- Thick and Thin
I am not a mystical guy. I have never known, or been especially comfortable with, the spiritual and the unseen. I have little confidence or interest in the immaterial. I place my faith in solid substance, in the tangible. I like to tap my toe on Samuel Johnson's rock. I am, for the most part, a material boy. I have also generally resisted the temptation to let loose of the body, to occasionally take its leave. None of that transparent eyeball business for me, thanks. Transcendence is just too impermanent, ephemeral. I like to stay in place, and I find the body generally a good place to be.
I am also one who had, until fairly recently, never known deserts. My life has been lived almost entirely near waters: large rivers, great lakes, even for a short while in a seam in the American landscape between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. To be more precise, though, I have known deserts only through language, through the words of those who have made the desert an intimate part of their lives. What I understood about deserts—American deserts, in particular—I took from people like Ed Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Charles Bowden, Mary Austin. I have been, for the most part, a guy most comfortable with waters.
But it was a desert place that got me into trouble and out of my body.
Six summers ago, my wife and I traveled to southern Utah, drawn by [End Page 23] the slickrock and by the power of landscapes with fabled names: Zion, Bryce, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Capitol Reef. We wanted to get to know desert, to learn some of its language. And so we walked, covering trails, absorbing heat, craving waters, and painting ourselves with the red dust of Navajo sandstone. We desired desert, and the desert gave itself to us in dry waves of feverish heat.
By the time of that June's summer solstice, we found ourselves at Arches National Park. Solstice is a time of imbalance between light and dark, but we were in a place that seemed to be created from balance itself. Mammoth rust-red arches and long, narrow fins of sandstone rose out of the dust-dry earth of this desert-place. Prickly pear cactus bloomed in bright, yellow bursts. Wyoming paintbrush and golden columbine and cliff rose threw out brilliant dashes of color amid the sere browns of grasses exhausted by heat and sun. As the day waned and the night sky made its color shift from blue to pink, the near-full moon rose, its yellow perfection framed by one of the two Window Arches. Like everyone else there, we grew silent, capable only of watching the spectacle as it unfolded.
We had seen the desert—or this desert—through its day. We were weary, footsore, dressed in the red dust that is the signature of this place. We had gained a kind of ground truth—minor and minuscule, to be sure—but still a palpable knowledge. We had taken the diurnal impress of this place upon us.
But what of the desert at night? What of a desert blackened into quiet, unmeasured space? What are we and the desert left with when the colors and the landmarks—the hoodoos, the arches—are erased?
Near the midnight of that day, my wife and I drove outward, leaving the park to itself. Before we had made the park gate, though, we stopped at a trailhead. I wanted to take one last, brief hike in this place and in its dark. This want was really more of a compulsion, a felt and undeniable need to move down and into that darkness, and to do so on my own, without intention and intentionality. My wife accommodated my desire, walking with me only partway before hiking back to the car, letting me traverse the Park Avenue Trail alone. I had the trail, this place, to myself.
The farther I descended, picking my way with some care, the darker the desert-world became. That night's sky came fuller with stars. The just-past-full [End Page 24] moon illuminated my...