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Wednesday, August 12, 2020


I wrote this about ten years ago, and just ran across it yesterday. Everyone in my family loves wordplay, and I thought this was too much fun not to post it, even though it's old. Enjoy!


slotcanyon (slot'-kan-y'n) verb -- to be the victim of circumstances wherein, despite all appearances to the contrary and one's best efforts, one is thwarted at every turn by someone or something.  Usage, e.g.: "Boy, we certainly got slotcanyoned this time."

So, our family has a new coinage, as you can see from the above, and I think it is as sure to catch on as our last one was ("upholstered," meaning "drunk;" as in, "After the Cornell Men's Hockey team beat Harvard, we all went out to The Rose Bar & Grill and got completely upholstered.")

The origin of our latest addition to the Concise Oxford comes from our recent vacation, camping in the Rocky Mountains.  The cast of characters includes Carol and I, our sons Lucas and Nathan, and Carol's brother Alan and his wife and three kids.

The first day of the trip was deceptively calm.  We flew into Denver without incident, rented a car (a white Mercury Grand Marquis which looked, and handled, like the car owned by your average South Florida grandma, only less sleek).  We went from Denver up into Rocky Mountain National Park, and set up our tents and got our gear ready for a stay of a couple of days.

It became apparent during the first night that our air mattress leaked.  While the younger folk among you may scorn me completely for using an air mattress while camping, allow me to point out that when you are pushing 50 with a short stick, as I am, you will know whereof I speak when I say that sleeping on a bare tent bottom is not a recipe for happiness.  So during that first night, when the air pressure would drop to the point that our hip bones were resting on gravel, I would rouse, and blow into the valve until I hyperventilated (it doesn't take long, at 7,600 feet elevation).  Little sleep was had that night.

The next day, it was off to Estes Park for a replacement.

That was one problem solved, but the following day, as we were packing up the camp to proceed to our next destination, one of our intrepid little band locked the car keys in the trunk.  This generated considerable swearing on my part, which I tried to keep to a minimum around Alan's kids.  Most of the more forceful words had to do with the makers of the Mercury Grand Marquis, who had seemingly not seen fit to place a trunk release button somewhere in the front panel of the car.  We dithered around for some time, weighing options, when Alan decided to take a look in the car (both Lucas and I had searched for twenty minutes each) and found the trunk release in ten seconds flat.  Alan gained some valuable Man Points in that situation, redeemable for prizes in many locations.

So far, none of this really amounts to being slotcanyoned.  The origin of this word came from our experiences in Bryce Canyon National Park, in southern Utah.

Me at Bryce Canyon, before the adventures started and when I was still in a reasonably good mood

We were cabin-camping in the nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park, near a nice couple who were visiting the spot with the wife's 87-year-old grandpa.  Before dinner one evening, we were chatting with them, and the husband mentioned a great hike nearby.

"It's the Willis Creek Slot Canyon," he said.  "It's not far away, a really easy hike -- grandpa did it today."

Grandpa grinned, indicating that he had, indeed, done the hike, as advertised.

We asked directions.  Easy, too, he said.  Just go out of the park by the main road, and six miles up there will be a well-marked turn to the left.  This road had a vaguely Native-American-sounding name that for the life of me I can't remember, but it was something like Skunkamah Road.  Take this turn, and go for another six miles, and the trailhead is right there.  Easy walk into and up the slot canyon, which is spectacular -- and in some places, only six feet wide, with 200-foot high walls.

Sold.  We decided to go there the next day.

The following morning, we piled into the cars, and set out.  Six miles up, we found the turnoff.  And that was the last thing that went right.

Spelunkah Road turned out to be not all that much of a road.  More of a long, shallow groove in the sand, with sagebrush on one side and a steep dropoff on the other, and adorned with potholes you could lose a cow in.  Nathan, the tallest of us, was jounced upwards by the bumps and smacked his head on the ceiling of the car several times.  We crept up and around and down and back up again, finally coming down a hill that descended onto the concrete top of an earthen dam.  The drop onto the top of the dam was abrupt enough that we stopped a few feet before it, completely uncertain as to whether Grandma's Mercury could get there without leaving the bumper behind.

On the other hand, there was a clear trail from the left side of the road, so we figured we'd found the trailhead, and just pulled the car over in a wide, flattish spot, deciding to hike from there.

As we descended from the road, my first thought was, "Man, if Grandpa did this hike, he is one damned spry 87-year-old."  The going wasn't really rough, but it was steep and rocky, and I seriously doubted we were in the right place.  But we kept going doggedly (i.e. stupidly), reaching a shallow creek on the floor of the canyon, and walking for a couple of hours upstream.  No slot canyon appeared, not that I really thought it would.

That evening, we asked Myra, the manager of the cabins, what had happened.

"Oh, that's not Willis Creek, that's Sheep Creek," she said.  Many bad puns about being up Sheep Creek without a paddle ensued.  After the general hilarity died down, she told us that Willis Creek was the next one over, that we had to cross the top of the dam and go to the next descent, and there it would be.

