It was a muted, over-cast December morning. I had gotten up to make Monkey Bread before the troop of monkeys woke up. The smell of cinnamon and brown sugar gradually filled the quiet house. While the breakfast dessert baked in the oven I drank my coffee and read a book, enjoying the stillness while it lasted. Our house had doubled in boys as friends had slept over the night before.
As soon as they woke up our house was abuzz with activity and noise: blankets were draped over shoulders and dragged around the house, talking and laughter bounced off the walls and down the hall, a football huddle gathered over the breakfast like a storm, then video games, the mad dash to get dressed, and off to rugby practice. In the interval I asked Dallas, “We are still getting the tree today right?”
We tend to make loose plans not set in stone in case we change our minds, which we do often, so I wasn’t sure if we were really going to get our tree until we were driving out of town.
I had gotten the tree permit earlier in the week so all we had to do was go and get one. When I saw Terrie at the Interagency Land Management office and asked her for a Christmas tree permit, I had to quickly let her know I wanted one for the Arizona Strip. You heard me right; we were going to the desert in search of a tree.
“You’re getting a tree on the Arizona Strip?” she repeated.
When I said yes, she went, “Oh,” and smiled. She thinks I’m nuts, I thought smiling back.
A voice from the back of the room said, “You’re going south for a tree? That’s unusual. Are there any trees out there?” I laughed and told him there were pinion pines.
Not many people go south for a Christmas tree, it’s true, so the reaction was the same from anyone I told; anyone not familiar with the Strip that is.
We have cut trees down before, but never on the Strip so I was a little nervous about how long it would take to get to the pines. I don’t need an excuse to go to the Arizona Strip, but I typically need a damn good one to drag my family out there.
A Christmas tree seemed as good a reason as any, but convenience is hard to compete with. There were Christmas trees just blocks from our house at any number of stores. We could have gotten one in 30 minutes or less. This trip was easily going to take four hours, probably more. The good part was that the tree permit was only $5 compared to a $30, $50, or $70 dollar tree at the store, but what we saved in money we would more than pay for in hours and miles.
A sort of anxiety and excitement welled up inside me as we headed toward Colorado City, the turn-off point to head out for our tree. Driving long stretches on a dirt road, into what seems like the middle of nowhere, can rattle nerves and make people cranky, especially for a mission such as ours. Our kids had fallen asleep in the back seat of the car after being up half the night with their friends, however, and so the first hour of driving was peaceful and quiet.
Thin clouds were stretched across the sky giving the desert a winter hue. I felt myself relax into my seat as the land spread out before us. Nothing is quite so peaceful as the open desert. I loved it. I could have driven all day in it and been as happy as a pig in slop.
My reverie ended aburptly, however, when we hit a dip in the road that woke all the boys up. Kael rubbed his eyes and looked around, “Where the crap are the trees?” he asked.
I rolled. I don’t know why it was so funny, but it took me a good few minutes to stop laughing. “What’s so funny?” he asked, somewhat annoyed.
But the next question was a loaded one. “How much longer do you think we have to go Gret?” Dallas asked.
Crap. I wasn’t sure; it could be another 30 minutes or two more hours. I never paid attention to the trees when I went out on the Strip.
I speculated, “I don’t know, maybe another hour,” I said, bracing myself for the exasperation that was sure to follow. But to my delight, he just smiled and said, “Oh. This sure is a long drive for a tree.”
“Yeah I know,” I said, “But it will be worth it.”
We sped past herds of cattle and watched as flocks of birds traced across the sky. We wondered what the birds were doing or where they were going. We watched as the valley would fill up with dust like a thick fog when ranchers flew by us going in the opposite direction. We were the only ones heading south. Up and over hills, mile after mile, we went deeper into the desert. As we made our way I kept my eyes peeled for pinions.
Finally I saw one. I knew the mere presence of that one tree would be the beacon of hope everyone in the car needed to indicate that we were getting close. Suddenly the boys had their faces pressed to the windows trying to tell the difference between juniper trees and pinion pines.
And then we saw it, we saw our Christmas tree standing in a small depression beneath a low ridge. And there was one up on top of the ridge too.
Sweet! I thought. If we don’t like one, we can take the other.
