The Sad Cowboy Traverse

A wild week in the desert

A few weeks ago I had the adventure of a lifetime. I walked miles across the open desert with few visible landmarks, forded a silty fast-moving river, squirmed my way out of knee deep quicksand, squeezed my way through slot canyons and scrambled up an 800 foot cliff… But, it was more than a physical journey, it was a time of immense of self-discovery, I contemplated my life, shed some tears and basked in the open silence of the desert (I didn’t see a single person for more than 48 hours in a row).

The trip had two legs, an easy out-and-back jaunt on the Boulder Mail Trail–my first time ever desert hiking. Followed by an attempt at a modified version of James and Amy’s Escalante Side Canyons Loop. My goal was to hike 15 miles over two days on the first route and 100+ miles over ten days on the long trip.

The initial leg yielded 15 miles of delightful hiking. The second trip was harder and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. After four days and 55 miles of hiking, I arranged for a shuttle back to my car. Despite cutting the trip short, I felt completely grateful and victorious. This was the trip of a lifetime.

In all, I wound up hiking 71 miles in a little more than a week. This nearly 4,000 word trip report covers the physical landscape (feral) and my emotional landscape (evolving). I’ve also included some of the 35mm film photos I took on my slightly broken Olympus XA from 1979.

The final route (click to go to CalTopo).

This trip started with an obsession with the American West sparked by a love of what I call “Sad Cowboy Music”. As you read about my journey, I encourage you to listen to some Willie, Townes and Waylon.

I cannot recommend hiking in Grand Staircase Escalante more. That said, this is the wildest place I have ever been and even with more than a hundred hours of research, I was overwhelemed and surprised every single day. I’ve included some gear I was glad I had as well as some recommended resources at the bottom of this post. Be careful out there and if you have any questions email me.

Day zero

On The Road Again

I woke up in a shitty casino hotel in Vegas (to remain nameless) and drove 5 hours to Escalante. I stopped at Swig (Utah’s best Mormon soda cocktail drive-thru) and the Desert Rat (great gear store in St. George). I ate dinner at Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder Utah (a restaurant I’ve been meaning to go to for five years and yes it lived up to the hype).

Day one

Boulder Airstrip to️ Death Hollow on the Boulder Mail Trail

I pack my gear and, after checking in at the Interagency Visitor Center, begin a two-day out and back hike of the Boulder Mail Trail. I’ve never hiked in the desert before and this was the perfect “training wheels” hike. I discovered the magic of slick rock walking, took a nap in the shade of a piñon tree and cooled my feet in the icy waters of Death Hollow. I did a total of 7.5 miles from the Boulder Airstrip trailhead down to my campsite in peaceful DH across from the exit out.

This was only my second time pitching my DuoMid treking pole tent and my beach campsite did not make it easy. I discovered that my guylines were way too short and my stakes were puny (mini groundhogs). After finishing this hike I upgraded both.

That night I was freezing… Despite temperatures in the mid forties, my 20° quilt and Sea To Summit Ether Light insulated pad did not keep my warm. This was a theme—I did not get a warm night sleep the whole trip. I blame the pad primarily, I returned it to REI on the way home.

Day two

Death Hollow Back to️ Boulder Airstrip

God I love waking up in the woods. I slept in and awoke to the rushing stream and verdant landscape of Death Hollow. My site was on a sandy ledge about 6 feet up and surrounded by massive trees and staggering canyon walls.

I ate a lazy breakfast and left my pack to wander another half mile down canyon and explore a side canyon. It was a primal and grounding experience scrambling around this alien landscape without a goal.

Doing this hike as a lazy out and back took lots of pressure off. The hike out was somehow even more drop-dead gorgeous than the way in—probably because I was beginning to relax into the landscape. By early afternoon I was sunbaked and absolutely parched. The running water in Sand Creek was much needed manna and I gulped it up. I made it to the car around 3:30 and knew this was going to be a great week.

This hike is really so varied, luxurious and accessible. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking to start exploring this wild place. And I only saw five other groups in two days.

After the hike I drove the Burr Trail to set a cache at the top of the Gulch for the next adventure. On the way out, I pulled over to take a photo and got my car stuck in the mud… This boondoggle let me meet some real southern Utah characters including Michael, my tow driver, who had lived in Bicknell (pop. 300) since before they “oiled the road.”

