Don't Forget You Bucket The Fops and the Bay


Don't Forget You Bucket

The Fops and the Bay

Out of the Desert

Do not attempt to climb down to the canyon floor! You will die!

Utah and Arizona, USA
21st October, 2001

The desert... what did I expect from the desert? I pictured vast, weary sands... legionnaires étrangeres falling out of column to die one by one... Clint Eastwood crawling through the dust, followed by a laughing Mexican, in a big hat, of course. Endless, parched emptiness.

The reality is very different. The deserts of the American Southwest are astonishing. I hadn't thought about this part of the trip at all. I had signed on for the Rocky mountains, and the great forests. But mountains and forests you can get anywhere. Utah and Arizona are unique. The severe sandstone cliffs, blood-red and parchment-yellow, cut by perfect green lines of fledspar; the distant monoliths, plateaus, mesas, lifted up like the graveslabs of ancient titans; the perfect finality of a cloudless desert sunset. Utah was an unexpected treasure, a hidden jewel I found by accident on the path.

The Team

My companions on the Trek: there were ten of us on the bus. Steve, the driver, had to drive, make all the plans, look after us, and, after a full summer of treks, be enthusiastic about it all. But being blessed with that very American optimism, he was positive about every day. Every passenger was from a different country, so now there was no English or Irish or German sub-group to dominate the trip, as I had seen before.

There was Sue, the daredevil Aussie, who had to eat twenty times a day to maintain her frenetic pace; Larraine the down to earth, hard drinking, "sweet-as" Kiwi; Ian, the careful Englishman with an entertaining fear of cats, squeaking like a cornered mouse every time one came near; Sabine, a talented young German artist who hooted like a ferry boat when provoked, and stared at me like I was a dead halibut every time I made a joke.

Stefan was a quiet Swiss rock-monkey; Arjan, a quiet Dutchman, on what I took to be his first camping trip, from the way he carried his sandwiches on the hike in a plastic supermarket bag; Hiromi, a Japanese snowboard fanatic, determined to take pictures - both still and motion - of every rock, shrub, guppy or bodily part that crossed her path; and finally Roberto, our up-for-anything Taiwanese student who plunged into every task with a blood-curdling Aiieeeeee! and always finished quietly by smiling and saying, "hmmm, nice".

Moab, Utah

Moab is a renowned base for mountain biking. Now I've never really done this before. I've cycled, of course, since I was seven, but never like this: racing out of control, downhill, over spiky rock and sand and dust, saddle up the gusset spanner, death grip on the back brake, oh shit oh shit oh shit I'm dead! dead! shit shit Look out!

It was enormous fun. The bike men dropped us at the top of the twenty mile long downhill trail, and followed behind, trying to conceal their laughter as we careened, slithered, crashed and swore our way down. The land around us could not be more dramatic: we wound through giant slabs and walls of sandstone and over great red ravines, all crimson dust under a perfect violet sky. Halfway we stopped, at the Gemini Bridges, twin natural sandstone bridges slung idly over a hundred meter drop into a canyon below. We poised at the edge, teetering on shaking knees, and then it was more rock slabs and sandstone towers, blood red dust - blood? - spiky rock and sand and dust!, oh shit oh shit oh shit I'm dead! dead! oh shit! all the way down.

Arches National Park

The Arches park can't help itself. It impresses, it staggers, even though you know in advance what you're going to see. Ochre sandstone arches in the sunset, green rock seams in red, the savage natural drama in the compelling evening shadows, the left over lego pieces of God. Even though you know it will be full of other tourists wandering around in droves, heads tilted back, mouths open in a round 'O'like greedy carp at feeding time, for all that you are impressed, you are staggered by the majesty of the rock.

