So Long For Now

I woke up this morning knowing it is time to bring this blog to a close. I began it as an attempt to try long form writing. Or, at least, long form as such things are on the Internet. But I don’t have time to write it. And you don’t have time to read it.

I toyed with the idea of shorter posts. Tid bits. Free association stuff. But then I sat down to write my usual seasonal post. You know the stuff: cold starry nights, Christmas lights, perihelion, glowing descriptions of the wonderful ways wonderful people touched my life this year. But it all felt pretty hollow. That’s when I realized I probably shouldn’t be a writer.

I mean, yeah, I get writing from a structural standpoint. Short punchy sentences. Active verbs. Vivid adjectives. Themes. Structure. Focused story line. All the claptrap. What I don’t get is making the emotional connection.

It’s time to wrap it up then. I’m going to write this post without getting out of bed. Then it’s time to align my chakra, or find the center of my wheel, or regenerate, or whatever it takes to make whatever comes out of my heart come out through the keyboard. And then perhaps I’ll report back with with some much needed brevity.

I thank all of you who have been kind enough to read Lizard Tracks all of these years. Onward and upward my friends.

Salt Creek

I can’t describe the morning at Cathedral Butte as cold. But I watched Salt Creek Canyon come to light still wrapped in my sleeping bag. After all, it was late October, in Utah, a mile and a half above sea level. The canyon below was just as inviting as when we’d arrived last night—which threw me a bit. In the rocky phantasm of Canyonlands, it should not have been remarkable. After all, it was just another jagged gash through the plateau, revealing stone colored like blood and bone. I was expecting something deeper, narrower, more forbidding. So the sloping, sinuous walls, the inviting open canyon bottom, caught me off guard. I was, though, expecting the endless, preternatural silence drifting up from a thousand feet below. It was exactly why I was here.

Not needing to move right then, I stayed in my bag and settled into my anxieties. While I enjoy empty places as much as anyone, I only sip at that elixir. Any misanthropic stones waiting to pin me to a canyon wall won’t find me alone. I also like knowing where I’m going—even if it’s extrapolated from a map. Following a shimmering karmic spirit is fine for dancing with hippie chicks at Burning Spear concerts. But it doesn’t find a spring in the middle of a thousand acres of baking rock and blearing sunlight. What was emerging below was terra incognito. And if I read past the symbols on every every map I’d consulted, the cartographers cared less if I found my way around in it.

Every single one had bad data. One showed two points on the trail eight and one-half miles apart. On the ground, those points cover more than half of a 28 mile canyon. Another showed the road there bisecting Cathedral Butte. No. The road skirted north of the butte just as you’d expect. Another showed Abbey’s Triple Arch down a side canyon. In some alternate universe perhaps. In this desert Abbey’s Triple Arch is over 100 miles north northwest.

Not that we could get lost. The stoney gash runs due north. Something like a trail runs through the bottom. There was one way in, one way out. So it was far better than The Maze, a section of Canyonlands, that remains, still, one of the least mapped areas in the country. In The Maze there is sometimes one way in and no way out. No, Salt Creek looked like a cakewalk. Even by comparison to other parts of The Needles.

I fretted too about the speed of light. Not as the universal constant C. But as a function of the planet rotating into the sun’s light and out again. Our packs were heavy; the distance set each day fixed. Bad maps could mean daylight washing over us, dissolving into darkness, long before we blundered into camp. Even now we should be moving. The smeared edge between dawn and daylight was rushing toward us at 1100 miles an hour. When it reached us, we needed to be stumbling over rocks and roots in a rapid plunge down the canyon wall. I dropped my comforter and stood to let the chill seep in. Since I wasn’t about to face the mystery alone it was time to wake my backpacking buddy.

Salt Creek sounds like a terrible place. Maybe not as bad as Arsenic Springs. But bad. For two backpackers who had never been in Canyonlands, though, it might have been close to perfect. The section we planned to walk required a steep descent for the first 1100‘. Or the first mile. Depending on vertical or horizontal measurement. For the first 1100’ the trail was steep, rocky and littered with roots and sticks. Then it spilled out onto a wide flat canyon bottom thick with sage, weeds and piñon pine. So it was easy terrain, easy navigation and—most important—it was empty.

So far, we had encountered one other backpacker. Roxy was a nomad. She’d discovered what most of us suspect: having a job is expensive. We’re taught that, because we’ve accumulated a huge pile of cheap goods and services, as wage earners life is full and easy. It’s a shell game. Having a three dollar Salad Shooter is one thing. A different picture emerges when you factor the cost of key elements for getting and keeping a job—housing, healthcare, energy and education. All four have risen faster than the rate of inflation. The situation is sustainable for the Wall Street robber barons who skim their share off the top. Or for the few who have managed to claw their way into the upper middle class. For the rest of us the prospects are more bleak. Roxy had read the writing on the wall. She had unleashed herself from being a wage slave. Now she lives in a little truck named Mitzi. Various dispersed camping areas in Utah keep the rent near zero. She maintains an inexpensive existence, supporting herself through photography, writing, or occasional part-time work. She spends the rest of her time enjoying some of the most incredible scenery on the planet.

Roxy had started down the trail at full light. Mary and I caught up with her just after we hit the canyon bottom. Strolling along together in the now bright morning light, we broke the silence getting to know each other a little better. I disengaged here and there to take in this missing slice of rock.

What is Canyonlands exactly? Canyonlands National Park is a high, arid desert. It is a wasteland of deformed plants, senseless heat, ugly rock, and vast distances impenetrable by car. This primal landscape is in the region around the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Think of that confluence as a crotch. The Needles District is the right hip socket. The Maze forms the left hip socket. Island in the Sky is the mon pubis, or mons veneris if you like. Or maybe more like the pubic bone. The Park Service refers to these areas as zones—each distinct. Some assert that the rivers form a fourth zone. This is questionable. But the riverine environment is special place in the southwest. A short distance from the river the environment becomes completely different and completely hostile.

The geomorphology of Canyonlands is bewildering. In a time out of mind, the Laramide orogeny lifted a huge section of what is now the western United States. The Colorado Plateau was just one part of that shift, but unique in that the immense rising rock layers remained horizontal. Jointing occurred, of course: all monoliths crack. With the Pleistocene era came ice ages and other increased precipitation. Water flowed through those joints, excavating canyons to form Canyonlands. Now it is a desert again, a place wild, remote and challenging. If you can overcome fear and deprivation, its most remote corners offer a lifetime of exploration and solitude.

In those impenetrable convolutions, Salt Creek is almost a gift. From our trajectory it was the closest access point into a remote corner of Canyonlands. While most other canyons twist and turn and undulate, Salt Creek cuts an open, obvious route through the plateau. While other canyons are narrow and intimidating, Salt Creek is open and inviting. But that’s not to say it is easy.

The climate in Canyonlands is formidable. In summertime, the rocks are an oven. Temperatures in the shade can exceed 100°F. Add convection and radiant heat from cliff walls, and temperatures can become lethal. Winter nights can plunge well below freezing. Snowstorms can close trails and make slickrock sections impassable. Storms any time of year can be abrupt and violent.

We picked October—one of the few months there you might call mild. But even October is suspect. It can bring days with a 40°F temperature swing. Mid-afternoon might have you stripping down to shorts and shirtsleeves. A few hours later you are squirming into your fleece, preparing for a chilly fourteen-hour night. And, by October the summer chubascos have long passed. Runoff that fueled seeps and springs has dried up. Water can start to be hard to find.

The most easily passable section of Salt Creek has four designated camp sites. (Three, really. SC1 and SC2 are practically on top of one another.) Each of the four is a reasonable distance from a reliable spring. We soon discovered that as you approach each spring, the canyon bottom becomes a jungle. We emerged from the first one with Kirk’s Cabin just over the rise. The spring there was flowing, a prodigious rush of water. Water in the desert. Always a miracle. My anxiety eased a little. Roxy made the turnoff to SC2. Mary and I continued on, now the only two people in an empty canyon.

The only two people at this moment. Salt Creek Canyon saw human habitation for thousands of years. We passed small ruins close to the trail. Spurs lead off to even more dwellings or granaries. You have to imagine The Ancients prizing a canyon like this. In fact much of Canyonlands, and the surrounding area, is chock full of cliff dwellings. I chuckle almost every time I see one. Modern parents view houses as an environment hostile to their kids. Too many stairs. Bedrooms on different floors. Too hard to see into the backyard. Too close to the street. As house hunters they reject one misfit structure after another. The real estate agent must find one that is not a deathtrap for their—apparently—incompetent children. The Anasazi would have shaken their bewildered heads. I picture them watching their kids scamper up a notched log to a cliff dwelling while Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia explain why they can’t move in.

My parents would shake their heads too. I wasn’t yet school-age when I was running around 300 acres of Pennsylvania woods like an idiot. We flew out of the house on summer mornings, sometimes not remembering to go back for lunch. We got stung; fell out of a few trees; skated on thin ice; and picked up snakes. Simple things. Childish things. My parents never thought to teach us that the world would coddle us. No one thought at all that it would hover over us, attending our every need.

I stumbled along thinking about that as the largest dwelling in the canyon, Big Ruin, passed by to our left. We skirted a wash and came to the towering triangular rock marking the side trail leading to the ruin. But we had bitten off a lot. Camp was too far to let us go see the pile of children’s bones at the bottom of that cliff.

