With no AC, the truck windows rolled down, and my skin sticky with sweat, the dry furnace of air blew in from the high desert of southern Utah. Four friends and I cruised through the pinyon, juniper, sagebrush, and domes of Navajo sandstone in a dusty pick-up… God, I love it.
I spotted a mound of a once living creature in the road ahead. We flew by it and it looked fresh so I pulled over and turned around. The evening sun was still scorching, probably 90’s. In the road was a Bull Snake that looked surprisingly not mangled or rotting. And on closer inspection it looked as if it may still be alive. I poked its tail with my finger. Nothing. It felt fleshy and supple. I cautiously picked it up by the tail. It’s spine was still nimble and flexible. I held its head away from me just in case. It was about 5 feet long. I carried it to the side of the road and noticed where it was run over by a car just behind its head. Just a single tire width that was slightly squished but no broken skin. Drops of blood started dripping from its mouth. It seemed likely that it was hit within minutes of us finding it. I packed it into a bag and back in the truck we went.
Two hours of washboarded dirt road later we arrived at our trailhead just as darkness sank in. There were stars above and a slight glow in the desert from the quarter moon on the horizon. We had finally made it and we were excited to spend the next six days backpacking in the deep red fissures of stone.
I had never gutted a snake before. I have done fish and deer but this would be my first reptile. First I cut off its head and the tire squished part then sliced its scaly belly up from the anus to the end, and peeled out the guts.
The skin took a little work to get it loose but once it started to go it just peeled right off.
It sounds kind of funny to say but it did taste like chicken.
After dinner we laid in the night air and stared at the shooting stars and Milky Way filling up the sky.
I was finally there. The place where my heart is. The land of red sandstone domes and cliffs, of hidden oasis’ and inhospitable wastelands, of deadly critters and spiky plants, of sunshine and blue skies, of canyon bottoms with lush greenery and springs, of slot canyons and potholes with dead things in them, of scorching heat and biting flies, of lizards and coyotes and mountain lions, of flash floods and blowing sand…
I’ve always belonged to that place. I’ve known it since the first time I went there when I was four years old and was completely captivated by its magic. I’ve been going back as much as possible ever since. Some day I won’t be ‘going back’. I’ll just be living there.
To the right is me, Jeff, Mothra, and my dad camping at Lake Powell.
The next morning I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as we got ready to hike in. I knew the world we were about to get into and it had been way too long.
Tommy 900 feet above the river. In Luna Sandals. : )
We hiked and swam and played and rolled in the mud. We wandered up the river trying not to leave any swimming hole un-swam-in, any side canyon un-explored, or any tracks unexamined. Hundreds of tiny young frogs popped like popcorn ahead of us as we walked along the banks of the river trying not to step on them. Raven calls echoed off the huge cliffs and vultures floated the canyon air currents high above.
As we walked the river I kept noticing a lot of decently sized fish, mostly Carp and Catfish. Which in the Escalante, seeing fish is a special event. Not because they aren’t there but because the water is usually so murky with silt that you can’t see six inches into the water. There hadn’t been any rain (floods) in a long time to bring new silt into the water. Which meant clear water for viewing fish, gauging swimming hole depth, and easy drinking. No rain also meant the river was really low which made it easy to walk in or along the normally submerged banks. Every time we were hiking along and I saw a bunch of big catfish I would say “damn, I need a spear!” So on day two after a good swim we started carving.
Eric, Emily, and I cut some Tamarisk (an invasive riverside brush) for spears. I carved mine into a double pronged spear with notch teeth carved on the inside edges.
(yes, that tattoo says ‘vegan’. Oh, the irony of hunting with a vegan tattoo. : ) )
I had tried spear fishing a couple of times before. Both were pretty half-assed attempts. One was in Alaska for some tiny fish in a side stream of the Yukon. So this time I gave myself about a 1% chance that I would actually catch something. With four of us we developed a strategy of two people scare the fish out of a deep pool into shallower waters where the other two people were waiting with spears ready. We tried for a couple of hours. A few close calls. Once we had a big catfish surrounded in shallow waters and it was just out of my spear range. I lunged for it and it darted away too fast. We tried like this a few times with no luck. But it sure was fun anyway. We were on our way back to our packs when I heard Emily call out from behind me that there was a fish coming my way. I was in belly button deep water and just then I saw the flash of a fish coming right toward my spear tips which were in the water. I jabbed for the fish with no expectation of getting it. I had thought the best way to get a fish was to get it in shallow waters and more or less pin it to the ground. But this fish was in deep water. As soon as I jabbed I felt a squirm on my spear. I was shocked and I couldn’t really see what had happened. So I jammed my spear into the bottom to make sure the fish didn’t get off. The fish was really squirming, I could feel it down there. Everyone came over to help.
