Over Thanksgiving break, Matt and I visited Zion, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks in Utah as well as Antelope Canyon on the Navajo Reservation outside Page, Arizona, and Horseshoe Bend (of the Colorado River) there too. I’ve never been any place that dry before, that red.
North Carolina clay is notoriously red and dense, but that’s all disguised by layers of roots, worms, sloughed needles and leaves, thickets of thorn and vine.
The abundance of the desert is different. Desert comes from French, then Latin—desertus for “left waste.” In English, the word desert is also a verb—to abandon, to leave a place, causing it to appear empty; to fail someone, especially at a crucial moment when most needed. A desert landscape is one with high stakes, where the smallest actions are amplified by emptiness. A horizon unscuffed by silhouettes of trees, left yawning open to dawn and dark alike. It is like the prairie in this way, “big sky country” —weather approaches like an oncoming train, openly. Its plans laid bare as plains. This is like what happens when someone deserts us, isn’t it? Their plans, their feelings and intentions are all laid bare, made plain.
Only the wily can effectively hide in the desert—the gray fox we saw skim the road at Watchman Campground inside Zion National Park, the chipmunk who approached us atop Angels Landing, the rabbit among the sagebrush near Moab. Mule deer were unabashed in their hunger, making meager meals from fallen cottonwood leaves gone to almost dust in their mouths.
The roads in Zion are paved with maroon asphalt, presumably to blend into the landscape, which reddens fiery at dawn, then fades to rust at dusk.
Canyons are the hiding places of the west, the shadowy forests and warren bungalows of the desert. Rivers don’t always run year-round, leaving behind dry “washes,” but when they return each spring, new snowmelt or runoff sand sediment, we allow them to do so under the same name as before. In that way, the name seems to mark the bed—a ditch, a crease in the fabric of the landscape—rather than the water.
Folksongs sing of the “rolling” Shenandoah, the “falling waters” of the Mississippi (the National Park Service has a whole webpage dedicated to “Songs of the Mississippi River”). The silence of a wash, a dried bed, doesn’t lend itself to rhythm, to song. What does it lend itself to?
When songs insist on the desert, I feel they then concern themselves with liminality—waiting to get to one place, leaving another. The desert isn’t a place in which we can stay for long. This makes it sparkle with an ancient mystery, the mystery of existing in a timeline so outside of our own.
The river that formed Zion National Park’s main canyon is the Virgin River. I’m still working on a way to formulate the following fact into a joke: the Virgin River is what cut through layers of sediment to form the cliffs now known as the Court of the Patriarchs. These are all Mormon-assigned names. The Paiute people originally called this area Mukuntuweap, purportedly meaning “straight up land.”
We spent our day in Zion climbing at the Cerberus Gendarme area, which is named after the multi-headed dog monster from Greek mythology, and then hiking the famous Angels Landing trail. Each time we went into the park we took the shuttle, which is the only way to park in Zion unless you’re willing to pay for a permit in addition to the entrance fee.
The climbing was a fun, varied introduction to the splitter crack sandstone we’d be visiting in Indian Creek south of Moab later in our trip.
Angels Landing isn’t a particularly long hike (2.4 miles one way), but it gains quite a bit of altitude (1,488 feet) over its relatively short distance, resulting in a couple stone staircases and many cement switchbacks.
The last half mile or so is very exposed, meaning an accidental slip could result in a deadly fall.
Every so often there are metal posts bolted to the rock with chains strung between them for you to grab as you walk.
The view from Angels Landing is spectacular, allowing you to see down each end of the canyon the Virgin River has carved over many thousands of years.
After Zion, we drove to Page, Arizona where it rained all day. The weather prematurely ended our Antelope Canyon tour for fear of flash flooding.
Water streamed down the canyon walls, carrying with it little red grains of sand. Matt and I stood underneath a temporary waterfall in our rain jackets.
In the car I found red particles of sandstone crystallized to my jacket like salt.
Right before sunset it stopped raining. We spotted a double rainbow through our hotel room window and drove out to the Horseshoe Bend overlook.
The desert sand had congealed itself into a mud, and puddles were everywhere, signals of the ground’s inability to absorb so much water so quickly. We passed many other tourists and photographers on our way up the short trail to the overlook.
The pale colors of the cloudy sunset reflected off the surface of the Colorado River.
I wish I’d had a fisheye lens to better portray the huge, prehistoric bend of riverbed.
