After a breakfast of cold oats and an orange, I take Highway 95 a few miles to Rec Road 633, which comes in on the north between the Colorado and Dirty Devil rivers. This crimson track traces around the base of a thin rock wall decaying into fins. I travel it for one mile, park on some desert pavement, load up with water, and hike frozen dunes of pillow rock down to the Colorado. I follow the bank of the river up Narrow Canyon, a six-mile straight run of gorge that connects Cataract with Glen canyons.
The sheer walls are coated in desert varnish, sans the promotional art I hallucinated last night. As I climb up and down the cornflower domes of Navajo Sandstone, testing the crumbly shelf rock, I enjoy leaps up and down, using my upper body to climb down pour offs.
Rocks out here flirt with you to climb them. If you spend time with them, natural steps and clefts, ladders and walkways make themselves apparent. They invite you to test them, to wander yourself up and down all over their wide backs. Wild rock, no less than Michelangelo’s block of marble, is sculpture, shape waiting to be liberated, and climbed. And that liberation happens naturally all over the face of this rocky planet. No one has to help it along. Erosion and mass wasting are automatic processes. It’s as if someone wrote a program. Someone slept and dreamt the rocky world and, once set, the stone begins to dream itself, to sculpt itself. We, too, are in the process of that becoming, sculpted and sculpting ourselves. That was the answer to my question to myself on this trip. What was I supposed to do with my life? I was ‘supposed’ to allow myself to happen, to let myself take shape.
I reflected on these strange, evolving matters. I thought about last night, when I’d raced a road, endangering myself and the lives of rabbits. I had surrendered to the littleness in my being, to worry, five minutes after I’d scribbled NO WORRY on my index card of No’s. I’d become small. The worried, obsessive self always runs on automatic programming, in the background like some mad operating system, giving rise to neurotic apps which tempt me to overreact. Its agenda is to be in control when I’m feeling out of control.
At Narrow Canyon, I found a way down to the lowest tier of cliff, one step below the mushroom rock that caps the desert out here. I couldn’t get any lower without a sheer drop to the river. I had to leave my backpack back to do it. I couldn’t line it because the climb down the rock was too long. So I abandoned it, trusting I’d find it among the ubiquitous domes of ivory sandstone.
Almost as soon as I’d left it behind, my mind began to obsess on that pack. You’ll never find it. The cliffs here are like waves and everything ends up looking the same. I realized in that moment that this was an opportunity to do last night over again. I didn’t have to let my fear run me. I could feel it without letting it select my thoughts and distort my choosing.
I committed a series of landmarks to memory. One of my natural cairns was an oblong rock about two feet across with a small head. Three pedestals of sandy stone with circular makings all the way up and down them held it aloft from the ground. The pedestals were small beehives with parallel bedding, the way wet clay looks when it’s spun on a potter’s wheel. Each of the three, foot-like bases contacted the heavy stone. It looked artificial. I crouched down to make sure someone hadn’t set the oval rock on the three supports. The tops of the pedestals bore signs of natural cement that had glued the feet to the caprock, and that meant an erosive process. It looked like a three-legged tortoise.
I climbed down to last ledge of cliffs before the walls dove a thousand feet down. I got down on my hands and knees and inched up to the lip of the scarp and spied the river, limned in by wide beaches of willow and tamarisk.
The cliffs in Narrow are remarkable for their lack of talus all the way down to the riverbanks.
You’ll never find it.
“Find what?” I asked myself. You have to be pretty schizoid to not what know what your inner voice is telling you.
You’re backpack, dummy.
“Sure I will. Relax.”
Everything looks the same out here. Someone else will find it and think you’re lost. They’ll send a medivac chopper out for you and you’ll have to pay them thousands and thousands of dollars.
I needed to pour calm over everything, like Belden Lane had written in Backpacking with the Saints. So, as I dropped down to that final terrace of rock over the river, I made myself enjoy my view of the sharp turn miles upriver at Mille Crag Bend, where half-formed scarlet statues hundreds of feet high stood in the million-year process of liberating themselves from sheer rock walls. Would they become cathedral saints or stupas? Everything always in the process of becoming. Nothing ever finished, for as soon as it stands as one sculpture, the rain and ice and wind begin chiseling it into something else. Stone always in dissolution, always in consolidation. We never reach an end, but always only midwifed into something else.
My hike ended at a towering alcove which carved an almost circular shape.
This was the mouth of Rock Canyon, a mostly dry slot that emptied at its confluence into Narrow Canyon. It formed a cylinder from my eye level all the way down to its talus base. On the opposite side, where its circular shape met the straight edge of the river cliffs, the alcove ended in a sharp, bull-nosed face about 40 feet across, which held to a straight façade from the clifftop down to the water’s edge. The faces so erect, so vertical that, even on my hands and knees, I couldn’t see the cliffs bottoms.
Natural rock is sculpture. It is not hallucination to envision that shapes within longing to break out and touch wind and sun and rain, a new skin awaiting its birth. This alcove was a grotto to Narrow Canyon. At the end of my pilgrimage, I’d found the shrine.
But your backpack . . .
This time, in the presence of my beloved monuments, something else answered back the littleness:
Stay here awhile. It came from a deeper, surer place. Stay until you really feel what’s here.
That’s what I did. Besides, I wasn’t stupid enough to leave anything of value in the pack. With that said, I feel pretty stupid, much of the time.
Stupid in the ways of people and the world, to which I always compare myself and where I always find someone a little better, a little bigger; where my strategy is to bolt things on like colored hair or bigger muscles; where the smaller I feel, the more I want to brag, to compete. Out here, I am the smallest practical unit, the smallest object of comparison. I am 5’11 ½”, 165 pounds, versus thousands of feet, dozens of miles and millions of tons. And yet I don’t feel small.
Out here, I am not stupid. I can be immensely practical: I can know what to do during a storm. I can realize I need to camp on the dry side of a mud wallow in a road. I can fold up the white lining of my drying jacket over glinting steel water bottles which lie on a rockface so that a low flying plane doesn’t mistake it all as a distress signal. To find my way, I can use landmarks and the place of the sun in the sky instead of Google Maps. I say these things not to boast, but to show that I, too, am a carving in the process of ancient becoming, as old as the rock; a mind millions of years in the changing, which, as long as it remains in the moment, always knows what to do. In the now, I always have all the information I need to make the decisions I absolutely need to make. In the present, I really know what I need to do. My career? The rest of my life? Who the fuck knew about any of that? Not even God, I suspected, because whatever God was, It could only live in the moment, too.
I stayed here completely for a while, at the confluence of Rock and Narrow canyons. Not just now, but here, beside this chasm, watching the unmoving bend miles up river. The primordial stone across the vast alcove etched in iron red and manganese black. When I could be here and now, even for just one moment, I stepped outside the world and its time and insistences. Yet since the world was in my mind, I stepped then outside my own babbling and lived as a god stretched from end to end of eternity, spanned the rift below in a great sail of being.
A voice inside said: Now, you can go.
And in the same moment, I also became aware that what I was ‘supposed to’ be doing with my life was what gave me joy. Not excitement, but joy. That meant writing. It didn’t matter that it didn’t pay or that I wasn’t regarded by the masses. It meant that I was supposed to be writing this. To do what I am called to do right now. I ask for direction far into a future spanning many miles. I am given knowledge of the next step. Because it’s always only now. I’m always only here.
Before this trip, during this trip, I had a small wave of self-pity wash over me because I felt a little useless. I didn’t want to think about the future because I didn’t think I had much of a future to come back to. In this moment, the clouds wafted over the mottled gray of the Little Rockies on the brim of Glen Canyon farther west. Those clouds scarved the summits as the sharp peaks knifed them like cotton. Mountains of mystery, poured with awe. The higher peaks of the Henry’s – Hillers, Pennell and Ellen – betrayed through brief glimpses between passings of storms, hinted of snow gathered in the granite clefts.
