Canyons of the Escalante River, UT
Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
SOMETIMES YOU NEED a hit of solitude to ratchet down what’simportant in life. So naturally, I keep handy a list of emergencyplaces wild enough to get lost in. My most frequent escape route leadsinto the remote canyons running south into the Colorado River near theconfluence with the San Juan, a maze of lonely mesas accessibleyear-round to a determined trekker.
If you were to ride withan eagle (or a condor) soaring high above, the Escalante might looklike the branches of an ancient tree or the circulatory drainage of thehuman heart. This land is shaped by the way water runs. There’s onebranch in particular that runs through my days like the blood in my ownveins.
Edward Abbey first introduced me to this rich,untrammeled country. In the spring of 1971, we dropped off the northside of the Kaiparowits Plateau into the lower canyons of the EscalanteRiver, backpacked down a branch to the main artery, then climbed outanother. Humbled by the immense scale, we started exploring,bushwhacking for days up smaller canyons that gnawed north into thehigh country. We found the canyon at the end of our trip; a tiny, clearcreek trickled out between sheer sandstone walls. Sipping whiskey andsmoking cheap cigars around a piñon fire, we vowed to come back andexplore its length.
Time passed, we buried Ed, and I started exploring the maze ofcanyons by myself. Years later, I found and reburied a 13,000-year-oldspear point used by ancient people to hunt mammoth. I looked around,thinking the topography must look exactly like it did when saber-toothcats prowled the land. What was it that drew those elephant huntersdown into these canyons? Could it have been the same timeless lure thatbit me and Ed on the ass just yesterday?