The drive from Green River to Escalante-Grand Staircase alone made my decision to pass on Moab worth it. Wide towering buttes revealed themselves from behind flattened clouds of fog as I wound my way through the changing landscape. Through broken slabs of earth jutting up from the ground, to fall forests of bare birch and pine, I drove.
And I snacked. Beef jerky and trail mix, two things I could happily eat everyday until I die aside from the inevitable constipation it would likely bring me. (And has brought me.)
At one point I pulled over at a foggy vista in the mountains and squatted to pee right there on the side of the road in front of God and everyone, not even bothering to hide behind anything. I hadn’t actually seen any other vehicles for an hour or more, so I guess I was really only in front of God and some indifferent wildlife. I really enjoy pissing outside for some reason. I find it exhilarating somehow even when there’s no voyeurism involved, and honestly there never really is. I usually find a tree or a dumpster to get behind.
I’m not sure why it matters that anyone knows these details, but perhaps it will help you better understand the protagonist of this story. She’s an animal.
The closer I got to Escalante, the more I said things like, “Holy shit,” and, “Oh my god!” I drove along a sliver of paved earth called Hell’s Backbone, dropping off on both sides and opening to wide canyon bluffs bottomed with weathered junipers and scrubs on a narrow, uneven spread of subdued desert grasses. To the west, lumps of Navajo sandstone and stubby buttes in shades of coral, white and rust were parted by a stream that you couldn’t quite see but knew existed because of the autumnal cottonwoods auspiciously growing golden alongside it. I could see into the western canyon for miles and before I knew it I was winding my way down into it.
I pulled off at the Lower Calf Creek “recreation area.” There was a hike to a waterfall which sounded enticing and places to camp, but for a price. $5 for day use, $15 for camping. There were also lots of cars in the trailhead parking lot. It was a beautiful parking lot. I mean, just breathtaking down there in that marvelous canyon with all the “autumnal cottonwoods growing golden” along the crick. I considered it. I could pay $15 and do a quick six-mile jaunt to a waterfall and come back to camp at one of those nice spots with all the lovely fall trees and potential traffic.
Despite my sarcasm it really wasn’t that bad and I really did consider it. But something told me I could find better, so I left.
Five miles later, I decided to go back to the recreation area. It was nearing 4:00 and I just needed to do a fucking hike already. That’s what I came out there to do after all, and I had been in a car all day eating my weight in G.O.R.P.
I pulled up, got out of my car, paced up the lot once and back down. I decided to leave again and for good this time.
Soon after, I made a curious left turn onto a narrow dirt road where I discovered dispersed campsites galore, free, with ridiculous views. Am I even alive? I asked myself. As stupid and romantic as it sounds I felt destined to be there because why else would it be so perfect? Listen, you can be destined for something without it necessarily meaning anything. So, there. It was meant to be.
After settling in I grabbed my day pack and wandered up the gravel road for a pre-sunset walk (Finally.) and was immediately pulled in by deep gratitude. Gratitude for my full-functioning, strong legs, tireless little feet and the boots protecting them, and my eyeballs of course, all for allowing me to interact with and take in the vast desert before me, and then for all my other senses as well because what is life without sensation? Then, there was even more gratitude- gratitude for my gratitude. Because it takes daily practice, and damn if it doesn’t make for a rich life when you are able to acknowledge the abundance all around you.
After whispering my many thanks to the Universe, I came to an unmarked trail off the side of the road where I hiked a ways into a dried up creek bed of fine sand, woven with mounds of slickrock and sage. I found a place to sit down to take some deep breaths before heading back for dinner, a little meditation, if you will. It was the first time I’d been completely still and totally in my body for days.
I’d received a text from a friend earlier that day asking how I was doing. When I told her I was in Utah therefore doing great, and confirmed that yes, I was there by myself she, like everyone else, was impressed. “Oh, wow, alone? Good for you! What an inspiration.” I used to get off on that. Okay, I still totally get off on it. Look at me. I’m a rugged, adventurous, kind of sexy, kind of smelly, bold, independent, self-sufficient, self-confident, mostly fearless, sometimes hairy, go-getter. A spritely young woman with primal tendencies and a deep appreciation of the wild. Even though I’m a tiny, weasley girl, I travel alone and sleep in my car and sometimes even outside. I rarely panic and I piss where I please! Could I be any cooler? No. Do you wish you could be me? Probably. (This is a bunch of half-truth, exaggerated bullshit. I’m soft. I get scared sometimes. I’m kind of weird. And I mostly only pee where peeing is allowed.)
Aside from all that ego masturbation, I do take genuine pleasure in doing things alone, especially anything outdoors. Great, uninterrupted thinking takes place or vanishes all together and I am able to pay more attention. But this time was different and my ego trip was lost to a peculiar thread of loneliness. (Come to think of it, isn’t that what it’s all about, chipping away at the pesky ego?) I didn’t feel threatened by it though. I didn’t take it personally or feel pathetic over its presence, which was a huge victory given that just four months prior I had what can only be described as an enormous drunken tantrum over how unlovable I believed myself to be at the time. Instead I was curious. This isn’t to say I wasn’t bothered by it. I found myself wishing for company on this trip and that surprised me. It didn’t align with what I previously believed about myself- all that stuff about being independent and self-sufficient, not needing anyone. While I didn’t perceive the loneliness as a threat, per say, I did find it to be a nuisance. I wanted it to go away but that’s not how things work so I “leaned into it” and asked it some questions. Questions like, why now?
