G
erard is about what I expected from a canyoneering guide. Ponytailed with a patchy beard, he drives Utah’s vermillion dirt roads at top speed, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other wrapped around a Monster energy drink. His phone plays a Bob Marley Pandora station from the cup holder while he gives us an education on the hallucinogenic properties of some local flora. It’s a topic he knows a lot about, and he doesn’t try to hide it.

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Our trip with Gerard is an audible. A group of journalists organized by mountain bike tour operator Sacred Rides, we came for a taste of the company’s newest offering: a tour of the Southwest’s outdoor adventure gems, from singletrack bike trails to world-famous slot canyons. But with Zion National Park closed by the federal government shutdown, we’ve changed tack and hired him to help us navigate nearby Yankee Doodle Canyon — a technical descent that promises to mimic Zion’s architecture. The road to Yankee Doodle, usually deserted, is littered with dawdling sightseers who walk the road in place of a trail. The shoulder has become a makeshift parking lot full of cars with out-of-state plates.

These are our fellow shutdown refugees: people for whom the machinery of vacation was in motion long before the federal government ground to a standstill. They’re families, mostly — probably with non-refundable plane tickets and hotel reservations and 10 to 20 days of PTO per year. They don’t look pissed, exactly, but definitely like they’re trying hard to “make the most of it”. Beautiful though the backroads may be, the salmon cliffs of Zion on the horizon are an impossible tease for any of us to ignore.

We weren’t supposed to be here, screaming down a dusty dirt road with a guy who looks like a hippie Mark Wahlberg.

If you had to pick somewhere to vacation during the government shutdown, though, you couldn’t do much better than Utah. About 70 percent of the state’s land is public, and most of it falls under the relatively loose management of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which has neither the manpower nor the inclination to barricade its holdings. The place is an outdoor recreationalist’s wet dream: home to enough hiking, rock climbing and mountain biking to last even the most prolific adventurers a dozen lifetimes.

We were supposed to spend almost half the trip in national parks, eating catered lunches and traveling easy, established trails specially selected for ease of photography. We weren’t supposed to be here, screaming down a dusty dirt road with a guy who looks like a hippie Mark Wahlberg. But we’ve gotten a more authentic taste of the Southwest than any of us expected, complete with slickrock roller coasters, miles of smooth singletrack, polygamist wives, 3.2-percent beer and one surprisingly satisfying gas station cheeseburger.

No one is complaining. As we slip into our safety equipment at the lip of the canyon, I can’t help but wonder why. None of us has made it through the last 72 hours unscathed. High-speed (or sometimes low-speed) crashes have left each of us with visible cuts and bruises, and three days ago altitude sickness drove one San Diego news personality to barf up her continental breakfast. A two-inch scab on my forehead has been softened by disinfectant cream to a drippy tapioca-like goop. We don’t look great.

I wonder what Gerard must think of us: a group of sunburned out-of-state bozos who look like they’ve just had the ever-loving shit kicked out of them. But if he has any concerns about our group, he doesn’t let on. I get the feeling he sees people like us a lot. In his demonstration of our rappelling and safety equipment, I notice he goes over everything at least twice.

Something about travel in deep canyons creates a strong sense of camaraderie.

Where canyons go, Yankee Doodle is moderate. The canyon is rated 3B: intermediate in difficulty with some standing water. It’s not easy going — the trip involves about a half-dozen rappels, one of more than 100 feet, and countless short downclimbs — but Gerard’s coaching and a little common sense are more than enough to get us through.

Something about travel in deep canyons creates a strong sense of camaraderie. It’s not exactly the “brotherhood of the rope” alpinists experience, but it’s palpable. Walled from the rest of the world by hundreds of feet of sandstone, our group feels self-contained in the same way I imagine people feel in submarines or on the International Space Station. For the first time this week, the group feels whole. It’s a far cry from mountain biking the Southwest’s national parks, but this two-hour canyon descent will be the highlight of the trip.

During the trip, we don’t talk much about the barricades around the parks. By the time my plane leaves the tarmac at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport, I feel anything but cheated. We didn’t get the Southwest’s greatest hits as promised, sure — but we got the rare tracks. The deep cuts. We got to see the American Southwest as it looks from my window seat: a wild, borderless place. A rowdy anarchist indifferent to Presidential authority or acts of Congress, who sends visitors home scabbed, bruised, and ready for more.

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