Thursday, October 19, 2006

WILD UTAH: Seeking Remote Solitude and Intimate Camaraderie in Redrock Canyon Lands and Painted Desert Washes

One morning, driving about 45 mph down an unpaved dirt road to Horseshoe Canyon, a big pronghorn antelope bounds angularly across the road a few front in front of us, in a single magnificent leap. The close encounter causes me to spontaneously slam on the brakes, and we all jump out to get a better look. But by the time ten seconds pass, this strong, powerful runner has left us in a swirling cloud of dust, all but disappearing nearly a mile away.

Hiking up a desert wash toward eroded green and pink hills, seeking shade in a beautiful cottonwood oasis, we espy a strange-looking critter attempting to move stealthily for cover behind a mass of sagebrush. A closer glimpse flushes him out, and in a whooshing instant, he’s off and running like a long-eared banshee across the harsh landscape. This crazy looking, kangaroo mutant creature is none other than the legendary jackalope! -- the so-called antelope jackrabbit. I’ve never seen a goofier-looking -- but extremely fast and well-adapted to his spare environment -- animal in all my days! And certainly never a taller or rangier lagomorph.

Descending the depths of a rugged redrock canyon, a splendid brown - reddish fox appears from behind a rock a few feet away. She turns and casts a casual glance, almost as if to say hi or subtly acknowledge our presence in a graceful way. Before we can return the favor, she quickly blends into the landscape, out of sight, until our return, at twilight, when she briefly allows us another glimpse from afar of her solitary mien.

So much for “there’s not a lot happening in the dry, barren, harsh desert.” In four short days, we encounter slow-moving alligator lizards, a pair of peregrine falcons, several smallish woodpeckers, a yellow-throated desert hummingbird, and brooding crows and upstart ravens. We sidestep colonies of biting red ants, observe and admire a herd of big antlered deer. In a sandy wash, we see mountain lion tracks next to rabbit‘s. Under a starry celestial dome, dug in beside a blazing fire, we listen to the melancholy wailing of coyotes. There are fish in the streams, abundant small game, a panoply of edible and utilitarian plants -- this “dry, barren, harsh” ecosystem managed to support, for countless generations, hunter-gatherers who lived in harmony with seasonal rhythms, and who, like their wise animal doppelgangers, adapted successfully to sparse conditions to co-exist and thrive for millennia. These prehistoric nature-worshipping pagan animistic peoples eventually were driven or forced out, but not before leaving their enigmatic symbols on sandstone rock walls, many mythologizing or canonizing animals. Today, we ponder and muse over them, in another time and space.

Such are the visceral rewards for the three intrepid Walter Mittys, off on their third annual “boys’ trip” -- this one, oddly enough, taking them back to the Colorado River (http://gambolinman.blogspot.com/2005/10/colorado-river-hedonistic-pursuits-in.html) in south-central Utah. It’s always an electric thrill and primal joy to return on a road / camping trip, however brief and mild-mannered, to this beloved (by everyone on earth, it seems!) land of canyons, arches, spires, fins, mesas, buttes, pinnacles, grassy gardens, potholes, mazes, hoodoos, goblins, penis towers, mushroom mosques, this vast folded and contorted land of gaudy geologic formations comprising the ultimate “back ‘o beyond“ -- guru desert rat / monkeywrencher Edward Abbey’s term of reference and endearment for his favorite places on earth.

Speaking of the poetic, crotchety Ed Abbey, I whip out my tattered copy of Desert Solitaire and quote a line to the boys that superbly sums up our mission to get as remote as possible: “. . .that in contemplating the natural world, my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.” Inevitably, we are led astray down many a side canyon, slot corridor, knoll top, and high ridge, in search of sublime natural wonders free of ninety-nine percent of other noisy, stinky two-legged critters. (Three are bad enough.)

So it’s the three of us -- me, the Perfesser (a brilliant genetics researcher / cosmic philosopher), and long-time amigo, Brock Stoker (action-for-a-fraction options mogul). Well, you already know the story: tie three birds together; even though they now have six wings, they cannot fly! (We pretend to fly -- high atop a quartz dome in Wild Horse Butte country, the Perfesser, in the role of Directer, masquerading as the Conducter, lines us up on the precipice and takes us through an imaginary / physical exercise, thoroughly exhilarating if a bit New Agey and primally therapeutic, of letting go, flying high, soaring.)

