Hiking through narrow spaces—some so tight you’ve got to walk with your feet planted on the walls—expands the mind and sharpens the senses.
From Women’s Sports and Fitness
By Jean Weiss
Backpacking in the desert was a new experience for me. As a child growing up in the Northwest, I’d been used to fern-filled rain forests and cold, sandy beaches sculpted hard and flat by the wind. As an adult, I’d spent most of my outdoor time power-hiking along well-worn Rocky Mountain trails. So when I navigated across a desert landscape to the edge of a small, narrow canyon that had eluded surveyors mapping Southern Utah’s Escalante region, I was completely unprepared for the sensation of slipping in between two immense rock walls.
In the couple of hours it took to get there, walking at a steep angle down rust-red slickrock, I’d seen only one lizard and two sprouts of vegetation. But when I finally approached the elusive canyon, it was as if in one moment I’d stepped out of church and into a ballroom-dance class. The eerily sparse, quiet terrain I’d just been on was the landscape equivalent of a Gregorian chant; now, as I looked down and saw thousands of tiny shimmering leaves swaying in the wind, monotony gave way to drama. I realized that I was about to do a tango with the land.
Gently, I climbed down from the rim into the slash of green foliage and began my first hike through skinny canyons.
The small trees grew in dense entanglements, hugging earth where trickles of water seeped through. Zigzagging between them along a barely perceptible path, I felt moisture from the leaves brush against my body, cradling me in this brilliant oasis. Backpacking in wide-open spaces has always made me feel secure. There’s room to breath, and lots of sensation. Skinny canyons are different. Here in Southern Utah on the Colorado Plateau, in the best canyon land in the world, once you slip into a canyon you can’t see any farther than a few yards ahead. This curly inner-land is about detail and discovery, nuance, intimacy and secrets.
It’s also about intensity, Things—geological features, streambeds, any plant that manages to prosper and especially your thoughts—gets squashed together. This sensation is amplified in the deepest and narrowest canyons, which brings us back to me and my tango.
As I walked through the first sliver and into a slightly wider space on my way toward the larger Escalante River canyon, my initial awe of life hidden between the narrow red rock walls turned to panic. I planned to be here for days. What had I been thinking? It was so closed in, so—immediate. Sharp edges of rattleweed milk vetch scratched my legs. Wet sand sucked into my sports sandals, unfastening their Velcro clasps. The canyon walls encapsulated me and seemed to expel oxygen from my lungs. I wanted out.
After several minutes of acute claustrophobic anxiety I surrendered to the canyon. And only then did the secret of skinny canyons reveal itself to me. As the spaces became smaller, my thoughts grew bigger. I felt comforted and relaxed; I settled in to the rhythms and curves around me, and allowed my mind to hear the stories that were there to tell. Later I would ask Richard Bryant, chief of resource management at Bryce Canyon, why these enclosed landscapes seem.