the majestic landscape of the american southwest.
we stopped to take a look at the ruins of the hanging flume on the drive from telluride to grand junction on co-141. dolores canyon, the afternoon sunlight, and the river silken with melt water put on quite a show for us!
so it’s been almost nine weeks since we visited the amazing, the awesome, the unbelievable bryce canyon national park, and i still haven’t gotten around to posting anything about our time there. why? well because really, what can you say? i mean, it really is beautiful; truly and profoundly beautiful. if you’ve been there, you don’t really need me to remind you of how insane the landscape is because you probably have a million photographs of your own. if you haven’t been there, then no amount of adjectives, no matter how artfully arranged, will provide even the tiniest glimpse of the beauty that this place tosses about with such wild abandon.
so let me just encourage you to find your way to bryce canyon at least once in your lifetime. not only for the nature, which let me repeat, is sublime, but also because witnessing the cross-cultural chaos that occurs when thousands of foreign visitors — from india, germany, japan, france, the uk, the middle east, australia, spain, mexico, brazil, china, russia and yup, even canada — collide with southern utah mormonism and the good old american tourist. imagine a table of parisians at an all you can eat buffet offering classic american items such as: chicken fried steak, pot roast, canned corn, baked beans, and dinner rolls more like giant marshmallows than actual bread. imagine overhearing an interaction between a red-faced german couple and their teenaged waitress that begins with a heavily accented, “vat exactly iz a pickle pie?” it’s an awkward, hilarious and touching parade of all the absurd variety that human culture has to offer.
fortunately, we did not camp at the park itself, or i’m sure that the aforementioned parade of humanity would have driven me absolutely batty. we stayed here , about 14 miles away from the park. (i’ll get around to posting some photos of this place sometime soon because it, too, is outrageously gorgeous.)
so if i were to summarize this post in three bullet points, they would go something like this:
if you want to skip ahead, there is a slideshow and an audio recording of tim talking about why he loves the needles district of canyonlands national park with such intensity. however, if you are willing to wait, and you want to read the story of how tim and i almost lost our lives in this unbelievably beautiful corner of the world, continue on.
the first big trip that tim and i took was in 2006. we caught amtrak’s lakeshore limited from springfield to chicago. we got off the train long enough to have a quick lunch with my chicago besties, wenner, freddie and m, and then we boarded the southwest chief and headed down towards albuquerque.
anyway, it was a long trip and very eventful. (ask tim about his relationship with our traincar attendant and why it was so awkward…seriously it’s worth it). after many adventures involving a tiny hyundai that we got from alamo rental and my first introduction to tim’s sister katja, we found ourselves entering canyonlands national park . what with all of our dilly-dallying in moab, we got a much later start than we had intended. still, it was a beautiful day, sunny and brisk, and we were very excited to be out on the trail.
you should know that it was march, and that winter still had a firm grip on the canyonlands. with the full sun pouring down on us, it was very comfortable for hiking, but in the slot canyons or in the shade, the air was brisk, edged with cold. we hiked up through the first pass and entered elephant canyon. a barely believable landscape passed around us; red sandstone spires giving way to wide sage-dotted plains, twisted bodies of junipers, and bright porcelain sky. we followed the dry bed of elephant creek, stair-stepping on god-sized risers of perfectly formed granite. and then we arrived at druid arch . for those of you who followed that link, i know, right? it’s beautiful! supposedly, it’s called druid arch because it looks like a celtic rune.
tim and i hung out at the arch for a good long while, taking photos and exploring the nooks and crannies along the canyon. then we continued on, making our way slowly to chesler park. we stopped at a grand overlook and ate our meager picnic lunch. we watched the sun began to settle towards the horizon. when we consulted the map, a slow horror began to creep into our consciousness. we had an 8-mile hike back to the parking lot and about 2 hours of sunlight to do it. this, through fairly demanding terrain, the path trailing up and around sandstone spires, disappearing into slot canyons, and climbing from the desert floor up through layers of geologic time. we checked our daypack and discovered that we only had one headlamp. the layers that we had brought along, which had felt so substantial in the noonday sun, began to feel meager and thin. we had no emergency blanket, no more food, and not a whole lot of water.
our pace quickened. the sun’s rays began to diffuse behind a layer of purple clouds crowding the horizon. darkness spread, swallowing the shadows like a rising tide. we decided to hike as long as possible without the aid of the headlamp. we had no idea how long the batteries would last and once we started relying on its light, we would be fully dependent on it. in the azure light of dusk, the path remained barely visible in our sensitized retinae; a pale ribbon twisting between the variegated darkness of plant life and cryptobiotic soil.
as if toying with us, the sky began to spit down a cold rain. lightning played on the horizon, illuminating what looked like a massive storm front heading towards us. my adrenaline addled mind began to frantically pursue possible outcomes. would we survive if we were forced to spend the night out in the wilds? would hypothermia claim us? would sharing body heat be sufficient? would anyone know we were still out here, scared and rushing heedlessly through the darkness?
eventually, the trail led us onto an undulating rock floor and then disappeared in its constant, monochrome surface. from here, our only guides were tiny, widely spaced cairns that stitched their way through a landscape made treacherous by sudden dropoffs and unexpected chasms. in the failing light, the cairns were all but invisible. we stumbled on, terrified of losing our way. the cold rain intensified. we turned on the headlamp and began casting about in the darkness, searching for the trail markers. when one of us couldn’t find the next one, the other would take the lead. slowly, in this staggering, frightened way, we continued on.