Bones and ruins. My friends in archeology chip away at the life of The Ancients. Details about that life emerge slowly. Far too slowly. The key to our future lies in our past. We can try gleaning morals and edicts from ancient texts coated with a sacred veneer. But without understanding the real lives of the people written about it’s all for nothing. It would be like trying to understand the antebellum South by reading Faulkner. Interesting, but useless. The bones of the past contain the real story about how we should interact and cooperate as humans, and how we should exist on this planet. We can ignore the story they tell to our peril. Sack the priests and the politicians. Let’s listen to the archeologists and anthropologists and neuroscientists. We could do no worse than we’re doing now. But just as I’m ready hand the keys of understanding over to the archeologists, I see a pictograph like American Man. Then I think we will never understand what happened in these canyons.

We were making good progress. Our packs were getting heavier, but we had plenty of daylight left on a straightforward trail. And then it went in an odd direction. A large salient butted in from the right. The trail should have skirted the salient. Instead it veered right toward the cliffs. I watched the golden crowns of the cottonwoods drift left, wondering why we were going the wrong way. The answer was at the base of the cliff.

Pictographs in the Southwest seem standardized. Handprints. Snake or water symbols. Those and a few other things meet my untrained eye at site after site. American Man was different. American Man was red, white and blue. Maybe it wasn’t a man. It might have been a penguin. The head was tiny with maybe a feather or an antennae poking out. The body was rotund. American Man occupied an alcove low down on the cliff. American Man made no sense at all. Was it a shaman’s vision? A protective symbol? Just graffiti, the work of a bored granary guard? Whatever the case, I needed to sit down.

We sat for awhile. No answers came. The changing angle of the light on the cliff wall suggested it was time to move on. We stood, gathered our gear, and walked another 30 yards to find the trail going straight into the cliff. I stopped. Mary stopped. I looked for where the path skirted the promontory, heading back toward the line of cottonwoods. It didn’t. I stared at a few cairns that pointed a way up the cliff. At first they made no more sense than the pictograph had. With no other options I ducked under a juniper bough and started climbing the slickrock. And there was the notch.

Red, white & blue. Rotund body. Tiny brain. Did the Anasazi predict modern America?

Red, white & blue. Rotund body. Tiny brain. Did the Anasazi predict modern America?

Of course, it had all been too easy so far. So a little hardship was in order. We worked our way up the notch. At the top I turned to catch my breath and could not believe my eyes. The notch windowed a world that was remote and wild and beautiful. The outside world was gone. Only a feeling of loveliness and belonging remained.

What was left then was a spring, a campsite and four faces.

On the shakedown cruise for this trip, a quick hop up and down Secret Mountain near Flagstaff, we had managed ten miles a day on full packs. Not far after American Man I began to tire. I was pretty sure we hadn’t gone eight miles yet. At first I couldn’t work out why. Then I remembered we now had far more water and a bear container. The water was because no one would say that the springs were permanent. We had the bear container because we had too.

Black bears come down from the Abajo Mountains at summer’s end to gorge on berries. Closing in on hibernation, they have to pack on pounds. Berries bring them to Salt Creek. But as omnivores they’ll eat anything. Even backpacking food. To protect the backpackers and the bears, Canyonlands implemented a bear container policy. If it’s edible or scented, it goes in a bear-proof container. A hard-sided bear-proof container. They do not consider a bag made of ballistic grade cloth, reinforced with aircraft grade aluminum to be hard-sided. So we didn’t have a light, collapsible, tie-on-anywhere container like an Ursack. We had a thing called a Bear Vault. It was heavy and unwieldy. And I could only strap it to my pack in the very spot that threw off my center of gravity.

The water and the Bear Vault began weighing on me. Then we ended up in a jungle. Which meant the spring was close. But it made me wonder if we’d also made a wrong turn. I could feel my brain function dribbling away. Exhausted, I sat down and consulted the map. No. We hadn’t missed SC3. The spring was further on; camp a short piece beyond that on the other side. I left the oddly quiet Mary to cool her heels and went ahead to scout. The good news was that the spring was not far, and it was gushing. The bad news was that the trail was now obscure, vague cairns leading here and there. I saw no way through. We were going to fail at the simplest task: finding a marked campsite, in an open canyon bottom, on a well-trodden trail. The map and the GPS agreed that we were in the right spot. But in my exhaustion I just could not see the crossing.

There was nothing to do about it now. I returned, collected my pack and Mary, and we began looking for a place to stash ourselves overnight. Someplace away from the spring. Someplace that avoided walking across any cryptobiotic soil. We found a hidden spot under an alcove and settled in for the night.

Over our morning oatmeal we talked about how to fix our problem. The question was whether we could do this at all. As someone approaching sixty, with a sedentary job, maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. It was hard to say. Past experience said I would get tougher, And we had a rest day built in. Mary was in better shape. But she was older and had undergone a parade of medical procedures over a lifetime of running, hiking and climbing. The worst thing now was a neuroma. Hundreds of weekends carrying her children through the Rockies, plus some marathons, had left a jangling bundle of nerves in her feet. And now that neuroma was screaming. Without a heavy pack she might be okay. With it, who knew? The problem wasn’t making the next camp. It was only eight miles away. The problem was getting back. What if we couldn’t? On the other hand, staying where we were was not an option. At-large camping in this section of Salt Creek was not allowed.

By the time the stove had cooled, we’d decided that we would leave out gear stashed, day hike to Angel Arch, and return. Roxy was heading to this end of the canyon. If we could find her at the end of the day we could share her spot at SC3 and be semi-legally camped.

We snaked our way back to the trail and immediately found our mistake. The trail didn’t cross the wash above the spring or below the spring. It crossed it at the spring. Sure enough a quarter-mile beyond was the patch of dirt that was SC3. Fiddlesticks. Nothing to do now but head to Angel Arch.

Salt Creek has a smattering of arches. This section of Canyonlands sits over the same Paradox Formation, a salt bed, as Arches, affected by the same plastic flow. But here the arches are few and farther between. Here the salt bed created clustered pinnacles: the needles. What arches we’d seen so far were distant. We had neither the time, the inclination, nor the technical gear to get to them. Angel Arch was different. A little ways down a side canyon, it occurs where the arch-bearing layer of rock neared the canyon bottom. And by all reports it was spectacular.

So off we went on a perfect autumn day. We loped up the canyon like we were ten years younger and fifty pounds lighter, burdened with nothing more than water and snacks. The air was clean and fresh. The silence was enveloping. Golden cottonwood leaves spangled in the slanting light. The canyon, which had been arrow-straight up to our secret camp, now twisted through oxbows. The trail had worn into a trench some places. Other places it disappeared and we slowed to pick our way through the thinnest patches of underbrush. Delighted, as only two simpleminded people following a simple plan can be, we wove our way through the rock formations.

After six miles I flagged a little. A side canyon opened up on the right. This had to be the one with Angel Arch. It wasn’t yet noon. We would definitely get back before dark. I sprawled onto the sand and laid my head on a patch of green grass. Munching a Snickers bar, I watched cattail seeds drift on the breeze. Except the seeds, nothing stirred. Happy, I got up and walked ahead to see if we were where we were.

We were. In fact, a neat wooden sign, with an arrow pointing the proper direction, proclaimed: Angel Arch.

I fetched Mary and we headed down the side canyon, partly following an abandoned road, the mile-and-a-half to our goal. And what can I say about it? There it was: a partial hole in a rock. A million years of erosion had formed a random opening in a sandstone monolith. I admit that in the big scheme of things it wasn’t all that much. There are longer arches, taller arches, thinner arches. Some have round openings like portals. Some have double openings. Some are triplets. Some span watercourses. (Though the technical minded call them natural bridges.) Angle Arch wasn’t any of those things. But we couldn’t take our eyes off of it. It may have been the most beautiful arch I’ve ever seen.

Some thoughtful person had laid a gnarled gray piñon log across two piles of rocks. I sat down on the ad hoc bench, the only occupier of a bench for miles around. The silence was so thick I could have propped my staff against it. The canyon was in the middle of it’s imperceptible autumnal exhale. Summer’s fecundity was over. Winter would soon bring an even more profound silence. We existed in that moment, in the pause between, far from anywhere, and no with no place to be but there. Either trailhead was fifteen miles away. The one to the north was maybe even more remote, through more rugged country. This was ours alone, at the perfect time. Aside from that, I have no explanation for the beauty of Angel Arch. These arches, indeed this entire land of hoodoo rock, wants for no explanation and I offer none here.

A slight layer of cirrus clouds had scrimmed the sun all morning. That could not obscure the fact that the shadows were growing. I no longer had any idea which way was west. But I knew the largest shadow was creeping out from under the foot of the west canyon wall. We had to be back at the spring before it climbed out of the canyon. Without haste, we picked up our water bags and headed back.

As we wound through the oxbows the light shifted from it’s afternoon blue hue, to the golden hour. When is the golden hour? Along an ocean beach you could time it with a watch. In these stone labyrinths, it depends on where you’re standing. In the oxbows, the stone walls and autumn trees were already glowing. But after passing the Upper Jump, a twenty-five foot waterfall in a narrow bottom lined with cottonwoods, we emerged into the wider canyon and blue light again.

