Rattle Snakes, Heat Exhaustion, and Slick Rock
Photos By: Sam Taylor
Arches National Park was not on our original to-do list but a shower was needed and we were too close to skip it. I found us a hotel in Moab and we rolled in filthy and ready for modern amenities. We had gone five days. Our last shower was the day before the eclipse. As I scrubbed my arms, I realized that what I thought was a desert-southwest tan forming was actually several layers of sunscreen and dirt clinging to my skin. Clean and refreshed, we snuggled in that night and slept hard. The next morning: Arches.
With our bellies full of continental breakfast, we drive toward Arches. The windows are down and it is heating up fast. The wild orange slick rock climbs tall from the canyon below. The check-in station gives us a map and we skip the visitors’ center. There is construction in the Windows section of the park. Sam has been to Arches before and he says Delicate Arch is cool but a long hike for one arch.
So, we narrow down our choices and aim for Devil’s Garden. The park map says this trail is 7.2 miles and describes it as “Difficult. Longest of the trails. Includes Double O Arch, Landscape Arch, and primitive trail.” This is all fine and dandy. Sam and I do difficult hikes all the time. Primitive trail has its own description, “Difficult route through fins; short section of smooth slick rock; slippery when wet. Side trip to Private Arch.”
We go for it. As we are hiking in a park ranger stops us and asks how much water we have. “100 ounces in my pack and 100 in his,” I say. The ranger seems pleased and we walk through two huge walls of rock to start our hike. Sam makes fun of my precise answer, “101.442 ounces of water, Mr. Park Ranger, Sir.” We laugh but we are seriously geared-out. We both have on light colors, light layers, shorts, trekking poles, hiking boots, sunscreen for days, and our floppy sun hats. We look ridiculous. Everyone else out here has a 16-ounce water bottle and sneakers.
The walk to the first arch is short, Tunnel Arch. The most striking thing about this guy is how well-hidden he is until you get to the perfect vantage. Then, boom! Arch! It is suspended high up on a blank face. The light is harsh and the arch casts dense shadows on itself.
We wander down the trail to Pine Tree Arch. A man is lounging in the shade on one side of it. The slick rock is cradling him and he looks content. I step through it and examine the phenomenon. I am fascinated and amazed that nature does this on its own.
Feeling good, we get to the start of primitive trail. It has a warning sign. We step off the gravel trail into the soft sand. My calves feel it in no time. I work hard as the grains move from under my boot. I see a slick rock fin growing out of the sand and take off across its back. The sides fall away from me and I am high up above the trail below. I explore to find another way down but there isn’t one.
Back-tracking, I catch up to Sam. We rest under a barely-shade tree. I suck down water and fan the map at my face aggressively. As we start cutting across fins, route-finding becomes challenging. Cairns guide us, footprints are misleading.
We come to the base of a fin with a pool of nasty water nestled in its bowl. We have to cross on one side of it, the slick rock is covered in sand. My boots are barely holding onto the rock and I stand there holding tension in my legs for a long time. We are nearly to the furthest-most point on our hike. If I fall into that water, I have four miles of hiking to do in wet boots. Blister-city. Finally, I throw my trekking poles over the other side and put on my best climber slab-technique. With my weight way over my feet I scurry across. Sam follows suit.
We wander around fins for a long time and finally we make our last push past the big one. It requires a huge committing jump across a ravine and tenuous, steep moves over the slick rock. We knock it out.
Working past the half-way point of our loop, we get to the side trip for Private Arch. This one’s a goody. There is a little tree perfectly perched to take in the arch while we grab a snack and chug water. I am hot and strip down to my sports bra. The breeze coming through the arch is exactly what my aching, warm body needs.
Refreshed, we get our packs on and hike back to primitive trail. Just as we are making the left to continue a woman stumbles out of the desert onto the trail. She is wearing pink, dress sandals and carrying an empty water bottle.
I see sweat beads on her forehead as she says, “Which way is the parking lot?”
Sam and I look at each other and Sam says to the woman, “You can get there from each direction but that way (points to the way from which we came) is more difficult.”
