It seemed like a great way to earn a backpacking merit badge. A five-day trip, 14 miles in, 14 miles out, and a few side trips up canyons to achieve 32 total miles, just what the members of Varsity Scout Team 6475 needed to finish their qualifications. And along the way through the red rock country of the Colorado Plateau, from Hurricane Wash through Coyote Gulch to the Escalante River, there would be some remarkable scenery: Jacob Hamblin Natural Arch, hand-hewn by nature, time, wind, and water; and Lake Powell, Hole-in-the-Rock, and Dance Hall Rock, to be visited by car on the way home.
But as hikes often do, this one turned out to be harder on the trail than it appeared on the map. “It started out dry,” said Rob Perkins, 14, a member of the Orem 75th Ward, Orem Utah Windsor Stake, which sponsors the team. “Then it got drier and drier. Then finally, just when you were wondering if your canteen water would be enough to last, you noticed a trickle of water in the rocks at your feet. Pretty soon we were following a creek and catching tadpoles. Then we were following a river.”
The wash joined the gulch, which dropped deeper and deeper, crossing the path of water which would normally be far beneath the earth. At that point, the water simply flowed out of the ground.
But walking in the sneaker-deep stream presented some problems of its own. First of all, the water was full of silt.
“It would fill your shoes so full you couldn’t walk in them anymore,” said Willie Holdman, 15. “So you’d take your shoes off and walk barefoot. But then you’d come to a place on an S-curve where you could cut across open, sun-baked sand. Was it ever hot! I’ve never run so fast in my life. And at the end of the day, the tops of your feet would be sunburned. That makes it hard to want to put your shoes on anyway.”
Simple walking also created friction, which inflicted additional foot damage. “I felt like the soles of my feet had been rubbed with sandpaper,” Shriedhar Dusara, 15, said. “Sometimes they would get really tender.”
Of course, after a while packs got heavy and it seemed hot all the time. “It wasn’t a killer heat,” Brad Nelson said. “In fact, the farther down the gulch we got, the cooler it got. But anytime you’re carrying a lot of weight, you’re going to get tired.”
And, once again, thirsty. “We had to treat all of the water to make sure it was safe to drink,” Shriedhar said. “But even though it tasted funny, we were sure glad to have it.”
The gulch grew narrower and deeper. The sides became walls, some 50 feet tall and only four feet apart. Then the crevasse opened into a true canyon, with the river running broadly down the middle. Huge cliffs towered high on either side. Holes weathered in some rocks made them look like Swiss cheese. Elsewhere, rocks bore a remarkable resemblance to human faces or animals. In one side canyon, the weather had shaped rocks into small, round, ping-pong sized balls which literally covered the ground.
Brad explained that the Scouts would get their hats wet and let the water drip down and evaporate to cool their skin. He said he remembered being exhausted, then looking up and seeing a tree, the first greenery he’d seen for miles.
“All right,” he said. “Vegetation!”
And the river banks got greener from then on, even though rust red remained the predominant hue.
During the days, the Scouts discovered that there were plenty of grottos along the trail where they could rest in the shade. They learned that water collects at the base of cliffs and in sink holes, that plants often grow in such places, and that frogs congregate in the water. They also found some shallow quicksand and discovered that after they walked on it enough, the water was forced out and it became more solid. Evenings were spent in fireside discussions, lizard chases, games, hiking, showering under a waterfall, looking at cougar tracks, and cooking dehydrated meals over portable burners. One night the Scouts awakened to the sight of hundreds of daddy longlegs mounded together in vibrating heaps.
“We still don’t know where they came from or what they were all doing in one place like that,” Floyd Holdman, the team coach (equivalent to a Scoutmaster) said.
But of all the sights along the way, the Scouts were most impressed by Hamblin Arch.
“How can you not be impressed by something that big?” Shriedhar asked, and the others wondered with him about what hand could have sculpted scenery so monumental.
“You get an almost reverent feeling down there, wondering where it all came from,” Brad said. “It makes you feel so small.”
Brother Holdman reminded his boys of the scripture in Alma 39:44, “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it.”
