Memories from November 22, 2018.
Today was supposed to be a quick few miles down to the Virgin River, a sketchy descent, five miles of spectacular river walk, and as many miles of Zion backcountry as could fit in before sundown. That plan died almost before I was fully awake.
Last night felt warmer than it should have. This meant there were clouds. There weren’t supposed to be clouds because last night the inReach had said there was only a 10% chance of rain today. The problem with rain is that the guidebook says that the Virgin River is extremely prone to flash floods.
The sky was overcast and heavy in most directions though there was some blue to the northwest. The forecast was now for up to 40% chance of rain starting around noon. When I crested the last low rise and got a clear view to the northeast, it was socked in. Everywhere else there was a clear gap between the top of the sandstone or trees and bottom of the clouds. The view to the northeast, however, reminded me of the waves of rain which swept past when I was walking through Lockhart Basin. The problem with northeast is that it is upstream and water flows downstream to where I’d be hiking.
I’d known that today was going to be a gamble because the weather channel had said there would be rain today and tomorrow but it had looked like it would be in northern Utah and I am a day’s walk from the Arizona border. I had hoped that if there was rain here I could sneak through before it really started. Unfortunately it had clearly already started. This also meant that since rain was here now, it wasn’t worth trying to wait for tomorrow to see if it would be better.
I had been anticipating day of beauty and challenge which I had been anticipating since the starting this trek. It help the last two physical challenges on the Hayduke, the final hurdles which would have been followed by an easy cruise into the finish tomorrow. Bending my will to the commandment that thou shalt not enter a flash flood zone in bad weather was hard. Discipline is always hard and so I walked away before I could find an excuse to chance it.
I had a short half liter of water and 15ish miles to get back to Short Creek which was the nearest water I’d passed yesterday. Fortunately it was cool and sprinkled just a little which made the sand a little firmer than yesterday’s slog. There was a pothole with clear water a few miles early which meant I could sit and enjoy a late lunch with yesterday’s best views under today’s improved lighting.
I wanted to do the Hayduke to be forced to face real challenges and make hard decisions. Staying found, finding safe bypass routes, safely traveling across difficult terrain, and deciding how much water to carry were what I had in mind. This was perhaps the most difficult decision I’ve made because I still feel like everything would probably have been fine. Normally, that realization that everything usually turns out fine helps me move past fear. Other people have for before and I’ve never heard of a Hayduker dying. With flash flood deaths, there’s a consistent theme of underestimation of either their power (due to lack of experience) or probability (because the weather you can see is fine). In other words, the same reasoning which helps safely navigate other situations is what gets you killed in flash floods. Knowing that doesn’t change the fact that, having passed every other test, I feel like I let fear win the final round with the finish almost literally in sight. Maybe that was the test: to walk away from a dangerous situation which is out of your control even though you think you can handle it. Flash floods are not storms which can be weathered or sketchy traverses which can be taken one step at a time. Maybe the final test was to differentiate between clear eyed courage and blind stubbornness. My mind cycles through reasoning like this for most of the day trying to rationalize away my frustration and disappointment.
It’s Thanksgiving and this motivates me to try to get back to gratitude. Even if today was hard, I’m thankful for the Hayduke and for the experiences I’ve had so far.
I traded a few messages with my parents via InReach. I might be camping without company tonight after a bitter retreat but I have family who love me and so I am not alone. This is a deep and unearned blessing. Happy Thanksgiving.