It was 11:30 as I pulled my car into where I would call home for the night. I shut off my engine as the eventual fade of headlights finally allowed my eyes to stop wrestling with reality, thus completing my navigation of a 16-hour rabbit hole on wheels.
I sat in my car for a moment while the moonlight reoriented my perception, my eyes finally relaxed. I gathered my body and scooted it out of the driver’s seat. My feet landed on the soft, arid earth as I hoisted the rest of myself up. Feeling so supported by her, the rest of my body became weightless.
I’d like to name my instant welcome to Moab as Dead Air. Undivided stillness. I realized that I had never gotten out of a vehicle to find myself in a place so quiet before. I held my breath and listened, just to make sure. I was beginning to wonder how long I could hold it in my lungs, until I heard Aida swallow, finally breaking the silence. I began to breathe again.
I looked up and felt the stars shrink my pupils. I made up my own constellations as I connected these brilliant twinkles with my imagination. Framing them, the moon illuminated a tracing of enormous silhouettes against the night sky. My curiosity for their substance left me wondering what daylight would reveal in just a few hours. I stood there and cherished my desire to solve their mystery. I hoped that I would have the pleasure of being humbled by their presence. Because it is my favorite thing, feeling small and insignificant against something so absolute. Fair and square, the way I like it.
Even though the temperature outside agreed quite nicely with me, the goosebumps on my arms and back brushed up against the fibers of my shirt, the sheer wonder alone gave me the shivers. I closed my eyes to create complete darkness. The peace that remained resembled a most calm of emptiness possible, it left me questioning if existence was even a real thing.
Feeling satisfied with my arrival, I proceeded to convert my driving machine into a bedroom. As I walked to the other side of my car, I noticed myself moving quietly and carefully. Worried that I was disrupting someone’s sleep as little fragments of rock rolled under the shuffles of my feet. Opening and shutting my car doors, moving my things around inside. But there was no one around. Nobody’s slumber to wake.
I pushed the seats down and inflated my pad, finally spreading out my fluffy sleeping unit over it. I quickly peeled off my clothes, put on my purple thermals and stuffed my legs into the sleeping bag. Reaching for the hatch, I reluctantly shut the back door as I slumped the rest of my body into the sack of down feathers. It is always relieving to crawl into that thing. I made sure to set an alarm, because I couldn’t come to a place like this and experience its discovery without the sun illuminating it, the way nature had intended. I took a big breath to gather the end of the day in my lungs, exhaled big and finally closed my eyes as my head grew heavy on my pillow.
I awoke to the muffled melody of Tycho’s “A Walk” crooning at me from the depths of my sleeping bag. I opened my eyes and blinked a few times, letting the alarm sing to me as I looked up and out the back window, noticing the sky begin to fill with light. Fresh baby blue, with occasional whispers of white stretching from here to there. I wanted to smell it. The sun wasn’t up just yet, but I was eager to see.
I looked over at Aida, who was curled up at my feet, her eyes wide open meeting mine. I smiled at her as I shifted my weight around a bit. She interprets my first movements as a grant of permission to come say hello. She’s a morning person, like me, excited about a new day. She picked herself up in her doggy bed, lifted her snout to stretch her neck long as she yawned and grunted, her tongue sticking out of her mouth. She walked over to me and promptly put all four of her pointy paws on my chest, sitting down on my stomach as she proceeded to lick my face. Her weight made me squirm. I wrapped my arms around her as she buried her face in my neck, her version of a hug. “Good morning, Aida” I said.
Good morning, desert.
I pulled my knees to my chest into a fetal shape, reached down into my sleeping bag to collect my phone and turned off the alarm. I sat up and opened the door, swung my legs out and tucked my feet into my shoes. I got out of the car and stretched myself long and looked around, Aida hurled herself out after me. The silence from the night before mostly remained, but I could hear the occasional car passing through the highway in the distance.
It was still a little dark, but the silhouettes were now coming to life. Stately red fortresses with skirts of rock draping down and outward over their foundations. What appeared as tall but long trains of towers in front of me. Stacked. One after another, there was no end. I was only seeing a tiny fraction of this earth. ‘How could there be more?’ I wondered. Geology that I had never seen before. A kind of earth that was so foreign to me before had just magically appeared before my eyes.
And so, I began the day. It wasn’t time for coffee yet. I couldn’t miss the sun, it was more pressing than caffeine or nutrition. There was a slight chill in the air, but not cold enough to delay changing into my clothes. I brushed my teeth and got back in the driver’s seat with Aida as my passenger, revived the engine and drove out of the campground, joining highway 191 as I continued a handful of miles south to Arches National Park.
