“As the world becomes more crowded and corroded by consumption and capitalism, this landscape of minimalism will take on greater significance, reminding us through its blood red grandeur just how essential wild country is to our psychology, how precious the desert is to the soul of America.” Terry Tempest Williams, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert
It is hard to argue with Edward Abbey “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” After reading those words in high school I dreamed of following Abbey to “all which lies beyond the end of roads.” It took about 15 years but I finally made it to Arches National Park. It was love at first sight. For someone born to green outdoors the sandstone red, sky blue and cottonwood green sunk in quick and I was addicted. As I explored Courthouse Wash and the slickrock canyons beyond Devil’s Garden Campground it was clear erosion had created an incredible playground. There were rocks to climb on and places to hide. The one of my many thoughts was “what a wonderful place this would be to bring kids.”
That was the first of many trips to canyon country. But, this would be the first with Zack and Scott. I wanted to show them everything, from the mystery of rock art to the surprise of a desert toad and a sound of the canyon wren’s whistle trailing off in the distance. I wanted to have the freedom of time for what we love to do. The trip came with some worries: would it rain? Be too cold? Would they fight? What about a snake bite kit? In the end hopes far outweighed worries.
We landed in Salt Lake City late at night and in the morning drove to Moab. We spent a day settling in and exploring the town. Across from the entrance to Arches National Park there is an immense hillside of sand. What child wouldn’t be thrilled to climb up a 500 foot hill of sand then leap and fall back to the bottom, just to do it again and again? The sand dunes on Long Island are small and playing on them is greatly discouraged. This place was beyond fun. Scott found a piece of cardboard and tried to use it as a sled. It did not work. The sled stopped suddenly and Newton’s first law sent him rolling down the hill.
From then on is was run up and roll down. The red was already seeping into their bodies. When I pulled into Lin Ottinger’s rock store the boys were soon lost in the maze of bins filled with fossils, crystals, geodes and other amazing treasures. They carefully picked over the selections and made purchases for their museums at home. As we left, Zack announced, “this is the best trip ever” and that was before getting to eat pizza and watch TV in our room at the Super 8. In the morning, after fueling up at Denny’s we packed the gear and it was off to Courthouse Wash and the back of beyond.
The plan was to hike to the third side canyon, far enough from the road to adhere to the backcountry permit. Ten minutes in we took our first break to climb on the slickrock. All that rock and sky made for open space with lots of room to play. They immediately launched into a fantasy game loosely based on Star Wars. Places like this give them the freedom them to play whatever they want. There was no one watching, so they could be whoever or whatever they wanted. This was their first year at a new school and the constant pressure to be cool drained away like water into sand.
After watching a lizard skitter across the rocks we moved on. In another ten minutes we stopped to play in the sand. Jet lag caught up with me and I dozed, half listening to a mix of their voices and the wind. My mind wandered lost in the smell of the cedars and the sky that was blue forever. When I looked up they had built a giant sand city. It was promptly destroyed by their “bombs.” I laughed to myself about the doubts the ranger had that we would find enough to do for three nights. He had never hiked with Zack and Scott.
We hiked on until we came to a small waterfall. Pools were formed where the water slowed down then rushed again down more waterfalls. It was the perfect place to stop. There was water to play in, sand to build with and plenty of bare rock to walk and climb on all without stepping on too much cryptogamic soil. I explained that the black crust on the soil was a combination of living organisms and they needed to get wherever they were going by bare rock hopping. That just made it all the more fun.
Zack wanted to be high on the slickrock safe from flash floods. There was just the spot on a ledge halfway up the canyon wall that looked like good real estate. We set up the tent and there was still room to hang relax without being too close to the edge. The boys soon figured out the best route to scamper up and down the cliff. They just tapped into their inner lizard. From our front door the snow-capped La Sals shone in the distance, canyon walls stretched in both directions and the echo of the water sang to us. We set up camp and spent the afternoon simply hanging out.
They fell asleep early, exhausted from the journey. I lay with my head out of the tent and watched the Milky Way.
The sun rose and quickly warmed our side of the canyon. With a thin layer of ice in our water bottles it was a welcome feeling. We slowly got ready and after a pop tart breakfast headed down to the stream. The water pooled and slid across the rock and in bare feet we splashed and jumped around. I relaxed, while they built forts in the mud. Eventually we hiked downstream, poked into the next side canyon looking for rock art. The sun hid behind the narrow walls and the mood changed. Scott was uncomfortable in the “shadows” so we turned back to the main canyon. Back in the warmth of the sun moods improved and we headed back towards camp to play and hang out. They liked the security of the tent. It was our home. The afternoon drifted by like cumulus clouds and again it was evening. Bedtime. Life at canyon speed was fine with us.
We had a meeting to decide whether to spend another night in the backcountry or hike out and go to the campground. I wanted to stay, Zack wanted to go and Scott abstained. We decided to pack up and drive to Devil’s Garden campground for the last three nights. As we cleaned up the breakfast, without warning Zack threw up. I laid him on a sleeping pad and quickly packed. As we walked out he vomited several more times. He hung in there and only asked once if a helicopter would come to get us. I thought once he got it all out he would be fine. I was wrong. Being an optimist we headed to the campground anyway, I was hoping that after a nap in the car we would be back on track. I was wrong. We stopped to walk out to Delicate Arch, but only got a few steps past the parking lot. We would have to settle for a distant view of the arch.
