It was day 5 of my Thanksgiving trip and I was waking up next to the San Juan River as it winded through the red stoned cliffs that surrounded it. Today was the day I was going to charge up Slickhorn Canyon like a ball of fire and nothing was going to stop me.
Getting ready to hike the CDT is a challenge that will test you in many ways, so for this Thanksgiving I decided to give myself a good physical challenge. For the past 7 years I have taken a backpacking trip to southern Utah during the Thanksgiving holiday. Like any addicted backpacker you view company days off, especially a Thursday and Friday, as just an excuse to take a nice long backpacking trip. This year I decided on an 82.2 mile loop in the Grand Gulch Primitive area in southern Utah that would test me physically, logistically and navigationally. I’ve been to the Grand Gulch before, always wanting to hike the entire length. My prize would be the smell and sounds of the river and all the water I could drink. Instead of just going back the way I came, I planned to walk the 3 miles along the San Juan to the opening of Slickhorn Canyon and then hike up the canyon to my bike. My mountain bike was chained to a juniper tree that would take me the 7 miles back to my car, creating what I called the Grand Loop. From all the research I did, I didn’t see any mention of this loop or anybody doing it, so I will just announce now that I am the first person to ever do it (probably not true).
I was going to hike 82.2 miles in 8 days with just my map and compass, no GPS. I brought 15.2 lbs of food equaling 1.9 lbs of food per day, which would keep me feed and warm in the expected 50 degree days and mid 20 degree nights.
My gear was a minimal collection of a frameless pack, half sleep pad, 20 degree bag, a freestanding tarp, long johns, long sleeve top, cut off pants, 2 pairs of socks, 1 change of undies and my beloved hat. I’ve had my hat since I first started backpacking and it has been on all my adventures. It’s my favorite piece of gear that I never leave home without.
I left my job in Boulder at 4 pm, arriving at the Bullet Canyon Trail head at 12 am. In the morning I drove to Slickhorn Canyon #1 and locked up my mountain bike to a Juniper tree with a note asking anyone that found it not to steal it, hoping they would listen. I started down Bullet Canyon on Saturday at 10 am, watching the canyon walls grow higher and higher around me as I descended to the canyon floor. I stopped at Perfect Kiva to sit in it again; it was like visiting an old friend after a long absence. That night I camped near Totem pole with the sound of light rain hitting my tent which was good fortune as this lowered my water problems just a bit. I hiked the next couple of days going down the Grand Gulch, walking in the rocky creek bed and trudging through the sand. As I walked, I passed many ruins, hieroglyphics and petroglyphs that were on the map, but found far more that weren’t. Staying alert in Canyon country is important because there are no warm and fuzzy signs pointing you to the sites or telling you which canyon is which. You have to pay attention because one missed canyon or water source can have a negative effect on your trip.
I was moving faster than expected over the next couple of days. My daily schedule included getting up at 7 each day, leaving camp by 7:45 and eating my breakfast bars as I started hiking. This is the schedule that I wanted to replicate, to be like what it will be on the CDT; chasing the sun to get in my daily mileage, repetition at its finest. I reached the San Juan on Day 4 of my trip and what a great sight it was. The beautifully flowing river, so soft in its appearance, cutting through the canyon like it had been built there. The smell of the water, the shadows across the walls of the canyons and the sense of finally making it here after 4 years of wishing was tremendous. I was very happy to say the least. That night I setup my shelter 3 yards from the San Juan, making a little fire from wood a NOLS group had left behind and smoked a fine cigar. Everything was right in the world.
The next morning was a completely different situation. What I thought would be an easy 3 mile, 2 hour trip ended up taking me 6 ½ hours to complete. I had counted on there being a small patch of vegetation hugging the river the whole way that I could walk along to the mouth of Slickhorn. Instead what I got were constant up and down ledges, over and around large and small boulders that were constantly shifting and sliding from beneath my feet. The vegetation was thick and tough to push through, not to mention the sharp and prickly plants that were eager to taste a sample of my blood. After 6 ½ hours of difficult hiking I was happy to be approaching the mouth of the canyon. As I sat down after that long and difficult hike a huge bee stung me right on the back, in the one spot that I could barely reach. What a great way to conclude such a day. I decided to not hike any further; I’d had enough of hiking, so I setup camp again by the San Juan making the best out of a hard day. That night I had a dream that made me feel unworthy of being in a place like this, that I was some how faking it. In my dream I was still the 292 lb person I had been just 11 months earlier; sad, fat and depressed. I woke up at 6:30 that morning and the first words out of my mouth was “Fuck you!!!!” I was determined that day to push it hard, to hike my ass off and push myself to my personal edge. I hiked almost nonstop from 7 am until 6 pm while gaining 2,800 feet of elevation when I finally reached my bike in the dark. I was a blaze of fire coming out of that canyon, which was difficult to navigate with its endless pour offs to navigate and multiple side canyons tempting me in wrong directions.
That day I hiked the most I had ever hiked in my entire life with a pack on: 17.9 miles. In the morning, I mounted my bike with sore and wobbly legs to peddle the 7 miles back to my car. The road was a mix of deep sand with some hard pack mixed in to tease me. I reached my car on Friday at 10:30 am; it had taken me 6 days, not the 8 to go 82.2 miles. I was so happy that not only had I accomplished my goal of completing this loop but, because 12 months ago I had set a goal to lose weight and get fit enough so I could do things exactly like what I had just done. I had accomplished my goal.