I approached the park entrance, feeling like a kid about to enter an amusement park for the first time. It was too early yet for a park ranger to be there, and there weren’t any cars ahead of me. 7:00am, I passed through and looked ahead at the massive wall of orange beyond the entrance, a tease, leaving me wondering what on earth could be behind it.
I downshifted as my car motored uphill and began to wind along with the twists and turns of the road. The orange to my left passing, and then to my right, soon I was inside the walls of my favorite color. Like the initial uphill stretch of a rollercoaster for a moment, excited and a little nervous for what I would soon be exposed to.
Coming around the bend and reaching the top of my rollercoaster, there she was. Arches National Park.
A never-ending garden of skyscraping orange paradise. Colossal sandstone in the most unreal geological formations I had ever seen in my life. Fins and chimneys and balanced rocks, arches and peepholes. Their composures quirky and weird, I couldn’t help but relate to them and feel at ease in their presence. Dressed in textures and lines that were so satisfying to look at. Feeling greedy for a moment, I wanted to touch them all. I wished to play in their jungle gym.
I felt suspended between not getting enough, and not being able to handle the enormous wild of it all. My eyes filled with tears and I felt my face grow very wide with a smile that I could not contain. The absolute life that exists in this place made my heart take up so much more room than I thought I could embody.
Experiencing it for the first time reminded me of dreams I have had before; the kind from which I woke gasping for air, taking long awaited breaths that I desperately needed to nourish me. It was like this, but without the panic. I felt almost too present, having to stop every couple of minutes just to catch up with my own reality because I couldn’t focus on much else. I wanted to take in giant breaths of this treasure.
It was overwhelming, in the most necessary way.
It became certain that the desperation I was curious if I would feel in the high desert was only my imagination. The photographs I had seen of it always had me wondering if the desolate environment would leave me wanting more substance, as if there would be some kind of a void that needed to be filled. But there was nothing sterile about this place. It was bursting with a kind of life that couldn’t be toyed with. Whoever entertains the notion that this dry, barren land could possibly lack interest or be infertile has to be completely out of their fucking minds.
Myself included, apparently.
As I drove through Arches and came back, drove through again and then back again, I worked out my “Oh-My-Gods” and “Holy-Shits,” finally stopping to make myself that precious cup of coffee. Watching the colors evolve over the course of an hour or two was fascinating, like watching a painting fill a canvas. A gentle but important reminder that all things change and, for good reason. We cannot capture or force anything to stand still, ever. Trying to halt or possess something is so futile, any attempt just misses the whole point, we miss out on the beauty of life.
Strong coffee in the desert. It went too well with the dry heat and sunshine.
I stepped into the sand and ran my hands through it. Something about it seemed so childish, like a silly gift from God: “Here’s some orange sand. Oh, I’ll toss some prickly sprouts around in it, too. Ya’ll enjoy!”
Aida took it upon herself to do just that. She had an orange beard in no time, and her white chest and paws were stained orange the same. She loves picking up sticks, rocks, or anything she can carry in her mouth and toss around. Naturally, she wasted no time in launching nose-first at the Prickly Pears. She bounced back a few feet instantly, staring back at the cacti for several moments, trying to assess what type of earth-dropping this was. She didn’t give up, either. She spent the remainder of our trip, on trails and in campgrounds, lovingly and cautiously putting her mouth on any pokey thing she could find. Testing again and again, from any and all angles. In hopes of finding a way to pick one of the suckers up in her mouth. Such determination. Maybe next time, Aida.
I eventually made my way towards the properly named Castle Valley. The Colorado river rolled beside me as I drove by. I managed to snag the last spot in the 4th campground I drove into, where I would spend the next two nights. It was 80 degrees, bold, blue sky. The heat of the sun left me baffled at the thought that “home” at that moment was in contrast under several feet of snow and still engulfed in clouds. I didn’t realize how isolated I had been back there until I got to the desert. It had resuscitated me in every way that I needed.
My little camp chair faced the river and yet another giant wall of orange on the other side of it. I sat there in my shorts and tank top like the quintessential white northwesterner who had just crawled out of winter, enjoying every last drop of sunshine in contentment. I like to tell myself that it’s the 12% fraction of Mediterranean DNA being revealed in my skin that had caused it to darken so quickly. My freckles multiplied and connected on the bridge of my nose.
All the people around me were moving around quickly, talking to one another, laughing, seemingly oblivious to the giant, orange elephant in the room. This vastness, have they just been here for too long? Have they been here before? Was I the only one getting my mind blown? Am I just going through a weird initiation, and everything would feel normal the next day? I wanted to interrupt and ask them, are you here too? Where am I? Is this Mars? I think it’s Mars. It has to be.
