“What intolerable garbage and what utterly useless crap we bury ourselves in day by day. That’s what the first taste of the wild does to a [woman] after having been too long penned up in the city.” Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 1968
Ten years ago, I spent two years in the high plains desert of Central Mexico, a volunteer in the Peace Corps. Stationed in the pueblo of Rioverde, I was there to live and serve, not take a vacation.
Despite my best efforts to make the place home, I could not acclimatize. I reviled the relentless sun and scrubby, prickly, arid austerity of the desert, the dust that billowed in the narrow streets and lay a gritty sheen over every square inch of floor and skin. After months on end of sharp, cloudless skies, I thirsted for the haze of my native ‘swamp’ city, Washington, DC, longed to be drenched by a steady spring rain or a pounding summer storm, and for the shade of a lush green canopy, even for the growth of moss and mold that thrived on humidity.
But my time in the Canyonlands of Utah has me reevaluating my relationship to the desert.
After a month in the Grand Staircase-Escalante, I think I'm falling in love with the space and grace and prickly wild of this place.
Granted, I’m surrounded, here, by 1.9 million acres of public land equivalent in size to the states of Delaware and Rhode Island, combined, and declared a national monument in 1996 by President Clinton (then undone by Trump, then recently reestablished by Biden).
At the top of the staircase, in Escalante, I’m up at seven to eight-thousand feet of elevation, so the heat is not quite so devastating and gradually dissipates in the afternoons, as the ball of sun sinks down toward, then disappears behind, Fifty Mile Ridge. Then the air instantly chills and the winds pick-up, battering the north side of my bunkhouse through the night, like ocean waves slamming, relentless, against the shore.
Like much I’ve experienced in the desert, the extremes and, that pounding is both disturbing and astounding.
Within in five-minute drive from the center of Escalante town (pop. 800), you enter an open and barely touched expanse of wilderness – canyons and gulches and slots and cliffs and drop-offs and dry washes – so vast, the locals claim, and proudly so: “You can die out here,” and “People disappear.”
They may be referring to the legend of Everett Reuss, a young poet and artist who came west to find peace in nature. An excerpt from his poetry reads: “Say that I starved; that I was lost and weary; That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun; Footsore, thirsty, sick with strange diseases; Lonely and wet and cold… but that I kept my dream!” In 1934, at the age of 20, he disappeared into one of Utah’s most desolate places, Davis Gulch, near Escalante. His two burros were found; but never a sign of him. After 85 years of investigation and many false leads, his fate remains a mystery.
Well, I’m not going to go that far on this journey of simplicity and freedom. But I have felt the thrill and fear, myself, lost out in the Escalante River Canyon one day, taking one of the simplest ‘routes’ around – there are no ‘trails’ here – because all I needed do was follow the course of the river – follow and, at strategic points, cross, follow and cross, follow and cross.
But then I came to an apparent impasse – a line of barbed wire across the river and barricade of log fencing up the bank. I circled a second time, low-grade panic building, tears of frustration glossing my eyes, nose running from the wind and cold. I was fairly sure I knew how to retrace my steps back to where I left my car; but I wanted to hike this canyon.
On my third desperate loop around, already an hour into the circuitous hike, I was surprised to encounter a pair of humans coming toward me. The two were tall and lanky and tan and weathered, wearing khakis and turquoise jewelry, seemingly out for a stroll.
I’ve spent so much time alone, on this solo journey, I’m rarely hesitant to say hello, to at least hear the sound of my own voice. “I couldn’t find the path; seems blockaded by that fence. But you found it?” I asked eagerly.
They smiled in unison. The husband said: “Oh, that’s just for the cows. A Z-gate. You can get through.” He pointed up river.
“Really, great, was about to give up. Where’re you two from?”
“Bozeman, Montana,” she replied with a thin pink lip-sticked smile.
“I’m from Washington – DC.” Out West I’ve learned to be explicit; most think Seattle.
“Long way from home. I wouldn’t hike this trail alone,” she said. “You’re braver than me.”
I smiled, shrugged. Little did she know how panicked I just was; or about my time, on my birthday, searching in vein for Cassidy Arch. “Sometimes it’s scary, but kind of exciting. I’m on a cross-country road trip. Plan to visit Montana on my northern route home. No clear itinerary, but Montana and Glacier are on my radar.”
