Canyonlands and Dead Horses

One of the reasons why Canyonlands National Park is recollected with such fond memory is that the history here is real and apparent, exceptionally believable and imaginable, as if you can reach out and touch it and bring it back to life. History is something that intrigues me, especially history of the West, of the Cowboys out on the plains with chuckwagons and cattle, pushing themselves to extremes, kicking up dust, and taking with every quench of thirst a side of desert grit- also the natives connecting with the land, battling their rivals in bloody encounters, carving their tales into the rocks around them, forming, creating, and leaving mysteries of their existence. Just days prior to visiting Canyonlands, I began reading the book “The American West,” and here in Canyonlands everything was put in its place, in scene, in context. I was here in the midst of what I was reading. These lands held the routes of the early cowboys, the homes of the Utes and Navajos. They ventured through this rough terrain and endured the harshness of the desert. Still to this day, surrounding the park on many sides are pastures of cattle, modern day cowboys, and Native Americans blending tradition and culture.

When you’re traveling from point A to point B, outside of the park, and pass over many cattle gates and plains stretching with herds, the west of Cowboys and Indians, which has often been elevated to the point of near folklore, is true, embraceable, and able to be seen.

In my wanderings around Canyonlands, I took a short hike long a trail that passed by a rock overhang. In the shelter of the overhang was equipment and items left by cowboys of the past, including tables, trunks, saddles, cups and cans. I remember in that moment, I paused and I tried to imagine the transient life of the cowboy out in these harsh canyonlands of intense heat and dryness. The amount of bravery and perseverance of the cowboys is incredible. 

Just next to the boundary of Canyonlands National Park is Dead Horse Point State Park. Here I took a morning jog along the canyon rim, which ended right at the overlook of the Dead Horse Point itself. In front of me was a wild expanse of canyons and an elevated peninsula which the Green River dramatically curves around. The air was dry but the desert was not yet sweltering. Everything around me was painted in vibrant shades or orange, red, and pink. When I was done admiring the scene, I went into the visitor center. “So tell me, what’s with the name Dead Horse?” I asked.DSC04660

The park employee gladly explained, “cowboys traveled long distances out in the desert with little water. They were very thirsty and their horses even more so. They followed the sound of the river to the outcropping of land you see at the bend of the river. When they arrived There they stood right next to the river but far above it. They could see it and hear it,  but had no way to get down to it, and so their horses died, thirsty, looking at the unreachable river.”

In the gift shop I bought a book called “Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon. The employee informed me that there was the John Wesley Powell River History Museum not far away, unfortunately I didn’t have the time to visit.

Although I had debated even stopping at Dead Horse Point State Park, I am glad I did. It compliments Canyonlands National Park and the views of the Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point were alluring and picturesque views. Something very unique about this region is you have Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse State Park, and numerous other parks and natural features all within close distance, with Moab, Utah being the central town, the hub, in the middle.

Back in the National Park I didn’t see much during the day. I was out on a small trail of barren rock faces taking photos over at the beautiful spiky rock formations in the Needles District when an angry looking storm came rolling it. I could see it moving, and see the sheets of rain it carried and the bolts of lightning it send snapping to the ground. In this moment the sky and scenery were perfect for photo taking, but some dust was stuck in my camera lens and I realized the approaching danger of the storm. I quickly satisfied my need to take photos with a few good shots and returned to my car just in time before the downpour. In the West storms are much more frightening, with the knowledge that water is not soaked into the land but rather travels across it, and also because in the desert there is rarely anything taller than your vehicle. So you and your car stand out, exposed, and are in plain site for the storms and all its bouts of lightning. With what I’m used to, a car provides adequate shelter from a storm, but not in these parts. I took more trustworthy shelter in the visitor center.DSC04533

When I was at Arches National Park, just days prior, I had heard about the Summer storms in the park film, which endangered some of the arches in the park, but I had no way to fully understand them. The land seemed so dry and the sky unyieling to any clouds. Trying to imagine a storm in these parts was difficult. Now, in the midst of one, It was completely understood. This storm just wasn’t any storm. It needed a modifier in front of it. This was a “Summer storm.” But like all Summer storms on these barren planes and canyonlands, it didn’t last long. It came and went, in a quick heated tantrum.

