It’s 6:09 am in the desert and I am sitting on a chunk of slickrock to the east of Factory Butte, a moonlit monolith of clay and stone that rising up from cracked bentonite fields out in the middle of nowhere in a Bureau of Land Management area. Last night, we were headed toward the Capital Reef and Escalante when I wanted to turn off of Hwy 24 and come out here to get closer to the butte and the low rising hills that spill out from its base like crumpled fabric. There is a little mystery as to why we are drawn to the places we are drawn, why we might choose to take a detour in the late day, change plans just to see what it might feel like to stand in the middle of an open space, to get close to a small glade of trees or a specific big rock. We left the car on the rutted road and hiked toward the butte, crossing over dirt bike lines cut into the dry earth. We may as well had been on the moon, ground cracking in dusty sighs under our feet.
At the top of a small rise we found a pile of scattered feathers, like a bird had been torn apart by something. I don’t know what kind of bird the feathers came from, orange and black, with hawkish bars. I gathered them up as we decided to head back east toward a stand of rocks further up the road, away from the paths left by weekend dirt bikes. It was easy to find a flat place to camp, and as the sun went down the land turned pink and lavender, lighting up the folds of earth at the base of the butte to our west. “I don’t know why I like it here so much,” I felt weary and grateful as we laid out the ground sheet and sleeping pads.
The darkening sky to the east was lit at the horizon by a diffuse glow. “Is that Hanksville?” It was the moon, big and orange and rising fast, explaining why people write poems and name shops for the desert moon. We climbed up onto the rocks to look at the land lit up and as I sat there, I felt what I might name connection coming up through the stone.
“I’m having an experience,” I said low.
“What kind of experience?” My friend asked, curious.
“It’s like, you know how when you enter the forest sometimes you feel welcomed, loved, like something in the soil and in the trees is glad that you are there, and you love it and it loves you? I feel that here, and I hadn’t felt that in the desert yet. We have seen beautiful places and I have appreciated them, been awed by them, but I felt separate, like I was moving through these places but was not a part of them. I feel connected here, and like the desert loves me. I feel the land here.”
I shivered a little from deep inside, and felt like I was seeing a friend that I hadn’t seen in a very long time, a friend that I had forgotten.
I was surprised that the place touched me the way that it did.
Earlier in the day, driving through the dark cliffs toward Hite and the Colorado River, I had puzzled over why I felt so separate from the desert. “I am a forest person, a water person. This place is not my place.”
I was sad, because my friend loves the desert deeply and while I liked it, could appreciate the formation of the dry land and the wonder of twisted juniper and sage-scented air, I didn’t feel a part of the place, felt no affinity with the desert.
Sitting on the rock as the moon climbed big and orange, I felt the aliveness of this place that seems to hold so little life out here in the bentonite fields.
Though the moon is still high behind Factory Butte. the sky is orange with sunrise at the horizon, light leeching into the night blue. The day will be bright again, and we will pack our camp away, move on to Escalante as the air warms.
The land is wide open here, baking under the sun, full of muted color and heat held by rocks. It has been years since I saw the desert, since my years of driving back and forth across the country. I have been drawn to come to land like this – open land, big land, land where the eyes can stretch out.
I remember years ago, living in Boone, NC, and becoming aware of a certain claustrophobia that comes from being in the mountains too long, not being able to see the horizon.
I guess growing up on the coast makes my eyes hungry for an open sky sometimes. The forests of the Appalachians are full of life, clamoring and damp, spilling water and making green.
It took me a few days to learn the colors of the desert, to see the muted sage and dark spots of juniper, the clawing grasses with their perfectly designed seeds. It hasn’t rained here in months, and the sandy soil is full of small footprints.
I am reading the letters of Everett Ruess, who I had never heard of until we got to Escalante late last week after walking down the old post route and Death Hollow.
The little roadside burger restaurant called Nemo’s in Escalante had a small notice posted beside the window, with a quote of his.
