Of Fire and Firewater: Canyoneering with a Dragon

Canyoneering with a DragonLet’s say, for the sake of argument, that someone has asked you if you would like to see him breathe fire.

And let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that this someone is not a trained circus performer.

Let’s further say that the propellant for said fire-breathing is Everclear.

And finally, let’s say that the majority of this vile substance has already made its way into the convulsing liver of the person asking the question about fire-breathing, rendering the spongy matter within his cranium less than entirely functional.

Do not say, “Yes. Yes, I would like to see you breathe fire.” Or there will be trouble.

Summer of 2002. Girl gone, down the tubes of destiny, following some other poor fool whose life intertwined with ours just a bit too familiarly. But this breakup, like others, carries that one happy side effect: reunions with the free-wheeling folk who had hovered on the periphery of one’s perceived domestic bliss all the while, waiting patiently for the inevitable dissolution of a bond whose half-life is clear to all but the schmuck in the middle of it: nasty, brutish, short.

JC, beautiful crazy bum seraphim. Calls up out of the blue with pitch-perfect timing. Has been living in a pickup truck while working construction in Las Vegas; in the Yosemite Valley climbing and living on two bucks a day; in Thailand, clinging to wildly improbable 5.13 lines by day and doing some wildly improbable partying by night, possibly involving lines of another sort; in Soldotna, Alaska, homesteading on a patch of land purchased for a song. Back in Salt Lake for a bit.

“Hey, Phillips.” The comically laid-back stone drone. “Wanna go down south and do some canyoneering?”

A bolt from the bright blue. Perfect. Yes. “Hell yes. Where?”

“Elderly Canyon.”

We converge later, pore over maps, and I realize we’re talking about Eardley Canyon, in the southern part of the San Rafael Swell. Elderly Canyon sounds better, though, bringing to mind images of walker-rocking, stoop-shouldered, fearlessly rappelling octogenarians, so we stick with the moniker. Looks like a great ramble: Five raps — none too long — a couple pools, natural anchors and (sigh) bolts galore, and a nice walk through a gradually narrowing canyon to precede the technical bits. Top it off with a night of camping and drinking at the canyon’s exit and a slog back to the car in the summer heat — foregoing the recommended shuttling of cars — to burn out the hangover, and you’ve got a winner.

A few home-rolled cigarettes later and we’ve decided this trip won’t be complete without CW. Pure brawn, pure Jedi, total abandon meets total ability. Without a hint of hesitation, he agrees to join us on this walk through the sandstone of time. He’s busy, with many irons in many fires, but he’s down as always. Born down.

Three days later, and my poor, belabored 1991 Subaru is motoring due south down Highway 6, a metal mini-prairie schooner unsteadily hurtling toward the “San Rafael Reef,” named such by the pioneer navigators whose terminology had its roots in nautical frustration. Navigational hazard? Yes. Kick-ass geological wonder? Yes. Also a nice place to forget about the vagaries of a faded relationship never to have faded (“I do”), revel in the simple power of long friendships and the uncaring, unsparing, welcoming embrace of the bare wild desert.

Food? Got it. Went to Albertson’s pre-trip, loaded up on EZ Cheez (re-christened “ain’t got shit to do with cheese”), crackers, sardines, jerky, beans-in-can, Pringles and some kind of gummy substance in the shape of a foot. Backpacking food that ain’t got shit to do with freeze-drying. Also not light or remotely compact. Also damn tasty.

Water? Some, yes. Mostly water suspended in alcohol. How better to ensure the body’s smooth functioning under relentless skies the temperature of the sun?

We don packs, JC and I having opted to use dry bags with straps for the whole journey, since there are a few swims on the route. Trouble is, these dry bags have nothing but simple shoulder straps and have absolutely no back pad, so my backpacking stove is at risk of becoming part of my anatomy by about 20 minutes into the hike, sticking violently into my short ribs and spurring me like a mad cowboy with every step. CW strides confidently and athletically ahead, flask in hand, as JC and I strike uncomfortable bargains with our onerous and ill-balanced loads.

We start down the funnel into Eardley Canyon, dubbed Straight Wash. Straight Wash is pretty straight. But, step by wavering step, we pad further into the unfathomable stretch of geologic time, entering the contouring confines of Eardley. We peel back layers of the Earth’s wild chronological ride as we descend into the canyon’s belly. Touching the striations of the rock delivers a sensation not unlike plugging into a wall socket with one’s bare hand: there is an electric resonance to the desert, a buzz of sheer power that is palpable if one sees and hears its language of rock and blood. Ed Abbey’s bedrock and paradox: A desert is a place of essence, an oasis of pure life in its alternate yet simultaneous valences of short time and death and love.