Day three

Bumming Around Escalante

This day was a mostly uneventful rest day as I geared up for a bigger hike—I had set aside the next ten days to do the big route.

I made some mods to my gear, checked out the Anasazi museum and generally took it easy.

As I went about town, I noticed a pit growing in my stomach. I was getting scared. That night, as I drove down to Harris Wash to setup camp and do the big loop, I completely froze up. I couldn’t do it. The longest hike I had ever been on was three days, now I was heading out on a ten day excursion.

I drove back to cell service and called my wife crying. She talked me off the ledge (as only she can) and pumped me up. I was back in the game and ready to go.

Day four

Red Breaks to Cosmic Ashtray and Across the Desert to The Escalante River

This was it. I set out on the big excursion with the goal of doing 100 miles of hiking. I had spent nearly a hundred hours pouring over my route and preparing gear lists, food lists, maps and route notes.

All that went out the window within an hour when I hit an obstacle about a mile down Red Breaks that I had no record of existing. After trying to go straight through it and failing, I took my webbing out of my pack and climbed a class III scramble to the right.

From there, I made my way out of the canyon and into the open desert to find my way to the Cosmic Ashtray. I quickly learned how wild this landscape is—something hard to get a sense of from any topographic map. The hills on my map were more like mountains and the hills in the landscape barely registered on my map. I practiced navigating by compass and learned about magnetic declination on the fly and zig zagged more than I would have liked.

One advantage of a big snow year and early-season hiking was plentiful water in potholes on this section of the hike. After making my way up the windy slickrock climb to the Cosmic Ashtray (which was as bizarre in person as it is in pictures), I filtered water and started walking towards the Escalante.

As the day heated up, I lay down for a nap in the shade of a cliff. When I woke up, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were men on horseback up ahead. Turns out, they were real-life cowboys taking the cows out to pasture. They completely lived up to the stereotypes with crazy accents (they pronounced it “esc-a-LANT”—no e) and toothpicks in their mouths. After a quick chat, they cracked their whips and rode off into the distance.

I started to make my way down towards the Escalante via the sand dune route. Here I followed the GPS from DoingMiles and regretted it, their tracks went all the way to the right of the route and made it hard to see the established (but still pretty sketchy) cow trail to the massive sand dune that led to the river. I spent a while with my heart beating through my chest tiptoeing across the very cliff-y terrain until I found the way down. If I was doing this again I would go this way instead.

By the time I made it down to the river I was completely fried. I pitched my tent on the sandy banks of the Escalante and passed out before sundown. I had hiked between 12 and 13 miles and seen just two groups (the cowboys and some French day hikers celebrating their 20th anniversary at the Cosmic Ashtray).

Day five

The Banks of The Escalante to️ Horse Canyon and Up️ Little Death Hollow

This was the day that broke me. I packed up camp early, filtered silty Escalante river water (using Water Wizard) and started down river. The water was running swiftly and I needed to really lean into my trekking poles to keep from getting pulled down river. At its narrowest, the water was waist deep. In wider sections it was up to my knees.

After a couple miles of hiking and two river crossings, I made it to the base of Horse Canyon. Making my way up the canyon through a muddy stream bed, I was regularly ankle deep in mud and a few times I wound up knee deep in quicksand (scary the first time and annoying every time thereafter).

Here, I decided to diverge from the DoingMiles route I was following and go up Little Death Hollow rather than Wolverine canyon.

The first few miles of LDH were idyllic slot canyon hiking. The beautiful sandstone arched up to the sky and the gravel beneath my feet was a welcome respite from the mud of Horse Canyon.

As I went on, I noticed that the narrow bits were getting narrower. Unavoidable puddles started showing up beneath my feet and obstacles began to appear. The mud here wasn’t sticky like the quicksand of Horse Canyon, it was slippery like a banana peel in a comic book. At first, this was fun physical hiking—I used my whole body, stemming and scrambling to avoid landing on my ass (unsuccessfully) or getting my camera in the hip pocket wet (successfully).

The dryfalls kept getting bigger and the water kept getting deeper. My heart rate started to climb. I had read about these narrows but forgotten to include them in my route notes. I had no idea if they went on for a few hundred feet of another 9 miles. I was in way over my head.

