Monday, April 23, 2018

There's beauty, heartbreaking beauty, everywhere

“There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who's always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details. The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.” 
 ― Edward Abbey, "The Journey Home"

For most of the past twenty-something Aprils, my father has made an annual pilgrimage to the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. He finds a cozy patch of sand nestled in the shade of sandstone outcroppings and juniper trees, sets up his canvas springbar tent, organizes a kitchen with a card table and water thermos that he received as a wedding gift more than 40 years ago, heats up a can of Dinty Moore beef stew on his single-burner propane stove, and settles into a camp chair as harsh desert breezes fill the air with sand. He's a low-maintenance retiree with little interest in sprawling RVs, full hookups and camper vans. A man after my own heart. Well, before my own heart. My Dad.

I've had the privilege to join him on two of these Needles trips. The first I believe was in 2002. Then I didn't make it back until 2010. In that unsettling way that eight years can just slip away, I found myself thinking about Canyonlands frequently as I made my way down the Iditarod Trail last month. There's an undeniable juxtaposition between these lands of ice and rock. I look at wind-sculpted snowdrifts and see slickrock. Soft snow under my feet becomes sand. A confounding landscape stretches toward a horizon unbroken by civilization. I breathe in subzero air and imagine the searing intensity of triple-digit heat. The redrock wasteland got into my blood before I knew any better. The frozen one was a choice heavily influenced by my first love.

"I wonder if Dad is going back this year?"

An opportunity arose to make the trip to Canyonlands after tax season ended — Dad volunteers for an organization that helps low-income people file their taxes, so he was busy through April 17. I spent tax day in Salt Lake City — where a spring storm brought four inches of snow, smothering my mother's tulips. On Wednesday, Dad packed up his 40-pound tent, wicker picnic basket, foam mattresses, and other nostalgic pieces of my childhood. We hit the road south.

Even with the five-hour drive and camp set-up, we still had enough daylight for the 11-mile hike out to an overlook above the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. My reaction to this view was unsettling in a way I hadn't expected. The last time I visited this spot was on a 14-foot raft, floating down the Colorado River with a group of friends in April 2001. We'd been lounging in the sun for days, occasionally rolling off the rubber bow to float in the languid, muddy water. I remember the stark delineation of color where these two rivers met, and what that meant — the rapids of Cataract Canyon were close.

"That was the end of my innocence," I thought as I viewed the color line from a thousand feet above the rivers.

I've told this story many times, but that day in 2001 was the day Geoff's raft flipped in Rapid Number Five. For an unknowable but seemingly eternal period of time, I was trapped under the boat by an errant loop of webbing caught around my neck. I recall vividly the darkness, the silence, the struggle against crushing force as though I was trapped beneath a rock. Eventually, somehow, I rolled away from the abyss and popped out to the deafening sound of whitewater, plunging through waves in front of the raft, gasping for breath with a bleeding gash across my neck. The experience cemented a deep-set phobia of moving water that troubles me to this day. But before this lifelong fear could set in, I felt something like betrayal — Utah's Canyonlands, the place of so many happy moments, the place that I loved and shared with the people I loved — did not love any of us. Our existence meant nothing to the land. We were as fleeting and inconsequential as droplets of water rushing through the dark abyss beneath Cataract Canyon.

“The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.” 
― Edward Abbey, "Desert Solitaire"

For Thursday, Dad had a 17-mile jaunt planned, looping around a large section of Needles. The terrain was highly variable — everything from sandy plateaus to slickrock benches to slot canyons. Hiking in Canyonlands is hard — and often less like hiking and more like hands-and-toes friction scrambling, or crab-walking over the confounding topography. Really, it's the perfect way to engage with this land — literally crawling, with fingers splayed over the rough texture of rock and sand.

My already tenuous sense of direction was skewered. We squeezed into slot canyons and climbed through notches until I wasn't certain which way was up. At high points I'd look for the La Sal Mountains and realize they were in the opposite direction that I'd expected. Despite having a guide who has traveled these trails dozens of times, frequent signage from the national park, and a GPS making a bread-crumb track, I still felt a gnawing nervousness about becoming hopelessly lost.

The day was overcast and very windy — not great for photographs or wearing hats, but cool enough to be deemed "great hiking weather." I carried four liters of water and only drank one — clearly I need to improve my hydration game before summer ramps up. My ongoing leg muscle soreness complained about the sand, my feet complained about the impact of hard slickrock, and we were rarely moving faster than 2.5 miles per hour. Still, the distance passed rather effortlessly — either engaged in the puzzle of motion, or gazing up in awe at a bewildering labyrinth.

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhumane spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally...”
 ― Edward Abbey, "Desert Solitaire"

The high winds brought a Friday morning storm, with fast-moving squalls that carried drastic drops in temperature and cold precipitation. I was beginning to feel weary — after the weekend in Grand Junction, wandering in the San Rafael Swell, and now Canyonlands, my muscles were battered. My skin was almost painfully tight from the dry air, bruised from falls, sand-blasted to the point of chafing in spots. The soles of my feet, which never fully healed after the Iditarod, felt paper-thin and itchy. There was a moment of weakness when I quietly hoped Dad might suggest we head home early, but thankfully it soon passed. Before driving back to Salt Lake, we'd trace 11 more miles of slickrock benches and sandy culverts to Peekaboo Springs and back.

Rain turned to snow. The temperature felt icy, adding tenuousness to some of the steeper and more narrow slickrock sections. None of this fazed Dad in the least. I'm supposed to be the enthusiast about cold and snow, so I cinched up my puffy jacket and closely followed his footing.

