Accidental Canyon Crossing at Potash

“Scenic Byway U-279.”

I glanced over at the unassuming green road sign intersecting Utah’s stark horizon line underneath an ocean of blue. I had the urge to scoop out the sapphire sky with a spoon and eat it like jello.

“Hey, let’s see what’s down that road,” I said to my husband. It was a rare morning, void of any itinerary or urgent destinations. We took the word ‘scenic’ in this modest roadsign, and ran with it.

Remind me the next time I get an itch like this, in the middle of Utah’s wild and rugged desert, to go back to my campsite, do some research, and then pack some extra water and food before I get to scratching.

In the mountains of Asheville, NC where we are from, a spontaneous drive anywhere in the vicinity might take you down a creepy trailer park alley at worst, or at best, you might happen upon a luscious undiscovered swimming hole nestled in the bosom of the Appalachian Mountains. Either way, there’s no risk involved.

We turned left, and headed towards the “scene” on the “scenic byway.” Instead of getting on the phone and typing in the stereotypical tourist verbiage: “kid friendly activities in my area”, I did something that hasn’t been done since the integration of the iphone on my brain: chose the activity of the day, with my sense and intuition. Whether or not this was a commendable act, I will let you decide.

Our two kids, Emilia, age 4, and Pepper, 1 1⁄2, were snoozing away in their car seats in a pancake coma. Our dog Phoebe was along for the ride, and, Squeaky, our road trippin’ hamster. Our travel trailer RV was parked along the breathtaking banks of the Colorado River at the coveted Goose Island Campground.

It was on a BLM site which lacked any power or water, but it had an excess of unforgettable views. We had generators to stave off the oppressive midday heat, but we couldn’t leave them on indefinitely for the animals. So along they came! Whether they wanted to or not.

We drove along the winding road alongside a cliff face, receiving the scenery as it continued to morph and meld. We were mesmerized by the contorting landscape that broke apart and re-distributed itself into sequential palatable views. Our eyes feasted on the visual spread before us. Color, sun, rock and sky will evoke your spirit in this raw, undiluted place. The road was leading us into the flat dry washbowl of Dead Horse Canyon. Otherwise known as Potash Road.

We were still unaware of what we were getting into, as the pavement slowly disintegrated to gravel and dust, and our car commenced to bump and bounce.

We were driving an old Lexus GX 470 with over 200,000 miles on it. My husband is not a particularly religious person, but I would safely say he has more faith in this car than in God. The road continued to bump along, past the Potash Ponds at the bottom of Dead Horse Canyon. The striking blue ponds of the Potash Mines are a strange sight. Tourists complain that they are an eyesore amidst the breathtaking views from the top of Dead Horse Canyon. They are definitely an anomaly. The ponds are filled with different shades of bright blue dye, to speed the evaporation process of the Potassium Salt. Historically, Potassium Carbonate (KCO3) was obtained by combining ash from burned plant material with water in large iron pots where the evaporation of the “pot ash” left a residue of Potassium Carbonate.

The potash minerals at the bottom of Dead Horse Canyon were deposited around 300 million years ago when open oceans experienced periods of unblocked circulation which resulted in the mineral rich “Paradox Formation.” The Colorado River is injected into the earth where it dissolves the salts, and the brine is extracted from a well and pumped into the evaporation ponds.

The mine was originally built underground in the 1960’s by the Texas Gulf Sulfur Company. But before operations began, a methane gas pocket exploded, killing 18 men. Because of the frequently occuring methane gas pockets, the mine was converted to solution mining in 1970, where the ponds now injure the eyes of offended tourists who expect an unobstructed view of the bottom of Dead Horse Canyon. But for now, and into the unforeseeable future, Intrepid’s 200 million dollar potash mining company will continue harvesting this ‘essential nutrient’, until the estimated 2 billion tons of potash in the Canyonlands of Utah are sucked dry. I would bet though, that if those bright blue ponds were naturally occurring, people would travel from even farther shores to set their eyes on them. Just a hunch.

Now that you’ve completed a crash course on Utah’s potash ponds; let’s keep moving through the basin of our geological salt mine. We stopped the first oncoming car we saw, and asked what was up ahead. They rolled down their window and let the AC pour out of their car as they explained the nature of the road up ahead. I caught the phrases “10 miles to the visitor’s center” and, “your car can hack it no problem.” Shortly after that, we proceeded into 4WD-required territory. Not that there was a sign anywhere, it was just obscenely obvious when we had to get out and line up a path of large flat rocks for the wheels of our car to pass over a ditch. That was when we decided we didn’t want to turn around and drive through the mess all over again. We continued ahead, with no cell service (as was the case on most of our RV trip from South Carolina to California, and back Thanks Verizon).

