Eardley Canyon

- John C. Jones, MD, AWLS

Cliff Dweller Flat is an oddly perfect place to park your transportation before you set off in search of Eardley Canyon. Old USGS topographical maps show it has an aircraft landing strip. Erosion and grassy lumps have overridden anything that once resembled a runway. If it ever actually existed, the only remaining sign of it is a remarkably straight stretch of dirt road. But, we didn’t come here seeking air travel.

The flat stands roughly 30 miles west of Green River at the end of a short, but entertaining, dirt road. One portion of the road would have been a real bugger with wet weather. You know you’ve reached the right place when the road goes no further. If you do go further, you won’t be leaving with your vehicle.

I’m always rushed before a trip, so I take the typical harassment as I tie up my pack and switch from flip-flops to hiking shoes. A moderately overcast day with a good wind whipping over the flat makes me change from desert camo shorts to full-length khakis in a hurry. We throw on our packs, mark the two trucks with a waypoint on each GPS, and head out just past noon.

The edge of the flat overlooks a sweeping basin containing herds of shrub pine fenced in by sloping mesas. A quick drop down about 200 feet and we’re fenced in, too. We don’t know exactly how to get into Eardley, but we’re feeling intrepid and desperately in need of exploring.

The shallow washes guide us into Hyde Draw. The geology here is unlike any I have seen. Slabs of light orange stone accented by bright patches of rust create the sides of the wash. We stop to absorb the view of some olive-stained water resting peacefully in a descending chain of pools. After some good old-fashioned film photography we realize this is not the way. Hyde Draw drops approximately 200 feet to the canyon floor. We scramble to the next highest point only to realize we are in the midst of a maze of draws diving into the heart of the canyon.

After a little reconnaissance we’re backtracking over the next few ridges until we find suitable descent into a feeder canyon. The maps label this one “Straight Wash”. It looks like our best chance. It’s interesting to note there is no clear distinction between Eardley Canyon and Straight Wash. In fact, Straight Wash is labeled as the beginning and the end of Eardley Canyon. Maybe, Mr. Eardley couldn’t handle calling this a wash and stole the opportunity for an eponym. After all, who doesn’t want a canyon named after himself.

It’s a steep scramble and I’m leaving a chunk of skin and some blood so I can find my way out. On the way down, we distinctly hear children’s laughter, but we see no one all day. At the bottom there is homogenous coarse, dry sand—the kind that makes you kneel and pass handfuls through open fingers. But, there’s no time to waste as it’s late in the day.

Heading down we’re met by budding trees that grow sideways down the canyon. They look like they have been persuaded to grow this way by water. Flash floods course through here since debris marks high-water levels in branches well above our heads. From the start we can tell this canyon is worth at least a few hours.

Paul breaks ahead since he’s been training lately and leaves Tyson and me eating his dust. I call ahead for him. His response tricks my hearing as it bounces off the narrowing canyon walls behind me. Can he be behind me? I mentally correct the error and see him sit down with a congregation of tumble weeds under a tree. When we catch up, I lean over the sideways tree and see Paul, unknowingly sitting with his back to a full-size ram. Half the ram’s torso is eaten away by some monstrous predator. Its broken ribs jut into the air. “Whoa, check it out!” We entertain the vision of a stealthy mountain lion precisely falling from above on the bighorn sheep. It would have been a quick kill in the narrow canyon.

The canyon walls rise and darken. Near the bottom they are almost black. These are the narrows. Running a hand on the cool stone wall pummeled smooth by churning water, sediment, and rock evokes a feeling of sanctity. This is why we came here. This is what I need so I can return to the city and see what the asphalt and cement are trying to be.

Hiking in Eardley Canyon

We meander down further between the towering walls of Coconino sandstone stained with manganese oxide and red iron oxide. We catch drops of water falling hundreds of feet from patches of moss on the rock face. Everywhere are lines—lines in rocks, lines on rocks, lines between rocks. They remind me of the rings in a cross section of an old tree that has been hewn. I see that like the tree they, too, mark centuries that have passed in this canyon. My flesh and bone are so soft and temporary I will leave no record here; nor do I want to. This canyon has been remarkably preserved from the sick vandalism and trash that better known places acquire.

We’ve made it halfway and the sun is getting low in the sky, so we double our speed back. Paul pulls ahead, again, but this time I shout a comment about mountain lions lying in wait. He slows just a bit. We pass the lines, pass the narrows, pass the ram, pass my blood, pass the pines, and ascend the flat just in time. Dark storm clouds have masked the sky and a light rain spatters on us and the desert floor.

With our very last steps on the lip of Cliff Dweller Flat, the purest, deepest thunder I have ever heard crawls out of the depths of the canyons and resonates in my bones. We stop moving, like animals in unison, and turn around to look back into the fading light—not out of fear, but in palpable awe. Paul is nearest and I can tell he is smiling. I am too. And, as we prepare to leave, the storm behind us prepares to wash away our footprints in the coarse sand.