I drove down onto the Reservation to find the crest of the Carrizo Mountains. This was Four Corners land, the Four Corners of AZ, UT, NM and CO, the Four Corners of the earth. When I’d spy them from the Mancos Valley, the Carrizo were a far off mist, a ghosted saddle between the cliffs of Mesa Verde and the pediment of Sleeping Ute Mountain. A distant shore, and so I set sail for them. But the Navajo don’t mark their side roads, so I missed my turn and drove past my rendezvous with the Carrizo.
I landed instead on Highway 191, and its stitch-line funneled me north. I knew where I was headed, even if I wouldn’t admit it to myself. My outsides told my insides I’d beach up on the Abajo Mountains, distant blue-shouldered sky islands in Utah’s southeastern cranny. That was the plan. But you know how it is when your mind’s made up but your gut’s not.
While my mind laid plans, my heart entertained visions. I’d had a vision last night as I was falling asleep that my right rear tire was flat. Next morning, the wheel was down to the rim. A change in tires. A change in plans.
While my brain hurried its way up the Abajo far ahead of my body’s assent, my jeep changed its mind. In a Monticello gas station just below the pinnacles of the Abajo, I tried backing out of the fuel island in a rush for the highway so I could catch up with my mind. All systems on the jeep failed. First the flat, now this? I glanced in my rear view mirror. Two little boys cutting figure-eights behind my vehicle on their bikes. Two boys I hadn’t seen. I might’ve run them over.
Don”t back out of fuel islands.
I put it in ‘D’ and the engine purred. Those boys had lives to live, and I guess I did, too.
I rigged my mainsail and set a heading for the Abajo, told myself I’d finally make it to the top, finally to enjoy what the Wikepedia pictures painted as spectacular visions of deserts west. I hungered for visions. Something besides a flat tire maybe. But the road had other ideas, filtering me, channeling me like dirty gold through sluice gates north and west and north again to the place at which my insides knew I’d end. The destination to which the wheels always turned and ended their rolling. The road dropped north, double-backed east, undulated north again like a giant sidewinder. I snaked through Moab, a town that sprawled more, malled every time I crept down its Main.
Cliffs lunged in one vertical leap from raw base canyons, metamorphosing into salt domes 13,000 feet high. The La Sal Mountains. I skirted past them north over the Colorado. Bloody cliffs almost drowned by their own talus presided west of the highway, and where the parapet finally broke I headed west down a desolate two-lane highway tortured by S’s and U’s.
On July 3rd, when the temperature punched into the triples, I passed on into Canyonlands National Park, into a region called Island in the Sky, a red-walled plateau held aloft by hundreds of cubic miles of air, anchored to the mainland by a stingy two lanes of asphalt. A campsite was still vacant at Willow Flat about a mile from the Green River Overlook. I set up my one-man tent. I slipped on a daypack and a camelback and hiked down to the touristy Overlook, then over a hill dotted with Mormon tea and century plants. The land crested over a spine of boulders onto a margin of slickrock and sandstone. The rocks formed a cliff that loomed over the vast carvings of the Green River and its White Rim lands. I stood on a wending escarpment unbroken for miles with a vertical drop of over a thousand feet. It dove down until it hit a ruddy platform of blackbrush scrub. Above me to the west, sandstone cleaved a sheer 500 foot wall hued salmon. At its base, a bench littered with boulders and flittered with lizards stretched over a mile west toward Candlestick Tower, a sandstone butte wading out into the central chasm of Canyonlands.
I knew that if I followed the ledge, I’d find No One, the perfect person for me. I started out my rock dance along the boulders, between the rice grass and saltbrush that grazed my bare ankles like cat’s whiskers. The bench narrowed in places and I hooked too close to the edge. Beyond the edge the earth titled and poured itself into a clean sheet of verticality. On the edge of abyssal things, my life seemed . . . expendable but not valueless, fluid rather than final. A curious, unfamiliar feeling abided just then – Trust. Most times, I was forced to trust out of necessity rather than coming to it out of choice. Trust usually clarified out of the ripples of urgency born from its opposite – fear. But now, it came without force, like knowing which rock underfoot was loose, which was solid enough to take my boot.
My brain came huffing and puffing up to me from behind and told me how senseless it was to trust anything. You can’t trust yourself. Remember the fuel island! Remember the fuel island! You’re too close to the edge. You don’t want to die. I should know. I’m you. But with every step, I left a crumb of caution behind along the trail.
The bench devolved into a peninsula cobbled to Candlestick Tower. I wandered out onto it until the causeway whittled down and crumbled like an old man’s smile. I abandoned it and crossed over a sprawling, parallel hogback that jutted out into the well of the main canyon. I hiked farther, farther out until alcoves and bays, dry and empty, silent and scoured by ceaseless wind, took shape along the shore of the world I’d left behind. I walked until I ran out of steps, until I exhausted myself of muscle and land.
That’s when I saw No One. That’s when I finally met it, after all these years. Looking like no thing, sounding like the wind, as heavy in my hands as sunlight and dripping like light would through my fingers, leaving the stains a sunset would. We sat there a long while and didn’t talk. I thought things to No One, but it didn’t say anything back. I was non-offended by its undeviating quietude. My brain, an attic of chatters; I’d finally taken it off like a stone-filled rucksack. I’d thought I’d need it out here as much as I needed water. I’d need the company of my thoughts; thought I’d go mad without them warning me about cliffs and yelling at me for backing out of fuel islands. But now, they only weighed me down.
That left me to the silence that re-emerges when language falls away, the language we use when the silence breaks down. Terrifying silence. Blissful silence. Intolerable to accept. Impossible to live without. No One. Its moment felt like years and I lingered there as long as I could. Then the brain caught up with me, urging, masking the supernal emptiness with thirsts and insistences. And out of habit, out of pity for the small self, I invited it back. I’m hungry. You’ll be out of water soon. It’s hot.
