Searching for Tiñajas
Sitting atop the Island in the Sky, an uplifted mass of petrified seafloor in Canyonlands National Park, contemplating the abyss and the stark landscape beyond that, Nathan and I knew we were about to enter a new and different world. We watched a far away bend of the Green River sparkle in the sunlight two thousand feet below us, tucked into a canyon. Every element of that moment was new to me—camping in the backcountry, exploring the high desert, existing within the primitive world of our ancestors.
The desert is mostly known for being hot, and when the sun is out that is usually the case, especially in the summer. But in the first week of March, and particularly after sunset, the desert can become a surprisingly cold place—some nights, it’s just as cold as the mountains. I’d learned how to stay reliably warm during my winter in Yellowstone and by way of growing up in New Hampshire. I was wearing mostly wool: Rachel, the green-eyed girl from Georgia, with whom we had just worked in Mammoth Hot Springs that short winter season, gave me a rainbow-colored wool hat. I wore a heavy button-up wool shirt under my rain jacket. Nathan and Cody and I were planning to travel on foot for the better part of a week, carrying everything we needed to survive on our backs.
We prepared our backpacks, stuffing away the filter and stove we’d brought new for our trip, stopping now and then and to gaze out over that series of descending red rock mesas, across one of the most desolate places in the country. To the west, we could see to the horizon of that rocky world. We thought it would be a relatively easy first trip—from the canyon rim at Grand View Point, down thousands of feet to the river, north five miles along its course, then back up and out to modern society again.
Two kids from opposite ends of the East—Nathan from the Gulf Coast across the bay from Mobile, and me from the New England seacoast north of Boston—could never really be ready to hike in a place like Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky, even if we did have Cody with us, an Idahoan outdoorsman who’d thoroughly explored the Rocky Mountains; they were his backyard. He claimed that he and his brothers would stay out for days at a time, playing Cowboys and Indians, and that he’d raised a mountain lion from a cub. He had a million freckles and an endless smile, and he was very convincing when he talked.
Cody loved heights as much as I feared them. At the top of the Island, he lay down on the edge of the cliff, sticking his whole face over that two-thousand-foot drop, whooping and shouting, listening for the echoes and staring down at the ground like a hawk in flight. I stood as far back as I possibly could, while still looking out like a flying hawk myself, scanning across that expanse of rock so distant that trees taller than me looked like insignificant specks.
Nathan was the most positive person I’d ever met. “It’ll be cool,” he’d say, dismissively. And, Yeah, I would start to think. It will be cool. We’ll be fine. In our early twenties, we were all still young enough to feel immune to misfortune.
As I walked into that desert with a backpack on my shoulders, planning not to return to the car or the road—or our whole civilization—for a few days, the sun was already penetrating my skin, the dry air already sucking moisture from my blood with each exhalation. I’d just begun a new phase of my life. Cody, Nathan, and I had nearly two months off from our jobs, waiting tables in Yellowstone, and we fully embodied that term: off. We were off the road, off the beaten path of life, off on an adventure. We were the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, off to see the Wizard.
I was working seasonally in a National Park, and now, suddenly, I was filling my time off in between jobs with backpacking trips to the high desert. I easily could have never moved west, overlooked the option to do it, or just chosen to do something else, anything else. At the time I was a shapeless ball of clay, prepared for any experience to carve me up in any way. I’ll probably always wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t chosen the strange path before me. I may have ended up a normal, well-adjusted American Dreamer.
Cody said we shouldn’t take more than a liter of water each. “It weighs too much,” he said. “And besides, we’ll be at the river by dark.”
We walked that steeply switch-backing downhill grade—easy on the lungs, but unforgiving on the knees—all the way down to the White Rim Plateau, a thousand feet below—continually peering down onto the next set of rock stairs we were about to descend, a path seemingly chiseled into the west face of the Island in the Sky.
Then we finally reached the stunningly flat bottom, though that plane of stone ground was really just the top of the next wide plateau. Now, instead of looking down on this alien land from above, we were tiny figurines stuck deep within it, gazing up at the rim above us, where we’d begun our journey.
Cody immediately started searching all around us for what I learned to call tiñajas, potholes in the sandstone floor beneath our feet. He was moving his head up and around, trying to see into the low spots of the surrounding area, trying to catch a glimmer of reflection. He’d thought finding water there would be relatively easy. Within the first ten minutes of our searching, Cody told us about those holes, how they can store tiny rations of rainwater for weeks after the last storm. But all day, as the sun beat down upon us, we found nothing but dry holes with rims of sediment marking where the water had once been.
