Wilderness Study Area
Wyoming, near the Colorado border
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June 19, 2014: Skull
This Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area is comprised of about 87,000 acres of badlands in southwest Wyoming, near the Colorado border. Virtually all of it is public land, mostly managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which gives a nice overview of the WSA. Itís very remote, and there is no easy way to get into the heart of this place, wherever that is, exactly.
The rocky ground drops away to the east and the north several hundred feet to the Skull Creek valley below. Yet the ground doesnít drop away all at once, but rather in fits and starts punctuated by rounded spires and hoodoos. Itís a landscape similar to canyon country, but it lacks the sharp angular walls and cleave angles of blocky sandstone. Everything here is clay, gummy muck when wet and nearly rocklike when hard. In short, like adobe. From the Skull Creek Rim, I can see far to the north and east across a shallow plain of sparse vegetation. Skull Creek itself appears to be completely dry, or at least it is in this area. So at least they got the skull part right; as for naming it a creek, well, perhaps ďwashĒ would have been more appropriate. My option to backpack in and camp instantly evaporates in the face of this searing dryness and I simply pack up a daypack for a walk around the area.
I have to hunt a little to find a way down to the plain below, and I pick my way down a draw littered with boulders, the broken fragments of ancient caprock above. The day is bright, cool and Iím feeling pretty great. A brown and yellow prairie rattlesnake shakes me out of my reverie with the stark buzzing of its tail. The snake coils up defensively about 6 feet away from me, and I stand watching it as it uncoils like an oiled machine and slinks away, buzzing nonstop and keeping both of its beady, shiny eyes on me. I look around to see if he has friends, and not seeing any, I continue more cautiously down the draw. To be sure I donít surprise another, I occasionally kick rocks 10-15 feet ahead of me to elicit rattles. None are heard.
I reach the loose sand of the dry wash below and head downstream past crumbling light-gray walls that stretch up about 40 feet. I look back up the draw and memorize some details so I can find it again if my GPS craps out. After strolling a bit downstream, I recognize that downstream leads me away from the rim that holds all the interesting formations and out into the dry, boring plain to the east, so I cut across the sagebrush flats of loose sand and rejoin the rim at the next draw to the west. I pick my way along the rim, walking up tiny side canyons that box up in no time. Fins and spires of clay, shielded from the elements by strong capstone, stand with ridiculous fragility. Some of them seem like they would topple over if I but pushed, but of course I have no desire to do so. Nor do I intend to tarry too long in the shade of such finely-balanced wonders of geology. Erosion may happen slowly, but geologic time is now, afterall.
I cruise west over sand that is firm when the foot first touches it, but instantly gives way under weight, draining all energy and momentum. I canít help but continually admire the varied shapes and patterns. I find a cave and stand inside for a bit, enjoying the refreshing coolness of shade. As there are no trees of any kind in sight, nor shrubs taller than my waist, the shade of the cave is welcome. The back of the cave goes on for some time, narrowing to the floor. Ripples in the floor suggest intermittent flowing water. Far to the back, I can see the faint glow of daylight. Gooseflesh prickles up my neck as I wonder how many snakes are tucked away in the million crevices and holes pocked into the walls. It isnít unpleasant to get back outside and into the open, where a man can get a running head start on a swarm of rattlesnakes. Itís a well-known fact that, over the long run, say 5 or 6 miles, a man can outpace even the most-fit rattler.
I reach a tributary of Skull Creek and walk upstream to the northwest. The bed is achingly dry, even in June of this exceptionally-wet year. The stiff clay substrate of the channel yields but little to my boots, and it is easy to walk along at a good clip. I make my way towards a canyon that appears to be a convenient way out of this valley. There arenít many escape routes in sight, and to avoid simply retracing my steps back to the car, this route seems to offer a nice loop option. I walk up the canyon, picking my way up rocks and loose tallus until I reach an overhanging wall that is at least 12 feet high with no bypass. I sit down and watch the stillness downcanyon. An occasional bird swoops into view, and I notice a pair of birds nesting in a mud nest built directly into the near-vertical side of the canyon. I back up and find an escape route, only halfway up it gets too steep and I have to back down. I head downcanyon a bit more and find an escape route that offers easy walking all the way to the bench above. From there itís a simple rim-walk back to the car.
