Teri Orr: Red dust is magic dust…
I fill notebooks with thoughts which have been fighting for space and attention in my tiny brain for weeks — maybe months. I scribble observations — about the landscape and the longings the place inspires. And like anyone who heads there you can’t help but feel the pulsating red rocks have a strata of stories hidden in their slot canyons and sentiments in their sedimental structure. When you are there — this time of year — and the lime green leaves have a kind of luminescence about them — you are captured. Recaptured. You have some space to recreate all those places in yourself for too long you have been playing from memory.
Time in the desert erases quickly any other sense of time and place — if you do it right. If you push yourself and look for off road places that are off even those roads. If you let yourself get just the tiniest bit lost. If you ditch the maps and electronics and way finders and force yourself to find your own way.
I was late in life to relearn what I knew instinctively as a child — I need vast amounts of open space and quiet to support my curiosity and to engage my ability to process the world around me.
I traded in my car last fall for another just like it. Same model/same color. By the middle of May — with six months of ownership — it had embarrassingly less than 3,000 miles. That is not a source of pride for me, derived from a conscious choice to walk and ride the bus more — though there was a bit of that. The embarrassing part was the car hadn’t had an adventure yet. Which meant it had been months since my last adventure. Which meant — the car and I hadn’t bonded.
After a winter of discontent I saw a sliver of time for escape. I knew right where to head and the old car would’ve known the way but I needed to teach the new car. We drove to Boulder, Utah, in the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument area. A remote lodge sits in a town of 180 people and there is a bird refuge on the property. Also a people refuge — Hell’s Backbone Grill.
The restaurant has been there for 18 years now. And Blake — one of the owners/creators/chefs along with Jen, the other owner/creator/chef, reminded me I have been visiting there for 17 years. Blake reminded me I came to visit after their first year. She said I sat on the side porch and read a book. We both remembered it was a Louise Erdrich book — The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. I finished the book and I left it for her to read. Getting books in a place six hours away from Salt Lake City and another five — from even St. George was hard. I mean we’re talking pre-Amazon delivery service. These two women who grew up in more populated places were determined to work the land and create an oasis with smart imaginative food under the most limited of conditions.
If you own either of their award-winning cookbooks you know the magic they create can be slightly replicated in recipe. But as good as the recipes are, you never quite achieve the same meal — that takes a sprinkle of red dirt magic and enough soul fullness.
We became friends and for years now created some special events and friend and idea sharing and singing at concerts and just enough sadness/sorrows to understand the bitter in bittersweet.
The admiration I have for their success against the odds and their commitment to the land they live on and work from is immeasurable. Being there for days on end was the healthiest thing I could do to repair myself.
So we took turns sitting for a spell — Blake and Jen … and Keri — who until this year had worked there as waitress most of her young adult life — since they opened. We had time enough to linger over a glass of wine and unwrap our stories that had spent months being notes on a screen. We could hear each other’s laughter and feel each other’s hugs and talk about books and hurt dogs and the urgency to try and save all open spaces but certainly this precious one.
I took long drives and walks, not hikes exactly, where I could go for hours and never see another car or person. I took photos of all of it — each tiny desert flower and rock cropping and clear creek.
And the birds — oh the birds this visit were such show-offs. One early evening as the sun was starting its path down the bleached white cliffs framed by more red rocks — there was a cacophony of sounds on the pond. I hurried out with my camera and I had no idea where to shoot first. I have never in my long life seen so many varieties of birds in one contained space. The geese and the goslings were on a walkabout. The mallards were swimming in formation and the junco and the sparrows were on the trees. But taking off and landing were osprey and gulls and terns and hawks. There were blue-billed ruddy ducks and cinnamon teal. And above me — a white-throated swift. I lost track after that. And I stopped shooting. I just sat back in my porch chair and made my mind take a picture of the birds and the cliffs and feelings of clarity that came at that sunsetting moment.
Days later once home I looked at my car in the driveway — I had taken it to the car wash so the red dust was gone — except not really. When I open the car door or look at wheel wells it is still there. So I consider us officially bonded now this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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“I fully expect to see a caravan of Range Rovers leaving town, with mattresses and Peloton cycles tied to the roofs as the new arrivals decide that life in this dust bowl is intolerable,” writes Tom Clyde.