Letters from the Desert
from Steve Allen

Dear ones all,

Wow, time does fly when you’re having fun. Seems to me I just finished last year’s letter, and here we go again. 1994 was just another routine year down in southern Utah, the country of the omnipresent red dust, washed out roads, and horrendous wind storms—in other words it was fabulous!! Canyoneering 2: Technical Loop Hikes just came out and I am very pleased with it. This year was otherwise filled with doing research for future writing projects and guiding trips into the wildlands of canyon country. All of these trips were splendid, but as usual, one stands out in memory

—  ADONIS  —

Gravel Canyon is an innocuous name for a truly amazing canyon. It is long, deep, narrow, sinuous, technical, and chock full of Anasazi ruins. It was these Indian ruins that were the object of our quest late one afternoon in mid–April. Four of us, part of a larger group, had spotted what appeared to be a fine set of cliff dwellings high on a cliff in a deep cave near the rim of the canyon. After searching for a way up to the ruins from the bottom, and not finding one, we decided to try and enter the ruins from the top. From the rim of the canyon, we were able to see into the cave and could make out a wall or two, but we couldn’t find an easy way in. Perhaps the Anasazi had used a ladder.

With a climbing rope in hand, we figured we could lower one person at a time over the thirty–foot–tall overhanging mouth of the cave, then pull them up after they’d explored and photographed the site. This we proceeded to do. Don, Glen, and I dutifully took turns being lowered over the edge. We were happy to find that getting pulled out of the ruin over the thirty–foot overhang was easy to do—we fairly flew through the air as those above yanked hard on the rope and brought us zooming up the cliff.

It wasn’t until we lowered the last man, Joel, over the edge, then tried to pull him back up, that we found why the first three down had been easy to pull up and why Joel was now in trouble. You must understand that Joel is a slightly smaller version of Arnold Schwarzenegger—a fair–haired Adonis who’s muscles ripple and pop every time he moves. An engineer by trade and a triathelete by avocation, Joel is the epitome of  ‘fit.’ To his detriment, we were finding that the three of us who had already been into the cave had really been pulled up the wall by the mighty Joel; the rest of us had apparently just been supplying moral support, though our arms did seem to ache from the exertion.

Now with Joel below us, and after heaving mightily, Don, Glen, and I managed to yank Joel off his feet—but not up the wall. Again we tried, and again, then again. Poor Joel—sometimes we’d get him a foot off the ground, sometimes ten feet; but thirty feet? It seemed an impossibility At first it was amusing, then embarrassing, and finally unnerving. Night was falling, we were a fair distance from camp, and Joel was in the proverbial hole with no way out.

I wish I could say that at this point those of us on top had a burst of inspiration and devised a sneaky way to get Joel up the wall. In reality, and in desperation, we all had a burst of perspiration. With backs and legs hard into the effort, and with boot–clad feet leaving imprints in the sandstone, we pulled Joel halfway up, lost a couple of feet of hard–gained ground, then gained a couple more feet. Up and down Joel bounced, helplessly hanging in midair from the end of the rope. Finally, after a seemingly interminable, muscle–cramping battle, we got Joel to the lip of the cave. Now able to grasp a small handhold the size of a wrinkle on the cliff face, Joel was able to take some of his weight off the rope. With a final tug, we pulled Joel to the rim of the canyon.

And so it goes in the land of canyons. I hope your year went well and that you can join me on backcountry excursion soon. Do keep in touch—cards and letters are always welcome.

Do take care,



© 1990–2007 Steve Allen