“It’s a terrible route, and no-one should try it,” says Mike Coronella. We’re sitting in a burger joint in Moab, and I’ve just asked him what message he’d like to pass on to future Hayduke hikers. He laughs. “No, I’d tell them to do their homework. This route is not like the triple crown trails. Be ready to come off the route a completely different person.”
Mike Coronella is the co-creator, along with Joe Mitchell, of the 800-mile Hayduke Trail. The impetus to create such an intense, arduous, transcendental backcountry route through Utah and the Grand Canyon came in the nineties, when Mike was fresh from a divorce.
“I needed eighty days in the desert,” he says. Those eighty days turned into several long trips over a number of years, gathering route information (“Some of these canyons,” says Mike, “we had no idea if they were passable. We had to find out for ourselves”) water information (“The Dirty Devil river ruined us. We were so sick from that water. We flagged down a jeep, but all they had was beer”) and making mistakes (“Joe was braver than I was, when it came to exposure. We looked at the descent, and not even he was comfortable with it. We ended up spending the night at the top. Of course there was no water). The end result of these adventures is the Hayduke Trail- a route so remote, difficult, and logistically complicated (as far as permits, resupplying and water sources go) that it’s unlikely that it will ever be anything other than what it is- a trail that exists not on the ground, but in the minds and imaginations of maybe a dozen hikers per year.
“Not while I’m alive,” says Mike, when I ask him if the Hayduke will ever be the sort of route that has trail signs. “I’ll rip them out myself.” I ask Mike if he has any plans to update the guidebook, parts of which are now outdated, or to gather the beta that’s scattered across all corners of the internet into one comprehensive source.
“No,” says Mike, as he rolls up his fish tacos. “I like it just the way it is. It’s not a trail. It’s an idea. I love all the variations. It’s not the JMT. It’s an individual experience, and a way to get your butt kicked. That’s what the desert is for.”
He wants to remind hikers, however, to pick up their caches. “I got a call from a ranger once. He found a cache that hadn’t been picked up, and he called me.”
Mike’s lived in Moab for twelve years- his house is right on the official Hayduke route through town.
“Sometimes I see someone walk by with a big backpack,” he says, “When I’m in my yard. I ask em if they’re on the Hayduke. ‘Yeah,’ they say. ‘You’ve heard of it?'”
Mike runs a guide service called Deep Desert Expeditions, and also works with Search and Rescue. He’s also involved in local land use politics, and works for more protection of undeveloped wilderness-quality areas. “Cows in the desert are inappropriate,” he says. “That’s why I stopped eating beef.” We finish our lunch, and Dan, Mike and I step out into the blinding Moab sunshine. “Thousands of eighteen wheelers come right through town,” says Mike, as a semi-truck rattles past on the narrow highway that serves as a main street of sorts in Moab. “It’s the most direct route for them.” He’s going out on the Colorado river with Search and Rescue later tonight. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says.
“Thanks for creating the Hayduke,” I say. I’m not sure how else to show my gratitude, my appreciation for the trust and generosity inherent in sharing such a route with the world, or at least with the few dedicated long-distance hikers who actually want to wander across the (generally waterless) hardscrabble Colorado Plateau for two whole months. What is wilderness, and who gets to access it? And what does it mean to protect an area? Sometimes I think that hiking and learning about an area gives me more of a connection to the land, and that writing about these connections help inform our current, urban culture. Wouldn’t a more land-based culture and spirituality save us all from this thing that we’re hurtling towards at the speed of light? And sometimes I think it’s too late, and that there’s nothing anymore to be done. Humans are gonna be humans, and eventually the earth will crush us all, and heal itself. Maybe the only way to say ‘thanks’ to the creators of the Hayduke is to pack out my caches, and to respect the desert. And to generally not be an asshole. It may not be the answer to everything, but it’s the best I can come up with, for now. Thanks Mike!