This plaque is mounted on a boulder at the parking lot for the Negro Bill Canyon Trail (near Moab, Utah). It documents the 1995 death of two young men from Iowa. Their bodies were found in August of that year in an inconspicuous bowl on a ledge above the canyon. Their sad story is told in the sheriff's report, the source for the explanation offered here.
In August 1995, the men were vacationing in the Southwest and stopped in Moab to do some mountain biking. They had reported their progress to their families on a regular basis. The last time their families heard from them was when they called from Durango, Colorado on their way to Moab. When they failed to call home from Moab, families alerted the authorities and a search was initiated. About three weeks after being reported overdue, and after much searching by the sheriff's department, BLM personnel, and volunteers, the bodies of the men were spotted from a helicopter.
The report speculates about what happened. The main theme is that the men abandoned their bicycles on the Porcupine Rim Trail, perhaps due to mechanical damage or impaired judgement due to dehydration. Then, attempting to find a shortcut to the trailhead, they set off cross-country, traveled through some difficult, confusing terrain, and ended up in the bowl.
The bowl was a dead end, as it was perched on a ledge about 80 feet above a large rock shelf next to the hiking trail in the canyon. By the time they reached that spot they were likely too tired and delirious to retrace their steps. From the bowl it is about six miles (9 km) back to the trailhead via their cross-country route and the Porcupine Rim Trail. Via an obscure trail leading down into the canyon, it's half that distance to the trailhead.
Their relaxed postures in the bowl suggest that they had just laid down to rest and never got up. Neither body had any signs of external or internal injuries. There is only one way they could have descended to the bowl without injuring themselves---via the nearby steep rock slope where the gradient allows one to carefully walk or slide down. It is unknown if they tried to shout for help, but they were close enough to the trail in the canyon that a normal shout could have easily been heard by anyone in the canyon nearby. In August, there is not a lot of hiking activity there due to the heat.
A cruel irony concludes the story. From the rock shelf below their position, it takes about 35 minutes to hike to the trailhead and the route is mostly easy walking.
The death site is at the center of this WikiMapia aerial view.
I heard about this sad story somewhere on the World-Wide Web and got interested in learning more because it sounded as if the deaths occurred in an area I was familiar with from my hikes in and around the canyon.
On a trip to Moab I visited the Grand County Library, where I looked at microfilm records of the local paper. This yielded little detail about the episode but did lead me to the nearby office of the Grand County Sheriff. There I paid nine dollars for a copy of the official report, which tells the tale in detail and has photographs showing the empty bowl from several angles.
The photographs, together with the textual description ("about two miles up Negro Bill Canyon") gave me a good idea about the bowl's location: above a large rock shelf in the canyon, a shelf known to local hikers but probably not to many people from out of town. To confirm my suspicion I hiked to a point above the canyon in the Sand Flats Recreation Area, from which I could clearly see the little bowl on the far side of the canyon. It was about where I had suspected it was.
Once I made this discovery, I realized that I had already been very close to the bowl on a hike I did in the fins on the far side of the canyon. The spooky feeling of having been near the bowl without knowing its significance prompted me to see how close I could get to the bowl before my fear of heights kicked in. On a later hike I got quite close to the bowl but could not see it due to the shape of the terrain.
This experience made me more sensitive to the notion that every day, people pass places where others have died---without knowing about those deaths