I’ve been procrastinating on actually putting cohesive thoughts on paper about this last trip we took because I haven’t known where to start. Begin at the beginning, and go from there, of course—but what if you’re not sure where it all began? Trust me, it’s not that there isn’t plenty to say—this isn’t a story a day kind of trip, it’s a story a minute kind of trip. You know how it goes, every time you turn around you are once again plunged into disbelief about the place you’re in or what you’re doing or what you just saw. There are a thousand things to say, moments worth remembering, vistas worth describing—but none of those stories by themselves capture the incredible lore surrounding Moab. Sure—it’s a climber’s paradise, it’s a symbol of dirtbag freedom, it’s a town founded by outlaws and mostly still occupied them, there’s that kind of lore. It’s important, of course, to know that about a place, but I’m more concerned here with the personal mythology we built up around Moab and the Southwest. This is where it gets tricky, because that’s difficult to capture too. Forget the stories, where did the legend begin? How did this place come to occupy such a monumental place in our imaginations and in our collective conscious? Did it start when we bought the tickets, three weeks before we left? Was it when, in the early raw days of Darren and Lauren, we wrote down everywhere we wanted to go in the next year and Moab topped the list? Did it build through the thousands of stories that came before we left, everything Darren’s told about his time there running wild, all the places that are talismans of his life and that I desperately wanted to be a part of mine? Or was it when we met, that night at the rock gym by the sloping wall, traffic racing outside the soaring windows, blurred lights in the night, while the other two people in the class climbed and I found out he had been living in Utah before he moved to Portland? Was it the second later when I asked if he had read any Edward Abbey, and he turned to me with reverence in his eyes, and said Desert Solitaire is one of his all-time favorite books?
Or was it before that even, when for a while the only book I had for company in Senegal was Monkey Wrench Gang, so all my dreams of that place are tangled with dreams of Hayduke living? Was it the trip we took to Mesa Verde as a family when I was 10 or 11, so infected by Rachelle’s energy for the ancient Anasazi and Kokopelli that we headed for a week across the Southwest? Or is a mimicry of the thousands of times I’ve heard my Dad say I love the desert?
That’s a lot of rhetorical questions for one day, but let’s hope the point got across. The journey to Moab wasn’t your average road trip. Though laced with the mundane—flights to catch, cars to rent, food to keep cold—it was mostly a trip of realizing dreams, our own personal manifest destiny. The story could start anywhere, really—maybe the threshold of narration is the night before we leave, packing mercilessly in the garage at 9:30 at night, the 3:30 a.m. wake up call looming dangerously in our fragile minds while we tried to fit a week’s worth of clothes, camping supplies and gear into three sub-50 pound backpacks, or if it’s the next morning, crouched against the cold at the MAX stop by work, while I quietly shred the edge of my ticket because I’m pretty sure we missed our train to the airport, or it’s when we land and we walk three floors of a parking garage trying to find our car, or it’s when, driving over, it rains so hard the desert is turned into the sea it once was, or it’s when we pull into Moab and the sky clears and we immediately meet Darren’s friends at the brewery he used to work at, where he still knows everyone, and we all fall in like we’ve known each other for a lifetime—it could be any of these.
Or maybe it’s the first morning we wake up in Moonflower Canyon after a night we accidentally spent on the town. I say accidentally because, after we met at the brewery, we came out to the Canyon and set up camp, then headed back for a quick drink with another pal who works at the local bar. You know how these things go when you’re a local rock star come home—you end up with free drinks and everyone under the sun knowing your name. But that first morning the tent stays cool, even as the day heats up, shaded as we are by the canyon walls and a spreading Fremont cottonwood, and Darren points out the rock formations he know. This one looks like a German soldier fist-pumping, this one looks like an alligator. I have to agree. They’re all walk-in sites, so we push ourselves out into the light, already rubbing sand out of eyes, and follow the meandering path a former river bed has carved out through the bottom here back to the car. Another cottonwood riffles in the breeze at the entrance of the canyon, the highway occasionally roaring behind us as a jeep or motorcycle flies on through. Look, he says, and I do. A collection of petroglyphs are etched into the entrance of the canyon wall, next to a shadowy dark chimney. They’re hard to make out, but maybe that’s a snake, a river, two people, a Moab man? I’m going to climb it before breakfast he says, chest deep into the chimney, because this is Indian Ladder, the mythical Indian ladder, where Darren used to come and play his homemade pan pipe flute with his friends and scare the shit out of the campers, acting as reincarnations of ancient, ancient spirits. Toying with something you don’t understand, I’d say but he seems to be curse-free.
I’ll come too, I say, peering up to the little square of light that refracts down from the top. Every six feet or so there’s a huge cedar pole jammed tight into each corner—hence the ladder. Notches are cut as footholes, making for easier climbing. The rock is different, sandy and somehow unstable, although you get a sense of age with every little heave of your body. Darren knows this ladder like the back of his hand, so he gives me pointers here and there until I push up to the top of the canyon wall, the campsite and cars significantly smaller now that we’re up here. This has always been here, Darren says, the native people used to climb this way too, and I believe him one hundred percent. We stand on top of the canyon, still in pajamas, and watch the river crawl as Darren gives me the lay of the land—there’s Wall Street, this way to town, further down is Tombstone—each name a memory for him and a place to discover for me. Let’s eat breakfast up here, I say, because I can’t imagine a better place to drink morning coffee. In minutes he’s back down on the ground (far more agile than any human has a right to be, or perhaps more in touch with his native side than I am), and then back up to me with the jetboil. Sitting, drenched in sun and drinking coffee, staring out over the promised land—yes, I think this is where it should start.