how our minds develop so much between 2nd grade and 3rd grade but sadly not much between 38 and 39. I wonder at how much the 3rd graders have to teach us 39 year olds.
They seem so young.
I fall asleep content, wake up with lots of energy to climb back up again, ready for another week of field trips, hopeful about the future.
Morning mist.
More Information
The Wilhite Trail in Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, is 6.1 miles and 1600 feet down to the White Rim (Jeep) Road. Going south and east on the White Rim Road to Murphy Hogback is another 10 miles, then it’s only 4.8 miles back up to the Murphy Trailhead. If you had a shuttle you could park another car here, but I didn’t so I roadwalked to the Wilhite Trailhead (no shoulder in some places so be careful!) which only took a couple hours.

Only saw one bicyclist and two dirtbikers on the White Rim Road, so plenty of solitude (hiked February 17-18, 2017).

Backcountry camping permits are required for all overnight trips. Carry all your own water and pack out your poop.


  1. Ah, yes, the wonderings of wandering.

  2. My big wonder is, will I get to live long enough to do everything I want to do?

    1. That sure is an important big wonder. I admire how you seem to fit it all in and not put off all the important things.

  3. We're headed to SoUT next month and this whets our appetites! Thanks!

    1. Be careful. You may fall in love with this place! :)

  4. Nailed it.

    Nice blend of thoughtful analysis, stream of consciousness, and a winning "Why my job is the best job ever" contest entry.

    Rain and floods here, but the food's still good.

    1. Thanks, my friend. This does pretty much sum up why I love this job and where I'm at right now. I had someone ask me the other day how it feels to spend my days with elementary school students after being in research/ having a PhD. It's hard to explain in just a few words how much I value connecting with young people and feeling like I'm making a difference, or at least doing something I so much believe in.