Riding the Sturm Out

I reach camp. The backpackers parked about a mile north have gone. Now, I am truly alone at the end of this road. I gorge on two cans of cold tuna and a huge bag of toffee cashews. As an afterthought, I decide to check the weather.  The forecasts have worsened. Rain all night. Thunder and lightning. Sturm and drang. My window to make it back to pavement is closing.

Everyone has left this place (all five other people). Where are YOU? Where is everyone when I need them? I don’t want people around until I need them. Until I need them to pull me out of a wallow or a rushing wash. A suicide note I read, written by a man who was successful in the attempt, began with the words: I need people.

I need people. Without them I have no mother, and so no birth. Without others, I have no food, no water, no roof over my head, no clothes on my back. The illusion that I can do without you is crushed, shattered in times of cold and pain when I am stripped of my narcissistic fantasy of autonomy, which masquerades as a deeper solitude. The list of No’s on my index cards of resolutions (i.e., Resolution # 2: No People) had been, I realize, a temper tantrum. One cannot live life by negation, even though one can live life by naught else.

Panic sets in, even though Backpacking with the Saints admonishes me to spread calm all over everything, that it’s the panic that kills the mind during emergencies. Like those dudes yesterday. They’d panicked. I was them. And it wasn’t even a real emergency, like the conditions those 263 LDS souls confronted in December, 1879, when snows blocked them from escape back up the trail. I had a faux-emergency. I could wait a few more days, if I really had to.

In five minutes, I’m on the road. The decision, if I don’t want to stay another three or four days, is probably a sound one. It’s the way I proceed that pushes the paradise of the sunset, of the heavenly light burning in cold rain from the top of that cliff at my shoulder, into oblivion. For that is always where I push paradise – into obliviousness.  If the world is in my mind, both figuratively and literally, then I’m the one who sets the storms between me and sunset. How can heaven shift in a moment? Because bliss is in the moment and only there. Because when I choose to focus on fear, I get the object of my fear, and crave its embrace.

Fear will become the gateway into the next paradise, but in the moment of its rule, fear obscures that light. Having drowned out the light in the now absolute night, without moon or star or the lights of men, I bump down the 57-mile road that has washed out in places, dodging rocky knives that could puncture my sturdy, vulcanized wheels.

The washes I cross at the long bottoms of ruts are mostly dry. It’s not raining right here, but in this kind of country, it depends more on whether it rains on the top of a scarp or a range of mountains miles away than it does right here. So it’s a mad dash out of the bottle before it fills back up and gets capped. I’d done this kind of dash once before, a few miles east of here on Burr Trail-Notom Road, when I’d gotten stopped out by a flooded wash just a few miles from pavement and had to turn around and race along washboards for some 60 miles back to blessed asphalt. Asphalt, like assholes, is something you hate and condescend to tolerate, until you need it. I needed that thing that people build all over the world. I craved blacktop.

My decision to leave when I did had been prudent. It was the way I did it that betrayed the littleness in my being. In the moment, I chose obsessive worry. I chose fear. To live in fear is to live in its small circle; it’s to stay small. I drove fast over the washboards, vibrating my brains like canned paint in a shaker at the store.  Just after I thought I’d finally transcended that little boy who sometimes feels the need to run things out of supreme fear, he popped back up.

Just after I thought I’d gotten past the last of it, more rock and wash and fang rock. Then, finally, the road widened and all I had to tolerate were the peaks and troughs of the waveform road for a few dozen miles. Then, I even outlasted the washboards.  20 more miles, and I’d be back to the safety of Highway 12. Who did I think I’d been kidding? A road wimp still was I.

Either some new polymer had been applied to the roadbed, or the dangers of bentonite shook my world back into 4WD. Slurry piled up on the road, wet like sludge, like slush, literally pushed into semi-solid mounds and rills as if my tires plowed snow. I slid across the wide bed and kept to the middle of the road so I didn’t roll off the raised shoulder.   It forced me to slow, and I recalled how almost any bad road can be negotiated, if driven slowly enough.  I’d covered a 60-mile road to Toroweap on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, an unpaved rout notorious for flats, by slowing down to 3 MPH in places.

