A little stretch of urban wilderness, City Creek Canyon’s winterscape should not be missed. But dress warmly
The epic Western Jeremiah Johnson was released in 1972. Starring Robert Redford, it tells the tale of a solitary soldier heading off into the wilderness to be a mountain man. As we learn in the film’s opening ballad, Johnson heads for the hills, “betting on forgetting all the troubles that he knew.” Filmed in various Utah locations, Redford’s character initially struggles, especially in his first winter alone.
It was with this mindset I set out for a cold City Creek Canyon hike in early December. I fancied myself a lone and stoic mountain man braving the elements for some unknown and higher cause.
This canyon is special to me. I live just a few hundred yards away and walk there often. It is a familiar and comforting place. When I’ve faced big life or career decisions, the canyon has provided me quiet and space to think. I’ve even considered spreading my remains there after I vamoose from this life.
But my City Creek Canyon memories are mostly from the warm weather months. The snow and the cold have always scared me away. This time, though, a winter adventure called out to me. I drew inspiration from this line early in the Jeremiah Johnson film, “The ghostly stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none.”
Now, in the film, Redford relies on the advice and guidance of Bear Claw, a grizzled mountain man. Luckily, I have a friend (without bear claws) who lives in the Memory Grove hamlet adjoining City Creek. He frequents the canyon often, regardless of the weather. He told me, “Winter hiking in City Creek offers more solitude—and I am often in a deficit of solitude. I find the sky, light and vistas from the hilltops more dramatic in the winter.”
City Creek Canyon also offers something truly unique: Location, location, location. Situated (roughly) behind the state Capitol and the Avenues district, I am continually amazed at how near the canyon is to downtown Salt Lake. Sometimes, when I think of the close proximity between buildings and nature, I am reminded of New York’s Central Park. One minute you are surrounded by urban trappings and then, just steps away, you can find yourself communing with nature.
This sense of solitude is magnified in the winter. I passed only a handful of hikers, bikers and joggers on my journey. I felt almost as if I had the canyon to myself. Without the distractions of a madding crowd, I was able to focus more keenly on things like the sound of rushing water or animal footprints in the snow. Just as the movie proclaims, a true mountain man is able to leave his life behind.
In the film, Redford kills, skins and eats many mountain creatures. I did not. However, as I came around a bend, I did see a woman staring into a thicket. She turned to me excitedly and said in a foreign-sounding voice, “Mink! Mink! Did you see the mink?”
But, sadly, I had only briefly seen a flash of something brown and furry. Without Jeremiah Johnson’s trusty .50 caliber Hawken rifle or my iPhone camera to snag it, the animal’s exact identity will forever remain a mystery.
Two miles into my City Creek Canyon hike, my mountain man intentions met reality. Although heavily layered, the cold eventually got to me. Reluctantly, I turned around and headed back to base camp. Unlike Redford in the movie, I didn’t encounter any eccentric Western characters on my journey, nor did I marry the daughter of a Native American chief or adopt an orphan. But I did see a Millennial vaping. So, there’s that.
I set out on this winter adventure hoping to summon forth and embrace my inner Jeremiah Johnson. I yearned to lose myself in the austere December beauty of a nearby and beloved canyon. And, for a spell, I did just that. I was able to see one of my favorite places cloaked in its winter apparel. But it wasn’t long before I realized I was less mountain man and more nebbish neophyte.
Once upon a time, in my past TV reporter life, I got to interview Robert Redford at Sundance, but apparently none of his Jeremiah Johnson vibe rubbed off on me. Lacking his old-school perseverance and adaptability to ever-changing hardships, I was ill-prepared for the sheer coldness of my adventure. Such is the saga of a mountain man. As the movie’s ballad cautions, “The story doesn’t always go the way you had in mind.”