Dead Wood

Canyonlands NP, Needles District: I decided on a day hike from Elephant Hill trailhead.  The trail ends about seven miles – or three to four hours later – at Druid’s Arch.

I passed by sandstone domes and open canyon, representative of much of southeastern Utah.  The sandstone smoothed into blunted heads, stained with desert varnish in places.  In one stretch, a narrow slot canyon begrudged about three feet of daylight above.  It widened enough for some trees to take root in the incongruous day dark.

Writers have come up with all kinds of names for the Needles: spires, towers, pinnacles, hoodoos, castle battlements, and well, needles.  I passed one stand of these tall, toothy formations, which resembled a crowd of 20 or 30 judges, Olympic judges.  In the heat, my mind played games and the judges looked like they held up cards rating my progress on the hike.  Of course, they gave me mostly 2’s and 3’s.  I could’ve sworn I saw a -1 in there somewhere, too.  I guess they thought I was out of shape.

I squeezed through a gap and stood in an amphitheatre of Needles, 360 degrees of broken castle wall, with breaks in the battlements regularly spaced.  The Needles themselves were formed by a complex process of erosion of parallel canyons sliding toward the Colorado River over a deep, underlying salt strata.

Miles to the north, between the breaks in what once were great blocks of sandstone, the cliffs and spires of the Canyonlands Basin burned auburn, a well miles across.  Beyond that, the La Sal Mountains vaulted above the rims of the highest cliffs here in Canyonlands.  Around Labor Day, they stood snowless and I could make out the stony world above their tree line.  Canyonlands is a vertical world, a perfect perpendicular to the horizontality of the planed country from which they build southeast from here.

The gnarled, swirling gray bark of a juniper, with a branch or two still living, coiled out of bare rubble and sand.  The juniper has the ability to shut off water to some limbs to conserve resources.  There was a drought on.  Some in this stand were full dead.  With the grain of the bark twisting up the trunk like frozen water, the innards of a whirlpool pouring up toward the sky, a juniper was easy to spot, even for an amateur like me.  These trees are so tough they drill like corkscrews into solid rock.  I came across a dead stub of a juniper trunk, thick as bridge cable, spiraling out between two boulders, like the rock had evolved to wood.  The dead trunk made a convenient handhold as I lurched my way up some pretty serious stone.  Even dead, it served its purpose.

I thought about people who died that had served a purpose, too.  I seemed to have been surrounded by a higher than normal preponderance of suicides in my life.  Some of the best examples of people I knew had been suicides, overdoses, drunk driving deaths.  They’d show me what not to do.  They were more powerful examples to me than just about anyone living.

Some say that nature doesn’t exist to give us meaning, that there’s no divine purpose in nature, and that there’s no message or meaning the natural world tries to convey.  They may be onto something.  Maybe it’s the interpretations we put on nature that create the meaning for us.  Just as it may be that it’s our interpretations about everything else that create the meaning for us.  That dead husk of a juniper didn’t call out to me: “Hey, grab a hold of me.  I may be dead wood, but I’m still useful, aren’t I?”  Nature isn’t endowed with any implicit meaning, but only has the value we project onto it.

Well, whatever.  I’d climbed up from the giant saucer of sandstone hemmed in by the Needles.  I was above the amphitheatre now, standing between two Needles which looked delicate from miles away, but stood sturdy as buttes up close. The burning escarpment of the Kayenta Formation staggered in and out of the canyon, pretty much like a line of thunderstorms I’d skirted through the Oklahoma Panhandle on the way out here.  One would jut out, then some shadow, then another cliff would extrude farther out into the main gorge, then more shadow.  A peninsular escarpment, mottled with green, waded out into the vast bowl of Canyonlands, becoming its own dry Lands End.  The parallel to the storm cells a few days before seemed exact.  In the distance, I made out the White Rim Sandstone that formed the lower tier of cliffs above the Colorado River.