Canyonlands National Park is composed of three districts, each with unique lands features. There is Island in the Sky District, the Needles District, and the Maze District. In the visitor center in the Island in the Sky District  I inquired about hiking down into the Needles District I had seen from my hike. The park ranger took out a white binder with photos slid into plastic sleeves. He turned to a specific page and pointed to it. “Well this is the Needles District.” He paused for a moment, as if the photo itself would be a deterrent. It wasn’t. It looked amazing. “There is no cell phone service out there…” Fine with me. He proceeded, “…and GPS devices won’t work in that area from the rocks blocking the signals.” His last piece of information successfully deterred me from exploring the area. I had read online that it was ill-advised to go alone, as all the rock formations which stick up like needles create a maze-like environment, and it’s very easy to get lost. It was advised that you take pictures at turning points in your trail to be able to navigate backs to your starting point. That knowledge paired with the fact that my GPS would not work, resulted in the decisions to not explore the Needles District. I had already been hiking in the area enough to know the heat and dryness was a serious thing. Being lost here could be deadly, and I didn’t want to end up like the horses of Dead Horse Point.

When the rain had resided I made it to Mesa Arch- the most iconic feature in the park. It’s a small rock arch right on the edge of a canyon cliff. It’s not much taller than myself but what makes it so appealing is that it frames the canyonlands behind it perfectly and is positioned at just the right angle that sunlight always brings out color in the landscape, making this location an exceptionally good photo spot at sunrise and sunset. Now, after having visited Mesa Arch, I notice it frequently in screensavers, calendars, and different pieces of publicity.  While I was there, a group of young adults from France asked me to take their picture. I had seen them the day before in Arches National Park. There was a small crowd of people gathering, but everyone was very respectful, stepping aside for each other to take their pictures of the arch.DSC04581

At one point in my day I took a break and went into Moab for lunch. I ate at the Moab Diner, which was a very pleasant experience. I would recommend it to anyone in the area. Not only was the food delicious but the service was unparalleled to anything else. The waiters were extremely attentive, and I must have had my glass of water refilled at least five times without any wait. I had gotten the Kokopelli Chicken Sandwich. It was here I was also able to make the association that Kokopelli is the flute player in the petroglyphs. His image is reproduced all over merchandise and signage in the area. He is a fertility deity and represents the spirit of music. I don’t know much else about Kokopelli, except his chicken sandwich was delectable.

Nearing the end of the day, I returned to Canyonlands to walk to Grand View Point at sunset. This walk would prove to be a pinnacle of self-actualization and discovery on this trip, and will be outlined in my next chapter, but after my hike along the rim, I began driving back to my hideout in the mountains of Manti Lasal. Shortly outside the park I drove by a Bureau of Land Management sign for Horse Thief Campground. Weary from a full days adventure I thought I would check it out and entertain the idea of camping here instead. Sure enough there were campsites available. I decided I’d rather dish out fifteen dollars then drive 60 more miles in the dark back to Manti Lasal. Although my tent was all set up in Manti Lasal, I had my spar tent, Kelty, and an extra sleeping bag in my car. I also had one of my compact camping pillows. I would be alright. I sent up camp there in the flat exposed plain. The sky above me was extremely huge. Clouds were long gone now, and stars filled the sky. I was able to purchase some firewood on the grounds and quickly had a small fire blazing. I was camping, like the cowboys I read about, out on the expansive plains, with the whole sky above me.

I realized here that I could position a flashlight underneed my glow-in-the-dark Nalgeen bottle, and the bottle would disperse the light, creating a calm but sufficient glow by which I could eat a snack and write a few postcards. When my writing was complete, and the air grew cool and hollow, I crawled into my airy tent, pulled out my book on the West, and read to the sound and glow of the fire next to me and the brightness of the unhindered moon and stars above me. I was at peace.

Read the next entry “The Canyons in My Life,” here:

Read the previous entry “Camping in Strange Woods,” here:



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