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Vagabond Blues

desert water

On the Vagabond Loop this summer I pretty much went where ever I wanted: closed National Forests, private land, camped where I plopped down, and trundled permit-free in the National Park System. Other than a run-in with a ranger at the Wave, I went along stealthy enough to elude ‘capture’ and detection. Yes, I was a blatant trespassing thru-hiker. However, I gathered enough land condition information prior to going in the areas to move swiftly and safely, especially the wildfire areas. In the private land areas I stayed away from well-used resources and respected the land even more than I normally would on public land. I never got caught, and I have never felt so free in my whole entire life.

So, why wouldn’t I plan a guerilla mission along the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park during a government shutdown and park closure. The only feelings I will express on the closure is this: it sucks and it is wrong. My disregard for the ‘rules’: yeah, it may be wrong to most but I guess I didn’t feel that it was wrong. I was going for it anyway. Like many other closure crossers, I had been planning this trip before the shutdown.

Park closure

The White Rim Trail encircles the Island in the Sky District of CNP totaling approximately 100m. Water is extremely scarce. The 2 sources along the route are the Green River and the Visitor’s Center. I knew going into this trek that water would be a concern, especially with the park being closed I could not cache water along the potential 70m waterless stretch. I figured with the recent downpours we would be able to find rainwater pools and potholes in the slickrock areas along the bench of the White Rim. I knew going in to this trek there was a good chance we would not complete it, but I just had to get out and try. Plus, I knew bail out points existed along the route of travel we were heading. And with the closure and employee furloughs the chance of seeing someone in the backcountry were slim. My thru-hiker mentality kicked in: give it a shot, see it for yourself.

I found Lucky, Ravens Rest Hostel owner and friend, in the City Market in Moab finishing up another lap around the store. He was trying to keep warm. He was soaked and very cold from his motorcycle ride from Lake City, CO. Normally the drive would take around 5 hours but with the snow packing quickly and the rain flooding along the roads the drive took him close to 7 hours. Watching him shiver I smiled inside knowing that Lucky was willing to do whatever it took to go on this guerilla mission.

Green River arch

Along Gemini Bridges Road I stashed my truck well enough away from the main highway that I felt secure with in avoiding detection. Under a bright starry sky, we laid down to sleep. A light sprinkle fell and I heard Lucky scramble under my truck to sleep dryly. We needed an early start, a pre-dawn start, to avoid any government vehicle that we could potentially encounter.

We felt the rhythm of the black morning, the sky slowly opening up its bleary eyelids. Time flowed as the sun rose, streaming a familiar feeling within us. We felt like we were going on a mini-thru-hike. The red rock desert around us glowed with a rosy hue as if embarrassed, the dark green junipers freckled the surrounding buttes, the stringy and wispy clouds resplendent from the orange rays of the sun resembled a fiery head of hair. I witnessed the personification of the land. At the end of Horsethief Mesa, the dirt road plummeted into an abyss. A yawning chasm opened wide below us and we sat on cold slickrock ledges still nippy from Fall’s chill. In that moment, I knew we were doing the right thing.

The day progressed in a stunning array of colors and shapes. We marveled at the dark, deep red cliffs stained with the desert varnish. We wondered aloud how the blackened patina came about. Massive arches seemed chiseled by a giant craftsman. Again, we were stumped at how something so natural could be so perfectly shaped. We hiked and talked while looking up and gaped in astonishment. We shared past thru-hike stories from our years on trail. Other hikers and faraway places highlighted our tales. I could feel our bond of friendship strengthening.


We finally hit the backcountry entrance to the park. A sign read “Because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service facility is closed.” We chuckled at the word ‘facility.’ Were we really using a facility? On foot and away from any buildings, we kept at it. At the rocky shoreline of the Green River, our first water source, we tried filtering thick, muddy water into a bladder. Lucky’s filter jammed up after merely a half liter. Suddenly, our water situation became bleak. We sat in an abandoned corral under some sandstone overhangs and plotted our next move while scanning the map.

We figured the only option for us to do was to hike towards the Island mesa near the main NPS highway and find a natural spring up Alcove Canyon. We turned up Taylor Canyon along a groomed jeep road. A thousand feet or so above us sprouted 3 large arms of the main Island. Each island floated above us and appeared to be drifting in the sky. We looked around us, the wind softly soughing through the islands above us as if the invisible swishing air was the current of the sea. The clouds drifted in slow-moving stratus that split apart in square, gray tiles. We had the park to ourselves.


