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Horsehoe Canyon

photo 1 photo 2There’s only been a couple of places that I’ve been adamant we visit, and one of them is Horseshoe Canyon. We were going to go on our way in from Salt Lake, because the Canyon’s in the Maze district of Canyonlands which is about two hours outside of Moab, so it would’ve broken up our trip nicely. But the rain on the first day made the threat of a flash flood to real to ignore, so we skipped it and thought—maybe on the way back. But it’s now 10 a.m. on Friday morning and we have to be back in Salt Lake by 6 to catch our flight at 8. Two hours to the canyon, three more to Salt Lake and we’re still playing with a baby in Moab mid-morning. The odds aren’t great. However, this has never stopped us before, so I remain hopeful that I will stand underneath a 9,000 year old painting, see the Great Gallery with my own eyes, feel the Holy Ghost watching me. By hook or by crook, I think we can do it.

So we tear out of Moab after visiting Darren’s friends and their new progeny and head for the Canyon, while I try and do the math of how long we’re going to have down there. I have to count and recount, because as we all know my genius lies in words and not in numbers, but eventually I figure it out—three hours. Three hours to do six miles, two thousand feet of ascending and descending, and our time window will be noon to three. I tell this to Darren and he laughs, because what else can you do? Sit in restless silence while a red dirt road stretches for endless miles across a flat, wide mesa? Well, yeah. You can do that to.

I’ve never been so motivated in my life to get out of a car and get hiking. We are machines of efficiency, even in the heat—I take a picture of the Canyonlands sign and it comes a little wavy, the edges shimmering in the heat. This is promising, I tell Darren. This is really good!

Naturally, we jog the first part. This is not rational, but it does feel effective—we’re both so jumpy in the beginning that a brisk walk would turn into a kind of skipping so eventually we just started running, yelling we’re doin’ it every few feet. It takes a little while to get to where the descent into the canyon even starts, but then we round an enormous boulder and see it—a long, switchbacking trail of sand etched into the canyon wall. We sprint down it.

At the bottom, we realize the sand is not a passing trend. It’s all dry riverbed bottom from here on out, every footstep a balancing act in motion. We weave through canyon, trying to figure out where the hardest path would be, and also where the shade, if any, is. After what feels like thirty minutes but must’ve been five, we meet another couple coming the opposite direction. They’re in head-to-toe gear, long pants, sun hats, button down shirts, hiking boots, hiking poles? Meanwhile, Darren’s in chacos and I have an aging pair of Nike Frees. They eye us, we eye them. They tell us good luck, we say thanks, hopefully won’t need it, and continue lurching along in a half walk, half jog.

Then, there ahead of us, a park guide materializes—an enormous backpack shadowing his head. Be careful, he tells us, do you have enough water? Yep, we say, we should be good. I’ve been in here for three days, he says, looking at us intensely. It’s very hot. Seems like it, Darren nods. And then the guide says, squinting at us, well, there’s only one other couple in here, so you should have the Canyon to yourself. No one else will be starting at this time of day. Good luck.

We’ve been getting a lot of good lucks lately.

The canyon is beautiful, steep sandstone walls lining our way through the canyon, the merciless sun tempered by the beauty of the riverbed we’re following. After half an hour or so, still slipping along in the sand, we get to the first cluster of rock art. A small path curves away towards the cliffside, and we can see faint flashes of red high above us on the wall. I look at Darren, he looks at me, we drink some water, and then we keep moving. We can stop on the way back, it’s decided, because it’s more important to us to get to the Great Gallery than to see some sideshow on the way there. Four or five more bends, Darren says after we get started again. I’m pretty sure we’re getting close.

All I can say about this next part is that it became a death march, an endless hike through sand and sun, every few feet reaching for the camelback. Water, the body screams, more water. In the car on the way to the airport I’ll drive through the desert with a water bottle jammed between my knees. I have to take tiny sips to ease the pounding of dehydration in my head, the horrible ache of cells crying for water. But in that moment, getting there, we are so intent on making it to the Great Gallery that nothing could stop us. Single-minded to the point of recklessness. And we weren’t getting close, it was far further than four or five more bends—so much further that I stop keeping track and the only thing I can look at is my feet, getting covered in sand. Finally, Darren says, are we crazy for doing this?