Hiking through the changing light was another reason I was here. The sixty hertz hum of fluorescent lighting, and its pallid green glow, are a standard part of our built environment. And one of the worst things humans have done to themselves. We need sunlight on our eyes; sunlight on our skin. We can get enough of that in a few minutes to keep our sleep cycle on track, and boost our vitamin D uptake. But we still miss out on a meaningful diurnal cycle. We miss the subtlety of wakening to increasing light. We miss the small comings and goings of shadows and clouds. We miss the natural clocking of the sun arcing across the sky. Now it’s all about alarm clocks, flickering blue computer screens, and bad lighting. After only three days away I didn’t miss it.

Cottonwood and rock spires on the way through the oxbows near Angel Arch

Cottonwood and rock spires on the way through the oxbows near Angel Arch

We had just refilled out water bags and settled in by the spring when along came Roxy. We kibitzed. She had spent her day coming up from SC2. She had two nights scheduled at SC3 just to bang around this end of the canyon. Like us, she was wondering if she’d bitten off more than she could chew. Two lithe, fit backpackers, male and female, appeared from the Angel Arch end of the canyon. We all talked for awhile. It took a moment before I realized we were living an age-old tradition. I don’t go into the wilderness seeking community. But there around the spring the chatter made me relaxed and happy.

The zero percent body fat couple had not bitten off too much. They were making for the trailhead—nine miles away—yet today. But how? The bearded half of the couple demonstrated that he could hoist his pack on his pinky. They scooped up a few cups of water, adjusted their gaiters, and motored on. Mary and I had packed far too much. If we were going to do this over any distances we needed to start paring weight. Still, I wondered about the wraiths that had just vacated. One of their tricks was not having a stove. They soaked their oatmeal overnight, eating it cold in the morning. Uh-huh. That part didn’t bother me. But they were doing the length of the canyon in two days. Was there any chance too see anything? Was there any sense of solitude? Even more, was there any sense of longing to be here, or of belonging here?

While I pondered that Mary and Roxy resolved our camping problem. We would stay stashed away under the alcove tonight. Tomorrow we would join Roxy at camp and on one of her side trips. I was looking forward to it. The night sky was seeing the barest sliver of a moon. Our view would be better from out in the canyon. The stars would be resplendent.

Just before the sun slid over the rim we took a few steps from the spring to see The Four Faces. They had been watching us the whole time. The faces could just as well be on the handbill for a farcical theater as on a rock face in the middle of nowhere. Each had that type of not-quite-human expression. Each head has an upper body,—clothed—earrings, necklaces. I studied them for some clue, some meaning, but like American Man they offered none. Just past the faces were the crumbling walls of another granary. Were the faces the evils granary thieves would suffer? As silent as the stone, they did not respond to my telepathic question. And all other context, including the people who painted it, is gone.

Our third morning got off to a slow roll. Nobody seemed ready to jump to their feet. Fine by me. I am a natural early riser. But I am also a natural slow starter. With most of my days spent managing a schedule jammed to the hilt, life outdoors is a welcome change. Eat when you are hungry; rest when you get tired; stop when the sun goes down. We spent the day enjoying that rhythm. We did nothing more than revisit American Man. Without too much effort we could have pushed to explore any number of little things. It was enough to have the sun on our faces, the smell of dust and juniper in our nostrils, and the emptiness, the loneliness, the loveliness of the canyon to ourselves.

Back at the Four Faces Spring, in the waning day, Mary and I moved our gear to SC3. By the rules, we still were not camped legally. But it felt better to be able to sleep where we risked no damage to this fragile landscape.

The desert looks tough. But that is an illusion created by exposed rocks and spiny plants. Life here hangs on the edge. Heat and sunlight are intense and relentless. Water is a miracle. When rain does come it often falls from the sky as if poured from the bowls of God’s wrath. The wind can be just as fierce. And that’s only the summer. Winter brings the other extreme. Its a wonder that any soil remains at all in these high deserts. It does only because of cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria predates almost all land organisms. Cyanobacteria paved the way for a terrestrial existence, helping clear earth’s atmosphere of carbon dioxide. While it may now be less important in more plant-rich corners of the world, here in the Colorado Plateau it remains essential. During rare wet moments, cyanobacteria moves through the soil binding it with rock in an intricate web. A few lichens, mosses, algae, other bacteria join in to hold it all in place. Without it, the wind and water would scour away the soil leaving bare rock and sand: a true wasteland. When you step off the trail it may look like you are stepping on dirt. In some places you are crushing an essential living crust centuries in the making.

As daylight condensed into darkness, we talked about our options for staying. I was feeling good again and suggested staying until Friday—stopping at SC1 on Roxy’s permit. Roxy seemed a little short on food and leaned toward getting out early. Moving a loaded pack was going to aggravate Mary’s foot problem and I sensed that she’d rather experience that for one day, not two. We settled on getting up before sunrise and attempting to reel in the entire nine miles back to the trailhead tomorrow.

Meanwhile with dinner done, and all edible or scented items packed into odor-proof bags and stored in bear vaults, I settled into my favorite desert activity: star gazing.

I have no astronomy skills. I don’t have a telescope. I can’t pick out, or even name, more than ten constellations. And I can’t keep track of how those ten move around as Earth spins and orbits the sun. None of that lessens the thrill of laying out at night in the desert under the stars. On moonless nights it is a resplendent canopy; the Milky Way seems bright enough to read by. At times I can imagine that I hear the cosmic hum from those balls of flaming gas. Is that the leftover sound of the angels that sang them into existence? Or just my tinnitus? It doesn’t matter. The effect is calming. And the scale, in time and distance, puts my ego back into it’s proper place. I fell asleep on our last night in Salt Creek watching Ursa Major slowly rotate above the canyon wall.

When I woke, the Big Dipper was scrapping the wall. Orion had rotated into view. The alarm was going off. It was pitch black. I had given no thought to daylight savings time and the alarm was set an hour early. I reset and watched the Dipper fade as the the morning progressed from astronomical dawn to workable light. When the first ray of sunshine pierced the canyon bottom we were already moving.

I’ll admit to a twinge as we passed the spring. I felt pretty certain that I would never see it again. Not that I wouldn’t want to. But so many spots on the map tugged at me. I still had unturned stones in Arizona. Utah had revealed a few secrets, but so much remained. I had left Colorado and New Mexico almost untouched. So there was a lot left to see. And like this canyon, I was getting into autumn. That made me feel like I had squandered my visit here. Maybe I should have worked harder to see more, to poke into a few remote corners. But maybe that was just greed, the desire to see it all, touch it all, know all of it.

With that we reeled in the Four Faces, the Notch, and American Man in short order. The day seemed to be going almost too well. Mary and Roxy strolled along singing show tunes. I meandered behind fussing with the camera. Big Ruin came and went. I realized that we would get out today. Soon enough the century-old cabin marking Kirk’s ranch came into view. A moment later we were at the first spring—maybe the only permanent water in Salt Creek—refilling our bags. Four miles to go.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in that last mile. As we moved up from the spring to the park boundary, through the little jungle marked with pink ribbons, the canyon rim started looking formidable. Going downhill with a fifty pound pack is hard. But it doesn’t engage my cardiovascular, my weak link. Uphill is a struggle. Mary was already gone by the time I started through the sloping peach and buff colored rock. Her challenge was getting out before her neuroma became debilitating. Roxy was behind me, girding herself for the heat and the ascent.

It was warming up fast. I wondered whether the heat or my lungs would get me first. But it was neither. Just a few days of walking had done me a lot of good. With almost no effort I made it to the steepest section and the shade of piñon pines and junipers. As I neared the top, I felt like I could keep walking for four more days.

And then it was over.

When Roxy appeared a few minutes later, we took the requisite photos; exchanged phone numbers; loaded our vehicles. We kicked the tires for awhile then parted on our different paths. Mary and I headed back through the wire gate, down the dirt road, past the tiny climbers at Indian Creek, on to Moab. Moab meant paid camping, running water, a diner, a Laundromat, hot showers. We were in no hurry to end our vacation. For us there would be more hiking at Canyonlands. There would be two more nights camping in open empty spaces. We would hunt for ruins and petroglyphs near Bluff, Utah. And then it was back to soft beds, heating, air conditioning, plugging back into the grid. Society. Civilization. All that rot. But for Roxy it was more of the same. Winter was coming. She would still be living in a truck. The Utah deserts are no place to spend winter that way. For a moment I felt some alarm for her. Then I thought more about our days in the canyon, about what each of us were heading back to—at least for the short term—and began wondering who had the better deal.

Looking south while passing through The Notch just after American Man

Looking south while passing through The Notch just after American Man

It’s A Giant Tiny Tablet. Now What?

Language is so central to the human experience that we have abstracted it in order to carry words around with us. Some self-assigned bellwethers claim the Internet is diminishing those writing skills. Probably not. The Internet is based on writing. Tim Berners-Lee invented World Wide Web so hypertext could link us from one text-based web site to another. And now, the average twenty year old sends 60 text messages a day. They probably write far more than their counterpart a century ago. In fact, if they receive as many as they send, they are writing and reading the equivalent of this blog every day. Think about that before you assign this post to the category of tl;dr.

Good stuff. But none of that compares to hearing someone say: “It’s good to hear your voice.”

