"Revealing my deepest thoughts to a visitor one evening, I was accused of being against civilization, against science, against humanity. Naturally I was flattered.... With his help I discovered that I was not opposed to mankind but only to mancenteredness, anthropocentricity, the opinion that the world exists solely for the sake of man."
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire.
A tattered map exists in my garage. Hanging on the wall it displays the canyonlands of southern Utah. This map hung in my childhood home, a relic of my youth it was given to me when I ventured out from the safe cradle of home. It is in a gross state of disrepair, slowly disintegrating like the landscape it portrays. The plastic laminate that covers it is cracking, weathered under intense desert heat, its corners are folded and bent, full of pin holes from having to constantly re-attach it to the wall, a victim of violent spring winds hurtling across the landscape. What I find most enduring about this map is its lack of boundaries, its completeness, its truth. It is void of the obtuse margins which signify terrain belonging to the BLM, private entities, Reservations, National Parks, State Trust Lands, Recreation Areas, Primitive Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, etc. Mankind is exceedingly proficient at few things - one of them is drawing artificial boundaries on the earth, shading areas with different reliefs and hues to designate some man-made conception reality. A false cartography, these lines speak to our collective anthropocentrism, a parceled patchwork each color endowed with a unique set of rules and litigatory excess.
The map in my garage is glaring in that it is primitive and carries none of the popular designations found on its more modern brethren. No scenic turnouts, viewpoints, campgrounds, ferry crossings, points of interest or anything else outside of its originally intended purpose. I stare at this map as I leave my house every morning, heading out into the world. It speaks to me of the natural order of things, the way things are, not how we want them to be. Sometimes I simply walk right up to it and stare. My gaze hones in on places known, spots where I have labored and spots where I have stool still. And then, inevitably, my mind turns to synergy as my finger traces the tortuous path of a canyon, the surge of a silty stream; and suddenly I'm somewhere else, another locale altogether, yet one intimately known. Moving with the geography feels more honest and I year for connectedness.
It was this yearning that served as a catalyst for this trip
A unique opportunity arose - one which gave purpose to my desire to move through the desert uninhibited. On September 12th, 2014, Canyonlands National Park turned 50 years old. A good friend, a fellow lover of all spaces arid and lonely and who himself has a similar map in his living room agreed that something had to be done, that this particular moment could not pass unnoticed. To properly pay tribute it only felt right to experience the park in an authentic fashion; to undertake a journey that honored the landscape as it is, not how we wish it to be. A small but personal act of rebellion - our path forward would be informed by the contours of the earth and the flow of rivers - a journey though all three districts of the park, woven together by the interstitial spaces; seldom used corridors of travel in addition to known trails and even roads. While acknowledging the ethos evident in the ideal of our National Parks, this trip was also largely a quiet quest for a more holistic, more formative, understanding of place.
A plan was hatched, a timeline decided upon, a name given "Loop de Loop" and the tinder of desire lit with the spark of action.
It starts with little more than a fleeting glimpse. The landscape we know so well shrouded by quick moving curtains of fog - an offshoot of a violent storm far afield to the west. Eager to begin, we take a moment to contemplate our good fortune, our glass half full so to speak, as we envision freshly topped off tinajas easing the burden of our travel, playing perpetual host to the weary traveler
Knobs sprout up in the fog - one of the few places Navajo sandstone makes an appearance at iSky.
We eventually come to a sheer precipice and with it the suggestion of a landscape quickly becomes a concrete reality as clouds begin to clear. Landmarks emerge on the earth and we become rooted in our knowledge of this place. We know where we are. We know where we are going.
And while our itinerary is hurried, we find brief pockets to connect on a deeper level. Brief reflections that string together a singular experience. It can be hard to do, but its so important once in a while to stop, sit still, listen and shake the mind out of the point A to B tyranny and instead follow the path of a different meaning.
When freed from that logistical thinking, things such as a lone juniper high on a ridge become transformed, tethering us to an all together other meaning and conceit.
The woodblock print below is a composite of the image above it and below it. For more - see: http://www.waterpocketpress.com/art/
At a crux descent we find a rare expose fracture in the Wingate, a feasible route to the underworld. We move carefully. The sandstone is steep and slick, the cementum that binds this place full of moisture, loose, ready to break away. With purposeful steps we descend.
We eventually reach the river corridor. The transformation begins.
I glance down at the picnic table and see this.
We pull the rafts out of packs, eager for a break from walking and a change in forward momentum, an alteration in the way we experience our surroundings.
It is early afternoon by the time we get on the water. We still have many miles ahead of us for the day, but the going is much easier in the boats vs. under the burden of our packs.
We get a momentary reprieve from the endless gray of earlier and get cocky. Shorts and bare arms make an appearance. All that is missing from this river trip is cold beer.
