I made it all the way down (4.8 miles) from the trailhead at Murphy Point to the White Rim Road. It was high desert heat in July, and I descended 1,100 feet down a bench of Wingate Sandstone. Once I flattened out, I followed the Hogback the rest of the way. The White Rim sandstone at Canyonlands National Park is more stubborn than the burgundy Wingate one giant step up from it, so the White Rim forms a platform all throughout the Island in the Sky region of the 500 + square mile park before it drops down to another bench that finally stair-steps to the sinews of the Green River. The White Rim is made of sediments from an ancient, inland sea and lies about 1,000 feet below the high cliffs in the Park which form the observation platform for the humanoids at Island in the Sky. Millions of years past, the upper tiers of Canyonlands was an outwash plain at or below sea level. Now it’s a universe of staircases.
To see it all from above is to pour my pulsing eyes into a furnace-like bowl dozens of miles wide and over 2,000 feet deep. From the uppermost rim of Canyonlands in the Island of the Sky district, whether I’m at Green River Overlook or Murphy Overlook, my focus is drawn to Turk’s Head, a mesa capped with White Rim sandstone surrounded on three sides by a goose-neck of the Green, which carved Stillwater Canyon as it draws a straight line south, makes a sharp turn east, then winds back just as unpredictably west before banking south toward its Confluence with the Colorado. The river carved it its own special platform on this geologic stage, edged with gallery forests of cottonwood and willow. But as with the Grand Canyon farther southwest, the river seems to have overdone itself, carving amphitheatres and grottos miles wide.
The White Rim rock stands out two tiers above the river like salt melt left over from a brutal Chicago winter. Turk’s Head was so named because someone prior to the days of political correctness thought it looked like a turban. It’s a stubby mesa shaped like the pedestal of an immense bust. The red rock underneath it is thinner than the mesa top, and there are expansive views in all directions. Ancestral Puebloans used to encamp here, and I can see why. It’s an impregnable citadel that nothing but modern weapons could defeat.
It was this alkali inferno I treaded down into on July 26, 2006. It was both exhilarating and discomfiting that I didn’t run into anyone else the whole way down. This was Canyonlands’ vacant season. But whenever I come here, whether it’s September or December or June or July, it’s rare to encounter anyone else on this trail.
On my way down, I spotted the Maze District, and beyond, isolated chimneys of rock standing thin as antennae, pointing up toward the Henry Mountains, which sit 60 miles back from the unbuttressed west rims of the park. It’s easy to orient myself in this disorienting place—The La Sal Mountains mean east by southheast; the Abajo Mountains mean south; the Henry’s mean west. The Sculptor had learned from the Grand Canyon that people get lost without enough mountain ranges as guideposts.
I lost the trail on the way down the hogback. They’re all marked with cairns in Canyonlands. By this time in my adventures, I had enough trust in the process of trail minding to know I’d stumble onto it again. There was none of the familiar panic of years past. I didn’t know whether it was God or experience I trusted, but then I suspected that God and experience collapsed into the same aspect, where the Knower becomes the Known. So I followed the east cliff of the platform and ran up against what could have been a cairn. They fall down every once in awhile. And then I thought I saw another one.
Rather than bitch to the NPS about their poor trail maintenance, I proposed to myself that I rebuild the fallen cairns. Why not be the change I’m looking for in the world? But something deeper reminded me these might not be “official” cairns at all. I could lead someone astray with my good intentions. So I left the rocks alone. Start picking up rocks in a place like Canyonlands, and I might be doing it forever. I hugged the east rim of the Hogback until I picked up the trail again, well-worn and clearly marked. This becoming lost and then reacquiring the destination has happened to me so many times in my travels that I trust it as a part of the voyage. I’m never lost, even when I think I am.
The Hogback was a sinewy platform, an isthmus like so many other isthmuses here, land that tapered to a pedicel before enlarging again, and then finally crumbling into a saddle that had once been level with the rest of the Hogback, connecting out to an airborne island just beyond. Murphy Trail petered out here, most likely due to exhaustion and heat stroke, at the White Rim Road, an unpaved trail for off-roaders that wends through much of the northern region of the Park. I walked the road for about a quarter mile, hoping to stumble on some jeepers on a tour whom I’d beg to top off my camelback. It held about half a gallon, and I had a couple extra quarts besides, but you can never carry too much water in southeast Utah in July. Two hikers recently perished in the Park for lack thereof. Water, sunscreen, a broad brimmed hat, and salty snacks filled with carbs save lives. I fantasized that the water truck would be rolling up about now, just as I approached an outhouse. Funny how wishes feed fantasies feed wishes, and how heat pressure cooks them into something you expect is about to occur.