We pulled off the road and piled out. Brrrr! It was shockingly cold. There were patches of snow on the ground and a cold breeze was blowing. It always amazes me how cold the desert can get. We all put our coats and beanies on and marched out to look at the trees. The tree on the ridge seemed a little small so we all congregated around the one in the bowl just below it.
It was perfect.
The boys each took turns with the hand saw, slowly cutting through the trunk of the tree. It didn’t take long and the tree fell to the ground in a soft landing of branches.
The boys grabbed the tree by the trunk and started dragging it to the car, and then of course had to prove that they could drag it alone, each taking turns in a strong man contest.
When they got the tree to us, Dallas and I hoisted the tree up on top of the car and lashed it down. At least two and a half hours of driving and maybe 10 minutes of cutting, and it was time to head home.
Before heading out just yet we all stood around rather proudly and took in the view of our harvest. I breathed in the cold, crisp desert air and felt the joy I always feel when I get away from the busyness and noise of city life. But I also felt a sudden well of gratitude rise up inside me. It was the first time I had ever felt an overwhelming desire to thank the land for what we were taking. It was surely a gift; the handiwork of God, of nature, of sunlight and water. And it was ours.
We all piled back in the car, turned the heat on, and started our journey home. Moods had improved and plans of decorating the tree were being made.
About an hour into our drive I asked the kids for my water bottle, which no one could produce. We looked around, under things and seats, but it wasn’t there. I couldn’t remember for the life of me if I had taken it out of the car when we cut down the tree, but since we couldn’t find it, it was the only logical explanation.
That water bottle had been a gift; a running gift from Dallas and he was not about to leave it sitting out in the desert somewhere. I, of course, would not have turned around for a water bottle, but had no complaints with driving through the desert some more and happily agreed to turn around and look for it.
Geez we had driven a long way! It seemed to take an eternity to get back to the spot where we had cut the tree down. The sun was sinking fast and we were running out of light. We got out of the car to a brilliant red and purple sunset and then dashed to the tree stump to look around.
We looked everywhere. No water bottle. Dallas walked back to the car while I took in the last hues of the sunset. When I got back he had his arms folded across his chest and was looking at me like a scolding parent.
“What?” I asked. “Did you find it?” He didn’t answer me. I finally started laughing. Surely he had found it. “Where was it?” I asked when I got to the car.
“Under your hat little Missy,” he said.
“See,” I said, getting into the car and warming my hands in front of the heater vents, “You should have listened to me. We should never have gone back for the water bottle. We would be home by now.” And thus began the debate over taking care of our things.
Because the water bottle had been right under my feet the whole time, the kids got to throw heaps of blame on me for the extra two hours of driving, which they did with relish. I just laughed and enjoyed the fading view of the land as we made our way home.
The tree had to be pulled through the front door with gusto because it was so big and when we stood it up, we only had an inch to spare. Context definitely matters. A tree that looks like an average sized Christmas tree in an open expanse of desert can be deceptively big once you try squeezing it into a confined space. We ood and awed once we had it standing and felt its looming presence even when out of eyesight. It was like having a gentle giant in the house that left a sweet piney scent for days.
Our behemoth of a tree, with its glittering lights, brings me joy every time I look at it – not just because it is a beautiful Christmas tree, but because when I look at it I see my home landscape.
For a fleeting season I will get to hold a piece of the desert inside my home and with it, remember the arid smell of dry earth being swept by a cold winter wind in the fading light of an ember sky. I didn’t get a tree from the Pacific Northwest, as lovely as they are, that was raised on a farm and shipped in a truck to my grocery store. I got a perfect homegrown tree right out of my geographical backyard and I feel blessed for the experience.
Dedicated to Louis Johnson and Everett Boutilett, thank you for being my friends
There is a pervasive desire, at least in the outdoor community, to live an authentic life. Within that culture there is a subculture that has become disillusioned with the American Dream and is leaving corporate life and churches in droves because they are finding that the authentic cannot be found in material wealth or promises of rewards in heaven.
The authentic life is lived now, in each moment, in each choice, in the culmination of one’s brief and only life. To find it, more and more are turning to nature to face its landscapes, natural elements, and accept the challenge of surviving the wild essence it has to offer, because it, more than most things, requires an honest assessment of oneself.
There is nothing more insightful than testing oneself against nature because it cannot be faked. Stomping the earth with your own two feet and challenging your own endurance, strength, and ability against the elements of nature is the ultimate testing ground for a gut-wrenching dose of reality and adventure, and produces a self-assured authenticity. Knowing you can do it, have done it, is the reward. Sharing those experiences with others is the sustenance that keeps you coming back for more.