It took me three days of reading a page here and there in the outfitters-coffeeshop to decide to buy the book that is a collection of his letters and a biography of the boy who disappeared in the desert almost a hundred years ago. As I read, I felt a shuddering in me, was moved by his voice. The night before I bought the book, I’d sat on a stone under a tall ponderosa pine in the mouth of Box Death Canyon, just outside of Escalante, watched the clouds twist and form. I’d had a rough afternoon, hadn’t slept well the night before, cold on the ground near Rock Spring, crying in the morning from the sheer exhaustion brought about travel and a sleepless night under the most amazing stars and clear Milky Way. I hit my face with the hatchback door closing it as we prepared to hike into Box Death to find a place to camp for the night and a bruise on my left brow was already forming. I didn’t want to hear my friend talk to me about coyote medicine and how the trickster offers up ample opportunity to get over oneself and the ways we think things ought to go. I felt sulking and petulant, worn down and humiliated inside. I understood, in my thinking, that humility was the whole point. That I needed to flex my ability to get over myself and be grateful for where I was. Inside though, I felt like an unhappy child. My friend left me to sit under the ponderosa while he scouted ahead for a flat spot of ground out of the wind that tore through the canyon. As I sat there and looked at the clouds, catching small rings in the stratus tendrils, a sudden feeling of absolute peace and joyfulness came over me, and -literally- it was like I could see again, the cut and shadow of the canyon walls, the seeming smallness of the junipers that clung to the outcroppings, the spire of pines, solitary in their standing and yet appearing to be in connection, conversation, relational grouping, like people at a gallery.
There was a cloud that looked like a hummingbird over the line of the canyon wall and I was overcome with gratitude for the beauty of it all. The sunset that night was one of the most astounding things I’d ever seen.
We found a camp and sat on the trunk of a tree that had fallen across the white sand ground. A daddy longlegs spider wandered into the light of our headlamps, and then a black widow. “Don’t kill it,” I said, almost urgent, remembering the time I’d killed a black widow spider out by the back porch in Athens, Georgia, almost twenty years ago, right before the winter I first tried to die, and how I believed that I’d done a bad thing, killing that big spider. I told my friend about the sense that I’d brought bad luck on myself in my young human arrogance and disrespect for the life of the black widow that lived by that backporch many years ago. My friend had no inclination to kill the spider, and gently moved it away from our camp using an edge of cardboard. In that small act, I was reminded of why I love my friend and we sat and watched the daddy longlegs slow-pick it’s way through the sand, and admired a small white moth that shined in the light, walking over ground the same bright white. When we set up our sleeping pads and bags a few minutes later, the moth flew around my face, landed on my scarf and crawled up to my chin. It felt like a friend.
Some stories and some spirits seem to capture my imagination in ways that surprise me. The next morning, I woke up new and in the coffeeshop, looking through the Ruess book again, I came across two mentions of hummingbirds, one a hummingbird moth and another a hummingbird itself. Last night, after reading more about Ruess, I figured out that we had been – without trying at all – following some of his paths, passing through Hotevilla, the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Kayenta. I read about his little white dog and this morning I made friends with a little white dog in the lobby of the cheap motel we stayed in. It was a small, nervous dog, but stood to rest its paws on my boots, licked my hand when I reached down. Just now, sitting out behind a coffeeshop in Winslow, taking notes, a woman approached me and asked if I had a little dog running around. “No,” I replied, “it’s not mine. I haven’t actually seen it.” She said she was going to give it some good, and I smiled, told her that was nice of her. As she walked off, she remarked that it was a pretty dog, “a real pretty dog, a little white dog.”
A few minutes ago, I stopped in the bathroom of the coffeeshop to change out of my sweater and the little wooden table in there was painted with hummingbirds.
If I could do this trip again, I’d take better notes, stop early everyday to write down a few thoughts, impressions of what I’d learned walking through miles of cold water at the bottom of a canyon, my noticing of the light held by equisetum and the curls of dry grasses, this burgeoning love of cottonwoods and the way the desert changes seasons.
All weariness gone
watch under ponderosa
hummingbird cloud sky
desert night is long
Factory Butte lit by moon
illuminated like day
legs scratched and burning red raw
beauty is worth it
how human to see
fire in the sky as God’s work,
something like magic
small rocks hold color
like the big hills and mesas
dead truck container
Ravens flash black wing
a suburbanite is stunned
valley of the gods
Canyons sleep sundown
Pinyon quiet windless night
the beautiful wild
When I see beauty
I wish you could see it too
I want to show you
The grass catches light
shining golden afternoon
rarely seen glowing
Quiet breathes easy
here in the canyon silence
just the sighing wind