Entering Wire Pass, the sky overcast, a step into mystery, walking into a secret door, down into the unknown, into the unknowable. Our voices seem boisterously loud. As it joins the Buckskin it widens into a hushed gallery. Ancient petroglyphs adorn the right hand wall. Graceful big horns parade and scamper across the wall. Hunters chase them, leaping, shooting. A lone ram looks on from high above. As you make the turn the walls of the Buckskin narrow. They are dark, convoluted, whispering, beckoning onward, into the depths of sinew, of dark red muscle, its grain stretching on, frozen in stillness yet threatening to squeeze. Foreboding, as if leading to the shadow; chasms of doom to the gates of the dead. Yet the promise of hidden treasure, stored for ages, quietly calls from the pages of old storybooks read long ago in the dark of night, in the recess of childhood.
Curvaceous wall on the left answers to wall on the right, a continual counterpoint in sinuous stone. Call and response. Dancers to a slow hypnotic beat, rhythm established by the pace of your steps. Walls curving in, out; in, out; in, out. Then broken with a straight vertical fissure reaching high, higher, craning toward the narrow line of white sky. Then back to convoluted curves, hovering, calling in silence. Dark, dank, musk beauty.
The wind pushes its cold hand on your back, pushing along; then turning into your face, driving dust and grit, then turning to the back. Feet plodding on, stepping on and around stones, on sand, then sloshing again in to another pool of thin mud, seeking purchase, going deeper, chill on the thighs, back arching, the thought pleading, “no, not cold to there, not there…”, then gratefully rising up and out, not “there” this time, the gloomy passage beckoning silently onward, onward. And then a moment. A moment of light streaming downward, the hush of holiness, the holiness of a great temple, stunning into awe. Pausing, breathing, gaping up and around. Seeking a moment of warmth in the holy of holies. And then with a step, back to the dark, to the ominous tread.
You remember reading, “the Buckskin is the longest slot canyon in the world”. The longest. The longest. It’s beauty now going by un-noticed as fatigue dulls wonder, dulls awareness. It’s cold, and long. Wind to the front, wind from the rear. Companions now well ahead, well behind. You are alone. The gaze is downward now, watching the steps, the rocks, the sand, the mud. Then you notice the wings. Tiny wings, moth wings, laying delicately on the mud. The body is mysteriously snipped away, missing, cleanly snatched. Bats of the night? Swallows of day? White-lined Sphinx wings. No other moths. Just the sphinx. Dead wings a pattern of beauty, of geometry in the undulating background of wet, brown mud. What is their message? What do they say? Death awaits? The soul translated, lifted, taken? Taken to where? To new heights or to the dark inwards of wet decay? For a while you avoid stepping on them. Then the weariness takes over, step upon step, watching the footsteps of those who have gone on before.
After a mind numbing eternity someone notices the towering walls are growing shorter, shorter as they turn, promising a change. What is it? Then opening, expanding, a few small trees in the crannies, a little grass in the sun. A breath of freshness from outside. The middle trail you remember, eyes searching for a way out. Yes, their could be one, there, following those boulder steps. But we are sitting, packs off, rest. Water. Food. Watching swallows curve and soar above us, calling and scolding each other. If we could only spread our arms and sail up, up into the sky, out of this deep trough, out onto the desert. Is this really only the middle? We have come so far. The map shows a little past the middle. Yet we have miles to go before we sleep, miles to go before we sleep, for the passage still has its call upon us, its hold. No longer beckoning us, now moving us in hypnotic pace. Packs on, miles to go, miles to go. We move on into the dark, sinuous slot of hardened earth, a last glance at the light behind us, slowly moving, on and on.
Our head still reminds us that it is beautiful but our heart is too tired to notice anymore. It is a waste of beauty passing by and above us. More water, more cold steps slowly seeking solidity. Above our heads we notice the logs jammed high up. Twelve feet, some twenty, one at least fifty. Imaging the rushing roaring chaos of muddy water that wedged them there. But not today. No, “not today” we silently intone.
Then the leader before us stops. A lower log, another pool. His staff finds no bottom. Searching, plunging. How deep is this one? Yes, it is “that deep” and deeper. It is a plunge in, watery mud crotch deep, waist deep, cold and chill, cringing, hoisting packs up our backs in hope for a dry bed tonight. We are sloshing in a spaced line now, pressing to the right hand wall where it’s a little shallower, no end of the water in sight, the passage turning to the left. Then our friend steps up and out, dripping, as if he suddenly grew three feet taller. We step forward with confidence, up and out. Cold water running down our legs, shoes squishing, plodding onward. It’s not a march, not a walk, but a heavy footed plod, humping our packs and gear, mud-splashed, mud-encrusted, out of kilter, but no one stops. On and on and on. “The longest slot canyon …”
Here is a little gray mouse, dead and twisted, lying clean and soft on the mud. How did it get here? Did he plunge from the top, escaping a hungry coyote? Then another, clean as life. Mysteries of death. Now more death, a bobcat, on its side, its body molded with mud, fur matted brown, teeth hideously exposed. It has been here for a long while, preserved in the cool refrigeration of the slot floor. Fallen from the top, broken on the rocks? Or drowned, swept here by flood? It is not for us to know. For terrestrial creatures, this passage is a canyon of the dead.
