“I wouldn’t go into any of the canyons – not with a storm coming in.” That was the troubling advice we got from Charlie, a local and longtime lover of the Kanab Creek drainage system. Charlie runs the only wilderness shop in Kanab, Utah – Willow Canyon Outdoors – and we were talking to him on the phone, still an hour away from town. Willow Canyon is part gear store, part coffee shop, part book store, and part information center – in fact, his is the only reliable beta outside of the Tuweep Ranger Station which is perched on the north rim of the Grand Canyon some 60 miles down a rutted and washboarded dirt road. “Besides, I don’t even think you can get down in there. The road’s been washed out all winter.”
In the short time I have known Charlie I have found him to be pleasantly enigmatic, wary of overly definitive proclamations about the viability of imaginative plans. He always seemed willing to be captivated by the opportunities of a bold idea and eager to help make it happen. In the past he had seemed habituated to saying things like, “Sure, that’ll prob’ly work. You might have some trouble with the road on the way in – it is pretty rough in spots – but I bet you can make it go. Just get down in there an’ explore. ‘Course water might be an issue for you, but you’ll find potholes up on the esplanade.” He seemed to dwell in possibility.
But not so this time. In fact, I had never heard him be so clear. It was out of character. One of the first things he told us this year was that he didn’t have the map of Hack Canyon that we were looking for. “I don’t have it and you won’t find it anywhere in Kanab, I can guarantee you that.”
I didn’t take him at his word; I couldn’t. Charlie, the only source of information about the canyons for a hundred miles in any direction, the man whose wife left him because he spent so much time hiking the local drainages (“she said I loved the canyons more than her”), he sole proprietor of the only gear shop in the area had no map of the north side of the Grand Canyon? Not even a used, folded, and crinkly one to lend? Inconceivable. Something was up.
He told us to contact his friend, John, in Fredonia – he might have more information about the current conditions of the road on the way in to Hack Canyon. “You’ll find John at the bakery in town – it’s the only one. You’ll find it. ‘Course he prob’ly isn’t still there now – I don’t think he works this late in the evening – but just go ’round back and knock on his door. He’ll answer if he’s there. He might have a map for you.” John in Fredonia? It was a weak plan but it had the hallmarks of Charlie’s optimism, so we put it on our list.
In the meantime, cruising down 389 from Colorado City, we decided to check out the road for ourselves. I wanted to get some context, some first hand-information with which to judge Charlie’s odd reticence and disquieting admonitions. I wanted to see what it looked like. I wanted to know what would turn Charlie away.