Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Strike Three!

Words by Greg
Photos by Trina and Greg

Twice before we had attempted. Twice before we had failed.

Yet we set off once again. Boldly. Armed with the knowledge of the two previous attempts. Knowledge, admittedly, now one and two years old. Knowledge we had not carefully updated via any of the various currently available means of remotely acquiring detailed topographic information. Preferring, as we often do, that our remoteness be augmented by the lack of connection to the modern information society. (A connection which we find perfectly pleasant in the right context, of course.)

Off in the truck to a lonely campsite where it rained for a night, most of a day, and another night. Rafts and paddles and overnight gear into packs. Then off into the desert under blue morning skies. Up and away from the green shoulder of the river. Away from the cool, leafy trees and the tangle of shoreside brush. Away from the breeze-born drift of cottonwood cotton. Away from the tropical melodies of hidden birds. Into the sand and sandstone. Into the wide spaces between stiff juniper and pinyon trees. Toward the dry cries of jays and ravens.

Two steady walkers, slowed by packs. Two furry dogs, sped by the smell of every bush, tree, flower, burrow, lizard, rock and pool. And pool. And pool. Pool after pool of clear, cool water. The previous day's rain lingering in every pocket of rock. A desert in the long-term. But this day, something of a waterscape.

The goal: Hike up the mesa on the rim of a side canyon, scramble into the canyon and follow its twisting corridor downward to the river, float the river back to the starting point. The first time, we were unable to get down the cliffs and into the canyon. The second time we went higher up, got partway into the canyon, but cliffs kept us from getting all the way to the bottom and we had to hike back out. This time…

We hiked up the mesa, skirting the edge of the canyon. Past domes of smooth stone. Past walls of smooth stone. Along cliff tops of broken, shattered, tumbled stone. Amid the bright exclamation of wildflowers. Higher and higher as the crease of the canyon beside us grew more and more shallow. Until at last, we saw the jagged end of the canyon's branch, stabbing into steep cliffs. Still too deep to enter.

And yet, beyond. Around the shelf where the canyon began to cut. Across from where we stood. A tumbled staircase of shelves and slopes. Leading, it seemed, toward the bottom. We scrambled past the head of the canyon, crossed to the other side, and began to descend. Cliff and slope. Scramble and step. Once we handed packs and dogs down a short, sharp ledge. Dropping downward toward the bottom. Toward the muddy reflection of water pooled below. Until at last. We stepped into the wet sand. Into the pool of cool water. Into the trickling stream of water coursing over weathered stone. Into the bottom of the canyon.

At last. We had come into this place, new to us. Into this cleft, walled by bands of cliff and slope. Into this place. But also into a slice of time in the life of the desert. A time when water stood still or trickled gently, cool and available. A time between long days and months of dry heat. Between winters of frozen sunshine. A slice of time between the rare and rushing flush of violent floodwaters that had arranged the furniture of the canyon. A boulder here. A bed of gravel there. A wizened tree allowed to remain, clinging to broken stone.

Satisfaction. Of a sort. Further than we'd managed on the first two tries. Yet there remained the question: Would the canyon go? We hoisted our packs, and like water, we tumbled downward. Over hardened stone. Past deep pools. Along ledges. Twisting our way downward. Canyon walls drew upward and away. The sky narrowed. The sun spun across the sky pushing shadows into the afternoon. Until…

Pour-off. The floor of our little canyon dropped away. Dropped downward and undercut into a much deeper piece of canyon. The trickle of water drizzled off the edge and into space, then pooled again in the red-stone depths. Vertical stone cut off any hope of going further. No way forward. One way back. We explored the options. But the walls and cliffs were all too much for us.

We'd made it further than our first two tries. And, alas, we'd made it as far as we'd be going.

