Hike This Way

By Gary H. Anthes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 8, 2002

I've always been a little compulsive when it comes to planning vacations. By Jan. 15 I can tell you that on the morning of Aug. 2 my family and I will be in the Haunted Mansion at Disney World. Or en route to Denver in Row 17 on United Airlines Flight 369. Or at the Museum of Modern Art in New York if it rains, but Ellis Island if it doesn't.

My passion for planning is entirely sound -- travel surprises are almost never happy ones.

Or so I thought. After a week hiking alone in the desert and canyon country of southern Utah, I now know that some kinds of travel are dominated by the unexpected, and that it's the serendipitous moments that make these trips memorable, indeed worthwhile. Four experiences stood out -- three of them wonderful and one terrifying. All were unanticipated.

Desert Storm

The wind is rising. For anyone with enough sense to get out of the rain, now is the time to seek shelter. A lash of lightning flickers over Wilson Mesa, scorching the brush, splitting a pine tree.

-- Edward Abbey,

"Desert Solitaire"

Abbey, the late writer, naturalist and desert enthusiast, was writing from Utah's Arches National Park, and he gives a pretty good description of what I see there early one morning in October as I hike north on Devils Garden Trail. Of course I don't turn back when I spot a storm approaching; I've been planning months for this hike, which will bring me to some of the most beautiful natural stone arches in the world. And, anyway, everyone knows it hardly ever rains in the desert, especially in the morning.

But everyone is wrong. By the time it's clear that I'm going to get soaked, and maybe zapped by lightning, I'm two miles from my car. But near Double O Arch I find a rock ledge overhanging an area just big enough to keep me and my camera gear dry. As I sit down on a rock to await the passing of the now-torrential rain, a chipmunk scurries in my direction. I guess that I'm occupying his shelter.

Indeed, the little animal stops just short of the overhang, stares at me for a moment in what I take to be rank indignation, then runs to the lee of a rock some yards away. To make amends, I throw him a few raisins and nuts from my trail mix, then turn my attention to the storm.

Jagged blue bolts of electricity shoot continuously from purple clouds, striking the red buttes and mesas around me. The wind whistles and reverses direction inexplicably, and water begins to flow in a nearby dry wash. By the time the hardest rainfall comes, sunlight has already reappeared from the east, turning the tracks of rain into dazzling needles of gold. It is a thrilling show, one I will not forget.

Now the rain has nearly stopped, so I rise to resume my hike. Already I can smell the marvelous smoky-sweet scent the desert creosote bush emits when it's wet. I look for my friend the chipmunk, but he's gone.

And so is the trail mix I tossed to him, so now I don't feel guilty.

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