A Walk from Hite to Ticaboo
Who even knows where Hite and Ticaboo are?
You do? That’s awesome, you’re familiar with the epicenter of Utah’s slickrock coolness!
Or maybe you have spent some time on a boat on Powell Lake. Boaters in southeastern Utah would be rudderly (utterly – get it?) familiar with these two tiny outposts.
Not familiar? Let me show you.
They’re both sorta out of the way places, and pretty much nobody walks between the two places. I thought about hitchhiking past this section, but I heard that Swett Canyon was neato, and was curious about getting a little closer to the southern foot of the Henry Mountains. I did not plan this part of my Colorado Plateau traverse beforehand; it was a problem to tackle in real time.
It takes three days to do this walk if you go at it pretty hard. I think Jamal has walked it, but he did it in the other direction when the water was higher. I hardly had to use my packraft at all, and soaked up the road walk by taking a long detour into uranium mine country at the southern foot of the Henry Mountains. I arrived at Ticaboo thirsty for what they had coming out of their water fountain, and already ready to leave. With Powell “Lake” Reservoir disappearing, these two outposts are pretty much ghost towns at this point. But for someone wandering the deserts of Utah, they’re guaranteed drinking water. Until recently, both were guaranteed gasoline, too. That’s how they matter anymore.
I walked into Hite on the 25th of April, not sure why exactly. I had a cache under the Dirty Devil bridge, and could have kept going without walking so far out of my way. I guess I was just curious. The new operators of the Hite store were a young couple who were excited about helping Hayduke hikers, which I thought was pretty quaint. Personally I’d gotten a bit burned out on volunteering to help privileged people take months-long assisted vacations they’d go on to call “epic vacations,” but heck, to someone new to it all it must seem freakin’ amazing. Ironically they weren’t impressed or curious at all when I told them I’d hiked the Hayduke twice. It felt like they thought I was lying, which was awkward as fuck. I asked them what they thought about packrafting along Powell a ways and they looked at me like I was from outer space. Hite was at one point a marina, but the water must have retreated so far back these residents forgot there was a body of water right there. What did they think about maybe dropping in White Canyon? Would that work? They were a little more eager with a “probably too technical” sort of answer, so there it was decided. I’d circumnavigate the northeastern most corner of Powell over to Swett Creek, without any idea of what I’d find. The Reservoir is receding so fast that folks just don’t know how to travel on it. Certainly not by water!? And if it’s a “lake,” how would you traverse it by foot? It’s weird how a disappearing body of water becomes a mind-bender of sorts. This isn’t a tide this time.
Yes, this experimental man-made reservoir is going away, and it’s sorta exciting for some people. But also weird, as I’m about to show you.
I took advantage of the Hite store and bought a couple small items, and paid for a campsite for the night. They were nice enough to me and enthusiastic enough that I spent money I didn’t really need to spend. It was really, really windy and sand was scouring everything, and so I went to sleep in the clean, concrete restrooms. I took advantage and washed up some of my things in the sink, and went to set up a sleeping pad when I noticed… there were scorpions. Everywhere. Bark scorpions. It reminded me that the first scorpion I ever saw was under my Hite cache in 2016 when hiking the Hayduke my first time. A few weeks later I’d be stung by one and go blind a few hours. SO WHAT THE ACTUAL FUNK? I immediately docked a star from this place’s rating. How people even survive that place is beyond me. Ugh. I was so ready to hike on in the morning.
Day 1: April 26
It was a balmy day, threatening to rain… somewhere else. Only a few cars went past, I walked by a bunch of boatmen and kayakers taking out below Cataract Canyon, and just didn’t feel noticed at all. Somehow, even with my bright green PFD on my big backpack, I was invisible. Another mind-bender for people. If someone is doing something so random, weird, unsafe, or unnecessary as to walk a remote highway when they could hitch a ride (and I have several times here), can they exist in the mind?
After walking the highway for 11 miles, I dropped into North Wash using an abandoned 4×4 road. Easy. Down in the wash I ended up taking cover under a giant rock for a spell because the wind was enough that, washing-machine-sized tumbleweeds were being blown down the canyon. I did NOT need one of those barreling down on top of me from behind! While up there I spotted an enormous coyote, and he spotted me. I began to feel like I really was existing in a liminal space, especially with what was ahead. Some unknown, a float? A walk? Some climbing? A drowning? I might have overblown it in my head, but then again, I just had that much trouble finding beta about walking the reservoir’s perimeter.
