“You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
I’m shocked; she squeezes her nearly nine hundred pound frame through the tight brush without a scratch. I barely made it through, and certainly am scathed. I shout back to the others, “Actually, yeah you can get through this way!” I pat Annie and turn back towards our objective. Christoph said it was just through here, somewhere. I step up out of the vegetation, and for the eighth or so time today am very suddenly in an entirely different world. My face goes lax, mouth open. I am speechless. I am gripped and nearly crushed by a sense of humble wonder. I am quieted by the great voice of these sheer walls. Like a hum in my brain, their presence is known to me, and I to them. I feel I am surrounded; closed in by an ancient secret and the eyes that watch over it. I take in the heights, their great sockets and black tears; and these streaked walls are speaking, “We have always been here. We have always been waiting.” I turn in a circle, and realize she is there directly behind me; a sentinel with great wings and bowed head. Angel Arch. We finally made it.
I’ve been awfully reminiscent lately. I’m more or less stuck here without much room for far out adventures and new discoveries. My current schedule doesn’t allow a single day off, but I’m yearning for something I haven’t seen before. I’m straining against the ropes of my responsibilities to pull free and venture out. I know I must stay the course; doing so will enable me greater and more frequent adventures into the future. At least my mind can wander; at least I can recount the past. . . I have frequently revisited Angel Arch as of late – One of many incredible experiences on internship at Global Endurance Training Center in Moab, Utah. This trip was a planned fun ride that turned into an unplanned gritty adventure.
We were geared up for a ride in Canyonlands National Park to celebrate the birthday of Dian. The plan was to trailer the four of us and our respective mounts into the park and take a more or less leisurely four-hour ride on a trail most commonly used by four-wheel vehicles and backpackers. It was known to be marked with cairns up through a maze of canyons, past Peekaboo Point campground, and on to Angel Arch. Christoph obtained the required back-country permits and the code to a locked gate. I tested out their new GoPro and attached it to my helmet for its maiden voyage. The horses were kept off of alfalfa for over 24 hours per the park authorities. I packed up my saddle bags with; emergency supplies, my camera, five hours’ worth of water, and electrolytes to be safe (with an extra bottle in the truck).
We loaded up the trailer around dawn, hoping to be out during the coolest part of the day. Laughable almost, it was June in Moab and we knew it would be hot. As soon as we could, we took off for the south entrance to Canyonlands NP. The drive alone was magnificent, as most things seem to be in Moab. I was giddy for another adventure; my daily life here included them regularly. We pulled up to park in a desolate area, unloaded, tacked up, and headed through the locked gate. The map was tucked deeply away into Christoph’s saddle bags, because we knew the area was marked we didn’t think we’d really need it. We stepped out into a dry creek bed and began to follow it.
Immediately we are assaulted. Large pale blue flies locked onto us and the horses, their bite just as offensive yet somehow more persistent than deer flies. We stepped up into a long trot to try and shake them, but only once we exited their general territory were we left in peace. We wind up and down, in and through and out and under and over the creek bed and trees. The first of many black bear prints are spotted as we begin to pass active water flow. The horses have warmed up and begin to get fresh, it is time to frolic.
We have passed through nearly two benign miles before we realize something is wrong. The trail is not marked. In fact, there is no real trail at all. There may have been cairns and a general pathway here last year, but this is early in the season; everything has washed out and there has not yet been enough activity to re-mark. No matter, we will follow the canyon walls and the river bed.
We wind through ever tighter canyon corners, each bend revealing another amazing view. Petroglyphs, and arches, and great sockets in the rock are sprinkled all throughout the way. It is a wonderland. Every turned corner reveals a new pool or collection of water for the horses to stomp and rake; we encourage them to drink but more often than not are greeted with a great splash from mischievous hooves. Occasionally, we have to backtrack because we have wandered off course and are facing the wrong direction. It is easy to tarry left when going right looks incorrect.
A Realization of Deviation
Nearly three hours have passed and we have yet to reach peekaboo point. We realize we are far off schedule and I become decidedly more staunch with my water. I have water treatments in my pack, but those are reserved for emergencies, and in my heart I know that if we are lost here in this canyon back-country, we will certainly need them. We dip our bandanas into a stagnant pool to cool our necks, and move on.
We wind around another wall and spot the Peekaboo Point campground. It is secluded here, in this quiet and peaceful location; I imagine it would be a good place for families to get away. It includes a lavatory structure and picnic table. We stop to take pictures of petroglyphs and to gather our bearings. Angel Arch is less than two miles from here. We depart once more into the maze.