I decide to camp at the car. The wind is fierce, but there seems little chance of finding anything better within easy driving distance, so I pitch my tent about 60 yards from the car on the lee side of a small hill. The afternoon is spent reading, enjoying a turkey sandwich for dinner, and watching the rabbits scurry about from one rockpile to the next. Itís hard living for rabbits out here with virtually no cover, no water, no food and plenty of predators. As the sun draws down, the wind follows, and soon all is calm. Orange light from the dust-filtered sun in the west flows over the rocks like syrup. Birds appear from nowhere in great numbers. Dark-bodied cliff swallows dive and flitter about the rocks, snapping up insects. I find myself a perch on the edge of the rim from which I can observe the lengthening shadows across the valley below, and inspect the changing hues of red on the rocks as the sun sinks lower. Somebodyís gotta do it. I listen to two doves call to each other in three-note stanzas. The first dove calls two notes, then drops two notes for the third call. The next dove, further up canyon, returns the call with the first two notes matching the last note of the first dove, and then himself dropping his third call two notes. Pause. Repeat. This goes on for an hour. If written out in quarter notes, it would read F-F-D-rest-rest-D-D-Bflat. I consider that one could almost make this the basis of some new age synthesizer song.
As dark descends on this long June day, I brush my teeth and rub the salt and sunscreen off my body with a wet washcloth that feels briskly cold in the rapidly-cooling desert air. I crawl into the tent and read a few pages of my paperback before crashing directly into a delicious REM sleep.
Skull Creek Rim:
I oversleep terribly. Having intended to awake before dawn to watch the sunrise, I awaken after 7:30, more than 2 hours after sunrise. It is only as my tent has become an oven from the unremitting sunshine that I am roused enough to uncover my head from underneath the sleeping bag. I love the smell of warm tent fabric in the morning. To action! I pack up my gear and am off in a flurry. I pilot the Forester back north a bit, then turn off on another unmarked dirt road (there are no other kinds out here) that my dashboard compass tells me heads east. Within a few miles I arrive at the Adobe Town Rim above Sand Creek (another fraudulently-named featureÖthere is no water here). I park the car near a natural gas pumping station that is tastefully ensconced in galvanized cyclone fencing, and set out on foot, even though the road appears to still be actively used right into the WSA. The features of the Adobe Town Rim are even more fantastic than the Skull Creek Rim, and I am pleased I am seeing these in the proper order, or else Skull Creek Rim might be a disappointment if viewed second. I stroll about like a tourist in a big city, snapping photographs of the clay towers and monuments, marveling at the narrow spires, some no wider than telephone poles. There is no shade, but it is early in the day and the air is cool. The wind picks up rapidly, which also helps keep it cool. A single engine airplane buzzes up and down the rim, sight seeing. After two passes I am annoyed at this buzzing insect and wish him gone. After two more passes he complies.
I trundle over the landscape aimlessly, seeking out the denser composites of vertical features, threading my way through and among them, enjoying the slanting shade on their north sides and kicking pebbles ahead of me in steep gullies to alert any rattlesnakes of my intention to walk through. I find a nice spot in the rare shade by an incised wash to sit, sip cool water and read The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. I thought I had read all of Steinbeckís works, but either I have forgotten this one entirely or overlooked it before. Good read. But the day moves on and before long I feel the pull to get moving.
I continue northwest, crossing a dry wash (again, there are no other kinds out here) and summiting a flat butte. From this vantage, I can see the rim continuing to the north, in undiminished complexity, for miles and miles. I am exploring but a tiny fraction of this landscape. I drop down off the butte and enter a labyrinth of canyons; every one of them boxes up after winding this way and that among near-vertical clay walls that are riven and sculpted by rainwater so they look like melted wax. I wonder if these have all been trodden by humans before. Large, bleached cow bones dot the drainage and confirm that at least our bovine friends have explored these places. I find an exit from one canyon, and reach the bench above. Vegetation is sparse. Small rocks are arranged across the flats by the billions, with none touching each other. Isnít that odd? Not one of these millions of pebbles touch each other, as if they are all repelled by magnetism and arranged in a perfect equidistant distribution. Neither rain nor gravity has succeeded in piling up even some of these pebbles together. I reach down to pick one up, and find it is fastened to the clay of the ground as if with tape. Many of the rocks are shiny and colorful. I quickly intercept the Adobe Rim Rd, a two-track in surprisingly good shape that I follow, more or less, all the way back to the car. Thus concludes my initial trip to Adobe Town.
Adobe Town Rim: