Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sojourn in the desert

It seems there is much I could write about my long weekend in Southern Utah, from frustration with my inability to get over an irrational fear of water to the one-year "anniversary" of my relationship breakup and some of the thoughts I had about that. But sometimes the time to write just isn't there, and it's necessary just to sort through the vacation photos and sigh happily about recent good times.

I headed south late Friday night with my friends Chris and Becky. The plan was to float the rapids in Westwater Canyon with about a half dozen other people. The more I tried to psych myself up to do it, the more I felt low-level panic gurgling up from my gut. And it wasn't the good panic like the kind you get before a big race. It was debilitating panic like the kind that makes you feel dizzy and incapable of simple movements. Basically, I'm afraid of moving water. I have been for most of my adult life. It hasn't improved one bit over the years. I need help, like therapy. But I don't feel that river trips are important enough to warrant therapy, so instead I deal with my fear by forcing myself into one every so often. Last May, I had the Tour Divide coming up and felt like I had to prove something to myself by sitting in a raft as it floated down Westwater Canyon. It was horrible. This year, I didn't have anything to prove. So as we set up camp at the put-in, I expressed my desire to opt out.

While everyone else went on a splashy-fun float trip down the Colorado River, I drove the shuttle and made a short detour to Fruita, Colo., where I rented a mountain bike and spent five hours riding the 18 Road trails. I felt gleeful, probably because I had narrowly escaped a river trip, but my good mood put me in prime singletrack form. Trails like these are pure guilty pleasure - at least compared to the kind of riding I thrive on. The banked curves feel sinful, the smooth trails are too fast-flowing to be real, and it's downright pointless to spend five hours wending around a few acres of land on progressively smaller loops, often returning to my favorite stretch of trail to see just how far I can lean into the turns. But I don't care about all that because I become completely immersed in the "flow," which is pure and primal and knows no fear.

In Fruita, though, there are still plenty of opportunities to venture onto long dirt roads that actually go somewhere, or off the beaten path up a wash, where the riding is chunky and sandy with lots of on/off-bicycle moments - in other words, frustrating but refreshingly real, which is more my style.

Don't get me wrong. I do love well-built bike trails, and would likely be a much better rider if I rode this kind of terrain more often. But I couldn't do it every day. My need to explore would take over, and I'd end up chattering over long miles of cow-trammeled four-wheel-drive roads and spinning along pavement. If I lived in Fruita, I'd probably end up being the crazy girl riding her mountain bike down I-70.

Chris and Becky were understanding about my chickening out of the Westwater trip. Becky is posing with the Fat Tire amber ale I picked up for her in Fruita. Supposedly you can't buy that stuff anywhere in Utah, so I managed to prove my worth on this trip after all.

We spent a couple hours on Saturday night trying to find a campsite near Moab, only to end up on the Kokopelli Trail near Onion Creek. Up at 6,000 feet, the temperature dropped to the 30s and my Thermarest went flat, so at about 4 a.m. I woke up on the cold ground, shivering. I warmed back up by going for a short walk along the route, gazing at an explosion of stars in the sky and remembering last year's journey down the Kokopelli. I wish I had time to do it again.

Sunday was refreshingly lazy. We woke up late and ate big egg and cheese burritos for breakfast, then sauntered up Negro Bill Canyon. We saw some climbers repelling on the arch near the end of the canyon. Then I headed over to the Slickrock Cafe to meet up with my dad.

This is my dad. He loves to hike. Every spring, he makes a trip down to the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park to stretch out his hiking muscles and enjoy the warm air and sun. This year, I was lucky enough to join him on his annual ritual.

My dad also likes to get after it, so we didn't just go out for touristy strolls. We hiked 20 miles on Monday and nearly 11 on Tuesday, over rough and sandy and slickrocky terrain.

On Monday we walked all the way down to the Colorado River, near Brown Betty Rapids in Cataract Canyon. Cataract Canyon is what I consider the catalyst of my fear of water - although I have a few childhood experiences that sparked the phobia, it was Cataract where I was first truly convinced I was going to drown as I was briefly dragged under an overturned raft with a rope caught around my neck. It was interesting to look out over the fast-flowing brown water to the Dollhouse, a place I visited just a few hours before I took my fateful swim in 2001. I was struck with a strange but strong desire to jump into the river and swim across to the other side. I wonder what my future therapist would make of that?

But Canyonlands itself is for the most part dry as a bone. And it's invigorating in its remoteness. We saw only two other people on Monday, both near the end of the hike, and in the canyons above the river, I felt the exciting sensation of truly being "out there," off the grid, the way I sometimes feel in Alaska.

Lots of varied terrain, too.

The view from our campsite in the morning. My dad likes to camp in style, with a springbar tent, a fire and camp chairs. Because there's no bathroom, table, water or $250,000 RV, most people would probably consider this "primitive" camping. But if you have become accustomed to rolling out your bivy sack wherever the urge to pass out strikes you, this kind of camping is pure luxury.

"But do they sleep any better than us?" my dad wondered aloud as we passed an expansive motor home parked down the road from our site. I'd be inclined to say "no." As I get older, I watch my friends acquire more creature comforts and tangible stuff. Sometimes I feel guilty that I have yet to build a real desire for any of that. I'm actually perfectly comfortable plopping down my bivy sack beneath a pinion tree in some nondescript valley deep in the desert. My goal is to keep it simple as long as I can, or until I have no choice, whichever comes first.

This is my home and I can visit it whenever I want, even if it means jumping on a bicycle and riding 2,500 miles south. Come to think of it, there's not much right now to prevent me from doing that. Of course there is something to be said about burdens and the joys they bring you. But for now I am enjoying being a "light-packer" in life.