I turned and followed one set of tracks back to camp. No One hadn’t left any footprints as it had walked alongside me.
Back at my tent I washed up. The half-gallon of water I poured on my face flashed like oil fire and burned off in seconds. I gobbled oatmeal heated on a can of Sterno and with sun still plentiful I hiked back to Green River Overlook. I spent some time with the honeymoon posers framing shots in foreign tongues and the RV families gawking at the steel river licking curried sands a diagonal mile below. As the heat relinquished its hold and evening cool settled in, the official Overlook crowded, if 15 or 20 can be considered a crowd. I grew restless among them, always searching for some fulfillment they couldn’t supply even though I wished with everything in me that they could so I wouldn’t have to come so far to find it. What was it I was missing?
‘Overlook’ was a verb, too. I was overlooking something. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew where to re-look for it.
I maundered beyond the overlookers a half-mile back to the cliff just this side of the bench, the one where I’d started my journey out to Candlestick Tower. The sun was downing, parsecs of light bronzing Soda Springs Basin, flooding the dry meanders of Green River.
I stood at the real overlook, now a noun again – the unguardrailed escarpment that oversaw a vast bowl which stretched its solitude beyond the reach of all the selves and selfies, even beyond the arms of the lovers I envied so. I popped off my boots and leaned my head back on their toes, slipped my hat over my face and dozed. From the cracks in my eyes through the crack in my brim, I traced the western reaches of the gorge – the Millard Canyon Benches and the aloneness of Candlestick Tower.
I lay on the edge of a scarp that poured a thousand feet toward the molten core of the planet. The winds drove, and the sun sunk, and a star rose in the southwest – Hesperus to the Greeks, Venus to me. I’d brought with me Chuang Tzu and his Tao, and Walt Whitman and his Song of Myself. Whitman wrote that the search for God was a journey misplaced. Chuang Tzu spoke of the wheelwright, who counseled that when a man reads about wisdom, all he gets is dirt because the most important words are left unsaid. The truth goes to his grave with him always. Those who know don’t say. Those who don’t know say much. I say much.
I abandoned the books, pages ruffled from rain that had soaked them in a pounding mountaintop storm days before. I wanted the wind to take them.
No One returned, not looking at me. Gales propelled nothing and the sun set beyond wind. I swirled down into a lonely half-sleep. My bed long and round and hard, a blunted boulder that steeped itself in bottomlessness. I could roll off it in slumber and slip a fifth of a mile to the end of survival, if not to the end of life. I peeked over the edge. No hidden outcrop to break my descent should I fall.
Never-ending wind from the west teased my toes, soothed sore ankles and rustled the hair on my knees. How many times had I longed for someone besides No One, someone electric and sassy, to knead my knees me the way the breeze was doing now? But I’d never bother to ask. If the stroking of my body came from a lover there’d always be the obligation, the self-imposed expectation, that I’d have to pay for this somehow, to return the favor in some form. Or maybe it was just that my feet smelled. There was that. And what if she said no? But here this wind caressed me forever it seemed. No One was doing it. It would never stop. It would never ask favors, never tire.
I sprawled on the break of the cliff’s knee so close to the edge. The wind, I told myself, need only hint at the idea and I’d slip in. And still, I wasn’t afraid. I’d either fly or die.
The winds sung of an unutterable peace that greets death but does not transcend its line. I’d finally been cradled into the pose from which I’d never wake. No One had cast a spell over my body to disguise my sleep as death. Realizing that I never needed to do anything, that I was always and everywhere at no place, in no time, being no thing. I didn’t need to sweat. I didn’t need to work. Didn’t need to pray. All I had to do was practice the presence of No One.
I felt strangely deflated. Empty, purposeless as I lay there falling and falling and falling asleep but never reaching the bottom. At rest in the paradox that I am All and that All is nothing. That there’s a reason for everything and no purpose to anything.
It was trust that I’d be the same whether I fell or whether I didn’t. Hadn’t my jeep died at the appropriate time? I’d either be saved from falling or I’d be spared from the mere survival of my ordinary life. I’d been provided the antidote to death – emptiness. It was the emptiness that contained death and smothered the old God in an infinite space. I sought only to not taste, not touch, not see, not seek. And finally, I sought not even not seeking. That was what Chuang Tzu’s wheelwright had been trying to explain. It was what Whitman had written when he counseled not to search for what couldn’t be hidden in words, not in poems, not in sages, not in wisdom.
The astroglow settled in like a belt of burning whiskey over the west rim. All the shapes descended into clarity – the sharp silhouette of Candlestick Tower and the isthmus which led to it. This whole place an ocean drained of water. My mind empty, without reason, solely a container for peace.
Nighthawks arced around me in hushed chirps. The last of ochre twilight soaked into the black shape of earth. Bats whistled. The shag on a juniper’s bark rustled behind me. Stars extracted themselves from the firmament east to west.
I ambled back to my tent and stretched out on a bedroll instead of a bone of earth. Back in Sometime, I found sleep in that tent. But about 2 a.m. I woke. I knew sleep wouldn’t return, flown off like bats and birds. There was an insistence, a stirring that pulled me back to the cliffs at the overlook beyond the Overlook.
Tracked by a kit fix, I hiked the trail back to the scarp and nestled in with Candlestick Tower, brushed by a gibbous moon. The winds roiled up from the canyon in a desolate ferocity. Knocking back my hair, slapping my middle-aged cheeks, whorling up my nose. Right through me.
There was no blaze of glory. Only peace and a sense of ground. An emptiness. A space within through which the wind could blow.
© 2014 by Michael C. Just