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  • Fear and the Mesa (South on Utah State Route 261)
  • John Patrick McShea (bio)

Late June's sun burns Utah's red rock, and a woman hawks turquoise out of a white Corolla. I lean against the chain-link fencing and look down the twelve-hundred feet at the valley floor. Leah cries in the truck, and her tears soak through the corners of the pillow she presses against her face—she can't handle heights, the sheer cliff, the prospect of traversing down this land. In the distance, a lone cloud's shadow skirts above the Valley of the Gods. Next to us, pasty tourists squint against the sun and through their cameras' viewfinders. We are on the Moki Dugway—the steep and unpaved three-mile run of switchbacks cut into the side of the Cedar Mesa plateau in southeastern Utah along State Route 261—and I have parked near the top along the widest section, the only stretch with guardrails and fencing. The abandoned skeletons of wrecked vehicles rest in the crooks of the rocks somewhere below us. The spastic tourists hop into cars and slowly descend the dugway while others come up from the south. I see fear on the faces of some of the drivers who make it to the top; looking straight ahead, their eyes stretch wide. As I wait for Leah to collect herself, the woman spreads her jewelry across the hood of her car. Quite a few pieces—I wonder if business is good.


In the midst of a spontaneous eleven-thousand-mile cross-country excursion, we have followed the Colorado River from the mountains to Moab, Utah, where we spent our last few nights camping along the banks of the river and our mornings hiking in Arches National Park. We will follow the river, eventually, as she flows through Glen Canyon into Lake Powell, then through the Grand [End Page 171] Canyon and into Lake Mead—and we will take fully our unoffered portion from the land Edward Abbey called "God's navel."

The mesas and the buttes of the region stand alone on the flat earth. Coming in from the east, we approached this land as wind carried the red dust high as if to fill the empty spaces. All of this, including the natural bridges and arches across the landscape, was formed from the ancient waters of creation, our current weather—rain, flood, ice, and wind—just as much an integral part of this timeless force. All woven together in one crawling perpetual erosion, this land continues to change. I could feel this on my skin as the sun set on Moab. The dust blew over us. Whipped at our tent. It clung to our teeth.

We reveled in the early-morning hours at Arches as we had beaten the rangers to the gate—let alone the masses—and the empty morning trail made each face unique and far apart enough to warrant a conscious look. Can you believe we get the whole goddamn place to ourselves? But even so, as the heat rose with the sun and the canyon wrens hid away with their song, the friendlier faces were replaced by the many who choose not to acknowledge. This replacement of character and mood comes swift at Arches National Park.

Hiking slow with a quiet intent to Delicate Arch, Leah and I found ourselves in a growing mob. Families with children, peaceful enough, and many other couples of mutable age came. Hordes of teenagers in matching neon shirts and sunglasses, clumped together and not together, backpacked and basketballshoed, came too, and they weaved in, around, and through us, their chaperones tailing. One student, his phone tethered to speakers in the back pocket of his book bag, blasted the new single from R&B singer/songwriter The Weeknd. The aggressive and moody beat, along with the profane lyrics recounting a drug-induced affair, bounced off the canyon walls in midmorning: Trying to keep it up don't seem so simple; I just fucked two bitches 'fore I saw you, et cetera.

"That's certainly one way to experience the park," a middle-aged man spoke over to me in...


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pp. 171-177
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