Fear and Loving in the San Rafael Swell

They were 3,000 years old, guarded by wooden cattle gates. We—my traveling companion Elissa and I—had to drive miles in the wrong direction to get to them, finally going through a tunnel under I-70, a tunnel with a deep puddle we weren’t sure the car could clear. It did, saints be praised. It was hot—September in the southern half of Utah. It was raining and thundering in the best desert way. Emerging from the tunnel and the water, we took the right fork toward a bluff standing ominous against the clouds.

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For some reason everything felt ominous to me on this trip. It started with our first night. We camped beside Crystal Geyser—one of the few cold-water geysers in the world (caused by carbon dioxide rather than geothermal influences). The geyser is situated on the banks of the Green River a little south of the town of Green River, Utah. We arrived to see a heron standing in the river, silhouetted in the twilight.

As we put up our tent by the car headlights, it began: the geyser erupted in the dark. Crystal Geyser can erupt for as long as two hours, and this must have been one of its long nights. We lay listening to it until we fell asleep. As Elissa later put it, we fell asleep to the sound of the ocean in the middle of the Utah desert. And that is magical. But I felt a creeping, irrational fear. What if the geyser burst its bounds and washed us away? I was embarrassed to have the thought, but there it was. Whence this sense of unease?

Perhaps it’s this: I love wilderness, but I didn’t grow up in it. I’m from a very indoorsy family. I loved sleeping out in the backyard in the summertime and hearing the train whistles all the way across the Salt Lake Valley. But that was all the camping I did till I was a teenager and went to hyperorganized and hypercivilized church camp. I didn’t own a tent until I was well into my second year of dart trips. And here we were camping on middle-of-nowhere BLM land—which means you can camp for free but with zero amenities. I’d long wanted to camp on BLM land, but maybe I had some apprehension I wasn’t even conscious of.

Anyway, it will come as no surprise that the geyser remained decorously in its channel; we survived the night.

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Where Crystal Springs empties into the Green River

The next day, we visited the Black Dragon Canyon rock art panel a few miles west of Green River. The panel has been extensively vandalized, but it still has some impressive rock art and is in a gorgeous setting. I highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area.

Next up was another panel farther west, near where we would be camping for the night. I’d found directions to the imaginatively named Petroglyph Canyon online, but they were extremely cryptic. We didn’t start our search till the early evening, so it began to get dark as we hunted for mysterious landmarks such as “the reef” (there were at least three reefs) and “the next drainage” (we neither of us quite knew what a drainage was). We gave up, said we’d try in the morning, and pitched our tent.

That night was unleashed a mighty storm.

The wind was loud and wild. Louder and wilder than any wind I’d ever been so exposed and vulnerable to. Sometimes it would lull. But then we could hear it far off in the trees coming inexorably nearer and nearer. Was this the gust that would do it? That would unstake our tent and fling us into the treetops? I have never as an adult felt so much like a little girl. So deeply, primordially, irrationally afraid. Finally, we decided to wait for the next calm and make a mad dash for the car. When the calm came, we hastily unstaked our tent and ran. The wind died down after that, but the disquiet I had begun to feel near the geyser the night before had ratcheted up to a deep—and rather embarrassing—terror.

The next morning dawned grayish, and we were ready to find this elusive panel of pictographs. (Spoiler alert: we never found it. Thanks, climb-utah.com, for your bizarre directions.) The last route we tried took us to a lush little canyon. It was like we’d stepped through a magic portal from the desert to the jungle. The flora was not like any I’d seen before, and there were frogs and the grass and shrubs were lying flat against the earth. Lying flat from what I felt sure was flash flooding.

Oh, flash flooding. One of my deepest irrational fears. Well, it’s not irrational to fear flash floods. They are not to be messed with. But my fear is irrational because I am seldom in a position to be caught in a flash flood. I mean, it can happen to anyone, I suppose, but I am pretty cautious when it comes to stuff like that. You pay attention to the weather, make sure there are no warnings in the area, etc. Right?

Anyway, there we were in this tropical desert canyon, looking for anything that looked like the landmarks pointing the way to Petroglyph Canyon. And there was flat grass. And it began to rain. The creeping fear from the geyser, the primordial dread from the windstorm, my terror of flash floods—well, I snapped. I turned and ran for the mouth of the canyon. I blush thinking about it, and I’m sure Elissa thought I was crazy.