I add, “There is a lot of slick rock and the route-finding is challenging.”
She says, “I think I will be ok. How do I know which way to go?”
Sam says, “Just follow the cairns.”
“What are cairns?” she asks.
Sam says, “The little piles of rocks.”
The woman wanders that direction and says in a breathy voice, “Thank you.”
We worry about her the rest of the day. The only solace is that we saw a fair amount of people in that direction. She could at least have a chance at finding someone to help her.
Shaking off the desperate concern for other’s safety we hike toward Double O Arch. The trail is steep and I am starting to get hot. Really hot. I drink water as quickly as I can, thinking that will help me cool down. I feel ok, except that I am so hot, scorched. We get to Double O and I hide under another tree. The two arches are so lovely. I am hot but fueled by my shady rest and the hope that it is all down-hill from here.
After another mile and a half, we come to the side trail for Navajo and Partition Arches. Partition is so cool. It is two arches separated by a thin strip of slick rock. I am intrigued but getting so hot. On the way to Navajo I suck down my last drop of water. The empty air of my water bladder leaves my mouth wanting. Navajo is exactly what I need. The arch opens into a skinny slot between tow fins. SHADE. We linger there. Sam makes me drink some of his water. I lean against the cool stone.
With a short jump back to the parking lot, I get my business face on. Just as I am starting my trudge, I see a crowd of people gathered around the base of a tree. I ask what they are looking at and they point to a small coiled rattle snake. He isn’t hissing, he isn’t rattling, he is sleeping. He is so tiny, he is almost cute. We take pictures with our long lens and Sam zooms in on the image. He looks mean close-up. We are about to turn and leave when a boy comes back with a stick. He goes to poke the snake. I get mad. I say, “How would you like it if someone poked you with a stick!?” I am so hot and flustered and thirsty. I say, “That’s how people get killed from rattlesnake bites!” Sam adds, “That’s one of the really bad neuro-toxin guys. He is serious.” The father of the boy with the stick says, “It’s dead.” Sam and I both snort at this. “He’s sleeping.” Sam says. “They sleep in the heat of the day.”
Having spent my last bit of energy on anger, I walk out with purpose and disenchantment. We pass Landscape Arch and I could almost care less. My wonder is big though and it drives me. Sam makes me drink more of his water. I am so hot.
We walk the rest of the way out. I can see the parking lot when Sam suggests that we sit in the shade to cool off. I sprawl out on a cold piece of slick rock. I take off my boots and my socks and put my feet on the stone. Sam is incessantly asking me if I am ok. I slip my bare feet back into my boots and walk to the jeep. Opening the cooler, I grab all the electrolyte-containing beverages and more water. Climbing in the jeep, I lay the seat back. Sam drives us out of the park. The wind does nothing, I go in and out of sleep.
Sam takes me to the visitors’ center and we wander the exhibit. I stand under the air conditioning vent re-reading the geology I had already learned earlier in the day. “Arches National Park lies atop a salt bed…” air conditioning… “which is the main cause of the arches, spires…” cold air feels so good… “eroded monoliths…” I feel the heat leaving my body and energy comes back to me. I am starving.
Sam buys me a cheeseburger and some ice-cream at a joint just out of the park. We research our little rattler, it is the Midget Faded or Yellow Rattlesnake. It has one of the most potent venoms found in North America.
The moral of this story:
1. Ladies and gentlemen, don’t poke rattlesnakes, even if looks like they are dead.
2. If you are hanging in the desert for the day, take a lot of water and make sure you are fully prepared. Even if you do it all right, the heat can still get you.
3. Finally, Arches rule. They bring what you see through them into focus; it might be a tree, or a certain cloud in the sky, or a strangely-cast shadow, or a flower, or a rock formation. All that organic, smooth stone leads your eye straight to whatever entity it might be and you are thoughtful about it, appreciative of it, more than you would have been otherwise. If you should ever travel to Arches, take a little time with each one you find and see as much as you can. I promise it is extraordinary.