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At the Ranch

It was late when we got there, late enough that I was heavy with sleep all the way over—every blink an invitation to slip back into the twisted tangle of dreams lurking just beyond my eyelids. I kept fighting to stay awake for Darren’s sake, so he didn’t have to fight the same battle I was—plus the long, windy road—alone, but the cozy warmth of the car and the reassuring weight of puppy on my lap made it nearly impossible. Each time I surfaced to consciousness I opened my eyes on a new flash of shadowed, curving highway—a familiar road turned ghostly and strange in the night.

When we arrive, a new energy invigorates me. I’m wide awake and confident getting Darren up highway 19, knowing exactly which turn was ours, anticipating the bend—this other home to me, the smell of cold, sharp air, the dark outline of hills I know well. The night is almost day in moon shine, the crunchy layer of snow underfoot casting light all around us. Puppy runs happy laps while we pack our bags into the empty cabin, the soft glow of embers in the stove the only sign that life has touched this place. I know the rest of the crowd is up at one of the summer slash piles, burning the night a thousand shades of flame. It’s late, remember, so we tuck puppy in to bed and then chase the fire and my family up the road—I don’t quite know where they are, but I remember slash piles higher up than they’ve ever been—so we just keep driving, swaddled safe in the Jeep, the forest, and the stars, until we see the tail lights of the truck. The big shorthairs jump out from the backseat, a blur of barking, wagging tails and jumping, they lick our hands and circle our feet. And here is the legendary band of brothers, the raucous and rowdy, their familiar faces licked by firelight as the dark is consumed by the flames. My cousin Spencer is here too, and his friend—someone I met once, maybe—and everyone is happy, easy in companionship. I delight in the company of this group of Uncles, I’ve known them for so long, you see—and they’ve known me. The lucky benefit of a tight-knit family, so many people to remind you of where you’ve come from, and how far left you have to go.

IMG_4255The fire eats into the ground and dances for the sky, smoke roils up to the above—meeting no clouds on this starry night, only the moon to whisper secrets to as it passes by. We stand around and listen to them tell stories, bullshit mostly, as one does in the presence of beer and fire, until the cooler drifts towards empty and the circle grows quieter and quieter. Muckle Matt tells my Dad he’s driving the truck back to the cabin—like hell you are—this pack of animals play fighting like any other. We follow them back down the road in the Jeep, my Dad hunched on the tailgate (of my own damn truck!), my Uncle Matt the victor.

In the morning Darren leaves early to elk hunt and I let that little puppy into my sleeping bag, until the combined heat of both our bodies is too much to handle in one down cocoon and we break out of the little cabin gasping for cooler air. The day hasn’t quite started yet, early dawn light washing the world blue, but we are up. I need too much from this place to be able to sleep in—we have so much to do and so little time to do it in, or so it feels. Cedar has no fear here, something instinctive in him has sparked, and he runs hard up the hill, free from cars and sidewalks and the noise of people. I have no fear here too. His ticked coat blends in too well with the patchy snow on the ground, and now big fat flakes are flurrying down from above, so I can hardly keep track of him as he speeds around the drive, nose to the ground. I whistle for him, whistle again, until he appears at my side (as if by magic) and we go into the big cabin.IMG_4261

A slow starting morning for those of us here, though we keep an eye on the porch for the elk hunters. My Uncle has a tag and is leading a bit of a war party out there—the boys all clamoring for the experience, thrilling at the thought of sighting one, hunting something, connecting to that primal animal that lives in each of us. I am content here, today—the cabin heated by the fire, coffee in the pot, my garden book begging for my perusal. The familiar voices of my family swirl and settle around me, boot stomping, a little puppy yelp once in a while from the dog wrestling happening on the floor. We’ve got a bird hunt to go to a little later on—well, really I don’t think I can go. I’ll be sacrificing today to spend with Cedar in exchange for many more seasons hunting behind my own dog, but I’m excited for the others. I know how their hearts will beat a little quicker at the ROOSTER call, how they will start (can you help it?) at that harried flurry of wings, how they’ll race towards the dog, standing stock-still in the cover, every cell in their bodies concentrated on a smell (the most delicious of all).

I know how it will go, and I know I’ll feel a brief pang of frustration while I watch them walk away—their backs a line of orange vests and camo, the men easy and open as they get started, the boys tense with anticipation—I will feel left out. Puppy will be at my feet, whining as the big dogs walk away, we’ll be united in our mutual unhappiness—standing here on a bluebird sky day, a weather-beaten barn casting shadows to our left, a hundred birds missed for the shots I won’t be able to take. And I also know that this will give way to wistfulness, and then optimism, as I head back down the highway in the Jeep with my dog riding shotgun, a day at the ranch open and all mine.

I have no time to waste on disgruntled unhappiness, not when I have an open road ahead of me and that wide blue sky above, a good dog snoring gently by my side. The local radio is playing something twangy, the black and yellow ticks by steadily as I curve down towards that land I’m tied to. Quiet again when we get back, a dead fire in the stove and breakfast still all over the counters. We were out there at Skip’s—was his name Skip?—for an hour or so, after the elk hunt proved fruitless and we drove the highway for too long looking for the right turn-off. Cedar did enough romping around that he’s tired now, and he sleeps on Dexter’s bed in front of the fire I get started again, rote in my actions although I rarely am here alone. Outside my hands are cold as I chop kindling, my nose runs constantly, my face gets a little dumb while I stand on the porch with an armful of wood. So much of this place is colored by the people who love it—this view, of the road carved out through the valley, racing away from the cabin and into the beyond---I’ve walked it a hundred times on foot and a thousand times in my mind. This view that my Dad made his legacy, that Uncle Ollie caught in oil paints, that Uncle Jay gets up early to see. The view that my Mom looks out on and recognizes the person she loved first—before all the rest of us—all the wild in an almost untamed heart, all the dreams that were made reality. And I stand here, and I see all this, but I see more too—I see what it means to me, something intangible and unspeakable, and all the things it will be to me.

These trees and rocks and dirt, they don’t mean anything until we make them something. Humanity’s gift and curse, this fight for reason—our reason to be—in a world that asks us to accept only because. But here in front of me, stripped bare and sacred, is my reason. Because I am alive and I am a part of this, more than anything else. Because I know nothing but contentment among these wild things, because to walk for miles on rocky ground is to know the only God I do. I think we are all seeking the same things, out here, though we walk different roads.

Cedar whines from inside, I’ve been gone for too long. I go inside, feed the fire through the black yawning maw of the wood stove. I make tea while Cedar wakes up, and then whistle for him outside—we’re going for a walk.

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No Birds

IMG_3703We weren’t sure we could make it through the Gorge in the dark. It had been a false winter storm warning in Portland, but not in Hood River—they were knee-deep in snow and up to their armpits in ice. Outside the wet warmth of the valley, there was a world of harsh weather and winter the way winter was meant to be: dark wind, biting cold, a fierceness the sun cannot touch. Morning was our only hope. There were chukar out there to hunt, and I was itching to go—it’d been awhile since I’d been out, held captive as I am by a regular job and a rash of recent travels. I needed fresh air and something to sharpen my senses, to force my mind to focus on one singular, instinctive goal, and to pursue something tangible. I needed to go walk around for a while with a dog and my dad. A little fresh air, some wide open spaces. It’s not too much to ask.

Uncle Jay’s headlights carve out two tunnels of light in the still dark of 6:30 when he pulls up to the curb, mired as we are in winter’s short days and long nights. I watch him idle for a minute out the kitchen window, imagining how cozy it must look here in the house while he is out there, listening to the huff of the car and the churn of the heater while chill creeps in through every crack. I open the door before he gets there, too early on a Saturday for even a knock (my roommates, safely sleeping, would not appreciate the same early wake-up I’m reveling in now) and say want to come in, I’ll be ready in just a sec. A thousand times, my Uncle says, looking too big in my kitchen—a lot of wool--a thousand times did Ryan and I make plans to get up early and go hunt, only to have him pull up to the Wilderness, no lights on, no one up. He'd come wake me up--he'd go through Grandma and Pepere's house in the dark? I interrupt, in disbelief--oh yeah, and be so pissed, but we'd go. Well I guess I'm doing good, I tell him, and he says, I'm amazed. Get your stuff.

My Uncle is a good story-teller because he is honest and unflinching in his appraisal of the truth as he sees it. As we drive out of town and into the yawning maw of eastern Oregon, the day’s first light illuminating the icy walls of the Gorge (a thousand shades of clear glimmering in the dawn), we trade stories—the worst times we’d ever been homesick, the restless ache of wandering hearts, children, why the Gorge stays icy. There are a lot of things I think my grandparents did not do well for my Dad and Uncles and Aunts, but my God they can all tell a story. There is nothing as captivating as a Hobson, starting off slow and picking up speed—well, one time…and then taking off, creating a world for the listener to enter, mesmerized by the magnetic personality standing in front of them. It is beginning to be a lost art, storytelling is. I can write you anything, craft you something beautiful and tangible in print. But I can’t weave a yarn with my voice the way my family can—effortlessly—the way my Uncle can, here in this car, or at a Winter Solstice party, or around a bonfire. Not me, not like that.

We get stuck behind snow ploughs from Cascade Locks to Hood River, a winding line of cars both trapped and freed by their slow progress. Without them, the road would be nearly impassable—but with them, we are inching along for thirty miles, watching dirty snow spray the side of the road. We’re gonna be late, my Uncle says.

