Axe in the Alcove

"We're letting you go!" It was the real estate crash of 2008 and those were the words shared with me as a company of 350 employees was rapidly paring down to just a few owners and financial managers.  I knew it wasn't an easy thing for them to say, and I also did not envy the position of those who remained to try and salvage something of what was rapidly declining.

As you might imagine, I needed some time to think and I just got in my Pathfinder and started driving up I-15 from St. George.  My thoughts ranged from one thing to another.  Was I going to find another job? What would I do in the mean time?  How would I explain this to my wife and children?

Just 15 minutes up the road, I ended up in a familiar place, the ghost town of Silver Reef.  In my vehicle I wandered on the back roads of the old mining boom town and stopped when I decided it was time to take a hike, literally.

Silver Reef Utah
A model of Silver Reef, Utah as it was in the 1870's and 1880's.

Silver Reef is said to be the only place in North America were they've found silver inside of sandstone.  It's called a reef, because the sandstone has been forced on it's edge in a long, north to south, formation that looks somewhat like an ocean reef.

A high view looking down the Silver Reef formation.

I drove my SUV on a dirt road through a gap in the reef and cast my eyes on the red sandstone cliffs further west.

Silver Reef Ghost Town Box Canyon
Box Canyon near Silver Reef

I spied a canyon that wound to the north, a place where I might find some solitude.  I hopped across Quail Creek, a small stream that ran parallel to the reef, and forged through the brushy desert flora toward the box canyon.  Soon a sandy wash in the bottom of the canyon became my path, as it twisted and turned it's way toward the back of the gulch where I encountered three vertical walls.

Silver Reef dry waterfall
Dry waterfall in box canyon

The back wall was obviously a dry waterfall of approximately 150-plus feet, so I back tracked a bit and initiated a climb up the steep eastern slope.  At several levels I encountered layers of cap rock which forced me to find a crag or a slot to shimmy upward.  Finally I hit what appeared to be the last obstruction, a sheer wall that undulated across the face of the box canyon.  It was 30-40 feet high and there appeared to be no cracks that were wide enough, or safe enough to ascend.  I spotted one possible slot, so I worked my way to it, and forced my back and feet opposite each other within the slot, and stemmed upward.

Eastern cliff-side of box canyon.


Steep slope and cliff faces of eastern side of box canyon (left side of picture).

Stemming is an interesting technique because it requires you to have equal pressure on feet and back at all times, or you'll lose your friction control and go sliding at breakneck speed to your starting point.  Twice, at least, I slipped momentarily only to reconnect with a foot or hand on the wall to brace against the slip.  These events brought high doses of adrenaline,  but in my state of mind I was determined to succeed at this, as if trying to prove to myself that I could complete something so challenging.  The top of a stemming slot can be the toughest to negotiate as it begins to widen.  You've got to somehow find some handholds to anchor against as you pull yourself up and out.  Indeed this could be the place that is most dangerous if done incorrectly because the distance of the fall is at it's greatest point.  Thoughts of actually falling and being killed ran through my mind, and my imagination ran through the discussion of those who would find me.  "He lost his job, and came here and killed himself, apparently."  I did have some good life insurance and wondered whether my wife and family would indeed be better off without me. Such were some of the thoughts racing through my stressed brain at the time, even if the fall would have been entirely accidental.

Upper level of box canyon.

I managed to roll my body up and onto the main level.  Rising to my feet I could see the top of the dry waterfall was 50 yards to my left.  I was sweating from the exertion, even on this cool February day.   Scanning this upper terrain I could see where water would feed the dry fall from several washes that narrowed into slots as they ran from the surrounding rocky hills and cliffs.  I roamed the terrain, exploring the nooks and crannies, and paused in a slightly recessed area when I noticed an alcove that was approximately 10 feet long, four feet high, and filled with sand.  The thing that drew my attention, however, was the axe handle that was protruding from the sand.

A graphic representation of the axe handle in the sand. Actual ax that I found.

Now I was thinking of someone else that may have already died here.  It was a morbid thought but the head of the axe was buried deep in the sand.  With the assistance of a flat rock I began to excavate the sand around the handle in order to get it to budge.  At first it was like the sword Excalibur and would not move at all.  Finally I removed enough sand to get the axe to rotate forward and back, but I could tell that something was holding it back.  This reinforced my suspicion of a skeleton, but ultimately I found the handle of an old duffle bag was hooked over the blade.  I excavated further and removed an old pair of Levis Strauss pants, a blanket, a rusted coffee can, and the duffle bag.   The blanket and pants were riddled with holes.  Within the duffle bag I found a small pocket size New Testament book, and a map.  I'd like to say it was a treasure map, but it was a highway map with a date of 1954 on it.  This put a date to everything, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't dissappointed that it wasn't older, but still it was interesting.  It appeared to me that someone had been using this alcove, which was perfectly protected from rain, as a base from which to explore the area. Perhaps trying to prospect for more silver.

I gathered up the levis, the axe, coffee can, and bag, and found a different, and safer route back to my vehicle.  This whole experience had the effect of taking my mind away from the loss of my job, if only for a few hours, but the time in the southern Utah back country lent some healing to my soul, and perhaps cleared my head a bit for the journey ahead.

- The levis were too damaged to have any value, but I kept the axe and have used it around my house for the past 10 years.  The handle broke so I wrapped it in some tape, and continue to use it for small projects, though it could use a good sharpening.

The axe has been used around my house and I cracked the handle, but it still functions with a bit of tape wrapped around it.

- I returned twice this past week to try and find the alcove, but was unable to find it. Both times I started late and ran out of sunlight. Some photos in this post are from those two excursions.

- People have tried over the years to make the mines at Silver Reef produce like they did in the 1870's, but have not been sucessful.  Today you can tour the remains of this once booming mining town, and visit the local museum to see displays and interpretive information about this town that once was the largest in southwest Utah and a real part of the wild American West.