Out of body in the desert
Ryan Summerlin March 13, 2014
The hardest thing about routine is breaking it, or even realizing that you should — or could — snap the pattern.
Last week was an experiment to see what might happen if I did things a little differently. There were some places around Moab I’d always wanted to experience, but I kept driving past them for years.
I only had four days to work with. Normally that doesn’t seem like enough time to justify packing all my climbing and camping gear to go by myself. When I’m in the playground of the desert, my mode of operation is typically pedal to the metal: get out there as fast as possible; stay as long as possible; and climb from dawn to dusk. Without a partner, there was no guarantee I would have the type of fun I’m used to. In most cases I would have scrapped the trip if I couldn’t find a friend to ride shotgun. That changed a bit last week.
Since the end of January, my heart had ached for the wide, starry sky, the fine sand and salty smell of the river running through crimson canyons. More than climbing, I simply wanted to be there. I promised myself that I would make it happen on my first opportunity, no matter what.
I’ve found that keeping my word to myself is even more important than keeping it to a friend. It has to do with self-respect, and a healthy self-esteem has everything to do with fulfilling personal potential.
I should add that I’ve been under some stress with writing deadlines lately. As I prepared to leave, I also promised myself that the trip was going to be more about the writing than the climbing. I didn’t believe I would do that much writing while I was out there in the dust. Sure, I’d scribble some ideas and journal entries, but I mostly expected to revel in a beautiful place and bring inspiration home for the writing.
I planned to camp at the Big Bend Boulders outside Moab on Thursday night and meet a climber friend in Indian Creek — which is 90 minutes south of Moab — the following night.
The Big Bend Boulders are world-class chunks of rock strewn along River Road, the scenic way into Moab. I’ve stopped and piddled on the artistic, angular blocks a couple times while passing through, but I’ve never spent quality time there.
I pulled into campsite No. 1 under a grey evening sky. Climbers hollered, giddy on the rocks, while I set up my tent. My first impulse was to join the fun once the tent was up.
Instead I surprised myself. I remembered a self-promise from that morning and pulled out the laptop. Several pages followed, almost effortlessly. I finished writing and still had time to grope rocks before dark. After dark I wrote some more, until the stars came out.
For the first time in my life, writing came first. I wrote so much I lost track of time at the keyboard.
A waxing crescent moon added just enough light that I hardly needed a headlamp. I’d been getting ready for bed, but the night was too beautiful. I went to the river and stood on the muddy shore, where dark, rippling water reflected the moon and the arching canyon wall.
From there, my feet picked up the hard-packed dirt of a little trail that led me to an isolated boulder at the top of a wash. The varnished rock felt natural in my hands. The boulder was high and the landing was bad, but I couldn’t resist the pull of the smooth, sloping rails. Up I went, against my better judgment. My heart pulsed at a scary move near the top.
I sat on the summit with a sigh of relief. I looked over the gnarly hillside below in the silver light, overwhelmed in solitude. Then I saw it. My heart skipped again — I was not alone!
There was a figure on the rock. It was so weathered I climbed over it without noticing. Then, plain as day, I saw the petroglyph, a bow hunter. I’d only found it by stepping out of my routine desert trip. Just like that, the age of the petroglyph felt like nothing and four days felt like a lifetime.
I stayed an extra night at Big Bend and wrote some more. I went to other new places and met new friends, and I still made it to Indian Creek on Saturday night.
During my second night at the Big Bend picnic table, I watched the headlights of cars speeding by on the road. The yellow lights shined far and bright, but I knew the drivers only saw pavement and a blur of the land around them. How far and fast we go, seeing so little!
Pull over. Step outside once in a while. You’ll find yourself in a new world.
— “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of every month. Derek Franz lives in Carbondale and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.