At Alcove Spring, the evening loomed in the enormous hollowed out amphitheater. A purplish orange settled in the deep recess of the alcove. Lucky and I found a trickle of water slowly dripping into a small pool. We rested and came to the conclusion that if we did not find water the next morning we would be forced to head back to the truck along the highway. Later that evening, we found soft red sand around a large juniper on top of a thin arm of the island in the sky. The night fell, the stars illuminated the desert scene around our bed rolls, and we slumbered off to sleep, but not before eating the rest of our burritos that we were initially saving for the rest of the hike.

In the morning, rather than finding water a bicyclist wheeled on by us, the rider eyeing us inquisitively. Then, a car zipped toward us along the highway. Instantly, we jumped off the side of the road and behind a couple of junipers. Nervously we chattered about what the hell was happening. We did not expect to see cars; our chances of getting caught were definitely raised a bit. Suddenly, in plain sight, a large motor home shimmered in the distance, then a cavalcade of Harleys roared by us, and eventually a ranger stopped us. Lucky held his mouth while I came up with a preposterous lie. The ranger told us the park had opened because the Utah government shelled out $1.6 million for a 10 day lease. I told him that we knew of the opening and had started hiking at 3am from the entrance gate.

“Why the big packs?”

“We’re training for the AT, ” I fibbed.

He had no other choice to believe us. The BS was not completely impossible. But as we turned away from him he asked Lucky, “Why do you have your sleeping pad?” Shit, I thought. Lucky exclaimed that if we were training to hike for the AT that we needed all our gear.

It seemed to work, though now we were beginning to feel that we could continue hiking along the White Rim. But those burritos we ate night before were buried in a cat hole somewhere along the island. With no food and the threat of getting cited now we were certainly heading back to the truck. North on the pavement we went. We threw our thumbs out hoping to catch a lift. We figured if that happened then we could avoid any more ranger questioning. Nobody stopped, not even brake lights.

desert water sign

At the Visitor’s Center we stopped for water and rested. We expressed to each other how funny this situation turned out to be. We laughed out loud to each other. We still felt that we had at least one day that could fit in the length of an actual thru-hike. We heard a voice behind us. It was the ranger and he began to walk towards us.

“I wonder if you guys can help me out with something.” “Sure.”

“Some other rangers found 2 sets of footprints along Taylor Cany–”

I interrupted him and blurted out, “Yea, I lied to you. Those prints are ours…” The ranger seemed intrigue about our truthful story. He didn’t flip out on us but he cited us anyways. $125 each. We walked away, still north towards the truck. Still, we couldn’t help but laugh. We still felt like we accomplished something. And we did. We experienced a microcosm of a thru-hike in one sole day where all the land around us was purely ours to share. The fine was absolutely worth it.


That night sitting in a bar in Moab listening to a reggae band, we came to the conclusion that we never have lost the feeling of a thru-hike. We just seem to search for the rhythm it gives us, the simplicity of life it instills in us. We drank a couple of beers and contemplated walking out of town, as if the truck was not in the parking lot and we were on a town stop during a thru-hike. We thought about sleeping in the bushes. We craved to eat more food, as even our stomachs were getting in the mood even from merely one day in backcountry that resembled a tiny portion of a thru-hike.

Once you have had the flow, life in congruence with nature, you will do anything for even a sliver of that feeling. Even a $125 fine, counter to the government’s closures. Nothing can give us the freedom of a thru hike like the open space of land all to ourselves.

This post was written by former Trail Ambassador Ryan “Dirtmonger” Silva

18 Responses to Vagabond Blues

  1. DaveC December 16, 2013 at 7:57 am #

    Ryan, I assume you expect to get a lot of stick for this, so let me be the first in line.

    Irksome though it was, there are good reasons for the NPS to do what they did, and for them to keep on staff the LE rangers who busted you. National parks end up being targets for shenanigans, up to and including ripping around on ATVS off road and stealing petroglyphs. There are complex and unfortunate cultural and ideological reasons for this, which one hike will sadly do nothing to alter. You and those like you were just bycatch.

