Utah 2021 - Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument - Blossoming in the Desert

Trip Info

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

April 20-24

Part 1 - Conditions Assessment

Part 2 - Gear List

Part 3 - The Trip Report (You are here)

Blossoming in the Desert

The shakedown begins in Escalante

Last year I decided that I would finally try out backpacking. I grew up a car camper, spoiled by the luxuries of air mattresses and Coleman stoves. My parents took us every year on an annual camping trip with several other families. I learned to love sleeping outdoors. In high school I started to research thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Interest waned as I moved away to college and other interests took hold. But the desire always remained.

In August I went on my first trip, solo, in the Diamond Peak Wilderness. I have written a little bit about it in my other posts. It was a fun trip, and I learned a lot. Most importantly, it got me hooked on backpacking.

Several months after that trip, I received an email from Andrew Skurka’s newsletter. I had signed up for his 13 backpacking recipes meal guide and consequently signed up for his email list. The email was a call for applications to do one of his guided trips in 2021. I read through all the information on his website and decided to apply.

I reasoned that backpacking was something I knew I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I had felt a calling to it for a long time, and my first trip was fun but also a comedy of errors. If this was something I was committed to doing, why not learn from the best when I was starting out?

I applied and was accepted to join a group in April in Escalante Grand-Staircase National Monument, nestled in the desert of Utah. When you do a guided trip with Skurka, you start with several months of pre-trip planning.

Finally, after months of planning and waiting, I was boarding a plane to Las Vegas - my first flight in over a year. I landed in Las Vegas and the next day drove 5 hours to Escalante. The following morning, we met at Lions Park at 8am.

I arrived at the park to see 30 or so backpackers with gear laid out everywhere, ready for a shakedown from the guides. Since I did not own a lightweight backpack, shelter, or sleeping bag, I was using my lots of demo gear. I also decided to try out an alcohol stove. You can read more about the gear I used here. 

Once I had checked out my stuff and organized it, Andrew looked at my gear. He told me to ditch a sleep mask and some excessive plastic bags I was using for organization. Otherwise I was good to go. My pack weighed in at 21.5lbs, one of the lighter packs in the group. I had packed high calorie, low weight foods and followed the gear list guidelines closely. I was proud of my gear and food selections! 

The Guides

Andrew and Bec - our camp counselors

Our guides were the man himself, Andrew Skurka, and Bec Bastian. Andrew needs little introduction if you are familiar with ultralight backpacking. In short, he has done multiple 6 month and longer unsupported expeditions. He has created several off-trail routes in remote terrain. He was Outside Magazine Man of the Year. He also literally wrote the book on lightweight backpacking gear for National Geographic.

Bec was new to the Andrew Skurka Adventures team. This was her first season guiding and we were her second group ever. She has triple crowned the three popular long trails (PCT, AT, and CDT). She has created routes of her own and has extensive trail experience. I was shocked that Bec was the same age as me - 31. She is incredibly experienced and one of the most interesting people I have ever met. She was a great teacher, a caring individual, and a bundle of fun energy. Her smile consistently lit up our trip.

Andrew and Bec had great guiding chemistry. This trip was a first for Andrew in that he was the oldest member of the group. The dynamic created a duo of “Uncle Andy” and “Big Sister Bec”. They had met in person for the first time less than two weeks ago when they guided their first trip together (right before ours). Yet it seemed like they had worked together for years.

The Group

The Group - Utah 2B

The group size is ten people, eight clients and two guides. This felt just right. I assume any smaller would not make sense financially for Andrew and his team. Any bigger and I don’t think the guides could give everyone enough individual attention. The size was also good for splitting up into smaller groups of 5, which we did for several days. This allowed for hands on group navigation, as well as more intimate conversations.

One interesting aspect of going on a guided trip is going backpacking with a bunch of strangers. Backpacking is hard – physically and mentally. It puts you under stress. It can cause periods of hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation. All these factors can lead to cranky people!

And yet, there was a bit of trail magic that happened with our group. We clicked very well. Maybe it was pure luck, maybe it was due to Andrew’s extensive application process and group matchmaking process. Maybe it can be attributed to the kind of people that Andrew’s trips attract. Perhaps it was a combination of all three.

Four members were friends from the bay area. Two of the four were a couple who had done a trip in Yosemite last year with Andrew’s team. The bay area group was in their early to mid-thirties. At first it was intimidating for me that half the group was close friends, but more on that later. 

