There are some things that only happen in the back country. Pooping in cat holes, wearing a pair of underwear for an indefinite amount of time, and becoming master of the one-pot meal are among them. You might even develop such a strong attachment with your one utensil that even after returning home you choose that one over the drawer of acceptable substitutes in your kitchen. But before you make your way home to that kitchen, try to find some time for another backcountry activity. Something like Star Surfing.
It’s a simple game with simple instructions. First, wait for a clear night and find a spot with a good view of the stars. Then, pick one star from above and do your best to memorize its placement. Now look away, and start spinning in circles as fast as you can. After several rotations, make a sudden stop, strike your best surfing pose, and try to find your star again. You’ll find that it’s quite the challenge to stay stable while pinpointing your star.
This is exactly what our small group decided to do on our fifth night in Horseshoe Canyon. We were “getting crazy on a Saturday night.” Around 9:15 that evening we gathered in the middle of our alcove camp. There was no moon to be seen and the stars popped from their canvas of darkness. One by one we started to surf on the sandy ground. Only a few seconds after the first attempt, laughter began reverberating off the sandstone walls around us. From the sidelines, we could see the look of concentration on our friends’ faces as they started to spin around. We’d watch it change into a smile as they tried, and failed, to stay stable. We’d watch that smile then morph into a full on grin as they pulled themselves off the ground. I hadn’t laughed that hard for a long long time.
We let ourselves remember the simple soul-pleasing pleasure of getting so dizzy you simply can’t stand up anymore. And as we surfed our way into the ground, we started to develop strategies to make things more interesting. Ten spins was too many; you’d instantly fall over. Five spins wasn’t quite enough to get the desired effect. That sweet spot of seven or eight was what we aimed for and soon the most unbalanced and uncoordinated of our crew was surfing like a pro. Which is to say staying up for at least a few seconds before taking the inevitable fall to the sand.
Twenty minutes later and we were all surfed out, tired from the days events and the furious spinning we just engaged in. As we all laid down on the ground, a calm settled over our camp and we found ourselves engaged in another favorite backcountry activity: stargazing. There were some scattered comments along the lines of “checkout the stars”, “look at Orion” and a simple “wow.” Something had changed; we weren’t just playing a game with the stars anymore, we were taking a good hard look at them, observing them.
Out here you can see more stars than anywhere else I’ve been before. One feels as though they are right in front of you, simply a short stretch up and you could brush them with you fingers. The reality of the light years and light years separating us seems impossible. In a way, they are that close out here in Horseshoe Canyon. This particular alcove was hours of dirt road driving and days of hiking from the nearest town. That town, a place called Hanksville, weighs in with a population that includes a couple hundred people, two burger joints, a gas station inside a rock, a laundromat/campsite and a smattering of other buildings. Miles of dirt road through Pinion/Juniper forest, and hundreds of vertical feet of Navaho Sandstone separate our group from Hanksville’s inhabitants.
Truly there was nothing between us and the splendor of the night. No light pollution reaches out here and there isn’t a building in sight to obstruct our view. At a high point on a clear night in the canyon lands of Utah, the entire Universe opens up to you. The constellations are as close as your tentmates, their stars extending a hand and an invitation to explore. Castor and Pollux of Gemini, Mizar and his companion Alcor in the Big Dipper, Regulus of Leo and Aldebaran of Taurus, all these galactic names are on your doorstep, waiting to be recognized and known.
This closeness is reflected in every aspect of the Canyons. Once all the distractions of the life we left behind for this course are gone, the intimacy of the natural world welcomes us back. No phones to call us away, no screens to drain away hours of our time. Instead we have cottonwoods to capture our sight, Black Throated Sparrows and Canyon Wrens to catch our ears. Out here we have become in tune with the system working around us. Our eyes now pick up the quick dash of a lizard across the sand, where before they saw nothing. The distinct layers of Kayenta, Wingate and Chinle become apparent in the canyon walls and what used to just be rocks pop out from under our boots as Chert, Quartz, or Gypsum. Being out from under a roof, the moon has become just as familiar as the sun. Watching it wax and wane every night from out sleeping bags, we have learned the cycle as it moves through its phases over the weeks. The Plateau has become our home.
Writing this by headlamp, I look again at the dotted scene we call the heavens and a childlike wonder fills me. I observe the night for a few moments and perspective is dropped into my lap. A sense of how small we really are in the grand scheme of things starts to set in. We are simply a jumble of molecules that happened to fit together in the right way at the right time. The stars above us have been around since before our ancestors and will continue to be around after our Grandchildren’s Grandchildren have passed on. And yet… we are here, an incredibly complex and special form of life alive and kicking on our speck of space dust we call Earth. We matter. We are a part of something down here, part of a family, part of an ecosystem and part of this Universe. That’s the thing about stars, the can make you feel so damn small and yet so important and alive at the same time.
So I encourage you to come out here for the first, fifth or fiftieth time. And when you do, look up at the stars, spin madly around like a fool, laugh till your stomach hurts, then spend time to look up at the night sky, thinking about all the magic and wonder our world has to offer.