Hours fall away in the mindless momentum on unending paddle strokes. My partner and I expand and contract from one another during that time. My mind wandering in places near and far a sudden up canyon winds brings me back to the present. I look around and out of nowhere realize that once again we are socked in. Within minutes the rain begins to hammer down again.
My legs begin to cramp - the transition from a 10+ mile hike to hours spent in a stationary position in the boat begins to take its toll. I've also neglected to take the time to grab a a bite to eat, not wanting to break my paddle strokes. Suddenly I'm tired, hungry, and sore. All expected trappings of a trip like this. As we approach camp the mood changes and we are greeted with this as the rain stops.
The weather suddenly more friendly we pull into a small break in the canyon, erecting camp in the fading light of day. We have good protection from the elements and ample room to lay gear out to dry. Its been a long day, some thirty miles from where we started. We take a moment to reflect on our surroundings. Both longtime lovers of rivers, Chad and I look down at our camp and contemplate the site of a shoreline with no 14' rafts parked and bobbing gently in the water, loaded down with heaps and heaps of gear. It is a revelation, an evolution, one that excites both of us talk turns what is possible with these small crafts - the adjoining of known locations by foot and now boat. Barriers to travel and artificial borders mean little in these talks - rather our travel can exist in a more honest fashion; one that hugs the topography both natural and man-made in complete fashion. As the stars slowly ignite we await in eager anticipation the following day and the first border we will cross.
Early morning riverside. Any clouds have long since vanished and the canyon walls seem to stretch up to meet the sun.
The river is running crimson red, taking on an oil slick like sheen with the ensuing entropy brought down by yesterdays rain.
We wear the groove of routine; stove is ignited, water boiled, coffee made. From our perch we stare down at the river. Reflecting I talk about traveling this section, moving up-river via jet-boat from the Maze and Chad talks about floating through here passing via raft with little more than hasty consideration - together our attention spans at that time dedicated to altogether other destinations whether they be the boat launch at Potash or the raging torrents of Cataract Canyon.
On the Colorado Plateau there is much forgotten land, places that exist as afterthoughts as we move to those spots of universal recognition. We take a moment to think about what this trip is about - that it is precisely these corridors that we have come to see, that allow us to stitch together a movement pattern that is inclusive, rather than exclusive. We pack up and begin our climb out of the river canyon.
Small cairns show up here and there. I smile, aware that this is not an "official route" in any sense of the word. I see these clumps of stone as a shared embrace from kinsman, acolytes, in the church of Kelsey - they whisper on the land like passwords unlocking a connected egress of travel.
We traverse vertical bands of sharp rock, eventually reaching a long rock shelf we head a few small inlets.
Not wanting to deal with the silty water at camp I walked away from certain water with little in my bottle. Thinking that there would be plenty to find with the previous days rain I soon run out. Exploring a cropping of boulders we find a few small tanks as I kneel down my wide mouth Nalgene through the soupy puddle. I am eager to keep moving but quickly learn that this practice is a study in patience. Shallow in nature I must be still with focused movement in order to skim off water absent the wet sand lying near the surface. It is also irritatingly slow as long passes with my bottle do not work either. Landscape as teacher - a good reminder of the merits of slowing down.
Higher up, the bedrock is a repository for water. It always feels wrong in the hot desert to walk past clear pools of water slowly vaporizing under the sun - but our bellies and bottles are full.
And in the distance, known landmarks beckon us on!
After a while the stimulating trail-less ambling changes to a mindless drudgery as we touch down on a road snaking through the desert. My gaze turns to my feet and annoying childish songs (something about a fellow named John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt) begin reverberating in my head as I begin counting my foot steps. This cannot go on ad infinitum and we soon take a break in the name of "art" under a shady juniper.
One road begets another this time with some friendly gas powered assistance from a college student on break. Our footsteps seem to get more hurried as we are eager to find dirt.
Pausing briefly at this sign, we are glad the park is getting its due so to speak. A myriad of ways to do so we are satisfied with our particular choice of paying homage.
Looking at this placard something deep moves in me, crying out. Cynical in nature it forces me to reflect on how ridiculous this all is. 50 years. 50 years in a landscape whose age is marked in the billions. What are we honoring? The 50 years we've "recognized" this place? The landscape that comprises Canyonlands cares little about the accolades we throw at it; simply existing year after year, millennia after millennia I cant help feel as if everything man-made here - the roads, trails, fence posts, and information signs are anything but permanent. That this place will continue simply existing, altered only by the blowing wind and flowing rivers. Maybe, in the long run, this place will be better, healthier, without us and the boundaries we place on it. Maybe our modern day sense of environmentalism stems more from some intrinsic desire, a survival instinct, to prolong our habitation than it does for any true love of place. Maybe the best way to love and honor the earth is to realize that it would ultimately be better off without us.
