We set out in his truck on the day after Christmas, the man I loved and I, winding our way west from Colorado into Utah. We took the highway to Gateway, then the road to Paradox.
The road took us through canyons
where nobody else seemed to be awake, the occasional ranch as empty
and still as if under some spell of dreaming. These were sharp,
clear winter days, and the sky was a fine fierce blue. The willows
along the streams were unexpectedly vivid, as if the skin of their
branching bare arms were reddened by the cold.
ate Fig Newtons and talked about the world and sang along with the
CD player. Now and then we stopped so I could take a picture, or
make a drawing: "It's photo opportunity time!" I'd say, waving my
He thought it was funny and
fascinating, how I'd crouch with the sketchbook on my knee,
excitedly scrawling a few pencil lines and splashing them with
color. Once he went to the back of the truck for an orange, and
peeled it in silence, slowly, sharing it with me as I drew, one
bright sliver at a time.
Pilgrimage has a time
of its own. The hours expand and swell; one or two hours make a day
in feeling, and one or two days seem a week. "This kind of travel
we're doing," I said, "is called an 'entrenched meander.' " I'd
borrowed the words from geology, where they describe a winding
canyon. He loved words as much as I do; I hoped he'd laugh, and he
Very late that afternoon, we came over the
shoulder of the La Sal Mountains. The sun had gone ahead of us,
into the farthest West. Light poured across the landscape in a
flood and long blue shadows raced away from it, and everything in
that bright burning world was edged with gold and
I was as happy, right then, as I know how
I thought he was, too. I still think so.
It was dark by the time we pulled into Bluff. We ate mediocre food
at the only cafe open and laughed about how everyone there was from
someplace else on the planet.
"Where do we go
from here?" he asked, looking at the map.
Valley of the Gods," I said. "And the Goosenecks of the San
I offered these places to him like gifts.
I wanted to stand beside him when he saw them for the first time,
wanted to say, "Oh, look!" - and see his face as he did. If you've
been to the Valley of the Gods, you know what we saw: A sweep of
stony desert - buttes and mesas and spires and temples, so red they
tint the bottoms of clouds that skate on the sky above them.
Everywhere you look, the land leaps and tilts and tumbles,
painfully solid and real underfoot, but on the horizon transparent
as dreams, hanging in veils of blues and
It is beautiful and it is huge, and it
has no use at all for humans. The God who watches it is the God of
desert places - the One who spoke to Moses, saying: Put off thy
shoes from off thy feet, for the ground whereon thou standest is
And at the Goosenecks this holy land is
gathered up by giant hands and squeezed into great deep folds - six
miles of river looped into one mile of land, making a canyon so
unexpected that you never know it is there, until it
We walked to the edge of the overlook, and
the silence there grew only deeper with the small abrupt sounds
that we made.
You have to understand this: There
is nothing at the Goosenecks to ease your mind. Gray-green shale in
the skirting cliffs and red earth crumbling underfoot; a few tough
and gray-green prickly plants; some rocks splotched with red and
orange lichen. There is nothing to see but the steep sudden drop
that falls to the river far below: a curling, coiling, alien green,
cold and edged with ice.
And nothing will ever
move there but clouds, and the ravens that climb in the sky.
Nothing will ever make any noise. Just wind and water and the
calling of ravens; thunder, perhaps, and the beat of dark
It is beautiful, and it is also
I turned to look at the man I loved,
hoping to see wonder glowing in him. But he looked like a person at
a party who thinks the other guests boring. He glanced around him,
then went to a battered interpretive sign, as if it might explain
why I wanted to be here.
I should have tried to
warn him, I thought, how bleak and bare this place would be. I
should have told him how hard it can be, just to stand in the
desert and see what is real.
We stood on the rim
and didn't speak, and the ravens flew in silence.
Later we argued briefly, amiably, in the truck,
about an air tour he'd taken a few years back. You can see a lot
more from a plane, he said. I told him how much you hate airplanes
when you camp in those strange canyons, how they seem to hurt the
sky when they break its fragile silence.
Besides, I said to him, searching for words, if
you just fly over a place like this, you never break the surface.
You can't touch or smell or hear the land, or feel the sun on your
face. You might imagine you know the earth; you might even think
that it's yours.
But on the ground, that illusion
dies. The earth makes nothing easy for us. When you stand on the
bones of beauty, you realize how hard they
But I could not explain any of this. So he
called me a radical, and kissed me, laughing, and I settled for
The love affair ended not long after
this, in a parting that was abrupt, and absurd, and irrevocable.
And though much time has passed since then, I still feel sad when I
think of it. Then I return in thought to the Goosenecks of the San
Juan. I think about standing there in silence, and remember the
wings of the guardian ravens.
I don't understand
why love comes apart, but it seems to me that human relationships
are as rugged as any terrain - as looping, improbable and difficult
to describe as those six miles of river in that one mile of rock.
It is not a big thing at all, when you see it on a map, or from an
airplane. But the sides of that canyon are as far apart as anything
ever can be, long steep sides of the same carving river that seem
to be close but will never touch again.
injury ended my backpacking days, I had to learn to love the
canyons in ways new to me. I live with my heart full of places that
I might not hike again, and sometimes I paint pictures of things I
touch from far away. I keep the memory of dust, and the heat of
stone, and the smell of blooming barberry. And by the difficult
grace of God, this beauty fills and feeds me, and it colors the
intimate shape of my solitude, filling it with
I can still hear the silence of the
Goosenecks, and also the peace inside it. That is an old and holy
land and it doesn't need me in the slightest, and it will be there
with its rocks and its ravens long after the man and I are gone.
The river will cut more deeply into rock, and the shadows of clouds
will gather, and pass.
I don't know why this
makes me strong.
But it does.