We were up late discussing what we wanted to do the following day. I had three days to spend with my mom and step-dad before heading back to Austin and I knew I wanted to hike, but we were flummoxed with the sheer number of excellent options. After much consideration we decided to take a day trip to the little-known highway exit in eastern Utah simply, mysteriously known as Yellow Cat.
When you drive from Grand Junction to Salt Lake City the first few hours on the road feel completely desolate. I-70 cuts through miles of apparent wasteland where, if you run out of gas in the summer, you might just die of exposure and dehydration. But if you know where to jump off the road, there are many little-known areas that are absolutely full of wonder and delight. The area around Yellow Cat was bustling with mining efforts, primarily for uranium, up into the 1950s.
There are many signs of the people who tried to make a life in this arid land, from their old cabins and rusted out trucks to more recent examples of cattle herding equipment. Despite signs of previous life, your chances of running into deer are a thousand percent better than seeing any people, or even their footprints.
My mom is a steward of the land – she’s always stepping lightly around the delicate cryptobiotic soil outcroppings and pointing out fresh deer footprints. She knows the names of all the shrubs and grasses, as well as what they can be used for. She makes sure you notice the intricate patterns of the piñon bark and describes with deep knowledge how the trees sacrifice some limbs to keep the others alive through a long drought. She likes to take quiet breaks, warming up on the sun-baked rocks, listening for ravens and hawks and the wind. I love hiking with her because I always learn and see new things.
Once we reached a certain elevation the scrub juniper gave way to massive pinyon pine trees. I was ecstatic to see it was pinyon pine nut harvest time, with each of the pinecones just opening their folds to reveal large, brown-hulled nuts for the birds. I collected as many as I could carry along the way and got really sticky from their fragrant sap.
We hiked up and up an unassuming ridge until finally it topped off and we could see right into the rolling red sandstone hillocks of Arches National Park. We’d entered from the north for a bit of back-country sandstone-hopping exploration.
It was mid-October, the best time of the year to hike the desert. It’s close to freezing in the morning and at midday the sun heats up the rocks just enough to make you seek shade.
For lunch we hiked into a narrow canyon between fins and settled in a drainage to enjoy our meal. This year my mom and Gary had a fantastic garden so we dined on the summer’s last tomatoes, the first carrots, and pesto my mom made with beet greens and kale instead of basil. It was the perfect midday meal.
I love eating finger foods on the trail more than any prepared meal. I think it’s because I can choose the exact amount of each flavor that I desire, and each item can be mixed with another bite to create new sensational combinations. The key ingredients to any trail meal are simple: a cracker, a spread, a cheese, a nut, a fruit and vegetable, and a sweet for dessert.
The thing about the desert is that it’s full of life. The desert is rich with nocturnal animals that hide out during the blazing hot days and hunt at night. From a distance the land appears too arid and awful to hold any semblance of ecosystem, but when you get up close a million pieces of growth and life appear. Cryptobiotic soil is the perfect example of this: even from eye level it looks just like hard dirt – noting special. But up close you can observe that this soil is actually a complex construction of algae, fungus and lichens that vary in color from red to green and finally to black – the oldest form of crust.
I talk about the dirt because most folks don’t know that there are different types of soil, some that are extremely delicate and slow-growing and absolutely essential to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Crypotbiotic soil, like many organisms in the desert, grows extremely slowly. Destroyed with a single step, each crust can take over a century to rebuild and begin holding moisture and preventing erosion again. It’s amazing to see that even in their own habitat, animals don’t tread where the soil crusts. Game trails wind around these outcroppings and through creek beds, leaving the soil undisturbed. In the desert, Leave No Trace includes minimizing your footprints and impact on the natural landscape. Plus it’s fun to seek out dry creek beds and hop from rock to rock.
Hiking further south the Fins give way to towering monoliths of solid red sandstone. Jutting up from the high plateau these rocks are breathtaking and special. Shade is a premium here and heat radiates from the stone well after sunset.
Today I explored a side of Arches I’d never seen before. An immense landscape. The color goes, literally, further than you can see, and the remoteness of it all is breathtaking. No people, cars or even planes mar the quiet. In the absence of the sounds of civilization the noises of the desert get louder and louder until the heat and the day and the sand and wind practically roar. This fullness, this absence of noise and presence of sound is not broken but compounded by a solitary soaring bird of pray or the scuttling of a collard lizard. These are the sounds of life in the desert. Life against the odds. And freedom. To come here, and to make this life a part of my own life – to pull in this quiet and know that I too can be as serene and as dynamic as the desert. I know that I am a child of this place.
If you ever have the desire to scope out Yellow Cat and explore the mines, ruins, and Fins north of Arches National Park, let me know and I’ll give you directions to this special place.