Not even a month removed from the anniversary of my third decade on this planet I can't help but be influenced by experiences that have occurred earlier in the year. Six months prior I had a moment of insight listening to a small river slowly erasing a legacy of hubris - the high water mark of Lake Powell - in the lower canyons of the Dirty Devil. Four months later I was caught in the most violent storm of my life on the Colorado River, one that could have ended very badly; one where I felt but a small surge of the planet's power.
As I write this news is filtering in from Nepal where an earthquake has struck. Tectonic plates underlying the region moved a distance of what one meteorologist likened to the width of two dinner plates sitting side by side. The death toll at this time sits at 8000. What does it mean?
To me and my angst ridden state, one that is very much aware of the losses we have suffered uniquely here in the desert SW, it means an evolution of perspective. One that sees me now finding comfort in the world going black. I choose to rebel against my species' Darwinian view of empire. I find solace in devolution, in the laws of entropy inscribed into the very fabric of the natural world - of the galaxy -that govern in a fashion impartial to the wonders of our hand.
Today we look at the world as a sculptor looks at stone and in doing so forget the natural order of things. We are victims only to our limited capacity to reason beyond the infantile span of our own lives, unable to think like Aldo Leopold's Mountain we doom ourselves with a misguided motivation
I get lost in my head staring at the sign and looking over realize my companion is out of sight. I will have time to think about these things later I tell myself and take off.
Back on the trail our movement becomes more natural - traveling in a geographically sensical fashion. Water is abundant and provides reprieve for our weary legs on several occasions. With the light beginning to fade we temper our desire of relaxing in camp in the magic hour to the reality of walking under night sky. A fair compromise.
On the trails at an atypical part of the day the people-less paths and unique light provide for wonderful walking.
We pour ourselves into slick-rock bowls only to spill out the other side awash in a cotton candy pink sea of stone. A landscape of whimsy, comprised of Dollhouses and Mazes I feel like a little child standing in the candy isle screaming for more.
Water can still be found in the must unexpected places. We smile as we pass.
It happens all together too quickly as day passes into night. Abbey's rhetorical truth of the headlight does not work here:
“There's another disadvantage to the use of the flashlight: like many other mechanical gadgets it tends to separate a man from the world around him. If I switch it on my eyes adapt to it and I can see only the small pool of light it makes in front of me; I am isolated. Leaving the flashlight in my pocket where it belongs, I remain a part of the environment I walk through and my vision though limited has no sharp or definite boundary.”
For us the route finding necessitates some form of light as we begin traversing slick-rock while dark ominous cathedrals of stone sprout above us. I am in the absolute present, focused on the ground 3-5 feet in front of me, neon white light sweeping the landscape for the lifeline of a cairn. Coming to a ladder at the edge of a sheer cliff I am glad my "ultralight" (aka weak) headlight can not illuminate just how far the canyon bottom is. Chad goes first as I watch his small focal point of light drown in the darkness below me.
We friction walk up atop a large stone porch and what starts as a quick map consultation becomes a full on packs off rest stop. As I attempt to find some food I hear Chad shout "HOLY SHIT!" - which startles me. I look over to see him gazing into the distance, an inverted red hot parabola having just emerged from behind pinnacles of stone. We sit for a long while, still and quiet as the moon rises higher. As it does so dozens of small pockets of water fill with refracted light. I think about boatman of the Grand Canyon, people who know the river intimately, who profess that the best time to scout, to read the water, is when the river is lit by moonlight. It always seemed like a mystical prophecy to me, something cool to say more than an absolute truth. But here, now, I find myself thinking about water in the desert and what moonlight can do atop its shimmering surface in contrast to the deep shadows found in dark places far from cities.
We would learn a few days later via a crisp glossy photo and small caption that this was an ultra special unique moon rise. A combined "Blood-Harvest-Super-Moon." My initial reaction to this bit of information is one of curiosity. One in which I found myself thinking about our eagerness to label and wondering if a "regular" moonrise were too boring? Too pedestrian an act? For Gawd sakes, why can't a moonrise simply be a moonrise?
We eventually make our camp in the early morning hours being no worse for wear. My legs are tired and joints creaky. Yesterday had been a long day and the coming day longer yet. We rise later than we'd like.
The first part of the day is enjoyable - good hard pack and friendly hikers who're perplexed to see paddles peeking out from packs in the middle of the desert.
At mid-day we reach a cool shaded nook and tuck into it for a a formal rest break. Mid September feels to me hotter than it should be. I could stay here all day and just be still. I could also wallow in my exhaustion and let my mind dive deep down the rabbit hole - knowing we are still under halfway for today's mileage.
