The day before Halloween. It seems too strange to call it All Hallows Eve Eve. The road to the Colorado Overlook in Canyonlands National Park, Utah, is paved with hazardous jutting claws of rock snarling from lips of stair-step drops “which visitors may avoid by parking on the road and walking to the overlook.” And that’s what I did the last half-mile or so.
The Overlook stands out as a sandstone crown of tawny boulders the size of houses but the shapes of VW’s. And beyond them, a dirty red promontory steps down as the last shoulder of earth before the Colorado hacks off the land’s arm. There’s a Land’s End. Why can’t there be a land’s arm, too? From the sandstone tor, a 360 degree world-top rises like the West Pole of the earth.
The wide khaki river slices in ribbons below through a world of sienna and umber. It courses straight from the east before it goosenecks at my feet, or rather, a thousand feet below my feet. A gallery forest of willow and tamarisk splashes the far bank a lime green. Furnace-hued cliffs dominate this region. Needles dominate this region. Snowy mountains dominate this region. The river dominates this region. The sky dominates this region. How can it possibly be that everything remains so ominously present in a complex mélange , and yet it simplifies my mind? The answer is fractals, endless complexity built from identical, repeating structures. Out here, complexity feeds simplicity. In my urban world, simplicity degenerates into a decomposing miasma of competing forms.
The snowed in La Sal Mountains, built blue and metallic, stand on the shoulders of ember-hued cliffs. South, two pinnacle rocks, wasted remnants spinning to a climax like ziggurats, give perspective to the Abajo Mountains, fluted with bands of snow. More mountains draw over the horizon southwest, the remote Henrys, and then the Needles rise west. This is the view eyelevel.
But the world spins vertical beneath me. To the south, canyons yawn, exposing red walls of Wingate Sandstone in the direction of Confluence Overlook. Dry meanders shape the knaves of canyon walls, not in need of flying buttresses to support them.
At a dry platform before the final plunge to the Honaker Trail Formation, a tall red spire stands like a sphinx with a gathering of dwarfed red boulders groveling at its base. One raven powers up from below the rim before me, followed by a second. Everywhere you go in canyon country, they stand out against the scarlet like witches. An entreating wind blows past my nose. No one.
A sandspit hooks a backchannel of the river like a little Cape Cod. At the mouth of the confluence between a dry riverbed and the real River, an intriguing willow forest squeezes out from the drainage like a pressured wave held back by the Colorado. The sun slides into the western quarter of the sky, where the Needles resemble a graveyard. One obelisk stands out, thickly modeled with a cross on its crown, like a king in a game of chess.
I want to see what’s in the bottom of the canyon, and I wonder whether I should climb down onto an extruded thumb of red rock from the complex of ivory domes just above it. I have a solid, rubber-toed walking stick and a pair of Merrell’s with gripping soles. One route out to the final overlook is a narrow ledge along the cliff face. I survey other routes. Only one does my city-self deem safe. But on that climb down, one misstep means goodbye warm, safe world, for this lifetime anyway.
I have this habit of backing down sloping rock on my ass. That’s my technique. I remember I climbed half a mountain like that once, in mortal fear of the bottom. God forbid I should be seen by the ravens and lizards to be an amateur, or worse yet, a poseur. But I also recall that time I turned down a dare to climb Angel’s Landing in Zion. The hell with it. I climb butt-down onto the knob of red rock jutting out into the river’s space. It’s easy.
Tiers on tiers of cliff shape and shade gooseneck after gooseneck. Part of the platform in the deep dry wash carves out a snarling wolf shape. The sphinx evolves into a robotic form, appearing like a series of rocks stacked on to one another. The abdomen is more massive than its pedicel or legs, and its red head is about five times the diameter of its gray neck. Eventually, I get my fill of river, and climb back up to the ivory prominence, the highest point at Confluence Overlook.
I sit back on the capstone, and assume the lotus pose in my cowboy hat. I slip my hat over my eyes and go horizontal, bucking the trend of verticality. I doze as I face the giant’s graveyard that the Needles become in late day. I wonder how it is that in a world of six billion, no one has come to slake themselves on this 712 square miles but me. Is it all really made for me? Or am I just prudent enough to relish it? I can’t believe either of these questions could be answered ‘yes.’
Sure, the earth is vast, and supposedly, we could all, all six billion of us, stand in Rhode Island or each of us have a house with a backyard and just waste the state of Texas. But no one came to this place in 2 ½ hours. Why am I privileged to be the only one to see these moments, to smell this wind and hug this sun-warmed rock?
The next day I’ll lift off from Cortez in the twin prop Beechcraft. First the Abajo, then the La Sal, will rise into the sky even as I ascend above them. These canyons they guard, I won’t see them from Cortez. Soon, even the sky islands of the Abajo will be wreathed in a monk’s cloak of coal from the power plant in Four Corners. We’ll float between the Rico Mountains and the La Platas, then drone over the emptying vastness of the San Juans. Still, the La Sal over my shoulder in Utah will shimmer through my window, just over the propeller blades. Sailing over Lizard Head Pass, the white Swiss forms of the mountains beyond Lizard Head will enliven my eyes. Green tarns, like puddles, will relieve the snowfields.
And in all these thousands of miles, squared and then cubed, I see no one. I’ve been fashioned by it, evolved from it as its lone companion. Soon, I’ll land back in the world of malls and hip-hop booming from open-windowed cars. And there I shall reinject myself into the I-podded, Bluetoothed, Twittered world. But here, I enjoy the companionship of my unconnected self. Loneliness and solitude reside as places within one heart, yet as far removed from each other as the streets of Chicago and the Confluence of the Green and Colorado.
© 2014 by Michael C. Just