A new story from The Hero’s Journey for The Daily ZU – read the full story at www.thedailyzu.com.
After camping out in the Pariah Plateau Wilderness north of the Grand Canyon, I decided to rush my striking camp in anticipation of the next adventure. I’d chance the twenty-some mile trek down House Rock Valley Road before the rain got too bad. I’d planned to explore the Vermillion Cliffs that stood like iron walls high above Marble Canyon and House Rock Valley. I drove up onto the Pariah Plateau in the hope of camping on the edge of the scarp and looking down on Lee’s Ferry and the unhumble beginnings of the Grand Canyon. But the road crumbled into two tire ruts of wet, rose sand with banks a few feet high. My Cherokee couldn’t handle 20 or more miles of that. Or maybe it was my nerves that couldn’t. I stopped at a remote cattle station on the plateau and took a tip from a cowboy: try the Great Western Trail off Winter Road. I’d passed it on the way here.
I double-backed north up House Rock Valley Road toward the Utah border, then took a left up Winter Road, climbing a small rise into pinyon-juniper woodland. I couldn’t find the trailhead for the Great Western and the road grew a little rocky, but I drove on. I didn’t encounter one other vehicle all day. About 10.5 miles west up Winter Road, Buckskin Mountain, a long north-south trending ridge off the Kaibab Plateau, gave way to Muggins Flat. Beyond it stretched Antelope Valley. A greater portion of eternity you will not find on earth. The valley floor leveled out into an abyssal plain, rimmed by the cliffs of the Grand Staircase to the north as they stepped up toward the high plateaus of southern Utah, and stepped down to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The wide flats devoid of any human artifact but the straight dirt of Winter Road as it descended into the valley. Rusted shelves, the Vermillion Cliffs, towered north. Above and behind them, relieved like thunderheads in the afternoon sun, the White Cliffs shot up in the rise of a titanic stair. The Hurricane Cliffs reigned in the valley to the west. Southwest, the vulcan remains of Mount Trumbull guarded the desert plains like a watchtower.
I found a primitive campsite on the shoulder of Buckskin Mountain and decided to hike down Winter Road. As I walked the road (#1025), down past the last of the P-J gracing the plateau, I came to know that this place was today’s promise to me.
Who else was privileged to see this place this day? Not one pair of footprints on the road but mine. No other wheels to compete with mine as I wrote it all down on 3 x 6 index cards with a storm’s wind rifling through my things in the back of the Cherokee with the tailgate down and the windows open.
Along Winter Road in summer, I’m blessed with a cool wind and cloud cover in the desert of the Arizona Strip. A swelling cumulus blots out the sun and casts a shadow over a few square miles of rangeland.
How many ways does solitude remind me of its passion for the company of a lone soul to acknowledge it? As many ways as I shove aside and deny it in favor of what I believe will be the greater destiny offered by an immediate and more apparent world. Yet secretly, my denial of aloneness has a deeper source and a more cunning motivation: I remain afraid of it.
I fear this aloneness. And though I may refuse to answer, it knocks and knocks on my door. It calls and calls until I answer. The desolate will not be denied, and though it must share and spend all of itself with the observer of its lone nature, by its nature this apartness is jealous of our love for anything other than itself. It doesn’t rest until we turn our backs on the more urgent desires at which we fling ourselves desperately, until we turn our faces again to itself as we would to a forever setting sun, like the dusk now which gathers over Mount Trumbull.
As I descend into the unbroken expanse of Antelope Valley, the scent shifts from pine to sage. Whipple cholla bloom with pale yellow flowers. A storm forms northwest against the Shinarump Cliffs and lightning drags across the plain in walking fingers. As I reach the plain, the roll of the valley obscures the profile of Mount Trumbull’s tortoise shell.
The beauty caught up with me like the gusts caught my hair. The wind seemed to unearth an old regret buried so deep and yet so alien that I didn’t know whether to taste it with grief or with curiosity. My only transgression against aloneness had been my ingratitude, my decision to walk through my life unnoticing. It spoke to me through a thousand channels a moment, yet I seldom chose to listen through even one. I muted its gentle voice because it seemed easier to stay small than to take advantage of the easy ingress which grace offered me. It only asked me to surrender to this moment, yet I had spent the majority of my moments trying to live in other moments that were no more, or in moments that could have been or could be, fantasies every one. Tears from wind bled down my crows’ feet. I relinquished my searching under crannies of there instead of here, of then instead of now. Soon, the bluster ceased, and I hiked on.
After two hours walking due west down Winter Road, a blister between my toes and the gathering storms out west nudged me back toward camp. I tried very hard to remain in the moment, which escaped me most moments even when conditions seemed perfect to live in its bliss. A dozen thoughts distracted me and stole me back into Could Be or Should Be or Should’ve Been.
The storm built my way, clouds stacking upon themselves from west to east like massive fault block mountains. Over my left shoulder, lightning stabbed the sage flats. Now I’m in the moment. Danger sets me here. Like a drover and his whip, the lightning prodded me back to camp in just over half the time it took me to get down here. I arrived back just before the skies let loose.
I’m the only person to see this sight on this second longest day of the year. The gloaming comes to rest on the soft silhouette of Mount Trumbull. In the light of day, a solid blue washes the horizon. Yet as the light withdraws, it exposes terrace after terrace, landform stacked on platform in its gentle, angled embrace. This instant meant only for me, for I am the only one who sees it. The sun descends downs behind a bank of cloud and thunder. Behind the storm, it shoots its final, crepuscular beams into an atmosphere marine and molten at the same time. And then the light passes away, bequeathing the thin, brown line of a lingering winter road across Antelope Valley. It reminds me that I am the walker down that road, and the road itself.