Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shifting focus

No biking means I've had more down time these past two weeks. Most of that time, unfortunately, seems to trickle into the office (I've found that less biking in fact results in less photography, writing, and most of my other more fulfilling pastimes.) But I have been able to allot some of my downtime to going through my stuff and skimming off the bottom. It's amazing how a person can move to Alaska with only the things they can fit in a Geo Prism, and three and a half years later end up with rooms full of gear. But assessing some of the stuff that has survived my myriad moves has been fun and nostalgic. A random scattering of 4x6 disposable camera prints are right at the top of the fun list: things I can't believe I still have but can't imagine throwing away.

Above is a picture of me as a 17-year-old at the Hurricane (pronounced "Her'kun") Dunes, more commonly known as Sand Hollow, in southwestern Utah. The Her'kun Dunes were the ultimate escape when I was a teenager - so close to Zion National Park that they were practically in the shadow of the massive cliffs, but so unknown that we only saw the occasional local pass through on a four-wheeler. My three BFFs and I would cut out of class on some Friday in early spring, load up Liz's Chevy Cavalier with our $10 sleeping bags, spring-bar tent and enough Doritos and Dr. Pepper to stock a convenience store. We'd stream down I-15 with our feet out the window, highway jet stream drying the toenails we had just painted blue and silver, listening to the radio until the signal cut out, then popping in Tarrah's garbled Atom and his Package bootleg tape, singing to the desert wind - "I had a dream when I was in high school, that I attended the Punk Rock Academy and no one made fun of me." The Cavalier would rattle down some half-washed-out dirt road until we arrived at our retreat, where piles of red sand swept against a mottled outcropping of sandstone. We'd weave through the red-rock maze, dance barefoot in the sand, play a genuine game of hide and seek like kindergarteners on summer vacation, and launch ourselves off 10-foot cliffs because nothing below could hurt us.

After dark, the moon and marshmallows came out. We built fires out of flash-flood driftwood, juniper and sage. The savory sweet smoke reminded us we were a long way from home. Reflections of flames flickered on the ragged walls, dancing like tamarisk in a cool desert breeze. "This is the most beautiful place on Earth," I would say, shamelessly quoting Ed Abbey. We all knew it wasn't, but it was our most beautiful place, because it seemed to reach only us, and we belonged there, and it, somehow, belonged to us.

The last trip we took to the Her'kun Dunes, sometime shortly after high school graduation, we found the access road half-paved. That was the trip we learned there were plans to build a reservoir. "They're gonna drown all them dunes," a woman at the grocery store checkout told us. Much of our redrock playground had been fenced off. We spent the rest of our weekend in Zion National Park never went back. But I read in the newspaper in summer 2000 that the state started work on the dam. I remember choking up a little.

Beyond occasionally bringing up Sand Hollow Reservoir as an example of the evils of St. George golf courses, I hadn't given the Her'kun Dunes much thought in the years passed. Bigger, better places came along, places set farther away from civilization where no one could drive a four-wheeler if they tried. Somewhere along there, the landscape of my imagination shifted from red-sand deserts to wind-swept tundra. But lately, this now-inundated patch of land has been creeping back into my dreams. I can almost feel the cool sand streaming through my fingers, almost taste the air surrounding our bon fires: sage brush, hot dogs ... freedom. It reminds me that a place can be long gone and still exist in memories. And maybe, in a world where nothing stays the same anyway, that's what really matters.

I've been trying to figure out why I don't feel more depressed right now. I hit a pretty big low point for the year last March, the year I had actually completed the ITI, that one event I had dedicated an entire winter to and had a somewhat successful first go at. This year I dropped out of the ITI the first day, injured myself in the process, haven't ridden a bike or even really been outside since; I'm working longer hours, combing through my stuff with an eye and getting rid of a good bulk of it ... and yet, in all honesty, I'm not all that bummed out.

And think it's because of the desert, and a little dry cabin down on a nondescript patch of sand near Teasdale, Utah, where Geoff and I plan to spend the late spring and early part of summer. This isn't goodbye to Alaska or even to Juneau. It's just a "furlough" as my ex-Army boss calls it, to I place where I can reconnect roots and regenerate strength, and hopefully grow experiences that can never be submerged.