Lower Grand Gulch 2003
Shifting to Plan B
Getting to Start
"Ah, life is good," I thought. Here I was sitting in my Crazy Creek Chair, in the midst of grass so thick I almost felt like I was camping out on someone's lawn, surrounded by magnificent canyon walls, with huge pictographs above my left shoulder. And for a guy like me, who spends dozens of hours over the course of weeks and weeks planning his trips, with routes, and GPS waypoints, and aerial photos, the fact that it looked like I might pull this off, having devoted all the care, planning and attention to detail usually associated with a drive-by shooting, made me even more gleeful. I hadn't been so gleeful six days earlier .................
I had been conceptualizing the trip that we had intended to do for over a decade, literally. I had started the raw planning probably 7 months previously. Sure, I had been counting on the now-into-its-fourth-year Southwestern drought to continue this spring, and it had. But what I hadn't counted on was a big snowstorm to hit the Dark Canyon Plateau and the Bear's Ears in March. To be sure, it was not a drought buster. But it was a trip buster. I had planned to spend a week in two canyons on the aforementioned plateau, but when I talked the Forest Service guy Tuesday afternoon before we left, it was clear I would have to shift to Plan B. "Even if we have warm daytime temperatures, you won't be able to get up on the plateau to the heads of those canyons for another 2 - 3 weeks. ‘Snow is still 18 inches to two feet deep." To be truthful, we had anticipated what we saw at the time as a semi-remote possibility of not being able to make it into the canyon heads, even with the four wheel drives we were renting in Albuquerque. I had even polled the group, to consider a couple of alternatives. The only practical alternative was Lower Grand Gulch (LGG). I had even tried to talk the BLM into issuing us a permit for a non-conventional route into the east side of LGG, with no luck. (More about that later.) But I really had not seriously considered the possibility that we would have to totally re-write our trip less than 90 hours prior to departure.
So I got serious in a hurry, securing the last seven reservable permit spaces to enter LGG from the Collins Canyon trail head from the BLM, less than 5 minutes after I hung up the phone with the Forest Service. Having just entered from that point two years previously for an Upper GG trip, the prospect of heading into the same spot seemed positively boring. My work demands would only permit me a couple of hours to redo the planning for the trip, so to say this was thrown together implies a degree of organization that simply was not there. Basically, I had run some mileages on digital topographic maps, looked for some green smudges on the maps in which to set up camps, and left town.
Barbara and Ray had left on separate flights a day before the rest of us, apparently having separate agendas for goofing off in the Albuquerque area. Andy and Sue, from Texas, were landing in ABQ a couple of hours before the remaining three of us from Knoxville, Susie, me, and our canyon country novice (but experienced backpacker) Ron. The flight to Albuquerque got off to an interesting start. When Susie and I pulled up in front of the Knoxville Airport at o' dark thirty on Saturday morning, I could see Ron through the glass waving an empty fuel bottle at me. Seems that ..... well, how do I want to put this delicately? ...... some security inspector was not, to turn a Sarah Boomer phrase, the sharpest tool in the shed, when it came to chemistry, physics, and the likelihood of a totally empty and unstoppered fuel canister for Ron's backpacking stove posing an explosion risk. Such has about the same risk as walking up to the top of building, jumping off, and falling up. Clearly, knowledge of basic chemistry is NOT something the Transportation Security Administration requires of all its employees. The inspector told him that he would not be allowed on the plane with the canister, even empty (which it was) and unstoppered. Since I had not checked in yet, I had considered offering to provide an Explosive Vapors 101 course to the inspectors on the spot, but opted for a more practical approach, since my bottle was a) empty and b) unstoppered and c) buried really deeply within all the gear. Instead, I engaged the inspectors in a discussion of the relative merits of the various explosive detection devices (of which I know a bit about) while he went through my bag. Neither Susie nor I had any problems on check in, and we told Ron to go through the security check with his bottle. He did so with no problems. Maybe the TSA inspectors at the checkpoint had done better in their chemistry classes, who knows.
Our flights were uneventful, Susie carrying leftover home made pizza from the previous night in a cooler bag to stave off the hunger pangs during the flight from ATL to ABQ. We landed a bit early, and within a couple of minutes of getting all our luggage, Ray and the remainder of the crew showed up with a nice 12 passenger van (having dumped the two 4WD's since we did not need them) from which the fine folks from Thrifty had agreed to remove the last seat, making gear loading vastly easier. After weaving through Saturday noontime traffic in ABQ, we made a quick stop at a Del Taco, and headed toward Gallup. For most of us on the trip, the commute to Cedar Mesa from Albuquerque is about as familiar as our ride to work each day, as we have done it so many times. West to Gallup, north to Shiprock, west to Mexican Water, and north to Blanding. Even the locals are familiar to us: I swear that the identical Native American panhandler hit on Barbara at the Texaco in Gallup that had done so 2 years ago. Toothless Joe we called him. He claimed he was married, but told Barbara that she was so good looking that he would take her home anyway. She graciously declined and beat a hasty retreat to the relative security of the van, while the guys waited in line for a chance to use the john.
We pulled into Blanding a little after 6:30 pm. Ron expressed amazement that with all the stops and delays, and problems with bathroom stops, we made it to Blanding in exactly (to within a couple of minutes anyway) the time I had allotted on the schedule. I explained to Ron that while I hike kinda slow, I do a pretty good job of estimating times. We emptied the van, and headed out to sample the local cuisine. Two years ago, we had made the mistake of stopping for dinner at the Old Tymer. This time, I had been sufficiently wary or practical to ask the motel reservationist where she thought we should eat when I had phoned her a month ago. She said that the restaurant right across the motel parking lot was THE place in Blanding. I could tell that locals were voting with their feet as I glanced over to the Heritage Steak House, unloading my gear. I waited for no one, determined to get a table without a wait. I am glad I made the dash when I did: the place was standing room only within 15 minutes. The food was not too bad either. However, the reality of Southern Utah really hit Ron in the face hard. He had been SO looking forward to a beer with his steak. No way, Jose, we told him. You want beer in this part of the country, you bring it from Albuquerque. Having not spent a lot of time in Utah up to this point, to say he was incredulous is probably an understatement. That's OK, I told him. The scenery you are about to experience will get you high enough. And indeed it did.
© Roger A. Jenkins, 1985, 2003