We left at 5:30 a.m., passing a bobcat before sunrise in Mojave Trails National Monument, to make it to Escalante’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Inter-agency Visitor Center before closing. We made it, and, still shaking from nine hours on the highway, I rehearsed my planned series of micro-actions that would settle me into this vast landscape I’d wanted to explore since I first saw it miles beyond the Bryce amphitheater.
I’d heard that the rangers at the visitor center were crusty and unhelpful. Ever since the national monument’s boundaries were nominally reduced, along with most of the park staff, rangers allegedly took a “figure it out for yourself” attitude toward the many hidden gems in the park. I prepared to negotiate.
Happily, my designated forest service employee was a kindly, talkative older gentleman with the bearing of a slightly svelter Kris Kringle. I mentioned that I planned to camp in Lower Calf Creek Falls, but he advised that Escalante’s Petrified Forest State Park would be warmer, with more amenities. Lower Calf Creek Falls was already winterized, with no water, meaning no flush toilets. Always one to plan the dive and dive the plan, with unparalleled pit toilet experience and utmost faith in my Accuweather research, I brushed that suggestion off, and moved on to my gem-hunting itinerary. What hoodoos and slot canyons could I get to with dogs?
Long Canyon slot. It’s 11.2 miles on Burr Trail in Long Canyon. Right off the road. There’s a turn-out right there, at 11.2 miles. Set your odometer. I confirmed this, cross-referenced it with the numbers on my map, and saw that Burr Trail appeared to be the natural extension of Scenic Route 12, which instead twisted 90 degrees up through Boulder. Long Canyon slot was many things - beautiful, accessible, and 11.2 miles in, but not marked. I found myself listening to people saying things like “it’s easy, just…” so I asked for clarification. Were there any other markers that would let me know I was in the right place?
“It’s where the rocks turn red,” another ranger piped in. I could not tell if she was being serious or dismissive, but it didn’t matter. Those were directions I could work with.
We pitched camp at the bottom of a canyon around dusk, and soaked up the surrounding orange as the sun set far above us. The ground turned from pasty to coral to the color of blazing hot coals, creating deeply phthalo blue shadows. I checked the forecast on the campground’s bulletin board, and it was chillier than expected by about 20 degrees. So much for my research. Curled up for bed, I lasted 45 minutes before the frigid air seeped through, and it was only 9 p.m. We bailed to the car, where my 43-lb dog woke me up to curl inside my mummy sleeping bag. The inside of the windshield froze with ¼ inch of ice, but we stayed surprisingly comfortable.
The next morning we set off on our mission to find Long Canyon Slot, up out of the frozen canyon and back onto the ridge that marks a spectacular scenic byway sponsored through the Adopt-a-Highway program by the Human Rights Campaign. Over Hogsback ridge we went, a rainbow of buttes and mountains to our left, and pastoral ranch land punctuated by otherworldly boulders from a giant’s castle on our right. Where the road bent left at the tiny town of Boulder, we continued straight. Straight into the largest, fastest, wooliest ram I have ever seen, barreling straight for us. A girl in an open flannel shirt sprinted 50 yards after him to no avail, losing ground as her oversized shirt tails flew behind her in the wind, like a living, moving statue of Artemis.
My two Central Asian shepherds seized their moment. Sasha, teeth baring, barked as loud as she could, snarling as the sheep approached. The ram caught her glaring eyes and sheepishly slowed, looking away like he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and turned 180 degrees to trot right on into his yard, then into his pen.
As a city-dwelling dog owner, 50 percent of my anxiety comes from fearing what people will say about my barking dogs, and I was mortified that this nice girl whose God-fearing ranch people permitted my California plates onto their backroads would judge me. As we slowly drove past her, she had stopped, panting, with her hands on her heart, elated, thanking me and my dogs for sending her petulant sheep home. I was reminded that my backwoods shepherd dogs were built for this environment - this is the type of place they belonged, the type of work they were meant to do, and they, along with the ranchers, knew it.
She was the last person I’d see for four hours. The Burr Trail canyons were white, with striations that looked like someone doodled all over them in an office meeting, punctuated by an occasional conflagration of red hoodoos. Reading the designs was like reading shapes in clouds, a bird here, an arrow there, and royal crown of hoodoos. Old mesquite trees guarded the jewels like sentries. As we neared a winding creek, golden trees arced over the road to greet us in a precious colonnade of splendor. The brush along the road glowed neon green. Nine miles, 10 miles, then after a blind descent into a canyon we turned to the right to face spectacularly pure red walls. Long Canyon Slot, where the rocks turned red.
I watched my odometer while keeping an eye out for a turn-off, and imagined what a short 20-yard trail to a slot canyon might look like. Nothing at all was marked on any of my three maps - one topo that I’d purchased myself, and two from the Visitor’s Center. Yet, here was a pull-out, leading to a cattle trail into the creek, with orange banks of clay abutting the steep outer face of a canyon. If there were an entrance into those walls, it may be our slot canyon. I left a howling dog in the car while I investigated, walking what was actually a very well-maintained hiking trail along the creek. The scenery was so beautiful, but pastorally lush rather than stark and rocky. I continued a few hundred yards, checking every nook and cranny in the orange bank of 12-foot high clay, to no avail. Returning to the car, I decided to continue another mile or two, then backtrack.
Not a quarter mile later, a sliver of light bust through the solid wall of redrock on our left, illuminating a turn-out. I pulled over, grabbed my camera equipment, and ran into it. The angle of the sun had just begun streaming into the narrow slit of rock, and it illuminated the walls, ground, and two or three bushes through a prism, so that everything glowed in an otherworldly kind of way that you can usually only find in artificial stage lighting. This, however, was full-spectrum. My footsteps echoed on the soft floor as I stepped gingerly, reminded of the hallowed entrance to the Batu Cave temples near Kuala Lumpur. I wondered whom I should worship, and I supposed it would be the light. Looking up at it, I felt as though nothing were between me and the face of the sun. I felt compelled to speak to the canyon, which was warm and welcoming, bidding me to sit and stay a while to notice the way the light shifted.
It was shifting fast. I walked in, I walked out, using different lenses to capture the magic, checking my voice to hear an echo, pausing gratefully in wonder. And in minutes, upon egressing, thinking I had what I needed, but wondering if I should try another lens, I turned back at the entrance and the scene was flat. The light had risen beyond the canyon’s tiny portal, and Long Canyon Slot was again hidden from the road, blending flatly into the uniformly red, swirling rock.