For my part, I promise to ditch my “control freak” nature on this trip, just let events unfold as they may. Here are the options, and you guys pick. I’ve been to the Moab area a half dozen times. Knowing my traveling companions‘ “island time” pace, I brace for a more leisurely approach to the day. Less of an agenda than follow our hearts in the moment of spontaneous appreciation. Less “drivin’ that train” and more go-with-the-flow. . . No problemo, whatever, whenever, wherever.

I drive most of the way from the airport in Salt Lake City, nearly four hours, to the Colorado River outside of Moab on River Road. The boys are slumped over in a narcoleptic stupor, barely awake enough to elicit a muffled chortle over my oft-repeated mantra, “Ah, life’s good when you’re down on the ril-ver.” By the time I pull into a spot, it’s 1 a.m. and raining. Raining! RAINING! Un-friggin’-believable! The boys struggle to put up the Perfesser’s brand new tent (unfortunately, a two-person jobbie) whilst, I, drained from the long drive, barely have the energy to throw down a tarp and roll myself up in my sleeping bag like a big burrito. Brock brings me his tarp. Now, I’m hermetically entombed. The rain, at first gentle and bearable, picks up and within half an hour is pounding on the plastic tarp shell. I can barely breathe. I manage to fall asleep for maybe an hour, then toss and turn fitfully, tortured by the incessant plattering of rain in my brain, wondering why I’m so stubborn (or stupid) to not have gotten up and sought the warmth and dryness of the car, duh. . .finally, soaked fairly well, I seek egress in the fake SUV and catch a few minutes of sleep before a promising dawn rouses us from restless slumber. (You can bet, when there’s a big breakfast involved, the boys are quick to action.)

The nocturnal rains produce incredible, never before seen (by me) flash cascades -- muddy red water plummeting over massive cliff faces into the turbid Colorado. These ephemeral cascades animate the vermillion cliffs for just a few hours, so to see them is special, even for locals. As the storm clouds clear a bit, light unveils moisture-soaked redrock walls, gleaming with embossed “desert varnish” patterns. I’ve always fancied they’re prototype designs and figures, natural inspiration, perhaps, for prehistoric pictographic art.

We head into Moab town, with tenebrous weather doing its best to clear. Moab continues to cement its reputation as a fast-growing, unsustainable, sprawling commercial, tacky tourist mecca (don’t get Ed Abbey or Gambolin’ Man started!) serving two nearby National Parks (Arches and Canyonlands) that receive millions of visitors a year. Moab’s growth has also been due to its self-proclaimed status as the mountain biking capital of the world. (Certainly no argument there.)

In Moab, we choose the wrong restaurant (on my lame recommendation), but still, we enjoy a decent and prolonged breakfast, looking very much like three drowned doofuses. We gulp down bottomless cups of coffee like helpless addicts, and scarf down our food like we haven’t eaten in days. People are staring. Maybe it’s just my imagination. Finally, I get up to use the restroom and notice a shaft of blue sky outside the window. I do my business, then tell the boys, “Take your time, guys, it’s cool, I’ll be out at the car.” (Viz.: hurry your sorry asses up!)

The day is by now bright blue and beautiful! To kill the time I know I will need to kill, I take everything out of the car, and repack it. I’m breathing deeply. Be prepared for anything, expect nothing. Forty-five minutes later, we’re setting off, with the Perfesser jauntily behind the wheel, the day full of promise and adventure.

We’re hiking Negro Bill Canyon. How can you go wrong? We pack a lunch and a few essentials, and head out on the trail by noon. Not too bad. And not many people. We’re hoping to make it to Rainbow Arch, so the boys can see their first natural span, this one an impressive 100 ft. across and 80 ft. of sheer verticality. The incredibly pretty canyon is named after a nineteenth century black pioneer, maybe a Buffalo Soldier or freed slave, who came out to farm and ranch; ol’ Bill surely was an ascetic, a Thoreauesque figure in his own way, no doubt groovin’ to a different drummer in his private paradise. A sweet perennial stream flows through N.B.C., pooling here and there for mid-summer refreshing dips and meditative reverie staring at golden reflections of the canyon walls in blue-tinged water. Local hippie girls come to bathe here at dusk. Now, it’s of a different mien -- a golden world awash with muddy water rushing through the creek’s bed -- a vermillion world fresh with the scent of rain and soil, redrock and mud -- a transformed world, with swirling voluptuous mounds of reddish sandstone, with water spilling over cliff lips in rainbow spray.

