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40 Day Love Fest: Daily Marriage Practices for Easy Living

Forty years is made up of a whole lot of individual days.

It is what happens routinely in those days that add up to make a life, or a marriage. Sure, vacations are nice, breaks from the routine, opportunities to do some different things and see some different places. But vacations are just that – temporarily vacating the familiar. Then it is back to the familiar. One of our philosophies of creating a happy life, and marriage, is to make the familiar – the everyday days with the everyday tasks – to be as good as they can be. Here are a few of the things we have always tried – and continue to try – to get as many of these as we can into every day:

Walking: Any day with a walk is better than a day without a walk.

One of the reasons we so love living dhvmshadowwalkwhere we do in Beulah is the easy opportunities for walking. We walk in all seasons, and know that even in the coldest of conditions, all it takes is the right warm clothes to make for a good walk.

But in every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks. ~John Muir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music: When we made a living making music, this was easy.

Now that we have different jobs, it sometimes takes a bit more of an effort to get a good hit of music each day – we mean something more than just background music. Sometimes a day of meetings, appointments, work tasks, and other activities requires a deliberate effort to incorporate some good music time – closely listening, dancing, kicking back, singing. But whenever we do, we are glad we did.

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1976

Talking: We have always loved talking – just plain old talking – to each other. It helps us feel connected, up-to-date, closer.

Our talks include planning and strategizing, as well as sharing gratitudes, interesting stories or facts we read or heard, things that are “up” for one of us, something that needs “getting clear” on… We usually try to separate out our work talks from our personal talks, although so much of our work is so tied to our personal interests and values, so these two often bleed into each other. Our talks do include a lot of listening which may be one of our ‘secrets’.

IMG_7629Eating together: When the kids were little, eating together was an important part of our family life.

As they got older, sharing breakfast and lunch was not always possible, but we always made a point to eat dinner together. No TV, no eating in their rooms – we ate together at the table. Always. This also contributed to keeping our small cabin clean. And this has carried into our empty nest – breakfast and lunch are often on our own, but we almost always eat dinner together.

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December harvest from the greenhouse.

Preparing food together:  Helene is certainly better and more confident when it comes to cooking, but that hasn’t stopped us from preparing our meals together.

We’ve lately noticed that we have evolved this very pleasant flow when we cook together, knowing without having to say what comes next, what needs to be done…

IMG_1476Chores: We find doing chores together makes the work easier.

So when it works for our schedules, we often put on some music and do a tornado clean of the house, or a part of the house. We both like things to be organized and uncluttered so together we meet up to accomplish what needs to be done. And…we have learned to not tell each other how to do things…or micro-manage each other.

 

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Making the bed together in the morning: There is something about making the bed together, right after we get up, that feels good – like we start the day, right off the bat, with a completion.

It is also a way that we connect to each other across the bed and creates a pause to nurture each other in the moment. Sometimes we talk; sometimes it is in quiet; sometimes while listening to the NPR morning news. But it is a symbolic action that mirrors how to attend to our marriage. And then the pleasant payoff: getting into a beautifully made bed together each evening. Now that brings luxury to our relationship.

Going to bed at the same time: Most of the time we do.

Naturally there are times when our schedules are busy and our needs for rest vary, but getting into bed together is a sweetness that can’t be beat for us. And the cuddling is a part of the healing connection that our relationship is based on.

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Helping each other:  It’s pretty great to have your best friend to walk through your days with.

We always seek to help make each other’s life easier; high on the list of what we are to each other is help-mates.  It works for us and infuses our marriage with mutual support, along with the joy and the fun!  And…when we built our GrowingSpaces.com greenhouse our great family all came and helped in this learning experience.  We are the lucky ones for certain.

 

 dhvm smoothies

Dave and Helene Van Manen know the secret to their 40 years of loving and it includes green smoothies, making the bed together and falling into bed laughing each night. They share their journey as they honor for 40 days their relationship started back in the 70’s when they were teens. Today they live and teach in the mountains of Colorado.

 

 

 

40 Day Love Fest – Our Magical Mystery Marriage

40daylovefest1We’ve been talking about how to honor and celebrate our 40 year wedding anniversary (which we cannot even believe we are saying “forty”). We originally thought we would take 40 days off (one for each year), but that did not work out with our work schedules. So we grew that idea into creating the “40-Day LoveFest,” which will consist of doing something special each day for 40 days to celebrate these 40 magical years, including taking time each day to remember the years, the ups and downs, the memorable moments and more!
dhvmjuly10201640yearanniversaryHelene and Dave on July 10, 2016 in Wild Rivers National Monument in northern New Mexico.

