Notes on the San Raphael Swell

Utah Boulder Narrative
by Tim Patterson Sep 24, 2010

All photos by the author. Author’s note: This post is dedicated to the DJs at Moab Community Radio, KZMU, 90.1.

Tim Patterson’s notes on one trajectory out of Boulder.

Boulder, Colorado. 6 pm.

All of a sudden Dave and I didn’t have jobs anymore, so we went to Utah.

Driving south in a storm, past the University of Colorado, past people caught in the rain, typing on their smart-phones. In Golden we got lattes at the Starbucks drive-through.

On my lap: Utah Gazetteer, National Geographic map of the San Rafael Swell, iPhone, new Nikon camera, USAA MasterCard and the 3rd Edition of Hiking and Exploring the San Raphael Swell by Michael Kelsey.

Green River, Utah. 10 am.

We buy Crenshaw and Honeydew melons from a roadside melon stand. The melons cost $3.85 each and the melon lady tells me to “treat them like babies”.

Driving west we pass the Robber’s Roost Motel, the Green River Bible Church, Ray’s Tavern and – on the edge of town – a tattered billboard advertising COLONOSCOPY.

Trailhead, Johansen’s Corral. Noon.

Five minutes after parking the Emery County Sheriff pulls up – how the heck did he find us out here?

Sheriff Jorgensen gives us a tourism brochure with a hopeful title: “San Raphael Country – We’re Closer Than You Think!”

The brochure is a little sun-faded from sitting in his car for so long. He asks where we’re going and when we’ll be back – Virgin Spring Canyon, a couple of days. He tells us he knows that country a little bit from a float trip last year. He seems to want to chat, but drives away and leaves us alone.

Silence of the vast desert. Wind on scoured rock faces. Juniper trees. Tamarisk and cottonwood along the river.

Turns out Dave forgot his sleeping bag.

I think about the chapter in Dharma Bums when Kerouac goes hiking with Gary Snyder in the Sierras and their friend forgets his sleeping bag.

Here’s what Ed Abbey had to say about Kerouac:

“Jack Kerouac was like a sick refrigerator, worked too hard at keeping cool and died on his mama’s lap from alcohol and infantilism.”

We leave our iPhones in the truck, and then, walking, joke about a satellite phone that would allow Facebook status updates from anywhere on earth.

“Social media…that’s where the money is. Some of us have reputations to maintain.”

Near Cane Wash. 2 pm.

Found a nice place to sit and write – fire-pit, stone bench, view of canyon walls, shaded in a crevice, cool. How long did someone stay here?

Light is coming in just right on the white sandstone and Dave is running back to the truck to get his camera and tripod – 5 miles round-trip – so I have time to take off my Keens and explore.

Just laid out the yoga mat and read some of Michael Kelsey’s guidebook, which turns out to be excellent. Michael Kelsey has attitude and knows the San Raphael Swell very well from personal experience. He has traveled to 214 countries, republics, islands or island groups and used iodine or bleach to purify his water less than 10 times.

I dig into the beef jerky and open one can of sardines, then discover one of my chopsticks is broken, so I use a cottonwood twig to eat the sardines.

The next day. Virgin Spring? Noon.

In the morning we walk upriver on a cattle trail. I hold my thermos of coffee high while we bushwhack through riverside brush.

There is no trail at the mouth of what we think is Virgin Spring Canyon.

Scrambling up canyon. Uncertain. Water? San Rafael river water tasted saline last night – don’t want to drink that again.

Nothing for a while – just dry streambed. Then mud. Then greasy seeps.

Then the spring at the end of the canyon – a small pool, muddy and filled with bugs. Water drips in thin streams from moss on the canyon wall. We carefully collect this water in our Nalgenes and eat lunch – sausages, sun-dried tomatoes, almonds. It takes about 30 minutes to fill one Nalgene.

Now I’ve scrambled above the spring and am fearful up here on the ledges, careful to scrape mud from the bottom of my shoes.

Silence. Huge rock walls, not a cloud in the blue blue blue sky.

Wonder how I’ll get down. Watch an eagle soar above the canyon rim. Think about Ed Abbey.

The only sounds are the scratch of my pencil and the trickle of water flowing into a Nalgene 200 yards away.

Virgin Spring? Evening.

Dave helped me get down.

I take a nip of rum to settle my nerves, rest by the spring and read two short stories in The New Yorker. One story is about death by social anxiety; the other, by Jonathan Safran-Foer, is the story of a lifelong marriage in about 1,000 words.

When it gets too cool at the spring I climb up a side-wash to the sunshine, read another story about a midlife crisis in the suburbs of Houston, watch a big gray squirrel that looks like a marmot and scatter a few Syrian coins for someone to find someday.

Dave goes high up to the amphitheater wall, all the way to the white Navajo stone.

No one up there in how long?

I leave the fleece, T-shirt and magazine behind and walk straight up the slickrock in shorts and sandals, camera in one pocket, notepad in the other.

Mounds of cryptobiotic soil, twisted old pines. Hot in the sun, cool in the shade.

I walk to the very top of the overhang above the spring and consider a cannonball; mud would cushion my fall.

From the overhang I can reach out and touch the shimmering leaves near the top of the big cottonwood tree that’s rooted by the spring.

Camp. Evening.

We build a big fire and Dave digs a pit in the sand, buries the coals and sleeps on top. The sand gets too hot in the middle of the night, though, and he doesn’t get much sleep.


We hike out in midday heat, dry lips cracking. Dave tells me the Razorbacks will make a run at the national championship this year. We swim in the cold river, and eat an entire Crenshaw melon, about 10 big slices each – the best melon I’ve ever had.

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