I fell out of love with Moab almost instantly when I arrived last Monday. To the extent that I wondered what there was to love in the first place.
Leaving the house that morning felt almost rote, like an insect in migration. I checked in with myself once on the highway, scanning for any strong emotions of which there were oddly very few. This peaked my curiosity, so I asked myself what my intentions were for the trip, what I expected to get out of it.
I didn’t know.
I kept checking in with myself like that along the way between listening to a letdown of a playlist that never quite pulled me from my ambiguous mood and an episode of Waking Up With Sam Harris, pausing occasionally to take in the changing scenery and to swap out pieces of gum. I had purchased three different flavored packs, watermelon, traditional bubble and mint, about an hour into my drive to prevent me from eating an entire two pound bag of trail mix or gnawing my fingers to hell. Was I anxious or something?
A friend reminded me the night before that I was in Utah around this time last year, right before making the hasty move to Santa Fe. It was a classic “little did she know” moment in which little did I know my life was about to basically be gutted. I didn’t know when I was in Moab last year that I would return to Oklahoma the following week to put in my notice at work and leave. I certainly knew something was churning on that trip, but I chalked it up to having been on the road for almost two weeks.
I didn’t plan for this get-away to coincide with my last, but it had me wondering if there was something more to the timing of it all. Was it something to pay attention to?
I’ve always believed myself to be a great finder of magic. It’s not that difficult, actually. Anyone can do it if they want to. You look for signs, draw connections, find meaning. And meaning is magic. It’s intuition. It’s God, the Universe, Spirit, you, me, Something. You don’t even have to believe in Something to do it, but you might after awhile. It’s how you paint your story. If I felt like it, I could stop paying attention, i.e. finding magic, and let my life become dull, or I could pay attention to the wrong things and succumb to life’s difficulties. Looking back, I suppose I have done both periodically. Sometimes bitterness overtakes a person, some unresolved, often entirely unknown issue from the past blisters up and it can deplete you. But by the grace of Something- no, because of the grace of Something I’ve never strayed too far from my meaning-making, magic-finding ways.
Anyway, no. Fall is just a lovely time of year to visit Utah. I had to leave it at that. It was as if I was trying too hard to find some significance in the time correlation, and that’s why I had to buy three packs of gum to sooth myself. Maybe not every trip is supposed to be some big soul-shifting journey. I let it go.
Moab was busy and the weather was shit.
What was my draw to this place? Where was the mystique I waxed on about before? This place was crawling with tourist types and all terrain vehicles.
As I approached I was reminded of the first first time I’d been to Moab which I’d more or less forgotten about. It didn’t count in my mind because we were only passing through for the night. This was a month or two before ol’ emotionally unavailable Mitch and I had our weekend trip there together, years ago. He invited me to join him and some friends to go to a show in Salt Lake City. We stayed at the Lazy Lizard Hostel, sharing a top bunk in a room with a man who’d clearly been living there for awhile. Sprawled out on a twin sized bed in the dark, surrounded by empty cans and cellophane wrappers, watching an old television with the volume on low, he barely acknowledged us aside from a few grunts. And Mitch barely acknowledged me aside from only the most necessary communication, making everyone uncomfortable for the entire trip. And the sweet girl who was with us got so blasted she began only speaking French, not even her native language, and spent the rest of the night vomiting in dark parking lot corners while we all took turns holding her hair and consoling her. It was a great time. Memorable.
Anyway, I remember driving into Moab that first first time, being in awe of the natural scenery but confused by the array of unsightly corrugated steel buildings painted in a simple pallet of whites, grays and mostly primary colors and all the junk piles. I always find it irksome the way we humans will put up structures without any aesthetic considerations, especially in a place so beautiful.
Once all the way into town where my cell signal improved, I checked my email at a red light out of habit, not really expecting anything. My very first Santa Fe connection finally replied to an email I’d sent him two months ago in which I apologized for how I ended things, very gracelessly without a whole lot of integrity. It was another one of those “Does this mean anything?” moments, as it was about a year ago that we’d made contact and traveled together through Utah, including my first backpacking trip right outside of Moab, followed by some crowded exploration of Arches.
