On the Vagabond Loop this summer I pretty much went where ever I wanted: closed National Forests, private land, camped where I plopped down, and trundled permit-free in the National Park System. Other than a run-in with a ranger at the Wave, I went along stealthy enough to elude ‘capture’ and detection. Yes, I was a blatant trespassing thru-hiker. However, I gathered enough land condition information prior to going in the areas to move swiftly and safely, especially the wildfire areas. In the private land areas I stayed away from well-used resources and respected the land even more than I normally would on public land. I never got caught, and I have never felt so free in my whole entire life.
So, why wouldn’t I plan a guerilla mission along the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park during a government shutdown and park closure. The only feelings I will express on the closure is this: it sucks and it is wrong. My disregard for the ‘rules’: yeah, it may be wrong to most but I guess I didn’t feel that it was wrong. I was going for it anyway. Like many other closure crossers, I had been planning this trip before the shutdown.
The White Rim Trail encircles the Island in the Sky District of CNP totaling approximately 100m. Water is extremely scarce. The 2 sources along the route are the Green River and the Visitor’s Center. I knew going into this trek that water would be a concern, especially with the park being closed I could not cache water along the potential 70m waterless stretch. I figured with the recent downpours we would be able to find rainwater pools and potholes in the slickrock areas along the bench of the White Rim. I knew going in to this trek there was a good chance we would not complete it, but I just had to get out and try. Plus, I knew bail out points existed along the route of travel we were heading. And with the closure and employee furloughs the chance of seeing someone in the backcountry were slim. My thru-hiker mentality kicked in: give it a shot, see it for yourself.
I found Lucky, Ravens Rest Hostel owner and friend, in the City Market in Moab finishing up another lap around the store. He was trying to keep warm. He was soaked and very cold from his motorcycle ride from Lake City, CO. Normally the drive would take around 5 hours but with the snow packing quickly and the rain flooding along the roads the drive took him close to 7 hours. Watching him shiver I smiled inside knowing that Lucky was willing to do whatever it took to go on this guerilla mission.
Along Gemini Bridges Road I stashed my truck well enough away from the main highway that I felt secure with in avoiding detection. Under a bright starry sky, we laid down to sleep. A light sprinkle fell and I heard Lucky scramble under my truck to sleep dryly. We needed an early start, a pre-dawn start, to avoid any government vehicle that we could potentially encounter.
We felt the rhythm of the black morning, the sky slowly opening up its bleary eyelids. Time flowed as the sun rose, streaming a familiar feeling within us. We felt like we were going on a mini-thru-hike. The red rock desert around us glowed with a rosy hue as if embarrassed, the dark green junipers freckled the surrounding buttes, the stringy and wispy clouds resplendent from the orange rays of the sun resembled a fiery head of hair. I witnessed the personification of the land. At the end of Horsethief Mesa, the dirt road plummeted into an abyss. A yawning chasm opened wide below us and we sat on cold slickrock ledges still nippy from Fall’s chill. In that moment, I knew we were doing the right thing.
The day progressed in a stunning array of colors and shapes. We marveled at the dark, deep red cliffs stained with the desert varnish. We wondered aloud how the blackened patina came about. Massive arches seemed chiseled by a giant craftsman. Again, we were stumped at how something so natural could be so perfectly shaped. We hiked and talked while looking up and gaped in astonishment. We shared past thru-hike stories from our years on trail. Other hikers and faraway places highlighted our tales. I could feel our bond of friendship strengthening.
We finally hit the backcountry entrance to the park. A sign read “Because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service facility is closed.” We chuckled at the word ‘facility.’ Were we really using a facility? On foot and away from any buildings, we kept at it. At the rocky shoreline of the Green River, our first water source, we tried filtering thick, muddy water into a bladder. Lucky’s filter jammed up after merely a half liter. Suddenly, our water situation became bleak. We sat in an abandoned corral under some sandstone overhangs and plotted our next move while scanning the map.
