Going Gets Rough

I’ve been thinking a lot about how 2016 is the centennial of the National Park Service, and how this would be a perfect summer, in the spirit of the occasion, to stay home. The NPS preserves natural treasures from being trampled by man, and to celebrate 100 years of this feat, EVERYONE is touristing the national parks this year. Even the lesser-known parks will see an uptick, including Isle Royale, where moose inhabit a cage-match ecosystem with inbred wolves, and Cuyahoga Valley, which is in Ohio.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about my own past experiences at national parks. There’s the time I went to Mesa Verde to check out the farolitos—that’s gringo for “luminarias”—and waited three hours to catch a bus back to the car. There’s the time I went to Carlsbad Caverns when I was six and I kinda remember the Viewfinder pictures.

And then there’s the time I went to Canyonlands, my very first adult-age excursion to a national park, and that might be my favorite one of all.


I stuffed the car, drove to Utah, and prepared to get away from it all. Only, several dozen other people had gotten away from it all too, and they got away earlier than 4:00 in the afternoon. The campground was chockablock. That meant venturing off into the BLM hinterlands around the park, scouring a patch of land suitable to pitch a tent, and roughing it.

Now, “roughing it” means different things to different people. In this case, it meant that, because there was no outhouse to answer nature’s call, I let nature go straight to voicemail.

What? Don’t look at me like that! Toilet paper doesn’t decompose in this dry climate. I was being ecologically responsible. And even if I were willing to pack out my two-ply, my remaining options were a) dig a hole using my coffee spoon, b) find an existing hole and flush out its feral occupant, or c) drive to a Moab hotel with an hourly rate.

Amidst all this excitement—eat your heart out, John Muir—I didn’t exactly keep a travel log. But if I had, I would have logged this:

NEXT MORNING – Cooked breakfast on a rock. [Note: Skip telling people the part where you used the propane camping stove; you’ll sound much ruggeder that way.] Tore down camp with my bare hands.


LATER THAT MORNING – After a very moving pit stop at the visitor’s center, staked an empty campsite in the park itself. Erected the tent, again with my bare hands.

EVEN LATER THAT MORNING – Taking a hike toward Chesler Park. If I don’t return, please build an embarrassingly large monument in my memory.

BY THE LIGHT OF THE STARS – Made it back. Not sure how. The landscape is a series of magnificent monolithic mushrooms, rocks upon rocks. Attempted to follow the trail, per the map and the posted signage, but the trail was not a traditional well-worn path so much as a connect-the-dots series of widely spaced cairns.

Now I’m no rock-scientist, so maybe I’m missing some critical component. But the basic premise here is that one nagivates a landscape famed for its stacked-rock features by tracking… piles of stacked rocks.

On this particular trail, one misses the correct turnoff only six or ten times while clinging to a sloped-rock floor. Then one tries to remember the last cairn one saw and guess one’s way back to it, all without stepping on the dirt.

Oh, the dirt! The dirt here is fabulously precious! I’m pretty sure Canyonlands is a national park not for its canyons, but for its dirt. Don’t let its appearance fool you; it may look like black dirt that’s just been rained on, but in actuality it is… okay, it’s still dirt. But it’s also so much more than dirt! It’s called cryptobiotic soil, which is a term I would have made up in elementary school if I’d thought of it.

DSC06275According to the sign at the trailhead, cryptobiotic soil is actually alive. Yet, like the human psyche, it “is very fragile and takes decades to form.” The sign says—and this is in bold, so you know it’s true—“Footprints and tire tracks can last a lifetime.

You know where else footprints will last a lifetime? On the moon. But unless the moon becomes a national park, I’m not going there anytime soon. This was my one good chance to leave an indelible mark on the world. All I had to do was put my foot down…

…but I didn’t. I scuffed and scraped my way back to camp, playing hopscotch on the sliprock. Some elements of the wilderness deserve to remain unsullied by the touch of man.

But not all parts. Turns out I had an option d) all along, courtesy of the same posted sign: “Consider using natural alternatives to toilet paper such as smooth rocks or twigs.”

Here’s to this year’s 300-plus million Park System visits. Choose wisely, amigos.


This Fool’s Gold originally appeared in The Durango Telegraph and subsequently in Four Corners Free Press.

(All pictures copyright Zach Hively.)


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