The Reef, Part Two of Two

Thinking deserts and benedictions

Capitol Reef When thinking back to some of the places I have seen while traveling across Utah and around the world, I am often reminded of a speech given by one of America's greatest authors, the late Edward Abbey:


May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous. May they lead to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds, may your rivers flow without end, meandering thorough pastoral valleys, tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets' towers, into a dark, primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal mysterious swamps infested with crocodiles, and down from there, into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottoes of endless stone, and down, down again into a deep vast unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lighting clangs up on the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you beyond that net turning of the canyon wall.'

When he gave the speech, Abbey's voice deepened into a growl when he spoke of the amazing views and descending paths; when he spoke of the deer on the river's beach he spoke instead with the great clarity and faith of a poet.

Edward Abbey died March 14, 1989 in southern Arizona. He was buried in the desert and his death was followed by two traditional Irish wakes, one near Tucson and the other near Moab. At the time of his death Abbey had already received critical acclaim and massive following. In the years after his death, as lovers of natural landscapes around world came to understand both the deeper complexities of the man and the complex natural philosophy he adhered to, his works and legend have grown in popularity. Many who love the deserts of the American Southwest, and in particular the brutal landscape of southern Utah, today owe their natural awakenings to Abbey - if not directly then indirectly. Many have suggested it was Abbey himself that allowed us to love and appreciate these landscapes of rock and sand.

Of course, Abbey set most of his books in the canyon country around Moab, not here in Capitol Reef. But tonight, as I lay in an open bag with a cacophony of stars above me so deep that the night sky appears more light than dark, I feel I can again use some of Abbey's wisdom to confront the enigmas of the desert that lies all around.

When does spring arrive?

Capitol ReefWhen does spring arrive? I have spent years thinking about this. Here in Utah, the calendar can say spring even though it is still snowing. Snow, in fact, is just one part of spring, though not the season's most powerful moniker. Likewise, winter can have shirtsleeve afternoons and summer can have mornings when you turn the heat on in the car.

Feeling trapped by winter's snow and cold, folks in the mountains look for spring's arrival as though it were a buried treasure - you can feel it before it arrives, and anticipation grows. I think summer arrives at about 10 a.m. on some morning when, breakfast still digesting, you step outside to hot stillness and realize today will be a scorcher. Autumn arrives at about midnight when, after a huge storm, you watch in moonlight to see your breath floating away and a ring of new snow in the mountains. Winter comes under hard gray skies about three in the afternoon when you understand that today will be the first day since last winter that you won't get to take your sweater off at all. And spring arrives about 5 in the morning when you wake up to open windows and a chorus of birds calling in the trees. This morning, in Capitol Reef before the sun came up, birds were singing in the cottonwoods.

In northern Utah we flock to the desert in March and April because spring arrives here several weeks before it does back home. After 18 weeks of thick socks and long underwear and cold sunsets a weekend in the desert is more therapeutic than a month's worth of fake tanning passes. Still numbed, we watch our toes in wonder as they squirm into warm red sand. We feel sun for the first time on our backs and legs.

Later in the afternoon a rooster tail of dust rises a hundred feet above and behind the car as Porter and I cruise into the Cathedral Valley, one of the remote, harsh areas of Capitol Reef. Here, many drivers need four wheel drive just to get into the valley, which is separated from the main part of the park by high cliffs and the Fremont River which, a park ranger told me yesterday, was running 16 inches deep at the ford. For those of you living in, say Ohio, 16 inches may not sound like a lot of river. Out here, not only does that make the Fremont a major aquatic artery, but it presents a significant obstacle for driving, especially when help is far off.

But what the heck. We're in a rental car, and 'negotiations' during the signing of the rental agreement left me with less than good feelings about this particular company. I pull up to the edge of the river. Huck a rock in. Can't see how deep it lands. Switch the Dodge into low range and four wheel drive. Drive through the Fremont River, windshield wipers blazing, as though I was in some kind of sexy car commercial. Struggle up the bank on the other side, shift back to two wheel drive, and watch the desert unfold.

This is the story of ...

Capitol ReefThis was supposed to be the story of a woman named A., a woman I really did not know very well, who said she would drive over the Rockies from Denver Friday afternoon and meet me in Green River, where we would cache her car and drive together to the park. But a late-spring snowstorm over the Continental Divide - chains required through the Eisenhower Tunnel - the sudden sickness of a friend, and what I began to sense was general chaos in her life prompted A. to renege. I drove alone, burning.

Friday night I was upset. I thought about calling her, or driving to Green River anyway, even though by that time it was two hours out of my way. Saturday morning I was miffed. Saturday noon I was contemplating alternatives. By Sunday morning, with the birds in the trees and the thought of the day ahead, I had largely forgotten about her.

The road into Cathedral Valley, after the crossing of the Fremont, splashes through muddy puddles and crawls over slickrock ridges. Sometimes the road itself is just rock, with cairns marking the way. The park visitor's guide reminds travelers that in the valley help could be hours or even days away and carrying plenty of water, food, gas and clothing are essential - and a shovel, tow rope and other emergency supplies a very good idea.

The landscape soon makes a dramatic transition. Rock and low scrub give way to badlands of soft clays and the Bentonite Hills, a low range of clay mounds that swell several times in volume when wet, then shrink back when dry, giving the land the wrinkled look of an elephant's skin. The road then winds into pinyon and juniper woodlands and takes an abrupt turn on the summit. Ahead, beyond a 500-foot cliff, lies the wild country of Cathedral Valley and the snowy heights of Thousand Lake Mountain beyond.

Named for the 500-foot high monoliths that crowd the landscape, the Cathedral Valley was formed when pockets of hard sandstone resisted erosion, protecting the softer sandstone beneath. That hard layer, known as Curtis Sandstone, can sometimes been seen as a light cap along the very top of the monoliths, contrasting with the vibrant pink Entrada Sandstone beneath. The softer Entrada has eroded on the sides, leaving tapered fins along their edges and alluvial fans of soft sand at their base. In between, the imagination can create goblins, aliens and monsters out of eroded knobs and spires.

There is really not a whole to say about the Cathedral Valley. Today, I am not roused to wax about it. Maybe the distances here - as opposed to the narrow slot canyons of yesterday - has loosed my mind so much that anything literate has just been unraveled from inside me. Maybe it's better that you just see it for yourself.

Capitol Reef And maybe it is stupid to try and say a whole lot, anyway. Let me leave you with a paragraph from Chip Ward's new book, Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West. Ward, a friend of mine, lives in Grantsville, a small town about 12 miles down the road from me here in Tooele. A young hippie activist, he came West with his wife in the early 1970s and ended up stopping for several years in Capitol Reef. He ran the Sleeping Rainbow lodge, and over the years learned a few things about how humans interact with these arid landscapes. His book suggests that after 150 years of living in the West, Anglos still have a thing or two to learn:

'A warning: deserts are misunderstood and vulnerable. We are not a desert people. White Anglos have been in the American desert landscape for about 150 years, a mere drop in the bucket of Gaian time. In the light of Hopi perspective, that's just long enough to stumble in, look up, blink, and mutter, 'What's that? Where am I?' We see deserts as places of Biblical exile where we wander to go mad or bring back revelations. Madness and revelation. During a quarter of a century of wandering Utah's deserts, I have encountered plenty of both.'

Part 1

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