Canyonlands National Park

Jay and I drove into Moab (Utah) around two o’clock in the afternoon. We got some lunch at a place downtown and planned out our approach to Canyonlands National Park while eating cheeseburgers. It’s an enormous area, with four distinct districts — the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the Rivers — with drive times between the different districts ranging from two hours to six hours (!). We ultimately decided to drive straight to the Visitors Center for the Needles, about an hour and a half away from downtown Moab, arriving a little bit before 4:30 PM.

We were interested in hiking to a rock formation called Druid Arch. The ranger we talked to at the Visitors Center tried to dissuade us from this particular hike, given the heat, the approaching darkness, and the length of the hike (about ten and a half miles). Still, we felt confident we could handle the hike’s complexities, so we adapted our plans in light of the ranger’s concerns to take more water and take haste in getting to the trailhead. The ranger said that this hike usually takes five to seven hours, but we felt confident we could do it in four hours. It was only 1,500 feet of elevation gain over the course of 5.4 miles, between 5,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level. We felt like we had adequate experience and adequate equipment. So, we filled up our water bottles and water bladders at at the Visitors Center and then drove to the Elephant Hill trailhead to hike out to Druid Arch and back.

I definitely noticed the heat when we started hiking (90° F right around our targeted start time of 5:00 PM), but I didn’t think that I would fall victim to heat exhaustion.

We kept up a decent pace through the initial climb, over a ridge, into the heart of the Canyonlands. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking: beige and orange canyons and cliffs, a ridge of lumpy stone needles standing sentry over the landscape. It felt like we had the entire Needles District to ourselves. And it really did tap into the energy of so many brother adventures gone by: building clubhouses in the woods… car-surfing on the hood of my 1985 Chevette over the prairies of North Dakota… jumping naked into the lesser lochs of the Scottish Highlands. We shimmied through slots in the canyon walls that were the width of our bellies (sucked in!). We clambered up onto ridges that looked like the surface of the moon. We took pictures and videos of each other traversing the landscape. It was epic.

For a large part of the middle of the hike, we followed a wash that lay on the canyon floor. But somewhere around the 3.5-mile mark of the hike, we misinterpreted the stone cairns that marked the trail — and we ended up taking a detour that ultimately added an extra mile to our total before we figured out our mistake and backtracked to the correct trail. Even with the unintentional detour — or actually because of the detour — we got to see a lot of amazing variations in the Canyonlands on our way up. And we still managed to reach the awe-inspiring Druid Arch a little more than an hour before sunset.

At the arch, Jay set out to do a quick thirty-minute painting of the scene while I took some pictures, read the Canyonlands literature that we’d collected at the Visitors Center, started writing about the hike in my journal, and tried to enjoy a snack of some fig newtons and smoked almonds — even though I had no appetite at all. It felt good to rest and air out my sweaty back while trying to replenish my body with food and water — but in retrospect, I can see that this was probably the point where the first manifestations of my heat exhaustion started to show in this nausea and extreme fatigue.

We made it about halfway back from Druid Arch to the Elephant Hill trailhead and parking lot before the heat exhaustion really caught up with me, right around the same time that the darkness started catching up with us, too. We kept making progress by the light of my headlamp and Jay’s iPhone flashlight — but my legs started to feel really heavy, and the soles of my feet started to hurt really badly. We slowed down more and more to accommodate my increasing exhaustion. But then, we started to see flashes of lightning and hear rumblings of thunder. Still quite distant, but nevertheless disconcerting. It was honestly pretty scary — less that we were going to get electrocuted or soaked (in fact, a soaking might have even been advantageous), and not even that we would get caught in a flash flood (though this possibility loomed larger in our minds, knowing that something similar had just happened in Moab twenty-four hours earlier), but mostly because the lightning and thunder just added to the ominous, unfamiliar feeling that had us longing for a glimpse of the parking lot.

We did finally make it back to the parking lot around 11:00 PM, six hours after we started. It was a relief to get back to the car, but even while I was swapping out my hiking boots for my recovery sandals, I felt woozy. The adrenaline that pushed me through those last few miles quickly gave way to pure nausea and light-headedness. I kept myself together until we both got buckled into the car — but after driving perhaps a quarter of a mile, I had Jay stop the car because I was worried about throwing up. It turned out to be nothing by dry heaves. Another quarter of a mile further, however, I had Jay stop again. I did a couple more rounds of dry heaves — and then my stomach finally released its contents. It actually felt like a huge relief to finally throw up. Like, a 75% improvement. Jay had the brilliant idea for me to put the freezer packs from our cooler into my armpits and groin to help me cool down.

We stopped at the Visitors Center again on our way out, so I could use the bathroom and swish out my mouth with water. And when I came back out to the parking lot, Jay had turned off the car’s lights and engine so he could look up at the stars. Aside from the line of thunderstorms to the north, the skies above us were so dark and so clear that we could see the Milky Way. It was breathtaking. So cool. So cool, in fact, that I hardly even noticed my heat exhaustion.

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