Hayduke Trail | September 9, 2018
Arches NP to Courthouse Wash | ~10 miles
I didn't start until mid-day, with 95 degrees of sun blasting hot air onto my skin. It wasn't the way I'd intended—my initial plan was to skip the permits and hike 20 miles through the Arches backcountry in one go—but my morning laziness and long, luxurious breakfast squashed that plan. When I wasn't ready for boots on the ground at dawn, I figured I better get a permit to camp in the backcountry, so Kevin and I drove to the ranger station where I spent 20 minutes learning more about cryptobiotic soil and other desert trivia before acquiring my permit. My designated campsite was something like 13 miles away, but I figured I could make it. There was plenty of daylight.
The first several miles were along dirt roads, and it was a slog. There was deep sand. Then another road, and even deeper sand. I'd hike just a couple of miles before resting under the nearest shady tree for a few minutes. Another couple of miles, another tree. This went on until the point where the guidebook instructed me to follow a fence line. I was to stay very close to that fence line and tip-toe around the cryptobiotic soil, full of tiny little organisms building up a crusty foundation for desert life.
As I typically do when I'm excited about something, I didn't read the guidebook notes very thoroughly. I found some fresh hiker tracks, followed them until I couldn't anymore, then suddenly realized I was stranded on a tiny desert island surrounded by a sea of crypto. Where did those tracks go?
Hiking through the crypto is like playing the Hot Lava game on Level 10 Extreme. There are patches of sand you can step on but they are only two inches wide, and they are spaced five feet apart. Thorny plants serve as safe spots—it's much better to trample a plant in the desert than to trample a century's worth of built-up microorganisms.
I played this game until I found tracks again, inching closer to the fence line, then I'd lose them again. I played this game for longer than I should have, then I finally caved and turned on my GPS. No little desert lifeforms should have to suffer because I skimmed over the part in the guidebook that said to just follow the wash from the road.
I had three liters of water on me, and even in the heat that's usually enough to get me 20 miles. But between the deep sandy roads and my seemingly endless march to the elusive fence line (which likely added a couple of extra miles to my day), I drank a lot of water. More than I should have. So by the time I found slick rock and it became apparent that the mouth of Courthouse Wash was near, I'd already drank well over my day's ration. In fact, I'd nearly drank it all.
A spring was ahead, though whether it'd be wet enough to fill my reservoir was an unknown. This year was very, very dry in southern Utah, and I knew water was going to be a challenge. So I remained skeptical.
I passed a couple of large potholes, but knowing the spring was just around the next bend I heeded the ranger's advice and skipped over them. But of course... the spring was dry. Not a trickle in sight.
Potholes are unique to the slick rock landscapes of the American Southwest. They are depressions in the slick rock carved by rain and running water, and they are tiny little ecosystems. Not only are they a source of water for mule deer, coyotes, bees, and other desert wildlife, they are home to various species of shrimp and aquatic invertebrates. Collecting water from these can be like chipping away at the square footage of someone's home, and dipping your hands in can contaminate the water with sunscreen or even just skin oils. A lot of the water sources on the Hayduke are from potholes, so it's important to be nice to them.
But my spring had no water, and I was low. Really low—I was three sips from being entirely out of water. So I backtracked and scooped up a couple liters from the potholes, being careful not to dip my hands in and mindful to not scoop up any little invertebrates that I could see.
Onwards along the slick rock. The route funneled towards Courthouse Wash, a large canyon I would follow to the southern boundary of the park just outside of Moab. My campsite was a few miles down the wash, hidden in a dense thicket I'd have to bushwack my way through. I had maybe 30 minutes of good daylight left when I reached the mouth of Courthouse, and it was thick. By this point I knew I wouldn't reach my campsite before dark, so I started to look for a place to stealth. But I wasn't really up to camping in the wash...
Reasons I Did Not Want To Camp in Courthouse Wash include the following: (1.) it is heavily vegetated, full of water, and there are about zero flat spots, (2.) it is heavily vegetated and therefore dark and scary, (3.) my mind kept envisioning a scenario in which a thirsty cougar would growl and encircle my sleeping self all night as I had temporarily laid claim to their water source, (4.) camping in a wash in the desert is just asking to get swept away in a flash flood, and (5.) I much prefer campsites with a wide open view. So I quickly found a line that took me up to the rim onto a large, flat expanse of slick rock. I rolled out my sleeping bag, made some couscous for dinner, and called it a night.