In order to say, “I did it,” however, one must do it. To get to the top of a mountain, one must hike it. To ascend a wall, one must climb it. To ride a wave, one must surf it. Nature has and always will hold the promise of finding the authentic because one must face it with their own strength and willpower and through it learn to face their fears, possibly overcome them, and discover the depth of their courage, tenacity, and endurance.
It is one place where action must follow desire. The authentic comes from doing, and doing is what earns you a seat at the table of the authentic.
And nothing says doing it like those who live on the precipice of adventure, consistently navigating the razor’s edge of life. It is those who face a survivor’s glory on one side or dying an adventurer’s death on the other, who are living life at a dead run. Dead run meaning all in, fully committed. We typically associate this type of living with those who are young and in the prime of their lives because as the saying goes, “There are bold and there are old, but there are not bold and old.”
Many who have lived on that edge accept the advance of time and age and scale it back, having discovered they have what it takes. They have lived and done it and because they know it, they no longer have anything to prove. But some never stop with the answer; rather, the answer becomes the sustenance that fuels and keeps them going.
Whether we are among those who seek to find out, testing our courage and strength for the answer or are one of those who lived adventurous lives in our youth and only after taking the risk, discovered how foolish or risky it was, and left it alone – and even if we are in the group of those who never tried – when we see those who are still living on that edge past their prime, we can’t help but watch in wonder, awe, and possibly envy, cheering them on with baited breath, knowing death is ever lurking and hoping they beat the odds.
While death is certain, how we die is not. As Edmund Vance Cooke so eloquently stated in his famous poem, “Whether death comes with a crawl or with a pounce, whether he’s slow or spry, it isn’t the fact that you’re dead that counts, but only how did you die?”
It is this sentiment that leads many to say, “At least she died doing what she loved,” when someone has died suddenly on an adventure in the wild. It does not diminish the loss for those left behind, but it does enable them to experience a sense of catharsis when a life lived at a dead run ends in a manner befitting the person, their life, and their values. It is when people can say that it was a good death, not a senseless death that enables them to understand it, learn from it, and accept it.
The acceptance that death is a part of life is a bitter-sweet reality that if taken seriously requires one to define the rules by which they choose to live, knowing that those rules can be their reason, but can also lead to their demise. It is this choice, made with eyes wide open that seemingly so few make, but the few who do, accept with a full knowledge of the inherent risks, dangers, and rewards involved. It is this choice above all others that define us in life and after death, and by which those with the most conviction, solidified by action, earn the respect of their peers in both.
Christian Louis Johnson was one such person. He was not a famous athlete and he was not young, but his name is well known in the canyoneering community of southern Utah.
On October 2, 2015 he died falling from a rappel in Zion National Park on the first drop into Not Imlay Canyon. While horrific, it was one of those “good deaths,” and though most of us have accepted the tragic loss, his death has lessons for those left behind – the most important being that nature does not allow much margin for human error, and that while outdoor adventure does require a certain level of fitness, it is a lapse in judgement that is most often fatal.
The simple oversights that Louis and his husband Everett made on that fateful day were mistakes that anyone could have made. These men were experienced and safe canyoneers; it was not their lack of experience that left one dead and the other a widower, it was quite literally a couple of oversights that they might not have made if they had slowed down and thought them through.
In order to understand what happened the day Louis died one must understand a few things about canyoneering in Zion National Park. The first being that Zion manages the routes in so far as they permit them, allow new routes to be developed, and have search and rescue teams for emergencies. They do not, however, maintain the routes, keep maps of the routes, or provide gear for people venturing into canyons. The beta, or information on the routes, is typically found on the net and provided by guide services. In other words, the park provides the permits but assumes you know where you are going and what you are doing. The second is that while most routes are established and have good beta on them, sometimes anchors are missing or beta changes. You have to be prepared for contingencies.
Last year, November 2014, Louis and Everett did Not Imlay Canyon with Tom Jones, the local canyoneering guru, and a few other people on a rope retrieval service project. According to a post on Tom’s blog, the original first two rappels of the canyon were “dirty” and “inelegant.” The original first rappel was done from a tree to the left of the water course down to a sloped ledge where the second rappel was made from another tree. Tom had heard that instead of making the two rappels one could make one clean 300’ rappel to the bottom. They did the 300’ rappel from a tree to the right of the water course.
