By Patrick Kao · 2 years ago
I woke up to a flash of light.
Rain began to dart at my tent. Minutes later, a downpour and a roar of thunder. It was probably the loudest noise I’ve ever heard. Loud enough that I could feel the vibrations of sound travel from the ground and through my sleeping bag and tent.
It was around midnight when the thunderstorm seemed to be directly overhead. The wind started picking up and I could hear rain splash onto an increasingly saturated ground. I laid in my sleeping bag in utter silence, my eyes widened with adrenaline coursing throughout my body as I contemplated the odds of electrocution. I knew that outside, I stood no chance to escape the storm. My best bet, I thought to myself, was to stay flat in my tent, and wait it out.
This was nothing like my home state of California. Before this trip, it was weekend-warrior style adventures. Rock climbing in Yosemite, Tahoe, or Bishop. Overnight backpacking trips through the Sierras. Hikes around the Bay Area. Sometimes, the occasional opportunities to tour Death Valley, or climb Mount Shasta. By this point in my life, I felt stuck in a routine. Worst of all were the crowds. It was common to spend my time on a crowded trail, only to share the same experience with a bunch of random people. While I did appreciate the accessibility and everyone’s general respect for the outdoors, I longed to find a place where I could enjoy an adventure alone. That’s what this trip was: a search for remoteness, a change of pace, a true adventure.
First on my itinerary was a place called the Valley of the Gods.
Located just 35 miles north of Monument Valley along the US-163 in southern Utah, this patch of remote Bureau of Land Management land was very much devoid of people. My plan was to travel by bike across the 17 miles of this wide open place, then continue northward, deeper into canyon country.
Some time went by, and I could sense the storm drifting off and dissipating in the distance. It was completely noiseless now—not in the eerie sense of a ghostly stillness, but of a certain familiar calmness. I struggled out of my tent to look upward onto a clear, warm and moonless night. A bajillion stars peppered the night sky, illuminating the surrounding canyon landscape. The silhouettes of rock formations were scattered across the desert like skyscrapers, intimidating yet intricately built.
Night slowly turned to day, and the sun began to bake me inside my tent. Although it stormed the previous night, the ground had almostly completely dried. The soil, as deep of a red color as the monoliths, was covered in a sea of desert shrubs. I looked around with amazement—a series of sandstone towers and buttes that continued into the horizon.
It was a symbiotic balance of forces that created this landscape, a natural untouched realm of geologic splendor. The striations within the sandstone walls were an indication of a once vast ancient ocean, blanketing the area long before dinosaurs. Looking from afar, these formations towered immensely with distinct complexes of iron-rich colors. I imagined the constant repetition of archaic erosion that left these massive geologic features so perfectly carved after millions of years. The pinnacles were separated by wide ephemeral river beds, a modern reminder of continual weathering forces in a slowly changing landscape.
The August morning light shined brilliantly overhead. On this day, the second of my trip, I was 10 miles across the valley. I packed my things and headed north, following the U-261 highway to a series of switchbacks up one of the large mesas. I stopped along the way up this ramp to a lookout called Moki Dugway. The views were simply spectacular. The dust in the air reflected the morning light, creating angled beams above cold shadowy walls. Looking below, I could see the little specks of olive colored shrubs in the valley floor, partitioned by the long dendritic curves of dry streams. Clouds were slowly floating overhead, creating patches of dark moving shadows above the buttes. I spent a few minutes or so looking out from the vantage point as I felt the sun rays start to slowly torch my skin.
My destination for the day was Fry Canyon, a little-known canyoneering area approximately 50 miles northwest, towards Cedar Mesa. I remember the entrance into Fry Canyon being under an overpass, where it begins as nothing more than a slot canyon. By now, the smooth striated walls of sedimentary rock had become a familiar sight. As I started walking into the narrow and shallow canyon, I noticed the noon light beaming from above and brightening the already vivid colors of the walls.
Hiking further, the canyon began to widen to an open space and a large, deep crevice in the ground. I took out my rope and harness and started setting up the rappel, slowly feeding the rope through my hands as a way to untangle any knots. Previous spelunkers had already left some sturdy rappel rings behind, as a courtesy for future adventurers to lower into the cavern below. I placed my rope through the rings, and threw it down into the abyss, only to quickly hear it splash into a deep underground pool of water.
The dry heat of the desert began to turn to a damp darkness as I rappelled as far as 40 feet down into the cave. The sunlight quickly disappeared above, and I can only retain a sense of my surroundings through the sound of my movements, echoing onto the cave walls.
When I touched the ground, I was in a small room of the cave that seemed to be connected into a larger chamber filled with standing water. There was a small light in the distance, indicating my path for escape. After jumping into the pool, my nerves quickly reacted to the extreme cold of the water. Swimming towards the light, I remembered a sense of anxiety, a tenseness in my feet as they longed to reach the pool bottom for an indication of shallow ground. After swimming what seemed like a distance of an olympic sized pool, I finally reached a reprieve and began to surface.
The cave then opened up, onto a deep canyon floor. The sunlight was as bright as before, and my skin begins to dry from the intense heat. However, this time, while looking straight ahead, there was an abrupt change in texture within the canyon walls—flat rocks stacked upon each other, forming the frame of three distinct cliff dwellings. I stood there, in reflection of past lives, imagining the people living there. Pictographs on the rock walls below the houses were enduring pieces of art. I could only speculate their meaning. It was like a time machine back to an unknown time, a glance of people’s lives now forever engrained in my mind.
While the ruins complemented the vast, awestruck landscapes, it was a reminder of the unique adventures one can take. This trip was one of only a few times in my life that I felt so truly alone, a temporary break from the mundane tasks of society. It was creating a bond between my mind and nature. To look out across miles of untamed land, and to be the only person in the world enjoying that moment of solitude. Those are the moments in my life that I will never forget.
Edited by Jack Russillo