Sometimes when hiking a trail, you can fool yourself into believing you are the first person to see this view, experience this thing, breathe this air. Even though your feet trod a well-beaten path, YOU are the only one that knows about it. You can dream about the creature, man or mammal, that created the path and languish in the fantasy that the world is all yours. This is all yours.
Such was not the case at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument this week.
The hike itself is like none other I’ve ever done. Awe-inspiring slot canyons that force you to contort your body just to progress through them. Breathtaking switchbacks that remind the sea-level dweller that oxygen is a precious resource. Rock scrambles that challenge anyone with a stride shorter than 33″. And such awe-inspiring views that you KNOW you’ll be back.
It was a great hike. 1.5 miles UP. Okay, not all of it was up. Only the last 2/3s – but that’s where you gain most of the 630′ in elevation! The first third was more moderate. If you are a new hiker, or one afraid of heights, or one that respects your oxygen needs, I definitely recommend doing at least the first .5 mile through the slots – the rest would be a gamble! You won’t regret it. There’s a bit of elevation gain, and some mild scrambling, but only enough to make you feel alive and adventurous.
On a Wednesday morning, I didn’t expect to see too many people, but even as I set out, I had company. Taking a picture of each of them would have been weird. So I’ll just have to tell you about them:
Creepy lone hiker in street clothes. I first saw him near the parking lot with his dad (a smoker that left the pit toilet lid open and the room filled with nasty smoke and who I thought stood NO chance of doing any hiking that day!). I thought I had lingered around long enough to give them/him a head start, but as soon as I started off, the younger one was just a few steps behind.
Having only seen 3-4 cars in the lot, it was creepy having this guy behind me. I was self-conscious. He was wearing jeans, t-shirt, leather jacket and some kind of stylish hiking/walking boots. But carried no water or pack or anything. DEFINITELY suspect! Who goes up a trail with no water wearing a leather jacket in 70 degree sun?
After a few minutes, I stopped to drink water, adjust my camera, adjust my pack, get a rock out of my shoes, and generally just linger. He asked if he could pass me. YES, thank you! It wasn’t much longer that I encountered elderly disoriented couple. They didn’t mean to be on this trail (there’s a shorter one to a cavelet) and although they enjoyed the slots, they were definitely out of their element.
I managed to go quite some distance without encountering anyone really remarkable, but did notice that many of the people I passed carried no packs or water and many were ill-attired for a walk in the park, much less a desert hike. Finally was met with a group of women who were coming back down the trail. I noticed they were ALL wearing day packs, some had hiking poles, and many had on hats – all were smiling! They had been to the top and lived to tell about it!
I was definitely enjoying the hike, but kept wondering if I wouldn’t have to use my WFA skills at some point. Seriously, some of these people looked like they were out for dinner and a movie, or a trip to the grocery. Really, one small water bottle for two people?
Anyway, I made it to the top, creepy guy somehow ended up behind me again having gotten off-trail at some point, but by now, I figured he was legit – no one would hike 1.45 miles up a mountain for the sole purpose of attacking someone. And besides, there were hordes of people!
It was on the way down that I really had to just lower my head and keep trekking. It was late morning by now and the sun was high and strong. As I made my way down, I encountered school groups of 20+ kids, parents with babies on their back and no obvious water or snacks, and…I kid you not…two young 20-something girls wearing flip flops and carrying hula hoops. Yes…Hula Hoops. At least six of them. Hiking…or ANY exercise of any kind didn’t appear to be something they did as a matter of routine (but I could be WAY wrong.) They had made it through the slots and were at least half-way up the trail, but hadn’t yet gotten to the tougher scrambles and loose rock. They asked me how far it was to the top, so knowing that was their plan, I was seriously tempted to turn around just to see if they made it – but I value my heart and respect the oxygen-to-blood ratio more and opted to just head for the car. And, quite frankly, I didn’t want to have to figure out how to use the hula hoops to build a splint should one of them slip out of their flip flop down the mountain!
The school groups left me with a dichotomy of emotions. I was really happy to see the kids on the trail, but was very disappointed at the lack of Leave No Trace principles being observed. I’m sure at least some of them will appreciate and embrace the outdoors. But I wonder if they’ll end up being the ones that need rescuing on the cliff because they were ill-prepared.
Maybe I was being judgey. I don’t like to think so. I think I was really just in a state of constant risk-assessment. When you hike or do anything adventurous, you have to rely on your own skills and resourcefulness, but also that of those on the trail with you. And if you have any kind of advanced first aid training, or outdoor leadership experience, I think you are even more conditioned to notice risks and see the idiocy around you. I don’t get it right all the time. I’m still learning. But you won’t catch me on the trail without the ten essentials.
When I got back to the car and looked back at the peak I’d just descended, I heard, then saw the school group. Their excitement at reaching the top was contagious, I was proud of them – and proud of their school/teacher/parents for making it happen. The rest they can learn…hopefully the easy way.
No sign of the hula hoops.