my memory began playing tricks on me. were we going in circles? had we rejoined the path that first led us into elephant canyon? finally, just as i was about to suggest that we stop and try to find a place to shelter for the night, we crested a low rise. tim shone the headlamp into the blankness ahead and uttered a cry of relief. he had seen the hyundai’s reflectors shining in the lamp’s pale beam. we had made it back to the parking lot!
giddy with relief, we hurried to the car and got in. somehow, the simple act of closing the doors made us feel safer. we hugged and high-fived, congratulating ourselves on surviving the ordeal. the awareness of how tenuous our situation had been came crashing down. if we had begun to bicker or lay blame, if we had taken one wrong step, one of us could have twisted an ankle or fallen and broken a leg. or worse. we could have lost the path and ended up wandering aimlessly, searching for a path that wasn’t there. we could have been soaked by the coming rain and succumbed to exposure or hypothermia. giddiness was replaced by wonder. how had we escaped unscathed?
as we left the park, a strange, almost surreal series of events taught us the price of our survival. in the few miles separating our parking space from a generous bed and a comfortable night waiting for us in bluff, ut a total of 14 desert hares streaked out of the darkness and sacrificed themselves to the hyundai. by way of comparison, in the entire 1 year and 4 months of this endless road trip, we have killed exactly zero animals. that night, we killed 14; the last of which lay down in front of us just as we turned into the sleeping town of bluff; just as tim uttered the words, “well at least we aren’t going to kill any more rabbits.”
in this sad way, we learned how much the canyonlands required in order to spare our puny human lives.
our latest visit to the canyonlands was much less eventful. we enjoyed a beautiful day with pati and andy, marveled at the incredible beauty of this sublime landscape, and made it back to our campsite without injury or loss of animal life. the canyonlands had accepted our sacrifice.
BURNING BRIDGES IN MORMON COUNTRY
in this audio clip, tim and i attempt to relate some of our experiences at the national bridges national monument. on listening, i realize that i can’t stop using the words “beautiful,” “amazing,” and “unbelievable.” sigh. before i record any more stories about our time in southern utah, i will have to consult a thesaurus. attempting to describe the sights and sounds at bryce canyon, kodachrome state park, and canyonlands will surely require the usage of similar concepts.
arriving in new mexico felt wonderful. arizona’s springtime temperatures were starting to edge towards summer and as we climbed the western slopes of the mogollon mountains, we were welcomed by a cool breeze, a pine forest, and a blue, new mexican sky. our tentative game plan was to find a place to camp near the gila cliff dwellings. it being easter weekend, we knew we were taking our chances, but we acted boldly and with confidence. the universe, i am told, responds favorably to those who do.
despite our general tardiness and the amber sunlight of late afternoon, we made a quick detour through silver city to give mazy a walk and refill on coffee. immediately, it became apparent that we were no longer in arizona. people were craggier, rougher; nary a spray tan in sight. the town seemed poorer yet more vibrant. there was a co-op selling locally crafted herbal remedies and several of the many bakeries and restaurants were touting local, organic ingredients. it even had a beautiful old abandoned rollerskating rink tucked into the corner of downtown. looking at the handlettered signs and careful muralwork, i could almost hear the laughter and music that must have echoed from these cinder block walls. olivia newton john’s thin voice hovered in the air and i fell into my own private xanadu fantasy. the things this old place has seen!
as the sun began to duck behind a high mountain ridge, we found an open campsite along the banks of the cherry creek, on the edge of the gila national forest. there were several other groups in the small campground, including one that was broadcasting an r and b oldies station. we set up our tent and cooked dinner while listening to the soulful sounds of the jackson 5, rick james, and teena marie.
after spending so many nights sealed off from the starry sky, it was wonderful to sleep outside again. the three of us bundled up in our tent, as thick as thieves, reclaiming each other as pack.
the next day we drove 35 miles of beautiful, winding roads into the gila in order to visit the cliff dwellings hidden in the wilds of the mogollon. as at mesa verde, hovenweep and chaco canyon, the structures were beautiful, mysterious and strangely comforting. outside, the air shimmered hot and dry; in the cliff’s hollows, a cool breeze blew. something about their scale and setting gave there ancient structures an air of safety and comfort. we wandered silently through the ruins, marveling. these folks built and inhabited this compound (we are told) in the 1100s! what will the ruins of our civilization look like in the year 2900?
while there, we had a short, satisfying conversation with one of the park rangers. we talked about religious bigotry and racism, president obama and the teabaggers. she told us about the vandal fires that destroyed the intact roofs sometime in the 1800s. after a couple of weeks spent in mccain country, it was wonderful to meet a kindred spirit. “sometimes you just can’t understand what people are thinking,” she said resignedly. “you would not believe,” she continued, “how many people ask me why the native americans built their dwellings so far from the highway!”
i opened my mouth to let loose another diatribe against arizona’s willfully malicious ignorance and the hypocrisy that runs rampant through the current political discourse, but something stopped me. here we were, on a beautiful, early spring day, passing a few moments with a lovely woman in the shade of an ancient cliff dwelling. why continue to dwell on the imperfections of a transient world?
we thanked her for sharing her stories and continued our hike back down the canyon and to the shady dirt lot where our truck and our dog sat waiting.