    The “land all to ourselves” comment is incongruous, given the functionally infinite options (within 100 miles, say) you had at your disposal, most of whom are exponentially less trafficked. Not only that, you picked a route 80% of which can be glassed from three overlooks up on the mesa with paved road access. Freedom is something you create in your mind; external conditions are at best secondary.

    And last, there are these things called mountain bikes. They make dirt roads into something other than a sisyphian exercise in neolithic absurdity.

    • Gage December 18, 2013 at 10:55 am #

      Ryan good to see this written up. Sounds like a grand adventure.

  2. NEMO December 16, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    This land was made for you and me. Give my love to Lucky!


  3. ScooterLiddy December 20, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    Enjoyed the writeup. I’ve done the same many a time.

  4. Karen Najarian December 20, 2013 at 9:01 am #

    “And on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’. This land was meant for you and me.” -Woody Guthrie.

  5. David Mullins December 20, 2013 at 8:12 am #


    Sounds like a great adventure. The shutdown was just a load of BS.

    Incidentally, this is not the first time I would have liked to be in your shoes: You may recall that I walked out of Pie Town (with Northern Strider) LITERALLY wearing your discarded shoes in 2012, after the New Mexico desert had shredded mine beyond all hope. My eternal thanks.

    Keep on keepin’ on…

    Super Dave

  6. Drusilla Montemayor December 20, 2013 at 8:36 am #

    We were in the same area and chose to alter our spoiled planned vacation hikes by obeying the law and went elsewhere outside the National Park Systems, every entrance had ARMED guards at Canyonlands! Utah’s decision ultimately to support its people by both continuing to supply much needed employment and recreational opportunities was an awesome display of caring and level headed thinking in a time where our Federal government has none. The feeling that we, the American public (and our visitors from other countries) could instantly be labeled as criminals for “Tresspassing” on “our” lands was very upsetting and disturbing and serves to brightly illuminate the fact that our public lands are not ours at all.

  7. jerry December 20, 2013 at 8:53 am #

    “Rules are for the guidance of wise men, and the observance of fools.”

    Though it seems “stealth” may not be not your middle name!

  8. Alan December 21, 2013 at 6:11 am #

    I’m not going to waste my time with a detailed, lengthy response. Your blatant disregard for the rules is offensive. You give hikers and backpackers a bad name. I’m especially disappointed in Gossamer Gear’s willingness to give you any recognition.

    • Editor December 21, 2013 at 10:23 am #

      Alan – I accepted Ryan’s post because I thought this trip was controversial myself and wanted to give our community an opportunity to respond to it. We can hide our heads in the sand, but many backpackers do break the “rules” all the time. Hiding or ignoring that fact doesn’t mean that it is not happening, but having an open discussion about it can be a beneficial educational experience for everyone to make their own minds up about what is ethical and what is not.

    • Larry the Legend January 4, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

      Douchie. The sign said the facility, I take that as meaning the Visitors Center itself…you could be reading too much into it? Closing the Park Lands is anti-constitutional, IMO.

  9. Chris December 21, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

    I work for a land management agency, I am an avid backpacker, and I was laid off during the furlough. It is incredible how stupid some members of the public are when it comes to the disconnect between their vote and public policy. Backcountry and wilderness users should be more responsible with their actions, both on the land and the ballot box. While it is shameful and immature to trumpet your lack of good sense when it comes to disrespecting simple conservation measures with the absence of professional stewards, it is even more shameful and childish to act like these events are outside our sphere or control. Pick up the reigns and help steer the representative democracy you seem so willing to exploit. Like life, civic responsibility is not a spectator sport. This should ring especially true for those of us who treasure our wildlands and open spaces for human-powered recreation.