“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”~ Annie Dillard

Looking back on those forty years, the statement by Annie Dillard, “We do not remember days, we remember moments,” rings true for us. We got married as kids in Queens, New York (Dave was 20, Helene 17) on July 10, 1976 – a bicentennial wedding. A few days later, we headed West in a Chevy van to find our place to live the life of our dreams. Our wealth is our shared lives, our family, our love for the natural world, our mountainside home, and the wonderful work we have been able to do. It all is centered on making our day-to-day actions reflect our shared value of “making a difference”.  Leaving NYC and settling somewhere in the West was a dream-come-true in and of itself; since then we have had many many other dreams come true.

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Journey with us these next 40 days as we share some of the moments we remember, along with thoughts about being married to the same person for all these years and what it feels like to wake up and have the calendar say, “Hey kids, it’s been 40 years!”

 

Redrock Wilderness Retreat, Part 4

DAY FOUR

Up at first light, I break camp as the canyon slowly becomes day. I am on the trail as the first rays of sunlight hit the upper walls of the canyon. As I hike these last few miles, I am filled with a great sense of energy and lightness. Yes, my pack is a bit lighter, having eaten most of the food I packed in, but that’s not really the reason for this feeling. Sixty feels pretty darn good if you ask me!

Quiet, silence, peacefulness, stillness – these words all come to mind as I hike down and then out of Elephant Canyon on this early morning. They are more than just descriptive of this desert morning – they are this place, as much as these rocks are this place. I stop often to just drink it all in. There are stretches when there is no sound at all – no bird song, no wind, no jets (halleluiah), nothing at all. Then a spotted towhee sings its chattering song and I can’t help but feel like I am in heaven. Was it Thoreau who said that heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads? He would have found confirmation of that here with me this morning. I think he would agree that heaven is also found sandwiched between the ground beneath and the sky above, right here in the perfect stillness of a redrock desert morning.

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*****

               As I drive out of the Elephant Hill parking lot, window down, I hear the song of a canyon wren and I can’t help but smile. This little bird is the voice, the spokesbird, of these Canyonlands. I’ve heard the song a thousand times, but this morning, as I make my way out of the park, it’s as if the song is being sung just for me. Is the canyon saying something to me? If so, what? I have my ideas, but I can’t really say I know for sure just what this land might be saying. I suppose that maybe, if I keep coming back to this redrock land of wild canyons, I’ll figure it out in my 60s. Sounds like a good plan to me. I’ll be back!

A Redrock Wilderness Retreat, Part 3

DAY THREE

Except for a gusty wind that woke me several times, I had a warmer and better sleep last night. I climb out of the tent to a cloudless, desert blue sky. Oatmeal, nuts and tea are my fuel for a hike that, at this moment, I am not sure how far will be. I start up the wash where I get my water and continue until I reach an unpassable pass were it not for the two ladders the Park Service has conveniently provided. Without them, it would be a quick mile hike to a fifteen foot vertical wall at the top of the canyon, then back the way I came. Instead, I climb up and over and eventually into another drainage – Big Spring Canyon.

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At a high point on the slickrock, I have the choice of turning around for a four-mile out-and-back hike, or continue forward and make an eight-mile loop of today’s trek. The day is young, I am feeling rather young myself (I am only 60, after all) and a lot less sore than yesterday, the clouds that were building a little while ago have melted away. I know of a truly magical spot along this loop, a shaded pool, an oasis in this desert, a great place to eat lunch. Onward!

Interesting that this rock is called slickrock, as it is quite the opposite of slick. My shoes seem to stick to the abrasive sandstone, even on steep sections. Off the unslick slickrock now, my hike through Big Spring Canyon is wetter than I’ve ever seen it. Apparently it was a wet winter, as there are few places along the two-mile drainage where water is not in sight. This is a far cry from the many times I’ve been here with nary a puddle anywhere. The day is warming in spite of gusts that seem to say, “Hey, spring, not so fast – notice the date on the calendar? It is still winter!”