Eventually I came to a patch of waist deep water leading to a massive dryfall. I initially tried to stem across the pool to stay dry and slipped in. I resigned myself to the frigid, silty, waist deep water and pushed towards the boulder blocking the way. The only way around it was to take my pack off, squirm through a gap just barely big enough to hold me and then yank the pack through with my webbing (no easy feat–it barely fit).

And then, just when I thought I couldn’t do it any more, I turned the corner and there were five, very dry, Swiss-German tourists with a massive tripod—a tripod that wouldn’t have made it through any narrows. They told me—to my massive relief—that I was through the tricky part and it was smooth sailing for the next 5 or so miles up the canyon. I couldn’t believe my ears. The photo they took of me captures my relief, exhaustion and desperation all at once.

As I made my way through the open area above LDH, I began to reflect on my plan and the purpose of the adventure. I had set out to hike 100 miles in ten days, but no one was forcing me to stick to the goal. I was there to push my comfort zone slightly—not to be miserable, or injure myself. I started to think of ways to make the trip less ambitious.

Before I got to Utah and in my first few days of hiking, all I could think about was ways to make the trip harder and more extreme. I’d identify long cuts or cool side canyons to explore. On this day, I started thinking of ways to moderate the trip with shortcuts.

Just as I was having a big realization about the nature of ambition, I realized I was out of water. And, unlike the other side of the Escalante, there were no potholes here. Thankfully, I ran into a nice group from Durango, Colorado who gave me a gallon of water from their RV’s reservoir.

After walking 15 miles and surviving the narrows I called it a night.

Day six

From Purple Hills Rd. Through️ Wolverine Petrified Wood Area to️ Horse Canyon Road

I started the day with a three mile road walk down Purple Hills Road. After all of the tight canyons and off trail hiking, I relished the clear path of the dirt road walk.

Once I made it to the Wolverine Canyon Trailhead, I headed into the Wolverine Petrified Wood Area, which despite its name had very little petrified wood. As I worked my way around, I got so into the easy walking that I went too far and missed my turn. Once again, things that felt simple and obvious on the map were massively harder in real life.

I turned around and headed back the right direction. Along the way, I got lost again in some big hills covered in massive floes of petrified wood. I actually loved this area and didn’t begrudge the detour at all.

As the day got hotter, I decided to sit under a tree and read my book. I ran into a classic Escalante problem: every shady spot was COVERED in cow shit. This trip was really a reminder of how much us Americans love our beef.

After my reading, I picked my way up and out of upper Wolverine canyon to Horse Canyon road. This was a really lovely walk across some beautiful piñon forests. Along the way I saw some dead cow bones which was pretty cool.

As I hit 15 miles I was exhausted and completely out of water. I pitched camp on the side of the road and filtered disgusting alkaline water from a puddle/stagnant stream formed in a tire track. I had seen no one since the Little Death Hollow trailhead. The closest I got was a horse trailer driving down the canyon as I pitched my tent.

Day seven

Out of Horse Canyon and Up The Circle Cliffs

As I made my way over to my campsite on day six, I kept eyeing circle cliffs to my left. I knew that the DoingMiles route had me ascending them, but there was one problem: they were cliffs… 800+ foot tall cliffs. And yet the trip report described the route as “easy class two.” There was nothing easy looking about it. I went to bed with some anxiety about what the ascent would hold.

The trip report highlighted a notch in the cliff that I was to climb. I packed up camp, had some freeze dried “Khatmandu Curry” for breakfast (terrible) and spent the morning walking towards my ascent route with trepidation.

Along the way, I passed through what may have been my favorite canyon of the trip, a rather shallow gulch with beautiful white stone that wouldn’t even register on most maps. Once again, my route was silent and empty.

And then, I started climbing. First, sandy foothills, then a muddy consistent slope. As I got closer to the cliff, I used my inReach to let my emergency contact know I was doing something spicy. Eventually the uphill walk turned into a rock scramble. I’d go up and over one boulder and immediately meet another rock to climb. It kept going like this for more than an hour and 800+ feet.

I am astounded that the DoingMiles folks were able to find this incredible route. As I was climbing, I concocted a story about them working for the NSA with access to advanced military satellites. Not only did they find a single 50 foot notch in a miles-long cliff band, but they had the confidence to plan an entire trip around it working. What would have happened if they got cliffed out 600 feet up?

As I kept climbing, my heart rate kept rising. This wasn’t the workout of easy canyon miles, I was in Z3 and Z4 for an hour. It was hot and I was shvitzing like mad.

When I got to the top I was filled with a sense of accomplishment. I had been down there, now I was up here. But, I also knew I had work to do: My Garmin showed less than five miles and the day was flying by. I only had a liter of water left and the sun was brutal.

The good news was that I had only easy miles left ahead of me. Right? Right? WRONG.

What looked on the map like an easy straight line traverse across mostly flat ground was actually hilly, with identical trees and random 10 foot cliffs everywhere. Typically, I would sight a landmark and walk towards it, but the hills were too tall to see anything in the distance and, of course, trees that all look the same don’t make very good landmarks either.

After walking in a full circle and realizing just how drained I was, I decided to sit in the shade, drink some water and recuperate. I pulled out my kindle and read the last 50 pages of my book (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). I cried my eyes out immersed in the world of comic books and friendship and love and shame. There really is no feeling in the world like climbing a cliff and then finishing a great book. Trust me.

As a got a bit of energy back, I set off towards the top of The Gulch. After a few hours stumbling around with my phone in my hand for navigation, I finally made it the handful of off-trail miles to the top of the canyon that leads down off the bench to the Gulch and the next leg of my journey.

Once again, things got harder instead of easier. Every hundred feet or so the canyon would require a drop/scramble of six feet. I was tired to the bone, very thirsty and determined to make it the two to three miles to The Gulch. But, the drops kept coming and I kept getting more exhausted.

Eventually, I came across a pothole with enough water to filter for dinner. My resolve to push on dissolved. I decided to pitch my tent on some flat-ish ground and rest up for the night. As I was setting up my tent, I was filled with a sense of accomplishment. I had climbed a cliff, waded through narrows, meet live cowboys and had a million and one adventures. I was also exhausted and–I realized I wasn’t excited to continue. All of the miles ahead of me would be like the miles behind me–unexpectedly hard.

I took out my inReach and emailed Sean from Escape Goats to arrange a shuttle back to my car. In the past, when I’ve cut a trip short it’s felt like defeat. This felt like victory. I had come to the desert for an adventure and I had accomplished that in more ways that I could have ever imagined.

Day eight

The End

I woke up early and soaked up my last morning in the desert. During my week in my tent, I could barely sleep. And yet, the stillness of the mornings were a worthy trade for the sleepless nights.

I made my green tea, packed quickly and began to push towards my extraction point, the top of The Gulch. Of course, it wouldn’t be a day in Escalante without surprisingly difficult hiking and yet another unexpected crux. The technical hiking continued–every few minutes another six to ten foot drop would threaten a broken ankle. And, the path down into The Gulch required careful routefinding.

As I neared the trailhead, I heard someone calling my name. It was Mary from Escape Goats. I threw my stuff into the back of her truck, retrieved my unused food cache and we were off.

Just like that, the trip was over.

On the drive home, I reflected on my incredible week in the desert and my decision to end it early. The last time I shortened an ambitious hike, I wrestled with anger and disappointment. My feelings of failure lingered with me for weeks.

But, this was different. I was filled to the brim with joy. I had immersed myself in a beautiful place. I had done things that terrified me. And I had pushed my body to the limit. It felt like more than enough.

Ending this trip early was about learning to enjoy the ride. I let my desire to “prove something” fall away and listened to my body and my heart. The wisdom of the desert delivered a teaching that can expand into my whole life.

Foot Notes

Great Gear I Carried

  • ULA Catalyst Pack
  • A Kindle with a good book
  • 40 feet of 1” Webbing
  • Water Wizard for River Runners
  • Sawyer Squeeze + CNOC outdoors 3L dirty bag + water scoop (cut up soda bottle)
  • Wag Bags
  • Sea to summit ground control tent stakes
  • Dirty Girl Gaiters
  • Altra Lone Peak
  • LifeProof iPhone Case
  • Caltopo app
  • Melanzana MicroGrid
  • Julbo Montebianco 2
  • Patagonia Tropic Comfort II
  • Inreach
  • Doctor Bronners Magic Balm (rub that shit everywhere)
  • (a slightly broken) Olympus XA Film Camera
  • $300 cash + Escape Goats Tour Email Address


Thank You

  • The Backcountry Post Community
  • The folks at the Interagency Visitor Center
  • Justin and Mo
  • Sarah
  • The Lemontree Team