Southern Utah Road Trip
a christmas exploration of lonerism & desert country.
I suppose that if I look back on the circumstances which led me to rattle around southern Utah in the bus for a week, rather than work in the desert asking unreasonable people to do reasonable things, I am apt to rationalize it and call it ‘my Christmas gift to myself.’ Really, though, I was in the right place at the right time, with a big bloody bandage on my right hand, and a boss who is strong in the ways of the Force.
“Reese, oh man! What happened to your hand?” This was my boss. He has an intense stare and a direct way of speaking.
“Ah, well, it was a spoon gouge.” This was me. I have an intense stare but waffle frequently, unsure of how I want to present myself. I chalk it up to a lack of true inner confidence. I was embarrassed to have hurt myself on a tool necessary to our work – making wooden spoons is an integral step in the process wilderness therapy.
“Yikes. I’ve got a few too. Even a smiley face on my thumb.” He pointed to a half circle scar on his right hand and made a thwump sound. “Things are dangerous.” There was a pause. “Hey man, so we’re overstaffed. I’m looking for someone to take a week off. Do you want to take a week off?”
“Take a week off. It’ll be good for you.”
I left the conversation feeling like I’d just gotten the holy rolling shit Jedi’ed out of me. Suddenly, I had seven days to fill.
I’d been wanting to take a road trip for a while, and explore places outside of Durango that felt rich with energy. Red places with wide horizons and a population density which would make any east coaster itchy with anxiety. Places in southern Utah which can be haunting in its loneliness. I set a route, packed the bus – a 14 passenger short bus called Crunk – and rolled out with two goals in mind: the first to only spend money on gas and food for the next week. With a mobile home and half a state of empty land, I thought it’d be a shame to pay for camping fees. My second goal was to run and bike as much as my body could handle.
So, off I went. A six night loop tour. I set off generally for Monument Valley, Arizona. You’ve probably seen pictures of Monument Valley. It’s home to huge red mountains which wind and gravity have eroded into stunning spires and shapes. It’s part of the Navajo Nation Parks System, and from what I’ve researched seems to provide a steady income for the tribe. It costs $20 to enter in a vehicle, and more money to camp, so it was off the table from the beginning as a place to stay. But I wanted to get close, and maybe ride my bike to it.
My parents told me about Valley of the Gods. Said it was a beautiful spot, the place to go if I was looking for a sexy strip of BLM land to rest my head at night after a long day of desert exploration. I checked the maps. Twenty something miles from Monument Valley. I could wake up to a sunrise hitting the spires off in the distance. I was sold. Off I went, to the dirt road haven of BLM land in the American west.
Taking the bus on dirt roads is sketchy. I’ve done a good job securing objects down. The only object which flies off my shelves with any regularity is my lampshade, and that thing is a paper piece of shit. Seriously. I bought it from a thrift store for fifty cents. What really scares me about the bus is the chassis, which is the cab in the back of the bus, where about a thousand pounds of wood and all my worldly belongings bounce up and down on a metal frame meant for 14 screaming children with snot streaming out their noses. Every time I take Crunk on bumpy unreliable dirt roads is a roll of the dice on its feeble shock absorption engineering. I have this recurring image of Blues Brothers. All four doors, the hood, and the trunk popping off at Jake’s & Elrod’s journey end. Makes me sweat thinking about it. I don’t even have a jack if I get a spare tire. What the fuck good is AAA when there’s no service? Felt like a stupid cheap ass, bumping over washes and potholes, passing suitable camping spots in favor of driving further out towards a pair of big red spires bloody in the sunset. But I got what I wanted, and Crunk held up. I found a pullout, parked and looked around. Holy God, I’d arrived.
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt it. I’ll do my best to describe it. Like a wall of energy knocks you in the chest, wraps you up in a hug, and seeps through pores to touch that beating heart. Mighty comfort, a rush of endorphins tingling the tip of the nose. It’s hard to breathe but that feels good too. Coming home. That’s what it is.
