The sky was unsettled, somber and muscular with low-slung gray clouds that threatened rain. A flash flood warning was in effect, but we’d heard from hikers on the Mossy Cave Trail at Bryce that there was an unmarked slot canyon exactly 11.2 miles off Route 12 on a backway named Burr Trail. We were not sure what a slot canyon was, but given the hikers’ wide eyes and glowing description, we resolved to find it.

A rusted truck and decrepit buildings marked the turn off the main road. Like the twisted dry driftwood still rooted along the sandy trails, they were haunting signs of a past life now defeated. Neither man nor beast disturbed the scene, and I waived images from the movie Deliverance to the back of my uneasy mind.

Photo courtesy of Lea Sylvestro

Dave kept an eye on the mileage as well as the road as we snaked along a canyon. No guard rails, no shoulder, just head-swiveling drama as white mounds of rock, rippled as if by changing tides, gave way to towering red cliff walls, pocked and shaved by erosion and landslides.

Usually a one-hand-on-the-wheel driver, Dave clenched tight with both. Given the roadside littered with massive boulders, crumbled debris, and slabs sheared from the cliffs above, the signs indicating “Rockslide Area Ahead” were unnecessary.

It was silent in the car as Dave focused on the road. “You’re up for this, right? I’m not dragging you into it?” I asked.

“No. I want to see it too.” He assured me. But our directions, as exact as they were, were anything BUT exact, and we hoped for a cluster of cars or a turn-off to indicate the location.

This might be it,” said Dave as he pulled over and parked next to an empty, travel-worn RV. We climbed out of the car and went on the search.

Soft breezes stirred spring-green cottonwood trees and tiny flowers sprouted miraculously from soil so parched that spits of rain left no mark. We walked along a dry streambed bordered by soaring rock faces streaked black and red: the perfect place for a flash flood.

“This is it, the slot canyon,” Dave said definitively.

We wanted this to be it, and we didn’t want it to rain and kill us in a flash flood. We’d seen plenty of signs warning “Don’t get carried away,” the message hammered at every visitor center: you cannot outrun that rush of water.

Lovely as was this silent setting of ancient rock and surprising flora, we were unnerved and aware of possible dangers. Our server a few nights ago had mentioned that the restaurant’s maintenance man was in the hospital recovering from a rattlesnake bite. “So, remember to check under bushes and rocks when you’re hiking,” she’d said. The scrubby shrubs and rock outcroppings along our way looked ideal for snoozy snakes, so I was on serpent alert. And, by the way, who had parked that empty RV? Still, we wandered on, hoping that this dry riverbed aching for a flash flood would reveal a slot canyon around the next bend.

Eventually, images of racing water, snakes, and crazed survivalists turned us around, Dave still remarking that we’d seen what we came for. “But,” he said when we returned to the car, “let’s drive a little further, just in case.”

Maybe five minutes up the road, we passed a parked RV, and just beyond, a slash in the rock face. “Did you see that? I think that’s it! Turn around!”

Not so easy on this winding descent. The state of Utah, or perhaps the National Park Service, has been wise and generous with timely pull-outs, overlooks, and restrooms, but this stretch of road offered none, so we drove on until clear sight lines allowed a five-point turn.

We parked behind the RV and walked down the bank into a sandy clearing just as a couple appeared. Faces alight, they gushed, “it’s gorgeous! We just happened on it by chance. And to be the only ones here… enchanting!” They wished us well, headed to their vehicle, and left the canyon to us.

Breath held in wonder, we entered… the womb of the Earth. A cleft in the rock led to a narrow path between russet-red walls curving around and soaring high above us, echoing our voices as we wandered within. Euphoria erased fear as we marveled at the color and sweep that enveloped and dwarfed us. Through an act of grace, we had found the slot canyon.

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