August 18, 2009

My Favorite Desert

Maybe it's the redness. Or its bigness. Or its shapes which ripple, arch and collapse into sage and sand, snaking rivers, deep slotted canyons, orange mesas and fissured towers. The Utah desert is a wild place. After traveling nearly half the world, I still find it secretive, strange and otherworldly.

That’s the thing about the desert: it absorbs and engulfs you. Tells you who you are.

There's power here. It gave John Wesley Powell courage, Joseph Smith divine inspiration and Edward Abbey words. You imagine that--if here long enough--you too could write whole books, invent a religion or fling yourself one-armed into the unknown.

The desert tells me that I'm a firefly on the face of things, a speck in geological time flitting briefly through this world.

We set out on the Narrows in Zion National Park early. The Narrows isn't a hard hike, but it does require you to tread a river all day, always "seeking refuge on higher ground" in case of a flash flood (which they say most likely off you anyway). After a night of heavy thunderstorms the water flowed clear and cold. We waded to our waists and forged up canyon over slippery boulders, through sculpted walls pocked with tiny scorpions. We admired the columns of light and peered at the blue slice of sky a thousand feet above. Mere specks.

America's national parks are not only amazing. They are popular. I did not realize how much so until we started to make our exit. It was a mass of humanity. Throngs of hikers forged up canyon. They were midwesterners, Italians, retirees and Koreans. Only a few had walking sticks to steady them in the current. Some wore bathing suits. Others carried designer leather purses or small, soaked children. There were flip flops and aqua shoes. Three divas wore nothing on their feet except perfect pedicures.

Bravo to those brave people. By not reading the free NP leaflet, they had found adventure on the scale of Powell or Lewis & Clark.

Abbey would have scowled. He had the right, the home court advantage. I do not put myself above them--the outdoors may be the only place I can properly organize myself. Otherwise I too am woefully unprepared.

Yet the moment helped me imagine the desert both with us and without us. The solitude of the morning contrasted sharply with the chaos of that afternoon. The desert tells us who we are. Collectively, we were not fireflies but circus fleas careening through some greater majesty, sometimes in RVs, sometimes in plastic sandals. At the end of my visit, I decided that the desert remained otherworldly and even more impenetrable than before.

But I was glad that I'd gotten up early.


Antonia Malchik said...

Amazing. This essay takes my breath away. I've only been to Zion once and had the same crowded experience, but it still stunned me wordless.

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