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National Monuments: Land Grab or Legacy?

A Utah Senator says that setting aside this land as part of the National Parks is “a hasty, impetuous action to lock up the area, a step that the people of Utah and the nation would regret for centuries.”  A Deseret News article asserts there is “no other place in the state which [has] greater potential for mineral production.” A Moab Times Independent editorial states, “We wholeheartedly agree that Utahans cannot allow vast, potentially-rich tracts of land to be ‘locked’ into reserves that would prohibit any future use…” Why would these people say these things about the Bears Ears National Monument, designated in 2016 by President Obama? Because they didn’t! They said these things in 1962, opposing the establishment of Canyonlands National Park, which, coincidentally, borders Bears Ears National Monument.

A popular hiking trial in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

Few today – from Utah or any other state – would argue that creating Canyonlands National Park was a mistake. Along with Arches National Park, Canyonlands has helped make southeast Utah one of the nation’s outdoor recreation hotspots. As Stephen Mather, the Park Service’s first director put it a hundred years ago, a National Park is “an economic asset of incalculable value.”  Canyonlands has certainly been such an asset to southeast Utah.

Since the Antiquities Act was passed in 1906, nearly every president has used it to protect places that they deemed needed protecting and to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Teddy Roosevelt used it numerous times. In 1908, concerned about all sorts of plans to develop and deface the beauty of the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt, using the Antiquities Act, established Grand Canyon National Monument. There was local opposition to this decision, claiming abuse of federal power. History has proven that acting to protect the Grand Canyon as a National Monument (which eventually became a National Park) was undeniably the right thing to do.

President Theodore Roosevelt and other officials at the Grand Canyon in 1903

The designation of many National Monuments and Parks was fiercely contested by small local groups, including designations by Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jackson Hole National Monument, now Grand Teton National Park) and more recently by George W. Bush (Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, northwest of Hawaii). Who today would argue that the legacy of Grand Canyon, Arches, Grand Teton, Zion, or Canyonlands National Parks would better serve our nation if they would have instead gone the way that a small group of locals wanted them to go – as mines, oil fields, private ranches,  or for timber production?

The names of the places may be different today – Bears Ears, Grand Staircase Escalante, Katahdin Woods and Waters – but the arguments are simply history repeating itself. “Land grab”, “locked up”, “abuse of power” – this is the same language used to argue against every National Monument or Park designation that the locals believed was wrong. Thankfully, we as a people have decided that some places deserve to be set aside to protect their scenic, historic or ecological values as a legacy for future generations, protected from mining, logging, and other extractive industries. Thankfully, we have given the president the power, through the Antiquities Act, to make those decisions when threats to the integrity of these places are moving faster than other efforts to protect them.

Exploring along the Green River with my grandkids at Dinosaur National Monument, August 2015

Wallace Stegner’s words are as appropriate today as they were when he wrote them in the 1950s, opposing the proposed construction of dams in Dinosaur National Monument, “It is a better world with some buffalo left in it, a richer world with some gorgeous canyons unmarred by signboards, hot-dog stands, super highways, or high-tension lines, undrowned by power or irrigation reservoirs. If we preserved as parks only those places that have no economic possibilities, we would have no parks. And in the decades to come, it will not be only the buffalo and the trumpeter swan who need sanctuaries. Our own species is going to need them too. It needs them now.”

Right now, the current administration has directed Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Department of Interior, to conduct a quick review of all national monument designations since 1996. This review is taking place under the false premise that they were designated without local input. For example, years of local Native American conservation efforts, public hearings, Utah congressional requests, visits by former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel and other officials, countless letters, op-eds and emails took place before Bears Ears was finally designated late in 2016. The original 1.9 million acre proposal was reduced by 30% by the Obama administration as a result of local input.

The current administration has essentially stated that it believes that many of these national monument designations were improperly done, and wants to see them altered or rescinded. These monuments belong to all Americans; if you are among the vast majority of Americans that believe they should remain intact, please let Secretary Zinke know: Secretary Ryan Zinke Dept. of Interior 1849 C Street N.W. Washington D.C. 20240; 202-208-7351; email through website https://www.doi.gov/contact-us

The Bears Ears Butte in the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah, one of the most significant cultural landscapes in the United States, with thousands of archaeological sites and important areas of spiritual significance.

Vuja de

I’ve been writing about various facets of the natural world for the newsletter of the Nature education non-profit I started in the Mountain Park in Beulah, my small southern Colorado town, for a long time. The recent issue that was just published begins the eighteenth year of the Mountain Park News.  I can recall writing articles on all sorts of birds and wildflowers, bears, trees, mountain lions, pronghorn, bobcat, pleasing fungus beetles, squirrels, owls, biological soil crusts…but, surprisingly, I don’t recall ever writing about one of the area’s most common and iconic species, Odocileus hemionus. If my memory is correct, the pages of Mountain Park News never included an article specifically about mule deer. As of the recent issue, that is no longer the case.