The other three clients ranged from 25 to 36. Everyone was friendly, very intelligent, and easy to talk to. Our group had a mixed amount of experience. Overall though everyone was pretty comfortable in the backcountry. Most people in the group had been backpacking for a while. I was the only person who was brand new to backpacking. 

I am not sure about each person's comfort level with sharing names and information about them, so I won’t talk specifically about anyone.

The Hike

Day 1 (~8 miles): We got a late start on day one. We were the last group to leave Lions Park since we had Andrew as our guide. He had to make sure all the other groups were good to go. The good news was we got breakfast and coffee at the Escalante Mercantile before heading out to the trailhead. The bad news was this took way longer than Andrew expected. The mercantile was packed with one person working the kitchen and counter. I think we hit the trail around noon. No one in our group was in a hurry though. We were happy to get some proper coffee and a breakfast sandwich. 

The first section was all on-trail moving along the Escalante River. We took over-under bets for how many times we would ford the river. We seemed to be going back and forth across it endlessly. It ended up being eight times, far off my guess of sixteen. The river was not high though, at the deepest to lower shin. Once we got to the confluence of Sand Creek and the Escalante River, we took a break for lunch.

Our Day 1 lunch spot

During lunch Andrew and Bec gave us our first introduction to using a map. We reviewed where we came from, where we were, and where we were heading. We also talked about water purification and how Aquamira drops work. This was my first time using drops as opposed to a filtration system. We filled up on water and then started climbing up through sand and slickrock.

Our first climb included a steep and slightly sketchy section of slickrock. At the top, Bec gave us an overview of crypto soil – the hard, black, crusty layer that develops on soil in this region. It is formed by bacteria that can be hundreds of years old! We learned it is important to avoid disturbing crypto soil. Some techniques to avoid it are stepping in each other’s footprints and walking on slickrock as much as possible. During our overview a swallow gave us some entertainment by dive bombing the group.

The first slickrock climb

The rest of the day took us through several sections of sandy desert and slickrock traverses. Andrew wanted to make a push for a campsite that he promised was well worth it. It would require us to hike much later than he preferred, though. We were up for it. He guessed we would get there around 6:30pm but it was closer to 7:15pm. His misjudgement of the time became a fun running joke for the trip. He said the campsite had a pothole below it that we would have to hike down to and pack water back up.

On the way we spied a Christmas tree! There was a lone spruce that had sprung up along a creek in a canyon below us. It was quite a sight. Spruce do not grow in the region and it was quite a mystery how it got there. It could have been the wind, or a seed on an early explorer’s clothing or gear. Hard to say. 

Our desert Christmas tree

At this point Andrew asked who wanted to lead. Someone from the group stepped up and started picking the route. This would continue throughout the rest of the trip and is a key feature of Andrew’s trips. Individuals, duos, and the group as a whole are put in charge at different points to make decisions about navigation and route picking.

We continued on and ended up seeing a big pothole right before we got to the camping spot. Unfortunately, it was quite hard to access. Andrew ended up having to climb down into the pothole, getting his now dry shoes, socks, and feet wet. We did a daisy-chain method of passing bottles to Andrew and then using them to fill up platypuses.

I volunteered to straddle the steep incline and pass bottles back and forth between Andrew and everyone else. We filled a lot of bottles - at least 30. My back got pretty torn up from the position I was in and I almost slipped several times. This would have been miserable. I was directly above Andrew and would have gotten us both soaked if I tumbled down into his back. Luckily, my feet held steady.

Once we filled up all the water bottles we headed up to the campsite, which did not disappoint! It had an incredible view looking south out into the distance. We got an amazing sunset with visible rain off in the distance. We had a delicious dinner of peanut noodles, a Skurka signature dish. After dinner we got a clinic on how to poop in the woods with an explanation of the “backcountry bidet.”

A truly epic sunset

We also shared our reflections of the day with a method called Orange, Lemon, Sponge cake. Orange was the best part of the day, lemon was the worst, and sponge cake was what you learned. We also shared our goals for the trip. Most everyone had a goal of learning more about navigation along with having a fun time. Andrew shared a great goal from a former client: workout, have fun, learn something.

I shared that my goal for the trip was to learn more about off-trail navigation. I also said I wanted to gain the confidence to get out on my own after the trip. I was thinking of saying that I wanted to make new friends who I could backpack with in the future. I didn’t because of my self-consciousness. More on this later.

