Working on the route from Zion to Grand Canyon, a little dot pops up on the map: Coral Pink Sand Dunes. Who doesn’t like scrambling around in sand? How could you not want to check out dunes with such a distinctive color?
After three days in Lone Pine, California, the grand tour of Owens Valley continues, and now it’s time for Bishop. First stop: the public land visitor’s center, where I enter the lottery for an overnight permit for the Bishop Pass trail. It’s a popular trail, but there’s not much competition mid-week, and a little later that morning, after a series of instructions from the Rangers (where to park, where to camp, how to dispose of waste, how to keep bears from eating your food, and not to mention watch out for dead deer on the pass and the thunderstorm forecast for tomorrow afternoon) — I stroll out with permit, map, and rented bear canister in hand. Now it’s time to prepare for the mission: map the drive to the trailhead, study the route, buy food, pack my pack, and rig up a carrying strap for the bear canister so I can sling it over a shoulder, it being far too large to fit in my 20-liter day pack.
The next morning I’m up at 3:00 AM, determined to steal a march on the weather and secure a parking spot before the crowds….
My objectives: explore the desert, get acclimated to the heat, build back some running stamina without aggravating injuries, continue to condition the feet. The goal isn’t to overdo things, but still to do a lot, and this requires an aggressive tempo of operations: breakfast, run or hike, dinner, plan the next day’s activities, bed — repeat. The planning is time-consuming: there’s an overwhelming volume of information on the internet, and not all of equal quality. My best source turns out to be the motel clerk who’s been exploring this area with his wife for the last ten years.
Arriving in Moab, Utah toward the end of July, car thermometer reading 100 F, windows down and a/c off (to help me acclimate), yellow sand and orange cliffs swimming in late afternoon haze. After a quick beer at a local brewery, it’s time to check in at the motel (the cheapest available), and begin planning the next day’s hikes at Arches National Park, located a couple of miles north of town and thus every tourist’s first destination.
En route from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon National Park, stopping at the visitor center in Escalante, Utah (population 797) to meet a friend who by coincidence is traveling in the reverse direction, wondering how to spend the afternoon, and the Ranger here has a suggestion: hike in along the Escalante River. It’s not one of the trails marketed to the tourist crowd, in fact it’s not an official trail at all, not shown on maps, and remarkably not even listed in the popular apps. Just be mindful of flash flooding.
My friend arrives, we spend a hour catching up, compare notes on the best hikes in the area, and then resume our separate journeys. I stare at the map on the wall and ponder a place called Death Hollow, whose creek flows into the Escalante about seven miles in.
I find two maps to download on my phone and a vintage topographic map to buy (it’s paper and needs to be folded to fit in a pocket — how quaint!), fill out the necessary back-country permit, lay out gear and pack it up, charge my phone while eating a hamburger and baked beans, and head off to the trailhead, one eye on the clouds massing in the west….
What caught my attention after the four-hour drive from Salt Lake City, once I’d reached Moab and was motoring along Route 191 through the center of town, passing all those restaurants, curiosity shops, and tour operators, was the line of mountains rising in the southeast.
The next morning saw me hiking out to the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park (isn’t this every tourist’s first stop?) — when here were those mountains again, with a mushroom cloud bubbling above, as if the peaks had pierced the winds and cast the atmosphere into turbulence.
And then a day later, from the high point in Hidden Valley, here they were once again, gazing at me with curiosity across thirty-five miles of hot sand and haze.
* Partial traverse including Mts Webster, Jackson, Pierce, Eisenhower, Monroe, Washington, Clay, Jefferson, and Adams, but not Madison
With a trip to the Grand Canyon on the horizon, the question is how to prepare for the big 4,000-foot descent from the rim to the Colorado River — and the big 4,000-foot climb back up. An idea comes to mind: hike the highest peak in the northeast, New Hampshire’s 6,289-foot Mt. Washington.
While studying the map, this idea morphs and expands and eventually crystallizes into a plan to hike the Presidential Traverse, a 23-mile crossing of the enormous exposed granite ridgeline that features Mt. Washington and nine neighboring peaks. Memories surface from August 2004, when I’d completed the Traverse with my friend Andy and his wife Erin: we’d had a great time, except for the final descent through an unrelenting field of rocks.
It’s thirteen years and eleven months later as once again I pull into the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch, after a six-hour drive from New York. It’s a struggle getting out of the car, thanks to an inflamed piriformis (a muscle in the butt) — the result of too many squats earlier in the week. As I hobble across the parking lot the other issue weighing on my mind is the weather. I’ve been watching the forecast steadily deteriorate over the last few days, until it now calls for “Thunderstorm” with 100% probability of precipitation and winds from the west at 37 MPH. . . .