There has been much statewide press about the significant population decline of mule deer in Colorado over the past decade. According to a recent Denver Post article, mule deer population estimates in Colorado are down about 36 percent, from 614,100 in 2005 to 390,600 in 201 (compared to a 10% decrease across the entire western US). Disease, habitat loss due to development encroachment, and road mortality are among the likely reasons for the decline according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Well, maybe they should do a count in Beulah; considering how many deer with the big ears and short, black-tipped tail there are in the valley, maybe all those missing mule deer are all hanging out here. It is a rare day that I don’t see several mule deer while driving or walking in Beulah.

Just the other day, on a windy and chilly late afternoon walk in the park, I came across eight deer – one young buck, a few does, and several adolescents – that watched me but hardly seemed concerned about me as I walked by within around 20 feet of the closest one. A couple weeks ago, I was walking down the steps to my house (which is just across the road from the park). Looking at my mail and not paying much attention as I’ve walked down these steps a million times, I looked up to see a doe no more than ten feet in front of me, standing on the steps. I stopped. She turned and took a couple of step towards me. Hmm. I’ve seen video clips of how aggressive deer can be. So I backed up a few steps, made some noise, and she finally ambled off. Slowly.

The minimal snow so far this season is keeping the dried forbs and grasses readily available for our area’s mule deer to fatten up on as the winter approaches. When the snow cover is deep, shrubs and trees make up most of their diet. I recall many times being out in the park on skis or snowshoes on cold days with the landscape covered in deep snow. Working hard to keep myself warm, I’d watch deer bite the needles off ponderosa pines and wonder how many calories they are were actually getting from those needles that would get them through the cold night ahead. Mountain mahogany and Gambel oak are also common winter foods for mule deer in the park.

dec-17-deer-snow-cropped

Yes, mule deer are common and I see them pretty much every day. They are a very familiar part of my daily life here in Beulah. Hence, mule deer give me daily opportunities to apply Vuja de. The opposite of Déjà vu, the sensation that an experience currently being experienced has already been experienced, Vuja de is the act of seeing something familiar with a fresh view. I love keeping the idea of Vuja de alive in my life. It helps me to see the familiar – my home, my loved ones, my everyday world  – with fresh eyes. Vuja de reminds me to see each day and everything in it as a special gift. Because each day that I am alive, each day that I get to see my home, my family, my world, and mule deer, is, indeed, a special gift.

 

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.

food

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.

 

bedroom

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.

sept 2011 wise women walking retreat 019

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: Books That Taught & Inspired Our Marriage – The Early Years

losthiwaybannervm

We love books! Sometimes a book can change your life – after you read it, you can’t see or do things the same way you saw or did them before.

In our early years we found books that helped shape our shared interests, values and ultimately our life together. Some books can be that powerful, and here is a short list of some of the books that have had such an influence on our lives:

goodlifeLiving the Good Life by Helen & Scott Nearing Living close to the land, growing food, simplifying, minimizing energy consumption – ways of living that have more recently become known as “reducing your ecological footprint” – are values that have guided our marriage since the very early years. The Nearings were role models for us – they left NYC in the 30s to homestead in Vermont, and later in Maine.

Mother Earth News OK, this was not a book, it was – and still is – a magazine, but we learned much about rural living through many articles in this down-to-earth publication.

 

 

diet-for-a-small-planet-84973l2Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe Connecting global food scarcity, food policy, meat production, and a plant-based diet, this book had a huge influence on the way we fed our family, and still feed ourselves. It helped guide us to starting a food coop, learning how to cook beans at 6600′ altitude (hello pressure cooker), doing a garden, and deepened our understanding of the relationship between a healthy planet and the choices that we all make each day.

Along with “Diet,” Laurel’s Kitchen helped us fall in love with food and how to prepare with intention.  And of course the Moosewood Cookbook inspired us to make healthy meals that delighted our guests and infused our meals with love and joy. We would have loved to visit the Moosewood Cafe in upstate NY and still hope to do so someday (a bucket list item for us).

Spiritual MidwiferyInaMayGaskin by Ina May Gaskin Early on, we were unwilling to accept at face-value ways of doing things that were the norm. When having a baby hit our radar screen (which happened in 1978, two years after we married), we had lots of questions about how childbirth was being handled through the dominant medical/corporate establishment. The amazing stories in Spiritual Midwifery led to our having both of our children at home in Beulah. We were not into thwarting the “dominant paradigm” indiscriminately or just to do it; but, if after educating ourselves about a choice to make, if the right choice for us did thwart the dominant paradigm, that was just fine with us. Having homebirths put us on the path to becoming certified childbirth educators through Informed Birth and Parenting (originally, Informed Homebirth), a nonprofit started by Rahima Baldwin that provided parents with information about alternatives in birth, parenting, and early childhood.

This book is revolutionary because it is our basic belief that the sacrament of birth belongs to the people and that is should not be usurped by a profit-oriented hospital system. ~ Spiritual Midwifery

Helene Van Manen pregnant with sierra 1976

Helene a couple of weeks before Sierra was born, 1979

 

how children learnHow Children Learn, How Children Fail and others by John Holt Boston-based educator and author John Holt‘s insights into what is and isn’t effective education had a huge influence on our own education as parents, educators, and education activists. Since we were sometimes on the road as traveling musicians and we didn’t want to leave our kids, home-schooling fit well into our music careers as well as our beliefs about raising and educating our children.

quote-all-i-am-saying-in-this-book-can-be-summed-up-in-two-words-trust-children-nothing-could-be-more-john-holt-238225

sequoiahammer

Play is how children learn. Real tools inspire children. Our son loved to build things.