We went to Delicate Arch, a forty minute uphill hike to an perfect sine curve in rock standing in stark yellow on a stone hill. We went at sundown, to see the arch in side-light. Just in case we felt the slightest bit jaded after so much natural wonder, nature chipped in with a bonus thunderstorm, a crashing desert downpour and lightning that arched and cracked across the primal hills. I timed the bursts as we ran - perfect targets - over the bare hilltops: "Three kilometers! Two! Two klicks! One - oh shit - 800 meters - oh bugger this - run!" And we sprinted through the rain, soaking, electric, laughing, all the way home though God's own Lego set, NOW with real working lights.

Mesa Verde

Mesa verde is a massive series of plateaux, once the home to a great ancient civilization of cliff dwelling indians. These ancestral Pueblans carved homes out of the stuff of the mountains themselves, approachable only by finger and toe holds carved into the side of the cliffs, and after a short time, disappeared from the area. Our Ranger speculated on where they may have gone. Did war or famine strike? Did they migrate to become the modern Hopi and Zuni?

He musn't have tried the finger and hold cliff-climbing idea on a windy day. Just how long could a civilisation last when every day you looked out the window, it was whoops, there goes the Running Deer family, hurtling to their doom past your cliff-cave, and oh, they've knocked off Mr Wolf and that nice Mrs Leaping Buffalo, climbing below them. Bugger this cliff lark, let's try living in Rattlesnake Swamp...

Navajo Reservation and Monument Valley

We had passed through several Indian Reservations on our tour of the west. Each was founded on desolate, infertile and unproductive land. The treaties had left them nothing but dust and stone to eat, but now they had scenery that they can market today, to tourists who pay to camp on the reservation. If the White people left no game for them to hunt, they would have their revenge... by leaving no water in the shower.

It's an Indian, spiritual experience, standing naked, alone with your mortality, stripped of all... material things.... in front of the shower unit into which you just deposited your only four quarters, waiting, and waiting... saluting passing strangers, "See you on the way back", looking at the dry dusty cracks in the wall, give it for another ten minutes, just in case...

We went horse-back riding, following a Navajo guide through Monument Valley, a stark red plain cut through huge spires and bergs of solid rock. Each had a sober English name like Mason's Plateau, and a more shrewd Navajo alternative: "John Wayne on a toilet". I had only been on a horse once before, and agreed to go this time because, well, what other way could you ride the range? After two hours of being bounced majestically around like a royal sack of spuds on my noble tailbone, I can tell you, next time I'll walk. It'd be quicker, easier on the inside of the legs, and you wouldn't have an indian on a donkey cantering after you, whooping your horse on faster and making jokey references about your manly horsemanship to other passing guides.

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is a mile deep, very cold at the top, but much warmer in the gorge far below. The rim is sprinkled with warning signs: "AT NO TIMES ATTEMPT TO HIKE FROM THE RIM TO THE FLOOR AND BACK IN THE SAME DAY! YOU WILL DIE!"

Of course when you see a sign like that, you have to go for it. Four of us would make the attempt. Swiss rock monkey Stefan, the stout Ian, and unpredictable loonie-tune Roberto. We took the signs seriously enough to pack full weather gear and double rations of food and water, and set off at 7.10 am down the Kaibab Trail. There were a few others on the way down, packing overnight equipment so that they wouldn't have to come back up the same day (for they might die!).

We wasted no time, and I set a double pace all the way down. It was a race against time! If we weren't coming back up before the full heat of the day at 12pm... The multi-levelled gorge was splendid in the dawn light, the many layers of raw stone showing depth and contrast in the side-light. We stopped for quick photos - but no dallying! The race against time!

The Struggle Against Death

We reached the bottom at 9.20am, but we knew that was the easy bit, only six miles out of fourteen with all the climbing to do! The air was thicker and warmer here. We admired the river as we walked alongside it, but - got to get on. We refreshed our water bottles at the campsite, wet our hair and hats, and were in a postion to start the climb at 10.30am. One hour before the heat began. The struggle against death in earnest!

We moved up the Bright Angel Trail, pushing now to gain as much height as we could before the heat forced us to take cover. Press on, press on! I was in the lead, and enjoying the climb. Every so often I looked back at the rest of the team, but noone flagged. I saw nothing but determination to push on... against the foe, the mountain! We were a team of commandos, locked together in a fight for survival!

