updated 2/7/2011 12:14:44 AM ET 2011-02-07T05:14:44

Chapter 1: "Geologic Time Includes Now"

This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, known or unknown, actual or visionary.  There’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment.  Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space. 

For myself I’ll take Moab, Utah. I don’t mean the town itself, of course, but the country which surrounds it—the canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky—all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Fraying contrails streak another bluebird sky above the red desert plateau, and I wonder how many sunburnt days these badlandshave seen since their creation. It’s Saturday morning, April 26, 2003, and I am mountain biking by myself on a scraped dirt road in the far southeastern corner of Emery County, in central-eastern Utah.  An hour ago, I left my truck at the dirt trailhead parking area for Horseshoe Canyon, the isolated geographic window of Canyonlands National Park that sits fifteen air miles northwest of the legendaryMaze District, forty miles southeast of the great razorback uplift of the San Rafael Swell, twenty miles west of the Green River, and some forty miles south of I-70, that corridor of commerce and last chances (next services: 110 miles). With open tablelands to cover for a hundred miles between the snowcapped ranges of the Henrys to the southwest—the last range in the U.S. to be named, explored, and mapped—and the La Sals to the east, a strong wind is blowing hard from the south, the direction I’m heading. Besides slowing my progress to a crawl—I’m in my lowest gear and pumping hard on a flat grade just to move forward—the wind has blown shallow drifts of maroon sand onto the washboarded road. I try to avoid the drifts, but occasionally, they blanket the entire road, and my bike founders. Three times already I’ve had to walk through particularly long sand bogs.

The going would be much easier if I didn’t have this heavy pack on my back. I wouldn’t normally carry twenty-five pounds of supplies and equipment on a bike ride, but I’m journeying out on a thirty-mile-long circuit of biking and canyoneering—traversing the bottom of a deep and narrow canyon system—and it will take me most of the day. Besides a gallon of water stored in an insulated three-liter CamelBak hydration pouch and a one-liter Lexan bottle, I have five chocolate bars, two burritos, and a chocolate muffin in a plastic grocery sack in my pack. I’ll be hungry by the time I get back to my truck, for certain, but I have enough for the day.

The truly burdensome weight comes from my full stock of rappelling gear: three locking carabiners, two regular carabiners, a lightweight combination belay and rappel device, two tied slings of half-inch webbing, a longer length of half-inch webbing with ten pre-stitched loops called a daisy chain, my climbing harness, a sixty-meter-long and ten-and-a-half-millimeter-thick dynamic climbing rope, twenty-five feet of one-inch tubular webbing, and my rarely used Leatherman-knockoff multi-tool (with two pocketknife blades and a pair of pliers) that I carry in case I need to cut the webbing to build anchors. Also in my backpack are my headlamp, headphones, CD player and several Phish CDs, extra AA batteries, digital camera and mini digital video camcorder, and their batteries and protective cloth sacks.

It adds up, but I deem it all necessary, even the camera gear. I enjoy photographing the otherworldly colors and shapes presented in the convoluted depths of slot canyons and the prehistoric artwork preserved in their alcoves. This trip will have the added bonus of taking me past four archaeological sites in Horseshoe Canyon that are home to hundreds of petroglyphs and pictographs. The U.S. Congress added the isolated canyon to the otherwise contiguous Canyonlands National Park specifically to protect the five-thousand-year-old etchings and paintings found along the Barrier Creek watercourse at the bottom of Horseshoe, a silent record of an ancient people’s presence. At the Great Gallery, dozens of eight-to-ten-foot-high superhumans hover en echelon over groups of indistinct animals, dominating beasts and onlookers alike with their long, dark bodies, broad shoulders, and haunting eyes. The superbly massive apparitions are the oldest and best examples of their design type in the world, such preeminent specimens that anthropologists have named the heavy and somewhat sinister artistic mode of their creators the “Barrier Creek style.” Though there is no written record to help us decipher the artists’ meaning, a few of the figures appear to be hunters with spears and clubs; most of them, legless, armless, and horned, seem to float like nightmarish demons. Whatever their intended significance, the mysterious forms are remarkable for their ability to carry a declaration of ego across the millennia and confront the modern observer with the fact that the panels have survived longer and are in better condition than all but the oldest golden artifacts of Western civilization. This provokes the question: What will remain of today’s ostensibly advanced societies five thousand years hence? Probably not our artwork. Nor any evidence of our record amounts of leisure time (if for no other reason than most of us fritter away this luxury in front of our television sets).