Despite the Perfesser enduring a bad sprained ankle, and what with Brock’s chronic sore knees, and my bum right foot, it’s a wonder that we’re able to hike as much and as hard as we do. Still, lolly-gagging at a turtle’s pace is the best means to really appreciate the sights along the way. And so, it takes us forever to get to Rainbow Arch. A stop here for fifteen minutes to admire a panoramic scene. A twenty minute detour there for a can’t miss photograph. An hour break for lunch. Dilatory pit-stops, and mild indulgences every so often. Many larger-than-life conversations about deep philosophical topics. I turn to the Perfesser and ask, “Is this remote enough for you?” He laughs, says no, we‘ve seen too many other people (I think we’ve seen a total of four others pass us.) Finally reaching the arch, we stop to check out a group of rappelers making their spidery way down. Now, that looks fun!

After our hike, I convince the boys to head up to the high country. The “island in the sky” wilderness area known as Manti-La Sal is quite a contrast to desert solitaire. During the hot summer months, the tarns and shady aspen groves are truly a retreat in the heavens, an escape from the hell-fire desert plateau to Tahoe-like splendor in the La Sal mountains with colorful trees and snow-capped Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, dominating at 12,482 ft., no small chunk of earth. This early season has brought a snow blizzard. We climb the road for a thousand feet and enter a wintry wonderland. Our intention is to bivouac at high altitude for glorious sunset views at “The Place where the Sun Sets Last” (in the Ute language.) We are quickly dissuaded by the sharp drop in temperature which exacerbates our generally frigid and weary bones. Brock proposes a room. What the hell, sounds great. We go for it and spend the evening chillin’ out in a warm pad, watching The Fifth Element, eating, drinking, conversing, making merry like -- well, like three bachelors on the loose.

Next morning is gorgeous and I‘m itching to go. Of course, the earlier the better. Damn, I’m dying to get a move on. I have to bite my lip. First, there’s fifty minutes shopping at the camping store. Then, there’s food to buy, at this gigantic, get-lost-in place with a zillion aisles, where, of course, we get separated and spend twenty minutes looking for each other. Next, gas, then a State Liquor Store, and, oh, yeah, forgot the jalapeno-flavored sun flower seeds, so a quik-stop at a convenience mart, before finally we’re heading off for Horseshoe Canyon, to let the day unfold and the road take us where it may.

We make it to Horseshoe Canyon around 2 pm, plenty of time to hike the seven mile round-trip to the prime attraction, the Great Gallery of prehistoric rock art. Plenty of time, certainly, for brisk, tough, determined hikers, but what about hobbled, urban mensches out of their element? Let’s not forget: Horseshoe Canyon is a rugged, isolated unit of Canyonlands National Park -- a wilderness of rock in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, whose tantalizing namesakes -- the Maze, Island in the Sky, the Needles -- evoke romantic whimsy and extreme adventure. This is the canyon system where uber-outdoor enthusiast Aron Ralston took Abbey’s tenet one step too far. With no one on earth knowing where he was, he ended up getting stuck in a slot canyon for five agonizing days when a boulder dislodged and crushed his hand, pinning him helplessly. At the end of his rope, he finally summoned the superhuman will to cut off his arm just below the elbow with his blunt multi-purpose Leatherman knock-off. He survived, managing to rappel down a large wall, and hike out for several miles before some Dutch hikers came upon him. No such fate for us, thankfully, being the stick-together urban mensches that we are. And, aches and injuries be damned, we rise to the occasion, setting off in buoyant spirits, flush with boyish enthusiasm. Very few people are here. I survey the orange and blue landscape, peer into the infinitely still depths of the canyon, and marvel at how deceptively inviting and benign it appears. Of course, Horseshoe Canyon is not the most hospitable environment for human habitation, but is perfectly appropriate as sacred cynosure, spiritual gathering place, where rituals were enacted and stories danced and told, feasts consumed, ties strengthened. The Perfesser seems lost in a vision at the trail head, amazed to be here, no doubt beginning to feel a kinship with this Abbey fellow, as we seek something intimate in the remote.

