An Outlandish Essay: Smile Country

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Outlandish: Fuel Your Epic is a sun-soaked starter manual to fueling your own epic. Through flavorful recipes, riveting personal stories, and gotta-go-there photographs, canyoneering wordsmith and adventurer Morgan Sjogren shows how outdoor adventure can become your lifestyle.

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Smile Country

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Utah

We hobble on frozen feet as we navigate slick, water-polished stones and squish through mud within the slot canyon walls, hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth. “Biggie, you look like Quasimodo,” I tease, the discomfort no match for how ridiculous it is to watch his size-12 feet land in a wide, half-squatting stance to avoid slipping as he runs. At 6’5″ and 215 pounds, this action photographer and self-proclaimed nonrunner is a spectacle to watch run at all.

But our mission in Buckskin Gulch is not really about running. Given our shared penchant for sufferfests, we decided that running 30 miles (the longest run either of us has ever attempted) in a slot canyon is the best way to put smiles on our faces. A chance to literally run away and hide from the stressors of our lives in a canyon country underworld.

After 7 miles and wading through the dozens of icy pools of water (some waist deep) that consume the canyon floor in late winter, we finally crawl out of the shadows into the Utah sunlight. I remove my heavy water-and-sand-filled shoes and sprawl across a rock like a lizard. Petroglyphs of bighorn sheep are strewn across the sandstone wall next to me.

Biggie scrambles up a nearby rock, searching for Moki steps, to figure out how the ancient people got in and out of this place. I wonder why he’s not tired.

Buckskin Gulch is the Southwest’s longest slot canyon and one of America’s most dangerous trails. The canyon is no more than 10 feet wide at its narrowest, reaches up to five hundred feet deep, and drains via a massive watershed (including the Paria River and surrounding streams), making escape during a flash flood nearly impossible. Signs of this natural phenomenon are ever-present throughout the route, with high water lines clearly defined, fallen logs wedged between its walls, and massive boulders marking erratic rock fall.

I peel myself up off the rock, put my shoes back on, and resume running into the next enclosed stretch of the slot canyon. Icy, muddy, waist-deep water fills the narrow passageway, and it is impossible to stay dry. There is no alternate route, nor a way to leave Buckskin Gulch at this point. The only way out is through. Despite the open sky still visible when I crane my neck up toward the opening of the slot, the canyon walls often completely block the sun, making passage chilly on even the warmest of days. And yet the red tinge of the rocks enveloping us warms our spirits. I run, hypnotized by every twist, texture, and turn, focusing on the mystery around the next bend.

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Despite the desire to run staring upward, I never let my gaze wander too far from the pastel-colored rocks beneath my feet, as the uneven footing makes staying upright a challenge. Still, I catch my foot on a rock, manage to stay standing, only to then land my other foot in some sticky mud and belly flop across the puddle like a kid on a Slip ‘N Slide.

Biggie turns back to see me lying facedown in the mud. When I stand up, chocolate-colored mud is streaked across my face, hands, legs, and bright-blue running kit. An enormous smile stretches across his face all the way up to his blue eyes. No words are exchanged, only laughter.

As the run goes on, I fall more times than I can count. With all the obstacles underfoot and the miraculous scenery overhead, it’s a game of Russian roulette: To look up is a big gamble with danger, but how can I resist it? I am falling in love with the desert and its beautiful treachery.

Along the route, we hoot, holler, and laugh until our cheeks are cramping more than our calves. We aren’t laughing about anything in particular; rather, it’s the pure joy in placing one foot in front of the other, splashing through puddles, leapfrogging over boulders, and experiencing the freedom of being tucked safely away from all the problems of the world above.

We reach the confluence of the pale-jade-green Paria River, where the canyon walls widen, and begin our river dance through ankle-deep water. When we do hit land or a sandbar, it lasts for no more than 50 meters before we must once again get our feet wet. I lose count of the hundreds of crossings. A zephyr blows gently through the narrow walls and caresses my face. The water, now a pleasant bathtub temperature, is a cooling contrast against the increasing sunlight as the canyon opens up around us.

When we cross the river the final time, our relief at being on dry ground does not last long as we hit a never-ending path of silty, fine red sand. Not even rivers, rocks, nor mud can match the agony that is trudging through sand when you’re exhausted. A grimace has replaced the smile on Biggie’s face, and my muscles are starting to ache. Still, we cheer each other on through the pain. “You got this, Mo!” “We’re doing it, Biggie!”

To distract ourselves, we keep our eyes on the canyon walls in search of petroglyphs. Biggie veers off the sandy trail to an even sandier dune and climbs up toward the wall. “Never mind, nothing to see here, Mo. Sorry,” he turns around, defeated, and resumes running.

“Wait!” I point up. “Above your head!” It’s a faint petroglyph of a deer or antelope. As our eyes shift across the rock, a landscape of more animals, rivers, and mountains reveals itself—yet another love letter from this place that is quickly stealing my heart.

We crest a small hill, spot the yellow Jeep in the distance, and race one another toward it. At the finish, Biggie immediately collapses on the ground, eyes shut but smile wide. I lie down beside him and take a deep breath of the clean, dry desert air as I look up at a cloudless blue sky and soak up the sunshine hidden from sight for most of our run.

The deep recesses, cracks, and fissures of the earth, like this 500-foot-deep canyon, take us far away from the common roads and troubles of our daily lives to places of hidden beauty where we can clearly see our own capabilities, our innermost joy. Emerging from the darkest places, we can discover the source of our brightest light.

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Outlandish is a gorgeous guide to a more adventurous life. Through flavorful recipes, riveting personal stories, and gotta-go-there photographs, canyoneering wordsmith and adventurer Morgan Sjogren shows how outdoor adventure can become your lifestyle.