Soloing in the Desert

I am alone in remote wilderness in the desert of The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a vast area in the American West. The only sound I hear is the wind blowing through the juniper trees. It has been blowing all day, dusting everything with fine sand. In a low, protected-from-the-wind spot next to a 40-foot high, peach-colored bluff of sandstone and behind tall sage brush, I spread my ground cloth, sleeping pad and sleeping bag. The skies are clear. I look forward to seeing the stars and satellites in the night sky. Though I have been camping for over 50 years, this is my first night ever solo camping. I love being in wilderness. When modern life is too busy or I have had too much of city life, I go to the wilderness. It grounds me and restores my sense of self and place. It is where I feel awe.

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The Escalante wilderness is a huge flat plateau mainly comprised of desert scrubland with canyons that cut down into it. The canyons often are lush riparian zones along the creeks and rivers that seasonally flood (May-Sep). Some canyons include narrow slots so beware of being in them during the flash flood season. The best times to go are March, April and October. Flash flooding is serious.

The Escalante area is known for sandstone arches, natural bridges, slot canyons, ancient rock art and hoodoos. I have come here to test myself by soloing in the desert and day hike to places I missed in previous trips.

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Devil’s Garden hike

My camp is near the end of the Harris Wash road about 26 miles from the nearest town of Escalante, Utah, population 779. Maybe it is my cave woman instinct that knows predators hunt at dusk, but twilight in camp is the only time I am a bit unnerved by being alone. As the evening deepens into dark, however, the wind stops and the little creatures that rustle in the grasses quiet. I snuggle into my sleeping bag and watch the stars slowly appear overhead. Seeing the constellations Orion, the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia orient me on this little spot of earth. Smiling, I drift to sleep.

 Early the next morning, I find my sleeping bag covered with frost. I pull on multiple layers of clothes thinking of my warm bedroom back home; start the water heating on the stove; and spread my bag in the sunshine on nearby sage brush. While my stuff dries, I eat instant oatmeal and drink hot coffee. I hum while packing the car. My plan for the day is to hike for a couple of hours among the other-worldly hoodoos and sandstone arches at Devil’s Garden; drive down the Hole-in-the-Rock Road to eat lunch at and explore the natural amphitheater, Dance Hall Rock, and the pockets behind it; and find the beautiful campsite near there that my husband and I discovered several years ago.
Egypt Bench Road

Egypt Bench Road

All goes as planned until after lunch when I try to start my 2000 Nissan Pathfinder. The key does not turn in the ignition switch. I flip the key upside down and try it again, and again. I am 41 miles from Escalante; and there are very few people who come along here. Even if I could find someone, it would be a long tow back to town. I wonder if there are any mechanics in town that could fix my old truck. Then I recall the spare key I have with me. I try that key and it does not work. Pause. I flip over the key and try it again. It works! As I put the car in gear, I decide I need to be much closer to town than my original plan. And I need a campsite that is on a road that will have more people in the event I should need to hitch a ride to town.

 A lovely spot along the Egypt Bench road is a sound choice, so I go there. This part of the wilderness, however, permits open-range cattle and there are cow pies all over the campsite. If I sleep on my bedroll under the stars, could cattle accidentally step on me? I erect my tent and bed down for the night. Awakening at sunrise, I fix coffee and drink it while watching the warm light wash over the 50-Mile Bench formation.
Calf Creek

Calf Creek

Later I drive to and hike Calf Creek Falls. I stay in a formal campground with nice pit toilets and a picnic table. My site is next to Calf Creek and I can hear the water gurgling as it splashes over the rocks in the creek bed. It feels luxurious. As I settle down for sleep, alas, one of the RV’s generators turns on. I am reminded why I much prefer camping in wilderness without a table and toilet.

Things I learned:

– Redundancy is important—double car keys, multiple lights, matches, spare tire, etc. The rule: If something breaks or you lose something causing your trip to be ruined, have a spare with you.

– Respect nature and my abilities. There are natural features in this wilderness that require climbing way beyond my skills and strength. Postpone going there until I am with a skillful person.

– When soloing, be aware of the situation.

 – I was depending on myself so I made sure I felt OK about where I was. I trusted my discomfort and instead found sites that were beautiful and less risky.

– When I want to go into the wilderness, I don’t need to wait for family and friends to be available. As explorer Bill Tilman said on how to have an adventure, Put on a good pair of boots and walk out the door.

I am capable and confident. I loved being on my own. It was super fun!

