Bad Nights in the Hills – Part 2, Willow Flat Campground, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Upon leaving the comfort of the fantastic Lazy Lizard hostel in Moab, the skies were darkening and extensive rain was forecast for the night. The wind was strengthening as we pitched our tent at our campsite, 6000 feet up on the Colorado Plateau in Canyonlands National Park.

This tired tent hadn’t stood up well to the deluges we’d had in the Florida Keys and Mississippi, where we’d woken up with mixed childhood memories of bed-wetting and splashing around in paddling pools. I wasn’t taking any more chances and had spent a princely $8 on a crappy blue tarp from Walmart to erect over the tent as backup. Kindly, our pitch came with a wooden framed pergola to which I fastened the tarp.

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Some months later we would make full use of the synthetic ingredients banned in the UK but still on the US market with a can of waterproofing spray, where you can burn a small hole in the ozone layer, revel in your chemically induced stupor whilst enjoying the luminescent yellow beads on the fabric, and then float your tent to a neighbouring continent.

After pitching, we left the campsite to explore. The Canyonlands is a startling area of enormous mesas (plateaus) divided by canyons formed by the Colorado and Green rivers nearly half a mile below in places. We wandered through one of three sectors, the Island in the Sky, which sits proudly above a lower tier mesa called the White Rim. This expanse is littered with canyons and fenestrations that from our vantage point, fittingly in this ancient landscape, resembled dinosaur footprints (if said dinosaur was over 5 miles tall).

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Sitting on the precipitous edge underneath Mesa Arch, the view below is beautiful enough to bring a tear to your eye and sheer enough to make you vomit. We spied a distant trickle of water down in the valley floor and realised that this was actually the raging rapids of the Colorado river, responsible for carving this formidable terrain over millions of years.

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We explored much of the Island in the Sky section (for perspective, to get to adjacent sections only a couple of miles away as the crow flies requires a multi-hour driving epic) each time finding an overlook that the eyes could see but the brain simply couldn’t comprehend. The park has the majesty of the Grand Canyon, but thankfully lacks the coach tours and selfie-stick-wielding frat-boys who you just wish would step that little bit closer to the edge.

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Back at the tent, we bade farewell to the sun and were greeted by a bitter chill. We fought to keep our stoves lit as we prepared dinner and soon ran out of layers to put on. Once under canvas and somewhat warm, sleep was not forthcoming with the deafening sound coming from the tarp and tent being battered by the wind.

After enduring hours of this barrage, with a few trips outside to secure more of the tarp down, the wind finally had the last laugh and ripped most of it free from my knots (I’m proud to say as a climber, my knots didn’t fail, but Walmart did). I realised the futility in attempting any more repairs, so resigned myself to getting wet again as we heard the rain start to lash the tent.

Somewhere amongst battling the tarp, debating the structural integrity of the tent and worrying about rain, I fell into a fitful sleep. When I woke I felt something heavy and cold leaning on me. I turned to poke it and my finger hole kept its shape. The end of the tent facing the wind had been completely squashed in by a classic desert snowstorm. I simply didn’t put two and two together the night before; rain forecast in the valley probably meant snow on the high plateau.

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I flopped out of the tent in my leggings, belay jacket and flip-flops and basked in a latent childish fascination of snow which my wife evidently didn’t share with me at that moment (“I don’t care, it’s 6am.”). Everything was now still and silent, the wind had completely died and the snow was soaking up what little sound there was.

Dissembling the snow covered tent was a task for my wife who had managed to lose her gloves the previous night, so she instead cleared the car windscreen with a flip-flop (take heed, Alamo car rental does not provide a scraper and fills the screenwash reservoir with only water).

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I now realise the folly in erecting an eight by ten foot tarp in a storm, a pursuit akin to parachuting into a tornado, but it didn’t stop me from parting with another $8 later that day.


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