I got quite a way down the wash on the western “shore” before I needed to inflate my raft. The shoreline just disappeared and a cliffband began – no easy way around it other than to paddle. Miraculously the wind had died down and it was a pretty uneventful and brief paddle around the bend to another stretch of shoreline. The water was low enough that it was the only time I needed a raft on this leg of the trip. I’d carried it from Spanish Bottom, hoping to use it down the Dirty Devil and on Powell, but had I not had it at all until I reached Bullfrog Marina, I probably could have made do by climbing up a cliffband or something. The Dirty Devil was a glorified rivulet and I had just finished walked forty (yes, 4-0) miles down the middle of it. It sure felt stupid to be carrying several pounds of water gear for pretty much no reason. Wait though, it gets better!
Once at the old lake bed, below the top waterline, I was confronted by an otherworldly setting. Where the Colorado rushed out Cataract Canyon into the still reservoir and then abruptly slowed for forty some odd years, many feet of sedimentous silt was deposited there at the eastern part of the lake. This was a new concerning geologic formation! This was caking up and drying in indescribably concerning ways. It was concerning to look at. It was concerning to think about. It was concerning to walk on. The pillars of sediment rocked and sprung and threatened to cave in with each step. Odd.
All told today, I walked about 14 daydream-y slash nightmare-y miles before finding a lovely flat cliff outcropping to camp on. It’s a little stupid that I didn’t just walk to the shore of the River from my camp at Hite, and row directly across the river to tonight’s campsite. It could have been that easy. But frankly, part of the reason I’m out here this year is to grapple with my fear of this river, and water on the Colorado Plateau in general. In all the ways I brainstormed getting from the marina toward Swett, my little brain just didn’t see the “lake” as a “river.” And anyway, all said, the River was moving a little fast for my taste. Truth be told I probably could have swam it just fine, but like I said, I’ve got some fears to work on. Growing up on the Cook inlet in Alaska, near a glacial river left me with some haunting memories. Then I have more recent near-death experiences like this one on the Suiattle River in Washington.
I’ve made fun of social media “adventurer” types who curate elaborate and seemingly expensive “adventures.” I don’t think that’s adventure. I guess it’s adventure for them. They probably would have had the skills and equipment to just row across the dammed reservoir. What’s adventure for me might be chaos for them. Or a waste of time (like road-walking). It’s all about perspective. Walking out towards Ticaboo has been an adventure. I have literally no idea what I’ll find and what I find is beyond my comprehension and sometimes beyond my ability. That is what I call adventure. I feel like an explorer. I feel like I am seeing things not many people at all are seeing or care to see. I feel a little pointless. I feel perfectly fine, fed, and I’m about to be rested.
Day 2: April 27th
I woke up excited. It was really starting to dawn on me that this wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I was expecting a “lake.” What I found was the Colorado River. This wasn’t “Powell Lake,” this was the Colorado River! And so I continued walking along my beloved River. At some point I made a pretty awkward semi-technical (not class 3, not really class 4) ascent up the cliff band, such that I would not be dead-ended by the River on the next curve. I really get in over my head with these climbs.
You can see what I’m talking about (the bend in the river where the water hits a cliff) in the picture below:
Even up on the cliff band, I was astounded to be navigating copious amounts of driftwood, sometimes huge clotted fields of it. As pleased as I was to welcome the River, I was saddened by so much forever-stranded stuff along such a pretty cliff. I vascillated between that welcoming feeling and grief about what the reservoir had left behind. Nobody would be in to clean this up; this stuff would sit here forever. It was bleak. Strange boating and camping and partying remnants strewn everywhere. Not just driftwood, it was a reverse landfill of sorts, but with no bulldozer to scoop it into the hole, and no hole to scoop it in. Why do people think bodies of water disappear things? It will be interesting, and possibly sometimes terrifying, to see what else this reservoir burps up. We had really managed to make a mess of this.
Wait what? Cows? On the reservoir edge? YES. THEY ARE EVERYWHERE there is water. Until I reached Hoskinnini, I was surrounded by countless cattle, despite the really inhospitable terrain. Those particular cows were tough motherfuckers. I don’t know how they got in there, and I have NO idea how they get out. Are they wild? Wild cows? I’m seriously at a loss as far as how or why there are cattle at Hoskinnini.