It was late in the afternoon already, three hours into our search, when Cody found the first dark puddle of our journey, a genuine tiñaja, full of whatever turns water black—bacteria or algae or tannins from the oak and cottonwood leaves. The watering hole had the diameter of the Frisbee that Cody had strapped to the side of his backpack, and it held a pocket of stagnant water more than a foot deep.
We’d found water, but Cody was worried, in his easy-going way. “We’ll find more tomorrow,” he said.
After pumping three liters of yellow water, a few drops at a time, my filter was partly clogged, which meant it barely worked at all. I packed it away, not knowing we wouldn’t see water again until the end of the following very long day. I was already dehydrated, starting to see in tunnel vision. The liter of yellow water we’d pumped tasted so bad we had to boil and make tea out of it, to make it palatable enough to force down.
That night, after searching for water over a five-mile section of trail, we camped in a sandy wash underneath the giant cliffs, nowhere near the river. That cold night I slept away from civilization for the first time. Since I was a child and I read My Side of the Mountain, about a boy who runs away and lives out in the wild, productively and on his own, harvesting for food and training a falcon to hunt, I’d been obsessed with the idea of backpacking. The stars, through less light-changing atmospheric gases, and so far away from the ambient light of the cities, looked like what I’d seen in the planetarium as a kid.
That first night I wove my shelter—a blue tarp with attached parachute cord—through the lower limbs of a juniper tree, a hardy desert conifer with scaly, green needles made to retain moisture. That tree, adorned with dusty blue berries, thrived within its harshly dry environment. I didn’t run a line of cord beyond the reach of the low branches, and pull my tarp over a clear, flat spot, like I’d do now. That day, I just stretched the blue plastic sheet loosely up and over, under and around the lowest set of that small tree’s branches. I tied a few all-too-tight knots that I knew wouldn’t come undone.
When I looked underneath my uneven construction, I knew a shelter shouldn’t look so lopsided, and I decided to sleep out in the open not far away. For now, though I didn’t need the rain shelter, anyway. The sky was space-travel clear.
For the entire second day, we hiked parallel to the river’s course, searching for water. But we were trapped far above it, walking on relatively flat ground, along the edge of a soaring cliff. For hours we walked following the rim of the next chasm, west and north and west and north, across the dry bedrock.
Over the centuries, the erosive effects of sudden floods, multiplied by the cycles of freeze and thaw have worn twisted passageways down through the rock floor to the void below. We followed each of those ancient slot canyon entranceways that headed off to the north, in the direction of the river, but all of the narrow drainages became terminally smaller, and then each ended in massive drop-offs and impassible cliffs. We watched endless gallons of the Green River float by out of reach hundreds of feet below us.
As we dropped down the steps of the drainage, we had to make sure we could climb back up those giant’s steps in reverse. “Do you think I can get back up this thing?” I asked Nathan, as I prepared to glissade down a curving wall of stone like a playground slide. If we couldn’t, we’d have been trapped. It was easier to jump down those flat stairs than to climb back up their slick surfaces. I’m sure someone has died, trapped by some insurmountable step. Edward Abbey tells a story of nearly being trapped in one of those corkscrew drainages in Desert Solitaire. At that time I hadn’t even heard of Abbey, the master of describing the red desert. After my trips to the desert, I appreciated his writing because it brought me back to that fantastic world of the sandstone canyons, the desperate search for water, and the beauty of a harsh environment.
That second day we walked until our feet hurt. We were beyond thirsty. Our throats felt more itchy and stuck together with every swallow. In the afternoon, we found another small puddle, this one much larger than the first, but even blacker and more full of desert debris, leaves and sticks and sand. We filtered and boiled and drank of it, but unexcitedly. Some of the meager liters we pulled from that hole made it all the way to the end of that night.
When we made it to a sign that said “Potato Bottom”, we didn’t even bother to set up camp; we just passed out in the sand. We didn’t smell the river or hear it slowly snaking by, either. We didn’t catch the obvious marshy sound of the words Potato Bottom. By then we’d walked the White Rim all the way north, and the cliffs that had separated us from the river had become dramatically shorter as we walked in the dark. In the morning we realized we’d camped only a few hundred yards from the Green River. We sat by it and stuck our hands into its green edges and felt its cool feel on the skin, and before I even took a sip of it, I already felt better about everything.