Zack gave it a good effort but he was not doing well and being at least somewhat mature I said “why don’t we just camp two nights and then we will go to a hotel.” Amazingly Zack agreed. About 15 minutes later I looked at him again and said “why don’t we go to the hotel tonight and tomorrow we will come back to the campground.” That plan did not work either.
It was back to the Super 8. There we spent the next three days laying around the room watching Nickelodeon. It was a marathon of Sponge Bob ( which I like), Jimmy Neutron, Fairly Oddparents, Teen Titans and Ed Ed and Eddy (which I think are really stupid) plus commercial after commercial for Barbie, Light Brite, some kind of colored markers, Hot Wheels and more TV shows. Scott didn’t always watch TV, he played a lot of Game Boy. I would ran across the parking lot to Denny’s for chicken soup and sandwiches. The fever went up and down, my hopes as well.
The next day it was clear the camping part of the trip was over. To get out at least a little we drove to Dead Horse Point. They slept and I couldn’t get Zack out of the car to look at the view. I jumped out, ran to the edge for a quick look and a picture. Back at the Super 8 it was pretty depressing to return to an empty parking lot on a beautiful Moab day knowing everyone else was still out. The following day we drove by Castleton Tower and into the La Sals. The boys slept and I got as far as I dared past the snow line in the rental car. The drives were nice but. On the way back we saw some rock art from the road. The desert though the car window is better than no desert. Back in the room while they watched television I read Terry Tempest Williams’s book, Red. In one essay she describes her escape from the overdevelopment of Salt Lake City. “The next day driving east along the Colorado River, Brooke and I turned south into a small valley at the base of Castleton Tower and the LaSal Mountains. We saw a simple house made of wood, stone, and glass. We walked inside, smiled and said, “This is the place.”
I looked up her address in the phone book but decided it would be too stalkerish to call or show up at her front door. Though it would be great to talk to someone who understood. That night Zack had enough energy to eat a picnic dinner which avoided three straight nights of Denny’s take out.
Our flight was late at night so we had plenty of time for the drive from Moab to Salt Lake City. Taking advantage of the opportunity we drove back through Nine Mile Canyon. This canyon system has over a 1000 rock art sites. Jumping out of the car quickly taking a picture and jumping back in is not the best way to see rock art, but it is better than nothing. Zack got out of the care a couple times. The road was one pothole and rock after another. Mud was spraying up under the car and I began questioning the wisdom of driving this road with a rent a car. The high power hose at the car wash was fun.
Before he threw up Zack was telling me why he wanted to go to the campground. He said he did not like backpacking as much as car camping because he liked being in a place where he had more control over what went on. I said I could understand that and he also said he wanted to be in a place where he didn’t have to try so hard to have fun. He did not want to have to think about how to have fun. This surprised me since for two days he and Scott played constantly and never seemed bored. In fact, I honestly have never seen him bored on any of our backpacking trips.
As I thought about what he said I realized those were two of the reasons to take them backpacking. It is a good idea to be in places and situations where one must take into account forces out of one’s control and learn to adapt. We don’t realize how little control we really have. Our suburban lives fake us out. As for working to have fun, what is wrong with that? Even as they grow into adolescence, I want them to see boredom as an opportunity and the natural world as a place of creativity. Playing in a canyon can be as much fun as playing on a screen.
This was all happening until a force we could not control put us in a motel room watching TV and eating meals out of huge Styrofoam packages. The irony was slapping me in the face with each bite of a French fry and chorus of Sponge Bob, Square Pants. They had watched more television in three days then we usually let them watch in a month. I suppose I might have taken this whole thing in more stride if I didn’t feel like this was our last chance for a western backpacking trip for a long time.
I love the way Edward Abbey described the power of Delicate Arch. “A weird, lovely, fantastic object of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us-like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness-that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the children see, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves is the most strange and daring of all adventures.”
We did see Delicate Arch from the viewpoint a mile and a half away. We were close, but could not touch it, just like the little plastic Delicate Arch inside the snow globe Scott bought in Green River. The arch was just a little too far away to work its magic or maybe it did and I just do not know it yet. In our room I could lay back on the bed just enough so that when I looked out the window I could stare at the sandstone and not the construction crew building a new entrance to the motel. That color combination of sandstone red and desert blue sky has a magic hold on me. I thought about what I wanted from this place. I wasn’t asking for much, some fun, adventure and a couple life lessons. That is what happens when you are in a place where beauty and mystery are combined with the time and space to be in the present. We had some of that and it was good. That is why I wanted more.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. NY: Ballantine Books, 1971
Williams, Terry Tempest. Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. NY: Vintage Books, 2002
The essay is part of a collection of essays by Dan Kriesberg, Catching Frogs: Fatherhood, Wilderness and Life in the Suburbs. The essays explore the author’s experiences balancing fatherhood and a desire to be in the wild while trying to live in harmony with the planet not against it.
Photo of Arches National Park by Tushar Koley