“I don’t know if I can do this.”
Rare words from Magellan. It’s in my double helices to be timid when confronted with a physical challenge—but this time it was him.
We’d reached an embayment on the Peekaboo hike in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Our guidebook cautioned about it in three bolded words: “very steep slope.” Followed by
This sharply angled section is short—just a few metres—but falling here would cause severe injury. Neophytes and agrophobes will be unnerved. If you’re hesitant, turn back.
When he was young, Magellan had no fear of heights and climbed higher in trees than any of his Scouting friends. That changed after he fell off a retaining wall while golfing, breaking his hip and wrist. While posing on the steep slope, “forever,” he says, “waiting for you to click your camera,” acrophobia grabbed him by the throat. We nearly had to cancel the hike.
Our guidebook had no warnings for what happened later.
A reenactment of the scariest stretch of Peekaboo haunts me every few weeks. When it does, I hit pause and rewind, playing back all that’s spectacular about this hike. So let’s do that here before I tell you about it.
Thrilling, Peekaboo is mentally, physically and emotionally thrilling.
Think roller coaster, on foot. It ramps up, runs along ridges, nips over saddles, wraps around fins, hops onto bluffs, contours through drainages, slides into chutes, fakes left, veers right, even pokes through a window to earn its name.
Every five minutes we looked around and asked each other “Which way do you think we go?” It’s easy to see how Lost Canyon, which bisects Peekaboo, got its name. Although stone cairns are frequent and precisely positioned by park rangers, the trail’s quirkiness demands that you stay alert to find them. It’s like a maze. And amazing.
The landscape plays Peekaboo with you around every corner. Boo: it’s a Redrock fin. A flying saucer. A dome. A new colour: ledges of cinnabar, bands of ginger and russet, desert varnish in stripes of onyx. But mostly, auburn fiery as the hair of Jane Avrilin Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings.
Kathy and Craig, the authors to trust for hiking in Utah, rate Peekaboo “Moderate.” Canyonlands National Park ups the level of this hike in its Needles District to “Strenuous.” We side with the Copelands, but take umbrage with their distance. Magellan’s Garmin recorded 20 kilometres compared with their figure of 16.2 kilometres. It took us almost seven hours but Garmin showed that for two hours we were stopped: aweing the sights—and assuaging our fear.
Because it wasn’t just that very steep slope we had to contend with.
We were so absorbed taking photographs of the namesake Peekaboo window (1634 metres)that when we set out again, we failed to sense a change in the air. Until we reached an exposed stretch, a narrow slickrock arm dropping off on both sides to…. Oblivion. Suddenly desert winds began whirling around us. Fiercely spinning in every direction. Howling. Encircling us like invisible demons.
It was my turn to be scared.
“Let’s get down,” I yelled as the wind seized my hat strings, gusted me off balance. We braced ourselves, squatted low on bended knees. It wasn’t enough. We flattened our bellies to the slickrock, our backpacks weighting us down. I think Magellan may have reached for my hand.
It is written that, “Every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.”
How much time went by? Enough for me to think, “I’ve had a good life.” More than a minute?
And then Boo: it was dead calm.
“Should we turn back? We’ll have to cross this again if we go to the end. And what if the wind comes up again?”
We crossed the slickrock arm, continuing on for about about a kilometre to the end of the trail in Salt Canyon, rewarded by a wall of pictographs and petroglyphs created by the Fremont Ancients.
Retracing our steps, Peekaboo was just as intriguing in the opposite direction but more fun because we knew what to expect.
Remember playing the game of Peekaboo? A game analogous to this hike. A guidebook can tell you what to expect. Then “Boo,” the nature of things—around, and within you—surprise.
Copeland, Kathy & Craig. Hiking from here to WOW UTAH CANYON COUNTRY. Birmingham, Alabama: Wilderness Press, 2015.
Rove-Inn parked at Squaw Flat Campground site 23 after the Peekaboo hike but the winds picked up again forcing us to the more sheltered group site, which was vacant. Hunger gnawed now that we were on safe ground, so I made a radicchio, escarole and fennel salad and to accompany the lamb, a sauce of yogurt mixed with cucumber, fennel and mint.
Williams, Terry Tempest. The Hour of Land.US: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. It is she who wrote, “Every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.
Total climbing: 1060 m