We enjoyed the sunshine and the view and headed back up the canyon. We strolled along, unhurried. Exploring the minutiae around us. A hummingbird nest. Curls of grass. Red-tailed hawk against the slice of blue sky. The big voices of tiny red spotted toads growing quiet at our approach. A speckled moth. Sand ripples in puddles. Warm air cooling above sun-warmed stone. As the shadows grew and the afternoon leaned toward evening.

A narrow tumbled world within the sheer walls of this inner canyon. And yet we found a flat spot. Flat enough. Just wide enough. We laid down our mats. Settled in. Gathered the tired dogs and fed them. Heated our meals on a tiny stove. Watching and listening as the day faded around us. Shadow climbing the east wall. A canyon wren, so close, its liquid notes cascading down the walls, with a buzzzz and zzzip to seal it off. Sky growing rich above. Clouds in chameleon shapes turning gold. Then orange. Then pink. Then dark amid the emerging punctuation of stars.

Night. A silence filled with the soft song of crickets, the nearby screel of toads. A darkness roofed with stars. And one star, out of place. A pinprick of light coming from across the canyon. A tiny beacon against dark stone. A reflection? But reflected in what? And of what? A star? But a star, reflected, would move as the earth turned beneath it. This light remained steady. Curiosity drove me down over the boulders, across the puddled wash and back up the steep slope of the other side. To discover the green glow of a little phosphorescent grub. A glowworm. Shining in the darkness to attract… Surely not me. Likely a mate. Possibly a meal.

The little glowworm continued to shine until our eyes were too tired to watch. While our bodies and dogs snuggled into warm sleeping bags. The glowworm glowing, possibly, until dawn pulled the darkness out of our canyon and the new day was upon us.

Morning. The quiet rituals of food and packing and soaking in the sense of our place. A small farewell to a good night's sleep. A fond farewell to the small piece of time we'd shared with the canyon. Then we continued back up the way we had come. Stepping near pools and up ledges and past pieces of memory from the day before.

Out of the canyon and onto the rugged rim. Our eyes traveling further, onward, to where other branches of the canyon could still go. To where labyrinthine passages could still lead past secret pools. Into hidden grottoes. Into the scent of stone and the sound of quiet places. Ledges tumbling downward gently enough for our human steps to follow. To flow. To find ourselves at last. Spit from the mouth of the canyon. At the edge of the river.

But though our eyes looked forward, we turned our tracks back the way we had come. And this time. Like the last time. Like the time before that. We turned down the sloping mesa. Into the afternoon heat. Toward and into a small, open side canyon. While lingering pools of rainwater vanished into the hot air. Walking steadily. Humans and dogs and maybe the wildflowers wilting a little bit under the sun. Until we reached a rocky shelf on the green shoulder of the cool brown river.

The dogs jumped in, swimming and lapping at the water. We slipped into the wet beside them, as they climbed out and dried themselves in the sand. The cool water quickly pulled the day's heat from us. Then we filled our boats with air and cargo. Pushed off from the shore and into the steady motion of the river. With hardly a glance back up into the deeper, darker canyon above, to where we could have been… We floated down the broadening canyon. Floated through riffles. Floated past rolling walls of time-carved sandstone. Floated, not far, to the eddy where we pulled ourselves to shore and sloppily re-packed. Then strolled back to where we had begun.

And this time. Like the last time. Like the time before that. We had not achieved our stated goal. We had not made it down the narrow side canyon to the river. Yet… Something important had been achieved. Maybe we trace these lines across the landscape because, as humans, we continue to need to explore. Perhaps we need to remember what it's like to find new places. It may be that our memories go deeper than ourselves, into a past where humans depended on the discovery of that which lies beyond. Over the horizon. Around the next bend. Perhaps there is a need to make play out of going where no one, or, at least we, have never gone before.

We do trace lines. Across landscapes. Across our memories. We twine them through the ancient and evolving shape of these canyons. And thread them amid the other stories that make up our lives. We stretch them like spider's webs across darkening corners of a desert creek. Stretched open to gather sustenance. Or merely to gather cotton that, once adrift, is now held gently in place above the trickle and flow.

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