In anticipation of the wet and muddy conditions in the canyon, I’m wearing a pair of beat-up running shoes and thick wool-blend socks. Thus insulated, my feet sweat as they pump on my bike pedals. My legs sweat, too, compressed by the Lycra biking shorts I’m wearing beneath my beige nylon shorts. Even through double-thick padding, my bike seat pummels my rear end. Up top, I have on a favorite Phish T-shirt and a blue baseball cap. I left my waterproof jacket back at my truck; the day is going to be warm and dry, just like it was yesterday when I biked the twelve-mile loop of the Slick Rock Trail over east of Moab. If it were going to be rainy, a slot canyon would be the last place I’d be headed, jacket or no.

Lightweight travel is a pleasure to me, and I’ve figured how to do more with less so I can go farther in a given amount of time. Yesterday I had just my small CamelBak with a few bike-repair items and my cameras, a measly ten-pound load for the four-hour loop ride. In the evening, paring out the bike gear, I hiked five miles on an out-and-back visit to a natural arch out toward Castle Valley, carrying only six pounds total of water and camera equipment. The day before, Thursday, with my friend Brad Yule from Aspen, I had climbed and skied Mount Sopris, the 12,995-foot monarch of western Colorado, and had carried a few extra clothes and backcountry avalanche rescue gear, but I still kept my load under fifteen pounds.

My five-day road trip will culminate on Sunday night with an unsupported solo attempt to mountain bike the 108-mile White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. If I carried the supplies I’d used over the three days it took me the first time I rode that trail in 2000, I’d have a sixty-pound pack and a sore back before I went ten miles. In my planning estimates this time around, I am hoping to carry fifteen pounds and complete the loop in under twenty-four hours. It will mean following a precision-charted water-management plan to capitalize on the scarce refilling opportunities, no sleeping, and only the bare minimum of stopping. My biggest worry isn’t that my legs will get tired—I know they will, and I know how to handle it—but rather that my, uh, undercarriage will become too sensitive to allow me to ride. “Crotch coma,” as I’ve heard it called, comes from the desensitizing overstimulation of the perineum. As I haven’t ridden my bike any extended distance since last summer, my bike-saddle tolerance is disconcertingly low. Had I anticipated this trip prior to two nights ago I would have gone out for at least one long ride in the Aspen area beforehand. As it happened, some friends and I called off a mountaineering trip at the last moment on Wednesday; the cancellation freed me for a hajj to the desert, a pilgrimage for warmth to reacquaint myself with a landscape other than wintry mountains. Usually, I would leave a detailed schedule of my plans with my roommates, but since I left my home in Aspen without knowing what I was going to do, the only word of my destination I gave was “Utah.” I briefly researched my trip options by consulting my guidebooks as I drove from Mount Sopris to Utah Thursday night. The result has been a capriciously impromptu vacation, one that will even incorporate dropping in on a big campout party near Goblin Valley State Park tonight.

It’s nearing ten-thirty a.m. as I pedal into the shade of a very lonesome juniper and survey my sunbaked surroundings. The rolling scrub desert gradually drops away into a region of painted rock domes, hidden cliffs, weathered and warped bluffs, tilted and tortured canyons, and brokenmonoliths. This is hoodoo country; this is voodoo country. This is Abbey’s country, the red wasteland beyond the end of the roads. Since I arrived after dark last night, I wasn’t able to see much of the landscape on my drive in to the trailhead. As I scan the middle ground to the east for any sign of my destination canyon, I take out my chocolate muffin from the Moab grocery’s bakery and have to practically choke it down; both the muffin and my mouth have dried out from exposure to the arid wind. There are copious signs of meandering cattle from a rancher’s ongoing attempt to make his living against the odds of the desert. The herds trample sinuous tracks through the indigenous life that spreads out in the ample space: a lace of grasses, foot-tall hedgehog cacti, and black microbiotic crust cloak the red earth. I wash down the rest of the muffin, except for a few crumbs in the wrapper, with several pulls from the CamelBak’s hydration tube fastened to my shoulder strap.

