Monthly Archives: July 2014

Returning home through a desert island

Red Cliffs National Conservation Area

Red Cliffs National Conservation Area

I live in Southwest Utah, a unique comingling of eco-zones where the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin all intersect. It is a sought after destination for world travelers because this intersection of eco-zones has created a diverse and spectacular desert landscape that holds not only stunning views and wonder, it promises great adventure, and it does not disappoint. In that sense, I am lucky to live here. But it is so much more.

The word desert holds a magical place in my mind because it is synonymous with the word home. I whisper “desert” and images of red sandstone slowly burn through my mind: windswept mesas, shadowed landscapes with a brooding storm on the horizon; sharp, relentless sunlight revealing jagged outlines of dusty, scorched earth. But like a sudden drop of rain, an alpine image surfaces as well. In the midst of the red beauty of St. George stands an imposing, lone sentry that signifies the area as high desert. Part of the backdrop to the spectacular scenery stands the desert island called Pine Valley Mountain. It is often overshadowed by the red rock Southern Utah is so famous for, but to a local, it calls softly and if you answer the call, you are rewarded with solitude of a quiet, undisturbed, and wild kind. Answering that call marked the beginning of my awakening to this place I call home.

Home can be taken for granted much like a longtime lover can. What once was exciting can become familiar and routine. Many discover a place was home only after they have left and suddenly find that while it had grown ordinary and routine, it had also been as comforting as a well-worn and loved sweatshirt. I left Utah for many years and when I thought I had finally settled down, it occurred to me that home was not a man-made residence but a landscape and I longed to return to it. I found that I had a geographical DNA that reflected a very specific place and that I missed being there, with people similar to me and where the natural landscape matched my inner landscape. It dawned on me that home is a place we create in our own image, that reflects our values and beliefs, and that offers a refuge from all that conflicts with who we are out in the world. But just like a kitchen with familiar smells, warm furniture broken in by our body or a cultivated garden can soothe our soul and give us a reprieve from the world, so can the extended landscape of our home. When I got the chance to return home, I did so with new eyes. The desert was alive to me in a way I had never known. It was then that I decided to live in the desert, not just pass my time in it. I decided to get to know it, discover all that was hidden in it, and become familiar with it. As the world continues to shrink with technology and travel, my world grows larger and more focused. The deeper I am willing go, the more wonder, awe, and respect I gain for the intricate, nuanced, and fragile landscape that I call home.

Pine Valley Mtn wild raspberries

Pine Valley Mtn wild raspberries

Despite being a ridiculously hot month, July marks the beginning of the monsoon season. It is the time when the sky turns moody, if not theatrical, staging daily storms like the finale of a fireworks show. And the rain! So precious, it is generally a time of glee and celebration, even when considering hiking. Because Pine Valley Mountain is higher than the sweltering lowlands it gives the illusion of cooler weather, but clouds, a breeze, and sprinkling rain can turn that illusion into a refreshingly cool reality. Last summer my husband Dallas and I headed toward the mountain to check it out for the first time. It was then that I discovered the hidden world nestled in those peaks and valleys. To my amazement, in the midst of an ocean of desert, I entered a secret garden full of shade and dappled sunlight, gurgling streams, marshes, meadows, vibrant wildflowers, wild raspberries, aspens, and a stunning variety of firs and pines.

Rocky Path

Rocky Path

The hike was spectacular, but also brutal. The trail was not cleared, it was often just loose rock and soil, and periodically had fallen trees across it. As we got up to Berger Peak, exhausted and sore, we crested to the low rumble of thunder and a white world of cloud. When we reached the outcrop on the top and peered over the jagged edge, great wisps of quickly moving clouds blew into our faces and crested the ledge like a cloudy wave crashing against the mountain. We instinctively ducked for cover, realizing the view from the top would elude us. In the fading light and increasingly angry white squall, we vowed to come back and made our descent. Looking up at the mountain every day thereafter and running in its foothills, reminded me of my intimate time there. Because our trip had been cut short, I felt that I had been cheated out of something, though I wasn’t sure what. I wanted to get up there again to find out what, if anything, it was that I had missed.