Up and over into another expanse of slickrock punctuated by pinyons and junipers, I arrive at the hidden mini-pond feeling pangs of hunger. Perfect timing! I enjoy lunch serenaded by the music of water constantly dripping into the pool from a seep in the rock. Unlike Big Spring Canyon, I’ve never seen this hidden place empty of water. Roughly thirty feet in diameter and who knows how deep, the pool is mostly shaded by a white sandstone overhang. A few cottonwoods, still in their winter nakedness, grow nearby. I look beyond this hidden wet spot to the landscape I just hiked through – pleasant today but sun-baked hot and bone dry for many months of the year. I am sure this pool is well known to the locals – bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, foxes, mule deer…

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******

I am glad to be back at camp after a perfect day of hiking. According to the map, I hiked an 8.6 mile loop. I didn’t encounter any more ladders, but there was a weathered gray log with notches cut into it, leaning on a huge boulder, that provided access into a tunnel-like, hundred-foot long slot in the rock that opened up into the upper reaches of Big Spring Canyon. This park is aptly named – Canyonlands! I must say, hiking here is a delight. It has it all: wooded trails – not deep forest woods, but a few tall cottonwoods among scrubby woods of oak and juniper and pinyon; top-of-the-world slickrock hiking; an assortment of wildflowers – even this early in the warm season, a few species are already in bloom, with many more to follow; at least one mountain lion – which I’ve never seen a sign of; and out-of-this-world beauty every step of the way.

Of course, it is hardly out of this world – it is very much a part of this world. And, thanks to a man who loved this wild desert landscape, it is a protected part of this world that has been set aside as a place where people can step away from our increasingly fast-paced society, for a day, a week, a month.  Bates Wilson began lobbying for the creation of Canyonlands National Park in the early 1960s. He convinced Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall that this canyon country should become a part of the nation’s system of public lands, and in 1964 President Johnson signed it into law. The park has grown in size since those early years, and exists so people can experience its solitude, its rugged wildness, its beauty, and so the ecological processes that take place within its boundaries can go about their business protected from our culture’s heavy footprint that continues to have such an impact on the rest of the country’s lands.

The vast majority of Americans believe that our nation’s public lands, such is this park, are a good thing. But not everyone. Just a few weeks ago, a handful of armed militants who believe that federal ownership and management of such lands is not a good thing, illegally took over a National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. They occupied it for five weeks, calling for the federal government to turn over these lands to local control. Right now, while I sit on this slickrock under this desert sky, those individuals are sitting in jail. Where they should be, as far as I’m concerned.

Yes, most of my fellow citizens and I fully support the idea of public lands. But there are those who would rather these wild places be used not for recreation, education, and preservation of natural values and processes, but opened up for more mining, grazing, logging and other extractive uses. We who love these lands must remain ever vigilant, as there are those who want nothing less than to undo the efforts of Bates Wilson and so many others that worked tirelessly to protect wild sanctuaries like this amazing park. Thank you Bates Wilson, wherever you are (in so many ways, you are right here with me).

I visually explore the red-and-white spires, hundreds of feet tall, which rise from the canyon floor directly across from camp. How long have they been there? I am sure they looked exactly the same eight or nine hundred years ago, when the native peoples that lived in these canyons painted the pictographs that I was admiring on a canyon wall not far from where I am sitting here at camp. There may have been some different plants growing here 12,000 years ago, when the climate was wetter and cooler, and humans first began to cultivate plants and animals for food halfway around the world. But I bet these sandstone spires looked pretty much the same even then. Geologists say these rock formations of Cedar Mesa Sandstone were originally dunes of wind-blown sand and flood-eroded sediments that formed over 200 million years ago. Twenty million years ago, other forces began to fracture the solidified dunes. Millions of years of erosion by wind and water worked those cracks and fractures into the sculpted pillars that I am looking at now, on this late winter 2016 evening, two days into my 61st year.

ec2 old photoThere is a feeling of, what is it – silliness? absurdity? – to sit among these ancient rocks and reflect upon my briefer-than-brief 60 years of being alive on this planet. Then again, the short little speck of time that is my life is all I’ve got. It brings up a range of feelings to be here at this time in the middle of this magnificent landscape – humbled, joyous, inspired, awe, insignificant. I sit as quietly as the canyon is on this late afternoon. Lines from a Mary Oliver poem that I’ve been trying to memorize emerge out of the quiet:

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

One wild and precious life. Hmm. One. Wild. Precious. Life. I can’t think of a better place in which to contemplate my one wild and precious life. One thing I know is that I want more wildness in this precious life of mine. And I know I am right where I need to be today.