We could go on and on, as books continue to inspire and teach us. Who knows – we may find a book next week that could speak to us the way these books did and influence another chapter in our try-to-make-a-difference, stand-up-for-what’s-right, vote-with-our-lives way of living.

 

dhvm canyonlands Dave and Helene Van Manen are celebrating their 40 years of marriage by celebrating one year for each day of their years together. They call it a “40 Day Love Fest” and invite you to follow along their blog posts where they are sharing their story of navigating making a life out of loving each other. 

Read more at The 40 Day Love Fest

 

40 Day Love Fest: Music Brought Us Together – The Van Manens are born

In the beginning, there was music.

If there is a thread that connects the entire length of our marriage, as well as the couple of years we were together before we were married, it is music. Making it and listening to it.

lovefestroseJust a few months before we met, Dave did his first public performance at his high school (Brooklyn Tech) after abandoning the plan to become a professional football player (his not-quite 5’7″ stature had something to do with this abandonment) and setting his sights on a music career. Helene’s vocals led to the two-part harmony that became one of the Van Manens’ trademarks.  We were in love and in love with the songs that fueled our desire to leave NYC…Country Roads by John Denver, Dark Hollow (David Bromberg), and Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles).

at badlands

Badlands National Monument in South Dakota, a couple of weeks after we were married.

Along with our friend Tommy Kessler, we made a demo of a few of our songs at A & R Recording Studio, Dave’s place of employment the year before we were married (Paul Simon, Billy Joel, and Judy Collins were among the artists who recorded there that year). The demo didn’t really go anywhere, but it sowed some recording seeds that would eventually germinate.

We were into the Eagles years before they became the super-popular band they later became.

We were lucky to go to some of the best concerts in the early years – Jackson Browne (Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ), James Taylor (Carnegie Hall), Eagles (2x at Capitol Theatre, one show 2nd row center, tickets were $5.65 each), and Janis Ian (Central Park).

singing at yule log 1977
Beulah Yule Log event in Pueblo Mountain Park, late 70s.

Not long after arriving in Colorado, we spent some time as students in the Music Department at the University of So. Colorado, Dave taught music privately and then at the University, and we were soon singing at weddings. We sang the Wedding Song by Paul Stookey, Follow Me (John Denver), and Longer (Dan Fogelberg) at a whole lot of weddings. We were soon doing music therapy at area hospitals, and our writing music together led us back into the recording studio.

in studio

Recording at FTM Studios in Denver, 1986 or ’87.

We happily found ourselves drawn to making music for children, which led to traveling throughout the country during the late 80s and the 90s making a living on our songs, including We Recycle, Don’t Whine, I Love My Home… Libraries, schools, church basements, living rooms, parks, peace rallies, festivals – we sang in thousands of places.  Little did we know back then that our music would someday be uploadable through something called “itunes” and that a future generations of children would be singing the songs we wrote for our children and their friends.

state fair 1984
Street Performing, mid 80s.

 

 

 

 

Peace Rally with Elaine Lopez Pacheco

 With our lifetime friend Elaine Lopez Pacheco at a peace rally on the lawn outside the Pueblo, CO Courthouse, around 1990.

 Paul Simon recorded this song at A&R Studios the year Dave worked there. We love this song!

In 2000, ready to “retire” from the music business, we both launched new careers (Helene as a Coach, Dave opening the Mountain Park Environmental Center). But music continues to enrich our lives and nurture our connection as we take music into our present day work and play – on hikes, out under the oaks, with children, and into the desert in our ’95 Eurovan. And there is singing in our house most every day.

Our music has taken us a long long way since we first sang together back in the spring of 1974, on a picnic bench in Forest Park, or on the corner of Gates and Seneca where we “hung out.” Music has also moved into the next generations – our kids Sierra and Sequoia played piano, guitar, danced, and they sang on several of our albums and performed with us when they accompanied us on our tours. And now our grandkids play a variety of instruments and receive countless lessons in music appreciation and instrument instruction from us.

A deepening of our connection to each other often takes place when we listen to music and, especially, when we make music.

An unspoken clarity rings through us about who we are together, why we are living this life on the planet at this time, and what we are meant to be doing. It  ground us and helps keep things in perspective when the world seems too crazy or is moving too fast.

Most days you will find a well-played guitar taking a break on the couch, or the Beatles or Bach or David Wilcox filling the air, or the sounds of a uke coming from the back deck, or one or both of us  irresistibly dancing to the B-52s.  It’s a wonderful musical life!

 

 

dhvm canyonlandsDave and Helene Van Manen found each other as teenagers in their New York neighborhoods, left for Colorado and let love carry them as they grew up together. Today they are reaping the joys of decades of loving and learning together.

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.”