And without hesitation, I respond—absolutely.

But then, there—not fifty feet from of us, the panel unfolds! Darren lets out a triumphant whoop, and I laugh. A divine moment of grace, of salvation, a sure sign of a kind universe, the Great Gallery. Squinting into the sun, I can see the towering figures painted on the walls, quietly guarding the canyon that almost killed us.

A man is sitting on a bench in the shade of a lone tree, watching the wall—glancing back briefly at us as we approach. Hi, Darren says as we approach the bench, sweating profusely, don’t let us interrupt you. He smiles and holds out a hand, his weathered face crinkling into a grin. Don’t worry about that—he says, and introduces himself. John from Moab, recently retired senior English teacher at the high school. In bits and pieces his story comes out, as does ours—Darren asks him about friends who went through the school, and he taught them all—we compare notes on other pictograph sites in the Southwest worth visiting. He’s giving a lecture at the Rock Art Conference of Utah in Kanab on this site, as it turns out, and so we pepper him with questions about the art in front of us. Serendipity looms in the face of all this—a chance meeting with a rock expert after a hellish hike through the canyon—the solemn and fierce paintings before us, bearing witness to time and change, people and our mistakes.

The panel is long, marked by clusters of people—or people like figures—one is almost 9 ft. tall, another is known as the Great Ghost as he has an oblong and many-patterned body. The canyon is quiet, punctuated by John and Darren talking. I listen, and look, try and soak in as much as I can. It’s a little intimidating to sit here in the face of 9,000 years of human history and know that a much hardier race of ancestral people also sat in this same spot, trekked through the same canyon, and lived off this land. The desert preserves, is what I’ve found, holds tight to our history and forces us to face our insignificance at every turn. Even the sky is on it—look how big I am, it seems to say, echoing back to the expanse of red rock—look what a small piece of the puzzle you are. I’d say it was eerie, because that’s how I think it should feel, to be in these places that we’ve been. But it’s not. It’s profoundly peaceful, reflective, a quiet I trust.

John is telling us that this canyon was once a major thoroughfare—you would’ve never been more than two miles away from water at any time, and the Green Canyon stretches all the way to the Colorado River, and then some. Look, he says, and we pick up the national park binoculars that are chained to the bench. At the foot of one of the tallest figures, there’s a small barking dog, his mouth open in the direction of the way we came. Pictographs, he says, are thought to be spiritual places, tied to the makers of the art and to shamans. One theory about the dog is that he’s barking in the direction intruders—or anyone—would come, alerting the people to their presence. And look, he says, they would’ve had color then all around them, not just this faded red you’re used to seeing. This is just the last ink to survive.

So in this way we dive deeper into the art than we could’ve before, get to know it better. See more, know more. Too soon we have to go, we’ve probably spent too long anyway. It’s hard to leave, easier knowing that we’ll come back. You can backpack into this canyon, stay the night—let a fire flicker up ancient canyon walls in the way people have done here for thousands and thousands of years. Be a part of the grand tradition, in some small way. We’ll do it, I know, he and I will always come back. We’ve already lost a part of ourselves to the desert—or rather, have found something that neither of us knew existed before. Darren had it already, learned from years of living under this wide blue sky, nestled into red rock canyons. I’ve just discovered it, I just found out how it can hold you captive, make you feel bigger than life, settle your mind, take you in and spit you back out. Here, what I could only read about in Edward Abbey books before, is a world waiting to be explored. We’ll be back, I know it. With a place that we’ve built up this much in our minds, and now in our hearts, how could we not?