First night of cowboy camping

The first night was my first time ever “cowboy camping." Cowboy camping means not using a shelter and camping out in the open air underneath the stars. My bed setup was the following: First I used a large polycryo ground cover folded over on itself. Next in a line I laid out my pack liner trash bag, my maps in a gallon zip lock bag, and my backpack down by where my feet would be. I put my Therma-a-Rest Neolite X-Air (Women’s size) on top of those. I had a Therma-a-Rest pillow, which worked very well. I used the demo gear Sierra Designs 20-degree quilt (which I have since purchased). I did not have a bivy, although since the trip I have started looking into buying one.

I wore every layer I had: sleeping socks, long underwear, hiking pants, hiking shirt, fleece, wind shirt, and a down hoody. I also had my CoolNet Buff over my eyes and ears as a sleep mask and ear plug combo. We would have a full moon the day after our last night, so it was bright every night of our trip.

My face was poking out of the quilt hood. The winds picked up a few times throughout the night and were quite cold on my face. I also had some mosquito visitors buzzing in my ears and landing on my face around midnight. It would have been great to be able to zipper or velcro the hood opening shut. I will probably modify my quilt to be able to do this. My pillow also slipped around, and I wish I could have stuffed it into the head flap in the hood.

Sunrise - Day 2

I woke up every 3 or so hours from the issues described above and then again at 4am when it got really cold. While this wasn’t great for my sleep, it was amazing for stargazing. It was hard to see the stars when we went to bed at 10pm because of the moon and the clouds. But when I woke up at 4am the moon was out of sight and the sky was filled with stars. The only time I've ever seen so many stars was in Peru during our Ayahuasca retreat (maybe I will write a post about that trip another day). The depth of the stars visible in Escalante was incredible - I could see whole sections of the galaxy.  

Day 2 (~9 miles): My alarm went off at 6:15am and I opened my eyes to see Andrew standing above me. He was coming around to make sure everyone was awake. “You look cold,” he said. He was correct.

We packed up our gear and got hiking around 7am. Andrew requested we take off our down jackets and start the day “bold and cold” – ready to hike hard. We hiked up some steep sections of slickrock. When we came around to the east side of the ridge we found the sun shining on a lovely breakfast spot. We made the delicious cheesy potatoes with bacon. Coffee got the juices flowing and many people “went for a walk” to give the backcountry bidet a try.

A nice spot for breakfast and a navigation lesson

Once everyone was done with their walks, Andrew gave us a tutorial on map and compass navigation. We learned the elements of a map and compass. This included concepts like magnetic north vs true north, declination, orienting a map, bearings, and some other stuff I am forgetting. Andrew has a great video on what we covered here.

We then broke up into small groups of 4 clients and one guide. The navigational challenge was to find Upper Calf Creek Falls. Our whole group had 3 female clients and 5 males. Our mini group for the day was all males with Bec. We affectionately named our navigational boy band with female manager: “Bec and the Boys.” Many fun chants followed.

We navigated to our destination using a combination of bearings and a few map reading stops. Bec helped by checking Gaia GPS when necessary. Two of the bay area crew were experienced backpackers, so we didn’t have too much trouble.

We did tag-team leading for navigation. Once we got to the falls and the other group arrived, we rested for a bit. We had some snacks, washed our clothes (no soap of course), some folks jumped into the cold pools, and we filled up on water. I took a plunge to rinse off. It was very cold and felt very good. We saw a couple other people at the falls, as they can be accessed as a day hike from the highway.

Upper Calf Creek Falls

Next, we navigated to a cave that had petroglyphs and enjoyed a lunch inside. It was surreal to be hanging out and eating in a cave that humans had used thousands of years ago. There was also some graffiti unfortunately. The spot seemed to be a more well-known location of petroglyphs.

After lunch we navigated for the rest of the day to a camping spot in a wide canyon. We enjoyed another Skurka signature dish – Cheesy Beans and Fritos. It was delicious. There were some dark clouds in the sky. I was nervous and considered setting up the shelter I was using as demo gear – the Sierra Designs High Route. Instead I opted to cowboy camp again.