When Louis and Everett prepared to do Not Imlay Canyon in October 2015 they checked the beta provided on the BluuGnome’s website which showed the two original rappels. According to Everett, Louis said Tom did not have beta up on the canyon yet. Clearly he was unaware of the blog post Tom had put up about it.
Either way, when they got to the canyon, the sling that had been on the tree to the left of the water course was gone and there was a sling on the new tree to the right for the straight 300’ rappel.
According to Everett’s account of what happened, “As we made the final walk down the beautiful slickrock ramp, the “new anchor” stood out like a beacon. We had used it last year. Before setting the rope, I pointed out the location of the old anchor. There was no webbing/anchor on the tree. This is when lightning bolts of caution should’ve hit us. They did not. At this point, Louis and I had no memory of doing the first and second raps as one single combined rappel. This is where our inexcusable, baffling, horrible lapse in judgement occurred. I can honestly say we both thought Louis was going down 100’ to a ledge.”
To further compound the miscalculation, Louis had their only other 200’ rope on his back, he did not have ascenders, and he had not tied off the ends of the rope. At the point he realized the predicament he was in he either slipped off the end or attempted to land a drop and it turned out to be fatal. He had shouted up that the rope was eight feet short, but according to Everett and to the photo of that rappel sequence, it was probably closer to a 20 foot drop to the nearest ledge. Either way, eight feet or 20′, not being able to land on the nearest ledge and stick led to him falling 180′ to the bottom.
In the end, there is no one to blame, only lessons to be learned.** The beta provided by the BluuGnome was accurate and the day would have turned out differently if a sling had been placed on the right tree. Alternatively, had Louis discovered Tom’s blog post about their trip a year earlier, one can assume with a level of certainty that his memory would have been jogged and they would have prepared for the 300’ rappel. As it stands, forgetfulness, simple mistakes, and plain bad luck led to the events of that day.
But in the aftermath of this horrible tragedy something remarkable was revealed. The web that made up the life of these two men became clear through the lives touched and impacted by them like a spider web covered in water droplets, and what surfaced through everyone’s stories about them revealed a life made up of a curious mixture of intention and abandon.
If their lives were measured by possessions, there wouldn’t be much to measure. But if their lives were measured by the people they touched, a mountain would grow up behind them.
Wallace Stenger said, “It is the beginning of wisdom when you recognize that the best you can do is choose which rules you want to live by, and it’s persistent and aggravated imbecility to pretend you can live without any.”
While I do not know the depths of the character of these men or all the rules they chose to live by, there are some so readily apparent they can’t be missed – and equally clear that Louis lived and died by his.
Louis and Everett chose to live simple material lives in order to have the time and freedom to live full recreational and relational lives. But more than that, their authenticity went beyond recreation; they were authentic in all things and their lives reflected their values.
They didn’t just take from the earth, they gave back to the earth by using it with care and by walking lightly on it. This walking lightly stemmed from an ethic that required they be conscientious with how they lived, the food they ate, the materials they consumed and disposed of, how they spent their time, and how they treated people. In order to claim an ethical life they had to live it, and they did.
Beyond their ethics they lived, loved, and played with abandon and invited any and all to join them. They selflessly gave their time, their expertise, and anything they had to share with the people around them. They maintained a childlike awe and wonder for the natural world and dove in head first, living life fully committed and at a dead run. They knew the risks of their activities, accepted the dangers and responsibilities, and not deterred by age, chose to live – living their lives on the razor’s edge of adventure whenever they could.
Ever the consummate yin and yang, Louis the bright-eyed and bushy tailed and Everett the rational and level headed, they balanced out each other and all who ventured out with them. They had a code, and that code placed them securely at the table of the authentic. When one is faced with such individuals, the only conscious or unconscious response is to try to secure a place beside them. From the outside looking in, H.R. Ellis Davidson’s words about the Norsemen is an appropriate summation of their code and what it felt like to spend time in their company:
“They knew that the gods whom they served could not give them freedom from danger and calamity, and they did not demand that they should. There was no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us.”
