In pursuit of “what the hell have you gotten me into?” moments in Utah.
We looked over the edge into the depths of the earth, a black abyss with (apparently) no light, no walls, and no bottom. And yet it was into that lightless, wall-less, bottomless hole we intended to go. The fact that we planned to rappel into this particular hole in the ground with a guide who had done it before suggested very, very strongly that there were in fact light and walls and a bottom. But as John and Patricia, married adventurists from Colorado, and I peered into the Goblin’s Lair, a canyon in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park, we could see none of that. We had to take guide Christopher Hagedorn’s word for it that the ground was down there, 90 feet below us.
I asked Patricia, a flight attendant and amateur pilot, what her anxiety level was. She said it was 3 now, would jump to 7 when she got to the edge, and to 10 when she went over it. I liked that she said when, not if. Of the hundreds of customers Hagedorn, owner of Get in the Wild Adventures, has guided on rappelling trips, only three have looked into the lightless, wall-less, bottomless abyss and left without entering.
Patricia did not want to be the fourth.
But she didn’t want to take any steps toward the edge, either.
“She’s still smiling — that’s good,” Hagedorn said.
“You don’t want to know what I’m thinking,” she said. “I better not look, or I won’t go.”
Hagedorn tightened Patricia’s harness and checked and rechecked the ropes. She peeked toward the hole — big enough for a person to fit through, too small for, say, an elephant — but not into it. John had already rappelled and was down there somewhere. She sighed. It was now or never, and she was choosing now ... or trying to, at least.
“What the hell have you gotten me into?” she shouted down to John.
I spent a week touring southern Utah in pursuit of “What the hell have you gotten me into?” moments. I found them going fast and slow, on sand dunes and rocky cliffs, deep inside canyons, and far out on desert plains. I found all of them outside of Utah’s five national parks, which have become so crowded that the state’s tourism boosters now encourage travelers to explore the rest of the Beehive State.
In Moab, my heart rate quickened just reading the description of Moab Cowboy Country’s OHV Sunset Tour: “If you have a fear of heights this may not be the tour for you ... ”
Me: I’m not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of falling from very steep climbs and descents or a twisting, turning trail. ...
“ ... Hell’s Revenge has very steep climbs and descents and has a twisting, turning trail.”
I climbed into an Off Highway Vehicle in Cowboy Country’s parking lot in downtown Moab. Owner Kent Green offered a wry smile — the kind of smile I see often from adventure guides, the kind of smile that worries me — and said the first hill would get me “warmed up.”
When I arrived at Hell’s Revenge and looked up the first hill, well, I tried not to. It looked like a giant hippo lying on its side — slick, steep, and high. The path going up it was not terribly wide. If I accelerated too much, I would be in trouble. If I didn’t accelerate enough, I would be in trouble. If I mis-steered 10 feet right or left, I would be in trouble.
I was grateful to be third in a line of four because that allowed me to follow exactly where the two ahead of me went, and also it effectively prevented me from chickening out because there was someone behind me.
Kent Green was right: That first hill warmed me up. Sweat slickened my palms and soaked my back. After 20 minutes of driving through rocky creek beds, over boulders, and into and out of ravines, we stopped for a break near Abyss Canyon (you’re catching on to the names here, right?). I had not reached even 10 mph, and yet I felt like I had done a full-body workout. The left side of my left leg hurt; I had been pressing it into the side of the OHV, as if that would stop it from tipping over.
At least my nerves were well-placed. When Cricket Green (Kent’s wife) started leading tours, she wore gloves to hide her white knuckles as she piloted the OHV. On this crisp evening, she looked back often to make sure we were all still there and our OHVs were upright. She offered a bromide her dad taught her: “God forgives, but the rocks don’t, and it’s a long way to the hospital.”
As careful as Cricket was, it was still a crazy ride, even at a max speed of 10 mph. “We scare the hell out of you and still keep you safe,” she said.
As we zipped atop the sand in our ATVs at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Gordon Baxter noticed strange markings on the ground: footprints with a line between them. After stopping to inspect them, Baxter realized they were prints from a Gila monster, the largest land lizard in the United States. Gila monsters are venomous and extremely rare. Baxter, owner of Coral Pink ATV Tours, followed the trail on foot.
Following the tracks of a dangerous animal is a very Utah thing to do, so I fell in line behind him. Up and over sand dunes we went, dodging cacti that wanted to spear us. Along the way, we crossed tracks left by a rattlesnake and a coyote. I wasn’t sure which of the three I wanted to find least — the venomous snake, the venomous lizard, or the carnivorous predator. Alas, we never found any of them.
We climbed back on our ATVs and sped through a “whoop” trail — a straightaway with bumps big enough to be fun but not so big I couldn’t speed over them. The crisp blue sky contrasted against the bright yellow sand made the tops of the dunes look like razors’ edges.
Stealing a joke several guides have told me, I said to Baxter: “You have a beautiful office.” It’s enormous, too — almost 2,000 acres at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park are open to ATVs — and gets redecorated hour by hour. Wind whipping through a notch between the Moquith and Moccasin mountains erodes the sandstone and carries grains to the dunes. That’s been going on for 10,000 to 15,000 years, and the dunes are endlessly reshaped, like mashed potatoes under a child’s spoon.
Baxter handed a sandboard to me atop a dune. I pushed my bare feet into the bindings and slid downhill. The sand was as soft as it was warm, which I discovered by wiping out frequently. When I finally made it to the bottom upright, I raised my hands in triumph. I was sweaty and smiling and covered in sand. “You’re wearing your good time,” Baxter said.
Which brings me back to The Goblin’s Lair. Patricia was wearing her fear on her face and in her body language. But she was not giving in to it. “It’s a 10 now, if you’re wondering,” she said. She inched toward the opening in the earth anyway.
“You’re doing great,” Hagedorn said.
“I can do this,” Patricia said.
“I got you,” Hagedorn said.
“I know you do,” she said.
She backed up ... reached the edge ... one more step and she’d have no choice but to keep going ... and took that last step. The taut rope kept her from tumbling backward. She pushed her feet against the canyon wall, her legs parallel to the ground 90 feet below her.
“Holy sh*t,” she said.
That was the last thing she said before she disappeared into the canyon. It reminded me of a story Hagedorn told. In addition to the three customers who left without rappelling, a fourth was tied in for 45 minutes before she finally went over the edge. And even that was more due to a clever bit of gamesmanship on Hagedorn’s part than her own courage. I’m going to keep that gamesmanship a secret in case Hagedorn ever has to use it again. Regardless, when that woman finally went over the edge, she let loose a string of expletives that would make a truck driver blush.
Patricia’s lone bad word broke a dam of tension. Her anxiety flowed away and was replaced by exuberance.
“This is crazy!
The air was 10 degrees cooler in the cavern than it was at the top. Her voice echoed off the canyon walls as she slowly descended. The wall she had been bracing her feet on now moved away from her like a chin receding into a neck, so she was in the “free rappel” portion of the descent.
She stopped for a few seconds to look around. She twisted her hips to spin her body to give herself a 360-degree view of what looked like the lobby of a grand hotel fashioned of ancient sandstone. She coasted down more.
“Ha ha! Woo hoo!”
“Awesome!” her husband yelled up.
“Woo!” she said as she touched the ground 90 feet below the entrance. Above her, light filled the hole she had just come through. From the canyon floor, the sky looked white, wall-less, and infinite.
For more adventure in Utah …
Photography: Images courtesy Get in the Wild, Matt Crossman, Moab Cowboy Country
From our October 2020 issue.