Killing is hard. I had decided over a decade ago that I didn’t want to participate in the horrendous factory farmed meat and dairy industry. I haven’t eaten much meat since then and most of the meat I have had has been from roadkill, scavenged, or from dumpsters. Watching something die is tough but humans have been a part of the predator prey relationship for millions of years and personally I would rather feel that relationship directly than buy an artificial version of it at the store.
They held the spear down and I swam down and cut the fishes spinal cord with my pocket knife. We pulled the spear up and the fish was fully impaled on the spear. Right through the middle of it. I could have just lifted it out of the water initially if I would have realized that. Also when I jammed the spear into the bottom I broke the tip.
That is a carp. I would rather have preferred Catfish. Carp are known as a garbage fish because they are a bottom feeder but here in the Escalante I felt totally fine with eating Carp. Carp are also an invasive species here. I gutted and cleaned it. Later that night we fried it up and ate it. It tasted really good, not too fishy, though it was kind of soft and not the best texture. I would definitely eat Carp again and I’m sure that will not be the last time I try to spear one. Maybe next time I’ll try bow fishing for Carp.
After catching food for the day we went back to the incredibly hard life of swimming, playing, and lounging in the sun.
It is said that many hunter-gatherers lived a much more leisurely life that we do, “working” (hunting, gathering, building shelters, tools, etc.) around 20 hours per week and having the rest of the time for leisure, socializing, dancing, games, whatever people do. I have always been fascinated with what that would fee like to live directly within your immediate environment. Knowing how to use everything at your fingertips to provide for your needs. Little by little I’m learning what it has meant to be human.
As we hiked we ate some Cattail shoots and pollen. I had heard about eating the pollen but I had not actually tried it. It was good. It tasted kind of nutty. You can apparently use it as a flour replacement or at least cut your flour with it for a much more nutritious and protein filled food. You can put a bag over the top and scrape the pollen off into the bag.
See the log and debris stuck in the top of that boulder about 20 feet above Erics head? That is flood debris. Flash floods in canyon country is phenomena that you don’t want to mess with. I can’t imagine how raging it must have been to put logs up that high. I would love to watch a flood that big from the rim.
Here are some tarp shelters (not the most crisp) we built one night when we saw some lightning in the distance and thought it might rain. I love building tarp shelters. They are so much better than tents because they are more spacious, versatile, and simple. You just need a tarp and some cord. Total cost about $10. I’ve spent many nights in crazy storms hunkered cozily under a tarp shelter.
On our last day we found clay and made some pinch pots. I have yet to fire any primitive pottery in a fire. I would like to learn how to do that someday. We carried out our pots and just let them dry. As long as they don’t get wet they are perfectly good pots.
We also found some really big mountain lion tracks. I love wild cats! I want to see one so bad. But tracks are good enough for now.
You can tell it is a cat by the two lobes on top of the interdigital pad (palm), no claw imprints, and generally wider than long. Canines only have one lobe, often claw imprints, and are more long or square. These tracks were so good that we decided to cast them with clay.
We got some wet clay and carefully spread and massaged it into the tracks and left them to dry for a while. We dug out the whole track and packed them in sand in a cook pot. When we got home and they fully dried out Emily picked out the mud we are left with an awesome clay cast of a beastly mountain lion track.
We waited until the late evening when it was cooler to hike out of the canyon to the trailhead. It was hard to leave. It had been so much fun. Here is a pic of Emily being a badass at the rim of the canyon.
As usual there was so much more I could ramble on about but that is enough for now.
Thanks to Emily, Eric, Brandon, and Tommy. I love you guys. That was an awesome trip. Also thanks to Shawn and Steff for hanging out with us and letting some smelly kids crash at your house. Thanks to the monkeys at the shop for holding it down while me and Tommy were gone. Thanks to Rebecca for letting us use her truck. And thanks to the canyon gods for keeping that place wild and free.
Until the next adventure,