Friends walking together down a canyon make a music surely the rock can hear. We joke, remembering crazy trips while creating another. We take breaks, washing down mountain ranges of ain’t got shit to do with cheese atop crackers with Jim Beam and, in saner moments, gulps of pure agua. Hand-rolled cigarettes complete the assault on our health. Yet the camaraderie and joie de vivre pulsing through us form a powerful antidote to this fusillade of chemicals.

As the canyon narrows more, we reach the first rappel. The pool into which the rappel leads seems pretty shallow, as does the angle of the pour-over. We hem and haw a bit, fussing with gear and donning wetsuits. JC begins to run rope through anchors, but CW gives us — and safety — the middle finger and slides down, wetsuit-clad-ass first, relying on the braking force of friction alone, and soon emerges from the pool’s far side, unscathed, beaming and hurling anatomically- and politically-incorrect insults at us for our prudent hesitation.

So we slide.

Note: Don’t bring a nice, expensive wetsuit on a canyoneering trip. Bring an old, sun-bleached, natty one, sold on eBay by shark-bit surfers and widows and widowers of overbold canyoneers. Or rent, making sure to practice a few times before its return the unknowing shoulder shrug indicating your lack of responsibility for the suit’s deteriorated condition.

A delightful — if frigid — series of pools ensues, and we follow the course of the canyon’s creator, water, as it slides, molecule by molecule, from pothole to pothole, caressing and carrying bits of sand inexorably down, sculpting a gravity-driven architecture of geomorphic chance.

“Christ, it’s cold,” I chatter, hip-deep in the third pool. The deep shiver — full-body, utterly involuntary — of the early stages of hypothermia is part and parcel of this oddball endeavor of following the meanderings of a slot canyon, come hell or high water. But we move steadily down, emerging eventually, gratefully, into a broad, sandy and sunlit wash.

Jubilation! We re-warm, laying out piles of gear, exposing it and ourselves to the desert sun’s desiccating touch. JC produces what remains of the alcohol: equal sloshings of Beam and Everclear. Plenty, as it turns out, to catalyze a fair bit of irresponsible backcountry behavior. A big-ass fire, for starters. True, we burn everything to ash and scatter the remains of the night into the next morning, but we scour the area of damn near half a cord of deadwood over the course of the evening.

It’s maybe 11 p.m. and we’ve predictably plowed straight through pleasant buzz and into ham-fisted, twisted drunk. In a moment of lull between truth-bending, one-upping tales of exploits both vertical and horizontal, we stare collectively into the Paleolithic television before us. That’s when a particular flame-tipped juniper bough catches JC’s attention. I can only imagine the 190-proof math going on in his head as he cast his gaze back to the near-spent bottle of distilled evil.

“Hey, guys, want to see me breathe fire?”

To which, as you have been informed, we answered in the affirmative.

A quick pull off the plastic jug and JC raises the flaming branch to his stubbled face. The ensuing arc of fire has impressive height and volume. These qualities are substantially enhanced by the mini-self-immolation CW and I are witnessing. Seems a fair bit of hooch dribbled down JC’s carpet of facial hair, igniting and taking full advantage of the extra fuel.

“Feels hot,” JC says, matter-of factly, sprawling into the sand and dousing the conflagration of follicle and epidermis.

Blistered up real quick. Sunscreenless seven-hour slog the next day didn’t help matters. JC’s attempt to impersonate a dragon hadn’t ended well. He was staying with his parents for the nonce, so, teenager-like, he invented a plausible story to save his mother from the reality of his desert debauchery. Upon hearing the story, she was ready to sue a certain maker of camp stoves that require priming, JC having pinned the rap on a cranky Optimus or Svea.

JC carries just the slightest of scars, amazingly, from his circus act at Eardley’s terminus. But it is there nonetheless. The scar traces a moment, written into flesh, acting as an exclamation point of experience: the fun and folly of a fire-lit dance with firewater.

And the best trips are the ones that leave scars and spin stories, don’t you think?

Aaron Phillips teaches Environmental Writing at the University of Utah. His last story, “Cumulus Dentatus, or Why I Believe in Winter Storm Warnings,” appeared in Mountain Gazette #176.  

15 thoughts on “Of Fire and Firewater: Canyoneering with a Dragon”

  1. well written. concise. i think we awl been there. ah, i doan know about “the best trips leave scars and spin …” but they sure do provide cannonfodder to write about. keep it up Aaron P !

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