Yes, from one angle, my life can seem small and insignificant in the face of this ancient stone. Then I am reminded of how the life of a high school dropout, a dryland cowboy, was able to convince the Washington DC power brokers to get behind this crazy idea of making a national park out of this God-forsaken landscape, as many people considered this place. I suppose Bates Wilson could have looked at his smalltime, western cowboy life as never being able to have much of an impact beyond his little red dirt world. Fortunately for the rest of us, and for this magical landscape, he didn’t.

When considered against the geologic time represented in these rocks, I suspect that what Wilson or any of us accomplish will probably always seem like a speck of meaningless dust. But, when considered within the realm of our country’s history, the foreseeable future of this land, and a good many handfuls of human generations, Wilson’s efforts are hugely significant. It’s a bit of a paradox, how being here can conjure feelings of insignificance, which can be disempowering. But if applied appropriately, that feeling of insignificance can lead to humility, perspective, not taking oneself too seriously…all good things – for individuals, for a society, for our species. Being here can lead to empowerment – empowerment that comes from meeting the physical challenges associated with getting around this place, or the psychological challenges that a few days of wilderness solitude can provoke. And, being here can also lead to a sense of hope, something that often seems, at least to me, pretty hard to come by as the 21st century unfolds. Along with a capacity for so much destruction, greed, and disregard for so much and so many, the fact that this little corner of the planet has been deliberately set aside as a place protected from ourselves – a place where we actually choose to put limits on what we could do to this place, but choose not to – is a reason for hope. Yes, being here makes me feel hopeful.

******

The sun sets while I take a leisurely stroll up-canyon. Unlike last evening, the sky is completely cloud-free tonight. The wind has diminished to a few gusty breezes. The air does feel much colder than it did the last two nights. Maybe I will wear an extra layer tonight. Without any clouds, the slightly larger sliver of moon is desert-sky clear as the evening slowly begins to darken. Still no stars. Soon!

I plan on rising early for a quick start to what will be a long day. The hike out of here will be the pleasant part. Sorry sciatic – we have that same drive to do in the opposite direction tomorrow. As quick as it started, my wilderness retreat to say good-bye to my 50s and hello to my 60s will soon be done. But it’s not done yet! On the many hikes I’ve guided over the years, I would often say to my group of hikers towards the end that the best part of the hike – like some cool animal sighting, or something unexpected – could still be ahead of us. The same holds true right now – I still have a night to spend in this amazing desert wilderness, plus what I expect to be a very pleasant early morning hike. Who knows what will happen!

A Redrock Wilderness Retreat, Part 2

DAY TWO

I slept cold and poorly last night. The slow leak in the air mattress, which eventually eliminated the insulating layer of air between me and the cold rock underneath, might have had something to do with it. I was happy to see the light of the new day through the walls of the tent. Tonight I think I’ll do a middle-of-the-night refill and see if that helps.

I decide to warm my slowly waking body by exploring around the camp. Surrounded by slabs of slickrock poised at every angle, I scramble up some red sandstone that leads to a slab of white sandstone, and then another and another. My body now wide awake, it feels good to be warm. Oatmeal and hot tea finish the job. As if that isn’t enough, the sun slips up over the rock wall to the east and soon has me shedding a layer.

IMG_2729After hiking back down Elephant Canyon the way I came up yesterday afternoon, I reach a trail intersection sign after about a mile. Chesler Park: 1.0 m. I’ve hiked many of the trails in the Needles District, but this trail to Chesler Park is one I haven’t done. I climb out of the main canyon through a side canyon filled with a tortured hodgepodge of broken rocks, boulders, and an assortment of desert plants, some of which I can readily identify  – Utah juniper, Fremont’s mahonia, pinyon pine, dwarf mountain mahogany. It may still be winter, but I come across a few early spring wildflowers in blossom here and there – western wallflower, Newberry’s twinpod. I’ve never seen a flash flood here in the park, but I’ve read about them and know that they can make a real mess of these drainages. Make them look like this chaotic mix of earth, stone and hardy plants through which my morning trail travels. It does make for fun hiking though.