Humans have pushed aural communication to levels beyond comparison to any other animal on this planet. Steven Pinker calls it a language instinct. I believe that’s true. It’s no accident that we’ve learned to push our voices long distances. The human voice propelled radio, recorded music, and the telephone into being three of the most widely adopted technologies of the last century.

So, sure, we say that actions speak louder than words, but our actions indicate otherwise.

A lot of this has to do with the range of ideas we are able to abstract through vocalization. And if our own language doesn’t have exactly what we are looking for, we turn to others for the needed je ne sais quoi. But it’s not just about a range of words or ideas. The simple phrase “I love you” can have three different meanings depending on which word we emphasis. And we can emphasis a word but completely change the context depending on subtle inflections in phrasing, volume and intonation. So it’s entirely possible to read too much into what someone has written; what they say is entirely another matter.

Which is why you can’t just slap a big screen on a phone and walk away.

Three years ago Samsung bravely admitted what we’d all been thinking: these so-called smart phones we’ve been carrying around aren’t phones, they are hand-hand computers with telephony features. So they introduced the Note, the world’s smallest tablet, at a time when Apple had the world going crazy for tablets. It was a tablet so small that, excepting a stylus, it could nearly be operated with one hand. But they made two tiny miscalculations. Okay, three. The first was that they allowed it to be categorized as a phone. The second was not expanding its telephony features to match how the device had to be used. And finally, of course, they missed out on producing a wonderful advertisement, filled with beautiful energetic young people, showing us the marvelous new world they occupied because of this device. Cue violins.

Key among all of that was that no one wants to make a voice call holding the equivalent of Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone to the side of their head. To be fair, it was 2011, not 1911, and for the most part some of us had stopped doing that. We could make voice calls using ear buds. Or we used our little device like a speakerphone. But, come on, a company brave enough and smart enough to introduce the world’s smallest tablet could also have been innovative enough to introduce the hybrid earphone. A hybrid earphone would be Bluetooth. You pair it just by placing it in your ear. You touch it to accept a call. You talk into the device’s microphone. You listen through the earbud. They could have had their own patent on it.

But Samsung seemed less interested in being futurists than in simply having a killer feature to sell.

And sell it did. If you don’t think having the world’s smallest tablet was groundbreaking, look around. It’s 2014 and now Apple has introduced it’s biggest smallest tablet. The iPhone 6 Plus.

But the original criticism still stands. Nobody wants to hold something that looks like a slice of bread to the side of their head and talk into it. So Apple changed a few things.

So, text is great. Voice is great. How great would it be to mix them? We’ve been attaching photos, even videos, to text messages for years. We’ve been able to send our loved ones snippets of voice recordings for years. And frankly, Sprint was way ahead of its time with Push To Talk–which had us using a phone like walkie-talkie over a decade ago. What was lacking was being able to put text, photos, videos and voice together into a single fluid stream of conversation. What slid neatly under the radar at Apple’s 2014 WWDC was just that. If you are running iOS 8 on newer devices you can add voice to your text stream with the push of a button. Or a swipe. I forget which.

This is nothing entirely new. Nor something that Apple arrived at independently. Ray Ozzie, formerly Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect, has been working for a while now on just such a thing. He believes that the phone call is alive and well. He thinks the only thing we don’t like about it is what he refers to as caller hegemony. Caller hegemony means that I called you; it’s my dime; and now we have to talk until I’m finished or you are brave enough to hang up on me.

We clearly don’t like caller hegemony. We’ve been breaking it’s stranglehold for years, first with voice messaging, then caller ID. Ray Ozzie wants to go a step further by creating calls that don’t have to be continuous. And, like Apple, his vision is a fluid application of voice, text, photo, locations, video, and document sharing. It’s also fluid in that any number of people can be invited to the conversation, drifting in and out of it, or catching up with it, as desired. Apple and Ray Ozzie want to reinvent telephony for the 21st century.

By introducing the world’s biggest smallest smallest tablet now instead of ahead of its time like Samsung did, Apple also benefits from modern Bluetooth headphones. These things are one of the most maligned consumer products ever made. It doesn’t help that the first ones looked like headsets that motivational speakers use. And the voice quality was pretty bad. But companies like Jawbone are changing that image. The ERA barely protrudes from your ear. It looks more like jewelry than a headset. For it’s size, it packs in a level of voice quality that is amazing. And since Apple will doubtless produce the most popular biggest smallest tablet ever, ERA works with Siri. If any company shakes off the outdated image we’ve saddled headsets with, Jawbone just might do it. The desire to not whip the world’s largest smallest tablet out of our pants might seal the deal.

But if we’re not going to interact with the newest biggest smallest tablet the same way we did with our Razor, Apple didn’t leave the means for that in the hands of others. They never have. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 he began working with a laser-like focus on empowering people to use the Internet. Apple built new form factors and new human interfaces to make this possible. More importantly Apple worked to tie all of the devices we use for this into a seamless platform. So they didn’t announce the new “phones” and Apple Watch on the same day just because they’d already rented the building. If you think of companies as selling devices and marketing features it was just a coinciding announcement. What really happened was that Apple Watch deftly moves the 6 Plus interface from our hand to our wrist. That’s not a lot of distance. Except that it leaves the biggest smallest tablet in our pocket. It leaves our hands free. And it places the most modern advancements in telephony in an old familiar spot. Most importantly, it makes it even easier to engage in our most personal interactions on these devices, and embellishes that fluid exchange of voice and text that define future telephony.

Obviously there are a lot of asshats already planning on not buying Apple Watch who object to the cost. (This is not conjecture; I read tech blogs.) Fair enough. Apple says starting at $350. But we already know the one we really want will be $500. For extremely busy people that price point doesn’t matter. They have already tucked away the funds for it. And for people whose health made the iPad such a boon, this is another device that helps as much. Maybe more. Because this one will send data to their doctor. These two groups will be instant adapters. Some of the rest of us might wait. Maybe not for long though. When Apple introduced the iPod, its continual shrinkage became comedic fodder. So it’s easy to imagine a future version scaled just for voice response, text response and notifications. Apple Watch II. At a different price point.

Voice is here to stay. The phone call, though, is changing. And wide acceptance of large tiny tablets will drive how we interact with our voices.

Samsung probably shouldn’t be crying foul here. Yes, they introduced the world’s smallest tablet with telephony features. Cue applause. But it was just a feature. When you sell features you can’t expect to stay on the top of the heap. And frankly, when your entire product line is based on patent infringement, lauding yourself as an innovator seems weird. Let’s let the patent attorney’s argue that though. My point is that you can’t just build a bigger screen without considering the implications of its use. If it’s flopping around like a fish on a beach, don’t complain when people call it a fish.

Samsung, you build devices and sell them based on features. Apple builds devices and sells them to complement a platform built on a relentless vision of interactivity, connectivity, human interaction and products that push beyond function and attempt to delight their users. You are not in the same market. Every advertisement you make pointing to Apple titillates only your loyal customers. (Or at least the ones who are loyal until LG, or HTC, or Motorola introduce the next big thing.) They just remind everybody else that you build big screens and Apple builds big ideas. If you ever decide you want to do more than build hardware call me. Otherwise, um, just send a text.

San Juan River Report 2014

I pay no attention to river safety talks. Strainers, hydraulics, swift currents. I get it: the river wants to kill me. I wasn’t paying attention to the San Juan ranger either. It was hot. I had just totted 480 pounds of water. I was half-asleep when his voice buzzed inside my skull. I’ve slept with a dead body on those ledges. I snapped out of my reverie. Peeking at everyone from under the brim of my hat, I wondered if they’d heard what I’d heard. Everyone was still smiling amicably. So no, we were not his confessional. In that case he was playing the body recovery card. Where’s your last camp? Grand Gulch? Oh yeah, that’s where we sleep when we go down the river to pick up bodies. The subtext was: be careful or this could be you.

It’s hogwash, of course. He implies that the implacable drowned will be floating by at breakfast every morning. If they do, the newspapers keep it under wraps. Only one drowning is reported since I was here in 2010: a swimmer, not a paddler. (Alcohol and water don’t mix. Unless it’s fine bourbon and branch water.) Or he thinks we don’t know that Slickhorn is a better spot. Closer to roads. More rotor clearance.  And his spiel ignores the fact that it would take a lot of work to get this river to kill you. There are no undercut rocks, no horrendous holes, towering waves, dangerous strainers. Leave powerful sequential maneuvering out of your bag of tricks. The rapids don’t quite peg the needle at Class III.

Still, the ranger makes a point. August is a fine time to be on the San Juan. But it adds the risk of flash floods, sunstroke, dehydration. And a desert that doesn’t sport a reliable water hole for 20 miles in any direction. Doesn’t matter where you’re standing at the time. Glancing around again, I figured we could toss in coronaries and aneurysms for good measure. In short, floating this river is as risky as living in a city. I went back to my somnolence. Survival is exhausting.

I didn’t have to worry about that stuff anyway. Heather was our trip leader. Worrying was her job. Heather is a natural-born trip leader. When she worries, it doesn’t show. She is organized, thoughtful, experienced. Her love of the outdoors borders on a fetish. She is adventurous without being crazy. Her lithe frame belies a sturdiness and tirelessness that is the envy of younger people. Most important, her buffered personality let’s her tolerate a wide range of people. She famously shows up at the put-in in a dress–as she would for any important event. And she can read a map. Any map.

The next six days were a testament to her talents. For a typical trip like ours, experienced boaters show up equipped, pool their resources, and float away. The ducklings she was leading to water this time was a family group. I’ll call them The Wingers.* They had come 1400 miles to do this. Heather put it together from soup to nuts. Down to the last strap, carabiner, and dry bag, no detail escaped her attention. With help from J, a member of the Winger clan, she divvied up the gear, got everyone into a boat, and we headed off.

(*I’ve changed the family name since they probably weren’t expecting this report to be on the Internet.)

Day 1: Archeology. The Bluff, Utah welcome signs have it established in 650 A.D. Swallow that whole if you will. It implies that The Ancients hadn’t wandered into the area until the time the English were developing poetry. When they did they must have thrown up some master-planned communities then hung out hunting, gathering, farming and fishing until the Anglos arrived. Happy with the newcomers, they deeded the place over to them and moved on. The truth is more fractured. Nomads used the area millenniums before fundamentalists place Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Dwellings appeared around the time the Israelites were packing for the wilderness. But The Ancients were attuned to the land. They didn’t stay where they weren’t wanted. They drifted in and out of the area with subtle shifts in rainfall or crop yield. Cedar Mesa was never permanently occupied in the way that we might think of Jerusalem or Paris or Pittsburgh. Whatever else happened, we know that a mass abandonment of the region occurred in the 16th century. When the bedraggled Latter Day Saints arrived in 1880, the Anasazi had been gone for three hundred years.

So Bluff was established in 1880 and not a moment before. But like most lies, the welcome signs hold a germ of truth. The middens of The Ancients are tucked away throughout the area. If you have a high tolerance for solitude, thirst, sunburn and blackened toenails, Cedar Mesa will yield a lifetime of exploration. I hope to get around to that someday. In the short term, I study our group.

J has been this way before. He is a competent boater who knows fluid dynamics. Whatever outdoor resumé he had before meeting Heather is even beefier now. He knows what he’s doing.

Then we have a sweetheart couple in a tandem boat. When they drew the straw for it, we made all of the usual jokes about tandem boats being divorce boats. But they are enjoying it. Before the end of the day they’ll dub it the Love Boat. No worries there.

The dean of the clan is a guy like me. He’s been around the block a few times. He’s observant, adaptive, a natural learner. He’s had a chance to hone his stoicism through long canoe trips and longer northern winters. He won’t say when he’s reached his limit. But this trip is probably well within them. He’ll be fine. That leaves the littlest and biggest Wingers.

The Littlest Winger doesn’t seem to have been outdoors much. She has never paddled before. This is a lot to chew and her apprehension is clear. Apprehension is fear looking through a keyhole. I get it. My first river trip was only eight miles. And I was scared stupid. She has to go eighty-four. So maybe fear will push her into bad decisions. But I sense a steely inner core. And there’s no doubt she’ll say exactly how she feels. She’ll probably be okay in a day.

The Biggest Winger is a tougher read. A man of few words, he sits in his boat like Buddha, contemplative, staring at the shoreline drifting by for long minutes on end. What’s going on under the brim of his hat is hard to say. Maybe he’s jamming as much of this as he can into his brain’s electro-chemical memory circuits. If he’s fascinated by the landscape, we’re on the same page. I’ve licked rocks in Utah just to see what they taste like. Maybe he’s like me, dreaming of being a turkey vulture floating high above this desert. Who knows? We’ll see what happens at Eight-foot, the first rapids. ‘Til then there’s nothing to worry about.

Meanwhile, I hate it. I have spent too much time in the office. Too little outdoors. My boat is heavy. It defies Newtonian physics. The water is slow. Somewhere ahead the river squeezes through Lime Ridge, gaining speed. Things will be easier then. For now, the air is tempered by gathering clouds. And we have some archeology to explore: River House and The Butler Petroglyph Panel.

Both are worth planning stops for. But they are unique only in that they are right along the river. On Comb Ridge you can’t swing a cat without hitting a petroglyph or a cliff dwelling. Heather, who is also a field archeologist, supposes that most of the east-facing drainages on Comb Ridge contain either of these. And Comb Ridge gets it’s name from being a series of undulating teeth on a ninety-mile long sandstone monocline. The gap between each tooth is a drainage. There are hundreds of drainages.

We meander along under lowering skies. The water speeds up. Along the shore, wild burros, mule deer, mustangs, and Canada geese drift past us moving upstream.

Cruising now, we hit a larger-than-usual riffle called Four-foot. The muddy river looks like chocolate frosting dancing and foaming in a peyote hallucination. After another mile we pull in, haul our dry bags far above the sighing river, and set up camp.

Day 2: This is a land of ghosts. I slept last night on fossils. My bed was an ancient sea bed–stone scored with the skeletons of long vanished arthropods. And it was not the top layer of rock in this canyon. Seas came and went, each one now a layer of stone in layers rising hundreds of feet above the river. Now those seas are a desert. Gone. The Basketmakers came and went. The Puebloans came and went. The Anasazi are gone. Ghosts.

You’d think that the Mormons would have toughed it out. Their journey from Salt Lake to Bluff defies belief. But things must have been even tougher after they arrived. They sent back for permission to return. The bishops denied them, of course. But to this day Bluff looks more like an encampment than a Mormon town. Blanding and Monticello have sandstone municipal buildings and tree-lined streets. The touches that show the solid, industrious core of the Latter Day Saints. Not Bluff. I’m not sure there are any Mormons there. And it looks like it could disappear from the maps any moment. On some maps it already has.

This is a land that will not be lived in. Mendenhall’s Cabin is a crumbling into a pile of rocks. The Honaker Trail is now just a curiosity, used only by river runners. The drilling equipment at Slickhorn Canyon rusts into the ground one iron oxide molecule at a time. A DNA study even has the enigmatic Everett Ruess’ footsteps ending at Comb Ridge. Ghosts.

Our little group is most transitory of all. We survive only because we carry everything we need in our small pneumatic boats.

Oops! We lose two Wingers at Eight-foot.

Heather decided we should scout this little rapids. Good idea. In three trips I’ve not had a solid look at it. After seventeen miles of riffles it is a bit of a surprise. You round the corner and there it is. The main drop isn’t the problem. The river skirts a cliff wall, turns right, and plunges over a boulder pile. It is short, straight, to the point. The problem is that swift water continues for another sixty yards beyond that. A flip could mean a long swim.

So we scout, pointing out the best route. I go first and park in an eddy just past the main drop. J joins me. The Dean drops through and wanders off downstream. The Love Boat bounces past. The Littlest Winger rounds the corner too far from the cliff wall, corrects, and floats through. She takes up a spot in the opposite eddy. Then the Biggest Winger paddles to the lip heading straight for a pour-over to the left of the rock splitting the channel. By the time I get back in my boat he’s flipped. He keeps his paddle and hangs onto his boat. Good. But the waves are pushing muddy water into his mouth with every breath. I paddle out, grab his boat, and he swims to shore.

J paddles up to assist. He peels off at a shout from upstream. The Littlest Winger had left her spot in the eddy. Not quite clearing the rocks, she went into the drink. Gripping her paddle, she threw herself across her boat’s bottom, righting it with the flip strap. A textbook self-rescue. J towed her the rest of the way in.

By the time we rearranged everything, the Biggest Winger came crashing through the desert willow. We continued on.

After lunch at Ledge Rapid the affect of heat and light became narcotic. I nearly fell asleep in my boat. The muddy water’s surface seemed semi-solid. Golden. The affect was more like gliding down a river than floating on it.

The Raplee Anticline, which we’ve been paddling through most of the morning, turns downward suddenly. We emerge without warning into open country. The river loops north then south again. The loop gives us time to admire the anticline’s sage and cinnamon swirls and Mexican Hat Rock. (My choice for the state symbol.) We pass yet another abandoned road to another failed drill hole, then an empty horse corral. Finally we drop through Island Rapid.

I love following other boats through Island. The duckie in front dances down the riffle then drops out of sight. It reappears bounding over one wave, then another. By then the drop sucks you in and grabs your attention. It feels like a much bigger rapids.

At Mexican Hat–gas station, church, motel and two cafes–we boost our water and beer supply. It is paltry Mormon three-two beer. But there’s nothing else. Pushing into the current again, we pass under the single-arch bridge and into Cedar Mesa.

The Wingers stop for a hike to Mendenhall’s cabin. I paddle across the river to nap in the shade. As they walk up the ledge, I am amused that only our second day in the muddy flow has already given us all the same dun colored clothes.

Of the ghosts haunting this land, the Mendenhalls, brothers, must have taken the cake. Their stone cabin decays in the saddle of the first of many loops traced by this stretch of river. The story has it supporting a gold claim. I think not. The brothers knew that there was only placer gold here. I think they liked the solitude and the view. They may have been crackpots. But they were my kind of crackpots.

The sound of the sighing river fills my nap. The lulling white noise echoes from the rising stone walls. I am reminded that Adam and Eve heard the voice of god on the afternoon breeze. The voice of god is in the breeze. It is in the sighing, lulling river too. And why not? Especially these desert rivers. After all, didn’t Yahweh find his chosen people in the desert?:

“He found his people in a desert land
In a barren howling waste”

The voice of god is in these desert rivers. But we plug them, dam them, divert them. Anything to quiet that voice. Anything to end the solitude that forces us to confront our existence. Anything to exert dominion, our illusion that we are the supreme animal on this planet. It doesn’t matter. The shadow I nap in creeps toward the water. When it crosses over and engulfs the rim I will be long gone. The darkness is coming. I am glad I will not be here. Why can’t we just leave some things alone?