Knowing it can be dangerous to sit for too long we begin moving, following the thoughtless sterility of a web of jeep roads.
Getting back on a small trail provides a boost of excitement. Far in the distance a landmark towers above the desert imbuing my steps with a new found sense of purpose as fatigue and pain fall away in a newly resilient psyche.
After a few hours of open walking we pass through a narrow pinch of shark rock and in the hazy distance another we spy an exclamation mark on the landscape
Looking back up canyon at the rocky descent.
We reach the rivers edge and tear packs off for a reprieve from the relentless heat. I actually have a hard time keeping my eyes open and must force myself to perk up and inflate my boat. Weather it is fatigue or an overconfident error I decide my half full water bottle is "enough" and pass on the muddy river water.
We cross the river and get a helping hand from a overly kind group of gents. The landing is a bit tricky in that is steep with little to hold onto and we are grateful for the assistance. We've stumbled onto a camp far superior than the opportunistic hardscrabble we've become accustomed too. Shade, a camp table, chairs, and tents are home to a supremely relaxed and friendly troop. They provide us with fresh water and in my desire to be polite I take little (though they have much and are offering more being at the end of their trip). We chat for a while about their journey and ours - different in mode but akin in purpose. I reflect on the idea of connectedness - realizing that my original desire at the outset of this trip, to experience a physical completeness of the landscape was naive in its scope. It overlooked the connectedness of community, of fellow travelers, those we meet when we're out who exist in a state of controlled awe in what they see - tethering our collective experiences to a potentially shallow sole geographic conceit. We are part of this place, our journeys defining the land as the land defines us - connection. Stories shared, the memories of landscape permeate the physical, coloring our collective perception of place. I don't want to leave. This group is overtly friendly, they speak our language and are high on the narcotic of experience at the tail end of a great outing. But we must bid farewell and begin climbing.
Our rationale brains again begin to ring out, quickening our step under an immense load as we climb. We realize last light is not far off. But slowly, and sooner than days prior, we say fuck it, take off our packs and gaze out. It has taken a while for us - for me - to get to this place, an easing of convention that has little meaning out here. The landscape is constantly talking to us, and reminding us of the idiocy of so many of the dictatorial edicts of daily life. It shouldn't come as a surprise that these moments, when the whisper turns to a shout, are the most beautiful and offer up the greatest sense of reflection. They serve as antidote to a mindless striving.
In a meditative stillness we watch fat shadows reflected on canyon walls elongate as we tamp down expectations are become content with where we are.
Some realities are hard to shrug off - for me this is lack of water (again). The climb out the canyon was accompanied by a large amount of perspiratory effort and I am thirsty. I am upset at my kindness back down at the canoe camp and wish I had topped of my bottles. On the positive side dusk is an absolutely wondrous time to move through the desert.
Once again, my worries are a bit unwarranted as we find a small collection of water right on the road we are traversing. A good excuse to sit still we're both exhausted but content and oh so close to our camp.
There have been times on this particular outing, when I've felt as if I were living a manifested version of a Bob Dylan song. His 117th Dream, Tombstone Blues, Highway 61 Revisited, at least. I awoke one night in the desert, to find a friend asleep atop a half inflated boat. No water in sight for miles I took it as a sign that I was losing a piece of myself, a merging of sorts with a more elemental world. Momentarily terrified, I found myself catching my breath before returning to sleep.
In no particular hurry, aligning ourselves less with prescribed notion of travel and increasingly comfortable with a redefinition of our days we lag in camp in contemplative fashion. In the distance we spy our end destination for the coming day - a promontory of rock rising up high above a flat expanse of desert.
Sitting from our vantage atop the maze, scanning the horizon, it is easy to understand the connectedness of landscape, how this place, formed slowly over millenniums, has a natural continuity that exists outside bureaucratic bounds. From the Orange Cliffs, to Ekker Butte and the White Rim, to the canyons of the Green and Colorado separated by the stone peninsula of Island in the Sky, to the Needles, and in the distant haze, serving as bookends, the La Sals, Henry's and Abajos. Tied together as one geographically united landscape this chunk of the Colorado Plateau defies our modern day interpretation, flying the in the face of how we would like to shape the world.
My mind naturally turns to the idea of a Greater Canyonlands National Monument, and I ask myself - "why haven't we done this yet?" As I look out this question resonates deeply from somewhere inside of me, somewhere new, a whisper becoming a roar, it comes from a place less concerned with the self serving notion of protecting a place out of some deluded notion of a nature moment and more to do with returning an a truth to our world.
It doesn't take long to drop down into the Maze proper, stretching our legs and shaking off a still acidic discomfort under a tranquil morning sun.