I reach a high point and turn around to a spectacular sight that I’ve seen from other trails that I never grow tired of. cnp 1Those same snowy La Sals that I saw while driving yesterday look even more stunning with a foreground dominated by the red and white striped spires that give the Needles District its name. It is all the more pleasing to see, not through the windshield of a car, but from the heart of this wild landscape that can only be reached by foot. I suppose one of the reasons I wanted to do a wilderness backpacking retreat for my 60th was to see if my body could still do it – enjoy hiking these slickrock up and down trails with a pack on my back. I admit I am feeling a bit sore, as I haven’t backpacked in awhile, but beyond that, I am having a blast!

I hike into the grassy Chesler Park, named after a horse rancher who operated in the area long ago. The day is soft and warm while I notice some patches of snow lingering on a north-facing slope off in the distance. I work my way through the Joint Trail, which is a series of narrow slot canyons, in places less than two feet wide where I have to lomatiumremove my pack and turn sideways to get through. I am now planted on a slab of white slickrock that is decorated with black, white, grey, and a few tiny yellow lichens. In a miniature crevice of rocky pink soil grows a small lomatium in bloom, its tiny lemon-colored blossoms saying that spring is, indeed, on its way. A high ceiling of thin clouds is weakening the sunshine, but the solar energy absorbed by the rock is keeping me warm. I watch a couple of chipmunks scurry across the rocks across the wash. They both jump into a just-greening shrub and seem to disappear. Oh, there they go, back across the rock and out of sight. Time to begin working my way back to camp – about three easy miles from where I sit.

The songs of a Say’s phoebe and a mountain bluebird accompany my own singing as I lazily work my way back to camp. ….Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill. But since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride…. I suppose that if I needed a theme song, or a summary of how I feel at 60, these lyrics from James Taylor’s Secret O’ Life work pretty well. Of course, 60 is a good ways beyond the top of the hill, but whether I am 60%, 75%, or 98% through my life, I so want to enjoy the rest of the ride. This sentiment is another reason why I am here on this little wilderness retreat in this favorite place of mine.

cnp 2Back to camp by mid-afternoon. The clouds have thickened, but the day is still mild and gentle. After hiking around seven miles, it feels good to shed my hiking shoes and just hang out at camp. It sometimes feels as if my life over the past several decades has had so little of this kind of unstructured, undistracted, unpreoccupied quiet time to slow way down and just be. I have with me the most recent issue of High Country News, a special issue devoted to our National Park System, which turns 100 this year. What a great invention, National Parks. That I have this wild place in which to retreat for solitude, reflection and wilderness immersion is one of the greatest benefits of being an American citizen. Our system of national parks is very high on my list of what makes this a great nation.

*****

I’ve never been much of a meditator, at least in the manner that meditation is often portrayed – sitting still, focusing on breath, keeping the mind free from extraneous thoughts. I have gone through stretches of days, maybe a few weeks, when I meditated in this fashion. But it would never last. I just returned from the backcountry ritual of finding and filtering water. This necessary backcountry practice here in the desert always goes like this: I mindfully approach the puddle and find the best place to position myself, careful not to disturb the water with additional stones, sand, sticks or anything a careless foot could kick into it. These desert water holes are usually harboring a fair share of insects (both dead and alive), maybe a surface covering of something slimy, silt settled at the bottom…disturbing it only adds to what the filter needs to remove.

Properly positioned, I am careful not to accidentally drop the filter or any parts of it into the puddle, except the end of the tube designed to be in the source of unfiltered water. Screwing this process up could result in contracting some sort of intestinal bug that could ruin a trip, or worse. With the end of each tube where it is supposed to be, I slowly pump – about 50 pumps per liter. No way to rush the process, as the filter can only handle a small amount of water per stroke. Slow, methodical, focused – kind of like meditation. Plus, the opportunity to gaze at the surroundings, which is always a pleasure, and absorb the music of the wildness that surrounds me. Three and a half liters filtered, plus a nice deep watering of my own parched self, I then carefully drain the filter and place it in its carrying case, ready for my next water meditation.