I hiked the Negro Bill Canyon trail later that afternoon. The sun was headed west to set in a few hours and the light continued to change the atmosphere. All the reds, oranges and greens in the canyon were now darker and richer, exposing yet another character of the desert. On my way back to the trailhead, I realized it had gotten later than I thought. I wanted to be back in Arches before sundown, so I walked faster and eventually ran back to the trailhead with Aida.
As I hiked up to Delicate Arch, I was out of breath trying to get there in time.
But wait, in time for what? I stopped my thoughts dead in their tracks, quickly realizing that it didn’t matter. Always in such a hurry.
I wasn’t able to see the sun itself exit from where I was when it went, but I certainly saw my first desert sunset. Someone must have illuminated an light bulb. The sudden warm dim over everything felt like the embrace of a trusted lover. The silence of the desert among its vastness was amplified again, regardless of the other people and their noisy activity along the way. There wasn’t a trail and I was meandering among cairns all over rolling rocks.
It was close to dark as I reached Delicate Arch. I enjoyed a few moments to myself as the breeze cooled me down, examining the colors that seemed so fictitious. But of course, nature doesn’t lie.
I looked around at the people enjoying this place with me. Crawling all over the rocks, taking photos of their loved ones amongst the backdrop of things so unabridged and no strings attached. Their temporary and unimpressive little scurries amongst the immeasurable existence of God. I hoped for a moment that they understood how lucky they were. That they could see this place as something more than just a temporary joy in their mere vacations. More than just an intermission.
I hiked back to my car in the dark. I hadn’t brought a headlamp with me and tried to avoid focusing my eyes on other people’s illuminated foregrounds, hoping that I wouldn’t fall and break my legs. I tried to let my eyes relax on what was in front of me, because once my eyes adjusted, the little remaining light from the sun now gone and the moon’s brightness was enough to guide my way. It was hard not to look at the artificial lights, because my eyes are so addicted to their guidance. I thought about how much artificial lights and computer screens have already deteriorated my eyes over the years anyway.
By the time I got back to the campground, I felt a bit of melancholia creep in. I was tired, not enough sleep the night before after the long drive and trying to inhale everything in day one. My tendency for excitement and resiliency is all fine and good, until I forget that it doesn’t always serve me (or anyone else) in the end. I hoped that I could sleep. I sometimes fight with insomnia, thoughts typically tend to creep in at night when all other activity is put to rest. My brain likes to use it as an opportunity to sort things out. Not the best timing for that kind of thing, I’d say.
As I opened my eyes to bright sunlight the next morning, I felt instantly smothered by the heat inside my car. I wasted no time in unzipping my sleeping bag and promptly throwing it off of me, kicking and shoving every last bit of it below my feet. A surge of energy remained.
11 hours of sleep, not even remembering waking up once to turn myself over at night. Instant relief and happiness. I was filled up again. So nourished. I quickly got out of the car to stretch, delighted by how hot and dry it was outside.
I vowed to take it easy that day. I sat with my coffee for two hours as I looked out at the Colorado river. I listened to the activity of people coming and going around me and enjoyed conversations with those who stopped by to say hello. The folks from Colorado seemed easiest to talk to. Kind and laid back, good conversation makers. Interested in my Washington license plates and to know about me. It was peaceful to sit there that morning, not having anywhere to be. Certain moments felt like effort in having to sit still. But it was okay because this was more than productive. More than enough.
I explored the city of Moab for a few hours that day. So many people on the last day of March, I imagined how bustling this place must be in the summer. I loved the activity and seeing all the beautiful and active humans everywhere. Climbers, hikers and mountain bikers galore. Smiling faces that matched the brightness of the sunshine. Food retailers and bars: two types of establishments that always put a town into perspective.
I took my time hiking Fisher Towers that afternoon. What a place to explore and get lost in. Moenkopi and Cutler sandstones reaching high, caked in red. Every corner I turned would reveal a new surprise that left me slightly breathless at all of its beauty. Aida took it upon herself to enjoy the playground. It was hard to keep her nearby in such wide open space and not much of a trail.
The evening after my hike was uneventful in a good way. I built a fire in my camp spot with beer in hand.
Why is it so easy to sit and stare into a fire? I can get easily bored and distracted looking at any one thing for more than a couple of minutes, but I can spend an embarrassingly long time looking at the flames of a fire burning bright. It’s an important part of our evolutionary history. For communal rituals and food, among other things. There is something content and safe about a fire.
