There's a mostly unspoken acknowledgment among the voluntarily impoverished dues-payers of our towns that it's better to be fiscally poor yet rich in experience -- living the dream -- than to be traditionally wealthy but live separate from one's passions. There is an undercurrent of attitude among the high-country proletariat that to buy one's way back into the experience of resort life is a shameful scarlet letter. Better to be the penniless local than the affluent visitor. (But the locals depend on the visitors to survive, so the implied elitism is less than fair.) We understand our mutual membership on the same side of the equation.
The same is true of our environmental sensibilities. We each hold Edward Abbey -- combative conservationist; anti-development, anti-tourism, and anti-mining essayist; beer swiller; militant ecoterrorist; lover of the wilderness and women (preferably wilderness women, though those are unfortunately rare) -- as a sage of environmentalism. Remembering an oddball quote of his, I say how he delighted in taking things to the extreme. "I think there was an essay where he wrote, 'Of course, we're all hypocrites. The only true act of an environmentalist would be to shoot himself in the head. Otherwise he's still contaminating the place by his mere presence.' That's a paraphrase, but it's effectively what he said."
"That's kind of morbid," Megan replies, putting on a face of sham guilt for not shooting herself.
Moving on from Ed Abbey, we discover that we're each experienced in slot canyoneering. Kristi asks me what my favorite slot canyon is, and without hesitation, I recount my experience in Neon Canyon, an unofficially named branch of the Escalante River system in south-central Utah. I wax poetic about its five rappels, the keeper pothole (a deep, steep, and smooth-walled hole in the canyon floor that will "keep" you there if you don't have a partner to boost out first), and the Golden Cathedral: a bizarre rappel through a sandstone tunnel in the roof of an alcove the size of Saint Peter's that leaves you hanging free from the walls for almost sixty feet until you land in a large pool of water and then swim to the shore.
"It's phenomenal, you have to go," I conclude.
Kristi tells me about her favorite slot, which is just across the dirt road from the Granary Spring Trailhead. It's one of the upper forks of the Robbers Roost drainage, nicknamed "Mindbender" by her Outward Bound friends. She describes a passage in that slot where you traverse the canyon wedged between the walls some fifteen feet off the ground, the V-shaped slot tapering to a few inches wide at your feet, and even narrower below that.
I mentally add that one to my to-do list.
A few minutes later, just before noon, we arrive at a steep, smooth slide down a rock face, which heralds the first slot and the deeper, narrower sections that have drawn us to Blue John Canyon. I slide fifteen feet down the rock embankment, skidding on the soles of my sneakers, leaving a pair of black streaks on the pink sandstone and spilling forward into the sand at the bottom of the wall. Hearing the noise as she comes around the corner, Kristi sees me squatting in the dirt and assumes I have fallen. "Oh my gosh, are you OK?" she asks.
"Oh yeah, I'm fine. I did that on purpose," I tell her in earnest, as the skid truly had been intentional. I catch her glance, a good-natured shot that tells me she believes me but thinks I'm silly for not finding an easier way down. I look around and, seeing an obviously less risky access route that would have avoided the slide, I feel slightly foolish.
Five minutes later, we come to the first section of difficult downclimbing, a steep descent where it's best to turn in and face the rock, reversing moves that one would usually use for climbing up. I go down first, then swing my backpack around to retrieve my video camera and tape Megan and Kristi. Kristi pulls a fifteen-foot-long piece of red webbing out of her matching red climber's backpack and threads it through a metal ring that previous canyoneering parties have suspended on another loop of webbing tied around a rock. The rock is securely wedged in a depression behind the lip of the drop-off, and the webbing system easily holds a person's weight. Grasping the webbing, Megan backs herself down over the drop-off. She has to maneuver around an overhanging chockstone -- a boulder suspended between the walls of the canyon -- that blocks an otherwise easy scramble down into the deepening slot. Once Megan is down, Kristi follows skittishly, as she doesn't completely trust the webbing system. After she's down, I climb back up to retrieve Kristi's webbing.
From Between A Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston, pages 1-30. Copyright © 2004 by Aron Ralston. All rights reserved, no part of this excerpt maybe reproduced without specific permission from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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