I felt like I’d come home. Looking out and seeing nothing but a wide, red earth. There was no sound but the whispering stillness of a coming desert night. No sound of aircraft, of traffic, or the other human sounds which wreak simple, terrific havoc on the soundscape of wilderness territory. Soulcraft was at work.
So I got tipsy on some boxed wine and smashed poetry out on my typewriter, refusing to put up the window insulation so I could watch the desert grow black as the night came, and then lean over my desk and stare upwards before frost covered the single-paned squares and watch the stars pop out of the sky. The Milky Way. Jesus, the Milky Way – have you seen it? Have you talked to it, asked it questions of galactic unknown, watched it turn slowly in the sky as the Earth spins, lazed and unconcerned? When was the last time you reached a hand up and wondered what it might feel like, to actually touch the Milky Way?
I fell in love with a woman who wanted me to trace her body’s freckles, and make stories out of the constellations. I thought about her this night, and if any off the stars in the sky matched the patterns of freckles on her body.
I woke the next morning to a silent sunrise. It had gotten cold in the bus, in the twenties. This is okay. I’ve gotten a routine down. I wake, run around naked in the bus, twist on the propane, click on the pilot light of my heater, turn on its fan, and blast that puppy on high. I rip off the insulation on my driver’s window and roll it down an inch to vent, put on Dr. Dog’s Fate album, and crawl back into bed. I keep my clothes warm beneath my sheets when I sleep, and put those on when the need to poop, which is as regular as Old Faithful – I’m talking every morning within ten minutes of waking – hits Def Con 10. Then, squeezing my buttcheeks, I fill up an electric tea kettle of water, turn that on, grab my trusty trowel, toilet paper, and wet wipes, put on my synthetic booties (Baffins, my God I’m in love), and waddle out into the frozen morning. By the time I return hot water is ready for chemical conversion to tea, and I have diverted my mental energies from don’t poop your pants to let’s journal and figure out inner turmoil.
I gave up caffeinated coffee a few months ago, much to the relief of everyone I’m in relationship with, but still indulge in a cup of black tea because someone with a PhD in counseling told me a bit of caffeine is good for me. He could have been blowing it up my ass, the dude was pouring out a forty ounce mug of steaming joe into his face as he shared the fact, but I take it and run. I don’t get the jitters like I used to, but I certainly amp myself up enough to get outside and play while it’s still freezing out.
Which is exactly what happened this first morning. I got gently high on caffeine and told myself it was time to pull my trusty old Surly Long Haul Disc Trucker, Q*Bert, off the rack and gussy her beautiful maroon self up. Valley of the Gods looked ready.
I’ve missed riding my bike. Part of this road trip was to reconnect with my love for cycling, for experiencing a landscape through exposure – the sun, wind, cold, smells, sounds that come from cycling through a space. There’s something special about riding bikes in wild spaces that helps me understand personal observations and theories: That we, generally speaking to the modern and distracted society of America, are so out of touch with nature that walking down a .1 mile paved path with a few oak trees passes for a scenic hike. That we, generally speaking to the technologically addicted hordes of fast-fingered youth, are afraid of nature, scared of the dark when there isn’t a flashlight feature on our smartphone to light the way. That we, generally speaking to the overworked families of the governmentally oppressed middle-class, view a vacation as a trip to the beach in the summer with overpriced motels and food truck fried shrimp. Generally speaking, we fade until we vanish. Generally speaking, we’re all just shades of invisible.
I rode Q*Bert hard and loose through Valley of the Gods, taking gratuitous pictures of her fully functioning steel frame in various states of excitement with rising monuments bathed in fresh morning sunlight a visually stimulating backdrop. I did little other than ride around slack-jawed at what formed in my mind as an alien landscape, some martian horizon with a lone warrior (me) navigating sand and stone with precision and a steely stare that registered a deep and overwhelming lonerism.
