Friday, December 11, 2020

Chasing the moon

Once upon a time, this place was a near-weekly staple in my life. It was the early aughts, while I was living with nine roommates in an old house near downtown Salt Lake City. Most of us had already finished college and were living the in-between lives of subadults dabbling in grad school or working odd jobs. I was trying to launch my career as a journalist, recently hired as the community news editor at a bi-weekly in Tooele, Utah. The job demanded 50 or 60 hours a week, and my commute around the Great Salt Lake ate up 90 minutes on the best days. I was 21 years old and working all of the time, it seemed.

Between work and the frequent weeknight house parties, I was always wrecked by the time Friday night rolled around, ready to crash. But there was always somebody in the house actively packing to "drive to the desert." Before long most of us were throwing our sleeping bags and tents in an assortment of vehicles. Our destination was the San Rafael Swell, where we had a handful of secluded spots where no one else went. Even if it was February and there was a thick layer of crusty snow over sand, we'd plow through a rough jeep road in a woefully underpowered '89 Honda Civic and find a pullout to occupy for the weekend. It was usually midnight or later by the time we arrived. The air was so still and cold that it felt almost liquid; the night was so clear that moonless starlight cast a silver hue on the juniper and sage. 

This is how I best remember the desert of my youth. Come Saturday we'd hike a slot canyon or climb a pinnacle, and by Sunday everyone would be buzzing to get home. It's interesting, but my memory holds fewer of those daytime adventures and more of the Friday night arrivals. The cold and the stars, the startling expanses, the blue junipers and black mesas, and the seemingly eternal silence after a week of relentless noise. It's as though all of those busy and athletic things we did with our days didn't make a difference. Being there ... that was enough. 

Danni and I said goodbye and headed out on Sunday morning, both driving north on Highway 24 — she back to home and work and family in Montana, and me, well ... I hadn't quite decided. As I drove through Hanksville, I gazed longingly at Duke's Slickrock Grill and imagined all of the hot coffee and pancakes I would consume if only I could go inside (If they were open. It was Sunday morning in Utah, so who knows.) That felt like all I wanted on this morning — hot food and drinks, a warm place to be, and the lovely heater cranking full blast in my car. If I kept driving, I could be home by dinner, in my warm bed by 7 p.m. bedtime. And yet ... I wasn't quite ready to go back. I'd managed to spend five days disconnected — no morning news, Twitter doomscrolling, or daily COVID updates. All of the relentless noise of 2020 was finally beginning to settle into a vast and tranquil silence. Even if I was sure to freeze during another night out here, it was what I wanted — one more night.

 Temple Mountain was one of the places I remembered from my youth — just a few miles off the highway with easy access to tons of free camping. I drove along the series of pullouts beside South Temple Wash and found a spot I swear looked familiar, although truthfully most camp spots in the Swell look the same — mounds of red sand and a few juniper trees with sheer sandstone walls closing in on both sides. Of course, when you camp in a narrow canyon in late November, you are guaranteed to not receive even a wedge of direct sunlight. That was okay; I didn't intend to just hang around Cold Temple Camp by myself. I still had a bike I could ride. 

Behind the Reef is an OHV trail snaking behind the geological uplift that forms the San Rafael Reef. It wends in and out of drainages above the slot canyons that they become, climbing steep sandstone shelves and descending sandy washes. There are a few narrow dropoffs that earn it a black diamond rating for ATVs, but it's not terribly difficult on a mountain bike ... even with somewhat tired legs and a foggy head from not sleeping well for several nights. Still, the punchy climbs take their toll. After 17 miles and 2,600 feet of climbing, I'd already pedaled away three hours of the day. It was my turn-around time limit. A few miles back, I'd passed the entrance to Ding and Dang canyons, which I remembered hiking way back when. The day was still warm and inviting, and I was eager to do some exploring. 

