If I summon up those memories that have left with me an enduring savor, if I draw up the balance sheet of the hours in my life that have truly counted, surely I find only those that no wealth could have procured me. ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I went to visit with the canyon that has been a friend to me for all these years—the first of many canyons I came to know in this desert that is now my home, where I spent my first of many nights gazing into the cosmos through the arc of an alcove and felt free for the first time in my life; the canyon where, in the course of decades, I have come, time and again, to heal and to renew, to contemplate the great questions of life, to break down and to grieve, or for no reason at all—the canyon where the life I live today had begun.
Strange thing, a canyon: a place made of absence, the space between the cliffs—the nothing that is something.
I came burdened with the melancholy that has taken over my life about two years ago, when I contracted a mysterious illness.
I like to joke, sometimes, that I experienced my mid-life crisis when I was 19 (I was a conscripted soldier then). By that accounting, I am already on borrowed time. Awareness of my mortality has been a constant preoccupation since my teenage years, and I have made my peace with it long ago. At times I even yearned for it. Places like this canyon are where I—the person that I am today—was born, and where I hope I’ll someday spend my last moments of life. So much in theory. In truth, when I am in such places, I feel more alive and more grateful for my life than anywhere else.
My favorite tree may be the cottonwood. At times, I have been deeply enamored with aspens and ponderosa pines and others, although such affairs were always short-lived, usually lasting only until a time when find myself again in the company of a gnarled old cottonwood. The canyon is home to some of my favorite cottonwoods.
In an interview for the Smithsonian about his portfolio of cottonwood photographs, after expressing his concern for the diminishing natural beauty of the West, photographer Robert Adams was asked, “What is your basis of hope?” His response, in summary, was that he was hopeful because of “other people’s caring.” In a sense, I may be Adams’s antithesis: I am not hopeful, exactly because of other people’s uncaring. It is odd to me that, although Adams claims to be hopeful, his photographs to me are tinged with sadness. His work portrays, in a decidedly-unflattering manner, human incursions into the Western landscape. While I, devoid of hope and riddled with pervasive sadness, find solace and meaning in the beauty of the West. I deliberately photograph those things—those achingly beautiful things—that persist defiantly in the face of such human incursions as Adams photographs, and as far away from these incursions as I can venture.
But enough of that. It’s time to walk.
Descending from the canyon rim by way of a small tributary, I enter the canyon. The mid-July heat made heavier by humidity from recent rains, and the familiar blend of smells characteristic of these riparian environments, overwhelm my senses. After walking in the relentless morning sun, I am drenched with sweat by the time I reach the blissful shade of the cottonwoods and canyon walls, wash my face and dip my feet in the stream. Last time I was here, the creek was iced over, the trees were bare, and all was silent: the kind of perfect and austere silence only possible when many miles away from humans and from the strongholds of humanity, in the desert, in winter. Now the place is alive with the songs of birds, the cawing of ravens, lizards in the undergrowth, the trickle of water, the whisper of the breeze, and the trembling of leaves in the verdant trees.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela wrote, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” I realize that, in a sense, I am also the antithesis to Mandela: I don’t recall ever being to a place that remained unchanged from one visit to the next, nor feeling that I have not altered from one day to the next. Especially in places such this, I become acutely aware of how I have altered because, like me, these places morph and transform constantly with the passage of time and the cycles of seasons, with weather and erosion and light. What can I say? I have always been a dialectic and a recluse—it’s just how I’m wired—and in my current incarnation, I have never felt the slightest temptation to be anything else. To me, there is no greater freedom than freedom from other people, and I don’t expect to ever write an autobiography. My life, other than those aspects of it I choose to share in my work, is nobody’s business. But still, without a doubt, there are at least some dimensions of this place, and of me, that remain unchanged even as appearances do.
At the base of a cliff, a large Sacred Datura in bloom calls out to me, its large flowers as white and velvety as a fairy’s gown. I stick my nose into one of the blooms to inhale its sweetness, and am instantly filled with memories, so numerous and vivid that I am compelled to sit by the blooming plant to parse them out, to give each due attention, returning on occasion to smell another flower, and another. Most of these memories, as it turns out, take me to other times and other places in this desert. A few reach farther and deeper, to other lives—mine and others’—and those, upon further contemplation, bring tears to my eyes. Raising my head to look down the winding corridor ahead—the red rock, the trees, the water—tears of sadness are soon replaced with tears of gratitude. The effort of the walk in, the soreness and the sweat, no longer are part of my experience. I am in the world of the canyon, in body and mind.
Time to keep walking.
Rounding a sweeping gooseneck curve, I arrive at a large pool, now in shade after having been exposed to the sun in the hours before. Without a moment’s thought, as has been my custom when visiting here in the warm seasons, I remove my pack and my clothes and dive in. The water’s temperature is perfect to refresh after a long walk in the heat, but not too cold as to shock. After recent floods, the water is deeper than usual, and I swim around, pausing to watch crawdads struggle up the small waterfall feeding the pool, and fallen leaves gliding down it.
