Yesterday, I drove into the northern section of Canyonlands National Park, called Islands in the Sky. It’s completely disconnected by any road or trail from the southern section, called The Needles, where you may recall my exultation at Druid Arch. After visiting Mesa Arch at sunrise, I escaped the oncoming herd of visitors and drove to a trailhead where the sign reads, “Syncline Loop Trail, 8.4 miles, Primitive Trail, Difficult to follow, Scrambling required, Experienced hikers only.” The map shows it as a near circular loop that drops off a mesa, which is rather like an island raised high into the sky, falls some fifteen hundred feet and after following a canyon, climbs back up again.
From the mesa rim I gaze down on soaring birds as they ride the morning thermals. On the way down I see white streaks staining the red sandstone cliffs below the holes where they nest. Now they look down at me. And as I near the dry wash, where cottonwood trees find water underground, soaring mosquitoes find me pleasant company. Until I spray on deet.
I find a pool of water in the mostly-dry canyon and green herbs along a pleasant trail. We might call this oversized dandelion a weed back home, a pest in our lawns, but here it carries a symmetrical beauty. (Do you know that you can click on any picture to make it bigger?)
The canyon becomes a box with shear wall on three sides. Pleasant walking becomes rock scrambling. The cairns point up a steep fan of broken boulders, and I find a way somehow from cairn to cairn.
Finally, the way flattens in another wash, and the sky speaks of a coming storm. Far away, I hear the mutter of thunder. Clouds pile up like whipped cream, like mashed potatoes, but I can’t see what’s coming from down here in the canyon. I have never seen a flash flood, but some time I want to. I am told that it looks like a loose pudding or thick soup, dense with mud, sand and rock. But when the only way out is to keep hiking up this draw, I’d rather it not be today.
Only when I reach the rim on the mesa, can I see the wine-dark storm in its fullness. An isolated storm boiling over the desert. I see faint traces of lightning, but the distance is so great I cannot hear the thunder. Lavender clouds bombard the earth with lightning and trailing curtains of rain. Driving back to Moab, raindrops spatter the car like pellets. Rain diminishes to a shower, to a sprinkle, to nothing.
A few days ago, as I showed Landscape Arch with its skinny, unbelievable, 306-foot span. I tried to decide which aspect of it to present, so much was there to show and tell and imagine. As I looked up at the cliff beside it, I saw a small hole in the vertical sandstone wall, pictured here, zoomed in.
After leaving Landscape Arch, I followed cairns (piles or small rocks that mark the “trail.”) I slithered between rock fins, walked the foot-wide top of a fin, and climbed a scree of fallen boulders to arrive at Partition Arch on its other side. Not a technical climb, but a scramble, not that distinctions matter to me; the easiest way is best. I was rewarded with solitude and a view window on the desert below. Well worth the effort and risk.