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Jeff Martin—Going feral

Two long-distance solo hikes on the breathtaking Colorado Plateau took Martin into the vicinity of Canyonlands National Park, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell

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“There is not much sound down here, just the light crunch of my steps on the canyon floor’s natural gravel and the occasional scrape of my pack as it touches the walls.”

Going feral

It usually takes the Material Physics and Applications Division’s Jeffrey (Jeff) Martin at least a full week of long-distance backcountry hiking to leave civilization—and his side interests as a musician and nationally rated Scrabble player—far behind not only geographically but mentally and spiritually. Following a friend’s inspiration, Martin calls his special state of complete self‑reliance, deep inner tranquility and full immersion in nature “going feral.”

Two adventures especially stand out for Martin: a 46-day hike from Page, Arizona, to Moab, Utah, in 1997, which cut through the southeastern parts of the Colorado River drainage, and a 44-day reverse-direction trek from Moab to Page in 2013, which followed the river’s opposite flank.

The trips took Martin into the vicinity of world-famous Colorado Plateau sites such as Canyonlands National Park, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, but he made it a point to stay in the remotest regions—as far away from car, boat and raft travelers as possible—in order to maintain his solitary absorption in the landscape.

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“I actually had hoped to experience both hikes with friends,” Martin says, “but I found that there was a sense of freedom in hiking solo, and that it allowed me to more easily envelope myself in the wilderness experience. None of my hiking friends were able to leave their lives and jobs for an extended period of time in 1997, and David Gemeinhart, who had planned to do the 2013 hike with me to celebrate his recent retirement, was called away after the first few days because of a family emergency.”

Instead, Gemeinhart became part of Martin’s back-up support system and only rejoined him near the end.

The logistics of the month-and-a-half-long hike were a giant puzzle with many unknown and moving parts. Martin began planning the route immediately after the 1997 journey and made multiple scouting trips during subsequent years.

Martin had to figure out how to cross the Green River, for example; pick one of many possible routes through the Henry Mountains; and find ways to spend more time in the wilderness and less on dirt roads.

Martin could not find information on whether portions of his final path were actually doable, and he also intentionally left large sections unplanned to hone his explorer instinct. As he set off, a good bit of what lay ahead remained to be solved on the ground in real time, with the clock of water availability, food resources, potential bad weather, sickness, injury or exhaustion always ticking.

Day 15: Happy Canyon

By April 21, 2013—Day 15—Martin had successfully left Moab far behind and already had replenished his supplies at the first two of a string of carefully planned caches that Martin and Gemeinhart had planted before the start of the official hike.

The caches occasionally included water, but Martin had strict rules for this. A lot of the intended challenge for the hike was to get from one water source to the next in the arid country. To raise the stakes, he only had added water to caches that already had nearby water options, even if trampled by cows, so that any cache water was a luxury, not a necessity.

Just four days before, Martin had awoken to a snowy morning, but now he was inside Happy Canyon and found the name quite appropriate.

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“The trip finally was coming together for me in Happy Canyon,” Martin recalls. “It was a beautiful, clear day and my body had adjusted enough over the past two weeks that for the first time of the hike I felt physically strong.”

Martin was making his way down the magnificent wilderness canyon with a smile on his face and a special tune—his Happy Hiker song—running through his head. He had composed the song some years before, but it usually only pops up whenever he is in an especially great place and feels really good.


Listen to Martin play the Happy Hiker song on his guitar.

Martin believes that his wilderness happiness can be broken into three overlapping ingredients: rhythm, connectedness and flow.

“I have a sense of rhythm,” Martin explains, “when I begin to feel in tune with the rhythms of the natural world, the contours of the landscape and my own body. There’s the daily rhythm of the sun, for example, and the three-dimensional landscape provides a rhythm as well as I might hike up one canyon, over a pass, down another canyon, and so on, with my body echoing the terrain with a constant drumbeat of steps.”

Martin enjoys a feeling of connectedness when he becomes part of the natural setting around him rather than just passing through it. The junction between the land and his sense of self becomes more permeable and indistinct.

“Flow,” Martin adds, “involves a feeling of effortlessness and release of tension and my mind turning nonverbal and diffuse.”

As Martin proceeds through Happy Canyon’s “narrows,” the walls are so close together at times that he can touch both sets of walls simultaneously. At other times, the canyon slightly opens up into small chambers.
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“There is not much sound down here,” Martin notes, “just the light crunch of my steps on the canyon floor’s natural gravel and the occasional scrape of my pack as it touches the walls. But the character of the sound is unique. There’s an immediacy to it, with very close reflections off the rock. And when I stand still, there’s a deep quiet.”