For a time, in the rain and snow, we had the whole place to ourselves. Dad seemed serenely content — happy to be home.

“The beauty of Delicate Arch explains nothing, for each thing in it's way, when true to it's own character, is equally beautiful. If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful-that which is full of wonder.” 

 ― Edward Abbey, "Desert Solitaire"

As we descended toward Peekaboo Springs, Dad pointed out a spot where he'd like to have his ashes spread when the time comes. There are three such spots, all in the Needles district. Dad promised the specifics would be outlined in his will. Funerals are a morbid subject, but in this beautiful setting, the discussion felt as natural as talking about the weather.

"It would be an honor," I said when he asked if I would carry out the task. "If I'm able." Quietly, I thought, "At this rate I'm likely to become decrepit before you do."

This is one of the spots — a gorgeous final resting place. A breeze blows incessantly here, so ashes would scatter like so much dust in the wind. I'm a bit envious of Dad's desire to leave all of himself in Canyonlands. I'm not sure I have such a spot in this world. I used to tell friends I'd like to have my ashes spread on top of Lone Peak, the mountain in the Wasatch that looms over my childhood home. But surely I'd like to at least partly reside somewhere on the Iditarod Trail, maybe Rainy Pass — as well as the shoreline of Douglas Island in Juneau, the White Mountains outside Fairbanks, and of course the Utah desert — possibly Hop Valley in Zion. I thought of spots in California and Colorado to include. How much will these places still matter to me, at the end of it all? I suppose I still want to be everywhere, even when I am nowhere. I thought of Ed Abbey's sentiment that to end up as food for a scavenging coyote or fertilizer for a bristlecone pine is the highest honor to which a human being can aspire.

“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need — if only we had the eyes to see.” 
 ― Edward Abbey, "Desert Solitaire"

Canyonlands was a too-short three days of redrock beauty, no cell phone reception, engaging conversations with Dad, canned soup for dinner (delicious, really) and snacking on Twizzlers while watching mountaineering documentaries on a portable DVD player in camp after dark. We were back in Salt Lake on Saturday with time enough to hike up to Red Pine lakes in the Wasatch with his friend Tom. I needed to borrow his snowshoes, so Dad used an older pair that I gave him for Christmas in the early-2000s.

We clomped up 3,000 feet of slush and ate our lunch in a brisk breeze at Upper Red Pine Lake, entertained by skiers and the beautiful artwork they carved down these steep and scarily crusted slopes. The sports I'm too clumsy to engage in are also those I find to be the most beautiful: Downhill skiing, downhill mountain biking, and mountain running. Gravity-fueled dances across merciless landscapes are always stunning, with an aesthetic directly correlated to their inaccessibility.

"From the mountains, to the desert, to the tundra, white with snow ..."

Oh wait, those aren't the lyrics to "God Bless America." But I suppose any of us are lucky when we can find a place in this world, and uniquely fortunate when we can share that place with those we love most. Thanks for sharing your paradise with me, Dad.

“No end of blessings from heaven and earth. As we climb up out of the Moab valley and reach the high tableland stretching northward, traces of snow flying across the road, the sun emerges clear of the overcast, burning free on the very edge of the horizon. For a few minutes the whole region from the canyon of the Colorado to the Book Cliffs—crag, mesa, turret, dome, canyon wall, plain, swale and dune—glows with a vivid amber light against the darkness on the east. At the same time I see a mountain peak rising clear of the clouds, old Tukuhnikivats fierce as the Matterhorn, snowy as Everest, invincible. “Ferris, stop this car. Let’s go back.” But he only steps harder on the gas. “No,” he says, “you’ve got a train to catch.” He sees me craning my neck to stare backward. “Don’t worry,” he adds, “it’ll all still be here next spring.”
 ― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


  1. Your dad is cool. I don't have a place anymore either. For a long time I wanted my ashes scattered in a remote basin in the White Cloud Mountains. But it's been forever since I've been there so it doesn't seem right anymore. I guess I won't care at that point. Ashes are for those who are left and without kids or close relatives maybe nobody will care! Anyway, sounds like a great trip you were able to go on.

  2. April in eastern Utah is inconsistent and contradictory, just the way I want to be. As in your quote, it "surprise(s) the mind out of their ruts of habit." Every year I say never again, only to be drawn back and take my "medicine" like a good little boy...
    Box Canyon Mark

  3. What a great trip and so special that you can share it with your dad. Gorgeous photos. Will you take me along next time? Although I wouldn't be able to keep up with either you or your dad.

  4. Great writing by two of my favorite authors!

  5. Fantastic post and pics Jill! You are SO fortunate to be able to share these amazing moments with your dad! I'm quite envious of your hiking trips...those shots are just amazing! And personally I think the 'I feel lost' feeling is something to cherish. When you're 'in it' it can feel pretty overwhelming...and then suddenly you're not lost anymore, and somehow the world feels smaller for it. I look back upon the excursions I've had when 'I felt lost' and they now are my favorites. And as always FANTASTIC writing! You really bring us along for the ride, and I've always LOVED that about your site! Thanks again for the trip thru the Canyonlands with your dad, it was awesome!

  6. I think that drive into the Needles District down Indian Creek is one of the most beautiful drives anywhere....

  7. I have spent the last few months spreading my brothers ashes around. He was young and knew he was dying so he told me his wishes and when I asked where do you want to be he said you'll figure it out surprise me. Its been a stressful but also enlightening experience.


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