At the end of the announcement that Louis was gone Everett said, “Louis would want everyone to keep getting out there and living life to the fullest.” Not surprisingly, Everett wasn’t sure if he would ever venture back into a canyon, but Louis’ call to live life to the fullest would probably have started with his life partner and husband of 21 years and as such, Everett has now bravely proclaimed that he will continue to descend the ever alluring canyons in Zion.
Like all great legends, Louis’ glory will outlive his death. And to those who choose to live life in a similar vein, those living life at a dead run, as Louis said, “If it stops being fun, don’t do it,” but as Everett said, “Be safe, be safe, be safe.”
**End Note: While no one can be blamed for this tragic accident, and people are ultimately responsible for their own safety, people who remove anchors and/or gear in canyons, thereby changing the beta significantly, and do not make it known, are increasing the risk and danger for those who come after them. Especially when the beta change results in a significant change in rappel lengths.
Also, further data was added to clarify how far Louis fell after this was originally published. When he said he was only eight feet from the ground, he meant he was only eight feet from the closest ledge, not to the bottom.**
I’ve never wanted to climb Mt. Everest but I have always wanted to sip Tibetan tea in the shadow of the Himalayas just to see them. As I sat having dinner on the patio at the Cliffside Restaurant and watched this mountainous storm crest over St. George I thought, It might not be the Himalayas but it’s pretty damn majestic right here.
I heard the sound of a train blowing from not too far away. Except for the last month, it is a sound I have not heard for a long time; not since living in Provo anyway, nearly a lifetime ago. It is a lonely sound and matches my mood.
Towns in the northwest feel old. They make me feel like I am stepping into a long past era held for posterity like a natural museum. Small northwest towns are not quite ghost towns, but they make you feel like you are walking among ghosts; places where both the living and the dead cohabitate. Strangely, they give me the comforting sense of being inconspicuous as if I am nothing more than a nameless face on a page of history. It provides a certain solace for a desert dweller because everything in the desert is conspicuous under the watchful eye of the sun: the sparse vegetation, the elusive wildlife, the embarrassed and evasive streams and water sources – everything is made clear and visible in the desert.
It is almost a cliche to say that the desert is a land of extremes, but it is: extreme heat, extreme thirst, and even when moisture comes, it comes in an extreme fashion. Perhaps that is why the desert never feels old. Nothing stays the same and nothing really lasts. It’s a transitory place. Even the towns seem temporary, as if they appeared out of nowhere and could disappear at any moment.
The nature of the desert, as still as it is, seems to be one of constant motion, everything struggling for space – one thing pushing against another in order to stretch, to anchor somewhere in its struggle to survive, to stay put. The very ground is restless and even the water clings hopelessly to it as it gets swept away.
The desert is a minimalist. It takes only what it needs, pushing all excess and extravagance along to some other destination. A destination a bit more welcoming; perhaps more porous. And that is the most extreme aspect of the desert: it needs so little. It certainly does not need us, and it will kill us given the chance. But desert dwellers accept the risks for the fleeting gifts the desert bestows and in our acceptance, we become like it. John Steinbeck described the relationship well when he said,
“There is a breed of desert men, not hiding exactly but gone to sanctuary from the sins of confusion… men who chose their places with quiet and slow passion, rejecting the nervousness of a watered world.”
Perhaps it is the struggle for life that gives the desert its ethereal quality. Because it is constantly in a violent state of change and renewal it leaves a mysterious feeling of metamorphosis. Most of this change comes during the monsoons, magnificent storms that are synonymous with summer and that you feel before they arrive, like a seasonal cue that water is coming.
But the desert does not abide much water. It becomes saturated with it quickly and because a little bit goes a long way anything beyond what is necessary gets rushed out as quickly as it came. And like the desert, those who live in it, while used to the extremes, also quickly over-saturate and wonder who has allowed the ocean to overstay its welcome with too much water and grey skies.
Last summer I woke to a titan of a monsoonal event, the crack of thunder and rain so loud it sounded like Niagara Falls outside my window. I peeked at the alarm clock: 4 am. After tossing and turning but not being able to go back to sleep, I got up. I flipped the television on to reports of freeways turned to rivers, road closures, and statistics stating it was the fourth heaviest day of rainfall on record for Phoenix.
So much for getting on the road early, I muttered as I watched images of stranded cars appear on my T.V., their hazard lights blinking just above the accumulating water.
