Near Bullfrog, Utah
By Chris Holcomb
The truck is idling on the side of a lonely highway, tires resting on the loose sand next to the turnoff to Poison Springs Road. Well, it’s hard to call it a ‘road’ per se. Enough 4x4s have driven along the bottom of the wash between the walls that the biggest rocks and flood debris have been pushed aside. You can follow this makeshift road all the way to the Dirty Devil River, if you have any good reason for doing so. I need to explore this road for another trip in a couple weeks.
It’s February. It looks like February. It’s snowing in the mountains fifteen miles to the west. The sky isn’t blue because the blue is covered by black clouds. I put the sunglasses away, because otherwise the world is too dark.
Here’s the question. It looks like full winter up in the mountains. No surprise there. But will we get snow down here? Any more than a quick flurry and a dusting as thin as a coat of paint to cover the ripples of the low dunes and rock walls; the kind of snow that won’t even last until sunset? The forecast says the storm probably won’t do much down this low, but it’s just me and this truck and a bad road, so I have to be sure.
This is dry, dry desert in a double rain shadow, where storms are more likely to mean wind than water. The heater is cranked up in the cab, but you can’t hear it over the guitars and banjos and fiddles coming out of the speakers. It’s too cold for flashfloods; the pipes can’t drain when they are frozen.
I shift into four-high, take one more look at the map, flip the trip odometer, and point the truck down Poison Springs Road.
* * * * *
I can’t believe someone put a road here. This shouldn’t work, but you really can drive down the bottom of this thing. It’s not even that bad for a jeep road, at least not so far. I need to make it at least ten miles. If it’s passable that far, then we can come back in a few weeks and backpack in the rest of the way. We’ll explore the slot canyon and beyond by walking old roads built by uranium miners.
More and more canyons feed in and the walls come up. After Poison Springs, there’s a trickle of a creek. I don’t know where the name comes from. Some springs out here are laced with arsenic. Maybe that’s the ‘poison’. Others have enough magnesium dissolved in the water to give you the shits, the last thing you need if you’re dehydrated. There are all kinds of poisons.
I get out and check the longer stretches of mud for possible quicksand before driving across them. So far so good. The sky is clearing up. I put my sunglasses back on.
But then there was ice. When the creek tries to make it around this corner, it swings out of the sun and into the shade, and freezes up. The road continues along tilted slabs, under a raised sheet of ice, for the next fifty yards. Even if I broke up the ice with a shovel, there’s probably more of the same further down. Almost an hour from the pavement, 7.3 miles down, this is end of the road in February.
* * * * *
The truck crawls over basketball sized rocks, and picks up speed on the long runs of smooth sand in Poison Springs Canyon. They must have come individually, one at a time. I didn’t even notice them until I couldn’t quite see. A quick swipe of the windshield wipers.
Now the windshield is all wet again. And again. Looks like we might get a light rain out of this storm after all. Actually, make that a little flurry of snow. It’s falling to the tune of William Elliott Whitmore singing folksy blues through my speakers, with a voice that sounds like a hundred year old black Southern preacher. Michelle and I have been going for walks lately with light snow settling onto our umbrellas in Zion. The snow today is almost atmospheric, like those days in Zion.
Another song plays, then one more.
The weatherman was right. We did get a dusting of snow. What he didn’t say is that the dusting would happen in the first ten minutes, as a warm up, and then the dusting would disappear under all the fresh snow coming down on top of it. It’s coming down hard. It’s intimidating. This isn’t desert snow, this is more like a winter storm in the Sierras, at least an inch every hour if it keeps up. There are too many ice crystals in the air; it’s getting harder and harder to see.
The snow is still atmospheric, but not in a crackling-fire-in-the-hearth kind of way like before… more like a sprinting-towards-the-slowly-closing-door-before-you’re-trapped kind of way.
Bluegrass and adrenaline just don’t go together. I need something heavy. I crank up some Tool. I hadn’t signed up to drive an unplowed jeep road in a blizzard. There’s no way I’m spending the next few days down here until the snow melts. That’s not happening.
The tracks in the wash are already gone. I stop at a fork where two canyons come together, to decide which one is actually the road, which one I need to follow back. The wind is thick with wet swirling snow that plasters itself against me; it seems to come more from the front than from above. Visibility is less than a quarter mile.
