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Adventures in the Desert, or, Moab Musings

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Writing this now from Salt Lake City after spending a couple days in Moab… exploring Arches National Monument.

My sister, Coralie, met Joel and I in Moab, UT, late afternoon Wednesday evening, August 5, 2015.

Racing against the setting sun, we drove along the Colorado River scouting for “dispersed camping” (wild camping) instead of paying for a first-come-first-serve site. This we soon realized was a futile effort… because apparently designated “dispersed camping” areas were chosen as such based on their inaccessibility and impossibility (kinda difficult to sleep on the sloping sides of a rocky canyon.)

For an hour we traveled down the winding road along the river, weaving through the canyon now fading from orange to purple in the changing light… Driving past the first-come-first-serve sites filled with tents and cars and blazing fire pits, past the waving landscape of privately-owned land protected by barbed wire. Just after the sun dropped behind the high-horizon of the canyon tops, we came across a cluster of empty campsites. Miles from the main road, we found ourselves with privacy and plenty of space to settle in.

We laid out blankets and sleeping bags on the warm desert sand, looking up at the starry night sky. The daytime sun had filled the earth with warmth that radiated from the ground even hours after dark had fallen. The absence of mosquitos and other pesky no-seeums was a charming trait of our desert abode. Sounds of distant rushing water, chirping insects, and the rush of the warm breeze soothed me to sleep.

The alarm sounded before sunrise. Lately when attempting to rise early in the morning, my mind has felt foggy and my body heavy (altitude?), but today the excitement of anticipated adventure gave me the motivation to resist hitting snooze more than twice before rising to prepare for a day of hiking. In the dim twilight, the three of us rummaged through our morning routines of teeth-brushing, contact lens applying, coffee making, food nibbling, backpack packing, yoga practicing, outfit changing, and double-checking. As we prepared in the dim light of pre-sunrise, I found humor in our dance of morning preparation, executed together yet separate, sleepily waiting for one another to be “ready,” finding things to fill the time while waiting for one another… until finally we gather in the car an hour past planned departure time (even though we each claim to have been “ready” for awhile, wordlessly waiting for one another’s elusive stagnation to denote official “readiness.”) …Ah, so it is, traveling with more than one’s self. I wonder if pack animals experience similar delays and dilemmas?

We enter Arches National Park for a fee of $10. Coralie reads the park plaques while Joel and I empty our bladders. As we begin the short walk along the trail toward the scenic overlook beneath the arches, my sister shares her newly-acquired knowledge with us: “Did you know, the desert rats get their main source of water from the desert nuts they eat? So their urine comes out in highly-concentrated droplets.” …”Just like Joel!” I remark. (Joel has a mindset of “water conservation,” not so much for concern of the environment than as a learned behavior from his time in the Marines– making sure you have enough while trekking through the deserts of Iraq, yes, but also avoiding the tedious requirement of putting on full-gear just to exit the combat outpost to “take a piss.”)

There were plenty of tourists passing back and forth along the short trail. I heard the sounds of Chinese, Dutch, German, and English languages. At the overlook, a family fumbled to take photographs using a “selfie stick;” others read the plaques displayed at the overlook– paragraphs and diagrams showing how the rock formations were molded by water erosion over tens of thousands of years. I felt a strong urge to be away from the crowd. A desire to feel less like a tourist, and more like a part of the landscape.

I followed Joel off the sandy path, weaving through the low-growing brush along the desert floor. The bushes and trees seemed to be dusted with a gray-blue powder (some sort of lichen, perhaps); there were twisted tree trunks covered in deep-electric-green foliage, colors that vibrated against the warm hues of the earth. The orange-red sandstone boulders bulged from the ground, appearing smooth but filled with eroded rivets and pockets to fit your hands and feet, begging to be climbed. The shapes on the rocks varied from wide, smooth platforms to tall, dripping structures– some appearing like human statues (liked to Easter Island by Edward Abbey in his novel Desert Solitaire) and others as giant phallic symbols, 40-foot clusters of petrified mushrooms sprouting from the golden sand. It was like stepping into a different world, onto an alien planet.

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We strayed not far before recognizing Coralie’s absence. We found her sitting along the rocks next to the trail, waiting for us to return. We beckoned for her to join, to no avail; she, serving throughout her life as an employee and participant of various wilderness-related programs, found our trail-straying unsavory. “When you walk off the trail, you risk damaging the landscape,” Coralie said. Joel remarked, “How am I different from the deer whose tracks I see marked in the sand out here?” My own perspective felt torn, and embodied by these two figures in my life– my sister and my boyfriend– who were acting in accordance to their own beliefs, causing them to now explore separately, in opposite directions as Coralie continued along the trail and Joel out into the sprawling landscape. Hmm.

Standing alone on a rocky platform, watching my companions shrink away on opposite horizons, I wondered, “Why ARE we different than the animals? Does it benefit us humans to restrict our access to nature, in an attempt to preserve it? Or does this just further aggravate our modern perspective of us being separate, rather than a part of nature?” I turned and walked away from the trail, wandering down the gentle slope toward the next platform of rock, hearing the sounds of people disappearing behind the rocky mounds as I watched the landscape reveal new layers of canyon beneath rolling orange hills dressed in the green-blue-white sheen of sun-lit life. I think, “What a cool planet, this Earth.”

