What can we do but keep on breathing in and out, modest and willing, and in our places?
It may be that the last couple of years have been the most difficult in my life. I may elaborate on the reasons in a future post, but I will say now that my recent time in the canyons was as emotional as any I have spent in this desert. After a roller coaster of a year, coming to terms with an illness, and other surprises—pleasant and otherwise—I needed the comfort of things familiar and beautiful. I needed to meander in the red glow, to be isolated from the trials of life in a world of peaceful sounds, delicate scents, and endless nuanced sensations for which no words exist. I needed to return to the world of the canyon.
Despite the ongoing drought and the poor shape of deciduous trees in the local mountains, the cottonwoods in the deep canyons put on a memorable display of autumn color, each leaf still clinging to a tree now the color of a ripe lemon. Recalling memories of thoughts and sensations, I can almost smell the cool dry air tinged with the familiar scents of autumn, the soft gurgle of water, the radiant light, and the stroke of the breeze against my skin, like the gentle touch of a healer.
After so many years in this beautiful desert, I have become aware of even the smallest changes. If I saw nothing else, the qualities of sunlight and the delicate smells would be enough to know that it is autumn. This has been an unusually good year for rabbitbrush; water in the creeks appears clearer and more emerald in tone than it does in other seasons; the path of water has shifted a bit as rocks and stumps rearranged by the summer monsoon floods (very few of which we had this year). I feel proud to have evolved such a close relationship with this desert as to notice such things. It is this awareness, honed and refined in the course of decades, that makes these places feel so welcoming and familiar to me. But of course these places are never without mystery and secrets, never familiar enough as to not surprise on occasion with new visions and revelations. I sometimes wonder whether those photographers who hop frantically from one place to another, never staying longer than it takes to make a few photographs, ever get to feel such a connection with a place. I, too, was once enchanted with stories of travels to exotic places. I thought that to see more of the surface of the world was the way to become more enlightened about its nature. That was before I learned how much lies beneath the surface.
The turning of the leaves may be the most obvious sign of the season, but it is not the only sign. For example, for a period of about four weeks each autumn, patches of exposed earth above the canyon floors come alive with dense, soft, and vibrant grasses, combed into sinuous fractal patterns by meandering winds. I wonder how many people know the plush feeling of walking barefoot on these verdant mats.
After the long drive on a bumpy dirt road, and the obligatory difficult entry into the canyon—part of the reason I have only twice in two decades found other people’s footprints in it, and never in its side-canyons, I walked the wash until I reached water and big trees, and made my camp in a protected alcove near a patch of ephemeral grass, across from a hackberry tree guarding the entrance to the alcove.
This is no ordinary alcove. Unlike most sandstone alcoves, with their arcing gaping openings, this one hides behind a rincon—an island of rock remaining after the creek abandoned its old course and carved a new one. The original channel, likely short lived as it is rather narrow, cut at the base of the sandstone cliff, creating a rounded chamber, only some twenty feet wide, its floor now covered in soft grass illuminated by a narrow beam of warm sunlight. This, too, only happens for about a month in autumn as the sun is lower and further south in the sky than it is in summer, when this alcove gets no direct sunlight at all. All this I learned some years ago, and have returned to spend a night or two in this place almost every year since. “Welcome back,” it whispered to me, “you are home now and everything is ok.”
I thought about remaining in place, to just rest and recuperate for a couple of days. But the call of yet greater walls and larger trees was impossible to resist. I wanted to venture further away from the morass of memories and emotions that marked the months before. And so, I spent my second day walking for nearly ten hours to the lower, deeper, more mysterious reaches of the canyon. This place is so rarely visited that it is likely that much the local wildlife has never crossed paths with a human being.
You may find places somewhat similar in appearance that are much easier to get to, but appearances are a small part of the experience of the desert. I don’t know that there is a word to describe the mix of feelings inspired by remoteness. Perhaps it is an emotion in itself, known only to few. To a recluse like me, it is one of the most comforting feelings there are: the practically certain knowledge that I am alone, removed from the mass of humanity, and that no other person is to be found within many miles. Like the difficult entry protecting the wildness of the canyon, this sense of blissful remoteness also is protected by barriers—inner ones. Finding comfort in such places is only possible after one has transcended the anxiety that afflicts most people in such places. Not me. I know of this anxiety only by hearsay. This is where I feel most at home.
As I walk, I delight in the iridescent film lining the creek’s shallow edge—a phenomenon once known to few but that has now become a magnet for photographers. Good? Bad? As I like to say, there is one correct answer to almost any question—it depends. Rounding a corner, a solitary giant of a tree appears in the nave of a curve in the canyon, spreading its great limbs like arms protecting weaker and more fragile beings—shrubs and lizards and birds and me. Without thought, I whisper, “good morning, your majesty.” I remove my pack, savoring the sense of relief, and spend some time getting reacquainted with some rocks. I then devour an early lunch at the foot of the great tree, my small world bathed in vibrant warm colors and intricate detail as if lit by some red sun. My meager sandwich in this place rewarding in ways that can never be accomplished in even the most fancy of restaurants.
In a wide section of the lower canyon, walled by cliffs hundreds of feet tall, a paradise of desert life thrives, hidden among steep precipices like the mythical Shangri-La, and just as difficult to find. Enormous cottonwood trees spread their canopies above the rich tapestry of desert plants, a crystalline stream flows through fluted waterways, forming a chain of small pools nestled in basins of polished red rocks. It is inevitable that after some time spent in such a place, one is likely to at least consider not leaving, not rejoining the hives of humanity. I can think of no sense—not sight, not smell, not hearing, not touch, and not even taste—in which any city can surpass this wild and delicate paradise. A dry piece of bread tastes better here than any creation of any great chef consumed in a city. To me, that is. I must be cautious not to tempt too many to seek this place. I chuckle as I remember seeing new signs in the area stating unequivocally, “you could die here.” I suspect this is meant to intimidate, but I can’t help the thought that to die here would not be the worst of fates.
Just above a downstream confluence with another canyon, my home for the night is in another grassy clearing, this one under a pair of old trees, surrounded by vibrant skunkbush and allowing long views up and down the canyon. Tomorrow I will traverse the deep pools separating me from the confluence, and make my way back up the other canyon.
It may seem abrupt to end the story here, to not mention the contemplation and the soul-searching and the crying, but the next two days were, in so many wonderful ways, more of the same. I think that if Henri Cartier-Bresson, master of the “decisive moment,” was to join me on one of these hikes, he would die of boredom. Nothing here happens decisively, nothing demands quick action, nothing breaks the soothing flow of water and time, the curving walls always disappearing around some bend, obscuring what surprises and beauty may lie beyond. Maybe I really shouldn’t go back. Maybe next time.
Who will tell whether one happy moment of love or the joy of breathing or walking on a bright morning and smelling the fresh air, is not worth all the suffering and effort which life implies.