In this moment, everything came flooding in. There was so much to my life, so much to do, so many ways to serve. I was stricken with gratitude. Heaven came back. Not the heaven that comes with mystic beauty, not the one burgeoning with the hope of some future promise, but the paradise born of love for my very good fortune. Life, having seemed empty when I looked at it through the prism of the wastes of time which bespoke of an empty future stretching years until my gray death, flooded with possibility, culminating in reality when I lived Now.
God always was, and never will not be, but can only be found Now. God never was. In the past, God had died, trampled on by disillusionment, betrayed by our false memories and the abuses of history. In the future, God will never come to be. Always almost arriving in the promise of a better future, in the hope of heaven that never comes.
It’s all happening now – the past, present and future mingled together in a mélange of boulders in this place. I already have everything. When I live in time, I’m pining over that which is gone and which will never be retrieved. Dead recollections. Ghosted things. In the future, I will never have my hope because what I want is always unrealized, always then and there. Never here and now. Worry and hope conspire to murder my soul in the glint of some awful, glorious future. Living in time is a way of undermining and betraying myself, cheating myself of the glory of the present tense. Like those storms razing the mountaintops, I cut myself off at the neck through expectation. To look fondly on the memory of my grandfather, to leap to the child of the future slays God and pushes the Infinite away, and I pretend then and there that I don’t have it here and now.
I choose not to play small, not to live from programmed dread, like I had last night, like those two dudes had yesterday at Hole-in-my-Head. I gazed straight below at the shelf beaches at the bottom of Narrow Canyon one more time before I headed back.
With just a couple of dead ends, I found my pack based on landmarks. Just like the people of the San Juan Expedition, I made it through this trip with minimal mishap. The Hole-in-the-Rock party lost no lives on their way down the west cliffs of Glen Canyon. Just like those pioneers, I managed to find my way without a compass, through the help of intuition, which is another name for Now.
There comes a time in life to abandon littleness and embrace risk, by trusting in the moment. The LDS of the San Juan Expedition were willing to bet everything they had on their faith, and belief before the seeing was what saw them through. No, I’m not LDS, but I sure admire their pluck. It is belief, always, that saves. The source of faith, be it a boxer’s in himself or a mother’s in her child, matters not.
On my way back, I caught a panorama of what Glen Canyon must’ve looked like before it was inundated by Powell. I stopped at the top of the slickrock formation that I’d floated on this whole trip. Centered by Hite Crossing Bridge, the silver arch that spans the Colorado, the red domes of Trachyte Point step up. Even higher, the leaden gray Henrys stand snowed in behind the crimson cliffs and mesas. That straight river, the Colorado, finally winds beyond vision at the beginning of Powell. I watch a boat, having just run Cataract Canyon, pull in at Hite.
A cold, wind-driven rain had penetrated down to the joints of the earth, and my joints as well. Now, the sky cleared overhead. No clouds for miles around me. Yet new raindrops wet my face. I looked up and could not determine their source. Urine dump from a plane at 30,000 feet? Raven pee? No, turned to silver sparks by the sun, they were gifts from that which we can experience, which we can accept, yet never really understand.
On the drive back home, everything was burnished in sunlight. I practiced seeing the beauty in all of it: utility poles, semis and semi drivers, farm implements parked along the road, Sleeping Ute Mountain which snow and shadow molded in dimensions I’d never seen before; all fired in the same light, a radiance which emanated from their interior selves, which struck out from my eyes and painted them all in clarity. After all, it’s my dream. To practice a spiritual beauty by freeing the supernal seed occulted within the shell of masking ugliness or appeal which rides on the surface of every image. To see through the air cleansed by chill rain to the core of every fruit. The land greening. The fields lush, bright emeralds at the foot of the snowed in slopes of the Abajos.
With little sleep, paltry food, miles and miles of walking and driving and climbing with feet and hands and truck tires, with sleeted sky which pushed into my bones until they softened like siltstone, I discovered a fire which always kept within, a revolution in the way of seeing, and a gratitude that washed away the bitter rime of the past. It erased the transgressions that never even were, and took away the need for hope in a future that never would be. All I need to do is stay here now.
To get to Narrow Canyon: Take Highway 95 just west of Hite and cross the Hite Crossing Bridge. About a mile west of the bridge, a road will come in on the north.