I realized that I’d always dealt with loneliness to some degree since early childhood (I’m not special. Childhood’s hard on nearly everyone.) but I had a ten year respite thanks to my vices. Someone asked me recently if I drank more when I felt lonely. Generally speaking I drank enough that I never had to feel lonely, not for long anyway. Never had to sit with it the way I had more recently. Even when I stopped drinking I still had social media to turn to and did so often without an ounce of awareness of what it really was about. (I deactivated my last social media account three months before.) For nearly ten years I’d simply been unaware and anesthetized to it, but it was there all along, waiting to be addressed.
So, there I was in the Utah desert addressing my loneliness at the mouth of a deepening canyon, sitting cross-legged on creamy colored sandstone surrounded by a loose mosaic of petrified wood shards before taking my first and few meditative breaths.
I think it was my third deep inhalation that I burst into snorting laughter and gasping sobs, an unanticipated onslaught of emotion. I’ve never been so blindsided. Moments before I was in a pensive sort of state, neither high nor low. Now I was joyfully losing my shit in the middle of who even knows where.
In a near instant I received a massive load of clarity. My loneliness was a farce. I was far from alone. I have never been alone. I wouldn’t have made it this far, relatively sane and sober, if that were the case. I have family back home, a budding community in Santa Fe, and close friends in Colorado and all over who really love me, support me and want to see me succeed and be well. I am insanely rich in love and in that brief attempt at meditation I swear to God I felt it all at once, radiating inwardly, outwardly, endlessly. I practically fell over. And ironically I was thankful no one was there to witness my unhinged exhibition. I couldn’t stop cry-laughing because there I was in one of the most mystifying places on this wondrous planet, just trying to make contact with God and nature or whatever, making some major event of it -I don’t even know- and all I could think about anymore was how much I appreciate my day-to-day life and the people in it.
I am struggling to come up with an eloquent way to break all of this down but it just wasn’t like that. It wasn’t without grace, but it was a haphazard sort of intoxicated grace. I couldn’t catch my breath. Why was it so funny? It may have been one of the best moments of my life now that I think about it. (I have many of those. I can’t help it.)
I got up, returning to lucidity. I wiped my snotty nose on my arm and stumbled down the wash and out back to camp and heated up a can of vegetarian chili while the sun had its last hour before trading places with the moon.
The next morning the tea I drank tasted faintly of chili as I did not properly clean my pot the night before. I wrote in my journal on the low cliff’s edge, wrapped in a blanket, sipping my bean flavored yerba mate while the sun yawned and stretched it’s arms up over the horizon, warming the morning. Its stimulating rays urged me up from my perch and onward to the next phase of my journey- a long hike, possibly an overnight.
I didn’t really know where I was in relation to where I’d come from. I didn’t care. I liked it.
I headed to town, to the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center. I needed water, a national park sticker for my car and suggestions for hikes. I filled my water bottle and dromedary bag outside. I got my sticker. But I didn’t get the trail suggestions I’d hoped for.
The BLM employees, two oddly identical robust women with sparsely silver streaked mousy hair and khaki uniforms, were matter of fact and a touch ominous in their tones when they informed me that they couldn’t recommend hikes for reasons of liability since the majority of the trails were unmarked. (“If you don’t know what you’re doing and die or something we’d be held responsible, so it’s hike at your own risk.”) They stressed the importance of knowing how to read a topo map and use a compass out there. I never even know what road I’m on half the time.
The idea of unmarked backcountry trails aroused me to no end. That was exactly what I wanted, especially after my stint in Moab where all I could think about was dead-legging selfie-taking strangers over the edge of cliffs for making a spectacle of the natural world. But the BLM twins did spook me a bit. (I guess I should learn to use a topographic map and a compass.) I knew their warnings were over the top, but I understood. They were doing their jobs and for all they knew I could have been some inexperienced twit who “ain’t never been took nowhere,” who just happens to dress like they’ve been outside before. I certainly wasn’t like the hopeless people I’d seen on trails in the past wearing baggy gym shorts and slip on sneakers with nothing on them but a single crinkly bottle of Nestle water I could drink in a single gulp. But honestly, I got it.
I actually pride myself in having a healthy fear of being in the wild on my own. Healthy because while I like to push myself beyond my level of comfort, I also know that having spent most of my life in the Great Plains I am relatively inexperienced compared to those who grew up in these regions, and that the desert or any wilderness area is no joke, especially here given that I was completely unfamiliar with the area. I just had to accept that I wouldn’t be pushing myself today. This was the compromise for being able to explore beyond more developed places like Moab and Zion National Park with their practically paved trails, vistas at every turn and hoards of tourists stopping dead in front of you to take photos of every goddamned chipmunk along the way. (I do think it’s important for people to get out and see these places, but I just wish there was another way, one that didn’t impede mine.)
My previous loneliness transformed that morning into a simple desire for someone who knew more than me, with experience and expertise to share. I shrugged it off, holding onto eventually.
I did a very 2018 thing and downloaded a map on my phone of a hike to a lesser known slot canyon. I have an inexplicable affinity for those tight, undulatory spaces. They are, if you ask me, the sexiest geologic wonders of the Southwest with their narrow yet curvaceous walls seamlessly carved out by water, spooky silence and soft sandy bottoms. The one I found, which shall remain unnamed, was pristine as any I’d ever been in and gave my trip a sense of satisfying closure.
I headed home the next morning, sooner than I liked given that I’d just arrived, but the drive back was ten hours and I had to get back to work. Such is the nature of no plans.
A couple days after returning to Santa Fe a friend asked if I was interested in backpacking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim with a group of five the following week.
Well, hot damn.