Tuesday, May 31, 2005

DESERT SOUTHWEST: Sacred Land, Spectacular Sights & Modest Derring-Do in the Back o' Beyond

"What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote."
 – Edward Abbey
There is nothing like a desert southwest road trip through Nevada and Utah to stir the soul and evoke memories.
But what will forever go unremembered?
Certainly, there are bigger things and issues to write about here: the natural history of our National Parks; galactic stretches of Great Basins and Greater Ranges; meeting friends and family on the sacred land; water uses and rights, water abuses and fights.
Native American sovereignty, gambling, history, grievances and poverty; mystery-infused Area 51 off the Extraterrestrial Highway near Rachel, Nevada; mountain biking and hiking adventures; all that driving and cramming in of exciting place after place after place.
But it's the "insignificant little things" that deserve our attention for a moment, that make up 99.9% of experiential reality, that ineffably manifest at every turn, constantly reaffirming life's small but great truths.
Ever demonstrating its evolutionary design and our place in its framework, eternally revealing over and over, one upon another, fabulous lessons of proper perspective, enabling me to see and understand how I am also an "insignificant little thing", but still an unheralded miracle in the universe of the spirit-that-moves-in-all-things!
In Henry Miller's words:
"The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself."
Maybe the other Henry — Wadsworth Longfellow — put it even better:
"Every dewdrop and raindrop had a whole heaven within it."
Perhaps Blake's timeless line from "Imagination" best captures the sentiment:
"To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour."
This is what I am talking about, the oft-ignored, oft-overlooked magic and purity of the insignificant little things all around you:
A songbird serenading and escorting us in a riparian red canyon. A perfectly round, thirty inch diameter claret cup cactus in full scarlet bloom hidden from all the world to see while a skirting yellow-throated hummingbird seeks the avian nepenthe of its blessed pollen.
Flawless cerulean skies with the longing scent of bunchgrass and sweet sage carried in the breeze, returning you to a primeval state of mind. A solitary butterfly alighting for precious seconds on a shoulder. Vibrational energy signatures of rippling water reflecting off rock and trees.
Optimistic minnows who'll never know fishhood, and cannibalistic tadpoles engaged in last gasp frenzies in stagnant tinajas. The raw ringing silence that stops you in your tracks and freezes your gaze to the immense horizon to behold the full spectrum of a wild, wild world.
A wizened dead tree, bleached nearly white, rising starkly out of a lump of rock set against a backdrop of pink-lemony clouds at dusk. Priceless water in the remorseless desert. Lizards doing push-ups, snakes sidewinding, kaleidoscopic dragonflies abuzz, ravens circling overhead, cackling, mocking us with playful laughter.
Mountains of mud, canyons of clay, eroded cliffs of Navajo sandstone exposed in sheer naked glory in their antediluvian seabed. An industrious red spider spinning a delicate web floating on air.
The plaintive howls of a coyot'l on a distant ridge. Beauty-on-steroids scenes of magnificent sunrises and magical sunsets. The eternal mysteries of Ancestral Pueblo hieroglyphs.
A whole heaven within it all.
The Eastern Sierra Nevada, the Great Basin and Range territory, the sprawling canyon and badlands of the Sonoran and Colorado desert plateaus — a lifetime could be spent wandering around and exploring this vast expanse of Earth, this geological, hydrological, historic, cultural, ecological, biological, meteorological, recreational wonderland!
Few things are more fun than packing it all up in the Outback and hitting the endless road leading east through California and Nevada, into Utah, north to Colorado, south to Arizona or New Mexico, with one adventure after another awaiting no matter which route you take. 
We did this trip in about 12 days, covering over 2000 miles to Moab and back. Two-thirds of 'em were lonesome "wasteland/badland/nothing-in-sight" kind of miles, utterly boring to most but fascinating to me!
There's lots out there to see! Just take a look!
Although 12 days is a really just a tease, it was ample time to pay homage to some special natural wonders and scenic attractions bypassed on previous visits.
Seeking Mysteries of Culture & Wonders of Nature in a Pristine Desert
Preserved BLM land in central Nevada (near Battle Mountain) was the scene and refuge for prehistoric hunter-gatherers. These mystery people incised a Rosetta Stone's worth of undecipherable messages, in typical Great Basin "curvilinear" style, on the eroded red sandstone walls that rise in a majestic arc from the surrounding basin.