We hunched at the water’s edge, in silence, pumping that water, until our three bottles were full. Then we took turns, chugging as much as possible, as someone else simultaneously started to fill another. A canyon wren peeped its descending peeps. Cody looked Nathan and I in the eye, and said, “Next time, we’re hiking somewhere with water.”
We drank and drank of the murky desert water like wildebeests, feeling like the survivors of a massive migration. I’m sure we still didn’t drink enough water to compensate for how fully dehydrated we’d become. Certainly we hadn’t recharged enough before the middle of our fourth day, when we left to begin the uphill climb with no hope of discovering water.
If I were to walk that path again today, I would carry more than a gallon of water, and I would fill my jugs to capacity at any opportunity. I would drink as much water as possible, before I left the river. At the time, though, Nathan and Cody and I were young and healthy to a fault. I didn’t really know anything about kidney stones, but thanks to my time spent in Canyonlands, searching for tinajas, I was about to learn all about them. After my first attack, the doctor asked me if I’d ever been “really dehydrated.” I nodded and thought back to the Island in the Sky.
Forget health, though, I was free—we were free—from responsibility and the constraints of modern society, of any and all obligations other than those of our self-imposed trip. We relied on ourselves and we survived.
For the entire fourth day, we followed the river north, having already become accustomed to the sight of water. The stress of our constant search fell away. We should have been avoiding the sun and pouring our systems full of water, but the river had mesmerized us, and we were convinced we were on sacred ground.
Before sunset, we watched dark clouds growing to the west, bringing with them gusts of angry wind. It didn’t take too much of that before we decided to build a shelter, to wait out the impending storm. We left the river in search of protection from rain. And just like that, our emergency changed drastically, from searching for water to running away from it. In that moment, we felt like we were living off ancient instincts.
We moved toward a gathering of lanky cottonwood trees, instantly finding an old log cabin perched on a five-foot rise above the high water mark of red sand, built of thick logs and covered in hundreds of smaller sticks and mud. Two windows framed the view to the south, and two holes in the roof made for a skylight and a floor of pink sand that felt cool between our toes. That night, with that cabin as a companion, we feasted on ramen noodles and oatmeal and drank water, knowing the river flowed close by and that our old cabin would protect us if it rained. We listened to the wind howl outside.
“The air is crazy still in here,” Nathan said. “Almost spooky.” Over the years, I’d believed more that coincidences rule our lives rather than fate. But in that moment I found doubting fate harder to do, while sitting under that roof—provided just when we needed it—from the uninhabited desert. It was hard to believe, too, that we’d found those puddles we needed out of sheer luck. I had plenty of time to think about all that in our mostly-intact house, a functional remnant of the first Europeans who’d tried to live in such a harsh and remote location. That deserted structure was a story of their failure to make it.
The next morning we set out to return to the road. Climbing back up shocked the cardiovascular system. We had no choice but to go all the way—no place to stop with water or shade to help us. Those thousands of vertical feet up the Upheaval Dome beat our knees and pumped our hearts and lungs until our shirts were soaked with sweat and we were tired and hungry, and—most of all—thirsty. We’d nearly run out of food after five days of rationing chocolate and tea and noodles and oatmeal, down to the final hours. The little moisture we’d retained up to that point was wafting off into the dry air as our sweat dried. Then, just as our bodies were rapidly cooling down from our climb, cold gusts of wind came soaring at us from the warm basin below.
In the years since that hike, I’ve continued to travel through the desert, but now, before each trip, I sit and think about the mistakes I made in the Island in the Sky, to prepare myself for the journey. Most of it has to do with water: How much am I carrying? Do I know when I might find a waterhole out there on my trip?
Now we’d conquered our mountain, and stood there on the pavement, triumphant. I learned to survive on my own and with the help of just two friends, in the primitive world. More importantly, I discovered that truly primitive world still existed in places. It hadn’t all been stomped into submission. And that environment’s effect on a human being is still as potent as it ever was.
For the first time in five days, from my lowly perspective, a combustion engine overpowered the sound of the canyon wrens and the wind. Surprisingly, that family stopped, and allowed me to jump into the mini-van with Mom, Dad, and teenage daughter. I’m sure I looked and smelled bad after five trying days, but all I could think about at the time was how unnaturally they smelled, a cloud of perfumed deodorant, hairspray, moisturizer, and laundry detergent. Though we were only going thirty miles an hour, to me it felt like a hundred. I wanted to go back into the backcountry that instant. I wanted to go somewhere far from civilization and full of water.