More Brother Adventures (and Misadventures) in Canyonlands National Park

Conditions could hardly have been better for Part Two of our Brother Adventures (and Misadventures) in Canyonlands National Park. The sun was shining, but in the early morning it wasn’t nearly as hot as it was for Part One, when we hiked to Druid Arch and I came down with a nasty case of heat exhaustion. We stopped at a local donut shop for breakfast, and then we sipped our coffee and ate our donuts as we drove from Moab to the Island in the Sky District of the park. The donuts were delicious, but crumbly — so we made a bit of a mess along the way. But we were happy to have the opportunity to visit a different section of the Canyonlands, especially on such a beautiful morning.

We made it to the park entrance and sailed through the checkpoint without having to wait in line at all. We arrived at the Visitors Center just as they were opening up, so we were able to consult with the rangers on our hiking ambitions (a 5-mile hike from the rim of the Canyon down to a second level of the canyon called the White Rim, via the Gooseberry Trail) and fill up our water reserves. We were excited to hit the trail.

But first, we decided to make use of the pit toilets near the Visitors Center. As we walked up to these glorified outhouses, I noticed the sign next to the door that showed a symbol of a person squatting over a pit toilet, just above the more standard symbol for “RESTROOM” — and I wondered out loud if all of the facilities were going to be “squatty potties” instead of toilets. But I was relieved (in more ways than one!) to get inside of one and discover that both options — squatting and sitting — were available in each unit.

In his unit, next to mine, my brother decided to opt for squatting. I don’t know if it was in order to try something different or just to make me laugh. But when he finished with his business, he started standing up until he heard the sound of his car keys jingling out of the back pocket of his running shorts, hitting the side of the hole leading down to the pit, and then plopping into the sludge.

We figured this wasn’t the first time that something like this had happened, so we went to the rangers inside the Visitors Center and told them what had happened. They said they’d call Maintenance, but that it might be a while before they would respond — given that it was early on a Sunday morning, meaning that their staffing was minimal. So after waiting for 15-20 minutes to hear if Maintenance might be coming to the rescue, we decided to start troubleshooting the problem ourselves. Some helpful workers in the Visitors Center Gift Shop showed us their most powerful magnet, on the back of a souvenir Canyonlands bottle opener. So we bought the bottle opener and then affixed it to a string from the drawstring bag in my backpack, giving us about seven feet of good, strong cord. So we could go fishing in the pit toilets of the Visitors Center.

We fished for about twenty or thirty minutes, trying to plumb the depths of the pit in hopes of latching onto the keys. Unfortunately, our fishing expedition was unsuccessful. During one stretch where I was fishing, Jay took my phone into the Visitors Center (where they had free WiFi) to research options for obtaining a new key for his Honda Pilot — and he discovered that there wasn’t a single Honda dealership in all of Utah that was open on Sunday. During another stretch when Jay was fishing, I went back to the rangers’ station to see if there had been any further contact with Maintenance — and they said that Maintenance concluded they would not get involved, citing concerns about the biohazards of the situation (though I could imagine they were also not very keen to prioritize this job on a day when they had their hands full with other Maintenance projects). So we really were on our own.

But then the National Park Service rangers came in clutch for us. They had found an old broom handle and another, stronger magnet which they secured to the broom handle with something resembling a sock. They gave us the new fishing gear along with some masks, gloves, trash bags, and a wastebasket filled with a bleach solution, wishing us luck. But after another ten or fifteen minutes, now down on our knees reaching our arms down into the empty space at the top of the pit to make sure we could search every square inch of the sludge, we still hadn’t gotten any further…

Until, in a quiet moment, without any shout of triumph or anything, Jay pulled up the keys on the end of the pole. And all of a sudden, we couldn’t stop laughing and smiling from ear to ear. The relief and the hilarity of the whole experience were heightened by their stark contrast to the depths of despair we had been feeling for the last hour and a half. It was, honestly, an amazing feeling.

After we cleaned everything up and thanked the rangers for their help, we got back into the car to carry out our plans for hiking. As Jay reached down to buckle his seatbelt, he recoiled immediately and made a kind of gagging sound — pulling up his thumb to reveal a streak of brown along the side. But then, in wiping off the brown, he realized that it wasn’t sludge from the pit toilet but chocolate frosting from the Reese’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Donut that he’d been eating earlier that morning. Again, we cracked up and just couldn’t stop laughing as we drove out onto the Island in the Sky (which is really more like a Peninsula in the Sky). We talked about the way that misadventures are often more memorable than standard-issue adventures, and we rejoiced in the fact that we got to experience it all together.

The hike down the canyon wall was incredible. No major incidents there (for better and for worse). We had some super-meaningful conversation as we hiked, and I hope that I will always remember the things that we talked about on Gooseberry Trail. But I feel quite confident that I will always remember the misadventures in the pit toilets by the Visitors Center. And the way that we got to experience it all together, as brothers.

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