We are. By the time we spot my Dad’s truck, at the turn-off to Ajax Road we’ve lost an hour of hunting time. The Subaru takes the lead—your Dad doesn’t know how to drive in the snow, my Uncle tells me—and not three minutes later we watch through the rearview mirror as the truck ploughs into the side of the snowbank (one dark dog head bouncing wildly in the passenger side). You should’ve heard Uncle Jay laugh.

Finally, we come to a barbed wire fence stretching as far as we can see in either direction. Here, we’ve made it, the snow ankle deep and blanket white, tucking in the earth, the land put to bed. Deep cold breaths fill my body to the tips of me—hair to toe cold—and I hurry with layers, pulling on boots and gloves, a hat. The sun is present but without warmth, the light is the kind of bright that only comes when the sun’s rays are magnified by a thousand miniscule diamonds littering the ground. I squint my eyes, take it in. A canyon before us, the faint outlines of a road stretching past the gate, sagebrush smell hovering—or maybe I imagine it—just out of nose’s reach, dampened by the white. Grays and greens and tans shimmer in the distance, somewhere warmer than where we stand here. Save for the wild running the dogs are doing—raucous circles around each other in their anticipation of what’s to come (they know, as we pull out guns) that it will soon be their time to do what they were born to do.IMG_3697

To be so lucky as to know what your singular purpose is from the moment you were born. I envy them their ease, I pity them for there is so much joy in discovery.

I have always known that I am a creature of relatively dull senses, my reactions slow, my range of scent limited, my ears clumsy instruments, my eyesight unusually bad. But I can’t help but feel a little more aware, out here, where nature demands your attention if you know how to hear what she’s asking. We start walking, the steady squeak and crunch of boots sinking through the snow to the iced crust underneath beating out the rhythm of the day. I see, I hear, I feel. My face is numb already by the time we drop down into the canyon we’ve been courting, Uncle Jay taking the hill side with Remi, my Dad and I at the top. I follow the narrow trail Dad carves out in front of me, I’ll spread out in a minute, but for a while it’s nice to follow a familiar back through rough terrain—have the low spots and rocks pointed out to me, beat no path of my own but trust the one being made for me.

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We get lower and the snow thins, I break off from my Dad and take the middle, wading through the sagebrush at the bottom of the draw, keeping an eye on the dogs—though they are forever dancing on the edge of my view, try and match my pace to the two flanking me. I curve around and meet back with my Dad—no birds here. It’s quiet, and still, and all the places that look likely get a dog sniff in them and a proverbial shake of the head. No birds here. So we keep walking, cover more ground. We come out of the canyon and crest a ridge, and from here we can see out over the rumpled hills that cascade towards the John Day. To spend forever ranging through this terrain would not be long enough—there is too much, and too many, things and places to see. Where do the animals hide is not for us to know. We walk more, down a deep bowl in the land—where an old, abandoned homestead sits, lonely and forgotten. It cries out for company and gets no response, shivering out here in the middle of this winter. We cross an endless field—maybe the birds have sought higher ground, although it seems unlikely. And still, nothing. The dogs work harder, run farther, put their noses closer to the ground. But there is no scent for them to hit, to fill their hearts and minds with the smell that will stop them dead in their tracks, lock every muscle in their body as if to say—THERE. THE BIRD IS RIGHT THERE.

It’s a day of trying. I’ve been out the whole day in stuff like this and never seen a thing. You have to enjoy the journey, remember. And I do, my spirit brightened by good company and good dogs, a wide blue sky, the welcoming embrace of land that isn’t home but is familiar and loved all the same. We eventually come back around to the untouched, unstubbled stretch of white that marks the road back to the truck and we hop on it, relaxed and more casual now. There’s another spot we’re going to try, since this one proved so unsuccessful. The sun is still high overhead, there’s daylight left, we might as well see if we can find something somewhere else. I thought we might get lucky here, Jay, my Dad says, but it maybe it’s the snow. Would be worth coming back when it’s clearer—and then, with a rush of beating wings and the burst of tiny hearts, a covey breaks right off the side of the road, catching the whole lot of us—humans and dogs alike—off guard.

Chukar soar off, and we stand like statues, dull senses roaring. Well I’ll be damned my Dad says. Walked all that way and they were here in the road the whole time. My Uncle throws up his hands, we hoist guns a little higher on our shoulders, and keep walking for the truck. Better luck next time. The birds are black against the sky, though I know they are a steely gray in the hand, and while we walk I watch them dive into a different canyon, somewhere else. We could go after them, find them somehow, put those dogs to work. But I am too content here, with this moment and this day, to feel like chasing any other dream. I am already in one I'm loathe to leave.

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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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