The Wingers return. We float single file the final two miles to camp. Tonight we are on a set of ledges just out of the water. Behind us are some short cliffs. Heather and I look for escape routes in case the 1500 cubic feet we are paddling on becomes 9000 or 15,000 during the night. After all, it is August in San Juan County, Utah. Thunderheads have been boiling up, just in view above the canyon walls, all day.

Shortly after camp goes quiet, the first raindrops patter onto my sleeping bag. At first it feels like the tickling, teasing edge of a virgus. These light rains evaporate as they fall, sometimes never touching the ground. Soon it rains in earnest. At first I am annoyed. This is the third straight night rain interrupts my sleep. But soon that soothing smell wafts over me. Petrichor. The blood of gods flowing from stone. A bit much. What actually happens is that some plant oils are absorbed into the clay during dry spells. Rain releases it into the air along with geosmin. Geosmin is the bacteria that supplies the earthy taste to beets and catfish. Distant lightning adds ozone and the three combine into a soothing, primeval odor. Gary Nabhan’s words float in with distant thunder:

“One minute you will be smelling dust. The next, the desert can smell just like rain.”

I spread my sleeping bag, covering my pad so at least it stays dry. After awhile the clouds scud away revealing a moon already arcing below the canyon rim. Scorpio looks like it is crawling after it. The waxing moon is unusually bright. I watch some meteors streak across the sky before drifting to sleep.

Day 3: The river is older than the mesa. Cedar Mesa is a recent development in the evolution of the Colorado Plateau. At some point, the San Juan River drained out of the Uncompahgre Uplift, the ancestral Rockies, onto a plain. Like all plains rivers it meandered. Where Cedar Mesa now stands it had sinuous looping curves, like a sidewinder slipping down a dune. Then, as just one more feature in a spectacular plateau, a large anticline, the Monument Upwarp, rose. Within that formed the bowed, bent rock of Cedar Mesa. As Cedar Mesa lifted, the river remained where it was. The layers of the mesa rose past it, like pushing cake up through a knife blade. That left the feature that we will paddle through today: The Goosenecks.

The Goosenecks is the finest example of an entrenched meander on the planet. If it were on the Missouri or Mississippi, passing through a set of low bluffs, we would not notice it. But this incised meander is in a deep desert canyon. We will paddle over ten miles today and go less than five in a straight line. Impressive.

The canyon squeezes the river into a narrows. The flow is swift and smooth. For us the river doesn’t move at all. We sit on the waters’ surface–a reflective mosaic of rock and golden light–while the world moves around us. The canyon walls flow past. The sun makes circles around us. But we don’t move at all. The effect is mesmerizing. I notice that everyone has stopped paddling. The current bears us through a holy silence. There is no wind. No water gurgling around rocks. No birds chattering. No voices. I can hear only the tympanic plop of droplets falling from my paddle blade. The moment reaches out and touches the edge of eternity. I don’t even want to breath.

But we must. We must breath. We must paddle. We must direct our duckies downriver to where crazy old man Honaker forced a trail down into the canyon.

When we arrive, the clouds have evaporated and it is hot. On other trips I crawled into the shade of a tamarisk and waited for the bighorn sheep to come to drink. But the tamarisk are dead. Their spindly branches are brown, dried, lifeless. Their wholesale demise is no accident.

Tamarisk is a Middle Eastern exotic, an invasive species. Within a century of its arrival here you could find it in every river bottom in the southwest. People grew to hate it. Even the laconic Edward Abbey called it a plague. But why? It provided greenery, prevented river bank erosion, created bird habitat.

The story of the arid west is a story of water. A story of reclamation. We need water to drink. There is plenty for that. But we want water to farm. To mine. That stretches the supply. So the agricultural and extraction industries saw a competitor in tamarisk. If it was thriving then it must be drawing huge amounts of water from the river. And if that’s so, then eradicating it leaves more water for farmers and miners. We turned it into a monster onto which we could heap the ills of our existence.

The bureaucrats and managers cut and burned and bulldozed. Every effort just made more tamarisk grow in its place. Then someone discovered Diorahadba elongata, the Mediterranean tamarisk beetle. This beetle seems to feed only on tamarisk leaves. So they loosed it on the southwest. The logic was that it would control, or (hopefully) eradicate, the tamarisk and nothing else. Some held that defeating the noxious weed would return cottonwoods, willows, box elders and hackberry to their rightful spots.

More hogwash. First, no one ever proved that tamarisk, regardless of its density, ever sucked up more water than the natives. Then there is this hot beach. The willows grow right along the water. Hackberry grows in the shade. Cottonwoods will not grow in the sandy beach soil. The tamarisk did, and provided shade, greenery, screening for the port-a-potty. Now every single one is dead. We string up tarps for shade. We tote the potty one hundred yards from camp. We sit in the river until the sun creeps behind the rim because the beach is a furnace. I’m not sure just what the tamarisks were hurting.

But at least the monstrous weed is gone. Or soon gone. What happens to the beetle then is anyone’s guess. Maybe it dies with the last tamarisk leaf. Maybe it evolves. As everything has for millions of years. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I rig a tarp of my own. My personal tamarisk is gone. I want some shade. And I’d like not getting rained on again tonight.

After awhile I rejoin everyone in the cool river. They are sitting in the water playing Drunk Geology.

At some flows, the San Juan is one-third solids by volume. This is one of those flows. The San Juan itself is dammed. Half the flow we have comes from the bottom of the dam, cool and clear. The other half comes from the Animas, still undammed. The monsoon has been dumping rain around Silverton and Durango for a week. So mud is coming down the Animas. Added to the San Juan flow, we have enough water to float our little boats. But it’s thick.

So the first question in Drunk Geology is: could you filter this to drink? The answer is in our boats. There are eleven gallons strapped into mine in two containers. Ninety pounds of water. In all, we began with ten gallons, for each of eight people, for each of six days. 480 pounds. The answer is: you can’t filter it. The solids would clog the filter before you got a quart.

The next question is: could you settle it, and then filter it? Probably not. After a day or so you would have two layers of liquid. The heavy bottom layer would be silt. Not the top layer. Clay particles are tiny, smaller than 4 µm, small enough to carry a charge. This is why they won’t settle out. The top layer would be a colloidal suspension of aluminum silicate: clay.

Clay results from chemical weathering. Water carries carbolic acid into rock leaching out aluminum silicates. The clay flowing through our shorts came from silicate bearing rock on the Rockies’ western slope. For now it ends up in Lake Powell. Powell will completely silt over in time. Then the Colorado will run over the dam, eroding it, just as it did with the larger volcanic plug that is now Lava Falls. What will happen after that is anyone’s guess. From there the clay may make it to the sea, forming layers on the bottom. It may be compressed into shale or slate. In a million years it may have risen into another desert, cut by another river, explored by other blue-eyed bedouins.

So water erodes clay from rock and transports it to form rock somewhere else. At this point the Biggest Winger speaks up. So which came first then, clay or rock? Ah, so he hasn’t just been drifting along dozing like me.

The geologists debate the order. But they are thinking on a macro level–at the chicken and egg level. The answer is that rock came first. Our planet’s building material came from stars no longer burning. A stars’ thermonuclear furnace fuses light elements, helium and hydrogen, into heavy ones. These eject into space when the star collapses into a white dwarf. If a star goes supernova, even heavier elements form and are ejected. Either way, these elements–silicon, carbon, iron–clump and cluster in space over epochs forming planets. Planetary gravity attracts hydrogen and oxygen. In the case of Earth, the right temperature let’s those combine to form water. The planet, the stone, came first. Then water. Then clay.

Drunk Geology concludes with my favorite conversational snippet from the trip. Half of the Love Boat couple says: “This water is drying out my skin.” The other half replies: “It’s a 2:1 clay silicate.”

The sun sails over the rim. The bighorn sheep do not appear. Heather lights a stove under a huge pot of water, starting dinner. I realize that I am famished. The darkness gathers. We eat. I slink off to my camp. The stars appear. I won’t need my tarp tonight.

Day 4: Once again into the dreamscape. Now we meander through the canyon with an incredible lightness. There is joy and solemnity in every paddle stroke. We pass miles of tortured, twisted, fractured rock. The rarest of Utah treats, a cloudy sky, shades our passage. Bighorn sheep graze just off the water. Canada geese plod the silty banks. We spy occasional beaver slides. A beaver swims alongside me at one point. Gliding down the river seems reason enough to exist. My reverie is broken only twice. Once, The Dean, maybe in a dream state like mine, missed seeing a barely submerged rock and flipped. Another time we pulled in, scouted, and ran Ross Rapids.

But the walls of the canyon are lowering. Our days here are ending. We arrive at our camp at Johns Canyon in time for shade, and reflections of the sky in mud and water.

Every group on the San Juan wants to stop here. The beach is large and accommodating. A riffle makes a soothing background noise. Johns Canyon ends in a cliff. If the creek is running there is a waterfall. That falls once began flowing in the middle of the night, waking us up to play until the small hours of morning. And, with a short, slightly tricky hike, you can get to the pool above the falls. Filter drinking water. Rinse silt from your hair. Lay in the shade and dream. Your choice. It is a wonderful pool.