I never did run into any off-roaders. But I hadn’t used up too much water on the way down. It was the way back up that 1,100 foot cliff that’d wring water from me like a wet tee shirt. I’d need to replenish my inside stocks then. I’d made it down at a brisk pace with a brisk wind in my face. Sometimes it was a hot wind, what they’d call a Santa Anna in SoCal or a Hamsin in Israel, but it blew cool in stretches.
I sat in the only shade there was, the shade of the outhouse. How’s that for profundity, solitude, the emptiness of God. The Ultimate sure as hell has a sense of humor. Maybe more than one sense.
From here I had clear views of the river, and I was much closer, but not eye level, with Turk’s Head. I was in the bowl I’d often stared at from the Rim with longing, from Green River Overlook a little to the north. I never thought I’d make it down here for a day trip. I was on the first leg down from the red cliffs that rimmed everything here. The Hogback was a sun-washed tan with mounds of green rock in places, especially where it stood closest to the talus slopes of the red cliffs above. The White Rim was still two cliff tiers below me, where it finally poured its bone dust down to the wide, green ribbon cut by the river. I counted five stories of rock in Canyonlands. The literature says there are three. The White Rim was the most prominent, scorching a meandering escarpment for a wide margin in some regions, while only lapping just over the cliff edges in others. Its sandstone cleaved and calved like icebergs in places. Everywhere, the White Rim formed claws that jutted out into amphitheatres like Deadhorse Canyon.
The White Rim traced a tortured outline that had nothing to do with the present course of the river, plunging into narrow W’s or goosenecking into triple-U’s; meandering into marooned oxbows long since dead and dried, with dry wash bottoms hundreds of feet below; nibbling near the red cliff bases that defined the canyon complex as a whole. The White Rim went miles out of the way of the main channel, forming Soda Springs Basin. How madly inefficient, I suspected. How insanely beautiful.
I peered through the saddle to the southwest which wind and rain had eroded to form the island off the coast of my hogback. This was a world supreme with archipelagic forms. Past the saddle, a sage plain undulated toward a sandstone escarpment, the Millard Canyon Benches. In the foreground, a train of buttes and a mesa, all stained the same sherry hue, formed part of the labyrinth.
I rested in the mercy of the outhouse shade. No sound down here but me when I spoke into my old handheld recorder. When I did speak, I felt as if I polluted the silence, scatting on the stainless with my noisily clad presence. Then the wind returned and I supposed that if the wind could make its noise, then I could make mine, too.
White-capped chess men, eroded off the main body of rock, stood idle in the brittle heat. I took an unmapped trail north from the safety of the outhouse to the edge of the hogback. A panorama bordered by bleached white opened before me. A road cut across the deep and dirty red of the scrubland on the platform just below. I followed a bench due west to some dark hued, cushion-shaped boulders that marked the end of the hogback. A pothole with water wrinkled by wind meant a recent rain. How I would’ve loved a rain refrain right then. Still, I felt blessed that I’d come so far, and that I was alone with this place. I was a jealous lover after all.
Two ravens formed a helix and climbed the updrafts, pushed as much as pushing, wiped across the sky until the unrelenting wind drove them backwards, where they looped like figure skaters back into a forward turn. Two became five, six, seven birds. One glided past like a fighter jet. In endless, Spyrograph loops they drifted south toward the Needles. Cloud shadow moved across the face of a butte, haunting it for awhile in darkness, possessing, caressing the stone, until the umbra moved on and the butte gained its former countenance of crags. When a cloud buried all the monuments at once, they became ships in a storm. And when the shadows dappled the White Rim sandstone, the ivory rock boosted the effect of the contrast. But shade was an occasional islet in the ocean of light. The canyons were burnished embers, cracked by heat.