More temporary waterfalls streamed down from the desert surface into the canyon.
From Page we drove through Monticello, Utah and out to a tract of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land known as Indian Creek, famous among rock climbers for its beautiful sandstone cracks sized almost perfectly for hands and fingers.
We luckily found one unoccupied campsite at Hamburger Rock (with a pit toilet, hooray!).
We spent a couple days at Indian Creek—Matt leading some hard and impressive routes, me starting to come to a sort of understanding with the way I would need to position my hand inside a crack in order to pull down on it like gripping a rung on a ladder, reset my feet ever higher, and do it again, and again, and again.
Climbing, ladies and gentlemen. Tackling infinite variations of rock formations with the same square pegs—hands, feet. Not simply admiring but analyzing, utilizing. How can I lean against this? How can I stand atop it? How can I twist and contort my body such that I find a shape against the rock that feels almost like a rest? How, then how? The landscape a puzzle.
One of the highlights of the trip was undeniably the hike we did in Canyonlands National Park on Thanksgiving Day.
When I’d told people about my plan to go to Canyonlands, I kept hearing recommendations to go to this particular area—Chesler Park, which is accessed via the Needles District of the park. Its remoteness drew us, too.
We began at the Elephant Hill trailhead, then took that out-and-back trail to a loop (I like to call this style of trail a “lollipop”) through the Chesler Park area. The out-and-back section of the trail gave us some beautiful scenery of the “needles,” sandstone formations.
It took us through an eerie slot canyon, too, another dried-up crease in this landscape’s fabric.
In the meadows and open spaces we walked among cactus, pinyon pines, and warped junipers.
In the grottoes of the wider canyons there were yellowing cottonwoods, and Russian olives and shinnery oaks gone brown. I was surprised to see so many deciduous trees and bushes.
The rock formations felt otherworldly, enigmatic. Perhaps this is because their histories, though still mostly unknown, are worn visible on their surfaces. The layers of sediment, proof of years and years, are outwardly visible. Their shape, sculpted by weather’s wind and water, speaks to their experience. We cannot entirely know this history, but we are invited to know by the unlayering made visible—we can start to know.
The final day of our trip (not including driving back to Laramie) was spent in Arches National Park, just outside the town of Moab. The contrast between Arches and Canyonlands was immediately apparent. A long line of cars with out-of-state license plates waited at the park’s entrance to be admitted. The parking lot for the Delicate Arch trail was nearing capacity. A park ranger worked to empty the overflowing trash bins nearby. Children cried and argued noisily. There were lines for each pit toilet, and above each toilet was a sign instructing visitors, among other things, to please go in the toilet rather than on the floor.
Due to the recent rains (it had rained here as well as in northern Arizona), the upper road to the Delicate Arch overlook was underwater, so we parked at the trailhead and did the 3-mile out-and-back hike. The trail was reminiscent of Angels Landing at Zion National Park with practically no shade and lots of hiking directly on slick sandstone, but significantly less steep and exposed this time around. The trail was cut out of the rock in places, but those sharp corners had been smoothed over by years of foot traffic.
Maybe it was the crowds, the two hikers I’d seen shuffling down the trail in their Uggs, or the iconic image of Delicate Arch (it’s the one on all the Utah license plates), but I just wasn’t impressed by Arches, and certainly not in the same way I’d been impressed by Zion and Canyonlands. Was this eerily red and open landscape (an earth-wound) becoming familiar already? Maybe I’d arrived with unrealistic expectations, or I’d let myself be bothered by the presence of hundreds of other people who were also there for the same reason (so hypocritical), allowing a minor discomfort subsume the odd and fragile beauty of this place.
Hiking back down from Delicate Arch, we took a quick detour to see some petroglyphs believed to have been carved by members of the Ute tribe, after whom Utah is named, in the late 1700’s since the people depicted are on horseback.
So maybe my characterization of this desert land being one that only experienced in passing is false? How would these people have survived? The National Park Service says the Ute and Paiute were nomadic peoples at that time, traveling seasonally as needed for food, water, and shelter.
This red, sparse land gives the impression of openness—open to curiosity and exploration just as to death and slow, methodical destruction. But inherent in the brutal openness of desert is a threat, some lurking danger. The ground beneath you may shift to sand, may collapse to canyon, may flood instantaneously. The surrounding air burns you all day and chills you all night. These extremes constitute a radical abundance, one both delicate and fierce.