Refreshed from my swim, I walk around to let the breeze and the sun dry me before resuming my walk. With time to study the rock and the plant life, I am delighted to find a small bat sleeping below a rock ledge, and a few red monkeyflowers peeking from hanging gardens of maidenhair ferns.
Entering a narrower part of the canyon, the trees disappear, and the walls grow closer and taller. Every curve radiates a golden glow as reflected sunlight bounces off the red walls. The creek now flows over bare rock, the water weaving in smooth, sensuous, fluted pathways under my feet.
At a confluence with a small, unnamed, tributary, I leave the main channel and hike up the side-canyon to an ancient Native American dwelling. All signs suggest it is very old, perhaps occupied by early Puebloan or Fremont people, making it as old as a thousand years, perhaps a couple of centuries beyond. Faded figures are pecked into the wall, difficult to discern at first—bighorn sheep, a snake (perhaps), and other figures I cannot identify, their state of erosion suggesting that this may even be an Archaic site, potentially dating as far back as ten thousand years or more. Someone more knowledgeable than me may be able to tell for sure, but other than a degree of curiosity, it doesn’t matter much to me. I am more interested in how these people lived than in who they were. Admittedly, my interest in human cultures—past and present—has always been more anthropological than tribal.
I return to my canyon and proceed further, stopping on occasion to stuff my backpack into a dry bag as I traverse some of the deeper pools. Despite the higher-than-normal water level, I am able to keep my head above water and my feet on the ground, although my clothes are completely soaked. No matter. Things dry quickly in the dry desert air.
In the early afternoon what were previously light cirrus clouds have morphed into thicker, grayer, and more menacing cumulus. It is monsoon season. A flash flood is a not-uncommon thing here in the summer months and into autumn, usually in the afternoon. Time to get out of the narrows. At the top of a steep and grassy sandy hill nestled at the nave of a hairpin curve in the canyon, is a deep alcove—my home for the night. No tent is needed. No sooner than my bed is made—a cushy inflatable pad and a light sleeping bag—a drizzle begins. Good timing.
Thunder is booming. I unpack the overstuffed sandwich I prepared before leaving my camp on the rim as the air becomes rich with the scents of wet earth and desert plants. Leaning against a large rock, I watch as a veil of thin trickles forms over the mouth of the alcove.
Muffled echoes of water and wind emanating from the canyon sound eerily like human voices. I’ve experienced this phenomenon enough times as to not be jarred by it.
I had hoped to see a flash flood coming down the canyon and waterfalls cascading over the cliffs, but the rain is soon over. As if on cue, the moment the rain stopped, a canyon wren bursts into bold cascading song reverberating off the canyon walls. Hard to believe that such a tiny bird can sing with such power.
I leave my pack and descend into the canyon again, mindful to remain close, where I can reach safety at the hint of a coming flood. Red spotted toads have appeared from wherever they were hiding. I spend the afternoon engaging in my usual canyon silliness—walking barefoot in the water and among the soft grasses, listening to music, making notes, conversing (or at least pretending to) with wrens and ravens, drawing the curiosity of lizards as they approach me gingerly when I am sitting perfectly still.
Evening finds me reading in my sleeping bag. As darkness sets, I prepare my little stove within reach for the morning coffee and watch as planets and stars begin to appear. I smile as I hear the familiar hooting of a great horned owl somewhere down the canyon. He, or she, will entertain me several more times in the coming hours.
I’m prepared to stay a couple of days if the weather looks threatening, but by morning the sky is a cloudless blue. After a quick breakfast I repack my belongings for the walk back. I take my time, savoring the sights and the scents, breaking often to examine rocks and critters, to let my sore back rest, or to just sit in some shaded spot to breathe in the desert.
In the late afternoon, not far from my vehicle and feeling a little adventurous, I decide to scramble up a steep chute and to walk the rest of the way along the rim, looking down at the creek and the cottonwoods. The effort proves greater than I had anticipated, and I feel proud and relieved to emerge at the top. Storm clouds had gathered again and I enjoy the cooling breeze and the occasional drizzle.
Arriving at my vehicle, tired and overwhelmed with the experiences and beauty of the hike, I drive to a stand of junipers, now richly fragrant after the rain. My small truck camper feels like a luxurious palace after a night in the alcove. After washing up and changing into dry and clean-smelling clothes, I set about cooking dinner, replaying in my mind the events, sights, sounds, and smells of the previous couple of days, glad and grateful for these new additions to my trove of favorite memories.
I consider whether words can fully describe such experiences and conclude that some things can’t be entirely learned from second-hand accounts, no matter how eloquent, and can only be known by in-person experience, and I feel grateful yet again.