High & Dry

On the loose in the punishing terrain of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Anyone who has spent much time recreating in the wild knows there is no coping with thirst. Either you drink or your engine light goes on and you start acting stupid. Writer Jim Doherty and his backpacking partner got a taste of this as they made their way out of a blistering desert wash in southern Utah. They were facing one of the most formidable chunks of intact wilderness left in the continental United States, the tortured topography of escarpments and high-desert canyon lands now known as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Until President Bill Clinton conferred monument status on the 1.7-million-acre area in 1996, most people had never heard of it. Southern Utah was still a blank space on the map of America when the Escalante River canyons were traversed by a contingent of John Wesley Powell's second Colorado River expedition in the 1870s. Subsequent attempts to tame the wilderness they'd surveyed never got much past go. But in the early 1990s the region began to change in ways familiar throughout the West — tourism, new homes, vacation getaways, the works. The author figured if he was ever going to see the place while it was still a genuine remnant of the old frontier, he'd better get at it before Wal-Mart and Howard Johnson moved in next door.

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