As the hot days of summer lolled in and the oppressive heat kept us inside during the hottest hours of the day I looked out at the mountain for hints of cumulous clouds. I am certain that Pine Valley Mountain has its own weather system, much like the legendary Bermuda Triangle, and it didn’t seem like a stretch for a thunderstorm to grow right out of it because no matter how humdrum it is down in the valley, dormant stormy elements are routinely roused by some unseen provocation up there even on the clearest of days. I waited for what I imagined to be a great bellow deep within those mountainous folds to blow some storms into existence with its steady blasts of air. I didn’t have to wait long as the presence of those heavy clouds appeared at the end of June, marking the beginning of the monsoon season and what I hoped would be a reunion with my mountain.

Storm rolling in over Chuckwalla

Storm rolling in over Chuckwalla

Dallas and I had already done multiple canyoneering trips and were looking forward to a change of scenery. As we entered the town of Pine Valley our thermometer read 82 degrees, a cool reprieve from the triple digits we left behind. We drove up to the Browns Point trailhead at roughly 2pm, slung our packs on, and took note of the Mountain Lion warning posted to the trailhead sign before heading out. We said hello to two hikers coming down and as we passed them I secretly hoped we would have the mountain to ourselves. As we headed into the Pine Valley Wilderness the air grew quiet and so did my mind; walking up and into the mountain felt strangely like returning home in an unknown, yet familiar way.

Gray wall

Storm moving in on Pine Valley Mtn

The sky had been threatening on the drive up, but looked even more menacing on the mountain. The clouds to the northwest were great pink cumulous clouds, but to the east, it was just a wall of slate gray. A cool breeze was blowing; it was perfect hiking weather. Despite the fact that we took a different trail this time, I looked at the mountain and said, “Allo beastie.”

There was no gradual incline, just straight up. Right, I thought, why waste time with drawn out switchbacks when a straight line is the shortest distance between two points? It was slow trudging, and at that laborious pace my mind wandered to the beauty of slowing down and allowing the world to grow bigger and thought, it gets bigger because the context is reduced down to only what can be seen right in front of you. It is the difference between looking through a wide angle lens or a macro lens. You are closer to something, and thus the details come into focus. It occurred to me that looking at the mountain from the distance of my front porch verses being in its trees, climbing its rocks, and stepping in its soft soil allowed the two experiences to merge into a seamless, yet divergent paradigm of the landscape in my mind.

As my mind took in this fuller and richer idea of the mountain, the promised raindrops began to fall. They were shockingly cold drops that contrasted sharply with the sultry heat of the desert floor. It, like many other things, illustrates the nuanced paradoxes found in the desert. The rain instantly brought out the smell of the mountain, to which my senses responded. We stopped and picked wild raspberries and took a small break in the sweet smell of pine needles and rich composted earth. I looked through an opening in the trees down at the picturesque little town of Pine Valley and then asked Dallas if he had ever smelled a Ponderosa Pine. He had not so he walked over to one and took in a deep breath. After breathing in its sweet scent he looked over at me, “It smells like vanilla.” I smiled and said, “Yeah I know. Incredible isn’t it?”

Waiting out the storm

Waiting out the storm

Not shortly after our little rest we looked out at the gray behemoth heading straight for us. “That doesn’t look good,” I said. The gray was moving so fast that the ridge to the east of us disappeared. We decided to put up a rain shelter and sit this one out. We hunkered down like little kids hiding during a game of hide-and-seek and looked around excitedly. As we huddled under our make-shift tent my husband turned to me and said, “Maybe we should have checked the weather first.” I laughed and said, “I did. It’s supposed to rain.” Raindrops began to hit our roof and then the sound of a million snapping fingers could be heard as the breeze blew through the aspens. When the snapping subsided a roaring wind followed in its wake. It was a cold, howling mountain wind. I pulled out my jacket and hurriedly zipped it up. We waited for the torrential downpour that was sure to follow, but it didn’t come. The gray moved south, the wind followed suit, and we packed up our things and continued our ascent.

I had read about a meadow called Hidden Valley where we were planning on camping. As we dropped into a shadowy hollow I focused my attention on the cairns and trail; finding comfort in the human touch left by those who had gone before us. And like street lamps lighting the way, not long after, they brought us to a stand of trees where a soft, golden green lit up in the distance. “Is that a meadow?” I asked. My husband caught up to me and looked. “I think it is.” Sure enough, it was the meadow of my imagination. It was beautiful, serene, and quietly void of civilization. We set up camp, made some dinner, and enjoyed the solitude and comfort in the fading light of our mountain bedroom.

