Utah’s Ancient Portals Pull Me to the Present

Story by Morgan Tilton

Posted: February 12, 2018

“These guys would appreciate if we didn’t camp here; so, I’d appreciate if we hurry to make it to the next spot to set up camp,” I said to my backpacking friends. Ten hours had passed since we left our parked car in the middle-of-nowhere desert in southern Utah to enter Buckskin Gulch: a 15-mile slot canyon that is the longest in the U.S. and possibly worldwide. The canyon’s towering walls are 200 to 500 feet above the earth and stand less than 10 feet apart. Their faces’ deep grooves have weathered by rain and flash floods, and have adopted the silhouette of vertical ocean waves.

Photo © Morgan Tilton

I was entirely in my element exploring an awe-inspiring landscape and steeped in solitude with wonderful trail companions. Regardless of that truth, my internal frustrations simmered to the surface. The passive-aggressive tone was not my shining moment. Early that morning, we woke up at our moonlit campsite next to Lee’s Ferry, which is the put-in for rafting the Grand Canyon and the end-point of our backpacking trip. We—myself and three friends plus two dogs—broke down camp, and shuttled two hours north to reach Wire Pass Trailhead, where we began the self-supported journey.

The slot canyon was as indiscernible as it was astonishing. From the trailhead, we hiked past yucca and sagebrush. Our boots and heavy packs loaded each step. The sand and pebbles crunched together beneath us, and within one mile, we reached Buckskin’s mouth: It seemed to appear out of nowhere. Water is its architect, but it is nonetheless a world wonder. My neck craned back, and my eyelids felt glued behind their conductor: I couldn’t let myself blink. The uppermost tier of the canyon was illuminated by the sunlight, which gradually disappeared as it moved down the wall toward the ground and created an organic gradation of the stone’s maroon hue.

Photo © Morgan Tilton

The magnificent gorge eclipsed the majority of the blue sky and the world’s orchestra. The near soundlessness of a bird’s wings above us was so magnified that it’s flight seemed close enough to graze my temple. Each step I took crushed a mini-canyon of curled mud that was as exquisitely designed as chocolate garnishes on a baker’s masterpiece. An airplane’s jet engine—thousands of feet high—reverberated through the ravine with such a surprising force that my breath froze against my chest, and I looked for an escape route: I thought a flash flood was about to burst upon us.

I moved forward in a meditative reverie but also felt completely frozen in time. I could hardly fathom the years of stories, humans, carcasses, floods, and growth that had filled this space—and considering its age and vastness pulled me back to the present moment. I considered my lifeline and my simple existence in the grander, complex existence of the earth, humankind, and the universe.

Photo © Morgan Tilton

Before we knew it, mid-afternoon reached us, and the light began to fade. We needed to backpack to the canyon’s first high ground in order to set up camp, which was near the confluence of Buckskin and the Paria River. Given the number of miles that we needed to cover to reach Buckskin’s southernmost point, I realized that we would be hiking through the tallest section of the slot canyon in the dark. I was pulled out of my trance, and the disappointment suddenly rubbed against my underlying frustrations—about financial insecurity caused by late client payments, my mom’s declining health, and my own recent physical injury. I’d hoped to let go of those worries and to not bring them with me into the canyon. But existing in and being surrounded by nature has a way of exposing our personal rawness. I couldn’t hide from those problems here. They were a part of me.

At Buckskin’s largest down-climb, a pile of lodged boulders required a 20-foot drop. We held onto a rope that was tied to a boulder, leaned back, and walked down the wall to lower ourselves. We were only 1.5 miles from our intended campsite, and I couldn’t see a thing other than what was lit with my headlamp. When I finally reached our first potential campground—which was atop a hillside—a group’s tents were posted, and the campers told me that there wasn’t enough room for us, too.

Photo © Morgan Tilton

I was surprised by the abrasiveness in what had felt like a space of nirvana. My emotions—from everything that wasn’t inside the canyon—reached the surface. My friends caught up, and I couldn’t hide the frustration in my demeanor. Fortunate for us, we found another hillside to create our campsite only two minutes ahead. The sun rose the next day. We all hiked back through the segment of the slot canyon that had been masked over in the prior night. The obscure formations of that portion were my favorite piece of Buckskin.

At the tributary, we entered Paria Canyon and walked south until we reached Lee’s Ferry. A total of five days and a fifty river miles passed—plus countless miles of exploring side canyons—and I became lighter. I curiously prodded quicksand, pretended to be a geologist as I searched for petrified wood and polished rocks, lived off of the natural springs, cooked clean and in moderation, gawked at the sky’s howlingly clear constellations, wandered into the words of literature each day, skirted around scorpions and rattlesnakes, playfully interpreted 1,000-year-old petroglyphs, painted my face with natural clay, and scrambled up chossy hillsides for mind-expansive views of the canyon.

Photo © Morgan Tilton

In this day and age, completely disconnecting from life’s quick-paced and routine patterns is one of the greatest gifts for our own mental and emotional wellness. Regardless of being aware and believing in this reality, it took a walk through one of the most remote, inconspicuous, and hard-to-reach veins in the earth in order for me to honor my reprieve.