Throughout our meanderings in the Four Corners region, we filled the long empty miles with bird identification exclamations (Lewis’ woodpecker! Burrowing owl!), observations about photography, artistic vision and gear, critical analyses of the pathetic treatment afforded Native Americans on their various reservations, and, perhaps most telling, personal ratings of the cities and small towns we observed. Livability obviously was a major criterion though the nebulousness of the idea provoked three distinctly differing reactions.
The low end of the scale was relegated to the forlorn, terminal towns such as Chivington, Colo., whose very name was a curse. Most habitable enclaves existed in the middle ground, generating neither interest nor disinterest but something in between. It’s not that they were dull, only that we found them too mundane, too unimaginative. A step up were those that sparked lively debate, such as Cortez, Colo., with its near-perfect location and climate. A tad too populous for my tastes, plus lacking quality Mexican eateries, though Jim promised a return engagement with his wife in tow. For several days he brooded, wondering aloud if he could shake her loose from Kansas, usually followed by deep sighs of doubt. And then there were rare cases that made us want to speed-dial our real estate agents.
Bluff, Utah, didn’t just interest us, it enchanted us. We drove each street slackjawed, picking out the houses we wanted to buy and then finding another, and another, until we made our way to the museum where we talked property prices, history and Anasazi ruins. By the time we departed Chod had made plans to overwinter with his fifth-wheel, Jim was drafting a relocation proposal to his wife, and I was constructing elaborate fantasies of opening an art gallery and living in a small turquoise-trimmed adobe in the shade of the towering sandstone bluffs for which the town was named. We also had a detailed BLM map of Butler Wash and handwritten directions to several lower ruins.
What struck me then—and more so now—was the frequent use of the word “easy” when describing trails and routes. The trail to Hobbs Wash Ruins was easy, several websites claimed. One image showed two young children with their parents standing in the ruin, their clothes ironed and clean, not a whisper of exertion marring their cherubic smiles. The road hooking into the wash off the main highway was easy, the museum’s proprietor said. And it was, until we got stuck.
It was less a road than a series of hardpacked tracks braiding the width of the canyon floor. The narrow path we’d taken snaked for about a half mile before it intersected the main channel with a two-foot drop carved out by erosion. Besides the obvious impassability it heightened concern over flash flooding as it appeared to be raining higher up the ridge. As we reversed course from the ledge Jim’s Trailblazer rolled into a patch of sand that looked like any other patch of sand, only this one had no bottom. In the space of a heartbeat the tires sank to the axles.
After an initial explosion of blue language we got out to assess the situation. It didn’t look good.
“Got a shovel?”
Using feet and fingers we carved out a trench and began alternately shoving and rocking the vehicle. The slightest touch of gas seemed to plunge the Trailblazer deeper. I thought of old Tarzan movies where the bad guys fall into quicksand and thrash about in terror as they slowly disappear from view, and wondered if I should retrieve the camera before a similar fate befell the vehicle. I could vividly envision three dispirited men staggering back to Bluff, one of them on a cell phone trying to explain to his wife how he lost the SUV. And then the wheels hit traction and the vehicle lurched onto the roadway.
As we caught our breath a Toyota 4Runner with an enviable amount of clearance pulled up.
“You guys okay?” the driver asked.
We explained what happened and pointed to the drop. He grinned wolfishly.
“No problem,” he said.
His passenger looked dubious. “My partner scares me sometimes,” he confided. He might have said more but the driver gunned the engine, sailed over the edge and jounced alarmingly around a stand of salt cedars.
Other tracks showed the same insurmountable impediment. Clearly the road, or roads, were easy if one were driving a Humvee or an Abrams tank, but we had neither.
Our final option was one we’d started with: finding a way into the canyon with only the memory of that one image we’d seen on the Internet. A few miles backtracking brought us to a small marker designating a parking area for the trailhead. Not that there was an actual trail—we had left behind dirt or soil of any kind and now traversed a hard and stony land dotted with stunted wildflowers and desert shrubs. After some scouting we navigated the Trailblazer over a deep rut and onto a level shelf nearer to the canyon rim. A rising wind buffeted the vehicle, seething out of a dark cloud bearing down from the north.
Everything depended on finding a safe route down, and from here we knew that easy wasn’t in the lexicon. Chod ditched “Bigma,” his massive telephoto lens, from his backpack to save weight. I switched to my belt system, carrying only a spare lens, a small pouch with extra cards and batteries and a pouch for a water bottle. After another look at the menacing sky I decided to include my camera holster in case of rain.
In the consummate wisdom conveyed to hindsight, it was the one intelligent move I made. The second was to quaff an entire bottle of water. The rest of it—downing cold medication, packing the spare lens instead of a second water bottle, the absence of snacks or hiking sticks—briefly crossed my mind in a nagging voice-over that I refused to indulge. According to the image it was only a mile or less, and the weather might force us back anyway. Within 15 minutes we would have our answer. We wouldn’t be long.
So I lied to himself.
(To be continued)