I parked my car in the pullout about two hundred yards away from the trailhead “so as not to call attention to it,” said the Ranger who told me how to find the trail, donned my walking gear and headed out at about 2 PM on Friday, May 14, 2010. Following the trail was tricky because the path winds across sandstone slickrock from time to time, and you depend upon cairns, or stacks of sandstone, to guide you there. Since the Park Service doesn’t maintain the trail, cairns only exist where someone before you thought they would be handy, which occasionally leaves you lacking. And, one cairn is rarely enough. Standing at one, you have to be able to see the next one. I was trying to find my way down from such a slickrock ledge with no apparent exit in sight when a couple coming up from the False Kiva on their return trip, pointed out the path.
From there it was a matter of hunting and picking to stay on the trail which became increasingly narrow as it wound down and over cliff-side rubble to an alcove with a slight foothold up a six-foot wall to a second alcove containing the False Kiva. A Kiva is circle cut into or dug out of sandstone which the ancestral tribes covered with log beams and brush or animal skins to live in around a fire during the cold winter months. The center pole of the Kiva may have been set in hole symbolic of the navel of the earth, the center of the world, and the Kivas may have been oriented toward the rising of the sun.
The False Kiva is above ground, on the floor of the alcove, and consists of a circle of stacked stones about two feet high and 12 or 15 feet in diameter. No one knows what purpose it served in the life of the ancestral peoples, or how old it might be. A Park Service sign there asks that no digging be done and no artifacts be removed, and an ammo-like can contains a loose-leaf notebook with a collection of ballpoint pens and an invitation for visitors to leave behind name, address, and comments. I took what photos I could imagine taking (they are posted on the Flickr site) in the solitude of a holy place, and began the journey back to the car between 3:30 and 4 PM.
One of the photos I took, looking from the False Kiva across Green River Canyon, was of a thunderstorm developing, maybe 5 miles away. Thunderheads were all about as I made my way up and over the loose soil and rocks of the cliff-side to the stable path at the top of the descent. There I met a couple on their way down, we chatted for a moment and continued on our respective ways. About thirty minutes later I lost the trail.
Now, in my defense, I’ll say that in the desert, as much as anywhere else, and more-so than most places, it is an easy matter to lose the trail. For one thing, there is nothing to making a trail there. If you wander off to look at a flower or find a bathroom you make a trail in the thin top crust of the desert landscape. And if you come back by the same way, you make an even better trail. Trails are everywhere. For another thing, slickrock is everywhere. A trail that ends at a slab of slickrock may not be the same trail you pick up coming off the slab. The trail I picked up meandered for a while and ended at a juniper tree, which I reckoned, someone used as a bathroom and went back to the slickrock to find the real trail, which is what I did, but couldn’t find anything coming off the rock that looked like a trail. So, I went back to where I stepped off initially and walked around looking for the trail, making trails in the process. You see, I’m sure, where this is going. In circles.
It’s at this point in the story that you need to remember the thunderstorm that was building in Green River Canyon. It has become rather impressive by now, and is making time, coming right at me. It’s after 5. The sun sets around 8:20 but. The heavy cloud bank between the horizon and the sun, which shines intermittently through broken clouds, advances the disappearance of the sun to some time after 6. It won’t be night, but it won’t be encouraging either. Speaking of encouragement, rain begins to fall. I have a water repellant parker with me and by crawling beneath an overhanging ledge, I can cover most of my exposed side with the parker until the rain moves on. I do that three times while scrambling around looking for the real trail.
During those excursions I come upon a rocky outcropping that serves as a vantage point to the road, which I take to be about a half-mile away. I can make out cars easily enough, and human figures when they stop at a viewpoint to remark, no doubt, on the nasty looking weather coming their way, which, of course, puts it right over me. But the sun continues to break through from time to time. I consider my options and don’t like what I see.
My favorite way to not die is wet and cold. It’s going to be in the low forty’s in Moab tonight, which probably means the high thirty’s where I am. And the real thunderstorm is coming. That’s wet and cold in my book. So I throw it all into getting rescued. There is the couple I passed. They are behind me, if they don’t choose to spend the night in the False Kiva, which is what I would do, they may be a hope. There are the cars on the roadway. My other hope. And a single engine airplane is off in the distance. My third hope. My assets, in addition to the water repellant parker are a walking stick (Never go without a stick into the wilds), some white plastic grocery bags (for covering my camera in case of rain), a glass filter which I take off my camera and wad up a grocery bag which I hold between my palm and the filter to make a nice little reflector. Not as good as a mirror but effective. I blinded myself testing it out. And a whistle. It isn’t much of a whistle, but it’s the best I could buy at the outdoor store in Moab and it’s a whistle (Never go without a whistle into the wilds).
