A month ago I was reunited with a former flame. It’s been over three years (I’m sad to say) since we’ve enjoyed each other’s company. But, now that we’ve realized how better our lives are together, I doubt we’ll ever part again.
I’m talking about camping, of course.
The ranch I was working on near Monticello, Utah closed for the season on November 15th and so a farmhand friend and I headed to Canyonlands National Park (with a stop for pizza, long-awaited cell service, and to see if we could convince a couple others to come). For the next eight nights, we slept outside and, with temps dipping into the 20s, got used to wearing every single layer we own to bed.
There’s a certain rhythm to living your entire life outside that I love. I think it’s the simplicity of it. You wake up because that’s when the sun’s decided to wake up. You make a fire. You make oatmeal and coffee. (You do this because you’re more cold than hungry and because the act of doing it will warm you up too.) You strike camp. And then, one foot, two foot, go. You set out on your path.
But what I really love most is the night. It’s the time when you get to sit around and laugh over the day’s events. It’s the time when you can slip away and take in the moon. It’s the time when you get to wrestle important questions like “should we throw another log on this fire?” and “what are we having for dinner anyways?”.
Aaron, Darla and I shared a tent (designed for two people, we discovered the third added crucial body heat) and some of my favorite moments from those eight days were right there trying to get to sleep. We’d zip our bags up to our heads and then I’d leave my arms free and pull out a book. The first few nights I was finishing an Edward Abbey, then we dived into The Yiddish Policeman’s Union followed by One Hundred Years of Solitude when Chabon’s descriptions of Sitka’s Alaskan winter didn’t do much for our cold feet. I’d read aloud until I heard snores next to me, or sometimes I’d continue on just for me (and any lone coyote that might be listening).
This is not to say the day was something to rush through. Canyonlands was only about a half hour away from the ranch but, like everything I found in Utah, you can go as little as 10 miles in any new direction and be in a completely new landscape. Canyonlands greeted us with shades of red from brilliant orange to dull copper, tall spires that give the area the name “Needles District,” narrow canyons filled with sand, water, cottonwoods, and vistas overlooking high desert plains with snow-dusted mountains rising in the distance. These were some good sights.
You can get a backcountry permit for something like twenty bucks and 14 days in the park. With two other Districts to explore (“Island in the Sky” and the more remote — and aptly named — “The Maze”), you could literally spend a lifetime exploring the place. So, it was hard but, after two days we opted to head south to a new area and save the park for when we had much more time. (We also had run out of all our food, except potatoes, so figured we might as well cover new ground after we re-supplied.)
After stocking up on tortillas and beans and other essentials (like pixie sticks), we set our sights on Comb Ridge. Located roughly 30 miles or so from Canyonlands, Comb Ridge is a hundred mile-long rock formation called a “monocline” with canyon after canyon filled with tucked away ruins from when the Anasazi roamed the area a thousand years ago.
It also has the added bonus of costing nothing to explore.
The West is home to acres upon acres of public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (or “BLM” for short). Sure, some of it comes with restrictions but, by and large, you are free to wander at your own risk. And I have to say, as beautiful as Canyonlands was, there was truly something freeing about being able to just roam without the trails, the rangers, the crowds.
We were just out in it — caves shaped like fish mouths, potholes filled with murky (yet drinkable) water, Anasazi homes perched on 500 foot cliffs, and a long snaking cliff from where it felt like the whole world was born and slowly grew out and away. Standing up on top one night at dusk, I kept coming back to these lines from the singer Greg Laswell:
“Oh wind,” he goes, “won’t you take me up to the sky so I can get a good look down at this life of mine. And river, won’t you take me out into the sea so I can get a good look back at the land that grounds me.”
I think it captures what, for me, backpacking and nature and all that “out in it” stuff is really about. It’s about getting some objective distance from life. It’s about getting grounded — in your soul and what really matters, and in your body living its life alongside everything else living out its own course.
Four days later, we found our way back to our cars and discovered two notes: a courtesy one from the BLM and the other from the local sheriff’s department asking that we get in touch so that they know not to send a search and rescue. Turns out we were out in it long enough to attract some attention…
After clearing things up with all concerned parties (including our mothers), Darla and I decided to drive, hike, and camp our way to Arizona.
We blazed past the lunar-like landscapes of Glen Canyon’s northern end up to Capitol Reef National Park. We spent the afternoon poking around some back roads and had ourselves a great hike up to Cassidy Arch (named after good ol’ Butch who hid out in the canyons there for years). That night, just past the little town of Boulder on our way to Escalante, we drove one of the most beautiful routes you can imagine. Picture this: you’re driving through gray, soft trees to the top of a 9,000 foot mountain and there you find a snowy meadow, dripping orange from the sunset, and far below is the red desert and farther beyond that are The Henrys, one of the most unexplored mountain ranges in the continental US of A. (Darla and I both dare you not to get choked up.)
We spent our last night outside along that route in the Calf Creek campground. Normally a highly coveted spot in the summer, we had this little canyon oasis all to ourselves (and some intrepid mice). The next day the promise of a friend of a friend’s warm couch started to lure us in and we made the final push for Prescott, AZ.
Finally, the night before Thanksgiving, we slept and we were warm. We didn’t need strategic access to warm gloves and layers. We could turn on a light and see what the heck was making the noise in the corner. We didn’t think about if we should or should not pee before crawling into our sleeping bags. We could just crawl in and sleep. And it was strange. Strangely wonderful.
And that, that right there, is why I go out in it. It’s so I can come back inside and get how wonderful it is, too.