We figured the only option for us to do was to hike towards the Island mesa near the main NPS highway and find a natural spring up Alcove Canyon. We turned up Taylor Canyon along a groomed jeep road. A thousand feet or so above us sprouted 3 large arms of the main Island. Each island floated above us and appeared to be drifting in the sky. We looked around us, the wind softly soughing through the islands above us as if the invisible swishing air was the current of the sea. The clouds drifted in slow-moving stratus that split apart in square, gray tiles. We had the park to ourselves.
At Alcove Spring, the evening loomed in the enormous hollowed out amphitheater. A purplish orange settled in the deep recess of the alcove. Lucky and I found a trickle of water slowly dripping into a small pool. We rested and came to the conclusion that if we did not find water the next morning we would be forced to head back to the truck along the highway. Later that evening, we found soft red sand around a large juniper on top of a thin arm of the island in the sky. The night fell, the stars illuminated the desert scene around our bed rolls, and we slumbered off to sleep, but not before eating the rest of our burritos that we were initially saving for the rest of the hike.
In the morning, rather than finding water a bicyclist wheeled on by us, the rider eyeing us inquisitively. Then, a car zipped toward us along the highway. Instantly, we jumped off the side of the road and behind a couple of junipers. Nervously we chattered about what the hell was happening. We did not expect to see cars; our chances of getting caught were definitely raised a bit. Suddenly, in plain sight, a large motor home shimmered in the distance, then a cavalcade of Harleys roared by us, and eventually a ranger stopped us. Lucky held his mouth while I came up with a preposterous lie. The ranger told us the park had opened because the Utah government shelled out $1.6 million for a 10 day lease. I told him that we knew of the opening and had started hiking at 3am from the entrance gate.
“Why the big packs?”
“We’re training for the AT, ” I fibbed.
He had no other choice to believe us. The BS was not completely impossible. But as we turned away from him he asked Lucky, “Why do you have your sleeping pad?” Shit, I thought. Lucky exclaimed that if we were training to hike for the AT that we needed all our gear.
It seemed to work, though now we were beginning to feel that we could continue hiking along the White Rim. But those burritos we ate night before were buried in a cat hole somewhere along the island. With no food and the threat of getting cited now we were certainly heading back to the truck. North on the pavement we went. We threw our thumbs out hoping to catch a lift. We figured if that happened then we could avoid any more ranger questioning. Nobody stopped, not even brake lights.
At the Visitor’s Center we stopped for water and rested. We expressed to each other how funny this situation turned out to be. We laughed out loud to each other. We still felt that we had at least one day that could fit in the length of an actual thru-hike. We heard a voice behind us. It was the ranger and he began to walk towards us.
“I wonder if you guys can help me out with something.” “Sure.”
“Some other rangers found 2 sets of footprints along Taylor Cany–”
I interrupted him and blurted out, “Yea, I lied to you. Those prints are ours…” The ranger seemed intrigue about our truthful story. He didn’t flip out on us but he cited us anyways. $125 each. We walked away, still north towards the truck. Still, we couldn’t help but laugh. We still felt like we accomplished something. And we did. We experienced a microcosm of a thru-hike in one sole day where all the land around us was purely ours to share. The fine was absolutely worth it.
That night sitting in a bar in Moab listening to a reggae band, we came to the conclusion that we never have lost the feeling of a thru-hike. We just seem to search for the rhythm it gives us, the simplicity of life it instills in us. We drank a couple of beers and contemplated walking out of town, as if the truck was not in the parking lot and we were on a town stop during a thru-hike. We thought about sleeping in the bushes. We craved to eat more food, as even our stomachs were getting in the mood even from merely one day in backcountry that resembled a tiny portion of a thru-hike.
Once you have had the flow, life in congruence with nature, you will do anything for even a sliver of that feeling. Even a $125 fine, counter to the government’s closures. Nothing can give us the freedom of a thru hike like the open space of land all to ourselves.