  10. I Am No One December 23, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    You respect the land, are keenly aware of how delicate the desert ecosystem really is, and have an intrepid spirit that comes from a desire to appreciate the natural world; but the vast majority of the American public are blatantly ignorant of these things. Look at what happened recently in Goblin Valley for instance; or how many times have you come across trash even in the most remote areas you’ve hiked in? The government has to act with these sorts in mind, and it is unfortunate that it trumps our freedom to carefully explore these pristine lands. I support men and women of your spirit and thoughtfulness to ‘break the law’ to experience something like this, but personally, I’d not have blogged about it, and would have kept it close and personal to myself. Your blogs inspire a lot of people, and may be seen by that faction of society that just wants to get out there and do what you’ve done, but without so much thought and care; and whatever damage they do, or further publicity they drum up, will surely only spurn more restrictions in the future. Just in my lifetime, I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of areas shut down due to negligence by those who took careless advantage of their privilege to visit those places. The Park Service has the unfortunate job of policing and protecting areas, while at the same time doing their best to keep areas open and available to the public. It’s a balancing act made more difficult by people who don’t take the time to learn about the ecosystems they intend to visit. They come from backgrounds tantamount to royalty, where everything they need is a 5-minute drive away, and all that lies between them and whatever that thing is is concrete interspersed by manicured hedges and lawns. Their free time isn’t spent through hiking, or reading about nature, or how to survive as a minimalist; but rather, it is filled with video games, random & pointless internet browsing and television. This is a generalization, but true for a majority of the public. So when an opportunity comes for them to visit a National Parkland, they not only bring themselves, but all the baggage of ignorance with them; and the rest of us ultimately pay for that via closures and restrictions. I have traveled the world through 3 dozen countries for months at a time; and can say without hesitation that this country offers the most spectacular landscapes. It is so diverse, so raw, and so unbound feeling here. At any rate, I’m starting to go off on a tangent, but want to say that I 100% support YOU and people like you doing this sort of trek… but would not share it openly on the internet. Perhaps with a few close friends in person… over a beer. 🙂 I write this post with utmost respect and am simply expressing an opinion that I don’t expect people to agree with. It’s just how I see it is all. I love vagabonds.

    • Larry the Legend January 4, 2014 at 10:48 pm #

      Point well taken.

  11. robbie weinsziehr December 26, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

    Dirtmonger is my son I respect and value his opinion ..he is a true vagabond..his beliefs in what he does r not to hurt this land but to preserve and cherrish it…

  12. Michael Sible December 30, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    Interesting topic. I have to say I was surprised by the severity and
    amount of criticism. It will surprise those critics when I say that one
    of the things that make this country great is people like Ryan.

    Yes, he broke the rules. I say so what. I don’t disagree with the rules,
    the people that enforce the rules, or even the closing of the parks (well,
    maybe the latter can be debated). What I do disagree with is when rules
    become an end in and of themselves. The rules are there to
    protect the park, not to create arbitrary and rigid restrictions.
    Even though no one has made the case that Ryan has hurt
    the park with his actions, he is being treated as if he has done harm.

    The rules we have created to protect the park exist as a framework to
    restrict damaging behavior, not to create a punishing overlord of the
    parks. The case seems to be that people are worried that Ryan will
    somehow point the way for the real vandals. That somehow, in one of the most
    remote parks in this country, someone will see him cross that arbitrary
    boundary, follow his footsteps, and all hell will break loose. At least,
    that seems to be the fear. Ryan would do nothing different if rangers
    (who he’s very unlikely to even see) were prowling about or not. To punish him
    for the potential actions of others is pretty odd to say the least.
    After all, this is our land. All of us. If anyone is at fault, it is us
    for failing to keep the protectors we’ve hired on the job. For that
    matter, we should be blamed for paving roads leading to
    these wild places, giving the riff-raff access in the first place. There
    are acres and acres of canyons and desert in that area that are more
    pristine and wild precisely because the NPS left them alone. Most of them
    are public as well and didn’t notice the gov’t shutdown at all. So, why
    didn’t Ryan just use them? Because it didn’t matter. Nothing was hurt.
    He’s a steward and that should’ve been clear.

    Why Ryan should be commended is he actually thought for himself. That is
    the quality we should value – personal responsibility. And the spirit of
    adventure. And individuality. I see too much sheep-like behavior these
    days, blindly following arbitrary rules, fearful of deviance. We already
    have a Japan and a Germany. What has made this country great we all know
    and we seem to be starting to forget in my view. No, Ryan didn’t pioneer
    new lands, ideas, or civil rights. What he did is a very small thing, but in my
    mind important, precisely because people are making it into a big thing.

    Bravo, Ryan.

    • Larry the Legend January 4, 2014 at 10:51 pm #

      Well said Michael, and bravely so.

  13. mike January 23, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    I think maybe Dirtmonger could stand to read a little Kant.

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