And then... voices? We turned a corner, and there were people! Large people! American tourists?? On mules??! We had climbed so fast we were up to the tourist point! The Six Mile water station.. and it was only 11am! What about... our fight... death... warning signs..? The realisation dawned... we could have taken our time... stopped at the bottom... Oh well. It had been a fantastic hike up to that point. The trail was still great on the way up, but the further we went, the more people, tourists we encountered, and the larger they became, until the end, which was like a mass breakout from the health farm. We felt like mountain leopards among hippos! We had defied death! But noone knew. No banners on the finish line, at 1.45pm.

On the other hand, there was ice cream. Which is what a leopard really needs, after a long morning's hunt.

Lake Powell

After freezing solid at the Grand Canyon campground, we were ready for a night in a motel, and the simple pleasures of Lake Powell. This is a gigantic reservoir of azure water set in frowning sandstone cliffs, rust red on clear blue. The simple pleasures of boating, the beach... who let Roberto drive??!!!

The wild eyed Taiwanese fiend started on our boat, but when it came time to change pilots Arjan and I exchanged a knowing glance: "I know, wouldn't it be fun if we swapped some people around! Hey Roberto, why dontya go on Steve's boat!" What fun! What fun for our boat as Steve's boat went careering past a minute later a full throttle, everyone holding on for dear life as Roberto cackled at the helm, "Aiiieeeeeeeee.....nice nice nice!!"


Our campsite cooking had evolved from simple and nourishing one hob meals to extravagant feasts as each team was determined not be outdone by the others. Of course, Hiromi, Arjan and myself destroyed the pretenders with our series of potato-based suprises. Some pseudo-sophisticate dared mention some fashionable novelty such as "rice" or "pasta". I pointed out that that sort of thing may be all very well in bongo-bongo land but outdoor pioneers such as we needed proper tucker, based around meat and potoatoes, boiled to an inert state of matter, and that was that.

Bryce Canyon is a collection of towers, steeples and tunnels washed into the soft yellow sandstone by wind and rain. It glows in the sun like heaps of lost gold. Everyone who visits is forced into metaphor overload as they search for ways of describing it. Sue suggested it looked like a big... big... castle with battlements and everything, indicating that they don't go into poetic nonsense down in Oz.

It seemed to me that the lost souls of hell were reaching up through a primal golden ooze to send their last scream of penitence toward heaven before being petrified in eternal lamentation... but decided that Oz practicality might think me a fairy, and said instead that it looked like nature's biggest spitball collection.

I wondered if after a hundred years more natural attrition it might become nature's biggest yellow sludge pit. Who knows.


Our final hike was in Zion National Park, an area of soaring sandstone cliffs, the highest in the world. We wandered up Angel's Landing, a 500m sandstone monolith that rose like a defiant fist from the valley floor. We pulled ourselves up by chains from the knife edged snake path to reach our final summit. We dangled our feet over the edge at the top and stared straight down the cliffs. All around the weathered red and yellow rock looked like confectionery. I had to resist the impulse to jump across the mile wide gap and break a piece off for a quick snack.

Skies above Utah

What was there to expect from Utah? All I had known was that this was the land of the mormons, and Indians in the south. A land of religion and spirituality. Having seen it, I'm not suprised. The land lifts you. It has power, depth to humble the greatest will, and then lift you, following the vast fingers of stone, up, up to the vast enveloping sky, blue and purple, and dark within a thousand stars, and wonder what might lie beyond.


Mesa Verde


Delicate Arch


Bryce Canyon


Angel's Landing


Lake Powell


USA Route


Hat & Spoon



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The Facts

Where I stayed

Various campsites in or near the National Parks.

How I got around:

Trek America for a three week camping tour. Brilliant fun. We visited and camped in sixteen different national parks. I couldn't imagine a better way to see the US.