"The Cave"

I had a similar experience as the first night. The winds were fierce for a few hours after we first went to bed. My face got cold, but I wrapped my quilt tight and they eventually died down. I went to sleep. I got up in the middle of the night to pee and stargaze. I got another couple hours of sleep and then the usual 4am wake up. When I woke up this time my stomach was growling. My feet and lower legs were freezing cold. I should have eaten a snack to warm up. Instead I drank some water, put on my hiking socks (which were dry) over my sleeping socks, and got back to sleep after feeling cold for awhile. Alarm clocks went off at 6:15 and another bold and cold start around 7.

Eating the classic Skurka Cheesy Beans and Rice

Day 3 (~8 miles): We started day three as we started day two – puffies off and a steep climb to get the blood flowing. We decided to split up into groups again, but this time switch guides. Bec and the Boys become Andy and the Boys. After an hour or so of hiking we decided to stop for some breakfast. Andrew went off to find the other group and we started unpacking for coffee and food.

Andrew had no luck finding the other group. We packed our breakfast up and continue hiking to meet them at the original way point. We checked out some potential cliff dwellings along the way but found nothing cool.

We got to the waypoint and found the other group. We had a late breakfast around 10am on a beautiful cliff side spot. Breakfast was Coconut Chia Oatmeal. I was not looking forward to it as I don't like oatmeal but it was delicious. As Andrew says, "hunger makes the best seasoning."

On our way to breakfast

After breakfast we were given a new waypoint and as a group navigated based on bearings. We set the first bearing to navigate around a large cliff. Then we readjusted our bearings to get to the way point on an overlook. It above upper Death Hallow and gave us a fantastic view. It was also covered in chips from arrowhead making. Throughout Escalante there are chips everywhere. Early peoples carried the smooth, sharp river rock with them as they travelled. They chipped away at them until they formed arrowheads. It is incredible seeing the sheer number of chips in the area throughout the trip.

Down into the canyons below

From our spot above Death Hallow, we now had to descend. This seemed to be the most “dangerous” part of the whole trip. In my opinion, it was not that difficult. A bad slip could have resulted in an evac though. We were descending on slickrock at a steep grade. After a first, easy initial descent we got to a decision point.

Option #1 - Lots of exposure

We had two directions to go. One direction was on slickrock. It was very exposed, though. The drop would have been at least 50 feet. The other direction was in a gully and had much less exposure, but more loose rock. We took off our backpacks and split up into teams to check out the two options.

We ended up choosing the route I helped scout in the gully. At first, I was skeptical. It looked steeper and more slippery from my angle across the gap. The other person with me was right though. The route we scouted was easier, and the exposure was lower compared to the other direction.

Option #2 - Much less exposure

Next we zig-zagged down another steeper section of slick rock until we reached the waters of Death Hallow. Down in Death Hallow, we navigated through the creek, down beaver trails in tall grass above our heads, and through fields of thorny rosehips.

Death Hallow is a beautiful canyon. That first day in it did not disappoint. We ascended to some slickrock for lunch. While we ate we had a great conversation about relationships, divorce, and therapy. I shared me and Daschel’s (my fiance) decision to seek couple's therapy. We don’t think that we have the kind of problems that would warrant couple’s therapy. Instead, we want to improve our relationship and communication.

Down in Death Hallow

After lunch we dropped back into the canyon and then ascended on the other side. We found a beautiful spot for some portraits. Next, we navigated by sight to the base of a large mesa. There we checked in with our maps to “tell the navigational story” of where we had been and where we were.

It was very windy where we were. Jackets and maps were flapping and flying. Bec came over to check in with me on my navigational story and I was completely lost. I had not been keeping track of bearing, direction, or route since we descended into Death Hallow. I kept making guesses that were very far from where we were. I felt embarrassed. The day before I was feeling great about my navigation skills. But now I was feeling terrible.  

Get to the Mesa! 

Bec showed me the route we took and where we currently were. We got ready to move and Andrew asked me to lead. Another person in the group would do it with me. We started off in the completely opposite direction of where we needed to go. I thought we would go all the way around a ridge instead of through it. Andrew didn’t let me get more than a few steps before course correcting.

We worked our way down slickrock and then over many gullies and ridges. There was a “hurry up” vibe as it was already after 5:30pm making it yet another late day arriving into camp. 

We found some old elk antlers along the way that had which were turning brittle. When we got to flat land, Andrew decided to start leading to hurry things along. Him and Bec had often done this throughout the trip already. Regardless, I felt like I had picked some bad routes and did a poor job leading. This was compounding with embarrassment about feeling lost earlier.

