Capitol Reef is a geologic uplift that rises like a Great Wall through south central Utah. Running from north to south, its sandstone massif creates a formidable barrier of cliffs, canyons, domes and mesas referred to as the “Waterpocket Fold”. With its variegated ramparts, colorful gorges, and stone arches and chimneys, it more than merits its national park status.
Sulfur Creek briefly breaks free of its canyon confines near the park visitor center, flows under Utah Highway 24, then disappears into another maze of canyons just east of the road. I had not hiked along the creek since spring of 1981 but last week I had an opportunity to do so once again. I wanted to see if I could relocate a small waterfall that I had remembered from my past peregrinations in the area.
I grabbed my camera and walking stick and quickly gave the slip to several dozen Japanese tourists in and around the visitor center. I dropped into the creek bed a mere hundred yards away and immediately left humanity behind me. A brisk flow of crystal clear water was coursing through the red-walled canyon, forcing me to cross and re-cross the stream at regular intervals.
The physical landscape had changed little over the years, unlike the geography of my own aging body, full of dull aches under the skin and taking more tentative steps from rock to rock. My arthritic hands strained to hold fast to my walking stick. I grunted inadvertently each time I stooped to photograph a wildflower. More so when I tried to stand up again.
But those feelings were soon sublimated to the beauty of the canyon and by the vestiges of youth trying to reclaim my body as I drank in that golden plateau light, the spring green bursting from the undergrowth, and the magical sound of desert water. I was remembering that trip with Cindy so long ago when the two of us vagabonded for a week through the canyon country catching an unusual aurora borealis display over Arches National Park, getting caught in a rainstorm in the backcountry of Canyonlands, drinking pure water bubbling from the earth in Little Spring Canyon, and squeezing in this one last little walk in Sulfur Creek.
We were ultimately stymied at the waterfall I was now trying to relocate. Much of the canyon was still in shadow under great overhangs and alcoves. Penstemon and primrose were in bloom. And I continued my creek hopping, untroubled by human noise or presence. And in this particular case, my memory served me well.
After about half a mile I found my waterfall, cascading with a seasonal exuberance out from its sculpted bed into a broad shallow pool before pouring with renewed clarity into the main stream. I paused there by a small cottonwood tree, removed my pack, and sat down by the water’s edge.
Serenaded by the racing current, I snacked on a tangerine and a power bar, and reveled in my isolation with nature and my ability to still reach these places from my past. How much longer before that reaching is limited to mind and memory?
I sat by the waterfall in Sulfur Creek, one lone figure assailed by time in a timeless landscape, remembering those more mobile, pain-free days full of freedom and passion. And I was eternally grateful for the opportunity to return here where I could stitch my present life to the past.