Winter Road

After camping out in the Pariah Plateau Wilderness north of the Grand Canyon, I decided to rush striking camp in anticipation of the next adventure.  I’d chance the twenty-some mile trek down House Rock Valley Road before the rain got too bad and the bentonite road turned to toothpaste.  I’d planned to explore the Vermillion Cliffs that stood like iron walls high above Marble Canyon and House Rock Valley.  I drove up onto the Pariah Plateau in the hope of camping on the edge of the scarp and looking down on Lee’s Ferry and the unhumble beginnings of the Grand Canyon.  But the road crumbled into two tire ruts of wet, ruby sand with banks a few feet high.  My Cherokee couldn’t handle 20 or more miles of that.  I stopped at a remote cattle station on the plateau and took a tip from a cowboy: try the Great Western Trail off Winter Road.  I’d passed it on the way south.

I double-backed north up House Rock Valley Road toward Utah, then took a left up Winter Road, climbing a small rise into P-J woodland.  I never did find the trailhead for the Great Western and the road grew a little too rocky for me, but I drove on.  I didn’t encounter one other vehicle all day.  About 10 ½ miles west up Winter Road, I landed on Buckskin Mountain, a long north-south trending ridge off the Kaibab Plateau.  It gave way to Muggins Flat and beyond it, Antelope Valley.  A greater portion of eternity you will not find on earth.  The valley as flat as the abyssal plains of an ocean, rimmed by the cliffs of the Grand Staircase to the north as they step up toward the high plateaus of southern Utah, and step down to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  The wide plain devoid of any man-thing but the straight track of Winter Road as it descended into the flat.  Rusted escarpments, the Vermillion Cliffs, towered north.  Above and behind them, relieved like thunderheads in the afternoon sun, the White Cliffs shot up in the rise of a stair.  The Hurricane Cliffs sealed in the valley to the west.  Southwest, the watchtower of Mount Trumbull guarded.

I found a primitive campsite on the shoulder of Buckskin Mountain and decided to hike down Winter Road.  I took the road (#1025), down past the last of the pinion and juniper gracing the plateau

Who else was privileged to see this place this day? Not one soul on the road but mine.  No other four-wheeled thing to compete with mine as I wrote it all down on 3 x 6 index cards with a storm’s wind rifling through my things in the back of the Cherokee with the tailgate down and the windows open.

Along Winter Road in summer, I’m blessed with a cool wind and cloud cover in the desert of the Arizona Strip.  A swelling cumulus blots out the sun and casts a shadow over a few square miles of rangeland.

How many ways does Love remind me of Its passion for me?  As many as I shove aside and deny in favor of what I believe will be the greater destiny offered by an immediate and more apparent world.  Yet secretly, my denial of God’s love, has a deeper source and a more cunning motivation:  I remain afraid of love.

I fear God’s love and mercy, not Her wrath.  For with the greatness that God marks us comes a terrible power and an undeviating responsibility.  And yet it knocks and knocks.  It calls and calls until I answer.  Love will not be denied, and though It must share and spend all of Itself with the object of Its desire, by Its nature Love is jealous of our love for Itself.  Love does not rest until we turn our backs on the more urgent destinies at which we fling ourselves desperately, until we turn our faces again to Itself as we would to a forever setting sun, like the dusk now which gathers over Mount Trumble.

As I descend into the unbroken expanse of Antelope Valley, the scent shifts from pine to sage.  Whipple cholla bloom with pale yellow flowers.  A storm forms northwest against the Shinarump Cliffs and lightning drags across the plain like walking fingers.  As I reach the plain, the roll of the valley obscures Mount Trumbull’s tortoise shell profile.

The beauty caught up with me like the winds caught my hair.  The wind seemed to unearth an old, buried regret so deep and yet so arcane that I didn’t know whether to taste it with grief or with curiosity.  My only transgression against God had been my ingratitude, my decision to walk through my life unnoticing.  God spoke to me through a thousand channels a moment, yet I seldom chose to listen through even one.  I blotted them out because it seemed easier to stay small than to take advantage of the easy ingress which grace offered me as a way into itself.  It only asked me to surrender to this moment, yet I had spent the majority of my moments trying to live in other moments that were no more or in moments that could have been or could be, fantasies every one.  Tears of gratitude and love and from wind bled down my crows’ feet.  I let go of my searching under crannies of there instead of here, of then instead of now.  Soon, the wind ceased, and I hiked on.

After two hours walking due west down Winter Road, a blister between my toes and the gathering storm nudged me back toward camp.  I tried very hard to remain in the moment, which escaped me most moments even when conditions seemed perfect to live in its presence.  A thousand thoughts distracted me and stole me back into Could Be or Should Be or Should’ve Been.

Then the storm built my way, clouds stacking upon themselves from west to east like massive fault blocks of mountain.  Behind my left shoulder, lightning stabbed the sage flat.  Now I’m in the moment.   Danger sets me here.  Like a drover and his whip, the lightning prodded me back to camp in just over half the time it took me to get down here.  I arrive back just before it rains. The gloaming comes to rest on the soft shapes of Mount Trumbull.  In the light of day, a monolithic blue colored in the horizon.   Yet as the light withdraws, it exposes terrace after terrace, land stacked on land.  I’m the only person to see this sight on this second longest day of the year.  This instant meant only for me.  The sun descends behind a bank of cloud and thunder.  Behind the clouds, it shoots its final, crepuscular beams into an atmosphere underwater and molten at the same time.  And then the light passes away, leaving behind the thin, brown line of a lingering winter road across Antelope Valley.

It reminds me that I am the walker down that road, and the road itself.

© 2014 by Michael C. Just