A Christmas Even hike with Belle


The author and his dog explore Buckskin Gulch.

I kissed my wife goodbye, made myself a mug of cocoa and stepped outside into our backyard. It was morning of Dec. 24th.   The morning sun had just begun to remove the chill from the air, which gives the atmosphere that peculiar desert-dawn quality when the warmth and the chill are both present, and felt simultaneously; a feeling like pressing your forehead against a winter window on a sunny day, when you can feel the chill of the window and the warmth of the sun behind it at the same time. Just one of the many qualities I love about Page in the winter.

Though it was chilly, the sun was shining and the skies were blue to all five horizons.

My wife was at work. I had the day off. Now, this was four years ago, before my daughter had been born; back then, when I had the day off work I was free to do whatever I wanted, and I was in the mood for an adventure.

I walked back into the house, where our dog, Belle, was lying on the couch.

“What about you, girl? Feel like having an adventure today?”

Asking a lab if it’s in the mood for an adventure is the most rhetorical of questions.

I went to the garage and brought back my daypack and filled it with some bottles of water, Belle’s water bowl, dog food, and a sandwich for me.

Belle remained curled on the couch, but she was now watching me intently. To someone who didn’t know her as well as I do she would have appeared cool and calm, maybe even disinterested and bored, but she was the candle ready to throw off the bushel, and though she kept calm, she couldn’t hide the new alertness and hopefulness that gleamed in her eyes.

I keep Belle’s collar on a peg in the kitchen. I only make her wear it when we go on walks, so when I grabbed it off its peg she bounded off the couch endowed with the energy of the Explorer’s Exuberance, and her exuberance beamed right out of her and filled the room with its light. Her exuberance is very contagious!

She ran around our living room in her patented ecstatic panic; doing what my wife and I call her Belley Dance. Feet prancing, she bowed, barked, leapt, her tail whapping like wiper blades in a Blue Norther.

Belle’s leash hung on the peg beside her collar but that I left where it hung.

“You won’t need a leash where we’re going,” I told her.

An hour later we arrived at the Buckskin Gulch trailhead. Opening Belle’s door was like opening the gates of the Belmont Stakes. Belle ran! She jumped! She vanished into the frost-covered sagebrush after the first scent she came upon. By the time I’d finished filling out our trailhead permit Belle had chased that scent 200 feet in the direction opposite Buckskin Gulch. I could only see the tip of her happy tail whipping above the sagebrush like a dune buggy flag. 

I whistled. “This way Belle!” and watched her tail change course and come my way. Man, I love that dog!

One of my second jobs back then was guiding clients on overland trips throughout the Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Staircase-Escalante and I’d taken my clients to Buckskin Gulch several times, but I’d always taken them in through Wire Pass (a tributary canyon four miles down canyon). I have never entered Buckskin Gulch from its upper trailhead and I was burning with Explorer’s Exuberance – the anticipation of spending the day exploring a new place – and Belle was visibly trembling with it. If she stands still she will probably explode. So she ran, trying to smell five bushes at the same time.

It was the perfect day for a walk. Blue skies. Chilly, rosy-cheek air. The late-December ground half covered with crusty, two week old snow, the other half covered with half-thawed mud.

    The trail wound through a sagebrush field along the edge of a gully. I watched happy Belle sniff one bush, and pee on the next one. She then crossed the gully and did the same on the other side. She was ecstatic! She leapt off hills and over bushes like she was a year old pup. Belle, under exploration’s spell, is easily a ten horsepower dog.

    The canyon trail we traveled was bordered on all sides by stumpy, non-descript, orange cliff walls covered in camo patterns of half-gone snow. I followed the trail over muddy meadows where the mud built up on my boot soles like emails in my inbox, then l dropped down into the gully where I crossed the frozen stream with short Geisha steps, then back up the side of the gully, where the trail, once again, meandered through the sagebrush. The only thing that meanders more than a stream is a trail made by a well-fed cow, and surely this trail was made by a herd of very content cows.

