Monthly Archives: April 2007

Landscape: Penitente Canyon, CO

Penitente, that way.One of the best parts about taking a road trip is that you get to stop at cool places along the way. Penitente Canyon was one such stopover on last weekend’s Utah-Colorado border crossing. Stopping at Penitente wasn’t entirely random; we went there to camp for the night ($5 per tent/truck site) and to climb the area’s rock slabs on the way to Colorado Springs.

The rock at Penitente is some sort of volcanic stuff (I’m no geologist) that rounds beautifully against the deep blue Colorado sky, and the climbing (nearly all sport) is of two basic types: balancy slab moves or pockets full of pleasure. After having been crack climbing at Indian Creek for over a month, my feet were thankful for the rest.

Penitente Slabs

One of the things that I will miss most about being back in civilization is watching the stars fill the night sky. In the desert, and at Penitente, I’d drink tea and watch for the first star until it got too cold to stand outside. Later in the night, I’d peek outside my tent to see how the scene would develop. In the Utah desert, and in other dirt-road-only parts of Colorado, it always seems to turn out beautifully.

First Star

Of course, being back in the Colorado landscape has its own pleasures: the mountains. Big fatty snowy jagged peaks. I watched the Sangre de Cristo range grow on the horizon as we drove towards La Veta (the next night’s stop).

Big Fat Snowy Mountains, yeah.

Even though I have not had a permanent address for four years, I saw those snowy peaks and thought: this—yeah, this—is home.

Literature: Terry Tempest Williams’ RED

“Each of us belongs to a particular landscape, one that informs who we are, a place that carries our history, our dreams, holds us to a moral line of behavior that transcends thought.”

–Terry Tempest Williams, in RED: Passion and Patience in the Desert (2001)

RED coverTerry Tempest Williams’ RED: Passion and Patience in the Desert is like a quilt sewn together with words. This patchwork collection of writings ranges in form from stories to environmental essays to erotic musings on landscape. The color red takes on both literal and symbolic meanings as Williams explores the desert landscape and the significance of wild places. “Where I live” says Williams, “the open space of desire is red. The desert before me is red is rose is pink in scarlet is magenta is salmon…The palette of erosion is red, is running red water, red river, my own blood flowing downriver; my desire is red.” She asks: “Can we learn to speak the language of red?” It’s a good question, I think, and Williams demonstrates how to do it by blending a sensitivity to place with a fierce commitment to its preservation.

RED is a book for anyone interested in reading more about the natural world, in general, and the desert landscape, in particular. It also contains delights for those who like writings that forge connections between spirituality and place. As in any collection, some of this book’s individual units are better than others, but most of the writings are short, so I never felt bogged down by a section that I wasn’t crazy about. Besides, I was reading the book from a tent pitched in the Utah desert, and the subject matter felt particularly alive for me there, sipping coffee in the mornings with red sand stuck between my toes.

Some RED gems:

“…this is not hard to understand: falling in love with a place, being in love with a place, wanting to care for a place and see it remain intact as a wild piece of the planet.”

“The stories rooted in experience become beads to trade. It is the story, always the story, that precedes and follows the journey.”

“I believe in the fire of an idea.”

Life: Giddy-up!

Back in the saddle, again!

Yee-haw. It’s road trip time. Just a little weekend border crossing from Utah to Colorado.
See you back on Down and Out next week.

And–yes–those are real-live cowboys, driving horses near Indian Creek in Utah.

Life: Blood, Sweat, Tears

Bloody HandCrack climbing is a knuckle-splitting, knee-knocking, ankle-crunching business. This is how you do it: shove hands (or fingers) and feet (or toes) into a fissure in the rock and then twist said appendage into the groove. Stand up on these smashed appendages to move inches up a rock face. Reach, twist, and repeat until you’

ve obtained a stable anchor. Then lower back down to the ground and move on to the next towering rock with a vertically cracked face.

Climbing AnunnakiWhen people know what they’re doing, this process looks effortless. Those people seem to levitate (rather than scrape, claw, or muscle) their way up rock faces, plugging in gear and clipping a rope for protection in case of a fall. Last weekend, I watched three guys at Indian Creek’

s Optimator Wall make crack climbing look like play. They were climbing a route named Anunnaki ( grade 5.12-), which is a fifty-foot lightening-bolt splitter. These guys took laps on the thing, and I watched on with swollen hands and bone-bruised feet.

Bloody ShoeThis week was my fourth week at Indian Creek, and I can’t say that I’m flying up this stuff, but I’m seeing progress, slow and ungraceful though it is. Most routes at Indian Creek start out at 5.10, so I’ve been struggling. And “struggling” is an understatement. Last week, for instance, I cried—actually cried

while climbing. I wonder about the point of it all. But then I think of the Anunnaki guys and remember what it feels like to float on desire.