So, I start blowing the whistle, climb upon the rocky outcropping, tie a grocery bag onto the end of my walking stick and start waving it in the air at the road and the airplane with my right hand while I wiggle the reflector with my left. I figure, using the photographer’s way of reckoning—your fist at arms length represents about how far the sun moves in thirty minutes, a handy way of guessing how long before sunset if you are waiting to take a picture, thinking about a glass of wine—I have less than an hour before the sun sinks behind the cloud bank. The plane flies directly overhead while I’m reflecting and waving and whistling and shows no sign of having seen me. Cars pass on the road without slowing down. A white pickup pulls into the viewpoint and a person gets out. I ditch the whistle and start yelling, waving, reflecting. The person walks around for a couple of minutes, gets back in the truck and drives away. Well. Where am I better off? Standing on the rock, waving and reflecting in what is left of the sunlight, or using what’s left to find my way out of there? The truck drove off, the plane flew on and I have no confidence in being spotted from road or sky, though it was, I tell myself, an outstanding plan. I climb down and start looking for any way out, forget finding the trail.
Walking straight to the road is out of the question because the way is littered with gulches and ravines and canyons. I have to get up, out of the ravine I’m in, to the level of the desert. The one way up is a piece of slickrock sloping at about 35 degrees to a drop-off of about 50 feet. It isn’t just slickrock, but layers of sandstone, like the shingles on a roof a quarter of an inch thick. I can get up on it at one place that is about fifteen feet from the edge of the drop-off and about six feet above where I’m standing. I don’t like anything about that choice. I can climb up there maybe, and then what? Or I can wander around and hope to find my way back to the real trail. I want better options, but, as always, we don’t get to choose our choices. I’m about to resume my search for the trail when a voice from above, where else would you want one to come from, says, “What’s up, man?”
I look up and see two guys looking back at me. “I’m as lost as I can ever remember being,” I say. “You can’t imagine how good it is to see you two.” Joe Valdez, as it turns out, stands by as I climb up onto the slickrock. Eddie Andreas, smiles as Joe and I make our way up the sloping rock to him. We walk together as the sun slips behind the clouds to the road and their pickup. I climb in the back and they drive me two miles to where my car is parked.
“We saw you waving the flag from the road,” says Joe. “We didn’t know if you were lost or just saying hi. We heard you shouting, but couldn’t make out what you were saying.” They had driven up to a place they thought they could walk back to where they had seen me, and got close enough to hear my whistle, which I had started blowing again when I gave up the signaling, hoping that the couple behind me would hear it.
Well, there you are. What would have happened if they hadn’t showed up? We don’t know. Maybe desperation would have gotten me up on the slickrock, taking a chance at walking up and out. It’s all subject to speculation and conjecture. At the very least, I was saved from grief and misery, and very possibly from something much worse. So we can be thankful for Joe Valdez and Eddie Andreas. And we can reflect on a couple of things. For one thing, we need one another. It takes all of us. It’s all too easy to lose the way, to wander away from the trail, we cannot find the path alone. The way that is the real way is like the stone the builders reject. It is not the likeliest of ways and we need encouragement to choose it.
For another thing, we have to help people help us. We save ourselves in this sense. I got lost and I got found. We wave our white grocery bag and blow our whistle. We do what we can imagine doing, what we can think of to do. Alcoholics save themselves by going to AA, by helping people help them. We can’t just crawl under a rock ledge and hope to be rescued. We have to recognize when we cannot make it on our own and ask for help. We have to help people help us. Or, in the words of the Park Service motto: Your safety is your responsibility.
This story ends with the comments I left behind in the can in the False Kiva: The experience of this place, the trek and the arrival, is beyond words, like the numinous reality of which it speaks. All the ancestors gather in places like this, hoping for the arrival of pilgrims who understand that the visible world is grounded upon, and sustained by, the invisible world which is beyond words, but readily available to, and accessible by, eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand. May we who belong to both worlds join together in the service of compassion in the work that needs to be done for the good of all. Amen. May it be so.
And, yes. It was worth getting lost to be there.