I turned my back on all that red and white and green geo-jazz and followed my “mountain pass” between two of the Needles.  I entered into a gentler world of soft, sandy trail drawn in by cryptobiotic gardens of black crust.  Flowering prickly pears seemed more like radishes to me as I passed them by.  I gazed up at the melting sky.  On the baked top strata of the Needles, ivory caps rested like mushroom heads on top of russet bands.  Cliffs and spires confined me in a giant fungi garden lit by white sky.  Whether the sandstone bands were white or red depended on what had washed down from the mountains millions of years before.  Swelled with iron, floods of debris occasionally overwhelmed the ancient coastal dunes of white sand that stood here in the way back when.  It only takes a smidgen of iron to dye a rock red.

Beyond the white caps at the bitten off tips of the Needles, the land opened into a rolling, light green plain of grass.  Smaller pinnacles stood like dolmen stones.  Others jabbed out like swollen thumbs or balanced like delicate vases.  West-by-southwest, more cliffs were tickled semisweet with green.  And low mountains stood due west.

I arrived at Chesler Park Viewpoint. Off trail, the sand became crispy and hard like a frozen crest of stale and dirty city snow.  The crust was imprinted with the stirrings of night things – desert cottontails, kangaroo rats, scorpions.  Indian Rice Grass weaved invisible tapestries for the wind.  I wandered for awhile, and then hiked back to the trailhead.

One needle spread its ivory top like a ship with timbered striations.  It ground up against the uppermost decks of other hoodoos, like battling Men of War stoving hulls.  I had to climb down a dry cascade of boulders by some dead wood.  So many decisions poured into each step.  And yet, if I didn’t think about it, my feet moved without the need for minding.    I have evolved this brain over hundreds of millions of years, with more connections between its cells than stars in the visible universe.  I think, only to realize that I need to relinquish thinking if I want to progress beyond the holding cell called the world, for the world is really just a collection of thoughts about this or that, subsets of different rote responses to this stimuli or that one.

The mind was great at naming things like joints and column, at describing the processes of chemical weathering and frost wedging that created the needles after eolian (windblown) and fluvial (waterborne) deposition laid down the alternating beds of red/brown and yellow stone.  But that same mind was lousy at leading me through the Maze, and I’m not talking about the labyrinth of passages that ran through spires and knobs for 119 square miles across the canyons from here.  I’m talking about living life.  My brain’s been terrible at that.  I just fired it.

I passed back through the vast corral walled in by the Needles, and between them, I caught a glimpse of ferrous, three-tiered cliffs topped by a mesa that crumpled into talus.

I slipped through the skinny slot where Mormon tea and an errant pine dotted the sandbox floor.  A small-leafed, deciduous tree pretzeled up in all directions from some boulders in the middle of the slot.  It could have been a cottonwood, but in the shadows, I couldn’t be sure.  Where the slot narrowed to about two feet wide by 30 feet high, the walls were sanded smooth and flat, black with manganese varnish.  The narrow passage reminded me of the eternal shade of the gangways that ran between the apartment buildings of my North Side Chicago youth.  Those were the places we’d run and hide in games of ditch, or kick the can, or witch-witch.

Up ahead, a jam of rocks and tree limbs offered a stairway up out of the slot into the cloudless sky.  Thin sandstone pedestals, murdered with red, upheld wide braids of white sandstone, jutting out over the tan layers like melting cheese over a medium rare patty of ground beef.  I guess I was hungry.  I stopped and nibbled on a protein bar.  Water was another matter.

On my way back to the trailhead, I ran out of water.  At this point in my evolution as a desert walker, I’d come to count the water in my camelback through gulps.  When I started out at Elephant Hill, I figured I’d have 15 gulps before I’d have to double back, and I was already on my ninth gulp.  Gulp.

Fear kicked in and I decided I was on the wrong trail since I didn’t recognize the landmarks around me.  But by this time in my hiking life, I didn’t panic.  I convinced myself to stay focused, knowing that the trailhead was just over the next box canyon.  The head’s good for something, when it’s clear.  It just doesn’t operate by faith.

Soon enough, my vehicle, parked at the trailhead, winked its familiar metal glint.

© 2015 by Michael C. Just