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

by 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.

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.

These are my touchstones in a landscape that is falling apart. The balance is tenuous and sweet. I keep finding ledges or boulders that I remember from long ago, little crux moves that get you from one impossible point to another. Superimposed on this place where everything is moving is the record of my own fleeting life, a shifting map where waypoints are memories, and rock is only a little less ephemeral than paper.

In my 40s, I traveled for a book project. I came back through the airport in Grand Junction, Colo., where Regan pulled to the curb in our dusty SUV. She had our two boys strapped in the back seat in a nest of juice boxes, books and toys. The rest of the vehicle was packed tight with camping gear. Exhausted from handling kids on her own, she spoke little, shifted into drive, headed west. I didn't have to ask where.

She took us to Utah, then 40 miles down a red-dirt road. Night fell. Our headlights probed sage and gullies as she put us in 4-low. The drifted desert fell into slickrock canyons. We camped on bare sandstone -- a tent and two bleary-eyed kids dragging blankets and sleeping bags. We zipped ourselves in under the stars.

In the morning, as my family slept, I slipped out before dawn. To the east, a violet band vibrated over the horizon around the black batwings of the La Sal Mountains; to the west, the last stars faded. I followed fingers of short, steep canyons, and soon sunrise turned the rock from fawn-colored to hot pink. The land became shells and shadows, shapes of sandstone worn by wind and water.

My book had taken me to Greenland, Chile and Tibet, farther from my home than I'd ever been. The maps I carried of these places told me little about how to travel, to survive; they told me nothing of what I would find there. I felt ungrounded, coming and going so quickly I could not possibly learn my place. When I stayed on an island in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia, the Yup'ik Eskimos would not let me walk alone more than three miles from their village. They were wisely concerned about my ignorance of polar bears and tundra wolves.

Now, I could breathe again. There was no trail or rock cairn, only one foot in front of the other, fingers grazing boulders, taking in every shade and stroke of light. It was like coming back to your own house from a long journey, standing in the entry, suitcases set down, everything just the way you left it: a book on a table, a lamp in a corner, pillows on the couch. I could close my eyes and still see the way the sere horizons spread out from and around me.

Where sunlight filled the mouth of a low, wind-hewn shell of rock, I ducked inside. On the ceiling, I discovered a chiseled inscription, dated 1913, from a trapper who had worked these rivers: MY HOME.

A million or two years ago may have been too early for Canyonlands. You would not have seen this same canvas of erosion. A million or two in the future may be too late. Erosion will entirely sweep it away.

Kent Frost, the legendary author of My Canyonlands, spent his life here. Born in 1917, he explored it inside and out, a guide who had himself fallen in love. He knew it the way I imagine bighorn sheep do, remembering every key ledge and toehold in impossible terrain -- an entire landscape packed into his heart.

I met Frost down on the Colorado in the late-1990s. I was guiding a small group when I spotted him. Frost was in his late 70s then, button-up shirt, straight gray hair clipped around his face. He had come down on a Park Service raft and there were park rangers on his beach. I landed my group and jumped off to shake his hand.

I had to go fast. I was working under Park Service radar as a pirate outfitter, using a private permit to take paying guests down the river. A tanned, floppy-hatted 29 years old, I stood out. Everyone else in my group was over 60 and pale. I stuck with a quick, nervous, Hello, so honored to meet you Mr. Frost, I am a man after your own heart. Then I wrangled my group back onto the water before the rangers could follow up on their growing suspicions. When I waved back at the old explorer, he wasn't looking. His hands were stuffed in his pockets and he was peering up at the surrounding ledges and cliffs.

Frost became part of my own map, remembered much later for the feel of his skin loose on the bones of his hand, and for the clear sun, the texture and placement of the boulders, the robin's-egg strip of sky visible from the canyon in the place where we met.

In 2012, I heard he was in a nursing home in Blanding, Utah, rapidly losing his faculties. Some friends and I cooked up a plan to break him out and drive him somewhere with a sweeping view of Canyonlands. I didn't know Frost at all and was told that moving him would only discomfort him. But I imagined it would do him good to see the country as he remembered it. I would want the same some day, I thought, the last thing in my mind the shape of the earth that I love. But in May of 2013, before we could act, Frost died.

Our maps don't last. They are not supposed to. Wind polishes rock. Flash floods hollow out canyons. Two rivers carry away sediment in thick muddy boils.

I never marked my waypoints on any paper map -- where I met Frost for the first time, where I fell in love, where I said goodbye to my father and welcomed my sons into this labyrinth of a place. If someday I cannot remember where I've been, the heart of these rivers and canyons will pump on without me until, long after I am gone, they too wash away.

© High Country News