We soon find water and though we have been walking less than an hour, act more off of feeling than any sort of measured nuanced sense of an itinerary. There is something about this little shaded nook housing a steady trickle of water flowing over fluid stone that forces us to stop - a quiet intimacy existing in such a harsh environment - the miniscule hands of an architect shaping enormity.
More art is created, memories of place sewn together forming a patchwork of experience. I think about how enjoyable this trip has been so far, the various ways different modes of travel have informed our interactions with the landscape. We go from the the lazy pace of river travel to focused route finding to the mindless slog of road walking to the peaceful contemplation of trail walking. Not to say one is better (well some are better than others) than the other but to be on a trip where all parts equal a unified whole is new to us and quite enjoyable.
We stay high, wrapping ourselves in shade as long as possible.
It does not last for long and soon we touch down into the verdant canyon bottom.
Soon we come upon a well known piece of rock art - one slowly succumbing to time, fading into the rock from which it sits. I walk a hiker made trail along the cliff face scanning for more echoes of another world, another time. Most are faint, some still shine though. My curiosity devours me. In places like these it is so easy to become frantic, to search for breadcrumbs, but I've learned that the best approach is to be still and just look.
Across from the main panel we find solace under a lone tamarisk. Gazing we snack on our food and I am supplanted in a landscape spooled in memory, the thread of place unwinding across generations. I've been here before, taken in this quiet power with loved ones in the past, my conception of placed colored by memory. Like those that created the work before me I share the trait of migration. I have departed only to return, drawn here for a reason outside myself.
Pressing on we follow a convoluted web of canyons and side canyons as we move in a northerly fashion. Water is plentiful and again a lagging sense of guilt overrides our movement. Clear and running we feel it is sacrilege to let this flowing water go to waste - we have the mentality of a dam builder! Rounding a corner another landmark in our travels makes itself known, calling out to us.
We find ourselves at the intersection of yet another canyon and taking a turn we start scanning the surrounding cliffs for any hint of a way out. The White Rim formation looms large and somewhere under its patient guise an exit looms. Chad seems especially adept at reading the contours, deciphering the language of the land with little difficulty he leads, following a dry stream bed as I follow.
Up high, hugging the northern most lip of the canyons of the Maze, the walking is sublime. We are again left to our own devices as we move in a more honest fashion following the tortuous descent of a canyon as it makes its way to the Green River.
This trail is hardly used anymore. It is another corridor, a relic of a bygone past, a connection to an older time. One aspect I find fascinating is the cairn building ethos of these more obscure trails. They differ greatly from those found on well known paths. Hiking through the Needles a few days prior I was struck by the size and intricacy of some of the cairns - like loud explanation marks on the earth. Here, scattered cairns do exist, sometimes they may be a single dark rock out of place on an expanse of pink sand. Further, these cairns are spaced at great distances from one another, giving the hiker a chance to breath and look around at his surroundings, to see the world he is moving through in contrast to searching out the next pile of rock.
All the while we move towards the termination of an angular point in the White Rim formation. At first, as we climb out of the drainage, it seems so far away but walking step by step we reel it in. Turning a corner the world drops off. Grandview Point suddenly looms large on the horizon giving our movement context, connectivity.
Somehow, for the first time in days, we arrive at camp before dark. Situated high atop the Green River we revel in our perch at lands end. Camp is slow to erect due to the overwhelming awe we feel as the last light of day slips slowly out of the canyon. Cooking dinner under a vivid Milky Way the big dipper points the way we travel tomorrow. An astounding silence is pierced by Chad's quiet reflective statement, "well this just confirms I don't need to live anywhere else on the planet."
From our ledge we look down at the mighty river. Stars stir in the rippling current, churning in and out of eddies as they're carried south with the resolute flow of the Green - bound for an artificial impoundment behind that wedge of cement near Page. As I gaze out I can't help but feel that the night sky - its inspiring visage, a glimpse of the infinite - is our most democratic of wonders, requiring little more than a willingness to dim that incessant glow of industry.
In the morning I arise early. My world is silent, punctuated momentarily by the jet engine hum of my small stove which heats the requisite morning coffee. I sit up still blanketed in my sleeping bag to see the first spots light touches down - crimson stone ramparts fortified in a slumbering desert.
And soon, as if signifying the very path we are to travel, a small outcropping of the White Rim is the first to be ignited in our vicinity.
As is always the case, this delicate light inspires various forms of recognition - sketching in this case - early start and mileage be damned!
We begin the day in eager fashion, particularly excited about the piece of desert we are about to travel. Our schoolboy enthusiasm is quickly tempered by a harsh reality. The going is going to be much tougher than what we had initially imagined. No "beta" existed for this portion of the trip in our planning phase. Before the day would end I would re-learn a vital lesson. Naivety, possibly motivated by a creeping cabin fever and long winter nights pierced by the artificial glow of computer screens, can transform what looks easy and continuous via a zoomed in Google Earth to an altogether different reality.