"The road isn't that bad," she said, giving us the hairy eyeball. "I've done it in my Honda Accord."

Feeling my Man Points once again decreasing, I conferred with the others.  Alan and his wife Kathie were both definitely for trying again.  I was reluctant, wondering how I would explain to the rental car agency when I returned Grandma's Mercury to them missing important parts, but I acquiesced.  The slot canyon did sound cool.

So the next morning, we set out again.  We decided that Alan would leave their van on the top of the hill near the dam, and that we'd shuttle everyone up and over the rise in the Mercury.  The jounce down onto the dam was done slowly enough to leave the bumper intact, but the bottom of the car made an alarming scraping noise as we did so.

Carol brought Lucas, Nathan, and I to the next valley bottom, and then went back for the rest.

During the wait for the rest of our band, I struck off upstream.  The slot canyon was supposedly very near the road, according to everyone we'd talked to.  Thinking that the Utah version of "very near" might differ from the New York version, I began to hike.  After a quarter-mile, I gave up, reversed direction, and did the same distance downstream.  No slot canyon.  There were, however, a number of vultures circling, which I didn't think was a good sign.

When I returned, the others were just getting out of the Mercury.  "We're in the wrong place," I said.

Cries of dismay.   The bottom of this valley had another large washout in it, and I put my foot down.  "No way are we crossing that in this car," I said.  "Not only is there the dropoff, the bottom is all soft sand.  We'll get stuck."

More conferring, followed by reluctant acceptance of my assessment.  We reversed course, ferried out the various groups back to the van, and proceeded to drive back up Sporkulah Road to the highway.

It didn't help my Man Point Total at all that we passed a ranger on the way out, who cheerfully told us that the slot canyon trailhead was just over the next rise from where we had stopped.  By this time we were all pissed off enough that we decided to concede the defeat to fate, and move on.

So it was on to Zion National Park.  This was by far the hottest place we visited, and the first night, we were all sweaty and exhausted from a three-hour afternoon hike, so we decided to go out to a restaurant in Springfield, the closest town.  We had just picked out a nice-looking Mexican restaurant when the power went out.  All over town.

"We can't cook anything," the waiter said.  "We're closing.  But the Majestic, a couple of miles up, has a generator, and is staying open."

So we went to the Majestic.  The Majestic did indeed have power, but only two waitstaff, who were harried, flustered, and clearly unprepared to deal with the hordes of people who were now showing up at the only place in town that had electricity, hot food, and air conditioning.  It would be, we were informed, a wait of at least an hour and a half for seats, and god knew how much longer before we'd get food.

"Dammit," Lucas said.  "We've been slotcanyoned again!"  And thus a new verb was born.

But the usefulness of this word wasn't over yet.  Yesterday we left Utah (well, Nevada, actually -- we flew out of Las Vegas) for home.  The flight out of Vegas was delayed because of weather in the midwest, but it looked like we'd have enough time to catch our connecting flight in New York City even so.  The plane got a few miles from New York, and then... went into a holding pattern.

"We're sorry," the pilot said.  "But we're not being allowed to land, because President Obama is passing through the airport, and they've stopped all air traffic until he's gone."  The circling went on for a half-hour, during which time our connecting flight happily departed without us.

"Jesus," Lucas said, clearly impressed.  "We just got slotcanyoned by the leader of the free world."

We finally landed, booked a flight for 9:15 AM the following day, and got a hotel for the night.  We took a shuttle to the Ramada Inn, where Carol had made reservations.

The first odd thing we noticed upon arriving was that the lobby was full of African people in brightly-colored traditional dress, all talking very loudly.  Then the receptionist informed us that the Ramada had no rooms, because there was a convention of African dignitaries.

"But..." Carol began, pointing to the reservation information.

"Nope," the woman said, helpfully.

Then, the fire alarm went off.

We all went outside, followed by the bright, noisy African people.  Soon, two police cars and three fire trucks came up.  Turned out that the African dignitaries had been putting too many people on the elevator, and the motor had overheated and filled the shaft up with smoke, tripping the alarm.

The firemen, in full regalia, carrying picks and axes and hoses and fire extinguishers, pushed their way through the crowds of African people and into the lobby.

"Wow," Nathan said.  "If there was a bright blue giraffe, and a couple of melting clocks on the chairs, this would make a great Surrealist painting."

"I've always known that life was absurd," Lucas observed.  "But I think that ending my day surrounded by African dignitaries and firefighters has to take the prize.  I almost want to go to sleep, so I can have a dream and return to some level of normalcy."

So, we got transferred to another hotel, arriving there at 1 AM.  Slotcanyoned again, was the general consensus, although perhaps since we did get a hotel, and successfully caught our flight home the next morning, we may have been stretching the definition slightly.

Anyhow, here we are, back home in gray, drizzly upstate New York, after a trip that we will long remember.  It did have many wonderful parts that I haven't recorded here, but I think that all things considered, the Hunt for the Invisible Slot Canyon of Spatulah Road is probably the one we'll all remember the longest.