I absolutely loved the silence and embraced it wholeheartedly. Normally, when I'm backpacking alone, certain fears tend to arise (usually in the middle of the night having to do with bears). I think this explains why not very many people backpack alone in the wilderness because, I'll admit, it can be scary at times.
The fear that arrises is mostly psychological, but when you're alone in a silent place, the subconscious fears tend to come out with a vengence. On this day I felt absolutely no fear at all and was more vibrantly alive than I could remember for a long time. The silence was comforting and I felt completely safe and at home. This would set the tone for the entire trip.
It was almost as if I was hiking through a grand temple. The atmosphere was that like of a very holy place.
At times I would hike through the bottoms of canyons, with numerous sidecanyons reminding me of narrow city streets. At other times I would rise out of a canyon to walk on the slickrock (which actually isnt slick at all) and see the panorama around me. At other times I would walk on the edge of impossibly high cliffs, with even higher cliffs stretching above me.
Another time I traveled through a cave system through several hundred feet of solid rock to get to the other side. At one spot at the very top of a canyon I had to climb up a rustic looking wood ladder with my 50 pound pack to cross the pass (shown below).
Wandering Through the Kingdom of Heaven
After my off-road adventure in Canyonlands National Park during 2001 I was hooked on the Utah desert. From a high vantage point during that trip I noticed a large swath of landscape many miles away, covered with tall rock spires. Incidentally, this place was called The Needles. (see this view on the first picture in The 4-Wheeling Backpacker) In 2003 I returned to the park to backpack through The Needles themselves.
I began my journey from Fairfield in late March 2003 (after a long year of renovations on my newly aquired hotel) and drove to Denver the first night.
The next day I zipped over to Moab, Utah in a surprisingly quick 5.5 hours due to the nice 75MPH speed limits in Colorado and Utah. Arriving in Moab during the springtime after being stranded in the dark Iowa winter is a pleasurable experience.
With clear skies and temperatures hovering around 70 degrees it's the perfect place to be from March to May. It was wonderful to step out into the fresh air of this amazing destination after the long drive.
Pretty much anyone that's in Moab is there to be outdoors and have a good time, whether it be mountain biking, kayaking, river rafting, hiking, 4-Wheeling or rock climbing. It is one of my favorite towns in the world.
Moab is situated in one of the most unique landscapes I've ever seen. It lies at the bottom of a narrow desert valley that is surrounded on 3 sides by red sandstone cliffs up to 1000 feet high. The 4th side is boxed in by 12,000 foot snowcapped mountains which are covered by alpine forests.
The colorado river runs through the valley and carves a giant groove through the 1000 foot cliffs called "The Portal". Arches and Canyonlands National parks are just a stones throw away and the surrounding landscape is of the kind that inspired the road-runner cartoons.
After checking in with the ranger station in Moab, I made my way south another hour to the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park. There I spoke with another ranger and planned out my 4 day backpacking trip.
I didn't know what to expect since I had never backpacked in the desert before, but when I started hiking in the Needles I was almost constantly in a state of having my "jaw drop".
Normally people think of the desert as deserted, nothing there, with nothing of use, but this was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen on earth. The way the different colors of sand, red, yellow and white would merge with the sandstone cliffs and maze-like canyons.
The way that the odd looking plants, trees, and prickly cactus grew out of such a dry environment was incredible. I was in a garden of the gods, everything was so perfectly placed, almost like someone had set it up just for the enjoyment of the human psyche.
On the first night I camped in a side-canyon underneath a small grove of trees next to a cliff. What struck me, like on my earlier trip to the canyonlands, was the deafening silence. This time it was even more intense.
I don't think that I'd ever been to a place that had been so quiet in my whole life. There wasn't even the hint of wind. There weren't even the sounds of birds or bee's or the odd animal sound on that first night. Most people would discribe this as "deathly silent" but the fact is that most people can't stand silence.
I remember reading something about how people will do anything to break silence if they are put into a very quiet atmosphere. They will sing, make useless chatter, or try to turn music on to kill the silence. It's almost like a primal fear for most of us.
It was incredible for me...
You would think that it would be hard to find water in the desert but it wasn't until Day 3 that I had trouble. Remember, this was late March and early April. Runoff from the mountains up higher provided water this time of the year.
I'd have been out of luck if it had been July. On Day 1 there was a small, shallow stream a few hundred feet below my campsite. On Day 2 I spotted a pool between some rocks fed by a natural spring.
On Day 3 I expected to find water in a place called Elephant Canyon, or at least the ranger said I would. When I got there the creekbed was bone dry and I was parched, having run out of water the night before. Coming out of my spiritual reverie for a few moments I fretted over what I was going to do.
I started walking up-canyon, reasoning that the closer I got to the mountains that fed the streams the greater the chance I would find water. After a few hundred yards I turned back without luck.
I then decided to walk down-canyon and soon spoted what looked like a shallow cave in the side of the streambed. Knowing that water could survive in puddles in the shade without evaporating I rushed over hoping for the best.
Lo and behold there was a fairly large natural basin of water hidden underneath the rock.
All photos Copyright © Chris Beckley
Campsite 2nd Night.
A bright and beautiful day, the weather was mild, around 70 degrees in early April. My tent is under the tree.
This area used to be a cowboy camp.
Hiking on slickrock above the maze-like canyons on day 2. Moab lies at the foot of the
snow covered La Sal mountains seen many miles in the distance.
On the bottom of a canyon on Day 3.
I ran out of water the night before and was hoping to be able to find water in this canyon. However when I got here it was dry.
Luckily, after searching around a bit, I found a small hidden pool set underneath a rock ledge on the side of the riverbed.
Definately one of the most unique places on the face of the planet.
At the top of a large canyon system this ladder provided the only way across to the next canyon system.
Image taken at sunset near Camp 2
It was on Day 3 that I came upon what I could only describe as "The Cathedral". After hiking through a narrow sandstone shoot I emerged to a valley of rock that blew me away with it's sheer size and beauty.
Surrounded on all sides with rock walls, with 1000 foot cliffs to my back and precipitous spires in front of me, the Cathedral was the inner sanctum of this grand temple that I'd been walking through these past few days.
I stood below the cliffs on fields of slickrock from which I could see a vast network of deep, narrow canyons running through the bottom on the Cathedral. What struck me was the immense scope of what I was seeing compared to the the relative insignificance of myself next to it.
I had never felt this in the mountains. It was here that a grand architechture had come into being. With nobody around but myself and the great silence, this was truly a momentous occasion.
Near my camp on day 2. Graffitti made from charcoal near an old cowboy camp before it became a national park.
There are dates from 1924 and 1931. There is a reward posted for someone called "Nigger Bill".
I made out the racist words "corn bred", "Dead or Alive", and "Nigger Bill never worked and never will" evidentally inscribed by the cowboys in the early 1900's.
Part of The Cathedral. This shot was taken with my widest angle lens and shows less than 84 degrees of the 360 degree panorama.
The tops of the narrow canyons can be spotted as cracks in the rock.
A view from the canyon floor is shown on the 4th picture on this page (above)