by Hank Leukart
October 4, 2009
Flat Stanley survives the Utah desert and learns Navajo
A boy made of paper, and five other hikers, traverse Buckskin Gulch’s Middle Route.
Hikers climb up sandstone formations on the Middle Route near Buckskin Gulch.
This is the second essay of a two-part series about escaping a flash flood while hiking through Buckskin Gulch with Flat Stanley. Start with the first essay to read the whole story.P
ARIA CANYON-VERMILLION CLIFFS WILDERNESS, Utah — Because Flat Stanley is a faux child, made from poster board and crayons, his expression usually never changes. But on this morning, as he looks down on a flash flood rushing through Buckskin Gulch, perched precariously on a rock ledge, Flat Stanley somehow looks terrified. Wendy, Rich, Suzanne, Wini, and I walk as close as we’re willing to the canyon’s edge and cautiously look down at the raging river below us. We all look at each other in disbelief, without knowing what to say or do. We go quietly about our morning chores: making breakfast, packing up our sleeping bags, and disassembling our tents.
“I’m going down there to explore,” I finally announce. “Does anyone want to come?” Of course, adventurous Wendy volunteers, and the two of us climb down the slippery, sandy vertical rock comprising Middle Route and into the water. For about a quarter mile, we hike through the muddy canyon, literally testing the water. When we return to the ledges above, we report that river seems traversable, though it sometimes reached above our knees.
“But it could get a lot deeper, and we can’t see deep mud holes or sharp rocks under the water,” Suzanne says. “And what if it starts raining again?”
“I want to finish the hike,” Wendy insists.
I feel unsure. On one hand, I am confident that, if we continue hiking through the canyon, we will inevitably escape the Gulch. The water isn’t moving too fast, it’s not too deep, and we have watched the water level lower during the morning. The worst of the flood is over. On the other hand, I am afraid that even if we manage to continue safely, walking continuously through six miles of cold river water and mud will make everyone miserable. I am also aware of a log jam, about four miles ahead of us, that could turn out to be impassible due to the flood. In other situations, with more seasoned hikers, I might eagerly take such a risk, knowing that we might be forced to turn back, walking eight unnecessary miles. But we’re all here to have fun, not to prove our machismo.
“I will not be peer-pressured into doing this hike,” Suzanne says sharply. Wini and Rich also vote to climb out of the canyon and escape across the desert.
In my ideal world, we would spend another day camping above the canyon to wait out the flood. But we have only a one-day water supply remaining, and since the opaque flood water is saturated with mud, it doesn’t seem enticing, even filtered.
Flat Stanley stays broodingly quiet, as though he’s about to make a vital, life-saving decision.
Finally, our uncertainty and the rising, hot sun make the decision for us. We reluctantly climb out of the canyon and begin making our way across the trail-less Utah backcountry, in 91-degree heat. We don’t know exactly where we’re going, which, for me, I admit, is my favorite kind of adventure. I use the topographical maps in my GPS device to find our way around The Dive, a stretch of severe, orange and red sandstone cliffs, blocking our route to the closest trailhead. Everyone in the group complains about the sizzling weather, but as I trudge along, I find myself enjoying the adventure and extraordinary views of Utah.
“Hank, you’re our Moses,” Suzanne remarks as she watches me lead the caravan across the scorching sand.
Though her comparison of the Red Sea to the reddish Dive seems clever, I think to myself, I’m no Moses. For one thing, as we walk, my only theology is, “Drink lots of water and wear your hat.” I also pray that I’m not like Moses, because, after all, in Exodus, Moses dies before reaching Israel. I hope to stay alive all the way to the White House Trailhead.
As the desert sun continues to boil us, Wendy sits down and tells us that she feels faint. We all stop under the shade of a tree to have a lunch of sausage and tuna burritos, and she thankfully begins to recover. For dessert, we eat the freeze-dried Neapolitan ice cream bars that I have packed. They taste like ice cream from an alternate universe, a universe where ice cream is the temperature of boiling water. It melts into a warm, gooey mess in our mouths, but, somehow, it still manages to taste like ice cream. Flat Stanley seems so nervous about our fate that he doesn’t eat a thing. But soon, we easily reach the Paria River and follow it, without incident, to the trailhead.
