October, 2016 Edition

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Thank you Belle

Hiking Buckskin Gulch with my favorite explorer

It had been a stressful couple of weeks. My life felt as though it shared several similarities to the rack, a medieval torture device where a victim’s arms and legs were attached to opposing ropes or chains and he was slowly pulled apart.
Instead of actual ratchets and pulleys slowly pulling me apart, I was instead being pulled in a dozen different directions at once by my life, which in recent months had become a bit too busy. My job pulled me one way. My second job pulled me another way. Household chores. Spouse time. Family time. Freelance submissions. These are all good, honorable things, but they all demanded a piece of my time and attention and after a while . . . it got stressful.
I was having one of those pulled-in-too-many-directions kind of days. After three hours of emailing and making phone calls, I walked out of my home office into the living room and found Belle lying on the couch with her head on her paws. She looked as bored as I was. Once again my day had shrunk to the size of a living room and an office. Belle and I made eye contact and she wagged her tail a little bit.
“Save me, Belle,” I said with a sigh.
I got some orange juice, went back to my office and made some more calls, this time to an editor from the Bay Area. Over the phone, she sounded like she was stoned. I know her well, and I knew she wasn’t stoned. But she sounded stoned because she was doing something else in her office — probably emailing someone or reading someone’s Facebook status — that required the greater portion of her attention. When I asked her some questions, her voice was monotone and there was a two-second gap between my questions and her responses. This is how it had been for the last two days.
I walked back out into the living room. “Belle, I need an adventure.”
I went to the garage and brought back my daypack and packed it with water, Belle’s water bowl, dog food and a sandwich for me.
Belle remained curled on the couch, but she was watching me intently. To someone who didn’t know her as well as I do, she would have appeared cool and calm, maybe even disinterested and bored, but she was the candle ready to throw off the bushel, and though she appeared calm, a new alertness and hopefulness gleamed from her eyes.
I keep Belle’s collar on a peg in the kitchen. I only make her wear it when we go on walks, so when I grabbed it off its peg, she bounded off the couch endowed with the energy of the Explorer’s Exuberance, and her exuberance beamed right out of her and filled the room with its light. Her exuberance is very contagious.
Belle ran around our living room in her patented ecstatic panic; doing what we call her Belley Dance. Feet prancing, tail whapping; bowing, barking and leaping.
Belle’s leash hung on the peg beside her collar. But I left it there. And with that thought I took my cell phone out of my pocket and left it on the table. “No leashes today,” I said to Belle. “I’m sick of leashes.”
An hour later, we arrived at the Buckskin Gulch trailhead. Opening Belle’s door was like opening the gates of the Belmont Stakes. Belle ran! She jumped! She went! She chased the first scent she happened upon.
By the time I’d finished filling out our trailhead permit, Belle had chased that scent 200 feet in the direction opposite Buckskin Gulch. I could only see the tip of her happy tail whipping above the sagebrush like a dune buggy flag.
I whistled. “This way Belle!” I watched her tail change course and come my way. Man, I love that dog!
One of my second jobs is guiding clients on overland trips throughout the Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Staircase-Escalante, and I’ve taken my clients to Buckskin Gulch several times, but I’ve always taken them in through Wire Pass (a tributary canyon four miles down canyon). I’ve never entered it from its upper trailhead and I am burning with Explorer’s Exuberance — the anticipation of spending the day exploring a new place — and Belle is visibly trembling with it. If she stands still, she will probably explode. So she runs, trying to smell every bush at the same time.
It was the perfect day for a walk. Blue skies. Chilly, rosy-cheek air. The late-December ground half covered with crusty, two-week old snow, the other half covered with half-thawed mud.
The trail wound through a sagebrush field along the edge of a gully. I watched happy Belle sniff one bush and pee on another one. She then crossed the gully and did the same on the other side. She was ecstatic. She leapt off hills and over bushes like she was a 1-year-old pup. Belle, under exploration’s spell, is easily a 10-horsepower dog.
