In early 1970, the United States was in sad shape: at war in Vietnam, that scamp Richard Nixon in office, the air so polluted in Los Angeles and New York City that you could taste it. The Cuyahoga River had caught on fire in June of the previous year, and coal companions were strip-mining a dozen eastern states and laying plans to ravage the West.
We were reading Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich, and Edward Abbey. They were more than handwriting on the wall.
My friend Frank and I, employees of the student newspaper, decided that we should see one prize piece of wilderness before it was gone. In March, over our spring break, we “lit out for the territories,” as Huckleberry Finn so memorably put it. We bought two good topo maps down at the Federal Building, fueled up Frank’s 2-ton Ford pickup truck, and headed toward the Escalante, a place known only to a handful of people.
After driving as far as we could on wash-boarded dirt roads, we walked through tenacious sand and ossifying cow patties until we were descending into the river canyon. We didn’t have decent sleeping bags, or at least I didn’t, and when we woke up everything was frozen, including our boots. The next day, when we entered fully the cleft of canyon, the sun wouldn’t even shine down there to warm us up until 10 a.m.
We established our base on a clump of tamaracks and cottonwoods, hoping it was above any flash flood. For several days we explored the side canyons and slot canyons, finding Anasazi ruins, climbing into dangerous perches —
“Hey, Frank, do we have a first aid kit?”
“I would aid Kit but I don’t know her.”
“I thought you knew her first.”
The USGS maps proved progressively pointless.
“Haven’t we been in this side canyon already?”
“Can’t tell, it’s not on the map.”
“Sure, it’s part of that whattaya callit canyon.
“That’s what we’ll call it then.
“Of the What Canyon.”
After a week we smelled bad, ran out of food, used up our chlorine tablets, and collected the allowed number of cuts and bruises. I took enough photos — all on black and white film — and made enough notes to writ a story. Frank edited it. Then we ran it past one of the angels of Utah journalism, Donald Gale. He fixed my grammar and spelled the names of Utah towns correctly and then, mysteriously, showed up in the back-shop of the Daily Utah Chronicle (he had worked his way through college as a type-setter, as I recall) and used special leading to lend the piece an airy feel when it concerned wilderness, a closed-in feel where it concerned the city.
“Just Get There Before It’s Gone” we called the article – it was a group production. It announced Earth Day to the state of Utah, and won the William Randolph Hearst Prize for college newspaper reporting too. 43 years ago. Damn.