June 1, 2010
Getting high-centered out on that particular desert landscape occurs in a variety of ways. The road out there, or rather the meandering linear indentation in the earth, flaunts boulders and drop-offs and all sorts of enemies of the multi-plied inflatable tire. Care must be constantly taken to keep the rubber side down and the dust-covered shiny side up.
The management of this chore features the navigator climbing in and out of the vehicle on a most regular basis in order to remove obstacles, fill-in holes, smooth-out jagged edges, or pass along wildly-cryptic arm-waving instructions to the driver, who, for the most part, stares back with furrowed-brow in bug-eyed amazement.
Some of these stretches border on the impassable, at least for a SUV used to having its way with asphalt. As the trip progresses, the somewhat carefully-packed area behind the front seats rearranges itself, with the tent and the stove and the lantern and the cooler and the dog exchanging places with each sudden bounce and leap and jolt.
You can also get high-centered easily enough on the aesthetic plane when you pass through wide swaths of prickly-pear cacti in full bloom featuring both complex yet brilliant hues of the yellow and red families. The telephoto lens is forced into play in many of these situations when abundant growths of do-not-disturb cryptogrammic soils surround the inviting blooms.
As mentioned, the springtime desert wildflower scene has every bit as much of a chance of high-centering the wandering pilgrim as does the rock and drop-off strewn seldom-beaten path that works its way across the mesas and grasslands of pinyons and junipers that embellish this plateau country.
And with the evolving light showing-off the changing nuance of color schemes with the plant life on the surface, it’s easy to understand the instant rapture available to the wandering eye when it comes to rest upon the rock strata of the surrounding cliffs.
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And that’s just looking up! Looking down is another matter entirely down at the river that has cut its way through the rock as the neighborhood as a whole underwent uplift and huge canyons were formed. This is especially evident in these parts from the "Little Grand Canyon" overlook high above "the Wedge" country.
But back southeast of there, along the dilapidated spur-trail dealt with earlier, when you look down at the same river performing a different function, it flows out of a park-like setting into a long narrow chasm called the "Lower Black Box." This is the San Rafael River as it carves its way through that convoluted and mind-boggling landscape known as the San Rafael Swell a most wondrous setting.
Back in the waning days of the nineteenth-century it was the site of some quite-interesting shenanigans and that is what got us into the road-building business this past weekend.
It seems the Swasey brothers, who had a cabin a little further south, were a couple of fun-loving cowpokes who worked this area on a semi-regular basis. One day, when they came upon the narrow gorge in question, one brother bet the other 75 head of cattle that he couldn’t jump with his saddle-horse over the 14-foot-wide chasm that dropped off 60 feet down to the river.
Fate would have it that the jump was successful and the spot in question would be known evermore in western lore as "Swasey’s Leap." Shortly following these horseback-heroics, a makeshift bridge of Cottonwood logs would be erected on the site to enable herds of grazing sheep to cross.
Coming off the main Buckhorn Wash trail, the bone-jarring and seemingly never-ending "road" to "Swasey’s Leap" wanders eastward, ever the slave to topography, up-and-down-and-around-and-over some startling country. the time you arrive at the end, it’s a two-mile hike with spectacular vistas through a wilderness study area to the plateau above the quite singular chasm.
With the spring season being what it’s been this year, locating a proper weather-window for this trip took a couple of weeks and involved camping only a single night in the "Swell." The bang for the buck was off-scale, however, with the usual pictographic rock-art wonders on display under bluebird skies in the heart of Utah’s canyon country.
As is often the case when roaming the redrock, it was all about the journey. Each step. Each breath. Each turn of the head. In the middle of such grandeur you feel like a grain of sand. Having only driven through it once previously, the San Rafael Swell north of I-70 is a relatively new experience, one that needs repeating and a great place to get high-centered.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for the past 40 years.