Crow Pose! Cacaw

I felt like we space-traveled. An hour or so that felt timeless was spent wandering away from the crowd, gazing out into the rainbow canyon abyss, and climbing along the inside of the arches, we found Coralie at the car, prepared to drive onward. The roads curved along the landscape. Our fast-changing perspective made the layers of hills in the distance move like colorful lava, flowing and swirling in the valley below. A psychedelic vision.

We came upon Devil’s Garden. Rock formations like giant fingers stretched up from the earth’s crust. Are these the devil’s hands, breaking through from the underworld below to tend to the arranging of the land? Or perhaps the name “Devil’s Garden” was inspired by the ghoulish faces seen gazing out from within these giant structures– an illusion of sun and shadow playing upon the amorphous rock. “Devil’s Garden, ay? Don’t seem to be any demons around here…” Joel said. A subtle homage to the sublime beauty of the place.

The hike here begins gentle, a half mile of paved path that leads to a sandy trail. The trail continues like this and up through the boulders, an “intermediate” hike that loops for 3 miles. Coralie said, “I’m making you guys do this hike with me. Then get burgers with me.” Little resistance was met with this demand.

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I had the brilliant idea of not bringing the backpack along for this adventure. While bouldering in the arches in the morning I’d brought it along, filled with water bottles, and felt it unnecessary and burdensome to my play time on the rocks. But it was less than halfway into our hike when I realized bringing 1 liter of water between Joel and I was definitely not enough for mid-afternoon desert exploration. And it was most definitely not enough for the lengths that we walked/climbed, as we found ourselves lost from the trail once we reached the “final destination” at Dark Angel rock. The trail was meant to loop us back to the beginning, but the end of the loop was nowhere to be found. So, we had to backtrack.

A building ache in my head throbbed under the midday sun. I pondered being lost in this desert, without water, and what measures could be taken to survive. Which plants would be edible enough to provide at least a few drops of moisture for the body? Urges to leap between rocks and to run down the sloping trail subsided as I went into energy-conservation mode. Head down, shirt off, trudging through the powdery orange dirt-sand, finding brief refuge in the sparse shade of the silver-blue juniper trees.

Few tourists crossed our path as we headed in. Not the best time to start a hike out into the desert… especially since the clouds from the morning that had provided refuge from the blaring rays of the sun were nowhere to be found by now. The trail began to widen, the sand became more firm. Almost back!– but the first half-mile now seemed much longer than when we’d first begun. Water, water, water!

Sometimes civilization is a nuisance when one is seeking adventure in the wilderness. But in this case, I was grateful for the fill station that greeted us at the trail entrance. I attempted to merely sip my water, to avoid shocking my body, but soon gave up and succumbed to my gulping urges. I held my open mouth under the spigot. I let the excess water spray all over me, gasping for breath in between drinks. (I imagine my ravenous thirst intimidated a few other hikers who were just getting out of their cars to head to the trail.)

Ah, blissful exhaustion. Once in the air-conditioned car, I allowed my body to melt into the seat, feeling glad for my companions taking the responsibility of driving throughout our day’s excursion. I daydreamed of the meal we’d soon enjoy together, back in the town of Moab, back with the other tourists finished with exerting themselves for the day, finished with playing the part of wilderness adventurer and desert explorer.

We did indeed have burgers for dinner. A rare thing for me (no pun intended) as a recovering vegetarian, but much enjoyed. A cold beer sounded appealing– but I opted for fresh juice. Plus the beer in Utah is hardly beer, with it’s reduced alcoholic percentage due to Mormon influence on the law. (I’m suspicious that the strict alcohol laws are also in place to deter more people from populating this beautiful state.) I convinced Joel to have a beer, so I could have some sips (classic Courtney.)

I find myself feeling torn. The meal is comforting, the fan misters on the restaurant porch refreshing. But I’m thinking of Edward Abbey and his thoughts in “Desert Solitaire,” expressing disdain toward the tourist who rides in and out of this magnificent landscape on four wheels, enduring next to no hardship in exchange for the glorious views of the place. There is so much more to the experience of the wilderness than seeing it from the shelter of a vehicle, than snapping a picture from the close-by comfort of civilization. Am I that sheltered citizen? Am I disconnected from the deeper essence that nature has to offer?

This adventure in Moab, and this road trip overall, has served me well in better understanding what I need, what is necessary for basic survival. Although I have had many comforts along the way– burgers, beers, air conditioning, Starbucks– I’ve been aware of their excess. Slowly but surely, I find myself reducing or eliminating the “extra” little things. And realizing what I still need to acquire in order to remain safe and healthy in “wild” circumstances (a camel pack will be helpful.)

Our time in this national park has served as preparation for more adventures to come, as Joel and I’s time draws near to head to South America. There, we will make our way around with nothing but our back packs, on a mission to live more freely, offering our service where we can, and sharing our experiences in the hopes of inspiring others to embrace the fear of the unknown, to remain open to the possibilities.

Sending out thoughts of gratitude to all the trailblazers of the past, to those who shine light on the mystery of the world, who reveal deeper truths through their curiosity and daring.

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