I can see the craters of the moon from my sleeping bag. The gentle gray pockmarks cast shadows upon the otherwise iridescent crescent, as if river rock strewn across a sandy bank. Below, the silhouette of the high canyon walls tower, their black rock contrasting with the black of the night sky. And all that lies within the canyon wash beneath disappears into nothingness – not to be seen until morning, when an ember from the sun sheds her Eastern light. As I write this, cocooned in my sleeping bag and fighting sleep, a light desert zephyr wanders through the cottonwood leaves, as if the night itself were sighing.
The beauty in canyon country is apparent. In fact, it has become commonplace for my peers and I to exclaim over the apparent gifts of the desert almost hourly. Perhaps one moment over the startling azure sky accentuated by the blood red of the Wingate Sandstone, or the next over the modest desert primrose, which blooms clean amidst the desert, dust. On some days, even the humble hues of lichen can catch our eyes, and we revel in the fact that this life form has budded in the seemingly bleakest of places.
And yet, beauty is often just a visual. While yes, admittedly it can spark wonder, inspire action, and foster reflection; it nonetheless acts as a veil. A veil draped most delicately over a complex natural system infused with nuance. And it is not until we lift this veil and learn the stories of geologic time, evolution and adaptation, and human culture that we truly sees the beauty that graces this labyrinth.
Deep within Horseshoe Canyon, as the Navajo sandstone gave way to the older rock of the Kayenta formation, our small group began to look for the Spot.
Each day the Spot is different. In the beginning, a week or so earlier and many miles back up the canyon, the Spot revolved around water. Water is not always the easiest commodity to be found in the deserts and canyons of Utah, so statements like, “Look! There are only a few creatures in this stagnant pool” were often good indicators that The Spot was near.
On this day, however, we began following a stream deep in the canyon. No longer dependent on individual water sources, we could begin customizing The Spot. We stopped on a sandy beach under a few cottonwood trees to evaluate. This Spot had the essentials: shade, space, water. But then someone mentioned the lack of proper kitchen counters for our pots and stoves. There were nods among the group, thoughts of, “Yes, of course, counters.” We continued.
If there was ever the day to find the Ideal Spot it was today. We would arrive at the Ideal Spot in the vain of Brigham Young, the Mormon leader who had lead his people away from prejudice to the Salt Lake Valley. Ascending a mountain top overlooking the coolest campspot ever we would gape in awe and proclaim, “This is the Spot!” There would be water in the form of cascading falls, ample space for tents and sleeping bags, flat rocks chest high for cooking counters and some private space for when nature calls. Tall beautiful canyon walls to the west would shade us during the hot afternoons but nothing would hinder the sun’s rays from warming our cold bones when it rose in the east.
Inches below the murky water my toes are invisible. The Green Rivers’ flow is incomparable to the Mexican streams I bathed in days ago. My first encounter with the waters of Utah is stark. To be honest, I think they may be polluted.
On March 26th 2015 a group of seven are deposited at the end of Angel Point Road. To our west the ivory-capped Henry Mountains shrink as we descend into canyon country. Soon barren Navajo Sandstone is rolling, dipping, cascading. Homogenous granules hold traction with our boots as we scale deep billows. 200 million years ago the largest sand dune desert known to Earth would have been shape shifting all around us.
My internal dialogue is outwardly spoken by others- have we just stepped foot on Mars? Irony lingers on this question mark. The Colorado Plateau is far from celestial. There may be no better place to greet Earth. We have just embarked on a journey into something much more foreign than rock… time.
After 820’ of elevation loss, we arrive to the bottom of the canyon. Here the Dirty Devil River flows the color of milk chocolate, reminding us of our temporarily forgotten hunger. Setting down our 50+ lb. packs, we untie our bootlaces and slide into more appropriate river crossing attire- sands with socks. Twenty-five feet across and primarily ankle deep, our main concern is mucky silt. You may have heard of what we fear- quicksand.
We cross with ease.