Today, though, no one else is here. Three groups put on with us on Sunday. We never saw the first two again. We passed the third at River House and have not seen them since. We are the only group on this stretch of river. For the first time ever we have this spot to ourselves.

Clouds billow up here and there in the backcountry. Their tops peek just over the rim. I grub into the bottom of my big blue dry bag and drag out my tent. The guy chords are still white. In three dozen days on Utah rivers I’ve pulled it out only twice. I’m hoping I don’t need it tonight.

Here I must make a confession. Like most, I have a carnal lover. Mine is a delight. Passionate and sensuous, after 35 years I cannot keep her from my mind through the course of a day. The moonlight infuses her skin with an ethereal glow.  And her caress is a maddening pleasure. As with anything so wonderful, I aim for fidelity. But I have another love. I sneak out at night. I use camping and backpacking and river trips as an excuse to see her. She is the desert night sky.

My river companions no doubt think me a dolt. I know I appear antisocial. I slip away after dinner foregoing tequila, songs, conversation. My goal is to get a nap. If I can stay hydrated, then between the nap, my aching back, and an urge to pee, I’ll wake in the middle of the night. And there they will be. Stars like you cannot see anywhere else.

This trip is particularly good. The moon is waxing. In a few nights it will be full and occupy the sky all night. But now it sets below the rim sometime during the night. When it does, the Milky Way brightens almost enough to read by. As we glide down the river, the planet has glided into an asteroid field. Our gravitational pull tips their delicate balance. They leave their place in space. They accelerate. They ignite in the mesosphere. Tonight there are lots. They take on a musical rhythm. They are a symphony of light. Staccato. Staccato. Glissando. Attacco. Crescendo. This is spiritual, not carnal. A delight nonetheless.

Last night the Milky Way aligned with our tiny section of canyon, running right between the rims. Tonight it crosses at an angle. Tonight I face west instead of east and some new constellations appear. Maybe I am just nosy. But a tent gets in the way of this. Rain and insects send me into a tent sometimes. I prefer the open sky. And here it is especially wild. There are no cities close by. The night sky is velvety dark. One trip years ago ended on Independence Day. We camped in The Valley of the Gods. As we lay awake watching the stars, the Milky Way burned brighter than the fireworks in Kayenta forty miles south.

I drift to sleep infused with a sense of wonder.

Day 5: Government Rapids. On our track north, we passed trailer trucks carrying inflated Grand Canyon rigs, bound for Page. Banners at both ends of the vehicle declared: OVERSIZE LOAD. Rigs this size carry the busloads of tourists that float Grand Canyon. And sometimes they come in handy for the house-height waves encountered there. On the San Juan we need nothing like that. Our duckies are enough. Government is the biggest rapids we encounter. There are some large boulders blocking the current. And some paddlers rate it Class III. But on many rivers Government wouldn’t make a ripple. And the correct line through it is straight.

We stop and scout anyway. First, it’s nice to get out of the boats. To ambulate. To view the scenery from a different angle. Next, it helps build anticipation. In lovemaking and river running anticipation means as much as anything. Last, our gear is critical. We are still carrying water and food. I have expensive cameras. Sending this stuff into the thick brown water through carelessness or inattention would be stupid. So we scout.

The Littlest Winger skipped Ross. But Government looked like too much fun to miss. She decided to tail Heather through the waves. Heather briefed everyone on the hazards, the correct line, the way to triangulate the entry. I knew what I wanted to do. Stashing my camera boxes under a rock, I stumbled off to run it first.

By the time I ran it and set up my camera, the Love Boat appeared at the top of the drop. They scooted through clean with synchronized strokes. The Dean dropped in next, smooth as you please. J made his run with just a few paddle strokes. The Biggest Winger hit the tail waves without moving his paddle at all. Heather dropped in like a feather. She got swung to the right, almost did a dosey-doe with The Rock, and continued on.

The Littlest Winger saw the bobble. But she had no time to correct. She didn’t brush The Rock hard. Had she been a bullfighter performing a veronica, the bull would have just popped a button on her traje de luces. But it was enough. The boat careened. For a moment she hung on, poised between paddling and swimming. Swimming won.

She grabbed her boat and floated into the pool. Short, sweet Government Rapids spit her out unharmed. Everyone posed for photos of the survivors and we continued down the waning canyon.

The afternoon sky won’t float a cloud. The dryness turns it an intense blue, sapphire above, cerulean at the edges. Passenger jets pass forty-thousand feet overhead. I would swear that you could count every rivet. We pull in at Slickhorn Canyon. I found myself looking forward to the big plunge pool there. True, our days in mud are almost done. One more day in clothes stiff with silt and salt won’t make a difference. But a little relief would be nice. We could have a swim in something akin to fresh water. We move without haste, hugging the shadier east wall, looking for fossils in the shale layer. My mind races ahead to the cool green pool.

It was not to be. Like the air around us, Slickhorn is bone dry. Heather and I stare into the circular stone pit. The cattails on the downstream side are drying. Going to seed. And it’s August, not September. Our dejection must have been palpable. On the way back we pass a puddle. The tadpoles in it cluster toward the deep end. The water just covers their backs. They are too young to breath air. If a storm in the backcountry doesn’t come soon, evaporation dooms them.

We trudge back to the river, past the rusting drill rig. Another ghost. Another dream the desert did not take part in.

We dawdle. There is no sense arriving at Grand Gulch ahead of sunset. Heather times it with perfection. We unload our boats, sinking our sandals into the viscous silt for the last time. I can’t believe it’s over. I’m not ready for it to be.

It’s Heather’s birthday so I try being more helpful than usual prepping dinner. As the pasta boils, someone passes around the last flask of tequila. The conversation is interesting. But I find myself distracted by Grand Gulch behind us. It twists and rises for fifty miles to the crest of Cedar Mesa. Archeologists tell me that cliff dwellings and petroglyphs line its length. I know only the first half mile beyond the river. It is enough for now. There is a cliff there. There is a seep in the sandstone. There is a cottonwood tree. A spirit inhabits that spot. It is one of three places I’ve ever been where a spirit was active the moment I was there. I am not asserting belief in sentient invisible powers. Such things don’t exist. But something was there. I felt it. It draws to me to see more of Grand Gulch. Someday.

Dusk. I sneak away for my nap. I awake to a brighter moon. The Milky Way is paler. But the shooting stars are more and brighter. I lay awake watching. And listening. The river sounds spent here. Under the surface it builds piles of sand and then gurgles, like a delighted baby, when it pushes them over. Nearer, water laps at the ledges we sleep on. Maybe one of the implacable drowned floats by in the moonlight. Maybe a helicopter will come whirring over the rim, its klieg lights scanning the river. But I doubt it. The river is no threat to us. Not in the way that we are a threat to it. I drift off to dream of a country filled with free flowing rivers.

Day 6: Oljeto Wash. If you think Government Rapids is the last gift of a slowing river, of a waning canyon, you’d be wrong. Slotting innocuously into the main canyon from the left is Oljeto Wash. From the maps it is easy to ignore. In the parlance of the west, wash usually means shallow and sandy. And dry–though they may sport an ephemeral stream in the rainy season. And perhaps up on the cap stone, up in the Navajo Nation, Oljeto is just that. But here at river level, it is anything but. Here it is a sinuous sandstone canyon with curving vertical walls. And it has the best dried mud anywhere.

While The Wingers tie off their boats and pull out lunches, I unclip my Pelican box and dart off. The light I need is only going to last another hour. And there it is. Golden light glows on the underside of the final layer of sandstone. Sandstone has a natural warm tone. Desert varnish enhances the warmth. Here, the manganese content is low and the varnish is orange. The final affect comes from the curve itself. It keeps the light from going flat, letting me play with color, texture, intensity. Where the walls are dull, I turn my attention to mud.

Clay saturated water flows here over sand and stone. On the sand it dries in thin layers. On the stone it dries in paper-thin layers. On the sand it dries in full curls, like a child’s fingers clutching a quarter. On the stone it peels up in delicate radial onionskin patterns. It is wonderful mud.

I reach a wide spot in the canyon where the light no longer works and start back. Heather has five of the Wingers stashed in the shade along a sweeping north wall. I pause and chat. Further on the sixth Winger is dreaming under an alcove. I don’t linger. People who peel off from the group usually want some time alone.

Soon we are back in the heat and brightness. Clay Hills isn’t far. But we will skirt sandbars all the way, doubling the distance. If the west had been wet for the last two decades, we’d also be paddling on the flat water of Lake Powell. But the west is drying out. The lake is far away. So there is flow. But the dropped load of sand from wetter times remains. We must dodge the bars, find the braided channels. The Biggest Winger leads us down, reading the clues on the surface just right, keeping us from doing an amphibious hike.

The best flow is sometimes right along the cliffs. I love skirting along the smooth stone, reaching out sometimes to brush my hand along it. Not much stone remains above water. In the last several miles hundreds of feet of rock have gone under the river.