Who were the "writers"? The "authors"? The "artists"? The "historians"? One man? One woman? A quorum of carvers? No one knows for sure who was responsible or what the meanings are of the varied symbols. From evidence gathered at hunting and living sites around here, it is surmised that the sophisticated peckings date from around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
Personally, I don't buy it, those dates. Amerindians were on the move and were widespread in the Americas possibly as early as 100,000 years ago or longer! Evidence exits for pushing the conventional timeline way back from the spoon-fed figure of 12,000 years ago! Of course, academia disputes this, and has proffered plenty of educated guesses as to the timeline of their appearance and meaning of their inscriptions.
The BLM brochure states:
"The petroglyphs at this site may represent hunting or fertility magic — or they may merely be prehistoric graffiti or doodling. Many archaeologists believe that the horseshoe-shaped glyph is a female symbol."
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. 
We were stiff from just completing a stupefying sixty mile spell down a wavy asphalt ribbon of highway in a sea of nothing (quote unquote!) that was Highway 50; it felt great to get out, stretch, eat a snack, and hike a self-guided tour through this big country awash in crisp colorful sagebrush, forests of sweet edible Pinyon Pine, and sandgrass — both important food sources for the natives who resided here and called this prehistorically lovely place home sweet home.
It was hard to imagine, walking that dusty petroglyph trail, gazing out at the "Big Smoky" Toquima Mountain Range, that at one time, not too long ago, this was a near-tropical paradise, a land of huge lakes, abundant plants and animals, the lap of luxury, the bosom of nature.
Whoever they were — the academics call this period of human occupation in the Great Basin, before the droughts forced people to upland areas, the "Western Pluvial Lakes Tradition" — they were people who lived for untold generations in tune with the seasons, in harmony with Mother Earth for thousands and thousands of years.
Is this a mythical view of life then? Was it more brutish, bellicose? Didn't they callously slaughter animals, wantonly waste resources, and foolishly contribute to their own demise, as Homo sapiens are wont to do?
But who were they, really? We may never know anything more about them short of what we are (in)capable of forensically knowing from archaeological sites, beyond what we are (un)able to decipher of their semiotic markings, writ in stone walls throughout the Americas all the way to Tierra del Fuego. We may know them only in our imaginations, as mysterious Ancient Ones who walked this earth in beauty.
Botanical Oasis in Red Rock Desert "Wasteland"
On the outskirts of the sleepy, historic railroad town of Caliente, Nevada is a fabulous place you'd never think of to go, yet once you do (think of it, and go), it's like, whoa!
In aptly named Rainbow Canyon, there exists a true oasis of seeps and springs in bad-ass desert country, supporting an astonishing variety of moisture-loving plants that soothe the eye and soul alike — a veritable microcosm of the entire panoply of Great Basin flora that people have timelessly depended on for their nutritional and utilitarian value.
Green-leafed Wild Grape growing sumptuously up red rock walls (edible fruit, the birds love it, and probably get drunk on the fermented grapes!); Virginia Creeper (lover of dampness, bright red in the fall); Desert Range Almond (a favorite of the ground squirrels); Gambel's Oak (sacred food source for both two and four-legged critters!); Bitter Brush (a favorite browse plant of wildlife and livestock — boo!).
Broom Snakeweed (where it grows abundantly it means the land is overgrazed); Skunkbush Sumac (edible fruits and used for tying and basketry — how long would it take YOU to harvest some Skunkbush and make a container or a rope?); Big Sagebrush (big seed producing Nevada State Flower).
Ephedra (also known as Mormon / Brigham / Desert / Squaw tea, used as a tonic for many ailments, seeds ground into bitter meal for bread, also tasty to squirrels and quail); Prickly Pear Cactus (imagine such a delight as a pear-shaped edible fruit from a thorny plant, this hardy species is one of the few that can survive the cold winters of Red Canyon).
Juniper woodlands (the most common tree in the Great Basin, another in an endless list of utilitarian and gustatory flora exploited by the natives — the pulp of the fruit was eaten, and the shaggy bark used to make rope); Narrow Leaf Yucca (Agave family, who knows if they got drunk on mescal?!).
Four-Wing Saltbush (over 17 species, the native peoples valued them for their nutritious seeds and salty leaves for flavoring food); Cliffrose (Rose family native to dry slopes in this area); and let us not forget, last but not least, Cottonwoods (a surefire indicator of the precious stuff, there is nothing so pleasant as a Cottonwood oasis).
Yes, Kershaw-Ryan is resplendent with life, thanks to that most precious of stuff on Earth: water. The seeps draw animals down to its replenishing bosom. Mary and I had hiked to one such seep, an easy mile out, but no animals were about.
We continued up the rocky wash, polished smoothly by eons of flash floods, noticing intermittent piles of horseshit. Only later, as we sat beneath a 100 foot high overhanging wall, and were fortunate enough to have a wild mustang approach us, did it dawn on me that all that horseshit belonged to this beauty's beastly kin!