Santa Fe was the first stop on my road-trip last year exploring the Southwest. Jay was the first person I met. I found him through a website for hosting travelers.
It poured rain the last stretch of my drive from Oklahoma to Santa Fe and I had just finished my second 20 ounce energy drink upon arrival, so I was beyond amped and also lucky I didn’t have a stroke or a seizure. (I had to. I stayed out late the night before doing unspeakable things and was running on very few hours of sleep.) I thought his adobe looked kind of dumpy from the outside, and I might have been more nervous going there alone, except he was hosting two other people, a nice married couple from Wisconsin or somewhere where wholesome people are from.
I called when I pulled up to make sure I was at the right place and he instructed me to let myself in through the gate which was secured with a large dog collar. As I crossed the threshold into the small, dark yard, I heard slow syrupy psych rock playing from inside and was immediately comforted knowing this guy was probably going to be super “cool” and know all the “cool” people and show me a really “cool” Santa Fe experience. Through the warm light inside he appeared, Jay, a few inches taller than me, ratty ginger hair knotted messily on top of his head, a dingy white t-shirt with Dr. Seuss fish all over, tight, faded black jeans, stick-n-poke tattoos on his arms, Chaco sandals on his feet and a bottle of cider in hand. He was sort of schlubby but in a hot, very hip way. Seriously, he was cool, which was of utmost importance to me back then, and I knew I was in a good place.
I slept with him that night. I don’t waste time. I felt iffy about it in the morning because even though I joked for weeks about all the “D” I planned on “slaying” from state to state, that wasn’t really what this solo excursion was about. It was supposed to be more of an “Eat, Pray, Love” thing. But like I said, he was cool, active, liked outdoorsy things and the arts, did yoga sometimes, drank and smoked cigarettes (edgy), and he was a physicist with a Ph.D. (My low self-esteemed ass secretly couldn’t get over the fact that a guy with a Ph.D. would ever be into me.)
He happened to be going on a canyoneering trip in Zion National Park around the same time I would be in Zion, so we discussed the possibility of camping together. I wasn’t trying to fall in love with anyone or let my solo adventure be hijacked by some dude, but it just made sense. So we did. You know- signs, magic, all that shit I was going on about before. The biggest indicator of all that we were destined to join forces was that we consumed the same things for breakfast everyday: yogurt and berries with granola and copious amounts of yerba mate.
I don’t regret it at all. We had a blast together, and I could write an anthology of stories based on those adventures alone. Okay, it’d be more like an anthology of inside jokes. (See: Baby’s First Backpacking Trip featuring Candra “Lady of the Canyon” Lowery) But things definitely took a turn for the weird towards the end.
I did not move to Santa Fe for Jay. I still stand by that. I’m too smart to move across states for a man I just met. But I’ll definitely stay at his house, in his bed and act like his girlfriend for awhile if it means I get to make an adventurous, unplanned move to a new town. Or back then I would have. When I’ve mentioned to friends I felt some guilt for basically taking advantage of him, his house, his connections, his big sweet dog, some have been quick to suggest that perhaps his intentions with me weren’t so great either. I used to latch onto that idea, shucking all personal responsibility for anything bad that ever happened between us, but in hindsight I know there was something, not love by any stretch, but something. And I’d rather not discard the memories we made together or forget everything he did for me, which was a lot more looking back than I realized then.
His reply to my email was short, telling me not to worry or apologize, that things did get weird, that he’d been meaning to reply but he’d been busy moving to the Pacific Northwest.
I looked for a hike to do before looking for a place to camp but every trail-head I pulled up to was packed, so I settled for a short hike in Canyonlands where I fantasized about tripping the French family dawdling in front of me as I pushed my way ahead of them. (I don’t enjoy having thoughts like that about fellow humans, but sometimes I forget strangers are more than just environmental props.) At the end of the trail we, the tourists and I, were met with an arch overlooking layers of canyons, layers of the earth’s dermis. I had my moment, taking it all in, breathing deeply while chattering people in floppy safari hats secured to their heads with drawstrings took turns posing for photos all around me. I reminded myself that nature is for everyone- not just for me. Let these people have their experience, too. But I had to get out of there.