I hid the bike, set a GPS waypoint, and started down Ding Canyon. Hiking down a slot canyon can be a dangerous endeavor. It's all too easy to descend a pour-over or boulder jam that won't be as simple to climb, and then I'd be stranded on the wrong side of my bike. I resolved not to climb down anything that I wasn't sure I could reverse. I hit that point less than a mile into the hike, where the canyon floor deteriorated into steep potholes and the walls narrowed to sheer sandstone. After I turned around, I made a surprising number of wrong maneuvers, cliffing myself out high on a wall above the canyon floor, then shimmying under an overhang beside a sheer drop-off. I did not recall negotiating any of this on my climb down that was only twenty minutes earlier. Strange, how disorienting such a narrow canyon can be. I was just a little bit frightened at times. Maybe I did descend an irreversible drop-off? I didn't remember it that way, but how much can one trust their memory? I don't remember Ding Canyon being overly difficult from those long-ago excursions. But as I finally emerged in the open, safe part of the wash, I encountered a young couple who asked me if I was aware of a 5.7-rated climbing maneuver and wondered whether a fixed piece of webbing was still in place. When I replied that I didn't make it that far, they clarified that the move was above us.

"No, I came from the top of the canyon," I said. "It's all easy hiking from here."

I got the sense that they didn't quite understand that I hadn't climbed from the bottom like they did. They seemed unsure as I continued up-canyon, telling me that they were going to turn around here. Either way, the encounter left me feeling uneasy for the remainder of the trek. Was there a sheer wall that I jumped down and somehow failed to notice? Given how much I'd confused myself in a single mile, I couldn't discount the notion entirely. I sure was relieved to finally return to my bike. A canyoneer I am not. 

It was soothing to return to the motion of pedaling around ruts and rocks. Still, I'd spent a fair amount of adrenaline in Ding Canyon, and started to feel sleepy as the shadows grew long.

Typical terrain on Behind the Reef Trail. It does require some concentration. 

The ride out was quiet. I didn't see a soul after the young couple in Ding Canyon, or even a vehicle parked at trailheads off of the graded part of the road. At first, it felt pleasantly lonely. But as evening approached, the solitude became more unsettling. Night was coming. The cold was coming. My thoughts were disconnected and dreamlike, reflections of sleep deprivation and the steep comedown after adrenaline spikes. I stopped in more or less the middle of the road to sit in the dirt and eat a handful of crackers. What was this surreal place? Did time and space have any meaning here? From this vantage it could have been 2002 or 2020. Did it matter? Memories from 18 years ago burned sharply; moments 18 minutes ago faded into the shadows. I rose and mounted my bike, and for a few seconds formed a serious expectation that I was pedaling toward friends and their desert camp with orange firelight flickering on canyon walls and the aroma of sage smoke wafting through the air. Strange, how layers of the past can be unearthed as clearly as sedimentary strata stretched along the San Rafael Reef.

I returned to the canyon where I was camped just before dusk. At the intersection of Temple Mountain Road, I looked left to long climb toward a mesa and realized that I might be able to climb up there in time to catch the sunset. All that awaited me at camp was another long and frigid night. At least cycling kept me warm; it was an easy decision. With renewed purpose, I put as much power into the pedals as I could muster, not wanting to miss the moment. The road was rough and rocky, grades topped 10 percent, and a sandstone shelf to the south blocked any views I might catch of the setting sun. The light began to fade. Just when I was about to turn around in disappointment, I looked to the northeast and gasped. 

The full moon, rising over Temple Mountain. Even though I'd languished long nights under the silver light of a waxing moon, I didn't connect that on this night the cycle would reach its pinnacle and rise in tandem with the setting sun. It was all serendipity that I caught the moon at this precise moment. It was one of those rare moments when one wonders if perhaps the universe will bend to the desires of an individual — tiny, insignificant me, traveling through time and painting the sky. 

I got back on my bike and sprinted, gasping for breath as the mesa opened up around me. I turned onto a side road and found a 360-degree vista. The sun had already disappeared below the horizon, but its long-angled light remained on a startling expanse of rock and sand. 

The San Rafael Reef, with the delineation of sedimentary layers clearly visible. 