I had gotten up to walk around, rounded a little bend, when we met suddenly. I froze in my footsteps, the mustang remained spooked in statuesque dignity, then took off in a semi-panic.
Later, back at the seep, she'd circled around and down, and we got another good encounter. What a moment! I was too transfixed to grab my camera. She (he?) then rapidly tore up the scraggly-ass side of the cliff like it was nothing, disappearing onto the high mesa, but not before Mary and I got a real good look into those emboldened eyes and (somehow) Native American-looking face!
I also carried on with Ms. Raven, as she sat perched on her aerie, cackling and cawing gutturally in a playful attempt at imitation (flattery?) that seemed to work! I led her on, singing my Ravensong several times, then pausing, and faithfully awaiting her response.
This went on for ten minutes! Finally, feathers ruffled, she tired of my torturous game and flew away with another, truer suitor, a fine-breasted, fan-tailed mate, but not before dive-bombing at me and clipping my head, nearly! (You believe that?)
A Surreal Land Frozen in Time
Another amazing place in the middle of nowhere in Nevada. This curiously eroded land of spires and columns of clay, of mountains of dry mud, is what geologists call the Panaca Formation. Imagine, it was once a lake bed that flourished 1,000,000 years ago!
Over time, it dried up and exposed the lakebed's sediments and the unstoppable forces of erosion from rainfall and snowmelt gradually sculpted the rivulets into cracks into gullies of siltstone and clay shale. Very amazing!
Plus, they let you single-track out there in that desolate place! We did a nice and easy four mile loop late in the day, admiring the hardy stands of narrowleaf yucca and juniper trees, the brushy varieties in subtle flowering stages, oohing and aahing at the washed out sunlight playing off the buff-colored walls, and exploring the deep fissures that disappeared into the bowels of the odd formations.
These winding entrances were not true caves, more like slots twisting inward and open at the top. It was ten or fifteen degrees cooler in there, too.
Back at the only campground around, we had to confront an old ex-Navy type fart whose obnoxious generator was bugging the shit out of us in this pristine environment of, what we had hoped was, peace and quiet.
Putting on my friendliest smile, and biting my cynical tongue, I knocked on the door of his mobile monstrosity (he was watching a sit-com with his wife) and asked him what time he planned on turning that contraption off.
Some other less diplomatic person might have barked, "Turn that goddamn fucking thing off, you idiot! Don’t you know this is the wilderness, not the city!" The fart, looking like a cross between Harry Dean Stanton and Oliver North, looked at me askance, up and down, barely disguising contempt, and said "quiet time, son" wasn't until ten. I smirked and walked away.
Ok, fine, whatever, if this is camping then count me out! Well, the old fart did compromise, to his credit, and shut down his noisy engine at around 8:45 p.m., but STILL! (Note on this scene: rarely do we camp with the masses, but sometimes, like here, ya gotta.)
Note on Nevada: it's full of old codgers and people like me — everyone else is either on their way to Utah or returning to California, ain't got time for no eastern Nevada State Parks and legions of rednecks, hunters, and old-timers revving their generators in the still night!)
Avoiding the Bryce Crowds & Finding Some Peace & Solitude
Finally, a slice of untrammeled backcountry wilderness, ideal for those in pursuit of solitude, beauty and wicked singletrack biking trails. Located just outside the infinitely more popular Bryce Canyon National Park, Red Canyon is just as amazing with many of the same eroded columns, cliffs, spires and hoodoos of Bryce, but minus the tremendous hordes.
We did a great loop (saw two people!) after having ridden our bikes down "Bicycle Highway" (my term), a ten-mile stretch of paved, signed bike lane through the canyon, to keep cyclists from having to be on the dangerous road full of tourist buses and cars, all on their way to Bryce.
It was nice and all, but hardly an adventure, so at the bottom, four miles down, we crossed the highway and entered the National Forest or Wilderness Area of Red Canyon and had the time of our lives.
That night we found an off-road camping area beneath vermilion pillars crowning a massive mound of orange-red scree, hills in disrepair, stripped to their bare rocky essences. As the moon rose, we climbed up a 200-foot high slope of detritus and wandered around on top in a world apart: scraggy junipers clinging to life, a scattering of hardy plants with tiny white flowers, sun-bleached logs, long views of nature's sprawling grandeur, ground squirrels, jay, cactus, Tom and Mary.