Today we walk through hell. What should have been an easy and straightforward (literal and figuratively) walk is anything but. Three large canyon systems with many tendril like heads cut madly west from the Green across our fictional landscape. Two of them will require overland walking completely to their head, all while scrambling into and out of a myriad of drainage off-shoots while navigating piles of scree searching for breaks in the cliff bands. Its hot and water is nowhere to be found. The mental game weighs heavily and it becomes paramount (again) to not let this new found reality sink too deeply into the fragile psyche.
Some of us have more energy than others. My partner blazes a pace that is hard to emulate and I wonder (from afar) if he feels as good as he seems to or if he moving out of a sense of frustration, wanting to clear this latest hurdle out of sheer will, bending the landscape to his relentless drive to reach places far afield. I try to keep up, oddly inspired.
We add untold miles onto the day, floundering under intense mid day and sweating profusely. At one canyon system we have to walk nearly completely inland to the base of the White Rim in order to head it. Again, this place reminds us not only who is in charge but how futile tight itineraries can be.
At one point we find literally the one sole boulder that provides a sliver of shade in an otherwise punishing landscape. We take a moment to collect ourselves. As I look out I am met with a blank stare, a blistering benevolence, merciless as the heat of day. It is the watchful gaze, utterly authentic, of an implacable indifference. It is an all together different experience being here in comparison to areas more frequented by visitors. Lonesome in a sense and slightly terrifying with a budding realization of how insignificant we truly are. Maybe, in this notion of utter irrelevance, the implied value of wilderness is formalized; particularly here in the desert.
More than any other landscape I know the story of the planet is written here in a language epochs old, scrawled in deep time it is a vernacular mankind can never truly know or understand. What is implied, overwhelmingly, is a sense of force, the force of creation that predates our place on the planet, existing in a way that is not compatible with life as we know it. Today we'd like to believe that our story is the only story, that we are the center - for the belief that rain follows the plow still seems to pervade our thinking, especially here in the west. But I can't help but feel we are an afterthought of a tale whose beginning and end do not include us, a momentary blip on the cosmic scale. Ultimately I find piece in this notion, a realization that all of our continued transgressions, the heart-breaking litany of loss that seem to continue unabated will eventually mean little in the long run. That the planet absent us, will heal itself.
Aldo Leopold stated "Only the Mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf." It is precisely this wisdom that we cannot begin to fathom; to think outside the infantile time spans of our own lives and ultimately realize empire is only possible because of the world we inhabit. In this inability I now see an inevitable truth; what Yeats titled the Second Coming, one where our sentiment of dominion is what Horace Smith deemed the only shadow the desert knows. And yet I am not sad or despondent in this new view, rather I find much comfort. There was a time in my life when I was a member of movements, an actor in a cast; I had angst about it all. But no longer. And out here in the cool shade of this boulder, surrounded by an absence of human presence, I see now that my own conception of my place in time and the corresponding sense of relief is most bolstered by that which we've deemed wilderness.
Feeling like an imposter I take the lead. Behind Chad and to the right the sanctuary boulder mentioned above.
Crossing the second drainage for the day, known icons appear on the landscape, buoys on a vast sea of uncertainty they prod us forward.
At one point after many hours of walking I look back to see my companion with his pack off sketching something under the blistering heat of a late afternoon sun. I scratch my head, exhausted and can't help but wonder if the whole reason for this twisted experiment, the pinnacle of all our evolutionary potential, that most unique of human abilities, is to sit momentarily still and take it in, the created admiring the creation. Maybe that is why we all keep coming back, moved by something buried deeply in our most basic genetic code.
We leapfrog one another, often taking different paths forward as my partners moves with a conviction born of purpose.
We reach one final canyon system and take a moment to ascertain the path of least resistance. Many tendrils shoot off in a southerly fashion and we consult the map for guidance. In doing so, the ridiculousness of it all comes fast and furious. Without knowing it we have crossed another border, now, briefly, in a remote corner of GCNRA. I do a quick circle, scanning my surroundings, and muster a small laugh. It seems so childish, chopping up corners of the world to match some subjective schematic, a fabricated legitimacy we use for what end? To reassure ourselves of our perceived authority? Again it rushes back in - how can Greater Canyonlands not happen? Because what exists now is a joke.
Eventually, the landmark we've been yearning to spot finally makes an appearance atop a bulbous knot of land on rivers edge.
We crest one last draw and suddenly a defiant river courses through the desert, revealing itself with a subdued grace that stands in stark opposition to the hours of toil we emerge from. I curl my lips in a salty smile for this new reality means many things, chief among them nourishment and a long overdue form of locomotion.