The moon continued rising over Temple Mountain. Like the Super Blue Moon I chased on Halloween, this moon had special designations — a Beaver Moon about to undergo a penumbral lunar eclipse, which means before the night was over it would pass into the Earth's shadow. Later that night, I would become convinced I witnessed this, as the moon's bright light illuminated the canyon and then faded. As I stumbled out of my sleeping bag, I assumed the moon had slipped behind canyon walls, but it was still there — just grayer than before, muted. 

I reached into my pack and pulled out the thermos of coffee that I'd heated in the morning while Danni and I were still lazing around camp on the Fremont River. Amazingly it was still reasonably hot. This was an incredible discovery, given this morning felt like it happened years earlier or perhaps years in the future ... I couldn't decide. Even in real time, the coffee was eight hours old. I sat on a boulder and swiveled to catch all of the views at once, sipping my coffee out of the side of my mouth so I never had to look away. 

Last light of the sun to the southwest.

My final photo of the moonrise over Temple Mountain. I sat there until it was fully dark and I was shivering in all of the layers I had with me. I still had to make that painful 800-foot descent to camp, and somehow survive another night in the cold, cold desert. I realize I could get in my car, crank up the heater, and drive away. I considered this. But I wanted to catch the sunrise/moonset. That became an all-encompassing goal. 

The night was, well ... it wasn't as bad as it could have been. I shivered and didn't sleep well. The temperature dropped to 14 degrees, according to my watch that didn't quite become cold enough to die. I read a lot of Katherine Keith's memoir about how she came to adopt long-distance dog mushing as a lifestyle. It was the fourth book I started this week alone. I watched the moon make its arc around the canyon, become ashen, and continue descending toward the mesa where I watched it rise. Finally, at 6:20 a.m., the timing was right and I got up for good. 

It was refreshingly gratifying to catch to moon in its final descent. It had slipped away from the shadow of the Earth and held renewed brightness as it disappeared behind Flat Top Mountain. 

The light of sunrise beginning to illuminate the valley. Those cliffs beyond are Canyonlands, quite possibly a segment of the White Rim. 

The light of sunrise on Temple Mountain. 

Flat Top, so bright in the morning light. Someday I will return and ride a longer loop through the Swell, perhaps connecting all of the remote corners that felt like the edge of the world when I was young. 

I was lazy in the morning and drove my car to the high point rather than ride my bike. It made a nice subject. I will be sending these photos to Subaru for their next ad campaign. 

The temperature had risen to a balmy 20 degrees by the time I headed out at 8:30 a.m. I stopped at the mouth of the canyon to view a panel of pictographs. You can see where a layer of sandstone flaked away, taking pieces of the image with it. 

The erosion left this little figure all by itself. I thought about the passage of time — what remains, what fades, what's worth holding, what I should let go. All of these thoughts came in waves, fading as quickly as they arrived in a whisper of wind. I shivered and felt a crush of exhaustion settle over my body. As I turned to walk back toward my car, I heard a deafening clamor above my head. I imagined rocks coming down on me and ducked, but no rocks arrived as the crashing noises continued. Finally, I caught a glimpse of movement high on a cliff on the other side of the canyon, and realized the noise was two bighorn rams sparring on a precipitous ledge. They were too far away and hidden in shadows to photograph with my point-and-shoot camera, and I was too mesmerized to look away from the action. I was certain one of them would fall. But they continued clashing horns, pushing one another toward the edge, until with a final gallop they both disappeared behind an outcropping. It was a gorgeous dance, and I again felt lucky to land in the right place at the right time. It's as though the universe is showing me I belong here. Life goes in all directions, and every so often I'm lucky enough to find a path back to the beginning. 


  1. What a beautiful telling. Thank you.

  2. What an incredible 24 hours. Thanks for sharing and those photos are absolutely amazing!

  3. Pure poetry, Jill. In this one chance outing you manage to reclaim all that the ongoing pandemic stole from us. It is a lesson we need to remember.
    Thank you,
    Box Canyon Mark...solo camped at the base of the Superstition Mountains in Arizona...and warmer than Utah :)

  4. What a great read to start my day with!

  5. Thank you. Unique moments witnessed and shared so beautifully. Long may this peace stay within you.

  6. Dang LIVE more in 24 hours that most of do in weeks/months/years. Another beautiful post!


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