Letters from the Desert
from Steve Allen

Dear ones all,

Yet another golden season in the deserts of the southwest has passed. My eighth year. Seems amazing that the fun has lasted this long. And fun it was last year, with trips that ranged from Cibola to Quivira, from the high peaks to the deepest slots. While the main draw is still the canyons of Utah, a certain section of Arizona near the California border has become a home–away–from–home. It is the basin and range country; not a canyon to be seen anywhere. But the mountains are superb, the challenges and beauty of the area intense, and the camping divine.

Highlights in Utah last year included a technical slots trip with the Young Turks into a series of particularly difficult canyons in the Escalante, including one we named PINTAC (Pain in the Ass Crack). It was a classic ‘Mae West’ canyon, a slot that is narrow at the bottom, widens at the hips, then narrows again at the waist. You traverse the slot at a level where you can squeeze your body through, and climb up or down between levels as variations in the width of the slot dictate. Sometimes you are near the bottom of the slot, other times you are a hundred or more feet off the ground. With the creaky body of middle age, I appreciate more and more the effort it takes my younger companions to haul me through these canyons. Won’t be long now before I’ll be sitting on the rim, enviously watching them ‘make the moves.’

Harvey Halpern and Bud Evans, my long–time expedition partners led me into a sheer terror country of a different sort—the Kaiparowits Plateau. It is a huge country with seemingly endless obstacles to overcome, both physical and mental. A lack of water, long hikes between uncertain water sources, and difficult route finding over convoluted terrain touch on just a few problems we encountered on our multi–week trip.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the trip, though, was the quick detour we took to the Grand Canyon to witness Bill and Al announce the formation of Grand Staircase—Escalante National Monument, which also includes the Kaiparowits Plateau. Apparently the President had decided, while we were hiking, to announce the new monument. But how we ended up at the Grand Canyon is the fun part of the story.

Bud, Harvey, and I had just finished the aforementioned long, dry, and tiring backpack trip. After spending an evening cleaning up and relaxing, we drove to the top of the Kaiparowits Plateau to view a proposed coal mine site and visit the Burning Hills, an area where naturally occurring underground coal fires vent hot gasses. We had been out of touch with the real world for several weeks, so once we reached the top of the plateau, we tuned in a local radio station. The newscaster babbled on about a new national monument in southern Utah that was slated to be proclaimed by the President the very next day at the Grand Canyon.

Upon hearing the news, we hopped back in the car and zoomed south towards Page, stopping at the coal mine site and collecting a stack of coal along the way. This was probably the last legal coal removed before national monument status made such collecting illegal. From Page, Harvey made a series of phone calls to obtain security clearances for the three of us. (Perhaps the Secret Service should have checked us out a bit better!) So, off we went, arriving at the Grand Canyon just in time to see Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and a host of celebrities tell us about the new national monument and the land we had just been hiking in. Quite remarkable really.

And so it went in the canyons. Nothing horribly big or momentous last year, just a never–ending series of fun vignettes that were played out with a never–ending group of terrific friends.

Hope all goes well with you. Do keep in touch.




© 1990–2007 Steve Allen