Remounting, I roll down the road in the wind-protected lee of the ridgeline in front of me, but at the top of the next hill, I’m thrust into battle against the gusts once more. After another twenty minutes pistoning my legs along this blast furnace of a road, I see a group of motorbikers passing me on their way to the Maze District of Canyonlands. The dust from the motorbikes blows straight into my face, clogging my nose, my eyes, my tear ducts, even gluing itself to my teeth. I grimace at the grit pasted on my lips, lick my teeth clean, and press on, thinking about where those bikers would be headed.

I’ve visited the Maze only once myself, for about half an hour, nearly ten years ago.When our Cataract Canyon rafting party pulled over in the afternoon to set up camp along the Colorado River at a beach called Spanish Bottom, I hiked a thousand feet up over the rim rock into a place known as the Doll’s House. Fifty-to-one-hundred-foot-tall hoodoo rock formations towered above me as I scrambled around the sandstone and granite like a Lilliputian. When I finally turned around to look back at the river, I jerked to a halt and sat on the nearest boulder with a view. It was the first time the features and formative processes of the desert had made me pause and absorb just how small and brave we are, we the human race.

Down behind the boats at Spanish Bottom, a furious river churned; suddenly, I perceived in its auburn flow that it was, even at that exact moment, carving that very canyon from a thousand square miles of desert tablelands. From the Doll’s House, I had the unexpected impression that I was watching the ongoing birth of an entire landscape, as if I were standing on the rim of an exploding caldera. The vista held for me a feeling of the dawn of time, that primordial epoch before life when there was only desolate land. Like looking through a telescope into the MilkyWay and wondering if we’re alone in the universe, it made me realize with the glaring clarity of desert light how scarce and delicate life is, how insignificant we are when compared with the forces of nature and the dimensions of space.

Were my group to board those two rafts a mile in the distance and depart, I would be as cut off from human contact as a person could be. In fifteen to thirty days’ time, I would starve in a lonely death as I hiked the meanders back upriver to Moab, never again to see the sign or skin of another human. Yet beyond the paucity and the solitude of the surrounding desert, it was an exultant thought that peeled back the veneer of our self-important delusions. We are not grand because we are at the top of the food chain or because we can alter our environment—the environment will outlast us with its unfathomable forces and unyielding powers. But rather than be bound and defeated by our insignificance, we are bold because we exercise our will anyway, despite the ephemeral and delicate presence we have in this desert, on this planet, in this universe. I sat for another ten minutes,then, with my perspective as widened as the view from that bluff, I returned to camp and made extra-short work of dinner.

Riding down the road past the metal culvert that marks the dried-up source of the West Fork of Blue John Canyon, I pass through a signed intersection where a branch of the dirt road splits off toward Hanksville, a small town an hour to the west at the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park. Hanksville is the closest settlement to the Robbers Roost and the Maze District, and home to the nearest landline public telephone in the region. Just a half mile farther, I pass a slanting grassy plain that was an airstrip until whatever minor catastrophe forced whoever was flying there to head back to more tenable ground. It’s an indication of how small planes and helicopters are typically the only efficient means of getting from here to there in this country. Some of the time, though, it’s not financially worth leaving here to get there, even if you can fly. Better just to stay at home.

The Mormons gave their best efforts to transect this part of the country with road grades, but they, too, retreated to the established towns of Green River and Moab. Today most of those Mormon trails have been abandoned and replaced by still barely passable roads whose access by vehicle is, ironically, more sparse than it was by horse or wagon a hundred years ago. Last night I drove fifty-seven miles down the only dirt road in the eastern half of two counties to arrive at my embarkation point—it was two and a half hours of washboard driving during which I didn’t pass a single light or a house. Frontier ranchers, rustlers, uranium miners, and oil drillers each left a mark on this land but have folded their hands in deference to the stacked deck of desert livelihood.

