Blue Canyon and the Chocolate Drop

The left front tire bounced over a boulder, the right front tire left the ground, and my hubby called, “Lean your way!”

We could see the red bottom of a deep, deep gully below us.

To be honest, before we left Blanding, I’d been worrying about friends suffering from COVID, family situations, and our communities.

After our Pioneer 500 side-by-side rocked back onto the narrow trail leading to Blue Canyon, Oggie adjusted herself at my feet, and the exhilaration of being out in a vast wilderness wiped away my anxiety.

Ted and I had finally joined the ranks of San Juan OHV owners by buying the used Honda and trailer from friends, primarily because our feet sometimes couldn’t take us as far or as fast as adventure called.

One place we wanted to explore was Blue Canyon, so last month we trailered the little chitty out to Red Canyon as our starting point, put Oggie at my feet and our packs in the back, and headed out.

The first trail took us around the Chocolate Drop, which looked remarkably like a gargantuan Hersey’s chocolate kiss except it was made of clay, brown at the top and banded with green and purple toward the base.

On the east side of the Drop, the variegated clay formed intriguing columns, caves, and niches, but we didn’t pause. Our destination was an old, square structure and an airstrip we’d spotted earlier on Google Earth.

However, seeing something from the air and finding it on the ground are two different experiences, and when the rough mining roads disappeared altogether, as they sometimes did because of summer storms, I became increasingly appreciative of Ted’s and the Honda’s navigational abilities.

As we jostled along the trails through sparse vegetation consisting mostly of blackbrush, rabbitbrush, and dried desert trumpets, we saw every color of the rainbow in the clay hills and coral mesas, all shades of pinks, roses, oranges, yellows, greens, purples, and grays, but not really blue, so I counted the cobalt sky.

The vastness of the land and sky continued to open my heart, which had been knotted with worry, and I thought about the cramped spaces in crowded cities where the only nature people experienced was in parks or on rooftop gardens.

Here the land, with its canyons, mesas, and hills, undulated in all directions.

However, the land wasn’t always so silent or void of people.

After World War II, prospectors started flooding the area, and with incentives coming from the Atomic Energy Commission such as $10,000 for new, high-quality lodes, a lot of exploration took place in areas with the Morrison and Shinarump formations like the Red, White, and Blue Canyon areas.

We bounced 12 or 15 more miles and finally halted beside a trash pile with rusted cans, broken glass, and a few barrels.

The BLM has now sealed off about 60 mines for safety’s sake, but some debris remains.

We hiked down into a deep wash, finding the skeleton of an old couch laying on the barren clay surface, but no airstrip and no small, square structure.

After we walked back to the Honda, we called Oggie to load up, and she jumped in, only to exit out the other side.

It took some persuading to get her to stay on the blanket at my feet, but it was already after two, and since we were averaging five or six miles an hour, we needed to return to our vehicle.

Remarkably, we saw no one the entire time. Solitude is a rare gift unless you break down far from civilization.

Fortunately, we made it back without any problem, loaded up the little side-by-side, and drove home to a warm house and good food.

The next week, after my hubby gathered more information from Google Earth, we returned to Blue Canyon.

For 15 miles, we jounced over the rough trails with some sections needing rebuilding, which we did, or detouring, which we also did.

Sometimes I “sucked wind” as we jolted over boulders, maneuvered down gravel washes, and sped up steep hills, but eventually, we arrived at the Piute Canyon Airstrip, so named, we think because Piute Canyon runs into Blue Canyon.

In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, even with motorized transportation, Blue Canyon was remote, so pilots flew men into those rough airstrips to spend a week exploring for minerals or mining.

The Piute Canyon Airstrip is very rough these days with bushes covering the runway, and although it bore the imprint of tires, those tracks came from a four-wheel-drive vehicle, not an airplane.

Close to the airstrip, we found the floor of the square building we’d been searching for. It was small, about the size of a modern master bedroom, so it may have served as a shed for airstrip equipment or cramped quarters where the miners stayed until the pilot picked them up for the homeward flight.

As we headed back to Red Canyon, I thought about nature’s potent, healing colors and the solitude of what one writer called the “badlands” of San Juan County.

When the little side-by-side tipped again toward space and the bottom of a faraway red gully, I grasped the overhead handle, grateful for the life singing in every cell of my body, grateful for my husband and dog, and grateful for the creator of this immense land and sky.

San Juan Record

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