Along the way, we see the brown fox, many lizards, and circling raptors. Not a cloud in the perfectly blue sky. The canyon walls are mottled orange-red-pink-salmon, glistening from the recent rains, adorned with eerie figures made by Rorschach desert varnish patterns. Rock wall amphitheatres catch our echoes in magical acoustics. Barrier Creek is dry, but evidence abounds of flash flooding in the form of squishy, oozy quick-mud (as opposed to quicksand, which a sign warns us about at the outset). We wallow in the cold mud and enjoy rock art at several sites, but try not to tarry too much given our time limitations.

Finally, we reach the Great Gallery, a truly remarkable 200 ft. long panel consisting of dozens of shroud-wrapped, trapezoidal figures, some five or six feet high. Most depict mythical ancestral or cosmic beings, or seem funereal. Some scenes are dioramas of magico-spiritual encounters, transcendent human-animal interconnectedness. There are playful representations of jousting figures, and a couple presiding over a compliant herd of deer. The panel is a praiseworthy archaeocultural artifact, a living conundrum of clues, allusions and intimations . . . of a vanquished, mysterious people. (How fantastic! We have it all to ourselves! It’s better than a stroll through the Louvre. No wonder so many French, and Europeans in general, are in love with our Big American West.)

Much has been written about these so-called Archaic Nomads, who left behind a Rosetta Stone's worth of undecipherable messages on high rock walls (their wood-rope ladders have disintegrated). Who were these "writers"? These "authors"? These "artists"? These "historians"? Whose “tag” were they? No one knows for sure who was responsible or what the varied symbols mean. Of course, academia has proffered plenty of educated guesses -- e.g., "The petroglyphs may represent hunting or fertility magic — or they may merely be prehistoric graffiti or doodling.” The consensus being, we don't know. Your guess is as good as mine. Whatever their meaning, and whoever brought them into existence for our future contemplation, is beyond knowing. All we can really do is enjoy them, revel in the titillating mysteries of unknowable antiquity. Ultimately, we may only know them strictly in our imaginations, as mysterious Ancient Ones who walked this earth in beauty. (OK, I admit, I’m probably romanticizing them somewhat.)

Suddenly, the day has waned, the sun is gone. We head back in a hurry to beat the dark. The going is unexpectedly much tougher. We overshoot a turn-off and wander cluelessly half mile out of our way. We miss a crucial cairn trail marker, and end up off the path, a confusing labyrinth of rock. Brock insists we stick together and retrace our steps to the last known marker. The Perfesser impetuously scampers up the rock, making his own path to - hopefully, the parking lot and the car. I follow him, to Brock’s chagrin. I yell down to him from high above that I need to scale one final promontory to gain purchase to survey the domain, see where we are. Lifting myself up and over the rock lip, I am fully confident I’ll see the parking lot just . . . over there . . . so I am stunned to see, in the complete opposite direction, a set of lonesome headlights shining into the dim void. It’s just enough of a beacon to guide us to safety. Back at the car, laughing, high-fiving, and cracking open cold ones, Brock gives us an earful. (OK, I admit, he’s right, but it really isn’t all that close of a “dangerous“ episode.)

That night we camp somewhere off “Antelope” road along a nondescript wash surrounded by vast flat lands and distant mountain ranges. I tell the boys it is an exercise in "no trace camping" -- but, of course, we leave delible traces of our "outsiderness". Dusk comes and goes with crisp purple and lavender colors saturating the sky. I build a small fire that emanates delectable heat from the dense, slow-burning wood we bought. That night, the Milky Way glows with a supernatural luminescence. There are more stars in the sky than I can ever recall seeing. I point out the Seven Sisters, Cassiopeia, Arcturus, Scorpio, Orion, Taurus, the Big Dipper, sparkling sidereal gems. The Perfesser points out other celestial phenomena, and some unseen - such as infinite galaxies and billions of earth-like planets believed to exist. Brock just kicks back, gazing up in numbstruck silence, listening to the back ‘n forth, the repartee, the barrage of answers and questions between the Perfesser and me, ranging from the Singularity Event and time travel, black holes and worm holes (don’t forget the depressing concept of entropy!), to the deepest nearly imponderable cosmological / epistemological mysteries. And the Perfesser always has an answer or a line, even admitting the next morning that he had no recollection of certain threads of the conversation during our comatose supine exhausted state.