I love desert thunderstorms but not when they leave me stranded, so I paced liked a caged animal in my hotel room, periodically walking outside to stare at the rain as if I could somehow will it to stop. I finally decided to brave the raging tempest to see if the nearest Starbucks was open and wait for the weather to let up while I sipped coffee and read a book.
A couple of hours later, despite freeway closures and warnings to stay inside, the rain relented enough that I decided to take my chances and head home. I needed to get back to St. George. I checked the radar and saw that the storm was headed straight for Flagstaff and what looked like a path into eastern Utah.
Since it looked clear through Las Vegas, I chose that route; my only obvious obstacle being Phoenix. It was slow going and I was detoured due to closures, but by the time I reached Sun City it was smooth sailing. I floated through non-descript towns heading home, dark clouds and grey sheets of rain hung all around me highlighting the passive desert landscape below. Everything looked peaceful outside my windows until about 20 miles outside of Vegas.
Right when I thought I would be home soon, I hit a wall of rain. I couldn’t see more than five feet in front of me and when I was about to pull off the road I hit stand-still traffic.
“What the hell?”
I couldn’t see a thing. I squinted through my windows at what looked like a massive river raging to the right of the freeway. Surely the rain is playing tricks on my mind, I thought, trying to make sense of what my eyes were seeing.
As the minutes ticked by the storm formed another river on my left that started creeping across the southbound lanes of the freeway and filling the ditch just next to me. Water was slowly surrounding me – and rising. My annoyance and anxiety were increasing with each minute. I watched in horror as construction debris got washed away right next to me.
After nearly an hour, the water that had slowly made its way across the freeway started licking under my car. “To hell with this,” I said. I put my car into gear and drove up a closed off lane of the freeway to get on higher ground. A few minutes later an officer walked up to my window and asked if I would pull my car up as far as I could go so that they could get the vehicles behind me up on higher ground as well.
Minutes later the road behind us disappeared beneath an angry, red deluge of water. We were surrounded on all sides. People started getting out of their vehicles to find out what was happening, everyone recording or taking photos of the carnage. I figured the crews and law enforcement would get traffic going eventually, so I sat back and relaxed. Little did I know I would be stranded on that concrete island for nearly five hours.
As I sat there marveling at the power of water, my mind turned to slot canyons, subterranean cracks in the earth offering mystery and delight for backpackers and canyoneers, turned into terrifying death traps when storms roll in. I hope no one’s in a canyon right now, I thought.
One of my worst fears is being trapped in a maze with water and debris hurtling toward me and nowhere to escape. If there is even an ice cube’s chance in hell of rain I will avoid slot canyons. I half chuckled to myself at the irony of finding myself in a similarly precarious situation on a wide open stretch of freeway. I thought back to my trip through Buckskin Gulch a few weeks prior when the thought of something just like this had consumed me.
I had accepted the coveted invitation in triple digit weather because there was not a sliver of a chance of rain, just the threat of dying from dehydration and heat stroke – both of which I felt adequately prepared for.
We had camped at White House campground with some friends to get an early start the next morning. We left a vehicle there for our exit at the end of our hike and headed to Wirepass Trailhead the next day. The short one mile hike through the Wire Pass Narrows looked like child’s play once we entered the yawning mouth of Buckskin Gulch. Nearly all 13 miles of Buckskin Gulch is a slot, with few openings for escape or direct exposure to the sun. It is one of the longest slot canyons in the world and looks as though someone or something has taken a giant scalpel to the earth’s crust.
In between conversation, when we ceased talking and silence overcame us, my mind started forming a southwest version of a Greek myth: the mortal heroes begin their journey into the underworld while the gods watch from above, some scheming havoc while others prepare for intervention.
In my unfurling drama, Poseidon would be in our corner. No need for rushing water here I thought. Flash flooding was the topic woven through all of our conversations and around each bend we would stop and look to see if our climbing skills were honed enough to get higher than 20 feet of water in a short burst of time. The threat of being surrounded by 400 foot walls with water rising quickly was ever present in our imaginations.
The gods envy us, I mused, recalling Achilles’ words, because we are mortal, doomed; we will never be lovelier than we are now, we will never be here again.
Do the gods envy us? I wasn’t so sure, but the essence of that quote was true enough. The canyon was stunning, breathtaking, and dangerous. I wasn’t sure if I would ever be there again and so I basked in it. I didn’t even take many photos because I didn’t want to miss the canyon for photography. We gazed at the walls that at times looked like petrified ocean waves and at other times like skyscrapers. We found natural vents that blew cold and hot air and would look around at each other and exclaim, how the hell?