Literature: Abbey’s Desert Solitaire

“I prefer the desert. Why? Because—there’s something about the desert. Not much of an answer. There are mountain men, there are men of the sea, and there are desert rats. I am a desert rat.” –Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire (1968)

Desert Solitaire Rd.If you’re in Utah—particularly in southeast Utah—Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire should be required reading. If you’re anywhere else besides southeast Utah, this book will take you there. In it, Abbey tells of his adventures as a seasonal park ranger in Arches National Park, just outside of Moab. The author—who comes off a bit on the cantankerous side—befriends snakes, hassles tourists, runs rivers, and explores canyons. But he’s not all action. Sometimes Abbey just likes to sit around in his trailer and go off about the cloud on his horizon. “It’s a small dark cloud no bigger than my hand,” he says, “Its name is Progress.”

Arches CountryDesert Solitaire is not a perfect book (I could have gone for a summary version of the polemic on industrial tourism, and I sometimes felt annoyed by the author’s smugness). But I appreciated the fact that Abbey acknowledges his work’s limitations in the introduction—and then justifies them by saying, “there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.” Abbey laid out this kind of edgy honesty from beginning to end, and I liked it, just as much as I liked turning the last page and feeling as if I had touched the sandstone with Abbey’s hands and seen the desert through his eyes.

A few gems—

“It’s a great country: you can say whatever you like so long as it is strictly true—nobody will ever take you seriously.”

“So much for the stars. Why, a man could lose his mind in those incomprehensible distances. Is there intelligent life on other worlds? Ask rather, is there intelligent life on earth? There are mysteries enough right here in America, in Utah, in the canyons.”

Landscape: Desert Bloom

“For myself, I hold no preference among flowers, so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous. (Bricks to all greenhouses! Black thumb and cutworm to the potted plant!) –Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire (1968)

The wide-open space.

Gray, rainy Easter day here in the desert. I’m sitting in the front seat of a truck, pirating wireless Internet in Monticello—a little town about 45-minutes away from Indian Creek. The grocery store is shut. The one café in town in closed. Maybe life in the desert really is better than life in town, I’m thinking. At Bridger Jack, we don’t have showers, but at least we’ve got some good scenery and wide-open space.

It’s springtime in the high desert, and that means that things are sprouting. I love how this renewal of life corresponds with the Easter season—it makes sense how it works out like that, how a holiday celebrating rebirth, resurrection, and new life parallels these natural phenomena. I haven’t seen many bees buzzing about to pollinate things and there aren’t any baby lambs loping around, but humming birds whir overhead while I’m drinking morning coffee in my tent, and purple flowers blanket the meadows.

Fire of LifeLife is abundant right now—in many ways. Long, painful days climbing. Tent-writing. Campfires and breakfast burritos. Wildflowers, and coyotes, and birds. But I must end, as I began, with Edward Abbey, who is the bona fide desert authority, lest you start thinking that it’s a tropical paradise out here. It isn’t:

“Despite the great variety of living things to be found here, most of the surface of the land, at least three-quarters of it, is sand or sandstone, naked, monolithic, austere and unadorned as the sculpture of the moon. It is undoubtedly a desert place, clean, pure, totally useless, quite unprofitable.”
Desert Solitaire, of course, again.

Life: Get Your Own Truck

The DodgeMy climbing partner lives in his truck. For about five months out of the year, his home is a ’99 Dodge Ram, single cab with an eight-foot bed. He charges his computer and digital camera through its cigarette lighter, and he stocks a cooler with block ice to keep eggs and milk and veggies from going bad. The cooler, he tells me, can keep food chilled under 90-degree heat for five days straight. It’s a good thing, because we’re camping in the desert and my tent (a North Face Tadpole) lacks these deluxe features.

This week, we camped near Moab, Utah in an area called Pack Creek Canyon. It was a new campsite, and as we were pulling in, the snow started falling. Instead of setting up my wimpy tent, I decided to try out sleeping in the back of the truck, which is also equipped with three-inch “memory foam” sleeping pad stacked on top of a carpet kit.

The Memory Foam

The next morning, snow sizzled on our frying pan while we cooked breakfast burritos, but I felt unusually wide-eyed and warm. For the next three nights, I slept in the truck while water bottles froze and my tent (which we set up for gear storage) crusted over with ice.

My climbing partner, I’ve realized, is not alone with his home on wheels. His friend Bryan also spends extended periods of time sleeping in his truck, a Toyota Tacoma with an extended cab and a six-foot bed:

Bryan’s Tacoma

And last week, we ran into this rig parked at the base of a climbing area in Indian Creek. Although it’s more of a trailer than a truck, I liked its solar panel set-up…ooohhh…the possibilities…

The Solar Dream

Today, we’re heading back out to Indian Creek, and I won’t have any excuse to sleep in the truck. It’s back to the tent for me. I’ve been spoiled though, these last few nights, and when I wake up to coyotes howling, I’m going to be thinking about that memory foam while I’m turning over on my quarter-inch sleeping pad.