Visiting a Geological Fairyland of Sculptural Oddities & Wonders
Eldritch and whimsical, a place where Gaudi and George Lucas no doubt got their animated inspiration to create their bizarre sculptural worlds! It's a landscape filled with the oddest shaped rocks on Earth! Brown, red, green, all shapes and sizes. It didn't even take a hit off the homegrown to point out all sorts of crazy images, faces, and creatures we divined in the shapes of the rocks.
We ambled 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 rocks rise like ancient stupas and ziggurats of hardened red clay.
A Hike Along an Enchanting Creek to an Amazing Desert Waterfall
Deep in the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (thang-Q, President Clinton!), is a 126-foot high waterfall, a very popular side trip indeed for all who pass this way, as we found out upon arriving at the falls.
It's basically a big family scene, which is fine, I'm glad we did it, because it is truly a beautiful and amazing spectacle of water pouring over red rock, eternal mist and rainbows, chartreuse mossy walls, adorned with monkeyflowers and maidenhair ferns, and graced by the flitting presence of many pretty butterflies.
Calf Creek itself is a perennial flowing stream supporting an abundance of plant and animal life. Humans have occupied this special place for millennia, no doubt — who would not want to live where water is permanent? The unassuming little canyon stream burbles through gorgeous land, affording hidden nooks of paradise as it winds and bends its way through the landscape.
I hiked the six rugged miles round trip without shoes (an easy feat for me and my tough "cabron" feet!) because I really and honestly wanted to establish my link/connection to Mother Earth in a pilgrimage-like approach. It was a tremendous hike!
Sheer Navajo Sandstone canyon walls resplendent with their coatings of desert varnish, darkened streaks caused by rain, wind and minerals working artistically together over eons as one great force. I jumped in Calf Creek's little pools, full of darting brook, brown and rainbow trout, whenever I had the chance. So utterly refreshing in the Utah heat!
We came upon Marker 9 halfway to the Falls, and with my binoculars I could easily discern, at the base of a smooth cliff wall several hundred yards away, three red figures, beastly looking, linked at their hands, with trapezoidal bodies and elaborate head dresses (antlers, horns and antennae?).
Were they deities? Could they represent lineages? Were they hunters? Whose "tag" was it? There was also a storage granary high up on the cliff, but I barely saw it. The Fremont people cultivated corn, beans and squash, the Holy Trinity of Native American sustenance, but they also relied on wild plants, pinyon nuts, berries and seeds, supplemented by wild mammal and fish meat occasionally. They'd store surpluses in the protective granaries. What did they do, rock climb with ropes to get to them?
Truly this was living off the fat of the land. What more could you ask for? An aluminum cooking pot, a bottle of whiskey, and a gun? Unfortunately, it did eventually come to that.
Exploring a Vast Geological Wonderland of Red Rock Wilderness

A "Can't Miss" Natural Wonder of Ancient Bristlecone Pines, Towering Mountains, and High-Altitude Beauty & Splendor
Nevada's only National Park, showcases the ever-redoubtable 13,063-foot Mount Wheeler, spectacular limestone caverns, and a 6,000 year old bristlecone pine forest. With its commodious campgrounds, expansive vistas and lack of people, GBNP is a joy to visit and explore!
Unfortunately, we always seem to be "just passin' through" . . .We set up camp by cold, golden and fast flowing Wheeler Creek, then went to the Visitor's Center to see the exhibits and check out the weather. A storm had been chasing our asses ever since leaving the Bay Area, and it looked inclement tonight.
We got a short bike ride in and then hit the sack early after a meal of corn soup, olives and crackers. We woke up to an inch of snow covering the ground! We quickly broke camp and hit the road.
It was somewhere between Baker and Delta we found a fantastic little pull-over and took a hike through a gorgeous canyon with soaring views of yellow mountainsides, sun heating the day up nicely, the storm a distant memory, birds melodiously accompanying us on our stroll through this unexpectedly marvelous "nowhere" place.
A Reunion with Family & Friends to Partake in Modest Derring-Do in the Back o' Beyond
It was awesome to meet up with my sister, Colleen, on her sacred land in Castle Valley. Also, the chance to meet her "Greek God boyfriend" Yiannis was highly anticipated; plus, we reconnected with Turiya, their land caretaker, and Vijali, an artist-activist living on land next door.
Separated from Moab by a massive red ridge, Castle Valley is a "one in a vermilion" paradise, whilst Moab continues to cement its reputation as a fast-growing, unsustainable, sprawling commercial strip, tacky tourist mecca for two nearby National Parks (Arches and Canyonlands), and self-proclaimed (snooty and snotty) mountain biking capital of the world.
