A road trip is a good initial experience with the southwest. With Tony and Terrence, in about 1976, winter, we left from Sacramento, California. First stop Ogden, Utah, to see an old girl friend (not geriatric). Then some ice climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Onto Zion and the beginning of our non climbing in the southwest — the four corners where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona meet. We knew — read — Pratt and Abbey as gurus and followed their lead. At Zion National Park, 2AM, very cold January night, storm ready to dump, we got to the the entrance up on the ridge. In those years there was a ranger booth and a swing open barrier. The gate was closed and secured with a lock the size of my fist. Locked!? Three youth wanting to get to the promised land down below in the valley. A trio of inquisitive, never say die, rock climbers and tool men. We merely unbolted the hinges, moved the contraption aside, drove in, and repaired our monkey wrench operation. We opened bottles of Henry Weinhards finest, and drove into the tunnel. Way too fast. Sometimes in life there are cosmic oops that threaten our freedom or progress and remind us why there are barriers.
The ranger was beyond mad but not quite hysterical. "You could of run right through those guys on ladders and killed 'em!" "You're right." "How'd you get in?" We showed him the flaw in the hinge design and he calmed down. Now he was the understanding dad and let us off the hooks with just a scare (scar). Mr. Nice Ranger (he really was) said, "Camp up here tonight. Snow will fall, temp. will be near zero. You'll get in tomorrow." "OK." He went back into his batcave and we went in separate directions to drop our pants, then we drank another round of Henry's brew and discussed the error in our way. All this excitement to get into national park. The next morning at dawn we were three virgins at the Virgin River looking across and up at the Great White Throne, saying nothing but ruminating a lot. What is the draw that leads climbers into the southwest? Why go?
Mr. Pratt:. . . Rocks in the the desert are organic. The climbs in the four corners have a quality of aliveness not usually associated with the inanimate world, and for me that quality is becoming a source of increasing attraction. (View from Deadhorse Point) Ever been to Joshua Tree? Though not the four corners, JT is a southwest type desert environment. JT is part of the Mojave Desert and the four corners is in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, sometimes referred as the Navajoan Desert. No matter. JT is a good intro into various cutlures of the southwest and tierra sin aqua. But whereas JT is too often now a days crowded, the four corners, borrowing a phrase from the Dixie Chicks, is "wide open spaces." Mr. Abbey:A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us — like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness — that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours. In all my ramblings out there in the four corners, I can proudly say I have never done any ascents. On the other foot, David Roberts, early serious climber in Alaska and good on stone, and writer of In Search of the Old Ones, a book about the Anasazi, says of his travails up "The Ancient Ones" hand and foot stone ladders, he had to put on his climbing boots and pay very close attention to get up. The Anasazi did such tasks barefoot or in Yucca fiber sandals, in all weather.
Photo by Luke Laeser
Joshua Tree has always been my favorite place to go cragging (Illusion Dweller is one of the best 5.10 thin cracks on our planet), but more importantly to explore. In college I studied biogeography and botany. There are a lot of similarities in desert and alpine flowers due to the xeric nature of the climate and short growing season (many biennials, takes two seasons for plants to produce seeds, an environmental adaptation). Never in JT or the four corners did I bring my taxonomy books or hand lens. The ecology I wanted was deeper still, more of a human nature wild nature ecotone. There is much more to the southwest than rock climbing. And you don't take sandstone for granite. As a sidebar, one summer with my ex wife and two youngins' we toured Canyon de Chelly. Lauryn, in her four year old bundle of enthusiastic wisdom said, "I'd like to live in that Anahoozi white house." (Anasazi White House stone ruins tucked up on a ledge under a south facing overhang) Tony, Terrence and I ventured into the Monument Valley outback looking for the Totem Pole, a three hundred foot tall tower made famous in the Clint Eastwood movie the Eiger Sanction. When we found this sacred totem, we split up and just walked among the in sagebrush. We had the knack. We were wondering as we were wandering. We knew we were on holy ground.
Photo by Luke Laeser
Since that walkabout, I began studying the Anasazi, ancestors to the Hopi and Tewa. Prehistoric rock art fascinates me, and canyoneering is a world all its own (first time go with a guide or a friend with practice!). Reading a Tony Hillerman novel about life on the Navajo Reservation is well worth a rainy day, "(Lieutenant Leephorn) noticed a symbol for Maii' — the coyote spirit — at his work of turning order into chaos and others representing the weapons that Monster Slayer and Born for Water had stolen from the Sun to wage their campaign to make the Deneh (The People — Navajo) safe from evil that had followed them up from the underworld (through the reed straw and out the Sepipu, which the entire human race cam up through!)" (Hillerman, The Shape Shifter). Many traditional Deneh still believe. Chuck believes, "rock climbers have their religion, too." Chuck was a man of few words.
Photo by Luke Laeser
Ed, always on the edge, "I am . . . (in the desert) to confront, immediately and directly, if it's possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to . . . look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities . . . To meet God face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with the non human world." (DS) I never got a chance to meet either of these earthy prophets — saints — mystics. Pratt wrote very little but his essays are deep wells of sweet water. Abbey wrote a lot. Both had desert varnish on their skin. Ed's op/eds, short stories, essays, and novels are enough to fill Lakes Mead or Powell, both of which he would of loved to have seen a hole blown in their dams to create the world's most spectacular horizontal geyser and wind blast.
Photo by Luke Laeser
There is an archaic Hebrew / Aramaic word for desert — to speak. When we go out there we must listen carefully, eyes very wide open. We may hear — see — Kokopeli play his flute. Never mind scoping out Super Crack or the Totem Pole. Get the knack. Go in beauty (Hozro, Navajo for harmony, peace, beauty). No desert varnish on me yet.