As if our situation could not improve any more than it already has we pass by the rear of a boulder and feast our eyes upon the following scene. Smattered helter-skelter on the flat surface some have certainly dealt better with the ravages of time than others.
Having traveled the old cowboy route cross country leading to this stoney monument to a much older time we offer our story, our tale of travel to this landscape. Connection runs strong and looking at the chiseled figures I cant help but imagine that we are looking at overlapping eras, a coming and going of a mobile people, who for whatever reason wanted to signify this spot, weather in passing or as a more central tenet of place. I cannot know, I do not want to know. For the mystery is paramount. The tale of man's place - our collective understanding of how we relate to the physical world - is best extolled in the ambiguity of mysticism.
My perception of this art taking on a religious like meaning may be completely wrong headed. But in this line of thinking I always enjoy the sentiment of the ancient, one where it seems that physicality; the planet, seasons, animals etc. seemed to comprise the spiritual. It is not a wholly naive view; I know the great houses of Chaco were stuffed with a material wealth, that the elite class were largely comprised of religious overseers but none-the-less I can't help but see a democracy of proximity to the celestial, a realization that what is divine is not found far overhead but underfoot.
A cruel joke. The river lies so close, yet we cannot reach it. We rush a thick tamarisk blockade but are pushed back - various pieces of gear falling out of the holes ever increasing in size in my backpack. Luckily Chad is behind me to pick up my yard sale-ing equipment.
We take a moment and figure out a course of action. We do not want to back-track, it just feels wrong, but as we scan the riverbank the tammies look impenetrable .
It's funny how, looking back, just how lucky we were during this trip. What was at the time an incredibly frustrating experience was actually quite fortuitous. By being forced to backtrack and down climb into a small canyon that we then followed to the river we found a small inlet of water that provided silt free cold water which we were able to filter. Both of us essentially out of water not wanting to deal with the chocolate milk stew of the main channel this was pure luck. It is around 6pm by the time we get on the water - we are far behind schedule for the day and as we pump our boats very little can be heard as we are both dealing with this reality in our own fashion.
Once on the water however our cares seem to lessen as we settle into paddling. We pass the mouths of the various canyon systems we'd worked so hard to get around on our overland route as I reflect on how much more preferable the view is from my small boat.
There is something to be said about still being out, working hard, during the magical hour of the day.
Both of us tired and not sure what lies ahead in terms of camping we decide to make camp at a sandy island in the middle of the river. I am forced to thoroughly stretch as the sudden change of walking to sitting for hours in a stationary position has wreaked havoc on my muscles.
Over dinner we reflect on the day. I think about a certain type of landscape- the scablands above the river, officially part of the Maze district that are seldom traveled. Anyone seeking an aesthetic experience has much better options elsewhere. But they are a corridor. And even the not so beautiful, non-storybook lands are enduring. Their stark nature is often the connective tissue for all the good stuff, and it is important to experience the "bad", to give frame of reference, understanding, and perspective to the good.
In some ways the landscape we had just traveled seems more authentic; seldom traveled it remains unaltered. There is far more of this type of physical geography than that of which we all flock to on the Colorado Plateau. It is the connective tissue stringing together and anchoring the places we are all so drawn to, and does so with no fanfare, unabridged with no place name, no point of interest, no paragraph in a guidebook.
The next morning we set out early. Much old man stretching is needed on my part as the lower part of my body wails in the throws of an acidic haze. Once we shove off and paddle meets water I am instantly engrossed by how ALIVE the river corridor is. My world is a cacophony of bird calls, whooshing of Blue Heron wings, squeaks of bats, and the occasional splashing of the water bound creature. Weighed against a sinister silence up high above the river I can't help but feel welcomed down here and enjoy this early morning paddle on placid waters.
After a few hours we spot our exit in a notch in the canyon. I twang of regret bubbles up as our time on the river has been so enjoyable.
We waste little time in breaking down our gear and transitioning back into walking mode. Up up up we go.
Walking distances in the desert is often a practice in restraint when it comes to water. Often thirsty the walker does not drink from his/her bottle because the next spot where water may appear can be few and far between and we put off thirst in the name of necesity. And then this.
In nooks and crannies far away from more traditional routes of travel quiet oases sit patiently. Here we find a small dripping spring and deep shade. As our water bottles refill drip by drip we revel in hushed silence. Before we leave, a lone vivid green hummingbird appears out of nowhere and all but lands on my companions hand. I take this as an omen as we reach the end of our journey.
As we leave I turn around to take one last look back and wave goodbye to the river.
We near our destination at the top of the canyon.
The next few hours would comprise the most confusing of the whole trip. With the two of us thoroughly off course much precious time and daylight is lost. Eventually we scramble up high on a lonely mesa to get a vantage of our standing. We think we see a feasible way and return all the back to the canyon we had emerged from to start over entirely. In the photo below the shaded portion directly in front of Chad is the White Rim Road.