The Big Buck

We got to a place that looked like a nice campsite with a big pothole of water. It was not as far along as the campsite Andrew had originally planned for us that night. He took a poll with eyes closed. Thumbs up to keep going, thumbs down to stay, and thumbs sideways for I don’t care. I started as a thumbs up and moved to a thumb sideways. Most everyone was good with continuing onward, so the group kept moving.

We moved through low brush, sand, and some slickrock. Andrew had mentioned it was fine to slow the pace down, although he was moving quickly in the front. Physically I felt fine and decided to hike fast towards the front of the group, but mentally I felt drained. 

When we finally got to the campsite, the pothole we were banking on was completely dry. No water for us. I was out of water at that point and had been for at least an hour. We got our sleeping areas set up while Andrew went in search of water. I was having trouble finding a flat spot I liked. The bay area crew told me they had a nice flat spot near them and that I could join. I thought it was a very kind gesture. I took the invitation and set up camp next to them. 

Andrew and Bec did find some water, but it was tinted green and had a funk that only a thirsty person could stomach. I was a thirsty person. Most decided to use it for cooking only and drink whatever they had left. 

Extra color, extra flavor

The sun was setting, the wind was picking up, and we sat down to dinner. Everyone was tired, hungry, and thirsty. As we all gathered together, Andrew pulled out a Nalgene of something special to drink. It was a great way to lighten the mood. Everyone cheered and sat down to a big, delicious dinner of polenta and peppers. 

I was in a bad headspace though. I was upset with myself for not “staying found” throughout the day. I was embarrassed at my inability to locate where we were when we reviewed our maps. I felt like I had done a bad job leading the group on our descent. I started to beat myself up in my head for lots of different things.

Earlier in the day, I had not picked up a cigarette butt even though I saw it. The person behind me picked it up instead. When another person in the group was leading, I kept going out in front of them and making suggestions. Sometimes I would try going a different way. I told myself I wasn’t being kind enough. Later I found out the help was appreciated.

I was in a negative thought spiral. I felt like a bad person and I thought everyone in the group was thinking the same thing. 

I remained quiet for most of the evening. The group chat bounced around. It went from video games to whether we should be optimistic for the future of the world. We face huge problems. The consensus was for optimism, a good indicator for me. 

We all shared our reflections on the day with orange, lemon, sponge cake. I wanted to share some personal highlights about each group member that evening. I was in a bad mood though and kept it to myself. 

We went to bed and received an Andrew Skurka Adventures first, a bedtime story. That’s right folks, Andrew read us the story of Hole in the Rock from a guidebook of the area (Canyoneering 3). It was a fun and funny way to end the night, especially given the slickrock gully we were camping in had a nice echo to it. 

Day 4 (~11 miles): Another day another 6:15 wake up call. After packing up we started once again with a bold and cold start up an incredibly steep slickrock face. We went immediately vertical gaining 500 feet within minutes and warmed up quickly. We found a nice sunny spot for breakfast. It was our last hot breakfast of the trip, an instant egg southwest style breakfast burrito.

Bold and cold as per usual

Andrew and Bec warned about how difficult this breakfast was to cook. There were countless failures of past clients. You need to add exactly 4oz of water and cook it like you would scramble eggs. I eyeballed the amount of water. I started cooking and was concerned because it looked like egg soup. I kept with it though and continued to stir for at least 5 minutes as the mixture boiled. Eventually it cooked down into a scrambled egg consistency. I had brought a small bottle of hot sauce and shared that with the group. A nice treat weighing a little over an ounce.  

I had to go “take a walk” and found a nice spot away from the group. By now I had accumulated a few cuts on my hands so using hand sanitizer was becoming a pain. Once everyone had taken their “walk” we gathered around for a map and compass session. I was still in a crummy mood but determined to improve it. We started heading towards the Boulder Mail Trail, an old mail delivery route between Boulder and Escalante. Power lines marked the trail in some places and cairns in others (on the slickrock portions). 

On our way to the trail, I saw a perfect boutique of rough Indian paintbrush flowers. I thought how nice it would be to give them to Daschel, and a wave of emotions hit me hard. I felt homesick. I started to miss her deeply. I got very emotional. I began tearing up. It was an overwhelming experience for me. I tear up occasionally, when I hear a touching story or feel moved from a movie or book. This was much more powerful though. It was hard to hold the tears back. 