But for now, the evening’s young, the fire’s blazing, and we’re tucked deeply in our warm bags, laid back in splendiferous comfort, enjoying what turns out to be a very credible meteor shower (or make that incredible!). We must see fifty or more, the most spectacular of which leave greenish white contrails across what seems like hundreds of feet of star-studded firmament. I can’t recall ever seeing the likes of these streaking cosmic projectiles on this sparkling, pristine night.

The next day can’t come soon enough, as it drops below freezing during the night. Brock has opted for guaranteed warmth in the tent, while the Perfesser and I decide to sleep under the stars -- we awake with bags coated in frosty rime. I build a life-affirming fire with the numbest of hands, the most unnimble of fingers. Soon, things brighten up. It looks like we’re in store for another perfect Indian Summer day. Once more with feeling, boys, goes the rise and shine refrain . . .

Off Interstate 70, we stop in the juncture town of Green Ril-ver -- you guessed it -- for lunch at a questionable-looking establishment called Ben’s Café. Turns out to be a classic American diner, actually a sweet little dive that spoons up some pretty delicious food. The Perfesser flirts with the cute Mexican waitress, in his charmingly horrible Spanish; after pleasantries, he asks to meet the cook, “Cip”. Cipriano takes a liking to us, warmed by my horribly charming Spanish, and proceeds to cook us up one nice spread. The boys order big, we sate our indulgent palates, drink Tecates with lime, and shoot the bull with ol’ Cip. I’m getting a kick out of the scene. . .but, enough’s enough, time to get back to the remote!

Goblin Valley State Park is our next destination. This eldritch, bone-dry landscape hosts some of the oddest shaped rocks found anywhere on earth - brown, red, green, all shapes and sizes, lizard and alien faces, stunted penises, Indian Chiefs, chess knights, all sorts of crazy images, faces, and creatures divined in the shapes of the rocks. We amble around in gleeful abandon, free to go anywhere, climb anything, explore, get lost, and revel to our heart's content in this geological wonderland where gigantic green and white and red rocks rise like ancient stupas and ziggurats of hardened clay.

Our final morning we find ourselves waking up after another cold, cold night in a desert wash at 6,000 feet in late September. We’re behind Wild Horse Butte, in a rugged desert environment, just off the main road to the State Park. The isolation is complete; it’s another crisp clear night of star-gazing and meteor-watching, though not as spectacular as the previous night’s display. In the morning, another companion fire, and sloppily made but de-fucking-licious coffee. We’ve got several hours of exploration before the trip back to the airport.

This wash that so appeals and intrigues the Perfesser -- why, it’s an unheralded wash, that’s for sure, and that‘s the appeal and intrigue. Gorgeous geologic relief, beautiful painted hills, a magical cottonwood oasis, an amazing quartzite dome, and a Death Valley like, totally surprising, sand dune ecosystem. This place is as special and precious and unique as they come! Truly the remote has been found -- as it always is -- in the least expected of places -- in this case, a “nowhere” desert back wash (beats Brock’s and the Perfesser’s back wash into my beer bottle any day!). This is a prickly landscape that quintessentially represents the Colorado Desert. We see many birds and lizards, and that floppy-ass jackalope, but (most would say fortunate for us) we do not spot one scorpion, rattlesnake, black widow, gila monster, centipede, tarantula, horned toad or Jerusalem Cricket.

And so our short trip ends. Sure, we see and do a lot, but a lifetime can be spent exploring this vast expanse of earth, this geologic, hydrologic, historic, cultural, ecological, biological, meteorological, and recreational wonderland. As much as we managed to squeeze in, we also squeezed out a shitload of fun and adventure -- river rafting / kayaking adventures, an overnight backpacking expedition, thrilling mountain biking rides. Ah, boys, we barely scratched the surface.

And yet, I feel something has awakened in me, a mystical sense of belongingness, a fugacious breath of knowingness, an age-old, intuitive spark of connectedness. That’s what a short little desert road trip will do for the soul. Praise be, to the desert earth, to the desert animals, to the desert spirits of the wind, water, sky; praise be to the Ancient Ones, whoever they were. Maybe we are them.