Misadventure - Desert Southwest, USA

September 19 - October 5, 2007

Our re-entry program to the US of A is progressing nicely. We've seen family and friends; hiked nearby hills and gazed at the Pacific; enjoyed home-brewed espresso and an evening out at Yoshi's Jazz Club. For full reintegration, we felt we needed a counterbalance to the left-leaning liberal culture of our hometown, Berkeley, so we planned a drive into the conservative Wild West, across eastern California, through Nevada and Utah, hiking and backpacking along the way.

We set out driving on Highway 80, over the crest of the Sierra, dropping into Reno, Nevada to visit Mark's brother, Jan. As we approached Reno, the highway was filled with hundreds of hog-riding, long-haired, tattooed dudes (over 30,000 were expected to arrive by the weekend) cruising on their way to Street Vibrations, a behemoth biker convention that promised tunes, tricks and tons of chrome. Participants could stay torqued with championship boxing tournaments and an all female roller derby bout called Rink Rash Rally, visit ink slingers (tattoo artists), and see V twins, Milwaukee vibrators, and NAH’s (not a Harley-Davidson).


Next morning, we rolled out of town leaving Highway 80 for 50, one of the blue highways, those roads less traveled that crisscross the United States. It’s a two lane highway that snakes through one small town after another, past sparse desert and salt flats – extraordinary, mind-expanding landscapes – that stretch to the horizon, trains carrying grain from the heartland journeyed along side us.  A huge billboard asked: Have you prayed the Prayer?  Suddenly, a camouflaged truck carrying what looked like a Tomahawk cruise missile sped past us.  We stared in disbelief as the truck turned into the Fallon Naval Air Station, the Navy’s premier air-to-air and air-to-ground training facility (sprawling over 84,000 acres of remote desert), home to TOPGUN (the Naval Fighter Weapons School) and bombing and electronic warfare ranges.  Fighter jets roared overhead. We drove on.

Salt Wells, Eastgate, Austin and Eureka, little towns went by in a blur.  We wondered about the weather, and when the blue and white highway sign said, Weather: 1240 or 1340 AM, we tuned in the crisp, clear AM station, expecting a weather report.  Nope.  We had been directed to the Bill O'Reilly show, who just at that moment was ranting: If you want a leader who's going to take the fight to the enemy, you have to vote Republican.  If you think we've gone overboard, vote Democrat.  It's that simple.

We couldn't listen long enough to hear a weather report, if there was one, but we felt the weather:  Wild, 40 mph gusts of wind picked up desert sand under blue, blue skies, then rain showers erupted with a dramatic show of thunder and lightening.  We camped one night at Great Basin National Park, in the shadow of 13,000’ Wheeler Peak, where the aspens glowed gold and the Milky Way twinkled across the clear blue-black sky.  But by morning, the winds had picked up and rain soaked us as we struggled to pack up.

Back on the highway, we crossed over the Utah border and into Mormon country – Beaver (Butch Cassidy's birthplace), Panguitch, Tropic – towns where all the shop clerks are blond, beautiful girls, holding blond beautiful babies.  The streets are clean and neat, centered around a white-steepled LDS church, most settled in the 1850’s.  One house was buried below the ground, only the roof, chimney and small windows visible, the family ready for the coming Armageddon. 

This is the US of A.






We camped out in the national forests and enjoyed the uncrowded end-of-season campgrounds. Our stove-top espresso machine, borrowed from A&M, worked wonderfully!



Prophetic inscription near our camp at the lower end of Silver Falls Canyon.



We set off on our first 4-day backpack excursion of the trip, in Utah, walking down into a side canyon of the Escalante called Silver Falls Creek. The first night was total magic – as darkness fell, the vertical sandstone walls echoed with the mesmerizing calls from a pair of Great Horned Owls. Black silhouettes flew in darkness into the meander where we were camped, and we sat transfixed as stars slowly appeared in the crack of blue sky above us. Too bad the audio recorder was sitting idle back at the car!

The next day we encountered the aftermath of a big rainstorm that had hit four days prior. The Escalante River had flooded its banks and we spent hours bushwhacking through dense willow and tamarisk thickets, wading through an inch-thick layer of still-wet mud. Finally, we abandoned our plan to hike five miles down the Escalante and return via Choprock Canyon. Late in the afternoon we returned defeated to the bottom end of Silver Falls Canyon, and started scouting for the ideal campsite. I had the idea to climb up to a sandstone bench above the creek to have a look around. It seemed like a simple 10' scramble up the redrock, but near the top I decided to turn back. Stepping back down, about 7' above the creek bed, my handhold completely broke free from the rock face.


Suddenly I lost my balance and fell backwards! An instant later I realized my hold on the rock had vanished and I was airborne. Rocks and sky slid by as if in slow motion and I had time to realize there was no choice but to let gravity take its course. I landed in the dry creekbed a few feet from Liza in a slump, backpack still on. Looking at my hands, I immediately noticed that my left index finger was bent sideways at a horrible angle. Cool as ever, Liza said: It might just be dislocated – this may hurt a bit! and she instantly pulled it back into position with a sickening crack. Amazingly, my finger looked fine and full range of motion was restored. Scrapes and bruises aside, things seemed pretty good until I tried to stand up. Putting weight on my left leg caused shuddering pain in my hip, and I could no longer walk!

It was late in the day, so we camped right there for the night, hoping against hope that somehow my hip would be functioning in the morning. But the next day we could see there was no way I would be able to walk out anytime soon. Plans were made, and at 9am, we bid an emotional farewell as Liza left for a solo ten-mile hike back to the car, followed by a 2.5-hour drive to the nearest town of Boulder, Utah to get help. As I hobbled around the camp with the aid of a big stick, Liza was busy rounding up the local volunteer search and rescue team and began making plans for the rescue. We both wanted to bring horses down the canyon so I could ride out. But Katie, the horse expert, knew that navigating the boulder-strewn wash on horseback would be hazardous for me and the horses. After hours of discussion and plan-making, a call to the park service was made. At 5pm that afternoon, I could hear the sound of a helicopter motoring up the canyon. Moments later a shiny blue chopper landed in a cloud of dust right in the creek bed next to our camp, and two blue-suited EMTs (both women) hopped out and strode towards me. After a quick hug, we discussed the options and soon we were lifting off and out of the canyon. I had a spectacular helicopter ride (my first), flying low over the beautiful twisty canyons of the Escalante.


X-rays at the emergency room in Page, Arizona, revealed no fractures, yay! After several more hours of driving, Liza met me at 10:30 that night at a motel in Page. We stayed up late into the night talking about what-ifs? as the adrenaline slowly dissipated.

Two weeks after the accident, we're thanking our lucky stars that I wasn't seriously injured. Soon I'll be off the crutches and ready for more adventures. Only next time, we're hoping for a little less adventure!