*****

Why solo? Why come out here by myself? I was struggling with this question yesterday. A taste of uneasiness accompanied me as I left the Elephant Hill trailhead, leaving the car and the road and civilization behind, and began hiking into this wild place. It wasn’t a fear of wild animals – even though I had seen a poster back at the Visitor Center: Warning! A mountain lion has recently been seen in the Elephant Hill area. I’ve hiked thousands of miles inIMG_2762 wild places, sometimes not necessarily at the top of the food chain, and I always take with me a strong belief in John Muir’s adage that a wilderness feared is a wilderness lost. But I do bring a healthy dose of respect for these wild animals.

So, it wasn’t fear. It may have had something to do with feeling like I was doing something wrong. Somewhere, maybe as a boy scout, I was told that traveling alone in the wilds is dangerous. A friend questioned why I would want to spend my birthday by myself in the desert, away from the people I love and that love me (I did have a little celebration with my wife, daughter and grandkids a few days before I left). My aging mom is not well, my daughter is crazy-busy with nursing school and can always use my help with the grandkids, and so I am certainly needed back home. And there I was, walking away from all of that. Am I being selfish? Whatever the cause, it was nagging at me. Not big, but still there.

As today wore on, I could feel the uneasiness dissolving as the red rock landscape worked its way into me (and onto me, as this red dirt has a way of finding every part of me to take a ride on). As I sauntered alone along desert trails, I thought of the numerous treks I’ve done in this park with many combinations of people. I began to recognize that the experience of being out here on my own has a different texture, a different flow, compared to being here with others. Not that I don’t love being here with others – I do. I love sharing this magical place. And, admittedly, I have had some moments when I wished I was here with my wife, kids, grandkids, friends. But this solo texture is now feeling like a good thing for me to be experiencing at this little blink of time in my life. Retreating into these wild canyons for a few days of solitude, with extended time to ponder, reflect, not talk, write, and be guided only by my own whims and wants, is feeling more and more like I am doing something right. Again I think of John Muir, “…for going out, I found, was really going in.”

*****

The cloudy afternoon has given way to one last show from the sun, shining through a narrow gap between the clouds and the western horizon, illuminating the very top of the sandstone wall to the east. It looks like the light is coming not from the sun but out of the uppermost part of the redrock wall itself. And then, in a matter of seconds, the light dissolves and the evening just became several notches darker. A canyon wren sounds like it is rehearsing its iconic canyon song of descending notes. Another bird whose song I am not familiar with adds some counterpoint to the wren. Dueling birds! The thin cloud cover above the eastern wall is now blushed with a peachy pink, once again brightening up the evening landscape. As I watch it becomes brighter. The color reveals that the clouds are moving to the north as they become brighter still against a backdrop of a bluish gray sky. I couldn’t ask for a better evening show!

I turn my gaze behind me and see that the western sky is just as alive with color. Feathery clouds of pink drift over the Needles on the northwest horizon, their red and white stripes still visible in the fading light. The evening show has many acts; just when I think it is over, another colorful act begins. The birds have quieted and the deep silence of the canyon, of the park, of the Universe fills my ears. Fills my entire self. Oh, it was a long drive getting here, but this, all by itself, makes it well worth it. The latest act is fading slowly, as if the silence is sucking the color right out of the sky.

Ah, the next act, stage west – the crescent sliver of moon, a shallow U facing almost directly up, is coming through the thinning clouds. Next, depending on the cloud cover, will be the stars. Will I ever get to sleep tonight?

A Redrock Wilderness Retreat, Part 1

DAY ONE

The clock in the car reads 6:21 as I pull out of my morning driveway and head down the dirt road. Destination: Elephant Canyon, Utah! I listen to NPR as I work my way south towards I-25, and then west on US160. Presidential candidates Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz seem to monopolize the news stories. Especially Donald Trump. I climb La Veta Pass and am happy to lose reception. Enough of Donald.

I leave Cortez on Hwy 491 and immediately see the snowy La Sal Mountains directly in front of me, probably 75 miles away as the raven flies. An island of white floating on a red dirt sagebrush landscape. I pass through Dove Creek, Home of the Anasazi Beans, and soon cross the Colorado/Utah state line. I approach the town of Monticello and see that a wind farm has sprouted just north of town since the last time I drove this highway a year or so ago. As I lose elevation heading north on US191, signs of the red rock country I am heading towards in Canyonlands National Park start to peak out from between the green pinyons and junipers.