Wini and I quickly convince two French tourists to drive us to a nearby town (Page, Arizona), where we then hire a man and his wife with a huge pickup truck to drive us down the long, dirt road leading to our car at the Wire Pass Trailhead. As we drive, the Native American couple entertains us by teaching us a number of useful Navajo vocabulary words. But halfway down the road, we discover yet another river (actually, the same flash flood), flowing across the road. Apparently, escaping this flood is not in my destiny, as it has made the road mostly impassible. I start to wonder if I really might share Moses’s fate. Our driver muscles his high-riding pickup truck through the water, but then he announces, “You’ll never get your car out of here.”
I ask him if he might be willing to help tow our car if we get stuck, and he generously agrees. But miraculously, when Wini and I get in our car and I slam the accelerator, we escape the flash flood, yet again, unscathed. Thankfully, I am not like Moses after all.
He doesn’t say so aloud, but Flat Stanley seems elated. He may be the luckiest boy made of paper in the world. After all, he is very vulnerable to water, and yet, over the past two days, he has escaped two instances of the same flash flood.
As I put him back in an envelope to send him on his next journey, I feel confident that the stories of this Flat Stanley’s adventures will be some of the most exciting in my nephew’s second grade class. Maybe, I imagine, if this Flat Stanley ever learns to talk, he’ll even impress the class by greeting them with “Ya’at’eeh” — the word for “Hello,” in Navajo.
This isn’t my first outdoor adventure that didn’t work out quite how I planned. Also read about falling into an Alaskan glacial river with my brother, getting lost in Joshua Tree with my friends, and seeing a UFO near Nevada’s mysterious Area 51 with some X-Files fans.
How to Hike Buckskin Gulch
- While it is possible to hike all of Buckskin Gulch, from Wire Pass to its confluence with the Paria Canyon and back, in a single day, you’ll enjoy the trip more if you give yourself more time and camp overnight. To do so, you’ll need a permit.
- Visit the Bureau of Land Management Paria Canyon permit information page to learn how their permit system works.
- If you can, apply for your start date up to four months in advance using the Paria Canyon Overnight Permits calendar.
- The closest major airports are Las Vegas and Salt Lake City; the closest regional airports are St. George, Cedar City, and Flagstaff. Visit the Paria Ranger Station (62 miles east of Kanab, Utah) on the day before your hike to discuss the weather report, flash flood risks, and available water sources with the Ranger. You will also receive special human waste bags, because you must pack and carry out human waste. (Note: When I talked to the Ranger, she told me that there was no predicted rain. Twelve hours later, while camped above the canyon, we still experienced a flash flood. Be careful.)
- Before you leave, you’ll want to park two cars, one at Wire Pass and one at your endpoint (probably White House Trailhead). If you only have one car, you may also arrange for a shuttle service by calling Betty Price at (928) 355-2552 or Paria Outpost at (928) 691-1047. These services will ask you to drive your car to your endpoint, then they will drive you to Wire Pass.
- Camp that night at the Wire Pass Trailhead, 68 miles east of Kanab, Utah. You’ll need to drive 8.3 miles down a dirt road to get there, so you may prefer a high-clearance vehicle.
- Start hiking in the morning, leaving immediately at dawn. For safety’s sake, carry at least eight liters of water per person, in case you don’t reach a viable water source on your first day of hiking.
- If you can find it, you may choose to spend the night eight miles in, high above the canyon, at the Middle Route escape trail. You can also continue on to safe campsites at the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria Canyon, 14.5 miles from the start. Under no circumstances should you camp on the canyon floor. If you try this and a flash flood occurs, you will drown.
- After reaching Paria Canyon (probably on the second day), you will have an 8-mile hike to the White House Trailhead. You may also choose to hike all the way to the Lee’s Ferry Trailhead to complete the entire length of the Paria Canyon, but allow yourself four days to do this.
- View my route and download the Without Baggage Buckskin Gulch GPS track in GPX or KML format. Note that GPS devices only work intermittently in Buckskin Gulch, and the route available for download does not cover the entire Gulch — it follows us as we escaped via the Middle Route.