The twins bought ten acres in Castle Valley a few years ago, and struck gold with water! Shall we digress for a sec and discuss water in the desert? — make that no water in the desert! Yet the cities of the Southwest, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, Albuquerque, and hundreds of smaller but just as needy communities, continue to use it up as though there's no tomorrow. And there just might not be if they keep up their wasteful consumption — misuse — of it.
Just one scary fact: the subterranean water tables of the Great Plains and Big West have diminished to a small percentage of their original capacity, sucked dry by the gluttonous, glittery citadels of civilization, and by wrong-headed agricultural practices. When the water is no more, ceases to be, dries up, what then?
When no meteorological manipulations or medicine man rain dance or all the prayers on earth to the Water Goddess can make the clouds burst forth with their precious and for so long abused cargo of life-giving water. When that day comes, heaven help civilization.
Wake up call! That day has come.
A cursory briefing of a World Watch Water Report makes it frighteningly clear that lack of fresh water (re)sources is the single most determining factor deciding the ultimate fate of human civilization. Probably more so than nuclear winter, even. One day, maybe 500 or a 1000 years from now, perhaps sooner, our abandoned cities will lie in eternal ruin, in the bone-dry silence of once-lush Chaco Canyon.
I think they paid around four times what our rich, black, but probably depleted, land in Indiana was worth, but even so, it was well worth it, even at $8,000 an acre. If the water holds out, it will probably be worth $80,000 an acre in ten years.
They have a fruit orchard, enjoy surreal postcard views, serene vibes, and special neighbors and friends. The twins, not residing in Castle Valley, must retain a caretaker and demonstrate a need or usage of the water reserves, or the state of Utah will confiscate the water rights! One of these days, they plan to "retire" there, but for now the land is in the hands of their caretaker/friend, Turiya.
It was wonderful to meet Yiannis, whom I'd heard so much about over the past few years. Planning this desert reunion was a long-overdue opportunity to finally meet him. A workaholic, this was his first "real vacation" in fifteen years.
Hard to believe, he seemed so natural, at ease, I couldn't really picture him in a business suit or negotiating a hardball deal in New York or Athens. He's a gamer in my book! I really believe we made the most of our short time together, becoming true friends, perhaps even soul mates, and I would hope, friends for life, even though probably another five years will pass before we reunite.
Each and every day we packed in so much that come nightfall, all we could do was fall into our sleeping bags and drift off in imperturbable sleep. We had about five days to pack in adventure after adventure with the two indefatigable lovers of life; they were running on the unadulterated, amp 'em up adrenaline of love! Yiannis and Colleen are starry-eyed as two lovers can be!
Mary and I kept pretty good pace, however! And what a pace it was, non-stop from morning to night, so thoroughly exhausted at day's end that all we could do was stumble into our bags and pass out, let alone stay up late into the evening for tea, treats, great conversation, tomfoolery and merry times!
Our first day, we took off down Kane Creek Canyon Road, toward Hurrah Pass, just a speck on a map. Colleen and Yiannis had never mountain biked before (both are incredible "roadies", though) — and there we were, heading off into that blazing hot desert, plunging into canyons, gaining and losing breathtaking altitude.
It took a lot of gut to resolve to accomplish this ride . . . or is it that I've got a gut to resolve?
We ended up knocking out 40 gritty (literally) miles — a muthu-humpin 20 out and 20 back! I'm talkin' 40 sandy, rugged, rocky trail miles! It kicked my ass, I'll cop to that, and probably Mary's too, because that night we were both worthless after Yiannis graciously cooked us up a scrumptious, gourmet-on-demand meal (but he neglected to tell me he added "fetid" cheese to his otherwise delectable Greek salad!).
Next day, we were off to do the famous Slickrock Trail, but I had a gear shifter break on me, damn it! Great timing! But Rim Cyclery, oldest in Moab, fixed me up in about an hour ten, not bad, but it set me back $115, damn it! Friendly, great service, no-fuss folks (the mechanic did have an ego-need to fulfill, though, by making sure to tell us that he was some three-time champ of something or other biking competition.)
We pedaled over to Slickrock "park". It was teeming with bug-eyed twenty-somethings wearing all their important, requisite emblematic regalia identifying them as hip bikers. (Was I one of them? You bet I wasn't! I'm Old Skewl all the way!)
After a mile or so of awkward negotiations, Colleen wasn't sure it was her "thing" and she and Mary opted to ditch their bikes and wander around and talk. Who will ever know what was said, expressed, shared, communicated, and appreciated between my sister and wife during their two hour amble across the slickrock wilderness while the boys met their challenges and limits on the trail?
Yiannis and I chewed up the rollicking "trail" — just slickrock marked with yellow arrows — make that vice-versa, it chewed us up, and we have the abrasive souvenirs to prove it! Again, Yiannas was without protective headgear, despite the large notices on the signs to wear your helmet!
