Featured image by Michelle McCarron
In most places, Life protects the modern human’s fragile sense of self-importance by veiling the weight of time in the soft accumulation of soil, by disguising the vastness of the universe in the reassuring consistency of an undisturbed horizon, and by salving existential angst with a diversity of nonhuman companions. There are places, however, where Life refuses to disguise herself and human self-importance disintegrates.
The red rock deserts and canyon lands of southeastern Utah, where we followed the Colorado River, are some of these places. The reality of time, frozen and piled where the land was rent into mesas and plateaus, crashes down on human consciousness while human bones shiver in the shadows and foreshadows whispered by stones, boulders and the bones of the land.
She beckoned us south through these lands. She fled through the sheer red rock walls that she sculpted as monuments to her power. She paused, at times, in warm pools, to let the colors of stone reflect from her face and to rejoice in her own beauty. To interpret her work as vanity is to misunderstand; only her creations are worthy of her celebration. The waters flowing through our bodies coursed against our skin and tugged on our veins yearning to mingle with their kin. We ached with regret for the moment life would necessarily drag us from her banks.
Mesmerized and seeking the Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, we got lost in Canyonlands National Park. We never got the photograph of the Confluence we sought. At first, we were angry at ourselves. We ended up hiking close to fourteen miles in seven hours, up canyon walls abruptly rising six or seven hundred feet, through a rainstorm, and across canyon floors covered in several inches of loose sand which required muscles we forgot we had. We thought that we did it all for nothing. Worst of all, feeling a responsibility to tell the Colorado River’s story, we thought that we let the river down.
But, the deeper I think about it, the clearer an image of the river, waving through the orange sunshine of a desert dusk, becomes. She seems to smile with the compassionate gleam of elder wisdom. “You should have known,” she says. And, now I do: We did not simply miss the cairns, lose the trail, and end up five miles south of the Confluence and six miles from our cars, after sunset. No, we lost more than the trail. We lost our self-importance. And, only humility remained.