Canyon Tales
Fat Man’s Misery
by Thomas D. McArthur

•  Preface  •

In the summer of 1954 Thomas P. McArthur (Tom) and his bride of nine years Fae Dalton McArthur (Fae) decided to explore the south fork of the Virgin River called, after the Indian name, Parounaweep. They left from home (St. George, Utah) on a beautiful summer day and drove the 47 miles through beautiful Zion National Park and continued a few miles further east to Mount Carmel Junction. There they parked their car and began the hike downriver. They soon were in the canyon with beautiful sandstone cliffs rising on both sides of the river, formed by the continual downcutting of the stream they were following. The water was clear and there were springs along the walls of the canyon adding to the flow and causing patches of green on the walls of the canyon, following the cracked surface where the water exited in little streams or tiny drops.

They hiked the entire day and, as dusk came, they built a little fire on a sandbar along the stream and camped in the pleasant cool canyon with the soothing sound of the flowing water over the rocks. Early the next morning they continued their descent as the canyon walls got taller. The water began to gain speed and small rapids made the hikers slow down as they selected the best pathway to follow. They had crossed the river dozens of times as it curved between the stony cliffs.

Midday they began hearing the roar of water ahead as they carefully chose their way alongside the stream. The canyon narrowed constricting the flow of water to a narrow channel that gained speed and terminated in a waterfall about 30 feet down. The McArthurs found a tiny shelf out of the water on the north side of the river to rest and plan a way around or over the waterfall. After evaluating the risks and their equipment they determined to retrace their steps and save the challenge of the waterfall for another day.

Because they were running out of food, they decided to try going up a side canyon about a mile upstream from the waterfall. The canyon was on the north side of the riverbed and had a stream flowing down it. Fae waited at the junction while Tom explored the feasibility of going up the canyon. The slot canyon proved to be too dificult to go up when Tom encountered a cliff of about 15–20 feet that he would have to scale with Fae. He returned to her and they continued to go upriver for another mile and found another side canyon going north which was less constricted and had no cliffs.

They hiked north, eventually exiting the side canyon at a place called Poverty, which is midway between Zion and Mount Carmel. The couple, tired and dirty, waited alongside the roadway at Poverty until a car came along that was going east. They flagged it down and found that the driver was a good friend Garth Barton. He gladly took them to Mount Carmel Junction to retrieve their car.

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Tom resolved that one day he would return to the South Fork of the Virgin and discover where the slot canyon he first tried to climb exited from the river drainage. Then, in the early 60’s, (I don’t know the year) he invited two or three friends to go exploring with him down the river. They went to Poverty area and descended to the river the way he had come out years before. They had ropes and were determined to go past the waterfall that had ended his first descent.

They found a log wedged above the waterfall and were able to loop the rope over the log and shimmy down to the river below the waterfall. They continued to where the north and south forks of the Virgin river join at Shounsburg, just downriver from the town of Springdale. The hike took two days. One above the waterfall, and one below the falls.

•  The Fatman’s Hike  •

The summer of 1964 was a hot one! The sun was mercilessly beating down on the hikers who were descending the south face of one of the mesas that formed the drainage of the landscape just east of the east entrance of Zion National Park. They were on slickrock angling toward the narrow canyon to their right. It was early afternoon and they had already used up all of the water in the canteens they had brought—well, all but one of the leaders named Demille ... He was pouring water over his head and guzzling water recklessly without regard to our needs!

There were six of us plus our two leaders, George Lytle, James Larkin, Nick Esplin, Wendell Beard, Dave Arslanian and me, Tom D. Mcarthur. I have to use the initial because my dad, Tom P. McArthur, was our leader, and Demille, dad’s assistant, about 19 years old. Demille is the only name I remember of the assistant ... I never cared to remember his first name.

We cried out to Demille to share.

He responded, “You guys will remember next time to all bring your canteen like you were told.”

I had brought mine and had been freely sharing with the others until it was empty, like the other two we had. That was the moment that Demille lost his first name to me.

We had been hiking since daylight, six hours in the sun, mostly climbing up sandstone ridges in a southwesterly direction. About an hour before, we had crested the last ridge to see, below us, the narrow canyon to the southwest. It looked so small in the distance, but it had continually grown bigger as we descended toward its inviting shade.

After 10 minutes resting, we continued our angular path quickly walking in a line following Tom Sr. as Demille brought up the rear, singing “All day I face the baren waste without the taste of water.”

Finally we came to the bottom of the draw and to the welcome shade of a pinion pine growing in the sand that had piled itself over time against the spreading roots. We all sat and let the slight breeze cool us, as the moisture in our tea shirts dried.

We were six friends who enjoyed the outdoors, hiking, sports ... oops! We were five that enjoyed the above. One of us (to remain unnamed) was not into the physical stuff. We had coaxed, cajoled, and bribed until he agreed to come. He was already suffering from the exertion and heat, and he, above all, was vocal about “going back.”

