Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Utah river journal

Day 1: travel

J. and I meet at a free climbers' camp near Moab, and though I don't climb – the very idea of hanging off that red monolith in the distance makes my heart beat fast – I like the climbing culture. There are probably 30 people here and last night everything was silent, a handful of fires burning under the stars, the bobbing headlamps of some stragglers coming off the approach in the dark. I slept in a cocoon of warmth and happiness and woke this morning to the bright blue skies of a desert spring, flowers unfurling in the morning sun, a man strumming a guitar beneath a juniper. J. has left to meet some friends for a kayaking trip to the north and I'm leaving soon to drive south and meet another group of friends on the banks of the San Juan River. Our paths intersect where they can, sleeping on a bed of dirt under the stars, and I love it. I love it all.

I dreamt last night that I climbed a tree – a very large, very gnarled old tree. I hung from a branch with my arms and legs wrapped around it like a sloth. I hung for a long time; for months maybe. Time passed in a gloomy gray light with no distinction between day and night. One day, I made the choice to swing my arms up in the kind of all-or-nothing move that a climber makes to reach a just-out-of-grasp fingerhold. I can't recall now whether I fell or climbed higher.

Day 2: river

A river is a living thing, a vein pumping the muddy blood of the desert. Early in the spring of a year with little snow, we hardly have to dip our paddles into it except to steer. We drift downstream, watching the landscape change from sandy floodplains crawling with cottonwoods to undulating hills of red sand to sheer canyon walls pocked with shadows and studded with sage. Across it all, the sky is tugged like a sheet snapped tight. We are on river-time now; dream-time.

It feels like the most natural thing in the world to float down this river with friends, surprising stock-still herons in the shallows, trailing my fingers in the water. But I can't help knowing that the tamarisk choking the banks aren't supposed to be there; that the dam upstream allowing more people to live in this scorched country has tamed the spring floods and prevented the river from reaching its natural floodplain, an area once farmed by ancient people now blowing dry with tumbleweeds, another non-native plant. But what's native, anyway? Everything comes from someplace else, and most things move on after they pass through here.

We climb high above the river to an ancient cliff dwelling, to the stone rooms and windows of the ancestral Puebloans, the Anasazi. The ones who left. We find potshards and thousand-year-old corncobs gnawed clean, and – tucked away in a secret alcove away from prying eyes and potential vandals – a piece of skin placed gingerly on a rock, with a lone stitch that's withstood centuries of wind and sand. A scrap of fabric from another world, another time. It humbles me. 

Day 3: rock

Even in March, the desert is a land of extremes. At night the water turns to pans of ice, and I curl in my sleeping bag with my hands jammed between my legs, waiting for the kiss of sunlight. And then in a blink it's afternoon and we're scrambling for shade beneath a blazing sky.

The desert is defined by water, by the river devouring the land. Yet twenty minutes of walking later it's as if such a thing never existed, and you're in a canyon so dry it cracks your lips and crumbles at your touch. Each rock is as distinct as a snowflake. In places it's hard and smooth, strata of glass and molten rock poured over grainy substrate, sensuous tendrils of black and red. In places it's terraced, so many layers in a single vertical foot that to look up at the towering walls is to comprehend millions of layers. Alone, each is flaky and unsubstantial, but together they comprise monuments.

Elsewhere, the canyon walls are dripping with an alkaline water that builds into coral-like globules, nubs of stalagmites sprouting from the earth. Sometimes the rock is green, tinted by minerals or slimed by algae. In places it's crumbled into billions of pebbles, each a different color and shape; and in places it's been pulverized to sand, sometimes white, sometimes red. Under certain overhangs, the rock is gray and rotting, and stepping beneath it is like walking on the dry ash of a fire that's burnt out and gotten cold.

How slowly do you have to move to learn the shapes and colors of a landscape, to memorize its names and absorb its mysteries? Here, I think, it would take forever: a lifetime of lifetimes. Even at our leisurely downstream pace, we miss much. Walking, I can see more, but sometimes I think the only way to see anything at all is to stop moving. When I'm still, I see two birds couple in midair, almost violently, and I don't know whether they've fought or made love. They freefall together for a brief moment and break apart before they fall to the earth. 


Day 4: wind

More extremes: This time, wind. Last night was much warmer but windy, and this morning's blue sky was swiftly replaced by a soft-gray cover of clouds. Made it four miles through the biggest rapid of the trip before getting slammed with wind. Absolutely pummeled. The kayak and canoe could've pushed on, but the raft was getting nowhere. We pulled off and ate lunch huddled next to a rock while watching the wind blow whitecaps upstream. Then we found a flat-ish spot and killed four hours drinking whiskey, putting up a giant tarp and abandoning it, sitting a cave, drinking more, getting silly and wondering if we'd be forced to spend the night there. Luckily, just before dark the wind died down and we scrambled to pack the boats and shove off. Made it a mile before getting slammed with another wall of wind. It's good to be out with four other guides – when we need to get shit done or make decisions, there is no mucking about. That night, our boats were unpacked, camp set up, fire crackling and dinner cooked in under 40 minutes. Our faces and hands are raw with wind-burn. There is sand in my teeth and up my nose. Tomorrow we'll make an early start to get off the river. 

Day 5: home

Back home in Colorado, a red-wind terror sweeps the valley, knocking branches of trees and whipping freshly-plowed fields into the sky. The sky is red with Utah sand, kicked up hundreds of miles away and now sticking to our windshields, traveling on currents of air across state boundaries. Utah follows me home; the desert won't let me go so easily.

So this is spring in this part of the world. Dry and violent, a kiss of fire. Tomorrow, I will plant peas, and I think I'll stay home for a while. 

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