December 15, 2010

Desert Fever

It's not difficult to make sense of why I've lately been drawn to books of the desert. I'm just starting to suffer through my first long midwestern winter (well actually, winter won't even begin utill Dec. 21st, so...I have yet to look forward to the bulk of my shivers!) and my body and spirit are seeking respite from perpetual gray iciness. I can't pretend to have ever been one of those extreme outdoorsy types who treks out to the remote Utah desert every weekend and who could, if necessary, survive for days on nothing but grasshoppers and cactus juice, but the times I have found myself drawn, alone or with others, into the arid wilds just a few hours outside of Salt Lake City have engrained in me a love for these remote places and a visceral need to return there from time to time in order to sustain my spirit and purge the most persistent of my demons.

One January years ago I borrowed my dad's car (now it's hard to believe he even considered the idea) and took a solo trip down to Arches National Park in order to "get some air and sort some things out".

After (barely) graduating from Juilliard in 2002 I was burned out on trumpet and had come home to live at my mom's with a vague sort of plan to hang out a while, freelance in the city, and eventually think about taking some auditions. Some of the details of this in-limbo period are a bit hazy, but if I'm remembering correctly, I might have just started working at Cannonball a few months prior after becoming even further disillusioned with my prospects for a professional musical career and deciding I might as well see what a "day job" was like. I had also recently started monitoring an online dating site in hopes that it would get me out and doing stuff again instead of just mouldering around at home feeling sorry for myself and pining over lost "love". Instead, most of the very few dates I went on were uncomfortable and disappointing, and though one lead initially seemed promising, it had become clear (to me at least) that though this person was decent and nice, there was absolutely no chemistry.

So, I left for a spontaneous weekend excursion hoping that some fresh air and hiking would stimulate my mood and help me figure out what to do with my life. I envisioned something of a revelation taking place after which I'd be able to come home and take charge of things as never before. I brought my trumpet along in a little shoulder bag thinking I might further align myself with the heart of the land by playing music in the desert canyons and creating mystical counterpoints with my own echos.

The trip turned out to be even more significant than I had imagined, but for none of the reasons I had planned. Instead of finding the time with which to "think everything over" and "sort things out" I discovered as soon as I left the car and walked off into the landscape that my mind was emptied and stilled. The stresses and worries I'd been harboring vanished into the cold sunny haze of high-desert winter and I further let myself go with every step I took out among the huge burnt-orange sandstone formations. Though I understand Arches--a relatively small national park--can get utterly bogged down with visitors during the peak seasons, in early January the roads were all but deserted and I relished the feelings and sounds of solitude.

A couple miles down the trail from landscape arch I found a spot overlooking several giant fins of yellow rock and pulled out my trumpet to sample the sound. I remember achieving 5 or 6 clear echos and spent some time playing around with the effect until another solo hiker came around the bend. I put my horn down when I saw him, but he seemed intrigued and after a bit of coaxing I consented to play a while longer.

Later in the day I walked to delicate arch. I'll admit that I almost decided to skip the trail altogether because I was a little sick of seeing the iconic arch's photo plastered everywhere and printed on everything from coffee mugs to license plates...but...what the heck...might as well just check it out. I can't remember how long the trail was--maybe a couple of miles--but I do remember the ice. In retrospect it was infinitely stupid of me to go out there alone in the middle of January wearing nothing on my feet but reg'lar well-worn-down hiking shoes. Portions of the sandstone trail were located on the north sides of rock formations and were thus completely iced over. Additionally some of these icy patches were situated above fairly steep and precarious drop offs, and as I am only a moderately experienced hiker it's nothing short of a miracle that I didn't slip or loose footing along the way and break a bone or two.

When I came around the final bend I was stunned. People always say this, but pictures DO NOT come close to accurately portraying the spectacle of delicate arch. First of all, it was MUCH larger than I ever imagined it to be and was perched atop the far rim of a gigantic smooth-faced sandstone amphitheater. I had the overwhelming impression of having entered a temple.

As evening came on I took a last walk around the "Parade of Elephants" formation--a huge mass of red rock that does in fact resemble its name. I held my hand to the stone and could feel its age. It seemed warm and vibrant as though inhabited by a living force beyond understanding. Once again the amalgam of my senses lulled me into a humble and stunned reverence--the scale of which I've never felt before or since.

Back to my desert-ee books: after so thoroughly enjoying the movie "127 hours" I decided to see how it compared with the true story as retold by Aron Ralston in his book "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." I devoured it in just a few days. While the movie had certainly portrayed Aron's canyon ordeal with stunning clarity, I was fascinated by the additional detail the book provided about Aron's history as a climber and outdoorsman, as well as to the specifics of the rescue effort being mounted to seek out and rescue a missing person who carelessly left no word with anyone about where he'd be going. I found his drive and passion inspiring and though I don't personally have aspirations to attempt some of the feats he has (after his accident he became the first person to climb all 53 of Colorado's 14,000+ foot winter!!!--an effort he'd begun before his fateful days in Blue John), reading about his adventures has put the familiar itch of wanderlust into my bones and you can bet I'll be finding some way back into the great outdoors in the near future.

