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On the Value of Persistence in Moab, Utah

Bart Schaneman

We drove over the Rocky Mountains and down into western Colorado, where the American West approaches peak beauty. Interstate 70 carves through Glenwood Canyon along the Colorado River as a prime monument to man’s ability to alter the world. The Colorado in spring gushes down the mountain with a torrid roar. Despite the highway, the puny train tracks that run alongside are a reminder of the futility of competing with nature.

Through the canyon the land opened up, with gray mountains on the edge of sight and before them the foothills. All around us the color of camouflage. Towns with names like Rifle and Parachute. We passed the scaffolds and bores of new oil wells. Fracking. Convoys of western tankers sped down the highway with hazardous chemical placards on the side and Oklahoma license plates. One bumper sticker, on a three-quarter ton Chevy truck, read “Rockin’ the Bakken.” They probably came down from North Dakota when the oil prices dropped, looking to frack a different land.

We turned south, following the river, into the red rock canyons and bluffs of Utah. The water led us to Moab, where down the main street rumbled lifted, red-mud-covered Jeeps and side-by-side ATVS on toward the slickrock trails.

Out at Dead Horse Point we watched the clouds come in rapidly, like a sped up time lapse video. My wife and I arranged our feet next to each other’s on the edge of a 2,000-foot canyon, took a smartphone photo and posted it before the rain came and ruined the background. We were always deleting pictures so we could take more pictures.

We scouted the campsites, passing on the Cowboy campground — too exposed — before settling on a spot at Horsethief with a flat tent pad protected by shrubs. One of the small joys of our new marriage is how efficient we have grown in setting up our tent, how we can wordlessly snap together the poles and unroll the mats and sleeping bags, build our shelter, in a seamless choreography without much effort. We staked everything down, set out a couple of coolers, and went out to explore more.

The legend goes Canyonlands is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out from the law. It’s also where Aron Ralston was trapped in a slot canyon by a falling boulder, cut off his arm, and James Franco played him in a movie about it called 127 Hours. We stood at a place called Island in the Sky and tried not to compare it to that other big canyon we have in the United States. This is what life is — constantly trying to silence the voice that’s telling you “there is something bigger, better out there. You know there is. Why are you here when you could be there?” Because you dance with the one who brought you. And grander doesn’t also mean better. Maybe this place isn’t as big, but it’s still good. You just have to look at it right.

The rain came on as it started getting dark. We went back to the campsite and jumped in the tent to wait it out. The wind we could take, the rain, even the hail, but if you’re at high enough elevation that you feel like you’re inside the clouds, the thunder rattles you and the lightning sparks the air you’re breathing, and you might end up back in the car.

We went over it more than a few times. Should we quit? Go back to town and get a hotel? We turned on the radio and waited. When the storm passed we fought the wet firepit to get some warmth and keep our morale up. We earned those S’mores and the stars. It was cold in the tent but we slept with satisfaction that we hadn’t given up.

We woke to peace, to a view of low skies, clouds drifting over the high desert, over sparse shrubs and the buttes in the backgrounds. We lit the burner. It’s a simple truth, but there is no better coffee than camping coffee. After breakfast we went back to Canyonlands.

It must be said, I believe in travel. I believe in the value of going places you’ve never been before, seeing places that matter, fighting that feeling that you shouldn’t go places you don’t belong. To stand on the precipice of an unfamiliar, beautiful, place is at once both saddening and affirming — a place you’ll never live and may never see again is at least a place you saw once in your short life.

We found a cheap motel room for the night, and while my wife was showering I turned on the TV. The commentator was talking about the NBA player Stephen Curry winning the Most Valuable Player award. How no one took him seriously as a young player. He wanted to play at the same college his dad, also an NBA player, had played for, but they wouldn’t take him. The guy on TV was saying that only through strength of will, of determination, had Curry made it this far. “The difference between guys like Stephen Curry, like Michael Jordan, is that when they were told ‘no, you’re not good enough,’ they didn’t listen. They kept going. That’s what made them great.”

That night we received our second lesson in persistence. We drove through Arches National Park as the sun fell and the crimson stone towers cast their long shadows. Balancing Rock took on the evil tinge of an alien sentry head guarding the mothership. Tiny glints of green eyes hopped around in the cactus.

We drove on until we came to the parking lot and the trailhead to the Delicate Arch — one of the most iconic, and most photographed, rock formations in the country. Most people see it in the daylight, or at least hike to it in the daylight then stumble back to their cars with flashlights after the sun has fallen. Not us. We wanted to be different. Special.

When we pulled up the parking lot had mostly emptied out and the only lights we could see on the trail were coming down, not going up. We hemmed. We hawed. We almost left. But then, and it was fully dark now, the shadows all melted together, the stars sparkling like a million bad ideas, we saw a guy confidently start up the trail with a headlamp shining into the dark carrying a tripod. “Surely this guy knew what he was doing, right?” Then another group of four older folks approached the trail map with a few flashlights and took to the trail as well. Not to be outdone by this crew, we joined.

