Friday, December 7, 2007

Lost and Found at The Black Box Slot Canyon

I have never been lost before. Disoriented, purposeless, confused, but this dark wandering feeling is new to me.

A million stars smock their light across the sky, but the light is lost before it reaches us, into an infinite darkness. Shapes loom--cliffs, rocks, jutting sandstone darker than the dark enveloping us. Fourteen of us are wandering, hoping that we will find our car.

We are lost in the San Rafael Swell- a beautiful and desolate desert. Far away from anything, I cling to Mike’s eternal, indefatigable optimism.

I am relatively dry and warm compared to others in our group. We emerged four hours ago cheerful, although somewhat weary, at dusk from the river bottom of the Black Box. Now, with the sunset and still-wet clothes, many of us are shivering and cold.

Two small lights dance in our group of fourteen. Mike’s headlamp and Trevor’s dying headlamp. One light moves ahead while we wait with the other one, and then it beckons us forward on the walkie talkie.


I laughed when Mike packed that headlamp. It was midnight the night before we drove to this remote hike. He asked me if I thought he should bring the big backpack. I probably snorted as I stuffed one more granola bar (food is always a necessity) into my minimalist Camelback pack--two liters of water and some granola bars, maybe an extra shirt, but that was debatable.

“What are you packing all that for?” I said “We’re not even camping. It’s a three hour hike. What do you think we’re going to do?” I asked my boyscout husband, somewhat derisively.

He deferred from the larger backpack, but ignored my snorts and continued to pack his large Camelback with a first aid kit, headlamp, water purifying pump, matches, a few small blankets and an extra shirt for each of us.

“You just want to take the pump because we’ve never got to use it before. You’re crazy. It’s a three hour hike,” I said.

He smiled to himself and ignored me.


Now, here I am in the dark, my hope tethered by a headlamp. Without the headlamps we would have to sit down and camp, completely unprepared. I can barely make out the shape of the ground we are disjointedly scrambling over, avoiding drop offs and cacti by staying together as much as possible.

I want to go home. Chelsea, a friendly, industrious and cheerful girl is huddled closely to her husband, no longer speaking. The three little boys are silent. Two are huddled close to their dad, holding his hands. The third, walks in silent submission next to his grandpa. It is silent, and the quiet and the dark are pressing in.

I sing, and keep a silent prayer from whispering through my lips. Please, let us find the car. I need to go home and feed my baby.


At home my two-year-old and a two-month-old are theoretically asleep at their Grandma’s. My mom offered to take the girls so I could go on this hike. I was torn, but in the end decided that a three hour hike could be done in a day trip, and the girls could live without me for one day, even with Hannah still breastfeeding.

Mike and I woke up at 3:00 a.m. that June morning to drive the four hours to the group campsite where everyone else had slept over. I pumped before we left, and I pumped when we got there at 7:00 a.m. The plan was to pump once more right before we left and then when we got back. Three hours was a perfect interval—the interval at which Hannah ate.

Mike and I were going on three hours of sleep, but it was the magic number. We met Trevor at their campsite and flew his miniature airplane in the quickly lightening desert sky. It was a small buzz in the silence around us. Down by the river we met the rest of the hiking party—14 of us, including three young boys.

The boys were going on the hike, and I remember feeling slightly uneasy about this arrangement. Not my hike though. I was just along for the ride. With some delay in getting the campsite down, we left at 11:00 for the trail head on winding, bumpy dirt roads.

I was pleasantly disoriented, bumping along next to Mike in Trevor’s truck. Tyler and Chelsie, Trevor’s cousin and wife were pleasant and friendly company in the backseat.

In the dark Chelsie is silent and huddled into Tyler. I am still singing quietly. Kaye, Trevor’s mom, is wrapped in a shiny emergency blanket, pulled from Mike’s pack. She talks quietly with Donna and her daughter Julie. I subdue my mounting panic by thinking ironically about who will be the first to break down. Maybe it is me. I am the one who is singing tremulously. In the distance the headlamp bobs. Jerry, Trevor’s dad and the trip leader, is searching, but no word. Where is the car?