“My. Well, you’ll have to stay with us,” said the wife.
The husband nodded, blue eyes twinkling. “Plenty of room.”
“Seriously?” I cocked my head as a whoosh of wind blew through the bare trees.
They were serious. We pulled out our phones and exchanged numbers.
My legs, all eager to go, to get there, had relaxed as my feet sunk into this grounded sandy place of knowing. That’s why I was meant to get lost. To be found by these Bozeman people.
Glen and Tom and I shook hands and bid farewell; but I had a strong feeling I would see them again. In fact, the next day, I would get a text invite to dinner. At dinner, I would meet their friend, Reiser, a woodworker in town. Reiser, an avid outback hiker and slightly reclusive curmudgeon, would turn out to be my Escalante angel and guide.
Waving behind me, I re-began my hike, a spring in my step, this time, the fourth time, hopping the stones at the first river crossing, my low back a little achy from all the circling. As per the Bozeman couple’s guidance, I ascended the sand bank, spotting the optical illusion Z-gate – even up close it looked like impassable – and forged ahead. Slipping through, gracefully, I entered the magical, rugged world of the canyon.
I feel my chest expand, my heart pound as, deeper and deeper into the silence and stillness I plodded, further and further from what little civilization I came. No more human encounters, only the wind gusting through, rattling the dried papery leaves on the cottonwood trees and blowing those wretched prickly tumbleweeds into my legs, the rush of the river and the panting of my breath to keep me company.
Having shifted into the blissful trance state that comes a few miles in - even my back pain had succumbed to the rhythm - I stopped in my tracks. The river appeared, once again, to dead-end.
Hands on hips, I surveyed this situation. I could not make it through that narrow cleft even if I wanted to waist-deep wade; but I was not turning back. Eyes laser focused, I detected some tracks up the sand peninsula and crossed the river to follow them. In the desert, footprints can be erased away by the wind; but in this protected canyon I had the evidence of previous peds to guide my way.
Sure enough, after a half-mile or so, the non-trail trail intersected the river, once again, and did so at a most stunning spot. I sat on my haunches, in malasana, to stretch my crooked spine. Gazing up river, I could see the other side of the optical illusion impasse, the sun beaming into a jade green pool at the base of a vertical red sandstone wall. I felt my heart flutter, and took my shoes and sandy socks to wade, dipping my hand in and rinsing the salt off my face.
But I couldn’t rest for long; the sun was fast sinking – half the canyon was cast in shadow, blocked by the towering Navajo sandstone, white as bone, 65 million years old.
I had to find those petroglyphs. Or were they pictographs. I got going at a pretty good clip, though the thick sand path was two steps forward one-half back. I bared right at the cairn, like the Bozeman folks told me. Apparently, they went left and never found the ancient site.
Another mile or so I came to the giant old man cottonwood I was told was the milestone. I hiked back from north bank of river to the canyon walls and followed along through the thick sand. I was told there was a cave; and there it was. And down on the ground, next to it, a gray, metal BLM box. Open it up and sign and date the ledger.
I was close. I hiked another hundred years, running my finger against the smooth, cool, brick red stone, and there they were: simple and vibrant, like they were etched into the rock only yesterday. But these petroglyphs were over 1000 years old!
I ran my forefinger along the shapes of the targets and the rectangular man with a snake coming out of his head and mysterious circles, like space-age communicators, for hands. Then I slid down, back against the wall, head in the cool shade, legs resting, breathing in the space. I shouted out, hello, but the canyon, so deep and wide, ate my voice, little to no echo.
I felt small, my human stature put in its proper perspective.
I was but a grain of this pink sand in the ancient hourglass of time.
I exhaled a breath of relief, relieved I could let go of trying to be big.
My shoulders relaxed.
I looked down at my dusty hiking shoes.
The space around me had become me.
And in that space, the inklings of a poem emerged.
I’ve been kissing trees, lately,
Arms embracing cottonwood girth,
Thick, ruddy bark rough on my lips.
Old man tree’s too old for me,
Roots like boa constrictors grope for river,
Surviving desert infinity...