We followed the lights ahead of us on the clearly bordered path, pleasantly enjoying our easy hike among the rattlesnakes we hoped were sleeping and all the other nighttime animals watching and laughing at us from the darkness. A ways up, the older folks politely stepped aside when we caught up to allow us through, claiming that they wished they’d brought better flashlights, but we later learned it was a clever ruse to allow us to head off into the pitch black and blaze the trail for them.

Did I say the path was clearly bordered? It was. Then it wasn’t.

We came upon a change in terrain. The foot path opened up to a bald rock face where no trace of footsteps, no sign of man, anything, could be found. Hikers and guides have developed a clever system in answer to this problem — cairns. Cairns are little stacks of rocks, here about shin-high, that are intended to mark the trail in the absence of a clearly worn path.

A typical cairn

Our problem was there wasn’t nearly enough of them to follow. Still, we forged ahead, comforted by the man with the tripod’s headlight bobbing ahead of us .

Suddenly the light stopped its happy bouncing. It turned left. It turned right. It turned all the way around and shone directly on us.

We caught up and I asked, “are we close?”

“It’s up there,” Tripod Man said. “I think it’s over there. I don’t know. I keep kicking over these little stacks of rocks. Do you have any idea what those are for?”

Not good.

But we were determined to find this delicate piece of over-photographed rock. While we were conferring, the older group approached and I mentioned that we had basically been blindly following the wrong guy. They discussed this quietly among themselves, and, while we were searching for the trail, they disappeared.

“I guess they went back,” Tripod Man said.

We went up. We went left. We went up. We went left. We hit dead end after dead end until we found ourselves on one of those strips of rock they call a lion’s back with the abyss on either side and a stone-walled cul-de-sac for a head. Nothing delicate or archlike about it.

Then came the burn. We saw flashes of light on the horizon. At first it looked like lightning, but then it became apparent we had been beaten. By the geezers with junky flashlights, no less. How had they known where to go? Either they had been there before, or, more likely, they were smarter than us.

Then we realized they had probably simply used the map function on their phones to find the trail. Of course this was blatant cheating, but what really are the rules when you’ve been stumbling around in the dark, on the top of a barren hill, nearly walking into canyons and over cliffs at every turn?

If you can’t beat ‘em, then you use your smartphone, too.

So we finally got on the path, shuffled across a 5-foot wide cliff trail around the back of an outcrop, and when we got there we couldn’t even see the arch. Too dark.

Fortunately Tripod Man finally proved his usefulness and let me use his equipment.

I was almost lost to the abyss forever for this?

On the first day on our way into Moab we had seen campsites with tent pads and fire pits covered in canopies of trees on the bank of the Colorado River. We wanted one, so we went out searching for a spot. The weather had improved, however, and the hordes had left their hotels with the same idea.

All full. Every river campground.

We drove away from the river into Castle Valley, where we saw Mormon school kids playing in the shadow of an aptly named mountain. My wife, Nammin, hasn’t yet learned the distinctions of our religious subcultures and had many questions about the Church of Latter-day Saints. I was reading Under The Banner of Heaven on the trip and did my best to answer her.

One thing I learned on that trip is Utah has interesting alcohol rules. Draft beer is limited to 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (4 percent alcohol by volume, how most states measure it) which leads to dinner discussions of physics that aren’t good for anyone’s buzz. The government regulates how much booze can be poured per drink with specialized caps on the end of each bottle. But then you also must realize most of the state is dry to begin with. Utah’s Mormons are also complex. A people who fought and died to develop and protect their beliefs, their way of life. The fundamentalist outliers who still hold to the outdated practices give the religion a tinge of extremism, but most Mormons aren’t into multiple wives or the like. It’s easier to think of it as a growing network of people who care for their own. One more subculture in a country of subcultures.

Onward then, into the foothills of the La Sal Mountains, up into the forest where we could see over the red rock towers and the river valley, before coming back down on a dirt road better suited for ATVS and Jeeps, slowly rumbling down to the slickrock campgrounds, lettered A-H. H was full. So was G. F had campsites wedged back into high-walled draws, where we saw a group of young men wearing jorts, tank-tops and sombreros drinking canned beer and tossing bean bags into a hole cut out of a wooden box. Later, they would pass us on dirt bikes in a single file group and roar straight up a slickrock lion’s back and I would turn the same color as the Green River with envy.

Persistent then the creeping desire to gather all my favorite people in one place, to chase that old feeling of friends. It’s waning now as I put less value on nostalgia and accept the reality of our spread-out lives. But still no one ever told us that getting older would mean a steady progression of losing more and more of the people in your life. And not just from geographical distance, but from death. Death by car. Death by cancer. Death by Dengue fever from a mosquito bite in Mexico. It can’t be stopped. The only response is to keep moving forward.

We checked E-B to no avail. We were hours into the search and ready to call it. Head back to town with our trunk full of camping supplies and give up. At least we’d get a shower out of it. Campground A was the closest to town, so we didn’t expect to find anything. Should we go back? Give up? Lie to the folks back home who had snickered when we told them our plan to camp?

That last one didn’t matter that much to us. We just wanted to stick to our budget. So we checked A, and, lo and behold, there was a spot open.

That night the wind shook our tent. The fabric walls flapped and rattled, and we knew then why it was the last campsite taken. But no matter how tired we were the next day from our lack of sleep, we had the satisfaction of people who hadn’t given up.

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