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I arrive at the Needles District Visitor Center at 2:30 – eight hours in the car. My left sciatic, which turns 60 today, doesn’t like it one bit, being in the car for that long. A short and pleasant visit with the ranger, a quick late lunch, and I am soon hoisting my backpack onto my back. Not since I finished the Colorado Trail a couple of years ago has my body felt this familiar combination of sensations – the weight of the pack balancing between hips and shoulders, hip flexors saying “hello,” and that feeling that borders on euphoria, knowing I am going spend a few days immersed in what Gary Snyder calls “wild Nature.” This wild redrock canyon country very much qualifies as wild Nature!

This four-day adventure is a pilgrimage of sorts. I first came to canyon country about 25 years ago after hearing about it from a magazine article on the quietest places in the country. Being a passionate appreciator of natural quiet, I took note of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. As soon I could make it happen, I made my way to southeast Utah. I was accompanied by my two kids, Sierra, then around 13, Sequoia, 10, a friend of mine, Todd, his 12ish daughter Sarah, and Dylan, a good friend of and the same age as Sequoia. We arrived at the same Elephant Hill Trailhead I just arrived at and was heading for the same EC2 campsite that I am hiking to today. That first trip here forever imprinted this landscape deep into my spirit. I’ve been back to what has become my favorite national park nearly every year since that iconic first backpack into redrock canyon country – car camping, backpacking, day hiking. I’ve been here in rain, hellish summer heat, snow, wind, and days like today – warm, sunny, gentle. But I’ve never experienced this place solo.

The seed to come here on my own was planted exactly a decade ago, the day I turned 50. I was on a solo backpack along Frijoles Canyon in New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument to say good-bye to my 40s and welcome my 50s. I decided then that, when I turn 60, I would acknowledge that milestone – which sounded a good long decade away – on another solo wilderness retreat, in Canyonlands National Park.

Well, that decade has come and it has, as of today, officially gone, and here I am, just where I said I’d be when I turn 60. All too often, we make plans to do something for ourselves, but life gets in the way, or, we let life get in the way, and those plans fall through. I’m guilty of it. But not this time; backpack on my back, sun on my face, I’m a just-turned-60-year-old pilgrim happily working my way into the backcountry of Canyonlands.

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I arrive at the campsite, set up the tent, and head down to where there should be a good source of water. This canyon country is a desert, so finding water can be tricky. It’s been a rather wet winter in this part of the world (thanks to this year’s strong El Nino, that warm water in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean thousands of miles away from this place), so the “puddle” I’ve found water in many times in the past is bigger than I’ve ever seen it. In fact, there is more water along this wash than I’ve ever seen. Good, finding water will not be a problem.

Dinner heartily enjoyed and cleaned up for the night, the evening sky is graced by a just-past-new sliver of a moon, sliding down into a gap in the backlit hoodoos that make up the western horizon. I locate the Big Dipper, standing on its handle, the last star of which is hidden behind the rocks that rise from across the main canyon. The sky begins to explode with stars. I check the time – 7:29. Hmm – nights are long on late winter backpacks. I’m glad I brought along something to read – a copy of Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s classic book about this redrock country – Abbey’s country.

I can still see all of us on that first trip here, listening to Desert Solitaire. We were preparing dinner one evening, the fading light of the day just barely discernible in the western sky. Sierra was reading aloud, the book illuminated by her headlamp. Everyone, even Dylan, who really liked to talk, was quiet, listening. Sierra was sitting on a log, knees bent, feet out in front, reading away, while a mouse scampered back and forth right underneath her legs. No one else noticed. I said nothing, as I figured she wouldn’t have appreciated knowing that little critter was as close as it was.

When we turned in for the night, we all decided to sleep out under the stars, lined up side by side by side across the slickrock. Haley’s comet was a part of the magical desert night sky for a few weeks that early spring, which was off to our front left as we lay there on our slickrock bed. I can close my eyes and see the bunch of us all those years ago, cozy in our sleeping bags on the same white slickrock where I ate dinner this evening. Sometime in the middle of the night, Sequoia, who was next to me, whispers, “Dad, are you awake?” “Yeah.” “A mouse just ran over my head,” he said in a rather nonchalant voice. “Are you ok?” “Yeah.” “Then don’t worry about it, it won’t hurt you. Go back to sleep.” “Ok. Good night.” “Good night,” I whispered, “see you in the morning.”