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Ancient Art

IMG_3407A small chimney looms as I work my way up the second pitch, a little narrow chasm that I really don’t want to go into getting ever closer. It’s funny—I’m not afraid of heights, not afraid of too much exposure, but I am afraid of chimneys. Later, after we get home from this trip and return to our normal lives, I’ll surprise myself by telling my Aunt Marni that it’s not the narrowness, really, it’s just not being able to move. I actually love small, dark spaces—I find them cozy. But only if I have full use of my limbs, and I’ll tell you something, this little crack doesn’t look promising. John told me at the anchor of the first pitch, while we watched Darren lead it, that the roof a quarter of the way up was the crux—the hardest part—of this route, until maybe you get to the little wobbly summit and then he’s not sure. Before every climb I’m nervous, full of pent-up anxious energy that usually goes away once I start moving. Here, on this ledge, while I watch John’s back burn in the sun and Darren slowly disappear from view, I feel like I might crawl out of my skin. I do all of the things that I know how to do, I say my mantras and I remind myself that I cannot solve any rock problem until I know what it is, and maybe there won’t be any problems anyway, I’ll cruise up and be fine. Mostly I wait,  trying to lean up off my feet—torn to bits on our first day here from new approach shoes—and make the occasional small talk with John.

It’s hard hanging out with all that nervous energy rippling under your skin (start line jitters but longer, you know the feeling), but at least we’re kind of in the shade and at least there’s a view—from the ledge we’re at we can see the rest of Fisher Towers, shimmering in the heat. John’s face is weathered, lines worn deep from years in the sun, his hands cracked from thousands of rocks and rope passing through them. There's something a little lost about him, a little wild, the way that boys get sometimes out here in the desert, the way Darren was when I first found him. He hums along to the reggae that's playing from his phone, rigged so it's hanging from the anchor. He sees me watching the rest of Fisher Towers and points out the ridge--his buddy, a guide, is climbing it today. He says the name like I should know him, and I probably should, because everyone out here seems to be someday. He's the guy who...starts most stories, or you know who climbed this? It's thrilling to be surrounded by that much climbing history, and a little intimidating. This rock demands bravery, edge, risk.

Finally, the familiar pause of Darren setting up the anchor comes and then I'm off--my first few moves tentative while I find a rhythm, and then more and more confidently, swinging my way up this sandy tower. I pull over the roof pretty easily, a win for me, and then, the chimney. I eye it, it eyes me. I ask Darren if this is how the route goes, he says he can't tell where I am. I try and describe it, looking for any way out of this crack. It appears that I have no choice, so I start struggling in, fighting the rock with the tiniest movements. Soon I'm wedged in but I keep wiggling, trying to move. It's not happening. My breath starts coming hard and fast, and I push myself back out where I can breathe easier. There's no way, I decide, and try an alternate route up the face--a little more exposed, something worth thinking about now that we're up much higher, but I still feel pretty solid so I don't worry. And then--hey baby, because I've popped into view for Darren, who gives me a wide grin and helps me attach my daisy into the anchor. That was fun, I tell him, better than yesterday. Yesterday we climbed halfway up off-balanced rock and I panicked in the same situation--a deep crack that I couldn't make myself get into. John starts climbing and we have a minute on the ledge to ourselves while Darren belays. The sun is still bright, blisteringly bright, but we're slotted into a little patch of shade. As far as we can see, just beyond our feet, is the desert. What once was an ocean floor is now an almost lunar landscape, a maze of steep, convoluted red rock towers, spines jutting out from the earth, little fins the perfect place for a person--or an imagination--to get lost. For being a harsh and seemingly barren landscape, there is endless possibility as far as we can see, a world to discover and enjoy. No wonder Moab captured Darren so completely--it's been a day and I've been stolen too.

We started the day back in Moonflower Canyon, our first day here a whirlwind of rambling from place to place--Darren eager to show me everything, and I a willing participant. We drive deep into Kane Canyon, searching for petroglyphs, we boulder with Darren's friends in a little brown pond and cave oasis somewhere past the river, we drive through Arches and get lost in a sea of Asian tourists at Delicate Arch. We make camp after leaving Arches right as the sun set, backpacking our supplies deep into the canyon, and watching around our campfire as the moonflowers slowly opened their faces to worship the night. And then, this morning--driving along the Colorado river to meet John at Fisher Towers, The Devil Makes Three raucous on the stereo as we get further and further into the middle of nowhere. When we drive up to the parking lot at the base of the Towers, John is sitting shirtless on the tailgate of his truck, playing the guitar and humming softly to the middle-aged women with hiking poles who are just setting out. There's some debate about whether we should do this climb or not--it's the middle of a damn hot day and we could be in the sun the whole way. But after a few beers it's settled--we shade hop and get to the top.

Now that we're almost there, it was decidedly the right decision to make. John joins us on the ledge, moving fast through the second pitch, and then it's on to the sidewalk and the spirally summit. Darren goes first, scrambling over a little hump of rock to the anchor on the sidewalk, a narrow little bridge that leads to the diving board and then the summit. Only one of us will fit the top at a time, so Darren goes first with the lead, picking his way carefully across the sidewalk, pushing up onto the diving board and then working up the tower to the very top, making it all look easy. He comes back and now it's me. I'm not nervous here, moving out onto the sidewalk, slowly but surely, but I can feel Darren tense behind me. It's a little like flying in this spot I think--we're up so high, and there's so little keeping me in the air, that it seems as if I could spread out my arms and take-off, or maybe I already have. Below us the smaller towers look like topographic maps, the rings of layers a perfect indicator of their elevation, and the greens and reds and ochres of the desert below start to blur together into one masterpiece of color and light. I get to the diving board without any problem, and then it gets a little tricky. The first move on the tower itself is a weird one--you push out with your right hand, balance on your left hand and foot, and then replace your right hand with your right foot. I can't do it though, despite trying over and over again, because my legs are short, and I end up attempting the splits. John and Darren coach from behind but after six or seven tries, and a few other attempts to try another way to get up, I come back to the anchor. I was doing it right, wasn't I? I say to Darren as John goes, and he tries a few other ways to get up too. But it's not to be--at least not for me. We'll come back, Darren says simply, and I know he's right. It's hard to feel bad about it when we've had such a good day, it's hard to even summon disappointment at not getting to the top. It's frustrating, but it's also bigger than me--I did everything I could with what I had. Next year I'll be a little stronger, a little wiser. For now I can look out at this view and feel content.

At the bottom, after a lengthy rappel, we crouch in the shade and drink the now-warm beer we've been hauling around all day. I tell Darren and John this landscape reminds me of the Lion King and they both nod solemnly. Walt Disney would be so proud. Back in the parking lot the sun starts to set in earnest, dropping like a rock into the horizon. The Priest and the Rectory, one of my favorite formations so far is backlit magnificently, an almost holy vision of sun and sandstone. For a minute I'm alone, watching the sky. Darren's at the truck with John, talking about where we're going to go tonight, but otherwise the parking lot is quiet, the desert still and impassive around me. Not much moves, no--we all stop and bear witness to the setting of the sun, an instinct time nor civility nor humanity can fight. The spell breaks with dark and suddenly night crashes in all around us. We're gonna go to the LaSals, Darren says, to a spot John knows--and he's gonna show us a dinosaur foot print along the way. Let's go, I say, the refrain of this trip. Let's do it.



Begin at the Beginning, and Go From There

photo 433 photo 432 photo 431I’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.