Lonerism. That’s really the word for my transition to Durango. I’ve felt myself turn inwards, fold in two, then four, then eight, exponential at the hip. At first, when I arrived in Durango and was struck full on in the jaw with the totality of life’s transitions – new job, new community, family and dog two thousand miles away, ex-lover with a fancy for tracing constellations on bare skin, living out of a school bus with an unreliable chassis, heart beating faster at the thought of my bi-monthly shower under the high-pressurized shower heads of the community gym - I thought of this as a retreat, some sort of shameful depression. That I’d made a huge mistake.
I question mortality when I’m lonely. Human existence. Motivations and fascinations. I have nights staring at the reflective window insulation backlit from my shitty lampshade, alone in Durango, listening to the hum of my heater, feeling a deep ache for comfort and security, something to hold me, wrap me, feed me soft and sweet words. Being alone hurts. My heart swells, and I wait to see if it hardens with scar tissue or if my rib cage can expand to house a bigger, stronger life vessel.
So I guess, in a sense, a part of the reason I found myself out in the middle of nowhere Utah, riding around with only Q*Bert and several layers of synthetic clothes, was to see what was up with my heart, and what it feels like to be intentionally alone. Previously, the past two months, I’d been unintentionally alone. I hadn’t chosen lonerism. Lonerism had chosen me. You see, our job is intentionally isolating – I stumble out of the field into a world of fluorescents and alcohol, telling strangers about the job, and am met with the glazed eyes of folks who really want to care about this wild-eyed dirtbag with adult acne, but just don’t have the bandwidth to comprehend a job that sends him into the desert for a week at a time with folks suffering from anxiety and depression, addiction and abuse, trauma and mental illness. And our guide community, so beautiful and established, so welcoming, is hard to step into and appreciate until an emotional routine is established within. Everything about my life had changed. Emotional routine has been slow coming.
This road trip was me accepting loneliness, for at least a week. Damn. My co-pilot was isolation. Is that a paradox, or at least ironic?
I rode my bike. All day. Through Valley of the Gods, into Mexican Hat, and to Monument Valley. I stared at the desert and the desert stared back. I asked the desert, “What do you hold?”
“Life,” it said. And I rode on.
Life. What is this life I’m living? I feel like a cow so often, chewing cud and seeing through the glaze of fat-greased eyes. Simple minded and branded. Wed to the dinner bell. I looked around the desert and saw shrubs, sage mostly. Kryptobacteria blackening the red sand around budding junipers. If you stop and look closely you can see the trails mule deer have made in the krypto, see the paw prints of coyotes traveling through loose dirt. Desert mice squeak louder here, when there's nothing else dominating the soundscape. Ever heard the story of Jumping Mouse? It’s true, every word.
I went to bed warm and woke up cold.
The morning greeted me, unbelievable. Purple the dominating color, as if it throttled the prism and juiced out its dream sunrise. I laced up my shoes and went for a run.
I wanted to alternate riding and running days this trip to offer my body, which hasn’t felt the ache of multi-day endurance opportunity in a year, the chance to recover major muscle groups. Don’t want to blow the pipes two days in and limp home. I also wanted the chance to ride roads for the day, isolated as they might get, and then truly step off road, off trail, onto the pure red path and get a feel for the land as it might have felt to early explorers, the original people, all untouched landscape throbbing with full-lipped, robust desert pleasure.
It’s an experience unique to me, to pick landmarks and make for them with no trail system to guide me. Being from the east coast there’s enough trail infrastructure and signage that soon there will be designated spots for re-lacing one’s boots, or mandatory water stops. It makes sense. The east is an overpopulated region with only a small area designated to outdoor recreation. These marked zones are supposed to satisfy the hardwired needs of humans to get outside, and the landscape would be ruined if it weren’t for regulations and signage and established trails, because our education system has failed the curious, mentorless, young outdoorspeople. Either that, or we as a species are one huge virus bent on destroying the earth which made us, and regulations keep our innate cravings for dominance over something, anything – even if it’s just a tree begging to have our initials carved into it – in check just enough to keep the grass green and trails swept free from Clif Bar wrappers and Gatorade bottles.
