The San Rafael Desert – a premier destination

Every year for Valentine’s Day I give my hubby a weekend trip. This year he chose Green River and the San Rafael Desert with prehistoric and historic quests in mind.

Those goals came from the book Hiking, Biking, and Exploring Canyonlands National Park and Vicinity, by Mike Kelsey.

Because of storm predictions, we left a few days early and, for our first quest, turned onto a dirt road north of Moab, heading toward Courthouse Rock and Courthouse Springs.

After a bumpy ride we found the ruins of the Halfway Stage Station where, in the late 1800s, travelers and freighters stopped on the eight-hour journey between Thompson and Moab to care for their horses and sometimes purchase food and lodging for themselves.

The station, made popular by Sally Thompson’s cooking, looked small, considering it functioned as a restaurant, store, and motel, but it served as an important stop for humans and animals alike.

According to Kelsey, it closed in 1903, and a new station opened near what is now Highway 191.

After exploring the area, we followed the road back to the highway and on to Green River where we checked into our motel and then stopped at Love’s for gas and lunch.

While there, we saw a friend from Blanding who asked, “Are you on your way home or heading north?”

“No, we’re staying in Green River.”

She laughed. “Seriously?”

Her husband, who had been buying their lunch at Arby’s, joined us. “Are you going north or heading home?”

This time we laughed. “No, we’re staying here.”

Although Green River isn’t a premier destination for some San Juan folks, we drove into the desert on the Green River Road.

After about five miles, we could see the Crystal Geyser erupting on the east side of the river.

The geyser, which is an unusual carbon dioxide well, erupts every eight or 22 hours for about a hundred minutes a day, but it was not our destination.

After turning onto a side road, we pulled up on the edge of a hill littered with sofas, broken glass, car parts, and shotgun shells.

Strangely, it was the shortest route to the rock art panels on the Green River’s Butterfly Bend. Ted and Oggie started down the steep slope first.

“We have to go down here?” I hesitated at the top.


I followed but soon switched to a seated position, my usual way of negotiating troublesome hills, but this time my tried-and-true method failed because of the glass.

Suddenly, the quest didn’t seem as important as saving my pants and skin, so I stood up and called, “I’ll wait for you in the Jeep.”

Ted turned around, and he and Oggie scrambled back up the debris. “We’ll find another way,” he said when they reached me.

He headed north to a hill covered with shale and composite rocks – still slippery, but easier to navigate than the landfill.

After we descended several levels, we hiked to the Green River in search of the petroglyph panels.

About a thousand years ago, the Fremont people lived in the Green River Basin area, leaving tantalizing evidence of their lifestyle in the form of petroglyphs, pictographs, pottery, and pithouses.

We poked around the cliffs by the river, but when we didn’t find the panels, we climbed up a level to an area of tumbled boulders, finally spotting the glyphs on the stones.

Photographing as he went, Ted clambered up the rocks until he reached the top of the plateau. Oggie followed, but I stayed below, so when Ted started back toward the Jeep, he called for me to head around the mesa.

Ravens played in the air currents overhead as I followed a four-wheel track through a deep wash, the sand sparkling in the sun. I enjoyed the feeling of my boots pushing into the earth and my arms swinging in rhythm with my feet.

Unbidden, the sheer joy of moving triggered a memory of my tiny great-grandmother, Zora Bradbury, whose hands twisted completely sideways from rheumatoid arthritis.

Then, an image of my great-aunt Ella rose in my mind as she stood up from her wheelchair and balanced against the stove to cook prune gravy, one of the Czech dishes she loved.

As the memories continued unraveling, I heard my grandmother tell me she’d give anything to walk the way I did, and I could again sense my mom’s frustration at not being able to get out of bed without help.

After 20 minutes, a whistle echoed from the top of the mesa, and I could see Ted and Oggie waiting for me.

Oddly, as I climbed to meet them, I could hear an ethereal melody and wondered if the women in my family were communicating from another realm.

“I thought I was hearing celestial music,” I panted as I reached the top.

Ted, who was chilling on a boulder, had his phone out playing, “Meditation from Thais.” He grinned, pocketed the phone, and asked if I needed to rest. When I said no, we started the trek back to the Jeep.

What had begun as a quest to see the evidence left by other cultures had turned into a journey to honor the courageous women who had gone before me.

All of them ended in wheelchairs, so as I reached out and caught my hubby’s hand, I walked for them in a desert they had never seen in a silence so profound I could hear the ravens’ wings above me.

San Juan Record

49 South Main St
PO Box 879
Monticello, UT 84535

Phone: 435.587.2277
Fax: 435.587.3377
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday

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