Blossoms in the Desert

I got myself together as we continued onward and ran smack dab into the BMT. We followed it (guided by cairns on the slickrock) until we reached down to Death Hallow. Here we approached a group with a pup. Andrew said it was a high use area. I waved hello and got straight to filling my water. I had been drinking the green juice until I ran out, which was about an hour prior. We filled up on water and snacks and started to head down Death Hallow. 

Throughout the day, I continued to experience very moving moments. I would look up at the incredible beauty of the canyon walls and begin tearing up. I must have started crying 10 or more times throughout the day. 

I focused on talking with everyone in the group who I had not had a meaningful conversation with. I decided I would not try to lead. I would enjoy following. I would focus on learning more about the other people in my group. I was checking in with my compass and bearings throughout the day, but it was not my priority. 

Spending time getting to know the rest of the group was my priority. I had a bunch of fantastic conversations. The topics varied widely. Some highlights included communal housing, the ethics of wealth accumulation, the impacts of social media, artificial intelligence for self-driving vehicles, perceptions of the news, regenerative agriculture, plant-based diets versus meat, new age bay area cults, and so much more.

The conversations were enjoyable, and it paired with jaw dropping views as we hiked. For hours massive canyon walls surrounded us as we strolled down the creek. Some areas we walked directly down the creek bed. Others we skirted along tight shelves next to deep sections.

It was mostly easygoing. We did encounter some difficult sections that required balance and full attention. We ran into some crossings where the water was much higher than usual due to beaver dams. I got waist deep, which for some of the short group members was mid-chest. Everyone in the group showed strength and courage. They navigated skillfully as they had done all trip long.

As our day was ending, we made our way up a very steep loose rock drainage. The going was slow and steady, making sure each step had secure footing. At the top was a rewarding 360-degree view of Escalante. It was hands down the best campsite I have ever had the privilege of sleeping at. It will be up there as one of the best of my life. 

The energy of the group was high. The excitement over the campsite and the positive vibes of the day had everyone smiling from ear to ear. We settled down to a dinner of chili with red lentils. This recipe had used textured vegetable protein (TVP) in the past. The stories of flatulence were as numerous as they were outrageous. 

Andrew had solicited feedback on Instagram for what to replace the TVP with in the recipe. The best comment was “ten crushed up Imodium tablets.” While the aftereffects were not as bad as described from the TVP, we were all making duck noises the next day. 

Night 4 - The best camping spot of my life

After dinner we got into orange, lemon, sponge cake. I made the determination that I would share what I wanted to and I wouldn’t let fear get in my way. I was the second person to share. I immediately started to feel the tears coming. I shared the story of seeing the rough Indian paintbrush and how I had been emotional that whole day. I apologized for subjecting the group to watching a grown man cry. Bec assured me it was a “safe space,” a running joke from the week and a serious assurance. 

I shared with my lemon being the negative mood I got into the previous evening. I shared how I don’t like being bad at things. I shared how in my day-to-day life, I’m often the leader. I’m used to leading. At work, in my personal relationships, I very often lead. This is a place I’m comfortable. 

But something struck a chord with me out there. I didn’t want to lead. And for navigation, I didn’t want to beat myself up for not being good at something I’m just starting to learn. I wanted to follow. That was my sponge cake, learning that sometimes it is okay to follow. It can feel good. All throughout that day my intention was to be present with the other people there with me. I wasn’t worrying about leading or following. I was just being present, which could include being aware of where we were and where we were going. 

With that I shared my orange, which was how awesome the group was. I told them that they were a supportive, thoughtful, and caring group of people. Then I went through one-by-one and told each person what I appreciated about them.

PSA - Doggy bags are not a substitute for bread bags

For personal reasons, I won’t share about each person. I will say they were all very wonderful people who I appreciate very much. I hope to stay in touch and hike again with them soon.

I shared how hard Bec and Andrew were working. Going into the trip, I thought being a backpacking guide was the coolest, most fun job in the world. I mean come on! While I still think that, I also have a great appreciation for how difficult it is. They are working very hard out in the field (and I am sure organizing the trips as well). 

They are managing group dynamics. They are looking after everyone’s bumps, bruises, and feelings. They are giving everyone individual attention while keeping the conversation flowing. They are making sure everyone is safe and comfortable with the terrain.

