Sightings in the Desert

In the spring of 1999 my friend Roger from Fort Collins, Colorado, came to Moab for a visit.  Roger and I had been friends for several years and had done some amazing hiking together, including a backpacking expedition into the remote backcountry of Canyonlands National Park.  On this particular trip we planned to do a hike into Little Wild Horse Canyon, a slot canyon located in the San Rafael Swell not too far from Goblin Valley State Park.

Rhonda and I had enjoyed rock hounding for years in the San Rafael Swell, so when I mentioned that Roger was coming out for a visit to hike in Little Wild Horse Canyon, she suggested coming along and being dropped off in the Swell for a few hours of rock hounding.   The hike would only take a couple of hours, and Little Wild Horse Canyon was about a 30 minute drive from one of our favorite rock hounding locations.

The area where we dropped Rhonda off for a "few hours".
With our exciting day completely planned, Rhonda, Roger and I headed out on a beautiful spring morning.  It was great to see Roger again, and we all had stayed up quite late the night before catching up on everything that had happened since Rhonda and I moved away from Fort Collins over a year ago.  After dropping Rhonda off at her favorite rock hounding spot, Roger and I headed south toward Little Wild Horse Canyon while we continued to catch up on old times.

We turned off the main highway and bounced down the rough road heading toward Little Wild Horse Canyon.  After about 10 minutes we were surprised to see a flatbed truck parked along the side of the road with something unusual in its bed.  I slowed down to take a look at the strange cargo which, much to our astonishment, resembled a spaceship!   Now, it is interesting to note that I have an aerospace engineering degree.  I fully understand the technology that took us to the moon and I have witnessed a Space Shuttle launch from closer than most other people on the planet.  I live by the scientific method, and I have a logical explanation for just about every unusual experience that I have ever encountered.  Yet here before me, in the middle of the desert, was an object that appeared to be some sort of bizarre flying machine.  Yes, it looked like some sort of spaceship, sleek and futuristic looking, yet it also looked completely implausible – small and rather cheesy looking.  I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it, but I knew one thing – I had 2 hours to get my friend Roger into the narrows of Little Wild Horse so that he could experience the intense beauty of one of the premier hiking spots in southern Utah.  We reluctantly moved on.

Roger and I continued down the long bumpy road to Little Wild Horse Canyon.  In 1999 the road was quite rough, we drove through deep sand and over rocky patches as we made our way to the trailhead.  After parking and getting our hiking gear together, Roger and I headed down the wash that led to the mouth of Little Wild Horse Canyon.

Click on the map for look at the
2 possible hiking routes
There are a couple of ways to hike Little Wild Horse Canyon.  The quickest way is to simply down a long wash from the trailhead and enter the mouth of little Wild Horse Canyon.  After another half mile we would reach the narrows.  For the next couple of miles we would experience the beauty of sculpted canyon walls, with new and breathtaking views around every turn.  After completing the narrows we could turn around and return to the trailhead, a hike of about 4.5 miles that takes no more than 2 hours.

The other way to hike Little Wild Horse is to travel the entire length of the canyon, exit the back of the reef, and return via an adjacent canyon named Bell Canyon.  Viewed from above, this entire hike takes the shape of a triangle so it makes a great loop hike.  It is a beautiful hike, but about 9 miles in total length.  Due to some rough sections it normally takes at least 5-6 hours to complete.  Due to our limited amount of time, Roger and I decided to take the shorter route.   Two hours was the amount of time that we had promised Rhonda and I was determined to adhere to it.

Roger and I share a great love of the outdoors, so being able to share a hike into such a beautiful canyon with him was a total blast.  Since we were still catching up, we continued to talk incessantly, spending more time listening to each other than to the terrain through which we were hiking.

After about an hour it occurred to me it was taking much longer to reach the narrows than expected. We should have been in the narrows 30 minutes ago.  I looked around and noticed that the canyon was widening instead of narrowing.  It finally occurred to me that we had made a mistake and accidentally hiked into Bell Canyon instead of Little Wild Horse.  Our options were limited, we could either turn around and hike back for about a half hour, or continue on and do the loop hike of nine miles.   Being the guys that we were, we decided to hike forward at a greatly accelerated pace.

Roger makes record time in Bell Canyon.

Roger in Little Wild Horse Canyon.

