The Art of Getting Lost in a Box Canyon

For those who are unaware, a box canyon is one that dead ends. Some can go on for miles before you find yourself marooned at the base of a dry waterfall or a sheer cliff wall. I got lost in one that was a little over a quarter mile long. How is it possible for a fairly sensible, active outdoors-woman to find herself in this situation? Simply throw common sense out the door in four simple steps:

1. Fail to do any sort of route planning. 

2. Forgo the use of navigational tools. 

3. Do not pack the necessary supplies for venturing out into unknown territory. 

4. Once you realize you’re lost, do not stop to collect your thoughts. Proceed straight into panic mode. 

Bonus move: While in panic-mode, put yourself directly in harm’s way by scrambling around on loose rock walls. This will unearth a basketball-sized boulder and send it crashing to the canyon floor below. The effect will emphasize your situation in a cartoonish way and force you to think about dying alone. 

Spoiler alert – I managed to find my way out and now live to tell the cautionary tale of preparedness – once again, the hard way. After all, if there’s one thing I’m certain of in this world, it’s knowing the path to knowledge is paved in stupidity. 

In my defense, I’m from the Midwest where you’re always on level ground with your surroundings. Never too far above or below much of anything to get into serious trouble. The most formidable thing in my backyard was Lake Michigan, which did nearly ended me when I was seven years old, but that’s its own story.

Mountains intimidate and intrigue me. Oceans boggle my mind in an outer space kind of way. But it’s the desert – the polar opposite of the fertile, green world I’m used to – that speaks to me in abstract terms. Its light, colors, textures and smells are only understood by first-hand experience. Initially, it appears to represent the absence of life. But once you get in there, you’ll start to notice a subtle beauty that’s bewitching and perfectly engineered to kill you.  

Last September, Luke and I went to Moab, UT for the first time. It’s one of the best places in the world for outdoor sports enthusiasts. Luke came to ride his dirt bike; I to trail run. While the terrain is perfect for both, the conditions are formidable for all who enter. Bone-dry air mummifies you in your sleep. Fine sand particles find their way into every orifice. The sun powers up with the strength to sear a hole straight through the top of an unprotected head. These conditions push any activity into the extreme sports category.  

Less than a mile from our campsite inside Moab Canyon, the Rim Trail is marked by an overgrown “day use only” sign. On a map, it enters a box canyon, goes about 600 meters in, does a switchback at the base of a dry waterfall, climbs several hundred feet in elevation along the canyon wall and voila! you’re skirting the rim. But, alas, I learned all of this in hindsight. 

Initially, the trail cut cleanly through ground cover and was easy to follow. It transitioned into a thin, gray line over slickrock marked by cairns. I followed them to a smooth, rounded off wall. I looked around for the next trail marker, but saw only the sheer rise of red walls all around me. In searching for the trail, I somehow managed to find myself standing on top of a shelf looking down at a 30-foot-drop. 

I didn’t immediately recognize it as the dry waterfall I was standing at the base of just minutes before. Instead, I wrongly assumed I had wandered into a new canyon and was now hopelessly lost. I spent 20 minutes scrambling clumsily up and down the canyon walls hoping to locate something man made. 

After accidentally loosening a large boulder and watching it crash to the ground, I took a second to sit and contemplate the reality that I was lost, alone, and not equipped to spend more than a few hours in the elements. Meanwhile, the sun continued its hot and steady rise in Utah’s signature clear blue sky. I was genuinely scared in a way I haven’t been since skiing through the trees in the back bowls of Vail – unprepared, unqualified and unfit for completing the task.  

I was wallowing in some dark thoughts when I spotted what looked to be a trail on the other side of the canyon. I scrambled back down the wall, up the other side and found cairns marking a route. After following the line around a few bends, I started to recognize my surroundings. 

Confidently back on track, I ran a few untroubled miles along the rim of the canyon. There’s nothing in the world like the sight of Moab Canyon from above. Ripples of rock fan out to the horizon like an ocean of red and orange. There was no sound, no movement, no signs of human life. I made it to Mars using my own two feet. 

But I also had no cell phone signal to call for help if I needed it. 

The day was heating up and my water was in short supply, so I turned around. Despite doing my best to pay close attention to trail markers and landmarks, I managed to get myself lost in that same 600 meters between the dry waterfall and the road. Not tragically lost this time – just frustratingly so. I eventually got out of the canyon and happily joined the noisy side-by-sides zipping down the road to my campsite. 

Mother nature’s playground is ruled by an evil group of mean kids. The desert is its bully who will rough you up before deciding to let you go. Especially if you waltz in there like a know-it-all dumbass. I’m heading back into the desert in a few weeks to do some trail running and no, I have not yet downloaded Gaia GPS. But I probably will. Maybe someone should remind me. 

About the post

Life, lifelessons, nature, Road Trip!, Travel

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