Hidden Valley

Hidden Valley

Dinner

Dinner

We awoke to a one of those sparkling mornings where everything is covered with dew drops twinkling in the golden sunlight. Peeking out of my tent I saw a doe nibbling on some grass at the edge of the tree line. She was standing in the soft glow of dawn, but at the unzipping of my tent she looked my way ever so quickly and then sauntered into the morning shadows. We made our eggs, granola, and coffee and soaked in the sweet stillness of the meadow, tasting the moment. With full bellies and adequate caffeine we headed out.

Further Water

Further Water

We found Further Water and marveled at the wildflowers in bloom and at how green everything was. The hot, dusty desert was still fresh in our minds. Then not a mile further we reached Berger Peak, only this time the view was unobstructed. As I walked to the rocky spires on the edge I expected to see the land spread out before me like the Red Sea parting for Moses, but to my surprise, it was mostly green with folded bumps of red like scattered piles of laundry. Snow Canyon, from this perspective, looked like a small clay sculpture.

Rocky Outcrop

Rocky Outcrop

The view was breathtaking, but the Mountain, up close, was stunning. Getting that close, seeing the details of the mountain, was like seeing our house through someone else’s eyes. What had not just a day ago been familiar was now beautifully unfamiliar and new. “So this is what it looks like up here,” I said. My husband looked around and said, “You would never guess it looks like this from down there.” This mountain that we had become habituated and somewhat blind to had become interesting. We gained a sense of perspective and humility and let our rigid ideas of the familiar fall away as we explored the intricate and layered mountain like children exploring a garden, thrilled to be hiding from the watchful eyes of adults, to play unabashedly in the cover of vegetation. Our backyard mountain became a wonderland of discovery for a brief hour or so before we had to pack up and return home. When we headed back down, we took one last look at the place we had found, knowing we would be back.

View of Snow Canyon

View of Snow Canyon

In the moments down in the valley, when my eyes wander to that mountain, I see myself there, the thousands of steps, the sore muscles, the laughter, and the details. It is no longer just a place; it is one of my places. Like my worn out and well-loved desk or my pumpkin patch, it has become a part of the landscape of my home and my soul and it gives me relief and a sense of comfort to see it standing there. Though we didn’t travel far from home to see exciting new places, we explored the land right outside our front door in an intimate, unhurried, and leisurely way and in so doing allowed the ordinary to become extraordinary.

By walking the land we did the closest thing a person can to growing roots, soaking in the nutrients, and stretching our limbs out to capture all that our small world has to offer and through the process we found those things so hard to find in our hurried, never satisfied, there’s something better on the horizon age: we found that the world outside really is big, magnificent, and special. That solitude, stillness, and refuge can be as present outside as it is inside, and that nature’s power and beauty not only inspires and soothes, but helps us find harmony between our inner and outer world. Returning home required more than finding a house this time around, it required including in my existence the greater landscape that had called me back home in the first place.

Berger Peak

Berger Peak

 

First published in the Utah Adventure Journal, Summer 2014

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Christmas comes in July

First sign of clouds

First sign of clouds

In the desert, Christmas comes in July. It is the time when the normally blue slate of sky darkens with heavy clouds that move in over the motionless desert and explode with sound, light, and water, waking life in a celebratory and dramatic manner.

The great thirst ends for a period when the desert’s longing finds satisfaction. But it is not just the desert that comes to life; people do as well.

In a somewhat synonymous awakening, the emotional response to the weather seems to match the physical transformation taking place outside, hinting at a difference between living and being alive. It is when one feels alive that the difference between the two is realized. One is passive, while the other is active; one suggests acquiescence, the other a willful choice. But not during the monsoons; the monsoons seem to instinctually bring it out.

For her, feeling alive was having something turned on inside, and like the desert, it seemed to happen easily during the monsoon season, but it always had to happen out there.

Never was the sensation of feeling alive more real than when exposed to the elements, or further heightened in the presence of danger. Because for her the sense of feeling alive came between the thrill of exposure and the tranquility of sanctuary, the storms offered a rare gift, acting as a catalyst that spontaneously increased and enhanced that sensation.