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Indian Creek

photo 4Because it’s so hot, even in September, our sojourn out to the Needles district of Canyonlands is a somewhat lackluster affair. I have a dream of backpacking down into Canyonlands for a night—our days have been so open-ended it seems like a possibility—but Darren is against this. Because above us spreads a merciless blue sky, spreading a burning heat the likes of which our Oregon skin hasn’t known before, and all around us is red, red rock. Listen, he says, assuming his I’ve been around this area I know a lot, voice—it’s just rocks, down there in the Needles. It’s just like a forest of stone. What about this doesn’t sound cool? I’m not sure. You have to remember I’ve never been here before, not like this. I’ve only dreamed of it—desert days, desert nights. And now it’s unfolding for me, and I want to know everything, every nook and cranny and hidden pocket of this red, red world. Sadly that’s being denied to me. Because of the heat. The rational part of me respects this deeply, because I dislike being too hot, mostly because I sweat a lot. But the non-rational part of me wants to throw caution to the wind, sleep in a rock bowl and stare at the stars all night—the risk of becoming a bleached out skeleton in the sun be damned!

It’s important to note that I’m also coming off of a petroglyph and pictograph high at this point, so my emotions and sense of reality are not probably where they should be. Not sure if they ever are to begin with, but we stopped at Newspaper Rock on our way to Canyonlands and it was incredible. My excitement over the extraordinary array of rock art is carrying over to backpacking through a stone forest (will wonders never cease!) so try not to be too critical towards my total lack of reason. Early in the trip—first day early—I did what any self-respecting English major would do and bought a book about petroglyphs and pictographs at the first bookstore I could find because I was so fascinated by them. What did they mean? What myths were they trying to convey? I was unabashedly a tourist, craning my neck up this impressive wall of carving after carving, flipping through pages. I can never understand, of course. No one can—we ruined our shot there. But eventually patterns start to emerge and I think I understand some of what was being conveyed. Holy, holy, holy are these places, and Darren and I have been seeking them out.

Which is how I’m appeased with our next option for the day, one that doesn’t include dying out in the middle of the desert at high noon. We decide to go to a ruin that Darren knows, tucked away on BLM land underneath a steep overhanging cliff, that features a mountain range pictograph and some masks that are slowly eroding. We head out through Indian Creek, a legendary climbing spot near Moab, but today the walls are heat-shimmering in the sun, the mesas jutting up out of the land like a challenge. Darren points out formations as we go—there’s the Bridger Jacks, that’s the Cat Wall, here’s the South Sixshooter, over there’s the North. I collect the names like talismans, turn them over and over until they’re like a hymn in my head—bridger jacks cat wall south sixshooter north sixshooter—so I can memorize them, come back to them later. I love that about climbing—if you climb it first, you get to name it—and eventually there’s a name for everything, that speaks to the person who first did it, so they get to leave a little bit of themselves, in addition, I guess, to the blood sweat and tears they already left on the stone. Anyone else bumping along this dirt road wouldn’t know that they were surrounded by legends, but we do. A name for everything.

I spot the ruin first, a little dark window against the rock, everything else blending in completely. The rest of the tower begins to emerge, as we drive closer—a line of rock here, a shadow cast down the wall—but it’s incredible how well the house is camouflaged. As soon as my feet hit ground, little red puffs of dirt spiral up into the air and before me a steep field of boulders and agave rises up to meet the little ledge that the tower is perched on. It isn’t going to be a long hike, but it will be hot. It’s beautiful, in the stark way that everything is here, in the harsh way that everything is. We start walking, following a very lightly marked trail, little cairns stacked here and there by others—probably climbers—to mark the easiest route through. Prickly pear blooms in spots, livening up the landscape with some color, and the whole way up I watch my ankles get scratched by rocks and cactus and everything in between. There’s a notched log leaned up against a particularly steep scramble and we work our way up, sweating profusely, the kind of sweating that you don’t even fight, you just let it happen. By the time we get there, both our shirts are drenched.

The tower, it begins to be clear, is built into a cliff that cuts off sharply on one side and a little gentler on the other, so we head that way, our progress slow but steady. Darren gives me a hand up on to the ledge, and then, suddenly, we’re here. The ledge is deeper than it looks, stretching the length of the steep curve of cliff band. Across from us, another mesa rises up to meet the sun, glittering dangerously. We’re protected now, from that ball of fire, tucked into the alcove of  stone that someone, a very long time ago, decided to make home.

