Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Overnight in Canyon Country Without a Tent

Rain clouds above Grand Junction 
I'm going to tell an old story of mine that comes to mind in random ways from time to time. The story is of a camping trip out near Grand Junction, CO, over a decade ago. I'd flown out from Pittsburgh where the wife and I were in full degree-pursuit mode, to join a few rowdy old friends in a float down the Westwater portion of the Colorado river.

I remember being unusually excited to be back in Colorado and drank waaaay too much on our three days on the river. Or maybe only just enough depending on one's perspective. One guy had converted the handle and motor of a chainsaw so as to attach a blender for margaritas. There was much fun had with this. On day two we spotted a dead calf floating in the water which set off a mad paddle-race between the two boats, a roaring frenzy of booze fueled mayhem to claim first rights to the floater. One oarsman was gamely trying to lasso the soggy fatality with a tie-rope. Somebody won and afterward we floated along cheering and taking grizzly photos of ourselves with the bloated little guy, his sad cow tongue lolling out of his mouth in all of them. Smelled like rotting death.

All told an out-sized level of fun was had as is the nature of most river trips, though pointedly none of these bright episodes carried the memory that remained over the years. After our days on the river I had the boys drop me off in the Junction where I'd planned to rent a bicycle and trek out into the trails outside of town for two days of solo camping. Figured I could find a way to the airport to catch my flight back east a few days later though that is its own fraught story of adventure that Colin loved to hear re-told in subsequent years.

Bike camping went well. Found the trailhead, found a campsite, stashed my gear, then got right down to the basics of riding and exploring for the better part of two days, stopping occasionally to read in the shade of a rock and sip on cold beers from my bottomless pack. The holy trinity.

My campsite was set away from the trails. I didn't want anyone to come along and decide to take my stuff while i was off exploring, particularly since everything I had with me was needed. No spare items were packed not even a tent since we shared one along the river. For this reason I also chose my campsite because there was a sliver of a rock shelter there in the form of a very tight space under a ledge. This was not an alcove or a cave but a patio sized capstone of desert rock with most of the underlying layer of sediment eroded away. The plan wasn't to actually sleep in there, only that it was insurance and peace of mind if weather were to blow in. On the second night weather did blow in.

Clouds arrived, then the the wind, then the evening darkness, and finally intermittent rain showers. Time to wedge myself into the claustrophobic peace-of-mind shelter. I found that I could lie in there with space between my body and the rock above but I couldn't roll over. It was not comfortable but it was dry. Entombed. The wind was howling and some of the more ferocious gusts would sometimes startle me awake. To my right there was a small gap in the rock that allowed a portrait view out to the shadows of trees and rock and occasional starlight above, and I stared out and thought of things and let my mind wander freely as I'd done for several days. And then I casually observed that with large wind bursts the capstone above would sway and teeter in a slow and incredulous fashion.

Initially this didn't fuel much alarm. I'd been on a couple dozen desert trips in my life, this one alone was on day five. Rocks don't just fall over out in the canyons and this one wasn't going to either. This rock in particular was keeping me dry. But nothing about this was normal and as I drifted in and out of sleep my wandering thoughts contorted and grew dark with the many unhappy things that could happen if the stone were to give way. Nobody on the planet knew where to find me. Unlikely anyone that happened along the trail would hear me and I'd only seen a handful of people in two days time anyhow. Maybe I could dig out, how long would that take? What if my arm was pinned? Before long I'd fallen deeply asleep until at some point I'd grown uncomfortable and rolled over. I woke with my shoulder wedged against the rock, remembered where I was and why I was there, and was very suddenly chilled by the horror of it all.

'jesus... don't touch the f'n slab for chrissake. Be calm, everything is just fine, go back to sleep, seriously though don't touch the rock in any unnecessary way'.

Later it happens again. It takes far longer this time to walk back the panic. The wind is really thrashing the trees and whipping sand at this point and I'm not getting much rest. I am disturbed. I'm having trouble reasoning with myself because my thinking is trending toward the irrational. Paranoia rises and falls in racing thought. I manage sleep once more, then toss and hit the stone with my shoulder for a third time - all remaining self-control comes undone. I go mad. Scrambling from the space and crying out in blind terror I'm certain that I've tempted fate a minute too long and will be crushed in this final moment of delayed hubris.

Breathing. Darkness. Wind.

Nothing happens. Nothing will happen. Nothing has changed in the camp in two days time and it's entirely likely that nothing had changed in this small area in the last several centuries. In the brief span of 2-3 otherwise ordinary and unremarkable hours, nothingness somehow begets madness.

From thirty feet away I sat with my back against a large block of crimson rock and stare at the shadows and trees and the rock shelter. Calm now but making an effort to breath evenly, collecting my nerves. Sleeping-bag pulled up to my chest. Eyes blink with fatigue, staring. Wind driven raindrops rap and drum, slowly dampening both hair and shoulder. I try to talk myself into settling back into the shelter, out from the rain.

Related Posts:
 - Story Time: Cycling Winsor Trail Minus Shoes
 - Story Time: Trail Running with Cows in Upper Nambe Creek
 - Story Time: Parenthood with New Orleans Street Party Comparison
 - Story Time: Running, Beer, and Men in Cocktail Dresses


  1. Nice writing drifter. when are you writing a book? You should check out On the Loose by Ren and Terry Russell.

    1. Well, well, buenos dias amigo. I've been looking to lighten the load of random coolers around here, only to come up empty. Appreciate the book suggestion I'll drop it onto my Kindle this very day.



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