Travel Journal No. 2: Wayfarer in the Utah Desert

Wayfarer, the only way

is your footsteps, there is no other.

Wayfarer, there is no way,

you make the way by walking.

As you go, you make the way

and stopping to look behind,

you see the path that your feet

will never travel again.

Wayfarer, there is no way -

Only foam trails to the sea.

— Antonio Machado (1875 - 1939)

The deserts of southeast Utah are heartbreakingly beautiful: dry and desolate, both foreboding and alluring, often deadly still with an eerie silence. Driving, hiking and camping among the towering stone buttes and deeply carved valleys brings an odd type of restlessness, a conflicting desire to pause as still as the surrounding stones for long moments before heading toward that next bend in the road ahead.

My plan was to drive east from Los Angeles, where I had been visiting my children, and head to Utah to explore the deserts around the small town of Green River.

To begin my trip I headed out on Interstate 15 toward Las Vegas. Driving toward the Mojave Desert I found myself stuck in a line of cars that snaked into the distance: It was a weekend, and it seemed like I wasn’t the only one who had decided to leave LA. I wondered how so many people could possibly disperse before I arrived at my destination. I secretly feared they might all be heading to the same place, imagining that I might pull off the road only to be greeted by a thousand cars, each full of newly outfitted campers.

Heading back to nature can bring out a certain selfishness in me that borders on obsession. If I let myself go too far down this path I end up simmering angrily at the prospect of other people wanting the exact same thing I want. Eventually I find my fuming a little humorous, and on deeper reflection I find it a little embarrassing that I seem to desire the entirety of nature to be pristine and human-free, albeit with the occasional gas station, clean rest stops and places to resupply, preferably with organic gluten-free fair-trade products from which to choose. More than that, the need to engage with nature is the most humanizing experience many people might ever have, so in this enlightened mood I said aloud, “The more the merrier.” Within, however, a quieter voice wasn’t as sure.

Not to worry, soon after leaving Las Vegas behind the traffic began to dissolve and disappear like water poured on hot sand. The lack of fellow pilgrims on the road drew my attention outward, into rust-colored canyons and pale-green valleys that spread out into the distance. I passed towns appropriately named Dry Lake, Scenic and Mesquite, or other places highlighting their Native American roots, such as Ute and Moapa, until I crossed into Utah and turned onto I-70.

After 12 hours of driving I reached the outskirts of Green River, where I took a dirt road off the main highway and headed into the backcountry. I was sure to make it to my campsite before sunset, but just in case I located my headlamp and made sure it was working properly before I threw on my backpack and headed down a twisting trail that took me along a small brown thread of water known as the San Rafael River.

The steep, sandy banks of the San Rafael are covered in sparse cottonwood trees and stubby tamarisk shrubs (also known as salt cedar), an invasive and non-native deciduous shrub from Eurasia that has displaced most of the native flora. The plant, brought over as a decorative and hearty windbreak in the late 1800s, is now threatening delicate riparian corridors; each plant can use up to 200 gallons of water a day and produces 500,000 indestructible and highly virulent seeds annually.

Leaving the brush and river behind, the trail twisted up toward a parched, rocky canyon until I reached a steep, slippery shale embankment. The rocks crunched like broken glass beneath my boots as I trudged upward. The setting sun brought its distinctive desert glow, golds and orange of the surrounding land blending upward into the blues, pinks and purples of the sky. With the dimming light, I brought out my headlamp, placed it on my sweaty cranium, took a swig of water and continued on, a little worried that I’d misjudged the distance to my campsite. However, the site turned out to be less than 300 yards ahead and consisted of little more than a small shelf of rocky earth overlooking the meandering waterway below.

Once at camp I set up my tent and situated my camera for some night photography. For dinner I boiled water on my cookstove and added in freeze-dried beans and rice. As I ate each bite seemed full of flavor, and I savored the simple food that tasted as delicious to me as a meal in the finest of restaurants.

I turned off my headlight so my eyes could adjust to the darkness. The stars flickered brightly with vivid colors ranging from blue to red and the glow from the still-unrisen moon produced enough light so as to cause silhouettes of the numerous mesas below, each rising stepwise, dark against the arched horizon. I felt my shoulders begin to relax and I took a deep breath.

A light breeze lifted from the valley and carried with it the soothing sounds of flowing water and the perfume of sagebrush. Although I saw no other campers I could smell the unmistakable aroma of burning juniper from some distant campfire. The distinct sandalwood-like scent etches itself into the minds of anyone lucky enough to have experienced it, a bouquet that the naturalist Edward Abbey called in his book “Desert Solitaire” about the Utah desert “the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth.”

It is true, we are all wayfarers, and sitting under the vibrant stars that night, taking long, deep breaths, a warm breeze caressing my tired body, the soothing smells of plants and stone surrounding me, I took solace in knowing that I have witnessed something I am likely never to witness again, a single, solitary spot on the earth with canyons looking wavelike in the dark, their crests forming what I pictured as foam trails to the sea.

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Originally published in the Napa Register, April 2017