Once my eyes adjust to the shade, I start to see where we are, really. On the wall high above us, three triangle mountains are printed, a fading red against the tan of this sandstone, with a big arc over the trio. They’d clearly been to the Lasals, I could see that for sure. Storms roll off the mountains here, Darren tells me, pointing at the arc. Maybe that’s what it was—an ancient person respecting the power of a thunderstorm, racing across the desert, sent from the mountains. Or maybe not—it could be anything, really. We’re just guessing. Below the mountains, a few feet down, are three masks that are mostly chipped away now—snarling, elaborate faces unlike anything we’ve seen thus far. Normally there are stick figures, etched into the rock, but these are something different entirely. I move away from them, a little uneasily, towards the tower.

Here, between layers of sandstone and some kind of mortar--a mud, maybe?—rises up a three story tower, evidence of the floor between the basement and the first story still intact. Thick branches are thatched across each other, layered with more of the mortar. Gray light filters through to the floor below, filling the basement with an otherworldly glow. Peering into this tower, someone’s home, I become suddenly aware of how quiet it is. There’s a kind of quiet in the world you have to look hard to find, the kind that pushes in at you, presses in all around you, and that quiet is here, now. Quiet and still is the desert today.

Darren has sidled past the little gap in between the tower and the mesa wall and is moving on to other structures while I stand here for a minute, put my hand on the edge of the tower. Are we trespassing, I think, or paying homage?  I follow him through the gap, climb through the window of another room—this one with no roof—and find him in what looks like a sweat lodge. Black rims a hole in the roof, which is the ground I’m standing on, as the lodge is dug in to the wall and built into the slope of the hillside. I don’t go down there, can’t make myself get into the dark, but I can see from where I’m crouched that benches are built into the walls and a deep, black circle in the center of the room marks where the fire would’ve been built. Can you believe this is all still here? Darren asks, and I can’t.

It’s all a little surreal—hiking through agave and prickly pear to the homes of people who lived thousands and thousands of years ago, to seek shade and shelter in the same curve of the earth that an ancient person also sought. What a legacy to leave,  I think, as we discover corn cobs littering the floor of a granary and hundreds of pottery shards—some still painted—collected by people who have visited before grouped together on a flat rock. We sit in a particularly cool spot and debate what it might have looked like, really, before everything eroded and weathered many a storm, what the geography of this place might have been. We think some of the ledge must be gone, or shrunk, because the only way across it is through windows of the buildings, and that doesn’t seem effective. How did they get water here? Where was the bathroom? Where did this rock come from?

And who were they, I wonder? What did they dream of, what did they value? How many babies were born here, how many grandparents lost? What stirred their souls—the view of the canyon out their front doors, as it did mine, or would it have been the sight of a river, of water? Maybe they were used to this and took it for granted, as a normal part of life, like I do sometimes with my home. What stories did they tell at night? Why did they paint mountains and masks on a wall instead of the stick figures we’ve been seeing everywhere else?

After a little we leave, looking back at the tower until it disappears up into the wall, holding its mysteries close. At the bottom we pause, soak in the silence and the stillness, just able to spot the little dark window that marked the tower. There, a remnant of a culture and people, ancient lives still visible along a canyon wall. What will last of us, I wonder, and can think of nothing. What will be the testament to my life—here’s the question again, lingering. What will make people wonder about me? Maybe my writing, but maybe not—maybe there will be nothing left of me thousands of years from now. That’s probably true. But as we drive off, into the fading sun, it doesn’t seem so bad. A little anonymity never hurt anybody. Dust to dust, dirt to dirt, back to the land I’ll go, not gone, really—but a party of everything, in the end.

