Another spot we called Borrego Corkscrew, where bighorn sheep established a route spiraling down a canyon into otherwise impassable country. We were disciples of the bighorns, tracking them by hard nuts of droppings or hoof-scrapes on rock that showed where they leapt from place to place. We learned that where the sheep go, there is a path. Otherwise, nothing.
One day, after two weeks on foot, four of us crouched atop a sandstone crown. Behind us sprawled the Maze, a district of interwoven canyons in banded red and white sandstone. Before us was the Island in the Sky, where the land rises into steamships and overhangs high above the confluence.
"Indian Creek out there," said one grizzled companion.
"Yeah, that one," said another, aiming a finger at the horizon, 30 miles of red-rock madness away from our perch. You could just make out the contiguous shadow marking Indian Creek.
"Could you get out there from here, and back?"
"I don't know," someone finally said. "Anyone got a map?"
We looked at each other and slowly began to grin. Nobody had remembered to bring one. Two weeks, and we only now realized it. We had passed some threshold. We no longer thought in paper. The landscape was being written inside us.
So we stopped taking maps. We traveled by feel, our memories the library we drew from. Time, experience and careful observation had taught us to see once invisible threads, to weave them together.
The next long trip was 27 days on foot in the fall of 1999. We planned it to match a lunar cycle, new to full to new again, where we chased the darkness and the milky, ghostly light that rose in the night sky and then faded. Near the end, I looked down at my hands and noticed they had changed. From constantly touching rock, scaling it, rolling pebbles in my palms, my fingerprints had been worn away.
This happened where the Colorado River winds around itself in a double meander, forming a set of twin, teardrop-shaped buttes my friends and I called the Yin and the Yang. We were on top of one. Its roof was eroded into a dollhouse of miniature canyons and naked bulbs of sandstone. Camp was a sleeping bag on a plank of rock, kitchen a blackened pot and an alcohol stove made from a pop can.
I crouched over my hand, fascinated. The pads of my fingers were slick, hard, glossy, like those of a desert animal. For that moment I had no identity other than this place. I belonged to Canyonlands more than I did to myself.
The Green and Colorado were my center. I saw them as a single river looping unbroken through Canyonlands. I hid boats in tamarisk along their cliff-shadowed shorelines where I could use them months later as ferries. Occasionally, I'd reach their confluence from one river and start paddling up the other, ignoring the change in current and navigating from eddy to eddy, earning miles slowly. The rivers are often two different colors, born as they are in different mountain ranges, different states. They come in brown, red or a cold winter jade. Where they meet, their colors tangle like swirls of wind.
Along this river, the woman who would marry me fell for me. When I was in Moab and she was in Colorado, she called with troubles and a few tears. I was leaving for a solo float and invited her along. A solo wilderness woman herself, she understood what this meant.
Later, in the same canyon, she nearly left me. It was not the instability of my lifestyle that bothered her, but my work as a writer, the way I revealed everything. Writing about a place as close to her or my heart as Canyonlands felt too intrusive, too vulnerable. And writing about her, as I eventually would, felt the same. She would never have privacy again. We sat on a limestone bench where we'd made camp, and she turned away from me, watching the river go by.
Our wedding rehearsal was in the arc of a canyon below Deadhorse Point. I cannot name the places we made love, the red rock towering above us, sand or slickrock beneath us. When we had a baby, we brought him to Canyonlands –– 6 weeks old, pale and squirming. He cried a lot. It might have been the sand we couldn't keep out of his cloth diapers, or the sun glaring off every rock face, cooking his little cheeks no matter how we shaded him. Regan nursed the child under an umbrella while I loaded and unloaded our 16-foot canoe, moving camp day by day toward the confluence. She rocked him as I washed diapers in a bucket of river water, then draped them over canoe paddles to flap in the breeze. I dumped the waste into a stainless steel box that filled surprisingly fast.
You'd think our baby would have been soothed by the sound of my paddle strokes guiding us downstream. He wasn't. In the bow of our canoe, Regan rocked him at her breast. His cries echoed up through the gateway towers of a side-canyon that spills down from Monument Basin. I looked up as I paddled. Pre-Columbian granaries were perched like beehives in the cliffs, a few little ruins I had visited over the years. Not this time, though. I looked higher, where our child's unhappy utterances echoed among boulders. Beyond them, out of sight, was a country of red spires eroded from Organ Rock formation and bulbous rock carved from the White Rim. There, I once carried some of my father's ashes.
I'd left his other ashes in northern New Mexico and in central Arizona, in a creek where he liked to fish. This portion, however, had been for me, and I brought it into my heart, my country, releasing what remained of my father from a canister into an autumn-night gale. Our relationship had been deep and rocky. He worshipped Thoreau and Stravinsky, drank whiskey like a bellowing fiend, and our fights occasionally came to blows and blood. Now, little specks of bone rattled across the rock as he disappeared into sand, wind, and darkness.
Stroke by stroke, I listened to my boy's voice rising, mingling with the ghost of my father's ashes. Regan pulled him closer. Again he nursed, and again the river was quiet.