We wind and wind; constantly in awe, constantly pointing out new, splendid geographical features to each other. I distract myself from the ache that is beginning in my knees, and the tightness beneath my skin as dehydration begins to set in. We are going on five hours, my water is low. Continuing down the right path, we scrape between the sheer face of a monolith and the trees that grow directly besides it. I have to drop my stirrups and prop my feet up on Annie’s shoulder blades in order to make passage.
We drop down and hook left to hug another wall; the path is two feet wide and drops heavily off at the shoulder into a dense thicket. Christoph passes without a hitch. Marcie is next and notes that the ground feels unstable. I pass through and the trail crumbles off to the side under Annie’s hind; Dian and Moun must navigate it more carefully than the rest. We safely make it across, but I question if I am alive when I turn back around and realize we have stepped right into the land of the lost.
We are not in a desert anymore. We are in Jurassic park. It is humid and dense. The vegetation is of abnormal proportion. Massive spider webs are able to form under the safety of a canopy. My skin tightens into goosebumps, the sun cannot reach me here and I feel that I am an intruder in this place.
Just like that we step up out of the anomaly back into a desert canyon. I look back in disbelief, but only for a moment. I am quickly distracted once more, this time by the sudden fullness of the river. We wade in, delighted by the cooler air and giant allium type plants sticking up here and there out from the depth. This place is endlessly fascinating.
Following this oasis until the water disappeared underground brought us to a clear path through the tallest reeds I’ve ever seen. The mare I’m on is somewhat small, but they stand at least two feet over my head astride her. We follow this to a dead-end. The entire area is washed out, all ways blocked by downed trees limbs and concentrated branches, or sheer faces and boulders.
Christoph checks the map. We are in the correct area. We should, in fact, be here. Talk of turning around for our safety arises. We simply can’t fit us and the horses through this tangle of tree and rock. But we can’t give up now. It has been a grueling, painful, awful and wonderful six hours. If we are this close, we simply cannot return without meeting our goal. Christoph scouts on foot to the right. I dismount and try to navigate the bramble on the left. I find that I can stay fairly safe if I hug the right and press through. Annie follows, and I scold her for coming through and risking damage to herself and a very expensive saddle. She ignores me.
I’m shocked; she squeezes her nine hundred pound frame through the tight brush without a scratch. I barely made it through, and certainly am scathed. I shout back to the others, “Actually, yeah you can get through this way!” I pat Annie and turn back towards our objective. Christoph said it was just through here, somewhere. I step up out of the vegetation, and for the eighth or so time today am very suddenly in an entirely different world. My face goes lax, mouth open, I am speechless. I am gripped and nearly crushed by a sense of humble wonder.
I am quieted by the great voice of these sheer walls. Like a hum in my brain, their presence is known to me, and I to them. I feel I am surrounded, closed in by an ancient secret and the eyes that watch over it. I take in these heights, their great sockets and black tears, and these streaked walls are speaking, “We have always been here. We have always been waiting.” I turn in a circle, and realize she is there directly behind me; a sentinel with great wings and bowed head. We made it.
Angel Arch is aptly named. We had all wondered aloud earlier in the day what had prompted its moniker, but the second we lay eyes on it, everything makes sense. She leans back against her arch, iron streaked wings folded but seemingly poised. She has spent an eternity here looking down, watching the slow evolution of man. I continue to turn in circles in awe and wonder of the entire area. I feel so very at home here, in the midst of discovery and a broadened mind.
We rest here and explore the area for a bit. There are a handful of cool features in this little spot alone, and the horses wander about cropping tufts of grass that have been tenacious enough to grow in rivets on the slick rock. I take a moment to thank Annie for putting up with me. I chose her for this trek after I had taken her out for the first time earlier that week on a solo ride to Ken’s lake. It was my first time riding out alone and she put up with me having to figure out a route I had only been told about. We got along very well and I figured after that experience, even though she had been in pasture for several months, she could handle the four hours we had planned.
The Way Back
After pictures and shenanigans, we exit the area and mount up again. The heat was getting to be unbearable. I felt weak, but determined. Christoph took the lead and I rode beta. We got out ahead of the other two, and parked in the tall reeds when we heard them shouting. Here, the heat was drastically amplified. Humidity began to choke me as we waited. Marcy’s mare had gotten antsy about our separation and taken a fumbling jump across the river over slick rock, dumping her at the bank. We caught her and sat in that hellish furnace as she re-mounted.