There’s something powerful in setting a course through a virgin plane and making for it a point, navigating landscape in all its surprising topography. Scrambles and drops, following washes, jumping scrubs. Picking a small mound across the valley and watching it grow in the approach, arriving and picking another monument off in the distance. I watched the glint of the bus grow smaller as I ran away from my campsite, and had to seek out a landmark that would take me back to it, when I was ready. Body ready, or out of water, out of food. I found religion in a climb up to a small plateau, and lost it in the descent. I cried running a ridgeline, and raged through a ditch. I thought about what an emotionally confusing creature I am, and how this confusion has hurt so many of those I care about.
I climbed, fell, climbed, fell, and slowly made my way back to the bus. And there, once back, I looked at the red dust turned mud by sweat soaked from feet to shoes, and shook my head. Lonerism. I hadn’t seen a soul in the Valley of the Gods. But I felt plenty of souls, and I suppose that’s what it’s about.
The next four days went in a roughly similar fashion. I rode, ran, rode, ran. I drove to the southern edge of Capitol Reef National Park and camped at the fee-free Cedar Mesa Campground for two nights. One morning I rode down Notom road and took the Burr Trail switchbacks to the plateau, and then followed a four wheel drive road to Switch Valley Overlook. I biked into Escalante and back, howling at the cold hammering my body on the descent. The next morning I ran through the Red Canyon, packed up, drove towards Canyonlands, got distracted by Goblin Valley State Park, and ran straight up a sloping rock mountain for two hours. I jumped from ledge to ledge over a three hundred foot cliff, and felt alive in being sure-footed, being firm of mind. Stupid, yes, but when’s the last time you felt alive?
I claimed a piece of myself back. Lonerism smiled and applauded.
I drove through Moab and was overwhelmed by the fluorescents, by construction. People vomit in the street with excitement for Moab, to me it looked like a tourist trap struggling to maintain identity. I checked the map and whistled at the trails snaking out from the city, Arches and Canyonland’s Island in the Sky dominating the scene. I ate a burrito at a Mexican joint and spoke to another human – my cashier – for the first time in four days. While eating my phone connected to satellites and let me know what I’d been missing in my 96 hour absence. Not much. Before checking I’d convinced myself big things were happening, socially speaking. I really built it up. What a letdown. Lonerism sighed. Feelings of self-importance, or maybe it’s the expectation of self-importance, had really spun me up.
I drove to the Canyonlands Needles district in the dark. Somewhere along the way Van Morrison became my savior and survivor. I camped in Indian Creek BLM land, alone again, a toenail moon an infected yellow color in the clear sky, and watched the Milky Way slide across the sky. Ride, run.
There is humility that is companion to finding oneself on the dawn side of a lonely state highway, hands shoved into the front of spandex shorts, fingers splayed to the inside of the groin, eyes shut in pain as warmth floods back into freezing digits.
There is humility in feeling small in the desert, trying to run one’s way to an overlook one canyon over, so close and yet, damn, an hour away of scrabbling over loose scree and around colonies of kryptobacteria providing nourishment to the dehydrated, starving flora.
There is humility in looking into the dark night sky and thinking of a lover lost, and of constellations untraced across milky way skin.
There is humility in lonerism, in the solo, in sitting with thoughts, convincing oneself that the thoughts rattling around aren’t necessarily true, that one doesn’t have to believe everything one thinks, and then wondering if that’s a thought worth believing.
There is humility in crying, in racking oneself into the driver’s seat of a rickety old school bus with an unreliable chassis, and sobbing as Van Morrison sings Gloria to a home just big enough for one.
And there is humility in the return, in seeing faces now familiar, in hearing the week’s stories, and wondering if change is coming slowly, like a gear grinding around the same old cogs, or if it’s going to drop like a hammer to the anvil, a hot rod of steel shaping to life’s blows.
I stepped into the desert, and took an adventure because my boss mind-fucked me into one. I stepped into the desert and felt the breath a timber wolf might feel, separated from the pack, padding through a red landscape with its ears laid back, looking for home.
I took a leap, and landed a little closer to whole.