Those seekers of prosperity weren’t the first to cross the threshold into this country, only to abandon the region as a barren wasteland: Progressive waves of ancient communities came into being and vanished over the ages in the area’s canyon bottoms. Usually, it would be a significant drought or an incursion by hostile bands that made life in the high country and the deserts farther south seem more hospitable. But sometimes there are no defensible answers to explain the sudden evacuation of an entire culture from a particular place. Five thousand years ago, the people of Barrier Creek left their pictographs and petroglyphs at the Great Gallery and Alcove Gallery; then they disappeared. Since they left no written record, why they departed is both a mystery and a springboard for the imagination. Looking at their paintings and standing in their homes, gardens, and trash heaps, I feel connected to the aboriginal pioneers who inhabited these canyons so long ago.

As I grind my way out onto the open mesa, the wind slaps at my face, and I find myself already looking forward to the final hike through Horseshoe Canyon, where I will finish my tour. I can’t wait to get out of this demeaning wind.

To judge from what I’ve seen on my ride, there are few significant differences in this area between Blue John Griffith’s day and the present. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has graded the century-old horse trail and added scattered signposts, but even the ubiquitous fences that partition the rest of the West are noticeably absent. Perhaps it’s the lack of barbed wire that makes this place feel so terrifically remote. I spend a lot of time in out-of-the-way areas—two or three days a week in designated wildernesses, even through the winter—but most of them don’t feel half as isolated as this back road. As I consider this, abruptly, my solitude changes to loneliness and seems somehow more tenacious. While the region’s towns may have simmered since those raucous days when the Robbers Roost was earning its name, the outlying desert is still just as wild.

A mile past Burr Pass, my torturous ride into the thirty-mile-an-hour headwind finally comes to an end. I dismount and walk my bike over to a juniper tree and fasten a U-lock through the rear tire. I have little worry that anyone will tamper with my ride out here, but as my dad says, “There’s no sense in tempting honest people.” I drop the U-lock’s keys into my left pocket and turn toward the main attraction, Blue John Canyon. I follow a deer path on an overland shortcut, listening to some of my favorite music on my CD player now that the wind isn’t blowing so obnoxiously in my ears. After I’ve hiked through some dunes of pulverized red sandstone, I come to a sandy gully and see that I’ve found my way to the nascent canyon. “Good, I’mon the right route,” I think, and then I notice two people walking out of view thirty yards down canyon. I leap down the dune into the shallow wash, and once I’m around the dune’s far corner, I spot the hikers, who look from this distance to be two young women.

“What are the odds?” I think, surprised to find anyone else this far out in the desert. Having been inside my head for three hours, and perhaps wanting to shake that feeling of loneliness picked up out on the road, I pause to take off my headphones, then spur myself to catch up. They’re moving almost as quickly as I can manage without jogging, and it takes a minute before I can tell that I’m making any distance on them at all. I’d been fully expecting a solo descent in the Main Fork of Blue John Canyon, but meeting like-minded people in far-flung places is usually a fun addition to the experience for me, especially if they can keep a fast pace. In any case, I can hardly avoid them at this point. At another bend, they look back and see me but don’t wait up. Finally, I catch up with them but can’t really pass them unless they stop, which they don’t.

Realizing that we’re going to be hiking together for a while, I figure I should initiate a conversation. “Howdy,” I begin, “how’s it goin’?” I’m not sure if they’re open to meeting a stranger in the backcountry.

They answer with a pair of unadorned hi’s.

Hoping for something a little more engaging, I try again. “I wasn’t expecting to see anyone in the canyon today.”

Even though it is a Saturday, this place is remote, and so obscure I couldn’t even tell it was here from the Robbers Roost dirt access road, despite my map that definitively shows the canyon’s presence.

“Yeah, you surprised us, sneaking up like that,” the brown-haired woman replies, but then she smiles.

“Oh, sorry. I was listening to my headphones, kind of wrapped up in my thoughts,” I explain. Returning the smile, I extend an introduction: “My name’s Aron.”

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