Sunday in the Park Red Rock Renewal
May 27, 2006
Late Sunday afternoon, I returned from the San Francisco Bay Area and a family emergency, to unlock my black car on the upper level of the parking garage at the Salt Lake City airport. As I opened the driver’s door, there on the black rubberized running boards, was the powerful evidence of where I had been just a short two weeks before the magical red dust of southern Utah. It was still in the crevices of the trunk where I threw my suitcase. It was on the backseat where I tossed my briefcase. Just the sight of it triggered a relaxation response so deep I felt tears. The dust did that. That, and the exhaustion.
On a Friday, a few weeks back, when I woke to snow in May, I had thrown cameras and coolers and notebooks in the car and set off for points south, specifically the region of Boulder, Utah. There, two women who have become friends, run the most amazing restaurant/oasis that is becoming legendary. It’s called, Hell’s Backbone Grill. I took my time driving scenic byway after scenic byway until late in the afternoon, when I arrived in the red rock warmth that slowed my pulse and quickened my senses. Finding lodging there this time of year is rather like driving into Park City during Sundance and hoping you can have the pick of the place. Still, there had been a cancellation at the Boulder Mountain Ranch, where I’d long wanted to stay. So I drove three miles outside of the tiny town of Boulder (less than 600 people) then I turned right off the paved road and drove four more miles on a dirt road until I was in the middle of the Dixie National Forest, in the middle of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, in the middle of the middle of nowhere. Which is pretty spectacular country.
Sherri greeted me with a wide smile and a bounce of her blonde head. Her husband, Gary, reached out and shook my hand and I felt a palm so covered in calluses, I knew these were working ranch folks. I settled into my simple, log cabin room and, after a shower, went out to sit a spell on the deck and watch what thunderstorms can do to the desert sky at sundown. The horses in the lush green meadow, cut between red rock cliffs, nodded in silent welcome and the ravens did a formation flyover. All was right with the world. I slept that night separated from time.
Then the days that followed, followed a pattern. Breakfast with my friends at Hell’s Backbone Grill. Those fabulous thick slabs of homemade bread smothered in homemade jam with pots of steaming tea. A bit of conversation and promises to catch up at suppertime. Some days I would drive on roads so distant and unattended that once I drove for two hours and 20 minutes without seeing another person or car (previously, my all-time alone driving had been 45 minutes. This was heaven). Admittedly, that day I was off the Burr Trail, driving in clouds of red dust over red rock, through active riverbeds, and old washes. I would stop and walk and take in the warmth that radiates from those red rocks like no place else on earth. Those cliffs, more cathedral-like than any European mortared building, are holy. I was reminded what fools we are to mimic the sacred in nature.
Then at night on the porch at the Grill, in the heart of those red rock cliffs, I would sit at a table and the staff would take such good care of me, I felt like family. If you’ve been there, you know this wasn’t exclusive to me. The place is magic. "Like Water for Chocolate," that amazing, magical realism novel where the food transformed those who ate it, this little, unassuming restaurant cooks and serves with love and humor and passion and respect and dignity. You and the food and the people exchange something in that space. Something holy. I would linger and, by dessert time, Blake would be done with her hostess duties and Jenn would come out from the kitchen, wiping her apron in an exhausted, peaceful way and Sean would pull up a chair and Lavina would float back and forth and we would talk. Of many things. Of walruses and kings. Of land use. Of sustainable food. Of friendships. Of business. Of success and what that meant. They shared dreams with me and I with them. Then I would wander to my cabin. The only car on the road, climbing the cliffs in the moonlight, turn off on the dirt road — watch the mule deer leap to the right and the long-eared desert hare leap off to the left — and burrow into my room.
The day I signed in at the metal trailhead box to hike along the Escalante River, I felt like a genuine outdoor soul. I had a pack, a notebook, a sensible hat and my boots from last year’s excursion along the road to Santiago in Spain. The dust of the holy path in Spain co-mingled nicely with the red dust of the desert. I met only one couple in the hours I walked along the river. We nodded but silence seemed the best conversation. The trees were lush and yummy spring green and the buds, of what would become wild roses, were forming on the bushes. There were cactus flowers and Indian paintbrush blooming and scurrying lizards and kangaroo rats and white-tailed prairie dogs. Those insanely bright blue birds, and so many wide-winged raptors I lost count. By the time I sat down at the edge of the crashing-over-the-rocks river, which in the spring runoff had washed out the trail, I was vibrating with all the sounds of silence in the desert.
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And here’s what happens to me then. After a few days of that kind of deep quiet, where nature is going all out to be a symphony and a changing portrait, I start forgetting. Then I start remembering what was forgotten. Remembering, forgetting, forgetting, remembering. A rhythm with which the desert seduces you, until you reach a kind of primal zero point. It is a prayer you share with the desert.
And sometimes when you are very still, the desert whispers back
(Next week, part two, where desert adventures morph to visiting good folks in Kanab and a self-guided tour through the polygamist twin cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz., on the day the FBI declared Warren Jeffs one of their 10 Most Wanted. But without television or newspapers or radio, really, I had no way of knowing that.)