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Desert Nights

photo 1 photo 2I go to sleep with the music still loud, but it’s ok because I’m so tired—the kind of bone tired that makes it hard to keep your eyes open, especially when you’re sitting around a campfire, tucked into a down vest and surrounded by the particular brand of cold mountains make. We drove up here after finishing the climb at Fisher Towers, following the bumping taillight of John’s truck, climbing higher and higher along dirt roads and leaving all that red rock behind. We stop once, pulling over to the side of the road—I think we’re here already, or there I guess—but really we’re looking at a dinosaur print. John leads the way with a headlamp towards the edge of a little cliff, beating through low underbrush until he stops short suddenly, and bizarrely, there it is, a three-toed print that could easily hold two of my feet pressed into stone. We think it was maybe running and then took off flying from the cliff, but then the landscape could’ve changed since then, probably did. But it’s a cool image, to think of that prehistoric monster screeching over the valley we’re looking at now. It’s hard to imagine a body that big, but here’s proof, isn’t it? Staring back at us in the dead of night—here I was, a legacy left behind in one step. The campsite is another twenty minutes of winding forest road, to a place that John’s been camping out. It too is on the edge of a cliff, a cliff that John’s been working on ascending, putting up routes on. It’s quiet—we must be the only people around for miles I think, but then I remember my Dad saying once that if you ever think you’re far away from other people, chances are, you’re not. I walk towards the edge of this cliff though and sit down, legs over the edge. The boys have gone to get wood for the fire and for a minute I think to hell with parental advice, I really believe it—it could only be me here. I could be the only person left, staring into the bowl of this Utah sky. Stars have appeared now, flung wildly across the black fabric of night, twinkling millions of years away. Quiet presses in on all sides, so quiet that it hurts, until my brain can’t take it and starts making up noise. The stars start humming for me, sitting here on this ledge, so many and so bright they blur together. For a minute I fit in easily into the weaving of the world, though the entirety of my life is a flash in the pan to these stars and dinosaurs. Do they scoff at the mere minutes I’ll live? Will anyone know I’ve been here, will I leave a footprint in stone? Probably not. Even the words I treasure so much are a futile attempt at immortality. But sitting here—it doesn’t feel futile, to be a part of something as large and grand as this vista out here in front of me, swimming through these singing stars, however briefly.

I have to get up now, feel my stiffened limbs groan and protest against any more movement, I have to ground myself —you can get lost in those stars, you know. You can’t stay in that weaving for too long, you’ll never come back.

Every night here is a revelation—packed full days lead to exhausted, starry cold nights of putting up the tent in the dark, eating whatever we can make fast, and then waking up to something new every morning, because it’s always too dark to see where we are really when we settle in for the night. But that air of mystery, of being in a foreign place, navigating through the peace of a pitch black landscape is intoxicating.

The fire gets built up into a roaring, magnificent thing—alive, even, a fourth presence in our midst. Darren and I do dinner, peppers and onions, Otto’s sausage, rice and hot sauce, and only the crackle and pop of the fire can be heard when we start eating because we’re all intent on consuming as much food as quickly as possible. Hunger roots deep when you’re outside all day and all night, day after day and night after night. Music plays from John’s truck, more of The Devil Makes Three—it’s very fitting background music as Darren and John start swapping stories, some remembering the climbs they did and the friends they had, until the sound of their voices and Do Wrong Right get so intermixed I’m not sure who’s raising a ruckus and who’s giving advice.

I know when to surrender. My sleeping bag is calling my name and I throw the white flag, leaving them to that art we all learn as we keep getting older, reminiscing. So that’s why I go to sleep with the music still loud, the fire still alive and crackling. But it’s worth it, because sleep comes quick and easy and I go down hard until light, when an elk comes nosing through the woods near our tent, making plenty of noise—until we wake up and start making noise, and then he thinks better of this area. Did you see that! Darren exclaims, but actually I didn’t really, because I didn’t have my glasses on. But you can smell them, musty beasty things.

Outside we discover where we are for the first time since we got here last night—my star ledge overlooks a valley of pine trees, an undulating landscape of green, dotted with the yellow of changing Aspen trees. The leaves whisper in the breeze, the sun already hot, even this far up. Beyond the green lies the desert, mesas jutting up so red they almost look purple. There’s some green out there too, someone (Kerry maybe?) tells me they had a wetter spring than normal so things are still alive. But it’s a startling contrast, life in the desert, sand in the mountains, people out here at all. We leave John at the cliff he’s working on—sad to go, but happy we got to delight in this little world he made up here and that he shared with us, and then it’s on to the next thing. Another bright day, another starry night, another paradise to discover.

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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.

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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.

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