As far as Swett Canyon, I just wasn’t “feeling it.” Maybe it was the fucking insane off-leash family pet dog who rushed and bit me, but I was a bit grumpy. Then I was underwhelmed by the narrows. I guess since I had put so much work into getting there I anticipated “more.” To this day I’m not quite sure when the narrows started and ended. Don’t get me wrong, it’s freakin’ beautiful back there. I guess my strange company (hero cows and a curiously huge and numb family with a rabid dog) just had me feelin’ funny. Even if we are having the time of our lives, and luckier than lucky, we can still have off days. I got to the very top of the canyon, where water was still running, crossed the highway, and slept near a tiny pouroff. It was a 16 mile hiking day.
Day 3: April 28th
A nice quiet morning. I wanted to see if I could complete the 1.6 mile road walk without seeing a car, and I did! I ducked off the pavement into Milk Creek pretty much right away, then followed ghost 4×4 tracks toward Shitamaring Creek. What a name! What’s the story there? This was a really beautiful day, and really changing, dynamic scenery. Some cute families were out on their side-by-sides, but otherwise I had the entire place to myself. This area — on both sides of highway 276 — is fascinating. I feel like I could spend years exploring just this little region alone. I mean not alone alone, but yeah, maybe alone alone. I just love these walks alone, where I can think, do, or even say whatever I want. At one point, in Shitamaring proper, I was suddenly surrounded by these sandstone walls that looked blood-spattered, and I mused out loud how, “haha, just earlier I was thinking how amazing the cliff dwelling women of the past were for handling their monthly periods without much water around.” I wouldn’t say I necessarily have deep thoughts out here, if that’s what you were assuming. And yes, I am fun to talk to and so sometimes I talk to myself. Kids made fun of me when I was a kid for making my own self laugh. But doesn’t everyone? Shouldn’t everyone? Isn’t this a great trait to have when you’re gonna walk hundreds of miles alone through weird places? I think so. I think it’s requisite, frankly. When you don’t have a Walkman, you gotta walk it out to your own loony tunes…
There was blood everywhere! Actually this is iron staining, but hey… what if!?
Seeing as how I wanted to always maximize my exposure to uranium while in Utah, I decided to swing by the temporarily off-duty Tony M. Uranium mine. This was probably the most tidy mine I’ve ever seen, so obviously they have something to hide. Or maybe they’re just trying to sell the mine. That’s it, they’re trying to sell it. Very tidy. Open since the late 1970s, they’ve since dug 17 fucking long miles of tunneling here, withdrawing half a ton of uranium oxides. Good job, boys. Hope you’re feeling well!
Before heading into Ticaboo, I gather some water just in case the final walk into town goes sideways, and spend a brief moment enjoying the rock art. I’m feeling spunky, pissed, more spunky, and okay fine I’m PMSing big time. Why the fuck are white people so boring and unimaginative? Tell me a time when I ever saw creative rock art by a white person. Never. Ever ever. Whatever, I can imagine it must have gotten pretty lonely out here at times, uranium mining. Because you know, how many women would actually work a job like that. It’s a pretty earth-rapey job. JUST MY OPINION. And my opinion might be different tomorrow.
Somehow the past few days I managed to dodge the weather. Dark clouds were all around me, but mostly hovering over the Henry Mountains. I’m so blessed when it comes to desert rain. It seems to come when I need it.
The final miles into town felt a bit like creeping up on someone’s back yard. Ticaboo sort of felt like one property. I know a few people must live there, but it felt like I was creeping up on one family it was all so small and tan and so quiet. At the tourist pit-stop gas complex I stopped at the hotel and asked about the price of a room, and dawdled in the lobby for a little while using the Internet. I filled my Hydrapak water bladder with ice, then topped it off with water. Heaven! The receptionist was young and beautiful and very sweet, and I’d done my dirt makeup just right such that I was no Tony M: I was believably dirty, trustworthy almost. I decided a slickrock patch across the highway looked suitable as a bed, and excused myself for the night. To the beautiful receptionist’s credit, she didn’t even skip a beat. It was as if backpackers came through here all the time, and always chose to sleep in the dirt rather than on starched white sheets. (They didn’t.) But she’s gonna go far, because her imagination was elastic, and her improv skills on point. I really admired her, and sorta feared for her safety out there. Hope she’s doing good.
It was a 19 mile day. I was pooped. The sun was going down. The round slickrock patch was heaven. Except one thing: I was yet again surrounded by cows. Moooooo….