The Last Fifteen Miles | Michael Engelhard

This is a pilgrimage of sorts, and like all good pilgrimages, it begins on foot. After the convenience of air-conditioned, motorized travel in a contraption whose model and brand convey status as a trek to Mecca or Jerusalem once did, I set out for the sacred place humbly, in sturdy leather boots.

Trudging through deep red sand, past a gutted mattress and shards of whiskey bottles that glitter like broken dreams, I search for the route into the canyon, down to the Colorado’s lobed shores. After avoiding “Lake” Powell and its dam for decades, I finally decided to visit what is left of Glen Canyon. Over the years, I sifted stacks of bleached photos and accounts by travelers lucky enough to have seen the Glen in all its glory. With that historical residue and my knowledge of similar canyons, I’ve tried to reconstruct loss—a loss felt possibly even deeper because I neither knew the thing lost nor would have a chance to reclaim it. Those from whom it was taken at least have their memories. The damming feels like personal trauma, as there is no other landmark I care to know that has been so completely corrupted while almost staying within reach. I am curious how the place I imagined compares with reality. There is middle-age stocktaking also, which casts its long shadow. I am past fifty now, and the likelihood of seeing the reservoir drained or dried up in my lifetime is slim.

After a tour of the concrete blade that guillotined the river and now marks Mile Zero, the little-used Ropes Trail to the river seemed just the cure for a case of civilization blues. When I had asked about the trailhead’s location, a volunteer at the Park Service information desk refused to provide that information, because “it’s too dangerous.” I guess the agency thinks that rescuing a few cliffed-out, dehydrated hikers or retrieving the bodies of those who, searching for a way down, haplessly missed the edge, is less trouble than facing a liability suit.

I was sure I could find the trail on my own but, apparently, had walked from a hard place into rocks—plenty of them. 

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