Water carved this place, but water is the limiting factor in Canyonlands. And as water remained always on my mind in one form or another, I knew it was time to go. I trekked back across the length of the hogback. I turned back a few times and I spotted the Needles, a jagged complex of spires and columns I’d hiked last year. From this distance of more than 12 miles, they resembled a necropolis. Right then, Canyonlands reflected my body’s dereliction by appearing as wounded layers tearing through a vast, sandpaper skin. And the Maze seemed like an earth knocked from its access and titled off the plain of gravitation, sliding toward the basement rock.
The hogback widened and my boots tossed the sands in a sea of scrub that reminded me of the Grand Canyon’s Tonto Platform. I re-approached the double-talus slopes insulating the bases of the Romanesque red cliffs of Wingate sandstone. The trail straightened as I approached the scarpface, massively buttressed by vast boulder fields. I felt like I was walking up the center aisle of a cathedral. Pinion poke out in places. I drank. Hot water was better than no water at all. As I neared the enfolding talus, the cliffs closed into an amphitheater, melding like wings. The Needles and the Maze were gone. All I could make out from this narrow column of view was the hogback, zigging and zagging like the White Rim beneath it, or like the river beneath that. A raven’s croak echoed in the distance. In my narrow slot of sky, the western benches marked the opposite side of Canyonlands. Ivory capped the rooftops of the western escarpment. The blue profile of the Henry Mountains rested on top of that. World stacked on world, age on age, until the sky ran out of room.
I rose into the cliff’s face and made flat land by mid-afternoon. I rested in my jeep for awhile, then began a second hike. I made the short hike to Murphy Point, a lookout that stared down into Murphy Basin, the same region I’d just traversed. I gazed into the Maze, which was so complex, so riddled with scree and stairs and spires, that I couldn’t distinguish one rock or cliff from the next. It all fell together in a jumble of late afternoon shapes, of shadow and rust and wrinkled scarp and deep fissure. Indigenous people called it the Land of Standing Rocks, or the Land Where More Rock Stands than It Sits. The earth seemed up on its hind legs.
After 9.6 miles down into the oven and up again, drinking water so hot you could make tea with it, the 1.8 miles to the Point seemed a lot longer with my second set of legs. The sun peeked under the visor of my cap and pried into my squinting eyes. No hat’s any good at 6:15 p.m. I kept saying: “There’s got to be shade. There’s got to be shade when I get there.” At the very end of the Point, all alone, stood a juniper tortured into dwarfism by unrelenting wind. It gave my cheek just enough shade. I evicted a lizard from the rock beside the tree and sat down in the dry, unending gale.
I nestled in and began The Essential Ken Wilber, which went on about the Message of the Mystics, a fitting title. I’d just finished A History of God by Barbara Armstrong, which filled me at times with anxiety and existential hopelessness. That book traced the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and concluded by describing the eventual atheism in which post-industrial civilization finds itself, or at least the gnawing agnosticism that seems more honest, more congruent with our science than anything else. Mystery and awe recede. Miracles could easily be proved mass delusions. After all, hadn’t I definitely seen a coyote as I reached the top of the cliff? Wasn’t I absolutely sure, until it transmuted into the twisted limb of a dead juniper?
People from all faiths had come to just about every conclusion there was about It, this Godhead. If it was all things to all people, then maybe Freud and Marx were right—maybe It was just a vast projection, a historical con perpetrated by ourselves on ourselves to keep us in line, or clung to as a kind of wish fulfillment against the vagaries of an uncertain life and a certain death. Armstrong, a former nun, ended her treatise by concluding that if there was hope for our belief in God, it could be found perhaps in mysticism. Yet even the mystics non-described God as a kind of nonbeing more consistent with the emptiness of atheism. And if there was such a thing as God, the mystics seemed correct in concluding that this Being was incomprehensible. I’d never be able to hold onto It or call It by name. So it made little difference whether I believed or not. It was as if God was not, as if It had run away and hid, as some African traditions had concluded. That filled me with dread.
I’d been feeling down this trip, and Canyonlands had failed to lift me in the way it usually did. I’d always been an observer, on the outside looking in. It’d just been easier that way. Once I got back to the city, solitude would make its familiar transmutation back to loneliness.
This was the first time I’d seen all the mountain ranges around me. The battering, unceasing wind testified that I was on the worldtop. I journeyed west from the lookout into some woodland. I wanted a new vantage point from which to witness dusk spot on. I spied a flourishing juniper, sheltered from the wind by a stand of slickrock. Ripe with waxy, blue berries, its luscious bough radiated out in a swallowing embrace. It’s limbs burgeoned with needles and I couldn’t make out its trunk. It guarded the final approach to the cliff’s edge.
