Betty Diaries: Living on the edge

Kate Sonnick
Kate Sonnick

My cousin’s husband, Adam, had his brothers visiting for the weekend, so Melissa proposed a mini-adventure to central Utah’s San Rafael Swell. The plan was to drive in Melissa and Adam’s RV. We’d camp overnight in a section of the Swell called the Wedge Overlook.

“It’s not that far of a drive,” Melissa told me. “And the camping is beautiful. We can bring some wine and cocktails, good food, get a fire going and it will be lovely,” she said. “There’s an easy mountain bike trail on the rim of the canyon and we can do as much or as little as we want.”

“To be honest, I’ve never taken the RV without Adam,” Melissa told me. “But I’m sure everything will be fine.”

Yeah, as long as we don’t plunge to our untimely deaths off the side of a cliff, I thought.

My personal camping experience to date included a teenage backpacking trip in Allegany National Park, a bikepacking trip a few years ago, and an overnight mountain bike trip to Gooseberry Mesa during the pandemic when I first moved out west.

We got this, I told myself. And besides, a road trip to the desert felt very Thelma-and-Louise. If we were going to plunge off a cliff, we might as well do in the comfort of a 19-foot camper named Large Marge.

My cousin and I look nothing alike. But we share a big-hearted love of people and the outdoors, a “don’t mess with me” Sicilian ‘tude, and an overthinking, over-anxious mind. Some time in the Swell would do us both a world of good.

I arrived with my dog, Riley, at Melissa’s house on Sunday morning. Adam and his brothers helped us load our bikes and gear. That’s when Melissa noticed the “check engine” light was on. Adam reassured her we’d be fine and we pulled out of the driveway as I yelled jokingly, “See ya in 15 minutes!”

That much was true. We pulled into a Sinclair just down the street and gassed up. Just then, Melissa saw that a cap was missing from one of the exterior drainage hoses. She also realized she’d forgotten her wallet. As predicted, 15 minutes later, there were the guys with Melissa’s wallet and tape for the pipe.

OK, now we got this, I thought. Sistas are doin’ it for themselves. I felt a little sick to my stomach.

After a two-and-a-half hour drive through mountain passes and castle-shaped rock formations, we turned onto Route 6, basically a desolate gravel path that leads to the Swell. We rumbled over the rutted, rocky road, through undulating hills and valleys while pots and pans crashed and clattered in the cupboards and Riley’s metal dog bowl rattled inside his crate. Every mile threatened to shake the doors and windows right off poor Large Marge.

We rolled past a sign directing us to the East Rim, and five minutes later, pulled into a campsite near the bathrooms. I’d been so focused on the road ahead of us, I didn’t notice the otherworldly terrain on the side of it.

Melissa switched off the engine and suddenly, it was as silent as a tomb. We were totally alone — not another camper in sight. No one to hear us if we screamed. I saw some footprints in the sand, but they looked windblown, not fresh. Cue the theme to “Blair Witch Project.”

I put Riley on his leash and stepped out of the RV. “We’re going to take a little walk,” I called out to Melissa. The ground crunched under my feet as I crossed the road to look at what they call the “Little Grand Canyon.”

There was nothing little about it. The ground I was standing on, covered with sand, desert shrubs and rocks, suddenly dropped off hundreds of feet into an unfathomable, otherworldly landscape. Bent and broken sedimentary layers, millions of years in the making, formed awesome golden vistas of spires, bluffs, mesas and narrow canyons that stretched out as far as I could see.

Riley and I sat near the edge and just stared out. I could feel my heart beating, every breath rising and falling. I felt small and insignificant. All of the anxiety that had been percolating just under the surface melted away.

Melissa came over and we both stood, looking out, not saying a word. My cousin, who had been unknown to me my entire life — until just after my father died in 2019.

That’s when my family discovered a secret that not even my father knew. He’d been given up as a baby by an unmarried couple. My father lived his whole life not knowing that he’d been adopted. My grandparents — my father’s adoptive parents — loved my father. He was their only child. They gave him a great life. They also kept the secret. That was the way it was in those days.

My father’s birth parents eventually got married and had four more children — my father’s brothers and sisters. A whole family he, and we, never knew existed.

The universe works in wondrous ways. I’d decided to move to Utah before I discovered that I had a first cousin living in Salt Lake. And more than 80 years after our families were separated, we were connected again.

I learned that Melissa had lost her mother a few years before my father’s passing, so we shared a mutual grief over a lost parent. We bonded over lost family. And our lost past.

And so we found ourselves the other day in the Swell, standing on the edge of a cliff in the middle of nowhere. Not Thelma and Louise. Just two small souls who somehow managed to join across time and circumstance and the vast implausibility of nature. Finding a new kind of significance in a world that is often impossible to understand. And beautiful to behold.


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