Flooded sections slow us down.

Rugged terrain slows us down.
We literally flew through Bell Canyon.  It was a breeze to hike quickly though this wide open canyon.  In no time at all we reached the end of it and headed north.  Within a half hour we reached Little Wild Horse and headed into it.  Because of some recent rain we soon encountered some deep pools, many of them knee deep.  Little Wild Horse also has some steep sections that require careful rock scrambling to navigate.  Although we hiked the canyon in record time, it still took us over 2 hours to hike the length of Little Wild Horse.  By the time got back to the trailhead we had already taken nearly 4 hours.   Rhonda would no doubt be upset, but surely she would understand our predicament.  We would only be a couple of  hours late.

As we headed back down the long bumpy road toward the highway we spotted another strange event, the “spaceship” that Roger and I had saw the back of the flatbed truck was now suspended from a helicopter and was headed out over Goblin Valley State Park!  What the heck?!?  Come on, who could resist the temptation to see what this is all about?  My wife was already going to be angry with us, so what harm would a few more minutes be?

We arrived at Goblin Valley just as the spaceship was being lowered onto the valley floor.  After some inquiries it didn’t take long to discover what was going on.  A portion of the science fiction movie Galaxy Quest was being filmed there, and the spaceship that we saw was an important prop for it.  Up on the rim of the valley we saw numerous trailers for the cast and crew.  (We later learned that the movie starred Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub & Sam Rockwell.) Much to our surprise, we were still allowed to hike into the valley.  We were also amazed to discover that we were the only people in the valley!  Who on this Earth could pass up that opportunity?!?

Roger and I headed down into Goblin Valley.  Unfortunately the spaceship wasn’t near the front of the valley, it was toward the back.  After about 30 minutes we arrived at the spaceship.  It was awesome looking.  Sure it was a Hollywood prop, but it looked pretty darn cool, with a charred exterior that looked as if it had entered the Earth’s atmosphere in a fiery blaze.  Like a couple of school kids we scurried around the craft and took pictures of each other posing next to it.  What an incredible experience this was, being on the set of a science fiction movie!  After about 20 minutes we decided that we’d better head back.  We were already 3 hours late for our rendezvous with Rhonda, but surely she would understand.  At least, that’s the way a couple of clueless guys looked at the situation.

Galaxy Quest Shuttle Pod

We made our way back to the highway and headed north.  Driving 25 miles per hour over the speed limit I thought that perhaps I could make up the 3-4 hours that we were late.  After what seemed to be an eternity I turned onto the dirt road where we had left Rhonda.  Within 15 minutes I finally spotted her, backpack slung over her shoulder as she walked along the road.  I couldn’t wait to tell her about everything that happened to us!

Arriving at her side a mere 4 hours late we were greeted with a strange expression that I had never seen before.   I stuck my head out the window and said “Hi honey!”

Rhonda hurtled her backpack into the bed of the truck and firmly exclaimed, “Turn around!”  Roger and I exchanged clueless male expressions as I turned the truck around.  In a manner completely out of character for Rhonda she climbed into the bed of the truck and yelled, “Drive!”   If you know Rhonda you would know that she would never ride in the open bed of the truck, at least up until that point of her life.  There was only one thing that would cause such an incredible deviance from her normal behavior and that was anger.  When we reached the highway I got out of the truck to coax her back into the vehicle.

“You guys are four hours late!” exclaimed Rhonda.   “I thought something happened to you!  What were you thinking?”

My response was a line that, in many ways, I had waited my entire life to use.  The extraordinary circumstances that Roger and I just experienced had led to this point, and my pulse quicken when I finally realized the exact words I was about to say.  As I stood there surround by hundreds of miles of the most incredible desert wilderness that anyone could imagine, I uttered the greatest sentence of my entire life.  It was intensified by the fact that every word of it was the absolute truth…

“But Honey, we saw a spaceship!”

Rhonda shook her head and got into the truck.  Luckily, it was a 90 minute drive back to our home in Moab.  It took us just about that entire amount of time to convince her of what had happened, but in the end we had some memories that would last a lifetime, memories that well up every time we watch the movie Galaxy Quest together.

As of this writing (2010) I haven't
abandoned Rhonda in the desert...

Following Galaxy Quest images courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures...


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