They are also hiking with us, getting tired, hungry, thirsty, and sleep deprived. Andrew had a difficult situation arise on day three. A message came from another group about a medical issue with a client. You could see the stress on his face throughout that day. What those guides do is no cakewalk. 

I also shared my anxiety about the bay area group being tight friends. It worried me that it would influence the group dynamic. I shared them being so close and me not knowing anyone else there intimidated me. This anxiety eased with how warm, welcoming, and easy to talk to they were. I shared how I admired their friendships and relationships. I appreciated how they showed up for the group. 

What does one see out in the desert?

Finally, I finished my long-winded speech. Andrew gave a ceremonial “mic drop." This broke the tension and gave everyone permission to release a cathartic laugh. He then shared that for as long as they had been doing orange, lemon, sponge cake, that my speech was the sweetest one he had ever heard. 

It felt good to say what I had wanted to say but had been afraid to. I felt seen, heard, and accepted. Everyone in the group seemed moved. Some people showed it through tears of their own. Others through their words that followed. It was a special moment for me, and others shared that it was for them too.

We broke off and went to sleep below the moon and the stars for our last evening in Escalante. It was one of the most powerful, emotional, and fulfilling days I have had in a long time. Certainly, one I will not soon forget. You won't find an experience like that with an r/Ultralight shakedown.

Day 5 (~5 miles): We woke up to an incredible sunrise on Day 5, the first sunrise visible from a campsite of ours. Unfortunately, my socks and shoes were still a little wet, but I put them on quickly and went for a walk. On my way I found some bones. I also found the best toilet spot all trip, with an incredible view of the sunrise. 

The group took the usual 45 minutes to pack up. After about an hour of hiking through sand and down gradually sloping slickrock, we stopped for breakfast. We had our only cold breakfast of the trip, quickstart cereal. It was very sugary, and very delicious. 

We made our way to an old cattle trail created using dynamite to clear some of the slickrock. We then descended to the Escalante River and followed it, taking the route we had come in on. It was bittersweet. I was excited to go home and see Daschel and my fur family. I was also very sad the trip was coming to an end.

I had some more great conversations during the final stretch. Much of it relating to what I had shared the previous evening and how it affected those in the group. I think my vulnerability had given others permission to address topics they might not have otherwise.

We got to our cars and headed to a trailhead closer to town for goodbyes and the ceremonial beer or soda. We hung around for a while trading contact info and saying goodbyes. It was an amazing close to an amazing week. 

I turned in my rental gear and said my goodbye to Andrew. He told me something to the effect of “the next time you want to share the kinds of things you shared last night, do it. It was a wonderful thing.” The advice hit me hard, especially because I wanted to share those things on Day 3 but hadn’t due to fear and anxiety. Being vulnerable is difficult and so rewarding. It was a powerful lesson for me and one I will not forget. 

I drove back to Vegas with someone from the trip and had some awesome conversations. Keeping the conversation flowing on a 5-hour drive together concerned me, but we never skipped a beat. From God to bug nets for the Northwest summers, the hours passed quickly.

Sunrise - Day 5

My Takeaways

Looking back, a few things stand out to me. 

The impact of the group. Going into the trip, I didn’t give the group aspect much thought. I assumed the group would merely be a part of the experience. But in fact sharing the experience with the group is what made it so powerful. I did my first backpacking trip solo. It was powerful also. But it was very different. I have a new appreciation for the group dynamic, and the support that it can provide. I’m sure experienced backpackers, especially thru hikers, understand this intimately. 

I don’t often have long, uninterrupted conversations these days. This is especially true over the past year with COVID. It was an interesting realization. Daschel and I have long conversations, since we have been together almost 24/7 over the last year. But other than her, I haven't really talked to anyone in person for long periods of time in awhile. It was refreshing to spend most of the day in conversation. It was nice to learn about the others in the group, and hear their thoughts about the world. 

I went on the trip to learn more about backpacking. I ended up learning more about myself. Again, this might not be surprising to the experienced backpackers out there. After Andrew shared his reflections on the fourth night, he addressed the issue of reintegrating with normal life after the trip. He said something to the effect of, “we go backpacking to enrich our lives, not escape from them. Take the lessons learned out here in the backcountry and use them in your life.” I found this idea helpful, if only as a reminder not to forget what I learned over the past four days. 

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