The sun is hot at noon, our foolish start time. Wearing life jackets and carrying ski-pole walking sticks our group heads down to the river. The hike down is no small task with bouldering and some drops that require ropes. With inexperienced hikers, which most of us are, and the three boys, the three hour hike quickly turns into a shadeless water-draining ordeal.

Mike, Trevor and Jerry have done the hike before. The three hour estimate is based on their experience. One hour to hike down to the 60 foot rappel into the river bottom, then two hours for the river hike.

When we reach the rappel it has been three hours already. My camelback is dry. I am out of water, as is most of our group. Also, I can feel my milk coming in and I am hungry. I hide in a crevice and hand pump onto the rocks, while the others prepare for the rappel.

The 60 foot rappel is daunting. For the boys, it is impossible. There is no way they can make it alone. Jerry asks their dad if they really want to go down to the river. Their dad commits them. He takes one of them down hooked to his harness. Mike takes another, and Trevor the last. Don’t try this at home kids. After a blister-inducing rappel where I bang my legs and manage to look more graceful than an elephant, Mike and I discuss the proper allowable age for wilderness hikes that involve rappelling.

Once everyone is down, Mike breaks out the water pump. Everyone gets to refill and the boys take off with their dad, to beat us down the river.

The walls soar up to the sky, and walking in the river my shoes fill with silt and sand. I worry about my milk supply, but what’s done is done. The river walk is easy and relaxed; we fall back and move forward to walk with different people. Bill, Donna, Faye, Julie, Jerry, Trevor, Tyler and Chelsie, and Brandon. They’re all related, and Mike and I are the interlopers, crashing the family party. This is a cheerful and speak-no-ill family. Jerry reminds me of a southern gentleman.

We hurry, but don’t rush. The daylight is creeping slowly away, but if we reach the get- out point before dark we will be fine.

At dusk we drip from the river, where the boys are waiting. We take our time cleaning our shoes out and getting ready for the dry hike to the car, which is only a few minutes away. We are warm from the river still, but the sun is setting. Mike and I move away from the group for minute to change into our dry shirts. The darkness starts to settle around us.

It is midnight. It has been twelve hours since we started. I hold Mike’s arm. Tyler asks Mike if he has a flare in his bag. Mike has had almost everything else, so I am surprised when his Mary Poppins-like bag doesn’t produce one.

We have to get out of here. We can’t camp here. I need to feed Hannah. I want to go home. I have to get home tonight, so I can be home in the morning. I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home. Why isn’t Jerry finding the car? Where is Trevor going without a headlamp? Who is in charge? I want to be home.

“We’ll find it. They’re searching. No problem. We’ll get home Steph.” Mike is unrelentingly cheerful. I am surprised he doesn’t start whistling. Bill starts a rousing rendition of “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” I join in, and feel some cheer, but just as we get to the chorus, we are silenced by the group.

“Shhhh! Shhhh! Be Quiet! They’re trying to communicate.” The walkie talkie is unintelligible and I have a hard time deciphering Trevor’s message. “Steph, how do you want your sandwich?” he asks me.

I think this means they have found the truck, the truck that has our food waiting in a cooler in the trunk, the truck that is our only link out here to society, but I’m not sure I believe them.

But as we follow the headlamps, and pull ourselves up over a rise, the truck glows in the darkness, a surreal white.

We start a fire next to the truck and slowly the warmth seeps back into our bodies. Rootbeer has never tasted so good, and a fire has never felt so friendly. I feel so tired. Beyond tired. I lean my head against Mike’s warm shoulder and think about crying.

We had this adventure in June 2007.
Before the hike. We got too late of a start and had too many novice hikers with us. It was about 11 a.m. when we got going.

The start of the hike into the lower Black Box.

Hiking down into the canyon.

One of the many obstacles before the major rappel that took a lot of time.

The view down to the river. We rappelled 60' down this to get into the Lower Black Box.

Mike holding one of the boys on the rappel. 

Finally we made it to the river.

Looking up what we rappelled down.

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