Just beyond the tree, I stepped up onto some cap rock and over to the cliff’s edge. The wind blasted through me. I saw the most remarkable sight of my trip. I saw Canyonlands National Park. I saw the Green River glazed in the light of near dusk, wrapping itself around Turk’s Head. I saw the butte called Candlestick Tower, detached from the mainland of Island in the Sky like a seastack far out into an ocean of light, its face turned toward the sun, its southeastern back turned toward me in soft, blue shadow. The sun poured itself onto every cliff, each spire, all the islands out there. The soft late afternoon light relieved every crevice and pore. The White Rim dazzled like pearl. Mesas were lit embers and buttes were torch lights. The far off mountains bowed down blue. A slice of river far northwest blazed bright as the sun. Everything paid homage to everything else, inspiring awe with Its fierce beauty.
Introducing me to Itself. Really. Introducing Itself to Itself.
All the restlessness went off, All the aloneness drained away into the river below, loneliness from thousands of miles of walking through cities and dancing with longing eyes in clubs and trudging solitarily through deserts and mountains. All routes threaded through this one place and time. This was the intersection of the sacred and the profane, as all moments are, as all places are, but this place and this time more clearly for me than any other.
The wind died to nothingness. A relieving cloud drifted from the northwest. It turned the sun’s crepuscular rays loose in all directions over the Upper West Basins and the Lower Basins. Sun shafts like searchlights burnished the lowest reaches, burning the summits of the Henry Mountains. I saw the world through a liquid prism, an underwater medium of smoke and whiskey hue. A burgundy patina settled onto the benches on the northwest horizon. The rays painted white a long escarpment far northwest of the Park.
The rays shot out from the sole cloud in all directions like search beacons, turning Soda Springs Basin on, turning Candlestick Tower off, setting the east bank of the glassine river afire, but not the west. The light threw its incandescence on Holeman Spring Basin while nearer monuments were cast cold gray. But the shadows themselves were lit by the White Rim. Bars of light, slanted, searching, scorched one region, then the next.
The last of the Green River, banking southwest toward the Confluence, lit up like silver on fire, flanked by emerald on either bank. Then the dusk braised the ramparts assembled in Stillwater Canyon. The lights poured like a waterfall through a saddle between two buttes. It was the spaces between that defined this place as much as rock. It was the darkness that painted as much as the light. The emptiness poured itself between the substance and color and heat.
The shadows receded like slow tide across the lower basins in the southwest. Still I stood, crucified and crucifying. As close as I’ll ever be. As far as I’ll ever stand from the light.
The only company I kept was a clump of Mormon Tea plant and a couple of Juniper. The sunset drew the final crags in the red cliffs. Some of the buttes farther out from shore, clustered like Oxford spires, kept the furrows of an old man’s skin. Candlestick Tower stood like a lighthouse offshore. The sliver of the river miles northwest beneath the sun still shimmered like it would hold the hope of dawn ‘til it broke again.
I looked down at my weathered hands. And where the skin dried it broke open, just like Canyonlands itself. And from the shed skin a new God was born. The God with whom I grew up was an old carcass from which I climbed. My Father who art in His Heaven, who would take care of all my relatives once they’d died, who’d gather up all our little souls like a butterfly catcher swooping all the things in flight into His great net, that comforting, comfortable God, I needed to abandon It in favor of Something beyond what can be imagined. I needed to learn to live with the discomfort of not understanding and never being able to grasp with fingers. It wouldn’t give me clear instructions. Instead, life would unfold. Either choose that, or crawl back into an old understanding that encased the puny icon my head carried around since I’d first read about Moses living a thousand years. The old One, a little boy’s understanding, withered and turned to husk in the high heat.
I watched the sun breach the horizon wall that was Steer Mesa. The broken light silvered wispy mares’ tails so high in the sky. Where there had been a sun, an ember void corresponded to a peaceful emptiness in my heart, as if I had faded, too. The western sky soon darkened into grades of twilight, one following another, until the crescent moon rose over the silhouette of Candlestick Tower. Thoughts dissolved to shadows of themselves. I watched and listened. That’s all I had to do.
© 2014 by Michael C. Just