May 10, 2006
"We need wilderness because we are wild animals. Every man needs a place where he can go to go crazy in peace. Every Boy Scout troop deserves a forest to get lost, miserable, and starving in."
There were a slew of us hangin’ around camp that day watching a constantly evolving cloudscape play across the bluest sky any of us had ever seen. Most of the crowd — a couple of desert cottontails, an ever-darting sagebrush lizard, a stately grove of juniper, a pinion pine or two, a gang of Hoodoos from the cusp of Entrada and Carmel, and a lone and noisy ground-roosting chukar — were locals. Humans didn’t seem to bother them much.
Deserts are made for dreamers on the lam from the ordinary and, somehow, we all fit the bill. And with no updated weather forecast and the possibility of precipitation looming overhead, a day spent puttering around camp and out of slot canyon narrows pretty much made sense.
The day previous, however, was cut from different cloth. Not that time spent bouncing along rutted dirt roads in search of obscure trailheads is a bad thing. The rewards are plenty once you’ve wandered down into where that ongoing battle between uplift and erosion is taking place. The fields of engagement are breathtaking.
One usually ends up walking "washes" on both the front and back end of "narrows" hikes. You find your way down into the wash by guide book or hearsay and follow hiking-boot tracks from there until the towering sandstone walls begin pressing-in and having their way with you.
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Negotiating choke-stones wedged into slots also lends a bit to the intrigue of route finding. The not-unused climbing technique of "butt-frictioning" often comes into play as a crux-move when descending into the ever-darkening and squeezing labyrinths in "narrows land."
And there is always that thought of getting back out in one piece after a day spent rubbing rock and squeezing through and generally frolicking about canyons-within-canyons-within-canyons. When gazing upward past the wind- and water-eroded walls, there is seldom much more than a sliver of sky. But these are times when just the thought that light is up there somewhere is enough to pull you through.
Yup, in the desert of dreams, the sky is always with you. The clouds morph from billowy-white to dark-as-a-dungeon and they keep most of the moisture to themselves. In these parts, plants and soils that may only receive five inches of rain in a year just might lose 120 inches of moisture back to the cloudscape during a similar timeframe.
Evapotranspiration is what they call it. It’s not fair, of course, but it’s got this enriching component. It’s about giving more than you receive. You’ve gotta love it! Spend enough time in such an environment and you begin to sense the rightness, the inevitability of it all. Deserts are as deserts do.
It works for "Mormon tea" and greasewood and even tumblin’ "Russian thistle" tumbleweeds — not to mention rabbit brush and buckwheat and snakeweed. And those are just a few of your alkaline-desert scrub types. They’re a tough bunch. They don’t need no stinkin’ rain. They do it with their roots.
Then there are those habitats where canyons and alcoves cut into the red rock and offer protection to wandering pilgrims of the plant persuasion. And it is there you can find hackberry and box elder and cottonwood and willow and such. And let’s not forget those ecosystems along watercourse banks where the living is easy and the tamarisk is high.
Oh yes, that insidious bugger, the tamarisk. Back in the 1800s, it was thought of as a possible panacea for the widespread erosion being witnessed in the West. By the time humans began to seriously meddle with Western waterways, it had become an invasion of the body snatchers. It didn’t take long for the infamous salt-cedar plant to show them a thing or two about control and dominance.
Moving upstream at an estimated rate of 12 miles per year since it acquired a foothold, and adapting quickly to anything thrown in its reproductive path, tamarisk continues to rule the riparian roost where native willows and cottonwoods once flourished. Whoda thunkit?
Desert glories remain abundant, however. Snowberry, ash and purple sage greet sunsets so golden and red and nurturing that even the tamarisk is humbled. That’s probably why it will finally choose to leave — when it can no longer take the aesthetic competition. Juniper and pinion and oak and cliff rose — the woodland cats — moved uptown years ago.
It was a bit early for the prickly pear cacti to be struttin’ their spring stuff in the particular latitudinal neighborhood being roamed and none of the claret cups were making much visual commotion either. All other signs, however, pointed to them weathering the winter well. Succulents are such an incorrigible lot.
Caught sight of a collared-lizard rustlin’ low through the sage one day but it wasn’t one of those bright green and yellow blinking-neon eastern models. As you would expect of one from the West, it was much more subdued — tended not to call attention to itself and to blend in more.
And then there was this bullfrog that, seemingly, had more than he needed to express than Coltrane at his most prolific. Once he got going, it was his show and, if you weren’t able to quickly become one with the vocabulary of the riff, you were in for a long night. My take was that he thought that if the Canadian geese could groove all day, that the nighttime belonged to him.
Well, not totally. The night sky of the southern Utah desert might have something to say about that. Even an ever-waxing sliver moon in the west was hard-pressed to hold back the overwhelming depth and brilliance of the nightly cosmic display. This was a spring for digging Draco and jonsin’ over Jupiter.
When you draw in from the constellations and the planets, however, you will come upon the earth and North America and the Colorado Plateau — a piece of ground that knows a few things about depth and brilliance itself. It remains a work in progress and, present company included, is being loved to death. Go there and go crazy in peace, but tread softly.