The canyon trail we traveled was bordered on all sides by stumpy, non-descript, orange cliff walls covered in a camo-pattern of half-gone snow. I followed the trail over muddy meadows where the mud built up on my boot soles like emails in my inbox, then l dropped down into the gully where I crossed the frozen stream with short Geisha steps, then back up the side of the gully, where the trail, once again, meandered through the sagebrush. The only thing that meanders more than a stream is a trail made by a well-fed cow, and surely this trail was made by a herd of very contented cows.
After an hour of running, leaping and exploring Belle had burned off enough energy that her fervor had dropped to a steady thrum, but she still circulated in my general vicinity, doing a non-stop, Chinese fire drill around me.
Three miles below the trailhead, Buckskin Gulch transforms from a gully running through a redwall-rimmed meadow into a narrow slot canyon. Inside the slot canyon, its widest spots are about as wide as a single highway lane, yet in many places it’s no wider than the strip of grass between Jeep tracks, and there are several spots where I was able to touch both walls at the same time with my outstretched hands.
Buckskin Gulch’s walls are made from Navajo Sandstone. Countless flashfloods through several millennia have sculpted the walls into majestic flutes. Walking through Wire Pass is a bit like walking down a narrow hallway that was inspired by a Georgia O’keefe flower. Picture petrified curtains. To me it looks like a six foot high top, with serrated blades along its sides, was sent spinning and caroming down this Jurassic hallway, grinding away scallops and chevrons of wall in every spot it collided.
Because Buckskin Gulch is so narrow, very little direct sunlight can penetrate into it. The light that finally reaches your eye is very soft and diffused. It looks like it has been sifted a half dozen times through filters of citron and saffron. The soft sunlight draws out the pinks, reds, oranges and purples of the Navajo Sandstone’s iron oxide, and this choiring light draws Belle and I ever deeper into the slot, like the white stag draws the hunter deeper into the forest.
Belle bounced from one wall and back to the other as if her nose was a Pong dot and the rest of her was doing its best to keep up. We traveled down that ancient hallway to the Wire Pass junction where the canyon suddenly flares open into a box about the size of a football field.
There, on a tall cliff wall we found several Anasazi petroglyphs, including petroglyphs of men, bighorn sheep and a mysterious dotted line forming a continuous wave traveling the entire length of the wall. We ate our lunch and drank some water in a sunny wedge, then, content with our day’s discoveries, turned back in the direction of the Jeep.
By the time we returned to the car two hours later, we were both very tired. But it was the most beautiful, satisfying kind of tired; the tired of having spent your day in the exuberant spell of exploring.
It felt good, real good, to have left our leashes at home and run wild for a day.
At the car, I squatted down until I was face to face with Belle. “Thanks for the great adventure, buddy!”
And to my surprise Belle licked my face, and I let her. Belle is a shy girl. In the 16 months that I have known her, this was one of fewer than five times that she has licked me. Maybe after our eight-mile walk, she just needed some salt, and my face and forehead glowed with it, but Belle has a very expressive face and the positioning of her ears, the angle of her eyebrows, the light in her eyes seemed to be saying, Thanks for a great adventure.
“No, thank you, amiga! I think I needed that more than you!”
I felt blessed. Because dog saliva cures the blues and heartaches of every kind. It’s a poultice that draws out the poisons. It dissolved the strings that were pulling me in 30 different directions.
Yes, a thousand thank yous, Belle. My muddy buddy. My number one adventure partner. My trusty dusty canyon companion. Thanks for always having my back. Thanks for always being spontaneous, willing and ready to go. Thanks to you my sanity will remain intact for a few more days.
And your hugs, and Belley Dances, and licks will add another 10 years to my life.
Fall and winter are great times to hike Buckskin Gulch. The best route to enter Buckskin Gulch is from the Wire Pass Trailhead. No advance permit is necessary, but hikers must obtain a day-use permit, which they can get right at the trailhead. There is also a $6 per person fee, also paid at the trailhead.