After an hour of running, leaping and exploring Belle had burned off enough energy that allowed her fervor to drop to a low, comfortable thrum, but she still circulated in my general vicinity, doing a non-stop, Chinese fire drill around me.

Three miles below the trailhead Buckskin Gulch transforms from a gully running through a redwall-rimmed meadow into a narrow slot canyon, it in fact plunges into it like the doorway to Petra.

Inside the slot canyon its widest spots is about as wide as a single highway lane, yet in many places it’s no wider than the strip of grass between Jeep tracks, and there are several spots where I was able to touch both walls at the same time with my outstretched hands.

    Buckskin Gulch’s walls are made from Navajo Sandstone, and countless flashfloods through numerous millennia have sculpted the walls into a pattern of majestic fluting. Walking through Buckskin Gulch is a bit like walking down a narrow hallway that was inspired by a Georgia O’keefe’s famous flower. It’s like walking the corridor between theater curtains. To me it looks like a six foot high top, with serrated blades along its sides, was sent spinning and caroming down this Jurassic hallway, grinding away scallops and chevrons of wall in every spot it collided.

    Because Buckskin Gulch is so narrow very little direct sunlight penetrates into it. Especially three days after the winter solstice. Thus, the light that finally reaches your eye is very soft and diffused. It looks like it’s been sifted a half dozen times through filters of citron and saffron. The soft sunlight draws out the pinks, reds, oranges, and purples of the Navajo Sandstone’s iron oxide, and this choiring light draws Belle and I ever deeper into it, like the white stag draws the hunter deeper into the forest.

Belle bounced from one wall and back to the as if her nose was a Pong dot and the rest of her was doing its best to keep up. We traveled down that ancient hallway to the Wire Pass junction where the canyon suddenly flares open into a box about the size of a football field.

There, on a tall cliff wall we found several Anasazi petroglyphs, including petroglyphs of men, bighorn sheep, and a mysterious dotted line forming a continuous wave traveling the entire length of the wall.  We ate our lunch and drank some water in a sunny wedge, then, content with our day’s discoveries, we turned back in the direction of the Jeep.

By the time we returned to the car two hours later we were both very tired. But it was the most beautiful, satisfying kind of tired; the tired of having spent your day in the exuberant spell of exploring!

It felt good, really good, to have spent a day running wild in the wild.

At the car I squatted down until I was face to face with Belle.

“Thanks for the great adventure, buddy!”

And to my surprise Belle licked my face, and I let her. Belle is a shy girl. In the 16 months that I’ve known her, this was one of fewer than five times that she has licked me. Maybe after our eight mile walk she just needed some salt, and my face and forehead certainly glowed with it, but Belle has a very expressive face and the positioning of her ears, the angle of her eyebrows, and the light in her eyes seemed to be saying, Thanks for a great adventure!

“No, thank you, amiga! I think I needed that more than you!”

I felt blessed. Because dog saliva cures blues and heartaches of every kind. It’s a poultice that draws out the poisons. It dissolves the strings that occasional pull us in thirty different directions at once.

Yes, a thousand thank yous, Belle! My muddy buddy. My number one adventure partner. My trusty dusty canyon companion. Thanks for always having my back. Thanks for always being spontaneous, willing, and ready to go. Thanks to you my sanity will remain intact for a few more days.

And your hugs, Belley Dances, and shy licks will add another ten years to my life.

 

Winter is a great time to hike Buckskin Gulch, but dress warmly if you go because deep in the slot canyon you will encounter no sunlight, except at the junction where Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass meet, and the canyon’s stone walls retain the winter cold.  The best route to enter Buckskin Gulch is from the Wire Pass Trailhead. No advance permit is necessary, but hikers must obtain a day-use permit, which they can get right at the trailhead. There is a $6 per person fee, also paid at the trailhead.

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