May 22, 2014

Bread in the Desert

On the road for weeks in the Utah desert, I've noticed how my normal routine gets whittled down. I'm stocked with essentials: water, sunscreen, a layer. I don't have a cooler so am eating mostly dry goods. It's temporary, and a worthwhile sacrifice when a trip to the grocery store means going a couple hours off-course. It's an attitude accrued from greed, an insatiability for the wonder around you, to take a piece of it while you can.

Following a waiter's recommendation for a Capitol Reef hike I realize I've bitten off, oh, let's say a little too much. Do other people start a twelve mile hike after lunch? It's rugged, stunning even, but I'm feeling it. On the out-and-back, I finally shortcut the endeavor by reaching an outer trailhead and hitchhiking back to my start. But the campsite is still far away.

Driving north, the twisting landscape of towering red rock, sage and slickrock turns to desert grey, from cracked, ashen earth to tawny mountain buttes, naked of any vegetation, stark mineral against blue sky. In springtime, its redemption is a carpet of bee-plant yellow blooms, a glow that hovers over the valley floor. Emptiness surrounds. Not where you would expect to find a farm stand.

I pull up to Mesa Farm Market, herded in by a grinning Aussie shepherd whose name I'll learn is Zeke. There I meet Randy, a farmer whose idea for a sustainable lifestyle brought him to this unlikely fifty-acre patch of earth. His greenhouse produces organic lettuce and vegetables, an outdoor oven fires up whole grain loaves and goats produce French-style chevre and the harder, buttery tomme. The transaction isn't just commerce, we exchange history, ideas on fencing and goat laments. All to say, the desert is not empty, and for the creative and hardworking, it can even provide, and gloriously so.

At Randy's suggestion, I skip my faraway destination and make camp on BLM land by Factory Butte. Dinner is a heap of greens mixed with mandarins, bread and cheeses, a meal, that even after weeks of restaurant research for a guidebook, is the most satisfying I could imagine.

It seems no lark that I've been reading The Man Who Quit Money, by Mark Sundeen. It tells the story of Daniel Suelo, a man who gave up money in 2009, lives in caves around Moab, and leads a rich life. As a friend said, "it brings all sorts of questions on religion, commerce and happiness." How possible is it to go back to the essential, and live as our ancestors did? To some degree, very. But modern problems--like dentistry, and aging, put a snarl in the simple life.

Few would go this far, though by Suelo's blog, it seems the appeal is growing. Spend any length of time in the desert and your needs will adapt, simplify and ultimately respond to the elemental. Bread and cheese.

April 14, 2014

Rafting the Grand Canyon: Side Effects

The permit was for 25 days on the Colorado River (or as everyone in boating says, 'the Grand). Our group of sixteen put in at Lee's Ferry and took out at Pearce Ferry, with a few free days for hiking. Today, that seems like an impossibly long time to do anything. When was the last time you went truant for over three weeks? Camped out? Went without a shower?

Turns out, I was prepared for a lot of suffering that I didn't experience. I swam in the river instead of showering (does extra cold mean extra clean?) and consumed a gallon of hand sanitizer for good measure. At home I hike, camp, and do the dishes by hand, so not all was novelty. Except for one thing. We were fully disconnected from the outside world.

No emails, no phone calls, no status updates. I hadn't realized how much of my life had been recalibrated to serve technology. I am not here to tell you how bad that is. But I am here to tell you what happens on the rebound. On the river, you tell time by shadows slipping down steep canyon walls, feel the company of constellations and listen to bat serenades. Under these circumstances, normal shifts. Your hands wither and crack from so much sand and water, and no amount of lotion will save them. But you also become willing to forgo a few comforts (or habits as they might be) to live a little bit untethered. Eventually, even cold water feels good.