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.

——

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!

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