I neighbored a group of happily inebriated climbers gathered around their own campfire. I overheard their conversations, boisterously making fun of each another, discussing climbing routes and imaginary stories of what they would get into the next day, sexual jokes and innuendos. Judging from their tone, I decided they were all in their mid-twenties. I admittedly felt a little lonely, not able to be amongst a group of my own friends by a fire. I considered approaching the crowd next to me, but I’ve never been one to feel comfortable enough to approach a big group of strangers alone and befriend them easily. I’m exceptionally jealous of extroverts and the bravery of certain other shy people for their talent in this arena.
I gathered my things pretty quickly after leisurely waking up the following morning. Left the campground and drove away from Castle Valley around 10:00am. Out of everything that I wanted to see and touch on Mars, I saved the best for last:
When I typed this word, I closed my laptop and walked away from the remainder of my story for two weeks. I didn’t know how to tell you about Canyonlands, and I’m still not certain if I am able or have the courage to dress it up in words. Truthfully, any attempt at labeling it makes me feel like a bit of a thief. It’s a joke for me to define it or pretend like I can make sense of it for you. I can hardly make any sense of it for myself. I don’t want to explain my days and time there chronologically, and so I will write freely and hopefully briefly.
There must’ve been 30 people waiting at Mesa Arch that morning. I giggled a little as they ran past me along the trail, many with camera gear in tow. It all felt so serious and pressing. All of them in a hurry to get their very own picture to carry around and possess in their pockets. They came from different parts of the world to watch a 3-minute sunrise from that very spot. The frenzy eventually possessed me to walk faster with them. Don’t worry, we all got there with plenty of time to spare.
The massive arch is perched boldly at the edge of a cliff, nicely framing a seemingly never-ending land of carved earth and mesas that were still asleep when I got there. I walked over to the arch, assessing the scene of people claiming their pieces of desert floor from which to watch. I felt silly for a moment and hesitated, trying to decide where to go or what to do. I climbed over the rocks just beside the arch where there were less people so that I could more easily see what the fuss was about. I stood at the edge of the cliff looking down and ahead.
We were witnessing a gargantuan and beautiful beast sleep. An immense entity, perhaps a giant mystical creature in some kind of a zoo that we were all there to observe. Only it wasn’t incarcerated. It was beautiful and healthy and free. We were just fortunate enough to be present while it was (mostly) still for us to see it rise and shine.
I climbed down and stood back behind the arch again. Trying to nestle myself into the crowd someplace where I could still see the landscape beyond it. The location of the arch offered us a unique perspective of the earth, separating me from it visually just enough to understand the message loud and clear. It created a kind of frame to look through that offered, “Look at me, but don’t touch.” It reminded me that this place doesn’t belong to any of us. It is not an animal that is meant to be caged, it’s a free-living beautiful soul that we must respect. The more any of us try to take and use from it, the more we will lose. This place demands to be protected.
The sun at once crept its way up over the desert horizon, finally cracking the light for the show. I watched the beast come to life, I could see it breathe. It certainly got its beauty sleep. Everyone grew quiet and their cameras began to chatter. I shoved my camera between several people’s heads to snap a photo. All of us attempting to pick a wholly ripe apple at just the right time, before the opportunity was gone.
I was entranced by the beauty with an uninterrupted stare out into the distance. I didn’t realize anything was over until I looked away for moment and suddenly noticed that the majority of the people had already left. Three minutes had come and gone, and so had everyone else. I looked back out through the frame of the arch and squinted my eyes at the bright continuation of the beast’s morning. Happily flopping around and going about its morning, as if none of us had ever been there to see it get out of bed.
The moon was unquestionably full that final night of mine in the desert. The texture was apparent through perfect resolution. Perched just over Pinyon Pines and canyons in the distance. Our moon typically seems to float over the earth, but here it seemed like it was nestled into it, no separation between it and the desert, such good comrades. The sky that it was painted on changed into colors that I could not have imagined with my eyes closed. It was steadily changing as the sun was making its way to greet another part of the planet. Pinks, purples, blues, oranges, yellows, reds, white. Nature’s fireworks show.
I sat at the edge of a cliff at Island in the Sky that night and carefully hung my legs over the edge. A little bit of fear crept in as I looked down at the massive cavity in our planet. Two canyon wren landed on tree branches beside me, one to my left and the other to my right. I was surprised at how close they were to me. They sang to each other, and I wondered what they were talking about or if I had role in their conversation. I quickly realized I was in their home, happy to be a visitor. They didn’t stay longer than a minute and eventually went about their evening.
The wind howled with enough power to lightly shift my seated body weight and toss my hair violently around my shoulders. I selfishly wished that I could slow the earth’s rotation as the sun was leaving Canyonlands for the final time. But then I remembered, trusting it would be there the next day to grace this place for someone else to see, again and again. The canyons would stay. And that would be okay.