During a pandemic, walk

An essay on solitude and finding community in a geocache.


This month I turned 65, an April Fool, an Aries from the Year of the Monkey, a mixed bag. More years behind than in front of this monkey, I reminded myself, as I tried to follow my daughter’s advice. Be good, I told her; you be good, she told me. At least I’d made it to the Year of the Metal Ox.

I celebrated, as I do, by taking a day off from my work and walking deep into the desert. I’m partially immunized, living in solitude, but imagining a renewed social life. Tomorrow, I’ll get my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Today, though, I walked miles into the desert, not looking for bighorn sheep or trying to scare up ravens or scanning for bear prints. I was after arches, the second largest concentration of sandstone arches outside of Utah’s Arches National Park — and few people at this time of year visit the lesser-known formations. Situated in wilderness in western Colorado, it’s quite a distance to travel in a day, but with good weather I made the round trip in about 10 hours. Later in the season, a dirt road is opened, a slice into the wilderness, and folks can drive their four-by-fours within an easy stroll. I prefer to travel on foot, close to dirt, vaulted by sky, my rhythm the rhythm of human evolution. We humans evolved to walk. So, I walked and dawdled and walked and dawdled and walked some more, the world in motion as I moved through it. There must be a mathematical equation for such double movement, earth spinning, human walking, both tiny blips in the cosmos. I doubt it can be expressed as a constant.

Rattlesnake Canyon, Colorado.
Ken Barber/Alamy Photo

Many desert days are transcendent, and this one was no exception. I got lost for a time, or at least I lost the trail, steered in the wrong direction by a misleading Bureau of Land Management sign. It pointed right, and so I went right, accompanied by a conspiracy of ravens. As I made my way along the edge of a cliff, one raven flew next to me at eye level, folded its wings, did a half barrel roll, opened its wings upside down, cawed loudly twice, and righted itself. It performed this maneuver three times and then flew to a nearby dead tree. It perched there and looked at me with its baleful gaze as if to say, Wadda ya think, silly human without wings? I was impressed and delighted, one more raven behavior I’d not seen before. If I were prone to seek signs in nature, a Carlos Castaneda sort of magical realism, I’d swear that bird was telling me to stop taking myself so damn seriously. I agreed, croaked out a caw caw in thanks, flapped my arms, and spent the rest of the day in playful wonder.

I still had a long way to go. First, I had to find the trail I’d lost, which meant walking back uphill a mile or so. The morning was cool, and I didn’t mind the extra walking. I was surprised to see across the canyon several high-end houses — some of them carved into sandstone walls — and one modest cabin. Private gated land bordering wilderness allowed those with means to hide from those without means. I took out my binoculars. Each house I glassed appeared empty, their interiors a dark wilderness, their roof lines fancy perches for ravens, expensive empty roosts. I marveled at the waste. I kept walking.

At my feet: brilliant red Indian paintbrush, a hemiparasitic plant that pulls some of its nutrients from the roots of other plants, such as sagebrush and rabbitbrush. It is in the genus Castilleja, named for Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo who died in 1786 at an unknown age (though many field guides list his years as 1744-1793). He lived at a time of the plague’s quiescence. Also at my feet: tiny, pinkish-white flowers of a species I first thought belonged in the Phlox genus. Phlox is Greek for “flame.” I had to get down on my belly to see them up close. They were not Phlox. I stood and brushed off the desert dirt. I’ll put a name to these flowers another day. (I later poked around in the OED, found Pliny the Elder from a 1601 translation: “The Panse, called in Latine Flammea, and in Greeke Phlox, I meane the wild kind onely.” Pliny died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, A.D. 79. He was 55 or 56).

I stood and brushed off the desert dirt. I’ll put a name to these flowers another day. 

Four hours later, I had traversed many canyons, up and down and up and down and up some more, and finally turned a corner. I’d walked through junipers and pines, Mormon tea and a variety of cactus. I’d seen one other human, a slender mountain runner with a Camelback full of water, his ears clogged with earbuds. We traded thumbs up, but I puzzled over the need to listen to something other than wind and raven, the scuttle of a lizard, the skittering of small rocks underfoot.