Weapons, safety and tools

  • My husband and friends, concerned about my safety being alone in wilderness, urged for me to take some kind of weapon to protect myself. I chose a Spyderco knife because it is easy to use with one hand and extremely sharp. I rejected taking a gun because it is good for long distance protection. Knives are better for close encounters. On this trip, I didn’t need protection, but the knife was very handy opening sealed packages and slicing vegetables.
  • I used a Spot Satellite GPS messenger unit. There are multiple buttons on this clever device. I used it to send an OK message each noon and night so my family and friends knew I was safe and to provide them with my GPS coordinates. It worked great!
  • Being lost in wilderness is scary and unnecessary. I used 3 books and a couple of maps, listed in the below Books & Map section.

When you go: If you dream of exploring this wilderness area, below is the list of the equipment and clothes that I used for my five-day trip; and available resources. Adjust the list for your particular trip needs.

Equipment

  • REI Quarter Dome T3 Ultralight 3-season tent
  • Therm-a-rest pad
  • The North Face Women’s Snowshoes 0°F sleeping bag. Next time, I will add a Thermolite sleeping bag liner to keep the bag cleaner on the inside and make the bag 5-10 degrees warmer
  • Petzl headlamp and extra batteries; and a Mini Maglite flashlight in the glove box in the car
  • Coleman 2-burner stove, matches and a couple of lighters
  • 2 large, sturdy totes—one to store cook pans, cup, bowl, spoons and clean-up kit; and the other to carry non-perishable food, which was most of my food.
  • Arctic Zone soft-sided ice chest
  • Reliance 6-gallon hard plastic jug for water
  • Doodie bag (Ziploc bag with a plastic trowel, half a roll of toilet paper and small bottle of hand sanitizer)
  • Joos Orange solar panel to charge my smart phone and iPad. (Be sure to fully charge the battery before you go.)
  • CamelBak Helena22 daypack

A word about women’s equipment – Unless you have a boyish figure, don’t bother with men’s equipment. It doesn’t fit. Women’s daypacks and women’s sleeping bags are built for women’s curvy bodies and lower center of gravity. It makes sense, doesn’t it?

Clothes

  • Long underwear for pajamas
  • 2 women’s long-sleeved wool tee shirt
  • 2 women’s cargo pants
  • Medium weight wool sweater
  • Hooded sweatshirt
  • Fleece jacket
  • Waterproof rain jacket and pants
  • 3 pairs of wool socks
  • 1 pair of gloves
  • 1 Wallaroo hat
  • 3 pairs of underpants
  • 3 sports bras
  • Hiking boots
  • Sneakers

Supplies

  • Escalante Mercantile is my favorite grocery store in the town. It sells natural food that works well for camping. Marcie Hoffman, the owner, was trained in design and it shows in her lovely store.
  • Escalante Outfitters is the place to go to supplement your gear or clothes. This is a family-run business, so pick up a couple of souvenirs there, too.

Restaurants

  • Escalante Outfitters – a relaxed café with excellent coffees, really good food to eat, and a nice selection of beers to drink. They also have free wifi.
  • Circle D Eatery – be sure to order one of their fabulous hamburgers which are made from local range-fed cattle. It was the best hamburger I have had in years.
  • Kiva Café – northeast of town, a delightful little restaurant with fancy coffees, teas and tasty food. It also displays high quality rugs, pottery and other locally-made art. It is well worth a stop.

Books & Map

  • Canyoneering by Steve Allen
  • Hiking the Escalante by Rudi Lambrechtse
  • Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau by Michael Kelsey (For mere mortals, double or triple the time the author says it took him to hike a trail.)
  • Trails Illustrated Map – National Geographic Canyons of the Escalante. (When I go backpacking in this wilderness, I also get a topo map of the area I am exploring.)

Guides & Outfitters

If you don’t really know how to camp or backpack in deserts and canyons; or you just want someone else to take care of things, hire a guide. They will take you on wonderful adventures and keep you safe. The guides are often outfitters, too, so they can provide the gear. Below is an alphabetical list of the guides and outfitter in Escalante that the Bureau of Land Management says are approved.

  • Desert Adventures – Mark Saunto (+1 435-826-4967)
  • Escalante Outfitters – Nathan Waggoner (+1 435-826-4266)
  • Escape Goats – Shari & Shawn Miller (+1 435-826-4652)
  • Excursions of the Escalante LLC – Rick Green (435-826-4714)
  • Turn-About Ranch – Chris Christensen (435-826-4240)

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