Back on pavement, there was no camping for many miles and several hours. Nothing along Highway 12 or even Highway 24. Over the Aquarius Plateau, I took sharp, cliff-borne S’s and U’s up miles of highland. I hit 11,000 feet. A snowstorm had squalled through these plateau tops a few hours before. Serrated ice glued itself to the highway. It was the kind of sharp stuff that sticks to your windshield in the morning when you’re late for work, no matter how hard you scrape and gouge.

No one had plowed the highland highway.  What is wrong with YOU? You’re not doing your fucking job. Only a dual set of tire tracks, lain during the storm, dug down to pavement in the center of the road. I have to drive the center of the highway because the ice was too heavy everywhere else, because I was going down an 8% grade for 40 miles, because it was already 24 degrees F on Boulder Mountain and because all the campgrounds were closed anyway. Like the LDS pioneers in the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition, I had to go on.

The storms had the deer on the move. Right off the shoulder, I almost hit a bevy of muleys, and then another herd, right off my murderous mirror. I slammed on the brakes just as a herd of elk crossed highway 12.

You must understand the decisions one is forced to make at 1 am, when one has not slept in two nights. White mice darted into the road, then flitted back again like they were on an old pinball machine track. Jackrabbits congregated on the asphalt in coffee klatches, right on the centerline. Must’ve been mating season.

Hey, how’s it goin’?  one guy says.

Fine, how ‘bout on your side? says the other guy.

Pretty cool. Wanna fuck?

I’m another male, you idiot.

Oh, sorr–, What’re those bright LIGHTS!?

Replacing the ice as a danger, the lagomorphic lotharios darted in front of the headlights and zagzigged (in that order) in the middle of the road and I had to dodge them until they finally decided to leap back into the brush.

I vault over a hilltop. A rabbit hops lazily in the middle of the road with its back to me. It has no idea I am on top of it and I must drive over it. I hear the tips of its ears hit my axles. I don’t hear, don’t feel the telltale thump of death. Maybe we got lucky and I didn’t squash it.

Yes, there is a certain selfishness in my choice to drive at night just so that I can escape a muckrucketty road back there. I have not encountered, in this 200-mile dark night of the highway, but three other sets of headlights, and no vehicle behind or in front. Once I decided to go, I had to commit all the way. Like they say in poker, I was pot-committed.  I had to keep throwing money at it, tossing rabbits into the stew.

No living things for 200 miles but for the long-eared jacks and the occasional road vole. I started anticipating the rabbits, and in my frenzied delirium, began hallucinating them. Every 200 yards, a Bugs Bunny would automatically launch out from the roadside like the lure at a greyhound track.

I landed highway 24 and raced east toward Hanksville. Dead black but for my brights illumining mile upon mile of ivory cliffs close to the winding road. A sign near Capitol Reef NP notifies the nonexistent motorist of rock art along the cliffs. Suddenly, the desert varnish, the black formations created by the collaboration of microorganisms and manganese that decorates cliffsides all over the Southwest, seem like 100-foot tall renderings by the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloans. I see the legs of bison and hunters, of gods, Nazca-like drawings on the rock walls.

I swear I see covered wagons and horses, and …motorcycles. Fucking tatted up rock. Did they compensate impoverished local artists to draw on the walls as some kind of promotion for tourism? I know I’m hallucinating, but I see wagon wheels and hippies drawn on the walls. They really look in a loose way like something human made. Patternicity, the tendency to see meaning in patternless muck, in the random, has me big time. I suffer from what the psychiatrists call abnormal meaningfulness. Is that what religion really is? Oh, God, no.

Seriously, if you’re a State trooper and you’re reading this, and you later see me driving my camper in Utah at 2:30 a.m., stop me for my own good. I will definitely be impaired from lack of sleep.

I finally make it to my destination: Farley Canyon just east of Hite Crossing at the north end of Lake Powell. I drove from the west shore of this serpentine lake to the east shore. I park. I crank up the sides of the camper. I brush my teeth. I pass out. But before I do, I step outside and sense the lonely, haunted feel of the wine-stained canyon.

To get to Hole-in-the-Rock Road: The way is easy. As you head into or out of the town of Escalante along Highway 12, take the well-signed Hole-in-the-Rock Road which comes in on the south of the highway about 5 miles east of town. Do not confuse this site with the tourist trap of the same name along Highway 191 just south of Moab.