The life to be lived was not in her books or her work or in town, but in contrast to them out there in the dramatic theater of nature in what can be seen, felt, and touched. In those moments, like the palate perceiving hidden flavors in a robust wine following a soft, rich cheese, her senses came together in an intoxicating symphonic crescendo.
While not constant, the intermittent notes kept her energized during the lulls. But the monsoons were different. During the monsoons the lulls all but disappeared amidst a cacophony of notes coming together in a prolonged climactic chorus of palpable pleasure, and the monsoons were coming soon.

She lives on the edge of wilderness, acre upon hundreds of acres of it right out her door. She can walk outside and within steps be on that worn, dusty path that leads up into public land lying underneath the shadow of the mountain. It is where, on most days, she is able to feel alive if but for a moment in the busy yet monotonous rhythm of life. She never tires of following it; in fact, something lures her out – sometimes daily, often multiple times a day. It is not the mountain’s call that she hears, but rather a wild call from within which seeks expression through something equally wild. That road, like a musical climb, is the path of promise where she consistently finds her notes.

Earth & Sky

Earth & Sky

Most days she is filled with anticipation at finding sanctuary there. Today is not much different than all the other days except that it is July. As she ascends into the sage and juniper landscape and the houses slowly fade from view, she breathes it in and her body, aroused, awakens and responds. Her skin warms in the sun and tingles in the intermittent breeze. She wants to run, go faster, feel her heart pound, push her body hard, sweat, exhaust her muscles, and beat herself against the solid earth. All of her senses alert and attuned to her surroundings.

As the road turns steeper and rockier and bends up into the foothills, she finds her rhythm and feels like she is floating over the land. Exhilarated she watches the skirt of the mountain unfold in front of her, enticing her into hidden valleys and rolling hills obscured from below.

As she pushes her way further into the secret places of the mountain, she enters a spiritual place inhabited by ravaging wind and water, where signs of predators and prey hint of life unseen, but present. The landscape reveals a savage struggle for life that she becomes a part of when she joins it – open and exposed, it is ruggedly alluring. She presses deeper with a burning fervor and pursues the ravishing beauty that stands before her, waiting, beckoning, and available for the taking. It is her siren, as dangerous as it is seductive. All alone she savors the intimacy. She stops and catches her breath.

Smell of rain

Smell of rain

She picks some creosoteleaves and a scoop of dirt and rubs them between her hands, inhaling the faint scent of arid land and summer rain. She relishes the storm in her hands a moment before taking a clue from the sky that the real thing might be coming soon and lets the earth blow through her fingers in the quickening and frenzied wind and heads back down.

Cloud explosion

Cloud explosion

When returning home from town, exhilaration fills her again. The mountain, like Colossus that we petty men walk under and peep about, stands towering majestically against the gathering clouds bubbling and growing into gargantuan formations that cast eerie shadows on the landscape below.

Like a fertility God, the undulating cloud formation looms over the mountain as if competing for worship. The spectacle is blushingly pornographic in its vertical rise up out of the flat desert floor. She half expects to see rice cakes fall from the sky and people wishing for babies frantically scrambling about to catch them. Tearing her eyes away from the climax building in front of her and scanning the horizon, she sees that clouds are moving in from all directions, slowly drowning out the sky. She wishes for rain, the first rain that will mark the beginning of the monsoon season and a break from the monotonous summer heat.

As she gets closer to home she sees a vulture teeter-totter through the sky, a black gash against the iridescent clouds. As it probes the air for the scent of a carcass she finds herself craving banana cream pie. Maybe the weather brings it out, she thinks, watching the bird. She contemplates stopping by a café for an afternoon treat and wonders if she has always felt an urge to satisfy a physical desire in response to a natural, tempest-like drama. While she ponders this, the smell of rain rushes in through the car window. She inhales deeply, certain that the fertility God will shower rain down on the thirsty land; perhaps in response to her awe at his glorious display. She turns her music up and speeds into the threatening storm, letting her mind feast lustily on thoughts of pie and precipitation.