I take the wrong fork.
Within one song, I decide it just doesn’t look right. Shit. I turn around in the snow-covered cobbles and retrace my tracks, quickly. I’m in no mood to waste time like this. There are a lot more big side canyons further up the road that could be equally confusing.
The steep walls are now white, not orange. I push the truck as fast as it will go, the music cranked, feeling like I’m in a video game. Were there any steep slabs that I won’t be able to get back up in the snow? I don’t think so. Pretty sure. But it wouldn’t take much.
I shoot up out of the canyon and emerge onto the good dirt road up on top. It feels good. I hit pavement in no time. I wouldn’t want to try that again in an hour. If I had taken a leisurely lunch or gone for a hike when I turned around, suckered by the clearing sky, there are no guarantees I would have made it out today.
* * * * *
Free-range cattle mill around in the brush, just off the road, near camp. On some of them, patchy blankets of snow over an inch thick sticks to their black and brown fur like Velcro. Stoic cows, unfazed by all of this. Cows don’t care.
Then there’s me. It’s getting dark. I’m camped above the open desert in a forest of oaks on the side of Mt. Hillers, hoping the trees protect me from the wind. Colder, but out of the wind, right? No clouds to cover up the stars now. It’s going to be a long night.
It goes something like this…
Shovel out the campsite (it was almost dry earlier this morning). Whisk the four inches of powder from the table with a broom. Set up the stove. I smell gas. The propane hose won’t screw all the way on. Remove gloves to fix the stove. The stove is fixed, but now my hands are frozen. Make a fire. This takes awhile. Warm up hands. Set up a chair and the kitchen. And iPod speakers to keep me company. Kick the water jugs until the outside layer of ice finally splinters into pieces. Knock the ice out of the water jug cap. Fill up a pot to start a quick dinner of –
A blast of wind rips through camp, knocking snow out of the trees. Snow in the fire, sparks and smoke in my face, snow down my jacket. Holding down the stove and the pot to keep them from blowing away. Rush over to the music and clean the dry snow out of the speakers. Try to stoke the fire. Whisk off the table, and the chair, and the stove, and my jacket. Not sure the water is ever going to boil. Finally, everything is under control aga–
An even bigger gust of wind tears through camp. Repeat most of the previous paragraph. Whisk, whisk, whisk. WhiskWhiskWhiskWhiskWhiskWhisk. I think about those cattle, and briefly consider driving down the road to whisk them off.
I throw back the rest of my bottle of my porter, chewing the bits of ice before I swallow. OK Newman. It’s on now.
You remember Newman, don’t you? Michelle and I have decided that Newman is the unofficial name of the desert wind, christened in honor of the annoying postman from the old Seinfeld show. Newman is no impartial force of nature: Newman is a dick. He loves to push your buttons. But Newman isn’t going to win tonight.
I open another beer and yell some things. Show me what you’ve got, Newman! Knock all that snow down. Stop screwing around. Enough of this ‘a little here, a little there crap’. Get it done Newman!
He must have heard me. Snow everywhere and in everything. The cold doesn’t lightly brush against things. It pushes against your body in waves, finding it’s way underneath the jackets, pressing the cold against you, grinding in that cold as deep it can go as if with the heel of a boot. Windchill below zero. Blowing thirty or forty.
Screw you Newman. I’ve got down jackets and down pants.
And a whiskbroom.
Another long burly gust. I laugh out loud and tell Newman my favorite jokes about his sister, and take a long swig of beer. I’m actually having a great time.
The fire is a lost cause. I let Newman put it out for me. Dinner gets cold so fast I wish I would have left the burner on and eaten straight from the pot.
I secure camp, and crawl into the camper shell for the night. It feels good to climb out of all the winter layers. The wind is distractingly loud and steadily rocks the truck. The trees flex. I hope none of them break off tonight. But I am warm and dry and happy. I fall asleep thinking about how much I love my camper shell.
The upside is that when all of this over, when the snow and mist and clouds clear out over the canyons, I bet it will be spectacular.
var _gaq = _gaq || ; _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-39083855-1']); _gaq.push(['_trackPageview']);