And the sand, the never ending torture of inefficient sand. After roughly eight miles of walking in it I thought, so this is how we will die: we will die of thirst because the sand is slowing us down so much it’s making the hike take twice as long. We will run out of water before we reach the spring.
Though there was no chance of rain, death pressed in on us, lurking in the dry air, ever present. We came across carcasses of birds and deer, mangled and broken bodies left as reminders that life is dangerous – that life in the desert is dangerous.
We caught a little canyon mouse half dead for lack of water and watched in amazement as drops of water revitalized it the moment the water touched his mouth. We wondered aloud how long he would survive – how anything could survive in this canyon for very long.
Though I hadn’t had much water most of the hike, by the time we reached Middle Trail (which we aptly renamed Last Chance Trail because it is an escape route) I was sucking my eight liters of water so fast I started worrying I would run out. Though I had rested, even took a nap in the shade and then leisurely gazed at petroglyphs during our lunch break, the thirst was all consuming. I couldn’t drink the water fast enough and anxiously hoped the reports we received were right, that the springs had water in them. We still had miles to go.
Luckily for us, the reports were accurate and we were able to refill our water when we got to camp. That night we crawled into our sleeping bags under a million hanging stars and silence as deep as our bodies were tired. But the initial silence was broken with the screams of something in the darkness – something hunted and preyed upon. Another reminder that life and death are not so distinguishable in the desert. After the screams died down and the silence resumed we fell into an uneasy sleep.
The night never got cool and we woke to the radiant heat of the sun baking the red walls of the canyon. The confluence was not very far from our campsite and we reached it not long after our easy camp breakfast. As we stood underneath the towering walls it seemed like we had been swallowed up in the belly of a sandstone whale, the only glimpse of sunlight coming straight up through the spout.
Nothing existed but the chasm. It was overwhelming, even eerie. If water came rushing down Buckskin and the Paria there would be no safe ground, no escape from the collision of those two trains. I had never felt so small and insignificant – like the world had ceased to exist and all that was left was us and the canyon.
Sitting stuck in traffic on I-15 I shuddered at the thought of being at the confluence of those two drainages during this storm. Though the torrential downpour had abated, it was still lightly raining and the night had slowly come. I snapped out of my reverie when break lights lit up the darkness. It looked like we were finally going to move.
To my chagrin, they had cleared the road enough to turn all traffic back to Las Vegas. The water had come so violently it had washed out I-15. There was no getting home tonight. I spent the night in a dumpy Motel 6 and made the six hour drive home the next day on a detour route through the Nevada desert. Remnants of the storm were everywhere, making the land look more like a marsh than a desert. When I got back to St. George and it was still raining, I did what I never do: I cursed the rain. They say you can never complain about water in the desert, and for the most part that is true, but the abundance was excessively rich, opulent, and lavish; like a decadent dessert after fasting. It was too much.
I got back to reports of cars getting swept away by the impetuous and voracious rivers; of road construction equipment getting smashed against canyon walls in the Virgin Gorge; and heard miraculous stories of survival. But another storm came through a few days later and was not as merciful, catching two hikers in The Narrows and drowning one.
We are both witness and casualty in the epic battle that ensues when the enduring patience of the serene sky wears thin and like an angry lover, breaks into revenge on the aloof and detached desert. The temporary fury unloads as the sky forces the land into submission with ravaging and torrential lashings until exhaustion and retreat are the only sensible response to the maddeningly austere and spartan desert – and anyone or anything left standing.
I think Steinbeck said it best when he mused in his travels with Charley that the desert might well be the last stand of life against unlife.
The desert does not tolerate much and so it is an audacious stand to insist on living here. It is the nature of life in the desert to stand apart, alone, because there is so little to go around. And that is perhaps the difference between living here or some other place.
In the northwest, mid-west, northeast, and even southeast, the environment seems static and unchanging because everything is always growing, thriving; life crowding upon life. There is a constancy or fluidity to the landscape that gives it a sense of time and linear existence. It feels comforting because it appears changeless, and to a desert rat, it offers a brief reprieve from the tension and struggle that living in the desert inflicts. But despite vacations and reprieves, audaciously we stand, tenaciously clinging to this restless land.