Heart-Shaped River: Craig Childs finds his center in Canyonlands

"Not all maps are made of paper. The best ones are spooled in memory."

  • Confluence of the Green (left) and Colorado (right) rivers.

    Google Earth
  • The author: "This is the country where I measured myself. I came to understand the true breadth of my own experiences, and the potential of the land to form a person's life."

    Craig Childs (courtesy)
  • Off-trail in Canyonlands, we moved through a land of giants, hoisting packs step after step, a journey of hands reaching to hands. The river is the way through and we were a bunch of Huck Finns, tying our canoes together, landing on the odd piece of driftwood, exploring every twist and turn of the labyrinth.

    Craig Childs
  • You don't think in terms of walls or beds. You live in a land of rock, sleeping in whatever crack fits you.

    Collin Wann
  • Our goal was to become this place, to have Canyonlands written inside of us. We saw ourselves as rock formations, only moving faster.

    Craig Childs
  • It was after one of these long trips that I asked Regan to marry me.

    Craig Childs
  • Regan Choi floating down the Colorado River through Canyonlands late in the day.

    Craig Childs

The best place to start is where the river makes its first delicate incision into the stony lands south of Green River, Utah. Downstream of teapot-shaped Dellenbaugh Butte, thicker sandstones rear up from the ground, and Canyonlands begins.

This is where I began, too, in the 1980s, a scrawny kid in his late teens working for a fly-by-night canoe outfit. My mom was dating the owner, which is how I got the job running trips around the Intermountain West on the North Platte, Yampa, Gunnison and Colorado rivers. I was supposed to convince clients I knew what I was doing even though I had never seen most of these rivers before. When a 10-person trip on the Green River into Utah's Canyonlands came up, some of it through Canyonlands National Park, some through surrounding Bureau of Land Management holdings, my mom's boyfriend put me on it.

The Green River is born far north of here in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, and briefly halts at the sediment trap of Flaming Gorge Dam. South of I-70 in Utah, it carves into an arid warren of sandstone canyons. Eventually, it meets the Colorado River, and their confluence forms a V in the center of Canyonlands, drawing a perfect tail of a heart.

I'd never seen anything like it. The clients raged at me for forgetting to bring coffee. What did it matter? I was falling in love.

Growing up, I had preferred the edges of the playground to the mania of foursquare and tetherball. I was a reflective only child, and human interactions and relationships seemed too fleeting to count on. Maybe it was because we moved so often, back and forth between Arizona and Colorado. But rocks and dirt -- and the landscapes they built -- were something I could depend on. They offered a sense of permanence and stability, even though in the scale of geologic time, I knew they were anything but. The Southern Rockies and their descending layers of desert were burned into my head. Now, I carried this connection a step farther, following the placid, mud-swirled Green deeper into this eroded country.

One day, I hiked up a side canyon with my clients. We weren't on a trail, and for all I knew, we were heading straight into a dead end. But through notches and over boulder-aprons, the sandstone kept opening and opening again. We could see into tower-capped canyons and alcoves. There were a few maidenhair fern-draped seeps, but everything else was nearly naked of vegetation and painted in dazzling shades of red. I began jogging. The clients shouted at me, and I called for them to follow. I ran faster, scrambled higher, and finally reached the top of a knoll that felt like the center of an enormous compass.

The few clients who hadn't turned back caught up with me, out of breath and smiling. Where were we? they wondered. What had we come to see?

I waved my arm across the arterial mass of buttes and canyons all around us. "We're here," I said. "We've found it!"

Not all maps are made of paper. The best ones are spooled in memory, better served by songs and stories than by something that lays flat in a drawer or glows on a computer screen. The map that I've been making -- as diligently as a monk in a stone scriptorium -- is of Canyonlands. The national park takes up 337,570 acres, surrounded by a hefty perimeter of 1.4 million acres of BLM known as Greater Canyonlands. It lies west of Moab, south of the Book Cliffs, east of the San Rafael Swell, and north of Lake Powell.

At first, I carried topographic maps of the region. Folded with corners soft as cotton, I kept them stuffed in my pack. At home, I pored over them, covered floors with them, my imagination tracking their possibilities.

By the time I graduated from college, I traveled to Canyonlands often, running half-naked through slickrock fins, returning July, October, January. I wanted to understand the place. I counted ants and shadows, summering in caves, waiting for the intense and odorless heat to die before venturing farther. On the river, both the Green and Colorado, I went alone and drifted on my back, a bowline tied to me so my boat and I would not float apart. Canyon walls opened and closed gently, big blocks of 500-foot-tall sandstone cleaved like chunks of cherry-red chocolate. When I shouted, my echoes came back like snowflakes, never the same.

As I entered my 30s, my obsession grew. I couldn't get enough, going out for weeks. My friends were those who did the same. The dotted lines that defined borders and trails meant nothing to us. We did not recognize where national park became BLM. What we saw was an interlocking network of contours and notches and climbs and ways to slip through.

We had our own place names. Dead Guy is what we called one route, after a complete human skeleton in a natural rock shelter near the top of a steep, boulder-filled drainage. Bereft of skin or fabric, its bones were half-buried in dust. The person had either died or been interred there centuries earlier. We didn't mess with the skeleton or mark it on a topo with an X. It was a mental juncture for us, a reference. We'd say, Let's meet at the Dead Guy.

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Oct 07, 2013 05:58 PM
It's impossible to compare this writing about the desert with anyone else I've ever read.
Pam Bond
Pam Bond Subscriber
Oct 09, 2013 02:04 PM
Beautiful piece Craig! Thank you for sharing it with us. You can only hope that everyone can find a place on this earth that they feel as connected to as you do the Canyonlands. It is very special when you find "home".
Jennifer Desmond
Jennifer Desmond
Oct 25, 2013 03:53 PM
:') What a treat. Thank you for your words, and your heart.
Susan Jelus
Susan Jelus Subscriber
Feb 16, 2014 06:19 PM
A lovely piece of writing, an astounding place, a great story, and a remarkable life!
Lani Edghill
Lani Edghill
Feb 17, 2014 06:37 PM
Fantastic piece, reminds me of a mix of Terry Tempest Williams and myself from my own journeys in this very region. Thanks for reminding me of its magical wonder. A truely powerful place. One that made a lasting impression on my life of memmories I will cherish forever.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Feb 18, 2014 11:27 AM
muchas gracias. many graces and much thanks.
canoeing downriver from Chicago with only a highway map, I passed the skyscrapers looming over me and the industries along the banks in a state of wonder and adventure. Finally reaching the Illinois River, the lands I passed through were a mystery. Downstream from the flotsam and jetsam of civilization I finally procured the Army Corps of Engineers' map and the journey became tamer. Still, I camped for a week in a flood-hollowed cave at Starved Rock State Park (in the off season). I finally left the river in Cape Girardeau amid coyote cries and my own.
Maps are a definite advantage to practical matters like food and water, neither of which is edible on the water. But one leaves the discovery, the personal exploration and intimate connection behind by consulting the map. You can't safely live off the land anymore due to pollution, but the spirit of adventure and delight comes from within.
You've made me hunger to see your country. You live there the way I've lived on the Ice Age Trail through Wisconsin. Just disappear in the woods or geologic time, carry supplies and leave no trace. No man-made wonderland can touch it. May we never lose our wildness and the Great Spirit watch over you all.