A year and five days ago I hiked the Chesler Loop in Canyonlands National Park after finding out my grandpa had passed away. I had terminated our relationship long before, so I wasn’t particularly grieved. I recall my day being soured by his departure only because I couldn’t decide whether or not to cut my trip short for his funeral. My only reason for going would have been to support my mom, so I called my therapist. I felt like he died right when I got to Moab on purpose. (Sidenote: I’ve forgiven him now for all of his hurtful, harmful behaviors. No one comes into this world an asshole.)
Next week I’m going back to Moab for no real reason other than I just want to. When I say Moab I’m really referring to the surrounding areas: Canyonlands, Arches National Park, Monument Valley. It’s ungodly beautiful out there and I want to sleep and freeze to death under the stars next to the Colorado River, surrounded by deep red canyon walls.
Moab. It’s a place for me. Do you know what I mean? It’s more than canyons inside of canyons inside of canyons and carefully balanced rocks on top of hoodoos, more than sandstone fins and arches carved out by time.
What I recall most about my first trip to Moab: It was a respite from my life dropping out from under me.
I had just learned that my mother’s lung cancer, which she’d just completed treatment for six months prior, had metastasized to her brain while I was wrapping up my first full semester at Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Looking back I still don’t know how I did it.
A guy I had been seeing wanted to get me out there before I left town. He was a strange mutt, very handsome, rugged and masculine yet quiet and a bit awkward with stooped posture. He was a kind but moody wild-land firefighter from the Midwest who secretly liked musicals. He sometimes spoke in 50’s vernacular, but overall he didn’t speak much. Mitch. I was in love with him for some reason. We would play Ty Segal and T.Rex on the jukebox and dance our asses off, just the two of us, at the Roadhouse in Durango, the only smoking bar in town. We were usually pretty toasted in those moments, but it was fun. He was also completely emotionally unavailable, so naturally I loved him even more.
I think I really fell in love with him when I found out my mom might be dead in a year.
Emotionally unavailable men can actually be okay in those situations. I guess. I haven’t really thought about it until just now. He would tell me things like, “Candra, you’re a real swell gal and you’re brave.” It was nothing, but it was something, you know?
So, to Moab we went in his snug single-cab Toyota pick-up. It was a truck made for circus clowns. My knees nearly hit the dash and I’m 5’3″. He looked comical folded up behind the wheel. Old mannish. We listened to a Marty Robbins c.d. on the way.
We arrived in the afternoon and hiked to the iconic Delicate Arch, “the one that’s on Utah license plates.” What do I remember? Dragging my jaw through the sand, Mitch reminding me to drink extra water, lots of people, and the near impossibility of getting a photo of the arch without people in it.
It never occurred to me until that trip with Mitch that I should be in any of my photos. I just never thought about it, and I rarely liked how I looked in photos that I didn’t take myself. But he said, “Your mom doesn’t care what you look like, and it’s about what you’re doing anyway. She will like it.”
The sun was making a quick decent by time we got back into town to buy groceries for our campfire dinner. We decided on steak and macaroni-n-cheese, then proceeded to find a campsite in the dark.
We made our fire under the Milky Way, bright and crisp against the colorless sky. Where else would we have made the fire though? Mitch did the cooking thing while I chatted away excitedly about who even knows, when a light on the Eastern horizon caught my eye. “What is that?” I thought maybe it was the glow of a distant city. Mitch wasn’t sure. We looked on and soon realized it was an enormously round dandelion moon rising up at an observable pace into the night sky! Okay, maybe it was a harvest moon, I don’t know, but it looked like a dandelion to me. Its golden light washed away any trace of the Milky Way. I was okay with it though. I believe I even hooted and hollered, true to my Texas roots. I had never seen such a sight in all my life. That moon alone made the whole trip worth it, and I think I said it about ten more times between then and the moment we got back to Durango and at least a hundred times since then.
We slept that night in the bed of Mitch’s truck, sandwiched between overlapping camping pads and a few sleeping bags layered with wool blankets.
The next morning we woke with our coverings covered in frost. It was fucking cold. I sat up, looking around at what I couldn’t see the night before. Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly what color the sky was. Probably a few colors, naturally, peach, pale blue, lavender. Seems about right. All I remember for sure is that there was a warm hue to the light. To the northwest I could see pale purple snow-capped mountains far in the distance. Nearer to me I could see rust colored outcroppings and hoodoos. And then! There was that damn hot air balloon suspended between those damn far away mountains and those damn otherworldly outcrops. I thought I had to be dreaming. What’s the difference anyhow?
We had coffee. We had oatmeal. We packed and headed for the next trail. We had more coffee. We hiked all day long, this time in Canyonlands which for whatever reason I liked far better than Arches. (Fewer people?) We posed for pictures to share with our families and we wore ourselves properly out before heading back into town for burgers and milkshakes.
That whole weekend I didn’t think once about cancerous tumors, my mom’s mortality, powering through the end of the semester, or leaving all my friends and my life in Durango. I only thought about that event of a massive moon, ancient seabeds and the way Mitch always smelled like a bizarre combination of exhaust fumes and fresh air with a sometimes hint of something maple.
On the way back to Durango I slept, crammed somehow comfortably in the cab of Mitch’s tiny truck, my boots off, knees folded to my chest and head resting against my purple Carhartt jacket wadded up as a pillow against the door. I later found that I had smashed a forgotten banana in one of the pockets. It was okay though. I had been to Moab. I experienced the Utah desert and I have photographic evidence.
A month and a half later I was living back in OKC and mom had already began radiation.