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Elissa in the jungle

We survived yet again, gave up our search for Petroglyph Canyon (someday I’ll find it!), and left for the Head of Sinbad pictograph panel.

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We came out of the flooded tunnel, took the right fork, and eventually found ourselves at the base of a lonely bluff there in the San Rafael Swell, face to face with the most vivid, piquant pictographs I had ever seen. Three thousand years old and they look like they were painted yesterday.

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This photo does not do them justice. Go!

Thunder made a splendid (and maybe a little menacing) echo against the bluff. I could have stayed forever there in the rain with the jaunty trickster figure, the powerful priest, and the mysterious ghosts/jellyfish. I fell in deep love.

But it was time to go to the dart landing. It was out in the middle of the San Rafael Swell with no roads within seven miles of it. We knew we couldn’t get to it without a full day of hiking, probably without a trail. We didn’t have time for that, so we found the road that got the closest and drove to a point that was at the same basic latitude as the dart. As we drove, the rain began in earnest, the clouds obscuring the desert and its buttes and mesas. We ended up in a hilly area that boasted junipers and wildflowers; we’d crossed over a line dividing red rock country from austere central Utah. But I love austere central Utah, so I was perfectly happy.

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With all of the fear and dread I felt on this trip, you may think it was not one of my favorite dart trips. But it’s in my top five. I guess I don’t really mind fear, especially when my rational mind knows I am not in any real danger; the whole struggle between rational and irrational was honestly a little intoxicating. I think that intoxication heightened my reaction to the Head of Sinbad pictographs. It’s strange: I want to take everyone to see them, but I have not been back yet (this trip took place in September 2014). Maybe I don’t want to ruin that first experience—something about all the terror and the thunder and rain. How could I top it?

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Looking out from the Head of Sinbad panel

Note: Also on this trip, we participated in Melon Days in Green River (the town has long been known for its delicious melons). We watched the parade, saw pageant winners perform, ate tons of free watermelon, and didn’t win the raffle for a helicopter ride. Melon Days is every Labor Day weekend, so you should check it out. Green River has a few cheap motels if you don’t want to camp. I like the Robber’s Roost. I don’t think the décor has changed since the 70s. I’ve wound up in Green River quite often since I started darting, and it’s become a bit of a home away from home. Visit the John Wesley Powell River History Museum and of course the Crystal Geyser just outside of town. Oh, and a word to the wise: if you go to Melon Days and buy a bunch of melons, do not leave them in your car overnight. The smell!

How to Dart…

So how does darting work?  (See The Beginning for background.) Well, I go to dartonmap.net and draw a box around Utah and throw. If the dart lands in the little unavoidable bit of Wyoming that comes with drawing a rectangle around Utah, I throw again. Other than that, no do-overs are allowed. Not for me. It doesn’t matter if I land in an alpine location in January. I just get as close as I can. That’s the adventure for me. If I can’t get close, though, I don’t sweat it. Sometimes it’s raining on a dirt road and you’re in your mom’s low-riding Camry with two nervous nieces in the back seat. So you don’t go the last mile. No big deal.

But sometimes you can get to the exact latitude and longitude—and that’s always my goal. I like that precision and that bizarreness. Why drive out on a deserted road 10 miles due west of Cedar City and walk 250 paces north? Because of the damn dart. Under no other circumstances would I be on this road, on this blessed BLM land. And that’s the rush for me.

In search of these random locations, I’ve wandered into other people’s cow pastures; poked around what felt like dangerously close to Dugway Proving Grounds (where I felt sure I would get cancer just from walking in the dirt, because who knows what they do on the other side of those fences); slid off the muddy Historical Transcontinental Railroad Grade with three kids in the back seat (see Camry above); stood surrounded by sky and nothing and bright orange wildflowers in the far western reaches of Utah’s share of the Great Basin; and tried and tried to get up the eastern face of the Oquirrh Mountains with absolutely no success because that dear range has been so utterly ravaged by private interests.