Turns out, he did fall over and over again, and jokingly, he'd glance up at me with a jaunty, almost immortal, smile, intoning with mock seriousness, "Tom, you gotta know how to fall." (One person called him an "organ donor.")
We rode out about seven miles over the lumpy, treeless, faded red rocky terrain, but didn't have enough time to do the full loop. So we took our time practicing at particularly technical stretches, and if we failed to make it up the first try, we'd go back and do it again until we made it up, or as the case may be, didn't make it.
On such occasions, Yiannis always assured me it was only because we weren't used to the activity, not because we didn't have the strength, it was the "tech-nik" he said, that would come with practice.
Well, I guess it makes sense. A seemingly simple uphill run of about four feet had stymied me five times, and Yiannis, with Colleen and Mary looking and cheering on, managed to make it up, around the side, but he admitted "it was cheating."
A second later a young woman rides by and in a graceful lunge, not a missed beat, she pedals right up the lumpy surface to the top. Like I said, it sent me reeling five times! We were stymied repeatedly on several tracks, but sure gave it A+ for effort! Yiannis, boundless with boyish enthusiasm, told me, "Tom, I'm hooked on this sport now! Colleen's not gonna like it."
The next couple of days were taken up doing a monster backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park. Crazily, we had only allotted a day in and a day out to explore/enjoy this 527 square mile sanctuary of colorful mesas, canyons, buttes, fins, arches, pinnacles, spires, grassy gardens, and potholes.
This supernal wilderness of rock in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, evoking romance and adventure with namesakes such as the Maze, Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Rivers.
One day in and one day out just didn't seem like enough time (you could spend a lifetime getting lost in this remote terrain and see but a speck of its vast grandeur), and it surely wasn't. We chose the Needles District, and Salt Creek Canyon in particular, after reviewing our options with Turiya, who'd hiked it before and was enthusiastically urging us to go there as she unfolded her well-used 7.5 topos of the area.
It didn't take much persuasion.
Apart from the magical circumstances of perennially flowing water sources and stunning desert backcountry scenery, and incomparable solitude and abundant serenity, Salt Creek Canyon is a repository of archaeological, historic and ecological treasures, a special place of intriguing rock art, ruined structures, and cool caves and angular joints formed by intersecting slabs of adjoining boulders.
We all gathered in one such "joint" at the precise moment that the sun's pellucid golden rays shafted through to fall upon us, forming a perfect and utterly holy cross of light on the floor.
During this intensely spiritual moment, we huddled together, arms embracing, as Yiannis spontaneously offered up a prayer/incantation of peace, love, happiness, joy, and prosperity; a truly beautiful and rhapsodic, spell-casting oration, bestowing his buena onda and good karma upon one and all as though he were a pagan priest blessing us and the world.
Before any hiking was to be done, we first had to get our overnight permit. That took up forty-five minutes to an hour when it was all said and done, forced to listen to a summertime kid give the standard litany to the tourists — stay out of the water, pack it in pack it out, no firearms — and, sign here, swearing not to destroy the national treasures and monuments along the way. (Do people really violate the rules?)
And as for the bears, we were alerted, take every necessary precaution! (Oh, my!) They too dig Salt Creek Canyon, for its water and abundant delectable flora, so they trundle down out of the La Sal and Abajo mountains to forage; we were warned to hang our food.
I pooh-poohed that notion; in more than 20 years of camping and hiking in "bear country" I have never once hung my food and never once had to contend with a prowling ursine (well, maybe once).
Yiannis looked at me with a surprised expression, "Are you sure, Tom?" I said yes, that we all have positive bear medicine, nothing to worry about. (Yiannis and Colleen unconditionally accepted and trusted my answer.)
And, of course, despite such unwarranted hubris, I was right, not a bear nor any scat in sight. As it turned out, we were lucky to get a permit, one of the last ones to be issued on the spot, but it was at the 8.5-mile camp site, above Upper Jump, which meant a long, slogging hike. On a 1 to 10 scale of flawless, pristine days, this was a 10.5, and hot as August already.
Yeah, you're thinking, it's only 8.5 miles, but it was some of the hardest mileage I've ever trudged! The first two miles plunged over 1500 feet down a boulder-strewn trail through a gaping cleft in massive rock walls.
The remaining miles were vast stretches of sandy, unshaded trail; we got all scratched up by thorny trailside brush. The sun beat down and we were dying for a swim in the first pools we came to, but we resisted the temptation, not being bears or foxes or coyotes or deer for whom the pools are reserved.
