The contents of my pack lay scattered across the sidewalk. There’s a slit of sun cutting across the path and I’ve strategically placed myself onto this thin slice of warmth. I’m shifting items around into various piles, taking moments to enjoy feeling the sun creeping into the sky, slowly warming the frigid air around me. A park service truck pulls up behind Sanchez’s Sprinter, a man steps out, eyeing us, and he doesn’t seem to be pleased that we’ve decided to take over the entrance to the seasonally closed visitors’ center. He approaches us, and his look of discontent does not fade until after he gestures for a handshake, placing cookies into Sanchez’s palm while saying, “Merry Christmas.” It is indeed Xmas morning, and I’m starting off the day with the best gift- my recent tradition of camping and hiking on a day that I would otherwise dread.
Besides the cookies, the ranger also leaves us with a local map, safety tips, confidence that the Sprinter can handle the gravel road to the trailhead and his personal approval of our decision to hike and camp in the Needles region of the Canyonlands National Park in the winter. We flip through the charts for backcountry permit reservations, the boxes are all empty for the weeks shown; we mark off December 25 and 26. Soon after, we are on the trail- it’s a short climb in the beginning, the snow is packed down on the rocks forming a nice slick surface in all the wrong places. Moments later we are hiking across a large flat rock surface that must bathe in the sun for hours each day because the snow is absent and we’re throwing our packs down and peeling off our layers. After a couple of miles, we arrive to our campsite region and scout out a sunny spot with the least amount of snow, only to realize the next day that the sun wouldn’t hit this spot until the late morning.
Camp is set and we hike a few miles to Druid Arch and back. The path mostly follows the frozen creek and Sanchez finds joy in breaking the ice that has formed between the rocks. He searches to find a large patch that will have the perfect shatter as he jumps onto it, the sound of the crash echoing into the quietness around us. We become aware that we are close to Druid Arch when the trail starts to quickly gain in elevation. I over analyze each icy step as I make my way up the pile of boulders that tower in front of me. We are in the shadows, but gazing upward I can see sunlight at the top. Upon reaching this cast of light, I am also struck with the intensity of the arch. The sun is beginning to set and I’m placed between the arch and its shadow that is transcending upon the rock wall behind me.
We return to our tent in the dark, the cold is quickly filling the night air around us as if the sun had never existed. I immediately add my layers back on before my body begins to feel the cold. Some tea and soup keep me warm for a bit longer, but then all I can think about is burrowing into my sleeping bag. My feet are already freezing by this point, and I realize there is no hope for them – forever doomed with my poor circulation. But let’s pretend that I slept great and I was warm all through the night. Nevermind that it was in the single digits, what mattered was that I was surrounded by the vastness of the Canyonlands and I would climb out of the tent the next morning to find a patch of sun to warm me once again.