The Economy of Light

Phipps Canyon, in Grand Staircase-Escalante National

It was a fine May morning, I was walking and without noticing it had left the city. I was thinking about my troubles.

The road turned to dirt, then narrowed, and finally became a trail through the seaside scrub, and ended at a Spanish cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, with its swirls of fog and foamy waves smashing into rocks, and a few seagulls circling overhead. I looked back to Cadaques, the fabled seaside home of Salvador Dali, and its whitewashed homes clinging to the hillsides, and its Baroque cathedral on a hill close to the sea. I looked back to the water, out over the water, and wondered if I was looking toward France of Algeria; I was wrong, it was Italy that would be 500 or so miles over the horizon.

And still, even looking at the blue-green Mediterranean and feeling the tug of a $2 bottle of wine and crusty baguette in my backpack, I could also not help but think back to a similar overlook, one I had seen just weeks before, back in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, one that I can not get out of my mind.

That morning, too, was a fine one, only it was in April, with bright light filtering across the parapets and stone castles of the canyon country. I was the last of our group of seven (plus Porter), four of whom were European high school exchange students, to scramble up the steep-sided canyon and stand beneath Phipps Arch and gaze at the light-filled donut hole it cast across the canyon below. As opposed to the Mediterranean and my bottle of wine, here canyon wrens played chase in the yawning abyss (makes me tired just to say it), the clear stream in the canyon below made only the faintest giggle, and Boulder Mountain, shiny with fresh spring snow, stood silent guard along the horizon.

The arch, simply a big hole cut high-high-high in the canyon's top layer of sandstone, was like a deep covered porch offering shade, and it was easy to doze off in its cool, breezy coziness. Restless, Porter and I wandered into a sweeping slickrock bowl on the far side of the arch and, hoping for vantage to the canyons to the east (which were cut off from view from the arch) clambered into an ever steeper stone arete. I made the view — saw the also-snowy Henry Mountains — but got onto a rock face so steep I could not climb back down. The wind whistled. Go for help, I told Porter. He sat motionless. Go, I said. He didn't. Eventually, calves shaking from the climbing, I jumped down and, unharmed, jogged back to the group who, thinking perhaps I had already gone ahead, had gotten up and was about to climb back down into Phipps Canyon.

Phipps Canyon is not on anyone's southern Utah must-do list. It is one of a hundred or more similar canyons that lace the major river drainages that form both the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and adjoining Bureau of Land Management territory. But it is a relatively simple and straightforward hike and is close to the main highway.

Flash forward to mid-afternoon. We had skipped lunch, pushed on through the canyon, and emerged into a twinkling forest of cottonwoods filling the wide bottom of the Escalante River. The Escalante, as I have said before, is a sort of canyon country highway that collects the canyons that flows into it and makes a b-line for Lake Powell, where it halts rather unceremoniously. But for a highway it is a solitary place, far from any roads and even farther from most people. Deep down in Kayenta formation sandstone, you are perhaps even more isolated from the world than when atop a mountain. On a mountaintop you look down on everyone; here, you only look up to see naked rock.

Anders, who is 17 and skinny like a Gap model, was the first one to peel off his shirt and get in the frigid river water. Sebastian was right behind him, then Laurent, the good-mannered French teen, and then me. We found a pool of water in the river just deep enough to swim a few strokes again before the heavy current took us to a sandbar, then we sunned ourselves dry on the deep red sandstone cliffs that formed the south bank of the river. A quarter-hour later the women showed up, first Marijke, the Belgian, and Jill*, my old friend from Salt Lake City, now living in Phoenix, then Cindy, Jill's friend, who refused to do more than get her feet wet. (*Funny story: a few years ago Jill and I went on a happy one-week vacation to El Salvador, and none of the Spanish speakers there seemed to be able to pronounce here name. In Spanish, the 'j' is silent and the 'll' is pronounced 'y.')

How lucky are we to find a cool playground on a hot spring day, one bounded by desert cliffs and cottonwoods shimmering in new green, and one in the depths of a riverine canyon, a full day's hike from the nearest road? Pretty lucky, and we soaked it up, soaked it all up.

A month or so earlier Jill had asked me if I wanted to guide her and this group of Europeans through a desert canyon. They were living in Phoenix, a little bedraggled from the heat, and not totally in to the suburban scene. I love to show people the things I've seen in southern Utah, so saying no was never an option.

At first Jill thought we should take an overnighter in Canyonlands National Park, but I suggested Escalante since it was a closer drive for them and there would likely be fewer people. I was the one who picked Phipps.

In truth, I had started the hike hoping to record what is was the Europeans thought of southern Utah, which geologically speaking is just about the polar opposite of Belgium, France, or anywhere else in Europe, really. But more than their impressions, what I came away from Escalante with was the feeling of light and how it changed the landscapes around us. To be sure, the kids liked it all very much, but not exactly in ways that you would put into a story like this. They just liked it: it is beautiful, colorful, and nothing like Phoenix. They took lots of pictures.

On the way out, easing gently up into the canyon, I got ahead of the group and took my pack off to rest for a moment, and then followed Porter into a small straggle of cottonwoods. Later, Marijke came up, and I motioned her over. Behind the young tender-green cottonwood, the rock seemed to glow from within, seemed to come up with pregnant light that otherwise would not have existed along the dark wall of a deep canyon. That is what I mean about the economy of light, light that is on the verge of not having an existential existence. We spent the night, Saturday night, in a half-dome cave on a bank of cliff looking out at the riverine canyon, and that rock glowed too, glowed in the middle of the day when sunlight's absence kept it dark and cool, and glowed at night, after sunset, as though the sun had embedded its memory into the rock. And that same glow, I found it back up in Phipps Arch, just before I nearly killed myself on the cliff, under the belly of the arch in a dark spot that hung with dust and timelessness. That rock glowed, too. As for Cadaques, and its Mediterranean coastline? The bread and wine were great, but the rock, it didn't glow one bit.

A bit of news:

* July 27-28 is the Salt Lake City Jazz and Blues Festival;
* Aug. 11 is Brigham City's Railroaders Festival at the Golden Spike historic site (that's where the east and west railroads met);
* Swiss Days in Heber City is Sept. 1-2;
* And the best in melons will be on display Sept. 14-15 at Green River's Melon Days.

Finally, the new Utah Museum of Fine Arts, on campus at the University of Utah, opened June 2. The new museum has already won design awards, and it has double the exhibition space of its dark, drab predecessor. The museum is open 7 days a week, admission is nothing, and now on show is a traveling Rodin show.

For more information, please contact the Garfield County Travel Council at 435-676-1160 or 800-444-6689.

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