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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?

Looking Back at Turning 50 on a Wilderness Retreat

I turn 60 next month. I will turn 60 only once, and so I’ve been thinking about what I might do to acknowledge this milestone (and try to understand how I could already be 60!). This led me to dig up a little essay, which I called Living in Awe, that I wrote when I turned 50. I can now say without hesitation that I am so glad I carved out a few days to step away from my busy life ten years ago to acknowledge that milestone. A decade later, I can still remember lots of details from retreating into that late-winter, northern New Mexico landscape – my first good look at an acorn woodpecker, hiking up out of the drainage into a landscape healing from a wildfire that burned many years before, gingerly crossing the icy creek while questioning the thickness and strength of the ice…  

LIVING IN AWE

“Looks like you’ll have the whole place to yourself since this is the only backcountry permit we’ve issued. Have fun!” With these words from the park ranger fresh on my mind, I strap on my pack and begin a four-day solo in the 23,000-acre wilderness of northern New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument. A few raindrops and 30 minutes of easy walking and I have left the developed part of the park, including the ruins that are the park’s main attractions, behind me. Not that I am disinterested in these incredible remains of a centuries-old thriving indigenous village, but I am here for other reasons.

I am hiking up Frijoles Canyon, hopping back and forth across the partially frozen creek every few minutes. Frijoles Creek, which will be my water source for the next several days, has been eroding prolific deposits of “tuff” – rock comprised of ash from nearby volcanic activity – for thousands of years. As the ash solidified, countless air pockets created natural cavities in the soft rock, the larger ones becoming the cliff dwellings of the native peoples that called this area home up until about 450 years ago.

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The trees are all very familiar to me, dominated by ponderosa pine, Douglas and white fir. Replace the tuff with pinkish granite, and I’d think I’m hiking the Devil’s Canyon Trail in Pueblo Mountain Park. Ground dwelling plants that include holly grape and grama grass, accompanied by plenty of Gambel oak, make me feel right at home.

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After five miles of hiking, with camp set up and water bottles filled, I have the afternoon to do whatever I please. With a warmth-eating shadow already beginning to envelop my campsite, I scramble up the east side of the canyon and find a large flat rock on which to enjoy the remaining sunshine. A canyon wren sings its lovely melody as I notice some feelings of loneliness that often accompany the early hours of a solo. “More and more I am realizing the natural world is my connection to myself,” says Terry Tempest Williams. The loneliness is a good sign – without the distractions of the peopled world I left a little while ago, I am much more aware of the natural world I am immersed in, and I am much more aware of myself. That’s why I have come to this wilderness.

Satisfied after a simple dinner, I am sitting just outside my tent, dressed warm for a chilly evening, writing with gloved hands. The air is perfectly still. The ponderosa pines surrounding my campsite are black silhouettes against a still-bright but quickly fading western sky. I am facing an exquisite crescent moon, the illumined sliver facing up, gently cradling the remaining earthshined-lit orb like a cupped hand. A few small white clouds lazily drift by. The loneliness has already morphed into an over riding sense of pleasure, basking in the solitude and beauty of this place. In a few days, I turn 50. I am here in this wilderness to turn 50 deliberately. Just to have reached this age seems impossible – I was just 30 the other day, hiking the Tower Trail with my two young kids. A few days before that, I was 15, contemplating life on a lonely beach in eastern Long Island. How could I be 50?

These wilderness days have come and gone, and now my backcountry solo is nearly history. In an hour or so, I will hike out of here and return to the people I love, my work, my life. I have hiked, explored, watched birds. I did a lot of thinking. “To live life fully, to avoid devoting your whole life to accomplishing things, you have to be aware of death.” “Everything is transient. Without that awareness, how can you truly live in awe of what you see – the seasons, the sun.” Not that I expect to die any time soon, but, with fifty already here, these words by Lorry Nelson ring wise to me.

Accomplishing things. Living in awe. I think I am pretty good at accomplishing things. One thing I’ve landed upon during these wilderness days is that, as much as I may continue to get things done, I do not want “accomplishing things” to be the dominant theme of my life in my post-50 years. No, it’s the idea of living my life always in awe – of red volcanic cliffs full of ancient air pockets, of the mystery of indigenous peoples hidden in the ruins of their village, of the crescent moon graced by lazy clouds, of the song of the canyon wren, of the eyes of my grandchildren as they watch birds at the feeder, of three decades being married to my teenage girlfriend – this is what I am drawn to.

Frijoles Canyon_ Bandelier National Monument

So, I take with me from this wilderness experience a renewed realization that it is my love for the people in my life and my love for Nature that are responsible for all the meaning in my life – these loves make me the person I am at the half-century point in my life. And, I take with me the intention that “living in awe” will be the dominant theme of my life after 50. And, I’ll be back!                                       ~ Dave Van Manen, March 2006