Precision darting might not be for you. You may be a landmark-based darter: you throw the dart and find the closest interesting thing to it. I do that too. I want to get to know the area. But since the dart is the impetus, I guess I want to pay my respects to its exact landing site too.

You might believe only in physical darts and maps and think I’m too fancy with my virtual dart and map. That’s okay too. My only concern with physical darting is that I’m sure I would do one of two things: 1) Try to make the dart land in southern Utah every single time or 2) Always throw it smack in the middle like I couldn’t help but try to make a bull’s-eye. Hello, Richfield. Again. And again. (I love you, but not quite that much.)

So I guess I would say you should dart how you want to. But I recommend absolute surrender. The dart is magic. I promise it is.

Once I said “The dart has never landed north of Salt Lake.” The next time I threw it, it landed on the shores of Bear Lake in northeastern Utah.

Once the dart landed on the center line of an annular eclipse of the sun (that’s the spectacular ring-of-fire style of eclipse).

Once I was desperately broke, and the dart knew and landed right by a place I already had to go that month so I could kill two birds with one stone.

Besides being clairvoyant, the dart just straight up rocks. It took me on a free hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Gods (Monument Valley’s little sidekick to the north).

It introduced me to the Sun Tunnels, a land art installation in middle of nowhere northwestern Utah. (Go! Go on the solstice, which is what the installation was made for.)

It surprised me with world-class art in tiny Delta, Utah. (At the Topaz Museum, which houses a stunning collection of work by Japanese-American artists who were imprisoned in the area during World War II.)

It has shown me panel after panel of petroglyphs and pictographs, including the spectacular 3,000-year-old Head of Sinbad panel near Green River.

Seriously, folks. Surrender to it.

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So, if I can keep any momentum up, my plan is this: I will write at random about the dart trips I have taken the past five years and also about the new trips I go on. And I really want to feature some guest posts too, especially from darters who live in states other than Utah or countries other than the USA. I’d love to hear from darters in all fifty states and all around the world. Leave a comment if you are interested in posting, and we can figure it out.

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The Beginning

I have long been in love with the random, and for almost as long in love with travel. So one day in January 2012, I thought to myself “I bet you anything there’s a website out there that lets you throw a virtual dart at a virtual map.” I was right.

I found DartOnMap.net, which welcomes visitors with a beguiling invitation in just-off English: “Here you can throw a dart on a map, see where it lands and maybe you would want to go there. Enjoy!”

On the site, you can throw the dart at the whole world, just at a certain continent, or at a custom area you select yourself.

Each month, I accept DartOnMap’s invitation and draw a custom box around my home state of Utah, throw the dart, and make my way to the landing site.

On this site, I will chronicle these travels. My hope is to encourage you to visit some of the amazing places I’ve been, or better yet to encourage you to throw your own darts in your own areas of the world. Local, state, or regional darting is a simple, inexpensive way to keep travel a part of your life even when you can’t go to Zanzibar or Auckland. My trips are never more than three days, and most are just an overnight. Some have just been day trips.

Why Utah? I grew up here but beat it for the East Coast shortly after graduating from college. Nine years later I came home, and I wanted to get to know my home state better.

Why else Utah? It is a state of astonishing topographical diversity and beauty.

Why the dart? It excites me to travel to places I’ve never been, but even more so to places I had never even thought of going to before. This to me is truly exotic travel.

 

Behind all of these reasons is another reason: I lost my father in December 2011, one month before I threw my first dart. I have dedicated this project to him and here’s why:

  1. My dad loved to be on the go. His love for motion was either infectious or inherited—either way, I love motion too.
  2. Even though my dad was absolutely not outdoorsy, he loved Utah and saw a lot of it. He was a member of Utah Opera and traveled to schools all over the state as part of their opera in the schools program. He expressed a special affection for rural Utah, and I want to see what he saw or may have seen. I’m looking for him in the nooks and crannies of Utah.
  3. I don’t think I ever heard him say he hated a place he’d visited. He was open and curious. I like to think that I approach my trips with this spirit.
  4. I started to go on these dart trips in the wake of the worst thing that had ever happened to me—losing him. These trips, these darts, were my companions in what I call the wailing year and beyond.

Coming up next: How to Dart.

 

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