Martin finds this section of Happy Canyon graceful and evocative.

“Pools of sunshine and dark shadow flood the narrows,” Martin says, “and often you find a spot of sunshine around a bend that can’t be seen directly, but whose reflections off the surrounding rock produce a warm glow as you approach. It’s as if the whole canyon is glowing from within. I feel a sense of mystery and anticipation as I walk through one chamber or passage to the next.”

A mile-and-a-half later Martin quietly emerges into a world of brilliant sunshine and the waters of the Dirty Devil River, his campsite for the night. Martin plunges into the stream and enjoys splashing around, but the Dirty Devil lives up to its name.

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“I think I ended up dirtier than before,” Martin smiles, “and the river ended up cleaner.”

Days 31 to 35: Escalante River

As Martin reaches the Escalante River on May 7, 2013—Day 31—unlike during much of the rest of the hike he is worried about having too much water rather than not enough.

“The Escalante pulses with a sense of underlying power, sometimes overt but just as often merely implied,” Martin says. “I found driftwood 40 or 50 feet above the river and became hyper-alert for flash floods. Anytime I heard a plane overhead, I stopped and listened closely to convince myself that the noise was not the rushing sound of an oncoming torrent.”

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Hiking on the Escalante’s banks for the next few days proves challenging in other ways. The sides of the river often are dense with brush, and sometimes the river flows flush with sheer cliffs. Martin finds it easier to walk in the water but ends up losing his footing a few times and takes an unplanned swim.

Ominously, the sky promises rain, and Martin camps as high above the Escalante as he can.

On Day 32, the river’s water level is about twice as high as the previous day—crotch-deep instead of knee-deep, with plenty of chest-deep sections, or deeper yet, interspersed with rapids. In addition, the river looks murky and carries a lot of debris.

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Walking along the Escalante is a perpetual riddle. Martin has to fight a path through brush or boulders and finally decides to take advantage of his backpack’s water-tight buoyancy by using the bag as a make-shift raft.

Martin puts the pack under his chest and sets sail, but not for long. He does not have a good way to steer, and although the pack is waterproof, the water resistance only works if the bag’s Velcro seams stay above the waterline. Martin is heading straight into a boulder-choked rapid and quickly abandons his nautical scheme.

Eventually, Martin begins to relax and enjoy the Escalante on its own terms. He arrives in Coyote Gulch, the Escalante River’s exit canyon, on Day 35.

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“I was sad to leave the wild magnificence of the Escalante,” Martin explains, “but Coyote Gulch, a gentler version of the Escalante, was a true gem on its own terms.”

Although Coyote Gulch, located in a remote section of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, is one of the most beloved hiking destinations in southern Utah, Martin still finds opportunities for solitude.

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“At one point it turned dead calm,” Martin says. “I stopped along the trail, closed my eyes and just listened. I could hear the faintest whisper of a critter rustling in the leaves somewhere and water flowing over smooth sand. It was one of those peaceful, magical canyon moments.”

Martin camps high up on a slickrock bench that night and slips back into the deeper backcountry the following morning.

But after Martin meets up with his friend David Gemeinhart on Day 42, with two days of hiking remaining, Martin begins his reentry into civilization. He is no longer feral.

Martin arranges to meet Gemeinhart at Warm Creek that evening and asks him to have some cold root beer ready.

“I never drink root beer in my regular life,” Martin laughs, “but for some reason that’s what I wanted, and it was soooo goooood!”

Martin works for the Material Physics and Applications Division’s Condensed Matter and Magnet Science group.

Photo captions for the slideshow at the very top of the page:

Slide 1-Martin. Slide 2-Millard Canyon (April 15, 2013). Slide 3-Henry Mountains (April 24). Slide 4-Pennell Creek flows through the Mancos Shale Badlands (April 28). Slide 5-Martin's favorite bathing spot during the 2013 hike (Pennell Creek, April 28). Slide 6-Muley Twist Canyon (May 1). Slide 7-Hamburger Rocks (May 1). Slide 8-View from the Kaiparowits Plateau (May 15). Martin walks along Warm Springs Road near the end of the trek (May 19, photo courtesy of David Gemeinhart).


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Employee Spotlight articles are solely those of the featured employees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Los Alamos National Laboratory.