In his book, Ralston made a couple of references to works of Edward Abbey. If you ever visit a National Park in Utah or spend much time at all in the state, you're bound to run across Abbey's name. He was a park ranger in Arches Ntl. Pk. for a while back in the 1950s--before it had been developed beyond a few unpaved access roads and a makeshift campground with no amenities. Though an outspoken champion of wilderness and staunch protestor of industrial tourism, his honest, beautifully descriptive and at times controversial memoir of life as park ranger "Desert Solitaire" reveals a host of shocking (and occasionally hypocritical) idiosyncrasies that have given his character a puzzling sort of intrigue and solidified his place among Utah's historical oddballs.

For instance (and Patrick, if you're reading this, you may want to skip the next paragraph--you won't like it) he refers to himself as a "humanist; I'd rather kill a man than a snake." Never mind his quirky definition for the word humanist, that statement confused me more because of a story he'd related in a previous chapter:

"As I am returning to the campground...I see a young cottontail jump from the brush, scamper across the trail and freeze under a second bush. The rabbit huddles there, panting, ears back, one bright eye on me. I am taken by the notion to experiment--on the rabbit. Suppose, I say to myself, you were out here hungry, starving, no weapon but your bare hands. What would you do?...
There are a few stones scattered along the trail. I pick up one that fits well in the hand, that seems to have the optimum feel and heft. I stare at the cottontail hunched in his illusory shelter under the bush. Blackbrush, I observe, the common variety, sprinkled with tightly rolled little green buds, ready to burst into bloom on short notice. Should I give the rabbit a sporting chance, that is, jump it again, try to hit it on the run? Or brain the little bastard where he is?...
Well, I'm a scientist not a sportsman and we've got an important experiment underway here, for which the rabbit has been volunteered. I rear back and throw the stone with all I've got straight at his furry head.
To my amazement the stone flies true (as if guided by a Higher Power) and knocks the cottontail head over tincups...he crumples, there's the usual gushing of blood, etc., a brief spasm, and then no more. The wicked rabbit is dead.
For a moment I am shocked by my deed; I stare at the quiet rabbit, his glazed eyes, his blood drying in the dust. Something vital is lacking. But shock is succeeded by mild elation. Leaving my victim to the vultures and maggots, who will appreciate him more than I could...I continue my walk with a new, augmented cheerfulness...what the rabbit has lost in energy and spirit seems added, by processes too subtle to fathom, to my own soul. I try but cannot feel any sense of guilt. I examine my soul: white as snow...we are kindred all of us, killer and victim, predator and prey, me and the sly coyote, the soaring buzzard, the elegant gopher snake, the trembling cottontail, the foul worms that feed on our entrails, all of them, all of us.
Rejoicing in my innocence and power I stride down the trail beneath the elephantine forms of melting sandstone, past the stark shadows of Double Arch. The experiment was a complete success; it will never be necessary to perform it again."

I guess, referring to the previous quote, a cottontail is not a snake, but this juvenile act of heartless waste (I don't care if he thinks he's doing a favor for the buzzards and maggots) is rather offensive to me--especially considering his self described position as the park's custodian and "usufructuary" (look that one's a fun one!) and one who bemoans the effects on land and wildlife of indiscriminate human encroachment into wilderness. "Innocence"...? C'mon!

I was also quite shocked by this passage:

"One summer I started off to visit for the first time the city of Los Angeles. I was riding with some friends from the University of New Mexico. On the way we stopped off briefly to roll an old tire into the Grand Canyon...watching the tire bounce over tall pine trees, tear hell out of a mule train and disappear with a final grand leap into the inner gorge."

WWHHAATTTT!!!! Are you kidding me!? This from the same guy who whines about camper trash left out on the trail???!!!!! (Don't get me wrong--it annoys the hell out of me when I go hiking and come across the traces of a campfire trimmed with a dozen crumpled beer bottles and innumerable candy wrappers--sacrilege!)

Anyway, the guy's an oddball that's for sure and I don't like everything he says, but I do agree with his stance on wilderness preservation. "We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there."

In one chapter, he tells of a Colorado River trip he took with a friend before Glen Canyon was flooded into what we know of today as Lake Powell. Near the end of the trip they stop and set up camp in the entrance to a side canyon leading to Rainbow Arch. For the rest of the day Abbey hikes over many rugged miles of hot terrain until, parched and exhausted, he finally reaches his destination and looks up at the arch "through God's window into eternity." As he rests in the shade he laments about a future when the dam has been filled and the glorious canyon is submerged:

"it will back water to within sight of the Bridge, transforming what was formerly an adventure into a routine motorboat excursion. Those who see it then will not understand that half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it was in integral part. When these aspects are removed, the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geological oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world."

Makes you look at this happy little tourist poster with different eyes...don' it?


  1. Another wonderful installment! I savored every word. The guy is a piece of work but I feel we all have inconsistent ideas and behaviors from time to time. I hope I'm able to put my mistakes from the past WAY behind me.

  2. I just read the short story Havasu for a class, and came across your quoted excerpt in a search for the text. Didn't read your whole post, but I think it's important to note that he bounced the tire into the gorge before his life-changing experience with the power and presence of nature. He mentioned it to describe his attitude at the beginning of his quest and how he would change.

    1. Yes, thank you for the clarification. It is an important point and I appreciate your drawing my attention to my oversight.