And then a baby owl, still alive, hideously upright in the mud but too weary to move, worn out from struggle, wing feathers sodden and heavy, feet deep in the mire. What are we to do? Can we help? Soft gray down on his head, so young; doomed and knowing it. One of us pulls his sweatshirt over his hands to protect from pecks and bites and picks it up. No need to protect one’s self. This one is too weary to fight. And then we are stricken deeper with horror. It is blind. Its eyes are gone. Who or what has committed this war crime? Some hidden rodent sucking a bit of grim moisture? What are we, surprise witnesses to one of nature’s endless tragedies, to do? Put it out of its misery? But then would its death be on our hands? We set it down as ones who should not have seen, not have witnessed, not have interfered, and shuffle on. It is one thing to see the dead. It is another to see the dying. We shiver but not in cold.
We climb over and around a pile of boulders, then down on to the sand, mud and rocks. No, this is not the rockfall we have read about. But it is coming. How high will it be? What will it look like? It is growing dark as the afternoon sun moves high above us toward evening. Light no longer streams down. We can only glimpse the light at times along the rim.
Then it is here. Boulders bigger than imagined. Some as big as small houses. We climb up, to the right, to the left, inspecting. Here is a rope dropping down into a hole, knotted and looped. How could one fit down there? And where does down there even lead? Here is another rope going over an edge, boulders shouldering that passage on each side. In the dark we see the continuing slot of mud, sand and gravel leading on ahead. This is our route. The first of us, the most sure footed, drops his pack on the boulders, takes rope in hand and backs away from us, walking down the wall, dropping out of sight, stepping back to where we can see him on solid ground in the shadows. We begin lowering packs on lengths of cord, letting the cord rub against rock for brake, feeling the line grow slack as the pack hits. Without our packs we stand now, fearful, knowing we have to go over. There is no other way.
Guided from below, from the one who has gone before, we step to the edge, take rope in hand. It feels too thin, too small, too old. But he made it, he calls us, “trust the rope”. Some are more confident, some have no confidence. We are all silently aware of the growing dark, of the unknown distance to go. It’s our time. We take the rope, knees and legs trembling, we turn, our backs to the canyon ahead. We meet the eyes of the one to go next, now above us. They nod, reassuring, hand gripping rope, hand under hand, our bodies swinging to the right, to the left, onto one boulder, down again, more confident now, then earth. Flat, solid earth. A moment of relief. Yet the passage has its hold, its call and we shoulder our packs in a straining gesture that has now become so familiar yet never becomes fluid. On into the dark, the growing dark.
When will our packs be put to rest for the night? This is so much farther, so much farther than the books had said. Yet there was that German couple at Lee’s Ferry. “The Buckskin is a long walk,” they solemnly intoned with bowed heads in their simple, accented English. “It is the longest slot canyon in…” How much longer? How much longer? Water is seeping now from the sides. The Buckskin has a silent flow, flowing in sinuous, slow curves on the muddy floor, horizontal curves to match the vertical curves of the walls.
The slot widens a little, the walls still impossibly high. We turn a gradual corner. In the shadows there is green. Rich, deep green, the green of spring grass, of trees; trees stepped on high terraces, one on the right, one on the left, stepping up higher than we had imagined, with the silently flowing Buckskin cutting through the middle. Brown steps of hardened sand scaling up to the green; brown trails snaking higher into the green, to the flat earth, hardened by hundreds of nights under tents. This is it. There is a person ahead of us, the first we have seen since we entered the pass so long ago. He looks impossibly clean, spiffy even, like some explorer out of a British documentary. “Yes, he assures us, a quiet Brigham Young with a mid-western accent, “this is the place.”
We pick our places on the right hand terrace, collapsing in this impossible oasis beneath the soaring red-rock walls, streaked with varnish, dark in the fading light of early evening. We erect our little tents, frail shelters that ensconce us in the trusted illusion of a safe and secure nest. We quietly wander the rest of the Buckskin, stepping lightly now down to its confluence with the Paria, flowing past in a brown rush, nearly wall to wall with water. The wind has ceased. Back to our terraces, little hanging gardens, to rejoin the others. Re hydrating supper, eating with our spoons like five children, sitting on the ground or on a log in an oval; a full comforting warmth emanating now from within. Dry feet, toes wriggling warm in soft socks.
So tired. How will we go on? If we have come to the heart, if this is it, we’ll have to wait till morning to take it in. Rest. Stars emerge in the narrow breadth of sky above us. We can sleep as long as we wish.