10 miles isn’t long, but when you are traveling through hairy switchbacks over boulders the size of your car, it is in fact very long. I was starting to wonder if we had enough water with us. We drove through what appeared to be the bottom of the canyon. It was lovely and heavy with the weight of the cliff walls all around us. It felt prehistoric and sacred.

The road began a steep ascent as we climbed the sides of the canyon at a painfully slow jounce, carving through canyon walls. It was quickly becoming apparent what we were in for. A drop off appeared to our left, hundreds of feet deep just inches away from our tires. Adam looked at me and said, “I don’t think we should be here.” But we didn’t know which would be more painful, continuing on, or trying to turn our car around without enough space to do it safely, and enduring it all over again. We continued forward, still confident that the visitor’s center was just around the corner. And I still for the life of me can’t figure out where that ridiculous assumption came from.

Adam’s grip on the wheel tightened as we bumped along. The drop offs went from hundreds of feet, to thousands. The sun was heating up, and I started conserving what little bit of water we had with us.

A few weeks ago, our car broke down on a steep mountain pass on a hot summer day miles from any cell service. I put the thought out of my mind. Because a breakdown here would put us in immediate danger. The temperatures in Utah in the summer are deadly. And we couldn’t ‘catch a ride’ with one of the occasional cars that passed us; not with two kids, a dog, and a hamster. I have been on that merry go around before, and let me tell you, I do not want to go on that ride ever again.

We were about halfway up the canyon, and the road continued to narrow in the foreground of endlessly tight switchbacks. The drop off was breathtakingly steep, falling into the abyss of red rock and space. The view darted into my chest, sending awe and fear to clench at my insides and give them a little squeeze for effect. I felt like a twist of lemon balancing precariously on the edge of a martini glass. The road behind me etched a winding contour through the canyon like an endless tapeworm. I could see a car on the serpentine passage below us, a tiny speck smaller than a singular sprinkle on a cupcake. It looked like a chunk of earth was removed by a cosmic spoon, leaving a chasm of hot air and cliff edges for our psychotic death defying entertainment.

There was no option to turn around anymore. The road was too narrow between precipes. As the tendrils of anxiety began to creep to the surface of my consciousness, like clockwork, both the kids woke up. I really had to keep my shit together now. I didn’t want my children to pick up on my anxiety, escalating the tension in the car even further. It was bad enough that Adam was muttering endless profanities at the increasingly treacherous road ahead of us. Before the kids could start their toddler inquisition, I deflected the scenario with the bright and shining promise of junk food.

“Cheetos! Kids, do you want cheetos? Just wait till we get to the visitor’s center and you can have all the cheetos you want!” And just like that, they giggled and clapped at the prospect of junk food in their future, and ignored the deadly drop offs staring us down at every turn. One of the biggest benefits of keeping junk food a rarity in our lives, is that it can be a game changer when you need a motivator.

The view continued to pump us full of veneration and cold sweat. It was incredible, unforgettable, and I know it would not have come up under a google search for ‘kid friendly activities’ in Moab.

The kids drank the last of the water, just in time for the crest of the canyon to come into view. Four hours after our little scenic byway interlude began, the excursion concluded at the Canyonlands National Park Visitor Center. We walked inside and grabbed a Junior Ranger workbook from the woman at the information desk. She raised her eyebrows in disbelief when we told her we took a random turn at the “scenic byway” sign, and ended up here four hours later. Also known as “Wall Street”, Potash Road is occasioned by seasoned off roaders in specialized vehicles looking for a thrill with a singular view. 99 percent of the visitors in the park arrived by highway, just a 20 minute drive from Moab. We grabbed our cheetos and commenced to munch our potash adrenaline away as our fingers turned orange. The proverbial sound of fast food serenaded us in the background: the crinkle. I swear, my kids are like baby birds when they hear the sound of a crinkling bag. We stopped and talked with a motorcyclist who was ahead of us on our drive through the canyon. He said he had been preparing for this trip for weeks, watching youtube videos and reading forums about the trail.

It was on his bucket list. Check. I took in the scene around me at the parking lot of the visitors center. Tourists labored out of their cars, looking dispirited and listless as they donned their hats and sunblock and walked to the visitors center for a brochure and a park map. After our deep dive into Utah’s gritty landscape, I felt I had just undergone an emotional exfoliation. The last 4 hours transported me in the landscape, not just sitting on the outer edges, trying to get a wide angle view through the lens of my camera phone. I had stepped into the view; and I didn’t want to come back out. I felt a momentary integration with it. A calming sense of fulfillment and ‘nowness’ was blanketing me in the hot sun of the parking lot. Of course, there’s nothing like a herd of hot, irritated tourists to knock you out of a blissful reverie. Needless to say, we took the highway back to our campsite. It took about 20 minutes.

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