Behind us dense, foreboding clouds rolled in and settled for awhile over the area I’d planned to backpack the next day. By that point though, I wondered if it would even be worth it to stay in Moab. Could I possibly have the type of experience I was looking for in a place so infested with humans?
I had purchased two bundles of cedar that day, so my top priority for the night was finding a place to camp where I could have a fire. I didn’t even care if it rained, as long as I could have my fire before it arrived. I easily found a spot on BLM land with an array of views, blue-green and black banded slopes of silty rock, towering red sandstone fins and miles-away mountains shrouded in rain clouds occasionally sparked with lightning like a piece of steel striking flint. And no fire restrictions. Perfect.
It was too damned windy for a fire. It was too damned windy to even eat my tuna and avocado anywhere but inside my car, so there I sat with my headlamp on eating canned tuna and avocado on stale rice cakes in the dark, laughing at my Moab experience thus far. I even choked a bit.
I considered how seemingly quiet my night would have appeared to an observer while I sorted my gear and posted up. I wrestled the curtains I’d cut from thrifted fabric, using binder clips to attach them to a long line of parachute cord suspended above the car windows. I had one of the rear seats folded down, topped with a thick foam mattress pad and my sub-zero sleeping bag. It was cozy if not cramped between the bins, firewood bundles, backpacks, boots and bags of snacks. I didn’t experience the night as a quiet one with all the thoughts inside my head, the endless narrative. I worried for a minute that maybe I only really enjoyed this sort of thing when I was drinking. I don’t often think about drinking anymore, but that night I thought man, this wouldn’t be so bad if I had a box of wine to nurse. It wasn’t that I sat there obsessing over the alcohol or even that the night was so bad. But wine was always such a great comfort to me and I wasn’t exactly comfortable in that moment. I also thought this wouldn’t be so bad if I had someone else here to share this so far amusing experience with. For a long time the company of drink and the company of another person were interchangeable and almost equally satiating.
I was writing in my notebook about all this when in my headlamp-lit peripheral I saw a spider scurry across my pad. Holy shit. I hate killing anything but mosquitoes, but I had to kill this spider before it killed me. It was a black widow. Undeniably. I became an expert on identifying them a few weeks before when I found three in my kitchen one evening. I felt more threatened this time, far away from home, confined to my car in the middle of a windy rainstorm. I stayed calm. I tried smashing her with a Sriracha bottle (goes great on rice cakes topped with tuna and avocado) but she was on my wadded up coat on top of other wadded up things. I could no longer see her. Shit. She was somewhere inside the folds. The last thing I wanted to do was disturb the pile too much for fear she might end up on me in the process of searching so I made a truce with her. I’m not kidding. I placed more wadded up things on top of the coat, gently, putting more layers and distance between us and I said these words or something like them, “Listen, I have a feeling you just want to be left alone, and so do I. You just stay over there and I’ll stay over here, and we can sort this out in the morning.” And we did. That morning, both still alive, I shook her out of my coat onto the rust colored ground outside. I could be making this up but I think she was genuinely grateful that I spared her.
I somehow slept 12 hours that night and I was ready to get a move on.
The weather didn’t look like it was letting up any time soon, so I determined a new plan was in order. I went to a coffee shop in Green River, Utah. It was appropriately eclectic in its decor with gold framed Van Gogh replicas screwed into the ceiling lined with pillowy hung coffee bean sacks. The gal working claimed to be the “biggest nerd” in the area and didn’t do outdoors so she couldn’t make any recommendations to me as far as hikes were concerned. An old nay-sayer, I believe perhaps the owner of the shop, overheard us then proceeded to waste about fifteen minutes of my time discouraging me from doing anything at all until tomorrow.
I sat for a bit sipping my coffee, thinking things over. (I would like to mention I had already consumed 16 ounces of yerba mate and a shot of espresso.) I guess I decided I would drive to Escalante. I say I guess, because I don’t really remember how I decided that was the new plan. It just was. I thanked the nay-sayer for his “help” and then God for the rain, the perfect excuse to back out of backpacking alone, something I was reluctant to admit I felt ill prepared for, and the perfect reason to go somewhere else besides Moab.
I took off.