Mary and I certainly regretted carrying so much gear on such a short hike, and Colleen and Yiannis, no doubt, were happy to be venturing into this wild country with just fanny packs, their sleeping bags, Spartan food supply, and JUST a quart of water apiece! At one point, Yiannis picked up my pack and was astounded at its weight. I suspected he was even impressed, but then he called it "foolish".
Yeah, ok, laugh, but when you need the medicine kit for some emergency, or me to filter water for you, or a freak rain or dust storm forces you into my tent, let's talk then! I couldn't figure out if it was Icarus-like hubris, boyish naivete, macho bravura, or simply the deep faith borne of natural confidence in the world that Yiannis possessed, or what, that allowed him to be convinced of his invulnerability and immortality. Turiya was similarly perplexed and concerned by their seeming lack of preparation.
Granted, we were only going in for one night, but still, you've got to be prepared! Or as I put it to Yiannis during our discussion of why I was carrying so much, "Be prepared for anything, expect nothing." If that means carrying 60 friggin' pounds, then carry 60 friggin' pounds!
Well, they were on their ultra-light, minimalist kick, which I don't knock, because there's a legit place in my book for that! I admit, too often I overload myself with the unnecessary weight of frivolous creature comforts, which is sort of Yiannis' point: you can get by without, or with much less, than you think you need.
Okay, well, if this is so true, then why not strive for the ultimate, and leave it all behind, let it all go, no sleeping bag, no food, no water, just you, a knife, your wits, and hello tooth and fang world. That would have even been a relatively easy thing to do as an "experiment", set off on the hike in resolute ascetic minimalism: no sleeping bag, no fanny pack, no food even, since it's for only a day or two.
Anyway, I said to Yiannis and Colleen, "The ancient ones lived here, danced here, ate here, played here, loved here, fucked here, died here, and how nice, we get to camp here! We are not those people. It's a fantasy to think you can come here and be them, live like them. . .go ahead, try!"
Five or six miles down trail seemed like an eternity with all the weight and the intense sun bearing down on me. To make things worse, the blister on my right little toe was killing me! Yiannis had an old country remedio: tomato! At a rest stop, he took my toe in hand, brutally manipulating it as he rubbed part of a tomato on it, then wrapped it in a band-aid; it was agonizing, but Mary said I was getting a taste of my own medicine!.
We had passed seductive pools and rivulets of water, an old homesteader's cabin, some Ancestral Puebloan ruins, and two spectacular arches (Angel and Wedding Ring), but where was the famed "All American Man"? We finally came to it — a five foot tall pictograph tucked high up in a reliquary shelf, painted red, white and blue (looking cartoonishly Martian) with flag-like stripes emanating downward from his garment.
We speculated endlessly as to its meaning: a magico-religious representation of some colorful deity? I "jokingly" said it was a drawing of a future time-traveler from the USA! Maybe it was just a fanciful depiction, simply art for art's sake? (I contend much of prehistoric rock art is just that!) Yiannis threw down his pack and nimbly climbed up the rock wall for a closer inspection.
Before leaving, he placed a pair of smooth antlers lying nearby in a niche as an offering, a bestowal of our presence and passing at this sacred site. Nearby were other intriguing pictographs of faces — four bizarre visages — bearing a strong resemblance to African and Chinese people! (But, how, you ask, is it possible?)
Finally, past Upper Jump, we made it to camp. I had to put my pack down and go assist Mary — a short distance from All American Man, the trail disappears up a wedge of towering rock, and then resumes its northward course to Peekaboo Spring and into the heart of the Needles. Then, maybe 1500 feet, is the camp! We had it to ourselves, thank God!
The way it's set up, it's a restricted space designed / designated for multiple parties (maybe two or three parties of two or three people each). We coulda ended up having to share it, horrors! At the tinaja, lucky for all, I had my lightweight SweetWater Guardian filter! Because Mary and I had 100 ounces each in our Cambelbak bladders, we still had some water left at the end of our hike, but Colleen and Yiannis had a great need to filter water as soon as we hit camp.
Imagine: flowing water amid harsh, arid surroundings; nothing more precious than water in the desert! We first offered up humble prayers of Thanks and Praise, to Tlaloc, to all Rain Goddesses and Water Spirits, and then, deeply grateful and reverent, I filtered the life-sustaining substance into our bottles as Yiannis held forth on some highly evolved topic in the stratosphere of his consciousness.
The Greek philosophizer was fond of saying, "Don't bring the conversation down to here, Tom", while also intent on protecting a spinning spider from my bumbling shifting about while filtering water. "Watch out for her, Tom! Be careful! Your leg! Look what you did!" Sounds facetious, but Yiannis was dead serious about thinking I was going to take out the busy little arachnid with one swoop of my foot!