Late in the day we find an incredible overlook and packs come off in the name of aesthetic necessity. Like many of the last few days it represents the time of day when we realize that we will make nowhere close to our intended mileage.
Thankfully someone has put some beds out for us and we contemplate a long nap.
But we press on, our pace quickening as we are in a footrace with the remaining daylight. Little is spoken, an ineffectual air we know the hard truth of the day. We got off course and we're going to pay.
Only this time, the night walking we've become accustomed too will not be possible for we soon learn that our route forward is quite tricky and we know that traveling by headlight will not be an option.
We travel through a desert burning apricot orange with the last light of day. This day. This one and only day, never to be repeated. A solitary moment that has come and gone. I/we have suffered. My clothes are shredded, stained, and I have drawn blood, my fingers have been rubbed raw; my identity merging with place. I think to myself, why? Why do we do this? Why do we put ourselves through such suffering? I am technically on "vacation." All I can come up with is that there is some intrinsic meaning to our toil, a realization that our travels lack the sterility of much of modern life, that measuring ourselves against this place elicits an overwhelming comprehension of standing, a reminder of that which is bigger than man; what some deem religion.
Finally there is not enough light to make sense of our course and we resign ourselves to the end of day, throwing our packs in a dusty heap on the ground. I don't want to even put in the effort to make dinner let alone get out my sleeping bag. I could easily just lie down on bare rock crumpling into a fetal position and fall asleep but my friend reminds me we have much walking still to do
Before I pass out we decide it would be smart to wake before the sunrise in hopes of getting back on schedule.
In the morning we arise with first light No lounging early morning coffee I eat my last bit of food while walking and with a chalky mouth that is screaming for water (I'm all but out) I have great difficulty breaking down the food and nearly choke a few times.
After a few hours walking, all in the shade, we find our supposed route up to the White Rim Road.
About mid-way up I look back out at the confusing landscape we've traversed trying to make sense of the nonsensical route we've traveled from the river.
A narrowing ledge points to a small break in the White Rim where we hope to exit.
The climb exhausts the small amount of water I have left. I'm concerned but on emerging from the underworld the first thing I see is this and a huge smile grows on my face.
I drop my pack and crouch over the silvery pool and dip my cupped palms in. As the cold water scours my face, coursing through those intimate canyons of age I look out and reflect on how the wrinkles on my face pale in comparison to the wrinkles on the landscape before me. It's only natural for contemplation to rule the last day of our trip, for a frantic grasping of overarching meaning. In the end for me it comes down simply to time. How old and ancient this place is in comparison to not only man but the brevity of my own life.
I wring my hands out and fill up my water in preparation for a long road walk, thankful for safe passage and the hospitality of place.
Suddenly Chad reappears and lets me know he has secured us a climate controlled car ride to our exit point. No shit I think to myself. The view from the car is not half bad!
One last piece of trail magic, a beautiful piece of symmetry to it all. Almost a year prior, in November of 2013 Chad and I had spent a few blissful days day hiking Island in the Sky and I had dropped a cache of water for a solo trip that never materialized. Returning to that point on this trip we check and find the cache still in tact, including roughly a gallon and a half of cold water.
The celebration is short for we still have much walking to do. In the distance the roof of Island in the Sky beckons.
And one last climb. Of course.
We make it. Some faster than others.
We each take a solitary moment to look out across the desert we'd spent the last several days traveling through, moving in a sundial like fashion around Ekker Butte, seen here displayed prominently. This trip will not be wrapped up neatly in this moment, its song will play repeatedly in my head in the months to come as I attempt to make sense of the unique stature it occupies in my mind.
I started this trip with a desire to better understand the holistic notion of this place, one that transcended the borders and boundaries we place on the land; what I came away with is a better understanding of my place - both here and in the world. For my story is the story of this place.
The love I feel for the Colorado Plateau, particularly the southeastern corner of Utah, affects nearly every decision I make, my very life a carefully orchestrated string of decisions that keep me rooted on its borders. And while I find comfort in an inevitable decline, our collective inability to take the measure of a clock ticking outside our conception of time, I can't help but feel my infatuation with the desert, one that is shared by so many, has to mean something - however temporary. That the passion for a place can animate our actions, bolster us to draw a line in the sand, to resoundingly let the future know that there was a time, albeit late in the game, that we found value in that ever elusive human characteristic; restraint. One easy way to start is to return truth to the here and now, to sew back together what is currently a patchwork of places into a continuous whole: Greater Canyonlands. In the end we can stand for what we stand on.
And just like that, it's over. I turn around to see my friend disappear over a dune and take comfort in a friendship formed in a shared reverence for place, of wild places; - of the unabridged landscape.