In the Utah desert, a GPS is no substitute for common sense

August 10, 2008

A cardinal rule of driving the western U.S. is this: Don’t head off through the mountains or desert without knowing how you’re going to get back, or get to the next smattering of civilization.

Why? Old friend Peter B. Pope once trekked a chunk of Wyoming with another friend, and they had a bit of an altitude sickness scare. After three days above 9,000 feet, they realized they needed to get down, and that was a problem — miles of hiking. Help?

They picked that area of Wyoming to hike because the USGS topographical map showed no roads at all in that section. Real adventure territory. The only way to get help was to get out, and what they needed, really, was just to get out.

Or, consider the sign that used to greet travelers leaving Green River, Utah, going west on U.S. Highway 50: “No services for next 140 miles.” I once stopped to help a guy who had run out of gas 42 miles into that stretch. He confessed he’d seen the sign, but thought a bit less than a quarter-tank of gas in his old gas guzzler would do it. It hadn’t occurred to him it also meant no food or water, or towns, or telephones (I wonder if that road has cell coverage now). He was thinking of walking back for gas. 42 miles. It was well over 100°. I’m sure the highway patrol could have found him before he died.

Maps help. A compass is good. Having the skills of a First Class Boy Scout to use the map and compass together also benefits travelers.

If you have a compass, you still need a map; if you have a GPS, you still need to know whether the roads are passable. In short, you need to know where you’re going, how to get there, and whether you have the equipment to make the trip.

Comes this story from the Associated Press, in USA Today, about a “convoy” of people who thought they’d use a GPS to navigate the back country from Bryce Canyon National Park to the Grand Canyon. The only appropriate response is the one Will Smith’s character gave the woman whose husband had been killed so his skin could be used as a disguise by a giant interstellar cockroach in “Men In Black.” He said: “I mean . . . damn!”

Old friend, John Hollenhorst’s story of the incident on KSL-TV (Channel 5) carries pictures and maps that show just how foolish is the assumption that “a GPS and a cell phone are all they need to get by.”

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(KSL ought to let Hollenhorst play the expert on this story — he’s an Eagle Scout and once was an accomplished outdoorsman himself, perhaps still is.)

The group took off heading south from Grosvenor Arch, a natural arch south of the National Geographic-named Kodachrome Basin State Park. To get to Kodachrome Basin, you travel ten miles on unpaved roads. Going south out of Kodachrome Basin to Grosvenor Arch, you find the roads get less well-maintained. The maps show nothing but dirt roads, though some maps show a rather major dirt road that connects with Highway U.S. 89 east of Kanab, Utah, on the way to Page, Arizona. Most highway maps probably don’t convey the reality of the situation. This is the landscape you find:

White Cliffs in the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument (BLM photo)

White Cliffs in the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument (BLM photo)

It’s not exactly friendly to non-four-wheel-drive vehicles. It’s not friendly to any vehicle.

You don’t see a lot of roads in the 50 or 70 miles you can see, either. Roads that go through that area are unpaved, often unauthorized, and shouldn’t be on any map. Hollenhorst painted the scene:

The Californians ventured into one of the roughest and most remote landscapes in the United States. They believed their GPS unit would lead them back to a paved highway. They wound up desperately calling relatives in California in the middle of the night.

Yes, Virginia — and New York, and California — there really are places like that in America.

One relative, Esther Lahiji, said, “They ran out of gas and they lost their way. It was dark at night. And thank God they could charge their cell phones in their cars.”

The convoy of four vehicles, containing 13 adults and 10 children, had visited Bryce Canyon and Kodachrome Basin. But it left pavement to visit Grosvenor Arch. Using a GPS unit, they tried to reconnect to a paved road far to the south. But they got lost in a network of dirt roads, which Kane County Sheriff Lamont Smith says often lead nowhere.

“Those little spurs, those little dirt sandy spurs go out to the cliffs and dead-end,” he said.

With one vehicle stuck in sand and others running out of gas, they couldn’t go back. And heat was an issue, especially for the children.

The group stumbled into an area with cell phone coverage skipping from a distant tower — an area of accidental coverage (weather can change such coverage patterns — they are hit and miss, at best). They were able to phone for help.

After they called for help by cell phone, rescuers delivered food, water and gasoline and escorted them out.

Sheriff Smith says tourists just shouldn’t rely on a GPS unit in such rugged country.

“If you go off the pavement, you either need to ask the locals where the road goes or which roads to take, or else just stay on the paved roads, because a lot of these roads just don’t go anywhere,” he said.

Need we say it? Out there, one may not find locals to talk to. Last time Kathryn and I visited Kodachrome Basin, there were no other parties camping there — in August, at the height of the tourist season. South of the park? Are you serious? (We didn’t visit Kodachrome this summer.)

From Grosvenor Arch, to get to the Grand Canyon, go north back to Utah State Road 12; it’s about 20 miles. Then go east, through Tropic, Utah, and past the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park to U.S. Highway 89 (about 30 miles). Highway 89 south to Kanab is another of the most spectacular drives in America, through miles and miles of millions of years of petrified sand dunes — white, red, ochre, maroon, purple and chocolate cliffs, juniper-pinyon desert, pink sands, green cottonwoods, and nice paved roads.

You can stop for coffee in Kanab, in the afternoon at a book/outdoors outfitter/coffee shop, Willow Canyon Outdoor (we stopped three different days — it’s a great cup of good coffee in an area more than 200 miles from the nearest Starbucks; which Starbucks may have the New York Times, Willow Canyon will have the latest High Country News to read; we picked up a couple of CDs of Beethoven for the drive, and had I had more sense, I could have gotten some good trekking poles there).

From Willow Canyon Outdoor, it’s about 40 miles to where that dirt road from Bryce Canyon enters U.S 89, if you survive the drive. It’ll take you two to three hours to make the drive and get coffeed up on paved road if you take the long way — this group from California spent several times that amount of time, and risked their lives.

Paved roads, great scenery, good coffee, nice drive, or you can eat dust and threaten your life. You choose.

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