We entered Canyonlands National Park in The Needles district on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend and sought to get ourselves acquainted with the short trails along the main road before heavier traffic arrived. There is a self-guided nature trail showing typical flora & fauna and a Native granary and a trail to a cowboy campground just off the paved road. All around are the beautiful layered and eroded rock formations that give this section of the park its name.
All of these seemed to serve as an introduction to the landscape, but every long view we got that day made us eager to leave the paved road and the congested trail loops and get out further and deeper into this tremendous terrain.
So we decided to head up to our cooler campground for the afternoon and get a very early start the next day on a longer hike.
Steve has been telling me about Hovenweep National Monument for as long as I’ve known him. It’s his favorite. He hadn’t seen it for 26 years, though, and was anxious to know how “progress” had changed it. What he remembered was a sort of shack out in the middle of “nowhere” staffed by a few Park Service rangers and visiting archaeologists. The roads were unpaved, and the ruin sites widely spread apart. We discovered that the roads were updated, because our map dates from 1990. Signs clearly mark the way, but it is still far from any town. The rural school bus was just ahead of us, and free-grazing livestock lined the roadway.
The Visitor Center is new. And the rangers are young and have no memory or pictures of what it used to be like.
The roads connecting the ruin sites are still dirt roads, though. We elected to walk the trails instead, and set off on an 8-mile (round trip) desert walk…which ended up to be a 10-mile one because we veered off the path down a wash and ended up at a barbed wire fence and then retraced our steps. That was an interesting part of the journey of awareness as well. How do you feel when you suspect you’re off the trail? How does your mental state effect your pace, your energy? What does a well-traveled path offer you psychologically and physically? When we had completed this hike, which was the longest of our trip, I felt truly exhilarated. My face was pretty red, I had gnat bites on my calves (that haven’t faded yet), and my knees and hips were a bit sore, but I was thrilled! This desert is a vibrant ecosystem, hosting many interesting plants and animals…including around 2500 human animals at one point, about 750 years ago. Have a look:
Canyons of the Ancients
Initially, when I proposed this trip to Steve, I said I wanted to see “Canyonlands”. I had just finished reading another Ed Abbey novel, The Fool’s Progress, after having submerged myself in Desert Solitaire late last summer. What I began to realize as our journey went on is that the American West is full of canyons of many descriptions. The rock type, the elevation, the water speed and volume – lots of things effect how a canyon is formed and what kind of environment is created around it.
Our campsite in the Black Canyon was visited by mule deer (just as we were setting about making dinner – obviously they were not shy!) foraging for vegetation and shaded by pinyon pines and serviceberry bushes at an elevation of about 9,000 feet. Our next campsite was on B.L.M. (Bureau of Land Management) land near Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, one canyon west of Sand Canyon. We were on a rock outcropping surrounded by juniper and yucca at an elevation of about 6,500 feet.
Oh, but before we got down to that level, we drove through Telluride. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a swanky ski resort town. The storm the week before had left the mountaintops covered in white, while the spring green aspen leaves were bright in the sunlight. It was a truly spectacular drive!
Descending to drier, warmer temperatures near the Four Corners region brought a dramatic change in the landscape. Steve started getting really excited; this is the country of his heart – the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. He became enamored of this place more than 25 years ago while volunteering on archaeology projects. He seems to thrive in the heat, both physically and emotionally.
We scouted through BLM roads and discovered a campsite on the rim of this little canyon. This is public land. There is no fee for camping here. Cattle were grazing in the area, but this side of the dirt road didn’t have much grass. There were some trails for ATVs and dirt bikes in the area, too, but not near the rim. It was Monday, so weekend recreation was over; we saw only three vehicles in three days. There’s no running water and no latrine, but someone had already made a fire circle and there was plenty of juniper and Gambel oak to gather for firewood. This is just what we look for in dispersed camping.
It’s ironic that most people think of the desert as uninhabitable. The truth is, this is where ancient peoples set up robust communities: pueblos. In the next two days, we visited some. And we enjoyed this place and its hospitality more than any other this trip.
Scale and Humility
There is no way to capture the depth of the space in a canyon in a 2-dimensional photograph. If you are standing anywhere near it, though, you get a sense of your own size and scale in relation to it. After a full day of walking outdoors in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, I began to feel an existential shift. It may have been coupled with dehydration or an altitude reaction. That huge expanse of open air off the edge of the rim fascinated me. I could disappear, be swallowed whole, and evaporate like a drop of rain before hitting the ground. I stood before a terrifying beauty. I trembled. My legs were weak. I sat down on the rock shelf in Steve’s embrace and wept.
Ya know what I like about blogging? I get to travel the globe vicariously with some of the most adventurous. Truth is, I am not one of those. I’m over 50. I don’t have a lot of money. I have four grown children and spent my younger adult life being a stay-at-home mom. I have never done the exotic traveling that so many of my blogging friends are doing. But I’m not complaining! Next month, I am taking 3 weeks off to go on a road trip to the Canyonlands of Utah. This will be my fourth cross-country trek in nine years. I can satisfy a lot of my wanderlust just by getting into my car and camping my way across the U.S. of A.
One of the wilderness character traits is Solitude, a dwindling natural resource. Where do you go to realize your solitude, to find humility, to gain perspective? Where do you find reminders that we do not dominate the planet?
The Photo 101 prompt says, “try to capture an establishing shot: a wide-angle photo that sets up a scene. It might mean moving back some steps, or finding higher ground (like climbing stairs) to fit all of your scene in one shot.” Here’s the ‘higher ground’ I used to get this shot:
This week’s prompt page from The Daily Post says this about monuments: “They insist on their own importance, but at the same time allow locals and tourists, pilgrims and accidental visitors, to share a moment and to get a taste of each other’s stories.” The same can be said of the photographs we take and treasure and post. They are monuments of our journey, where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, the stories we’ve told and heard. So, I’d like to share some monuments from my journey on Friday. Steve and I are trying to take a weekly field trip out into the more rural areas of Wisconsin. We are researching a new life, a new home, a new way of embodying what we value: simple, honest work in a lifestyle that respects the planet and is less dependent on human systems. We drove up into the North Country, beyond the oak savannas of southeastern Wisconsin, through the Driftless Area (unglaciated during the most recent glacial event) with its windswept sandstone outcroppings, and into the cranberry bogs and pine forests of Ho-Chunk land. The monumental feeling of this expedition is built of adventure, re-connection with the Earth, the joy of being alive, and the peace of being open to whatever we encounter.
How many internet “news” headlines associate that word with female celebrities on the red carpet? SOOOooo not my style of subject.
The curve ball? The cosmic 2 by 4 upside the head? Ah, yes. That experience is one with which I am familiar. I appreciate a good twist of fate/destiny/plot/philosophy. I’ve been reading a 1917 copy of Best Russian Short Stories compiled by Thomas Seltzer. Intense! Revolutionary! Profound! I recommend The Shades, A Phantasy by Korolenko: Socrates investigating the justice of religion, and for lighter fare, How a Muzhik Fed Two Officials by Saltykov: like Mark Twain satire, only Russian.
Visually, curves are naturally graceful. Is there anything in nature that is completely straight? I’ve thought about that several times, and the closest thing I can come up with is a pine needle. Any other ideas out there?
So, here are some curves from my photo files: