Miles from Nowhere: Stranded in the Desert of Southern Utah

There is just so much you can do when you get a flat tire 40 miles from nowhere. About the only thing you can do is turn around and try to walk back to nowhere.

In this case, nowhere is a town called Big Water. It is one place where one can head into the backcountry of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area surrounding Lake Powell. It’s on Utah Highway 12, which can be found off Highway 89 between mile markers 7 and 8. At various points along a dirt road it is possible to stop, park the car, get out, and hike around. If you do it right, you can end up on the shore of Lake Powell miles away from the noisy and overcrowded Wahweap Marina. And that was The Plan.

Wahweap (instead of turning off, stay on Highway 89 until just before crossing the Glen Canyon Dam into Arizona) is where all the houseboats start out, and where people come to play for a day on the water, or worse, spend the night and ruin the splendid nighttime view of the sky with their drunkenness. If you like a good party, Wahweap’s not a bad place. If you are into enjoying the wonders of nature undisturbed, head to the backcountry and avoid rowdy Wahweap. There are many good hikes and canyon areas, of which Wiregrass Canyon is one, where you can spend a day or three without encountering anyone not of your party.

The Wiregrass area is a perfect place to pull over. A small parking area (you aren’t likely to see anyone else) is perfect, off to the side of the road. Start out walking due East, and five miles later you emerge from a ravine and onto the shore of the lake, basking in the sun and looking at the sparkling water, too far away from civilization to be bothered much by motor boats.

Because there is not official trail, you need to keep a sharp eye out for piled rocks, left by fellow backcountry enthusiasts. In the backcountry, these rocks are your clue as to where the trail is, and indicate that you are moving in the right direction. Fellow travelers build obviously deliberate rock piles to indicate a trail. And that’s helpful when in an area laden with misleading small-game trails and where the wind and the occasional rainstorm erase traces left in dirt.

The path leads DOWN into the ravine, which serves as the trail. We made the mistake of playing it safe, and remaining on top. After all, no one wants to be caught in a flash flood with no place to go. (When you go backcountry in Southern Utah, however, flash floods are the risks you take.) Had we remained in the canyon, we would have watched the canyon walls rise above us in beautiful formations, sculpted over thousands and millions of years by since-vanished streams and still-present flash floods.

After our brilliant plan to follow the top of the ravine failed miserably (we ended up at the edge, looking down, and no way around it), we hopped in the car to find a different route. The road is rough, but there are plenty of trails beyond Wiregrass that offer a quicker route (but you’ll never drive to the lakeshore from this road). It was getting dark, and we were looking for a shorter path. Instead the car found a rock and it flattened the tire. We were stuck for the night.

The next morning we gathered the food, our remaining water (not much because we were supposed to be on the lakeshore), and set off down the road toward Big Water, 40 miles away according to my odometer reading. The first couple of hours, just prior and just after dawn, were pleasant and we were full of spirits. Not so much around 9 a.m. when it started to get hot. After all, all of Southern Utah is just one big desert. But the scenery was fantastic: distant spires, quiet solitude, very blue sky. Plenty of wildlife, too: little jackrabbits, lizards, and snakes.

Sunburned and blistered, parched because our water had run out, James and I stumbled to rest at the foot of a sign that listed Big Water as ten miles away. We had come 30 miles, but had serious doubts about finishing the last ten. Then, to our amazement, a car drove up. The driver, a photographer, turned around and drove us to Paige, AZ (across the river from Big Water), which turned out to be much better than nowhere.

And after settling in a motel room for the night, we put our cares aside until the next day, when it was time to worry about paying the $400 tow bill.

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