- Dead Horse Point
An old woman left the warmth of her Castle Valley home during a high-desert snowstorm. She was found a week later, not far from Martha’s property, half in and half out of her front door, her frozen cheek resting on a pile of wood, her toes near buried clumps of red poppies.
The year before, a college student had come to southern Utah to study the Colorado River. That summer was a drought year, and the river ran low, its sandbars stretched out in seared brown tongues. The water looked so lazy the boy thought he could cross it on foot. The local Search and Rescue team, with the help of a blue heeler, found his feet a mile downstream, submerged, white as paper.
At about the same time, a tourist climbed Corona Arch, a natural bridge hidden just off the road that leads to the potash plant. Its vault gapes wide enough for a small plane to fly through. Martha had seen a photo of such a flight in town. Something about open spaces makes human beings want to fill them with their own will, she thought whenever she saw it. The pilot scraped through the arch without incident, but the man who wanted to bungee from it fell to earth — although, like the woman who went for wood in winter, and the boy who had tried to cross shallow water, what he’d attempted had appeared, on the surface, so much simpler.
Each summer, Martha returned to the desert, leaving her job in Boston where she wrote for Entrepreneurial Spirit! and moving into her shack, as her daughter called it, a mile or so from where the old woman had tumbled half in and half out of her house. Martha’s place perched higher up the valley, a slant-roofed box, typical in design for the area, sided in rough pine, board and batten. The wood was worn and lightly knotted in places, its eyes turned sideways and stained gray. Its rooms lined up, all in a row; as you shotgunned through the house you moved from one to the other, mud room then kitchen then living room then bathroom then bedroom. The floor was slabbed out in flagstone and glowed the pinkish-red color of the canyons around. The walls themselves stood empty, textured but without decoration, painted in a ubiquitous, bony color, locally called [End Page 551] Navajo White. The door and window frames were finished in varnished pine. The largest windows looked out on the spires and towers that give Castle Valley its name. The valley’s most prominent feature: the Preacher, that square-shouldered monolith gripping a stone lectern and exhorting a crumbling butte. Below this ran currents of green, irrigated farms worming and wrestling against the desert wild.
Martha’s house sat under the Porcupine Rim, a high, spiny wall on the west side of the valley. Her five acres of brushland below it needed no attention, wild as they were, sand dotted with sage and salt bush and chamisa and drying pills of manure left by the mule deer. Collared lizards stuffed themselves under rocks, darting out when you drew too near, their bodies wriggling from side to side with old memory, fish still surprised they can gulp air. Occasionally, returned and wandering around the property, Martha would pick up an ancient fragment, fired clay painted in white and black with simple, geometric, yet somehow powerful designs, dropped in passing by the ancient people who had tented this part of the desert long before the farmers and miners and frackers did.
The drive across the flat belly of country that separates East from West is predictable. At the Navajo Reservation the land gives in, crackling and buckling, then bulges and levers into swells that tumble and rise and fall again, leaving Ute holdings and settling into irrigated vales and small, Mormon towns. The last town before the river, no longer Mormon, pure mongrel, is Moab. Its Cold War uranium claims had been, long before Martha arrived, abandoned and converted into lodges for tourists seeking adventure and chances to thrust themselves...