When she pulls into the driveway, her mouth salivating at the thought of tasting the sweet pie sitting next to her, she rethinks taking the pie in. Instead she gathers up her kids, some blankets and forks, and heads up the dirt road to the foothills beneath the pregnant clouds threatening to unload. Squeals of laughter erupt in the back seat of the car as the wind blows forcefully through the open windows.

Like a wolf knocking at the door, they instinctually quiet down in response to the forceful gale beating at the car, excitedly chattering in hushed undertones. She smiles at them through the mirror and continues the steady crawl up the rough road. After finding a good spot to view the storm from, she parks and opens the hatch and she and the gaggle of kids climb into the back. The wind blows briskly into the open car as they scramble under blankets and prepare for the show. She slyly opens the box and cuts her first bite of pie, savoring the sweet, creamy desert for a brief moment before the kids notice and mad rush her with their forks and plunge in to devour it. As they fill their bellies with pre-dinner desert, lightning begins to strike. Within seconds thunder pummels after it, chased by crashing waves of rain. The kids periodically duck and play under the blanket, their laughter and noise drowned out by the deafening roar of the rain.

Front row seats

Front row seats

Knowing how quickly the desert can turn into a violent and dangerous place, she decides to head back down before they have to bivouac on the mountain for the night. The soil is already saturated and water is running across its surface before she turns the car on. As she makes her way down she can feel the car slide and spin in the gooey mud. She watches small, rushing rivers appear out of nowhere, growing larger and fiercer as they cut through the soft earth. Large pools form in the uneven road, providing opportunities to make large, muddy waves for her delighted children as they splash through. The water is mesmerizing.

She wonders if the great flood started just like this and what this place would look like if it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. It wasn’t hard to imagine her mountain community getting washed into the ocean hundreds of miles away; gone. But there is no great flood today, just a typical desert thunderstorm.

Sunset

Sunset

After baths, stories, and the kids are in bed the dark house quietly protects against the thrashing storm outside. The sun has long since gone down and the lightning now rules the sky like a hostile popcorn popper; flash, snap, crack. The sight and sound of the desert thunderstorm breaks across the sky like gladiators wreaking havoc in a celestial coliseum for the mesmerized audience below. She sits by the window with a cup of tea and watches the violent upheaval taking place in those brief flashes of light. What produces such a physical manifestation of imbalance in the atmosphere, she wonders, air expansion, pressure, and temperature all duking it out causing the air to rip apart in light and sound.

Even the sky is fraught with violence, she muses, is it any wonder that humans are also violent? Were we not made from the same materials?

It is an intriguing thought, one that her mind wants to grab hold of and inspect, but it is fleeting. She mentally chases after it, trying to capture it again, but it is gone. She drifts off to sleep, cuddled up in her blanket on the couch, safe from the raging storm outside. Only hours later she is jolted awake by a thunderous crack above her house. A thrill runs through her as she rushes to her room and slides under the covers. Her mind plays with thoughts of desire as she nestles under the blankets: warm hands running up her legs, wet kisses brushing her neck. Her body responds momentarily as she entertains stormy night fantasies before falling back into a delicious sleep.

The morning opens like a soft and lovely melody. The cold winter air grazes her skin and the rose-colored sunlight dances behind her eyelids as she begins to wake. The taste of summer is still on her mind as she opens her eyes, remembering that yesterday was Christmas. The gifts were given, the food had been beautifully prepared, and the house had been filled with holy festivities, but it was summer that teased her mind with sweet memories.

The room was aglow with the rebirth of light and another day that in her imagination could be a summer day. In no rush to get up, she lies languidly in her warm bed staring lazily at the sunny ceiling until the smell of coffee floats in on the air, coaxing her to get up.

As she sips her coffee and looks out the window, all is calm and sweet and clear. She knows she will head up that road in the harsh winter light and feel the cold burn on her cheeks as she seeks her mountain sanctuary. She will feel winter’s rejuvenation when she is done, but it will pale in comparison to the monsoons that erupt in waves of spectacular release after the long and unrelenting tension of summer. But Christmas is over and the sun beckons, reminding her that summer is not far away. The thought is almost as good as the coffee. She unconsciously smiles in anticipation.

Longing for summer

Longing for summer

 

 

Remember: Yarnell & South Canyon Wildland Fire Tragedies

Logan Overlook
 Sleeping in the Forest 
 
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
~Mary Oliver
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