Too soon we come again into open country. The Clay Hills, a mile away, swings into view. The Dean wants to press on. I understand. If there were still a Glen Canyon I might go on. But there are drownings on rivers. Glen Canyon lies under the cold deep waters of Lake Powell, drowned. Maybe the depth muffles the roar of jet skis, and the whooping of sunburned rednecks. Maybe beautiful, drowned Glen Canyon doesn’t know the travesty foisted upon it. I doubt it. By now, thousands of crushed Pabst Blue Ribbon cans have floated down into the darkness from the sun dappled surface above. We leave the river and roll up our boats.

It is 8 PM. The Twin Rocks Cafe almost has a Friday night buzz. The Wingers need to be on the road, rewinding 1400 miles of highway to get home. It already seems like yesterday since we deflated our boats and bounced up the dirt road from the take-out. We descended the plateau at the Moki Dugway–a controlled plunge–pausing at Goosenecks State Park to reminisce. But now at Bluff the clock has picked up speed. Its time to wrap up dinner. The waitress brings boxes for leftover Twin Burgers.

We send them off from the parking lot. For Heather and J and I the trip continues. We will do some exploring at Comb Ridge: Procession Panel for me; new sights for Heather and J. From there it’s up across the mesa. Maybe I’ll join them up at the Bears Ears. The camping will be fragrant and cool at 8500′. From there it will be an easy downhill run home to Tucson.

For now the thing to say is that I am proud of the Wingers. Running rivers in little boats is uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, but worthwhile. Rafts mean bacon, eggs, beer, ice, fresh vegetables. Rafts mean stoves and Dutch ovens for cooking. Rafts mean shading umbrellas. It means passengers who ride along in complete leisure. We get none of that. Every mile is work. We bring only what we need. (Though sometimes we have guitars and banjos.) We eat well, but only with careful planning. We don’t go thirsty. But our hats are our only shade. We must plan every detail; we must husband all we carry. Yet there is a certain satisfaction in that. There is satisfaction in the effort, in getting out of our comfort zone. I think of the words of Mary Austin:

“No doubt the labor of being comfortable gives you an exaggerated opinion of yourself, an exaggerated pain to be set aside.”

The Wingers took it all in stride and added long automobile trips as bookends. So I am proud of them. I am proud of everyone who has paddled with me in little boats. It is a group I’m glad to be part of. At some point rafts will not get beyond Slickhorn Canyon. There will be too much sand. Only duckies will make it through. But not long after that no one will. We will not have dammed it; we will have plugged it with sand. For now, the river of water and stone, of dryness and storms, of celestial lights, lets us past. For a price. But it returned more than it took. Under the stars at Comb Ridge, Mary Austin’s words stir in my mind as I fall asleep:

“For all the desert takes of a man it gives compensations; deep breathes, deep sleep and the communion of the stars.”



The Littlest Winger spits in the eye of Government Rapids

The Littlest Winger spits in the eye of Government Rapids


When you go: Many sections of the San Juan are runnable. The section described here goes from Bluff, Utah (Sand Island) to Clay Hills. A BLM permit is required. There are six named rapids, some rated at Class III. The 84-mile run can be done in five days by determined people. But six or seven days is better. Water from the river cannot be used for drinking and water in side canyons is unreliable. Carry all that you need. The last section of road to the put-in is 14 miles of dirt. It is well maintained and can be used by passenger cars with good tires. Like all dirt roads in Utah it may be impassable when wet.

Photography: Inflatable kayaks are a horrible photographic platform. By the time you clean your hands and remove your expensive camera from its dry box your duckie will have rotated 90 degrees. If doing photography with an expensive camera is important to you, you should hitch ride on a raft. Otherwise carry something small like a Nikon CoolPix and put it in a dry box clipped to your PFD.

Bluff: There are a number of motels in bluff and an RV park. The BLM maintains a campground at the put-in. There are two restaurants and a coffee house. We usually eat at Twin Rocks Cafe. No place will let you use a shower unless you stay there. The BLM campground has running water but no shower. Some places have wi-fi. But cell coverage is sketchy. If you use a GPS consider downloading maps ahead of time.

The Area: There is a lot to explore in Utah. The number of dwellings and petroglyphs left by the ancients around Bluff is staggering. Monument Valley is less than an hour south; Moab is little more than two hours north.


The desert is no place to be barefoot. Not this desert anyway. Tarantulas, scorpions, vinegaroons, cone-nosed kissing beetles, centipedes, velvet ants: every creeping thing is poisonous. And those are just the invertebrates. Of the thirty-two species of rattlesnakes that inhabit the Americas, thirteen call Arizona home. That includes the Mojave rattler, crotalus scutulatus. While not so large as the western diamondback, the Mojave delivers a venom payload with a toxicity second to none in its genus. And they are always agitated. Then there is our poisonous lizard, the Gila monster. No one in Arizona has died of a Gila monster bite in a century. But everyone agrees that they will clamp onto your foot with their tiny, putrid, infected teeth, then, grinding through your skin to the bone, release its load of toxin. If you’re ever lucky enough to find one, that is.

If those don’t send you scurrying to the medicine cabinet or the emergency room, we have an assortment of spiny plants. Sharp sticks or leaves or pads drop from teddy bear cholla, prickly pear, agave, sotol, and ocotillo. And then there is my nemesis: puncture vine. Tribulus terrestris is an invasive ground-hugging exotic. It’s shiny green vines and cheerful yellow flowers give no hint of seeds sharp and hard enough to puncture a tire. Common names for the drought-loving caltrop include devil’s weed, devil’s thorn, and devil’s eyelash. Here we just call them goat heads. Don’t wonder if you’ve ever stepped on its mature ovule. You’ll know.

All that is still not enough to keep this hillbilly in shoes. But the hot, dry dirt is. High in clay, and low in oxygen, it is inorganic as well as alkaline. That alone is unpleasant enough. But it compacts into near mineral hardness. To top it off, the surface is usually strewn with sharp tiny bits of volcanic rock, a friable, decomposed granite. In short, it is unpleasant to the touch. To the sole.

So the typical desert dweller wears Chacos or Tevas. The cholos and hipsters and frat boys scuffle around in shower sandals and white socks. The hippie chicks strap on Birkenstocks. Hardly anybody who hasn’t been out in the desert seeking psylocybin goes barefoot.

And then the rains come.

Sometime in July the planetary weather gears click into a new pattern. Over the preceding months, a subtropical ridge has shifted north from Mexico. Now it forms a sweeping curve from the Rio Grande’s Big Bend to the Sangre de Christo Range in southern Colorado. This creates a large high pressure system over the midwest, turning their weather hot and dry. That rotation sweeps air off the Gulf of Mexico up across the Chihuahuan Desert into Arizona. Flow from the Pacific joins it, bringing humidity to the desert. Then, if a few other things come together–if the midwest has had a wet spring; if rain has fallen further south along the Gulf flow; if the snow pack in the western Rockies has, for the most part, evaporated; if a low pressure system develops over the Four Corners area; and if the Pacific is not too cool–huge convective storms come to our desert. This is seasonal. A true monsoon.

The rising heat picks up the low level moisture sending vapor upward. Clouds form, appearing at first as wisps over the mountains. Then the chubascos build in earnest. Thunderheads rise to 40,000 feet, from a base of huge, roiling clouds. Lightning sends jagged, crackling veins of electricity skyward. The thunderheads collapse, sending down drenching, bone-chilling rainfall. Those downdrafts create updrafts, generating more storms, some over the valley now. This goes on all afternoon, storm clouds and storms, rising and falling, now here, now there. And sometimes, if you are lucky, where you are.

This happens once or twice and now the dirt under your feet takes on a different feel. It cools. It breaths. It feels looser, more organic.

It is time to go barefoot.

My time is evenings after work. While I wait for a bed of coals to heat on the grille, I nurse a beer and sit with my feet in the dirt. My bare feet in the wet dirt creates a connection following a sinuous line back through time and across a continent. My mind won’t pick up any particular temporal threads, or settle on one place. But a soothing cosmic vibe eases my jangled nerves into a place where boys in dungarees wade in ponds or relax in shaded woods. A word rises up through my brain like a bubble in a creek: languid. I give in to a state of languor.

If the chicken takes long enough to cook I might read. After the most recent rain I started again through a cheap PDF copy of Pablo Neruda. Neruda wrote in one poem:

“I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees.”

You cannot ignore a line of poetry like that–so charged with passion, hope, sensuality, and an almost unbearable gentleness. So I didn’t ignore it: I sought more Pablo. He rewarded me with a line he must have written about my own lover:

“As if you were on fire from within
The moon lives in the lining of your skin.”

And tonight, because the air carries a light warmth, because the mesquite trees are pregnant with beans, their weight pulling the boughs to the ground, because the clouds are scudding away to make room for the sunset, because my mind relaxes enough to feel it, he rewards me with this:

“I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.”

At some point the chicken stops spitting fat into the coals. As the smoke clears, the sun sails below the burned-out porphyritic hills. It paints the clouds, mixing salmon and peach blow with other colors too delicate to name. Then comes a pause, like a pendulum at the top of its swing. The sun reels in its masterpiece. The colors fade. The din of cicadas tapers off. The air shifts from warm to the slightest hint of cool, as if a child unwrapped a popsicle in the next yard. The pendulum starts down, pushing the day into darkness.

I turn off the e-reader screen and collect the chicken from the grille. Tomorrow will be a tangle of frayed nerves, the metronome of the clock, the rush of the deadline. But tonight I am barefoot.