The many arches were stunning in their color and size and span, an erosional sketch of space. I sat and watched shadows move across sandstone walls. I thought of scrambling to the top of the mesa and walking across an arch, the closest to imitating a raven I could imagine. But I was weary and had another 8 miles to go. Instead, I removed my shoes and socks and took a nap beneath a juniper tree, which had grown next to a huge, arrow-shaped boulder. The sand made a perfect daybed, the wind a soft companion.

I awoke to a green-skinned lizard with a yellow head poised nearby. It allowed me to get close enough for several photographs, then it ran beneath the arrow-shaped boulder. It was fast. I followed, barefoot, to see where it went, and found a blue water bottle partially hidden in a crack. It was a geocache. I’d stumbled on three or four of them in my desert wanderings. I’ve never looked for one, they just appear. They are filled with notes and names and dates, and with the odd flotsam and jetsam left by those with map and compass and coordinates, some sort of international hide-and-seek, whose players don’t know, and will probably never know, one another. An interesting way to learn the planet and commune with like-minded souls.

I fished around in my pockets for something to add to the cache. I pulled out a handful of juniper berries, dusky blue. Those wouldn’t do. I fished around some more and found a scrap of paper, which had been through the wash a time or two, forgotten. The word on the paper was faded but still legible. I undid the creases and slid it into the water bottle. My message, cast adrift, simple and global, personal and ranging across the centuries, joined other messages, from Mary, who was pleased to find her fifth geocache; from Sebastian, visiting from Germany, who was joyous in the Erhabenheit of the desert; from Moonlight and Feather and Sunburned Rat, all “free-kin on the color”; from Joey and his boyfriend Joe, and a half dozen more. I wondered what future cache-seekers would find in this bottle. I silently wished them well and imagined their playful, rock-hopping, light-footed exuberance for a walk on their planet in their days of desert transcendence. My one-word note? Zoonosis.

It was time to head home.

Anthropologist David Jenkins is the author of Nature and Bureaucracy: The Wildness of Managed Landscapes (Routledge 2022). He has taught at MIT and Bates College and worked in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona. For the last dozen years, he has worked in public lands management, where he tries to do some good for the planet. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

High Country News Classifieds
    High Country News is hiring an Indigenous Affairs Editor to help guide the magazine's journalism and produce stories that are important to Indigenous communities and...
    Staff Attorney The role of the Staff Attorney is to bring litigation on behalf of Western Watersheds Project, and at times our allies, in the...
    Northern Michigan University seeks an outstanding leader to serve as its next Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. With new NMU President Dr. Brock...
    The Clark Fork Coalition seeks an exceptional leader to serve as its Executive Director. This position provides strategic vision and operational management while leading a...
    Help uphold a groundbreaking legal agreement between a powerful mining corporation and the local communities impacted by the platinum and palladium mine in their backyard....
    The Feather River Land Trust (FRLT) is seeking a strategic and dynamic leader to advance our mission to "conserve the lands and waters of the...
    COLORADO DIRECTOR Western Watersheds Project seeks a Colorado Director to continue and expand WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Colorado,...
    Digital Media Specialist - WY, MT, UT OFFICE LOCATION Remote and hybrid options available. Preferred locations are MT, WY or UT, but applicants from anywhere...
    High Country News seeks an energetic, articulate and highly organized grant writer to support a growing foundations program. This position works closely with our Executive...
    From California, I provide expert tech help remotely to rural and urban clients. I charge only when I succeed. Available 7 days. Call for a...
    Whitman College seeks applicants for a tenure-track position in Indigenous Histories of the North American West, beginning August 2024, at the rank of Assistant Professor....
    Dave and Me, by international racontuer and children's books author Rusty Austin, is a funny, profane and intense collection of short stories, essays, and poems...
    Rural Community Assistance Corporation is looking to hire a CFO. For more more information visit: https://www.rcac.org/careers/
    The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation (ABWF) seeks a new Executive Director. Founded in 2008, the ABWF is a respected nonprofit whose mission is to support...
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the northern Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
    We characterize contaminated sites, identify buried drums, tanks, debris and also locate groundwater.
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...