There's No One Here
It's a hot, humid Saturday in May. Beads of sweat seep into the cloth seats of my Honda Civic. I need something colder than a pool. Nick suggests we make a 45 minute drive to the nearest spring. I immediately praise him for his quick thinking. We pack a day bag and are out the door in seconds. We drive past majestic oak trees, their graceful moss dripping over the one-lane road. I lean my face into the AC vent, anxious to finally get there. Nick plays The Ballad of Curtis Loew over the radio as he sings along. Finally, we arrive at Gilchrist Blue Springs. I can almost taste the cold water, soon to be my escape. Suddenly, we come to a stop. The line for the pay station is backed up to the road. "Why are there so many people here?" I ask Nick. "Well, it is a Saturday," Nick responds wondering why I would expect any different. We finally enter into the park. The center of the spring is inundated with central Floridians. I scan the area and watch as teenagers jump off of rotted decks, kids throw pool toys at one another, and parents inhale fresh cigarettes on the shore. What is usually a peaceful oasis during the week has turned into somewhat of a madhouse. I quickly undress and head toward the water. I dive in, allowing the 72° water to chill my bones. I emerge and begin to float on my back, listening to the shrieks and shouts of others in the distance. I let the sun warm my face, close my eyes, and drift towards a sense of complacency despite the chaos.
Since moving to Utah, Nick and I find it somewhat funny when locals talk about how crowded it's becoming here. I usually smile, say something generic, and think about those many, crowded days at the springs back in Florida. While true, I did experience some horrific canyon traffic this winter season, for some reason, I can't find a whole lot of sympathy for the occasional 30 minute lift line for fresh pow when Floridians will literally wait an hour and half for a 2 minute ride at Disney World. Florida seems to accept that one will absolutely hear Luke Bryan blaring from a frat guy's speaker sitting less than 5 feet away on the beach during Memorial Day Weekend. But we still sit there, lather up that sunscreen, and try to have fun.
Over the past year though, I can see how I might be becoming slightly more spoiled. Last weekend, Nick planned a short getaway back to the San Rafael Swell. This time, instead of going to the relatively popular Wedge area, he had learned about a lesser known slot canyon further south. We drove down through misty rain that covered most of Salt Lake Valley. Nick was excited to explore a new area, but I was anxious to just get out of the car. I had a migraine earlier that day and wasn't in the mood for a 3 hour car ride. I placed my head on the window and tried to sleep the nausea away. I woke up in a beautiful forest. US-6 was closed for some reason so we had to take a detour through Manti-La Sal National Forest. A lush green landscape surrounded us and the mist gave a somewhat PNW feel. We stopped the car at an outcropping on the side of the road for Nias to use the bathroom and happened upon a clear creek hidden just beneath us. The cold air felt nice and I started to feel more energized. I honestly considered asking him to park the van right there, but alas, the road was too close and Nick was on a mission. We continued driving, taking note to research the area for future trips.
I felt us finally getting closer as the road intersected with I-70. Nick showed me on Gaia that his undisclosed location was just south of the interstate. When our exit appeared, I realized this was much more remote than I expected. The road turned to dirt quickly and immediately I worried if our low clearance van could make it. I clung to Nias to prevent him from jostling too much in the back of the van. After 40 minutes of hearing the perpetual hum of driving down a rocky road, we arrived at the edge of a plateau. We all got out of the car to admire the view at the ledge, but were treated to heavy winds warning us to go no further. We set up camp behind the van to block the wind and began making dinner. Just as we were settling in, Nias ran toward something in the distance with concerned barks. As I looked up, I saw a hooded man in the distance. Nick ran after Nias and yelled at me to grab some treats. I've never actually been concerned Nias would attack anyone, but this guy caught us all so off-guard that I couldn't be sure he wouldn't. Nias began to encircle the man as if he was trying to herd him, not letting him get any closer to the camp. Finally, after minutes of coaxing with treats, I was able to lure Nias away from the man and put him in the van. The man introduced himself and told us he was camped maybe a quarter of a mile from us, and was just coming over to say hello. I couldn't help but feel a little salty. I thought we had finally done it. I thought we had finally camped somewhere completely alone. It's funny how our expectations change in response to environment and situation. With so much open space, solitude ironically seems demanded.
We woke up early the next morning to start our hike. We descended down an unnamed ravine to get to the base of Eardley Canyon. The descent was a little more intense than I expected and I worried about how we were going to be able to get not just down, but also back up. Nias did surprisingly well. He took huge leaps down steep boulders and listened well to us when he sensed a jump would be too high. We did have to carry him down a few sections, but overall, I was impressed by his athleticism and enthusiasm. The base of the canyon was so chilly that I actually had to don my puffy. Lofty walls towered above us as we weaved in and out through narrowing slots. The canyon was so quiet; all I could hear were the clicks of my camera. Even our footsteps were muted by the soft sand underneath us. We found ourselves whispering out of respect for absence of sound. We were surrounded by incredible desert textures and patterns, finding gentle pink waves in the rocks that were formed through time and patience.
Clouds began to roll in, so we turned around at 4.5 miles. You do not want to find yourself at the bottom of a slot canyon during a rainstorm as water can quickly fill the canyon and form a dangerous situation. As we walked around a bend with just about a mile left, Nias began to bark. The sound was so disruptive to the past few hours, I felt a shrill through my entire body. It was a couple of hikers. Nick grabbed Nias as my body adjusted to the spike in heart rate. We apologized to the hikers for the dog; they smiled and nodded. One hiker put his ear up to the wall to hear Nias' echos. We continued on our way, laughing to ourselves. "This entire time, I was thinking that we would make it back without seeing another person! I was even planning to title my blog post, There's No One Here" Nick smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "Guess that won't make sense anymore, huh?"
As the outdoors become more popular and the internet makes it easier for regular people like us to seek out more secluded spots, humans will inevitably fill these spaces. I find myself wanting the outdoors to be a macrocosmic space with me at the center, but this idea seems pretty selfish. Does the wild lose its wilderness when it's shared with strangers? If we would have past 20 other hikers instead of those two, how would my experience have changed? I recently spoke with a patient who camped at Zion National Park over Memorial Day weekend. She said the wait time for Angel's Landing was 4 hours. Now, that sounds like a heinous crime to even allow people to wait 4 hours for a hike. I believe that that those types of crowds would most certainly take away from the awe-inspiring experience of something like Angel's Landing. But then I remember Gilchrist Blue Springs. Despite the smoke, shrieks and crowds, this spring was still one of my favorite places in Florida to reconnect with myself and nature. Who am I to judge what someone else's outdoor experience should or should not be? I have heard the argument that increasing access to the outdoors allows people a chance to interact with nature and hopefully feel compelled to protect it. I generally agree with this statement, but I wonder how many people waiting in that 4 hour line for Angel's Landing are going to come home as newly minted stewards of the outdoors. Maybe that's a pessimistic way to think. I am glad to know that there are still places to go to be completely alone in a wide open space, and Eardley Canyon was one of them...almost.