The dying light of day reflected in the small pool, coloring it in translucent sheens of lavender and earthly hues of fuchsia, Christ, it was so beautiful, Jesus, it was so serene! We reveled in our lesson in humility — without water, we would die! (Filtering water is also a great zen-like practice, a surefire lesson in patience as well!)
In the early evening, a luminescent full moon rose! Poor Mary was having her period and pretty much passed out in the tent with cramps and nausea, poor baby, couldn't enjoy the pale night's splendor. I suggested a Midnight Moonlight Meditation, but only managed to stay up for a while, just long enough to appreciate the elephantine shapes of the rocks taking on indescribable hues!
As the moon illumed the surreal surroundings in this, Heaven's Back Forty, I became enveloped in a psychotropic-like shamanic vision, in the albion glow of a déjà vu dream.
My sight began to play tricks on me — gargantuan piled up boulders were upheaving and quavering like Jovan behemoths. Stars twinkled and twittered like hallucinogenic tracers. A moment of silence seemed an eternal solitude; Yiannis said it was so great you could hear the Earth spin.
Well, of course, I was crashed in my bag by the time the moon really rose . . .Yiannis later said he got up around midnight and walked to the water holes and checked things out. I was pissed he didn't wake me or Colleen to go with him, to experience that powerful moment together.
After getting back from Salt Creek Canyon, we were so exhausted, I was nearly delirious. The hike out kicked my butt. At Cathedral Butte, where we parked the car, I was never happier to see that contraption of metal and rubber!
On the drive out, on that bumpy road through Beef Basin, we thought we were lost. Nothing looked familiar out there in that vast surreal landscape, with its inhospitable red ridges and deep maze of canyons, and snow-capped La Sals dominating to the east.
It was formidable, I was very happy to be driving along in the Outback, even though I thought we had taken a wrong turn! We finally we made it to the main road and decided we had enough energy and time to stop at Newspaper Rock. There, Yiannis banged his knee up good on a rock for yet another bloody abrasion-cum-souvenir!
In Moab, we took showers at a hostel Colleen knew about (ah, hot water, felt so good! washing away a pound of red dirt, gathering in tiny dunes at my feet in the grody stall), then decided to eat out (at some dumb pub) rather than cook ourselves. Stuffed with the mediocre food and a beer or two, it was all we could do to get back to Castle Valley and pass out.
That night, around eleven o'clock, all of us deep in the throes of dreamland, Turiya drives up with urgency in her step and wakes up Colleen and Yiannis to get them to go with her ("very special invitation") to the private sweat lodge ceremony being held down the road with a well-known Lakota medicine man.
They had promised to attend with Turiya, and no backing out now. Colleen, though, sleepily shooed her away: "Oh, Turiya, sorry, we're too tired to go, we just hiked 12 miles."
Turiya left but ten minutes later came storming back and woke them up again. "Colleen, I just drove seventy miles per hour to come and get you so you won't miss this incredible ceremony! I won't take no for an answer!" At that, Colleen and Yiannis felt guilty (or inspired) enough to rouse themselves from their cozy slumber to go with Turiya.
Next morning, relating the story, Colleen expressed how difficult it was, how it was "hot as hell", all that steam rising from the red hot rocks, everyone packed in, sweating profusely, but energized by it all. Colleen said it blew Yiannis away. I know I would not have been able to get up and do that after our long, tiring day.
Finally, the time came to bid sweet sorrowful adieus to Colleen, Yiannis, Vijali, Turiya, the Land. Seemed like the time just whizzed past in a blur of excitement, and now we had to head back home for California, but not before stopping at a few places we know and love.
Our restorative "secret" hot springs at Travertine, near Bridgeport where we blissfully soaked away our aches and pains of the past two weeks, not encroached upon by a single human, gazing dreamily westward to the snowcapped peaks of our beloved Sierra Nevada.
A stop along Highway 108 to sit by the roaring waters of the Clark River where it forces itself through a deep, narrow gorge before plunging into the Stanislaus River.
And, our final adventure, an off-beat search for the same river below Sonora, in the Diablo Range-like hills where we did find a scene nice enough to get in, and I remember feeling it was the most refreshing thing in the world after the tormenting hot drive in 100 plus degree weather.
And so ended our a-MESA-ing, BUTTE-iful and GORGE-ous trip through mysterious realms and sacred landscapes, witnessing spectacular sights, and engaging in a bit of oh-so-modest derring-do in the Back o' Beyond of the desert Southwest.
I can live with that, or die happy with the memories.