My helmet concentrates the heat around my skull and I begin to waiver. I could hear them talking about not separating, but it seems like there is cotton in my ears, and my vision begins to tunnel. “Go, go, get out of here, move, go!” Dian pushes us as she notices me reeling in my saddle. We exit the area and I recover enough to stay upright until we reach a larger pool of water. Everyone jumps off and wades in. Helmets are tossed aside as we cup cool water up over our heads. Dian and Marcy are out of potable water, and we warn each other not to drink from this source. After the horses have drunk, we pour water over their necks and squeegee it off before re-mounting.
We wind through trees as we re-approach peekaboo point. Ducking and dodging has been a constant game throughout this ride. I tip my head down to avoid a branch, but quickly feel a pressure against my throat. I’m slowly being choked by the throat latch of my helmet. I scramble to understand what is going on, turning to both sides as my head is pulled back. I can no longer look down to find the reins that I have let sit at Annie’s withers, and my fingers grapple for them. The pressure grows quickly, to the point of panic; I cannot speak and I change my focus to unbuckling the helmet as Marcy calls out from behind me to stop. I realize that the mount holding the GoPro to my helmet has pinched a small branch. Just as my fingers find and begin fumbling with the buckle, the pressure snaps and releases. A faint Whhhhhick is all I hear as the GoPro is launched away from us into the trees. No one sees where it lands.
Great. I’ve lost the company’s brand new five hundred dollar action camera. We dismount and scout where we can for what seems like an eternity, but it seems that it is lost to the brush. Finally, Marcy locates it, and we all breathe a sigh of relief. But this has taken precious time and we are all in a state of dehydration. I’m feeling particularly ill. I had lost 70 lbs. by this point, having reached a low of 200 for the first time in my adult life. Though I was much healthier than I had been the year previous, I was still incredibly overweight and unhealthy, and it was beginning to take a large toll on me in the heat.
The Final Stretch
We stop at Peekaboo Point to relieve our bladders, and I make it clear that I am doing very poorly. I have just finished the last drop of my water. I am shaky and deeply nauseous. We discuss our plan of action to get back safely. We decide to keep as quick of a pace as possible back through the maze. Dian suggests we let the horses have it out at a flat gallop once we reach the dry section of river bed that we know leads directly to our trailer. It is over a mile stretch and Christoph is unsure that I am capable of maintaining myself at that clip. I know that it will be a difficult and painful push with the very last of my energy, but my determination to reach the water bottle I have stashed in the truck far outweighs any trepidation.
We depart and pick up into a sweaty long trot. We are led astray only twice more after allowing the horses to pick the way back. Recognizing that we are off course happens much more quickly on the way back. Finally we hit the sandy bed and Dian checks in before inviting Moun to a competitive pace. I set my reins, commit my mind to my balance point, and let Annie pick her speed. She is small, and was at the time unseasoned, but she kept close behind and never faltered. That tenacious little mare sure made me proud. Christoph held up the rear (a phrase you may never hear again) in order to keep an eye on me. We flat raced for a glorious, painful fifteen minutes until we could see the trailer. Everyone breathed a gigantic sigh of relief as we dropped down to a cool down pace. I don’t believe any of us were confident we would find our way before nightfall. We finally make it after nine hours.
We un-tack and allow the horses to cool as we gulp down our water stores. Electrolytes and snacks are passed around as each of us attempts to recover enough for something as simple as the drive home. My entire body aches; I send a thank you out into the void for my ability to walk and the miraculous lack of a headache. The drive home is a blur, save for stopping for a quick view of the incredible, awe inspiring Newspaper Rock. Exhaustion cannot stop my curiosity.
We reach headquarters at dusk. Unloading, I shake my head in disbelief as Annie trots off the trailer and shakes about as if she hasn’t just been through an exhausting ordeal. The horses all get a very special meal, and are scheduled for several days off. We reminisce around a fire, steaks, and wine about the events of the day. We laugh and cringe and scoff.
And then, finally, we sleep.
Happy Birthday Dian!
Have you ever been to Canyonlands National Park?
Do you have any stories to tell? Strike up a conversation in the comments below! I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to connect with us on any of the following social media platforms!
Now, for the disclaimer – I am not an adventure guide, personal trainer, doctor, nutritionist, or medical authority, this is meant to be only a source of information and inspiration, implementing these techniques into your daily life is something you do of your own free will and at your own risk.
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