We ate lunch in the shade—sandwiches, vienna sausages, apples, carrots, jerky that didn’t go down very well without water.

Dad looked at all of us, so hot and tired, and said, “Ah, yes! This is THEEEE life!”

Soon we came to our first narrow slot canyon. It began some 15 feet below the dry stream bed where we were standing. Tom Sr. got out his old, frayed yellow nylon rope, tossed one end down to the bottom, and tied the other to a boulder that had lodged in the opening to the slot. Demille quickly lowered himself using the rope then began taunting us to follow.

Others lowered themselves, but two of the group looked down, eyes widened, and exclaimed “It’s too narrow. We’re going back!” one from fear of closeness, the other from fear of heights!

For half an hour we talked, reasoned, encouraged, berated, and attempted to bribe. Finally the fear of heights was overcome and he quickly lowered himself. The last was finally tied onto the rope, pushed over the edge, and let down by the leaders. He was not happy!

Following the winding slot canyon, with its swirls and drops, was marvelous to behold! It widened at a swirl only to constrict again in the straights. The shade was welcome though we still hadn’t found water.

At the end of the narrows was a large pothole about 10 feet across and half full of water, with driftwood and scum floating on the entire surface. We had to jump down into the hole to exit the narrow slot canyon. Demille went first landing at the edge of the water, with his boots in mud up to his knees. Others followed with varying degrees of success until we got to HIM, our unhappy companion! He baulked and refused until someone behind pushed him in. He came up gasping and flailing in the scum. We all were so thirsty that we cleared some of the scum and drift and tried to strain the cloudy water of the mosquito larva before we drank enough to quench some of our thrist.

We passed through two more slot canyons before coming to the final big pothole that was nearly 40 feet across. We set up a line and moved our packs to the edge. Demille swam across the water and we attempted to toss the packs to him. Most fell short, and the ones long enough Demille dropped.

In the evening light, we exited the tributary canyon and were awed by the beautiful canyon of Parunuweep, the south fork of the Virgin River. We hiked up river about a half mile to the same sandbar used by my parents the first time they explored the river and set up camp. As we explored the sides of the canyon, one of our party lost his footing and fell about 10 feet upon his back. He wasn’t hurt, except that he landed in a prickly pear cactus and we spent a couple of hours pulling the tiny prickles from his backside.

The driftwood fire sent sparks skyward to the black sky set with myriads of twinkling stars. We lay on damp sleeping bags, watched the heavens framed by the dark cliffs above us, and spoke of the grandeur of God’s creations.The next morning we ate breakfast of cereal and trail mix and then packed our backpacks. The water was cold when we first entered it with our dry boots, but soon the shock wore off as we hiked down river.

About two miles down river, we began to hear the roar Tom Sr. had alerted us about, and soon we were feeling the tug of the increased flow of the river as it approached the waterfall. As the water deepened, we used the rope to help keep from being swept off the falls. We were so glad we did because our unhappy companion slipped and would have gone over the falls had he not had the rope to hold. The waterfall falls through a hole almost like a tube that opens at the bottom and is weathered to the point that it makes almost a keyhole shape opening. The path cut by the river as it recedes upstream leaves a ledge on each side much like the subway tube that is in the north of Zion National Park.

Into the top of the opening, between the shelves of rock, are large boulders and driftwood trees that have wedged in their journey downriver in a flood. We tied the old yellow rope to one of the driftwood trees wedged in the opening and lowered ourselves to the river below the waterfall. The descent is about 25–30 feet. Demille was first. Then, one at a time, we tied on to lower ourselves down. When the second of our companions was about 10 feet above the river, the rope broke and he landed in the 3 feet of water below. He called out, “You dirty cotton pickers.” He thought we had cut the rope. You guessed it! Our ‘fear of heights,’ and ‘not physical’ friends baulked on this one! It seemed like hours and grievous threats before first one and then the other permitted themselves to be lowered on a worn, newly–repaired, yellow nylon rope.

After the waterfall the canyon opens up and the river spreads to make for less interesting or exciting walking. We ate lunch while still in the canyon and then trudged toward Shounsburg in late afternoon. The drive to St. George was uneventful with the exception of our friend continually complaining with such vigor that we finally had to demand he be quiet.

After the hike we contemplated what to call it, and one of our group, I truly don’t know who said it .... “It certainly is a fat man’s misery!’ And there you have it! The way Fat Man’s Misery hike got its name.

The hike has been modified since receiving its name to go upstream, instead of down, at the junction with the south fork of the Virgin, and it begins at Checkerboard Mesa in Zion National Park. But, in essence, it still is our beloved FAT MAN’S MISERY.

I don’t know how many times dad hiked Fat Man’s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it reached a hundred. He had such joy sharing it with family and friends. It truly would be worth your time to hike it.

Thomas D. McArthur

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© 2016 Thomas D. McArthur