“Yeah.” Willie nodded his head. Floyd is his father, so Willie is used to hearing him quote scriptures. But this passage seemed to mean more out where nature is so prominent. “I guess that’s right,” Willie added. “You sure feel that way when you see all these rocks. And think how long it took for the wind and rain to make an arch. It’s kind of like God is making sculptures, beautiful things for us to enjoy. This is like part of his art gallery.”
Finally the team arrived at the Escalante River.
“On the way, we had to tie ropes to our packs and lower them over cliffs by the waterfalls. Then we had to find our own way down,” Rob explained. “Sometimes on a short cliff we’d just jump down. On one of the highest cliffs, somebody had built a ladder and left it.”
“We’d been wandering around because we couldn’t find a way down,” Willie said. “Then we saw a sign scratched in the rock, ‘Ladder this way,’ with an arrow.”
“If I could meet the guy who built that ladder,” Brad said, “I’d sure tell him thanks!”
That night, the group camped away from river banks where water might rise, unrolling their sleeping bags on higher ground. The precaution paid off.
“We got up the next morning and looked at where we had planned to camp,” Brother Holdman said. “The water had risen a foot. If we had stayed there we would have been wet.”
It was a long, hard hike to make it all the way out the next day, but after coming in, going out would seem anticlimactic. And everyone was eager to make the additional stops at Lake Powell, Hole-in-the-Rock, and Dance Hall Rock. “It’s only 50 miles to Hole-in-the-Rock, once you hike out from Coyote Gulch,” Brother Holdman explained.
“Thinking about the additional things we would see kept us going,” Brad said, “but after five days of dehydrated food, so did the idea of eating the treats we’d left in the car.”
By 1:00 P.M., four hot, tired young men and one exhausted adult leader were snacking on candy bars, then relaxing in a car rolling down the highway.
“If you think you had it bad hiking out of Coyote Gulch, imagine what the pioneers went through,” Brother Holdman said. “The group that went through Hole-in-the-Rock took six months to go 300 miles, through all kinds of country even rougher than this. And they had to build trails and move wagons and cattle over mountains and through canyons.”
The words took on a deeper meaning when the young men actually stood at Hole-in-the-Rock, where in 1879 colonizers dropped down into Glen Canyon through a narrow gorge to cross the Colorado River.
“If you ever come this way it will scare you to death to look down it,” wrote one settler, Elizabeth Morris Decker. “It is about a mile from the top down to the river and it is almost strait down, the cliffs on each side are five hundred ft. high and there is just room enough for a wagon to go down … They put the brake on and rough locked the hind wheels and had a big rope fastened to the wagon and about ten men holding back on it and then they went down like they would smash everything. I’ll never forget that day. … [My son] looked back and cried and asked me how we would get back home” (Miller, David E., Hole-in-the-Rock, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 1966, p. 116).
Shriedhar, Rob, Willie, and Brad had probably never thought so much about the sacrifices others made for the Church as they did looking out at the waters of Lake Powell that day. Although the lake water now covers much of the area the pioneers traversed, the courage of the moment was evident.
“I don’t even know how they did it,” Rob said. “I’d rather go 500 miles the other way.”
“You can still see the stairs they carved in the solid rock,” Willie said. “You can see blasting holes they drilled when they tried to make the opening wider.”
Shriedhar said, “It’s not something I’d want to do. All those rocks and steps to try to take wagons and cattle down. It’s so steep. And that’s just to get you to the bottom where there’s more work to do.”
Later however, as the group visited Dance Hall Rock, they glimpsed another side of pioneer life—recreation. Dance Hall Rock is a huge sandstone formation shaped like a natural amphitheater with a smooth floor. With three fiddlers in the company to supply music, pioneers spent several pleasant evenings dancing. Even today, some expeditions to the area will provide music so their participants can enjoy the acoustics.
“You think of pioneers just being in wagons all the time,” Rob said. “It’s nice to know they danced and had fun too.”
After the stop at Dance Hall Rock, it was time to head home.
During their five-day journey through Coyote Gulch, the members of Varsity Scout Team 6475 hiked enough to qualify for a merit badge, and they were proud of what they’d accomplished. But they also had learned a little bit about history and gained some empathy for colonizing pioneers.
“The next time I hear the names of those places I’ll pay more attention,” Willie said, “because now I’ve been there.”