The canyon between us

  • CHASM CALLING: The San Juan River through Goosenecks StatePark, Utah

    Jim Laurie

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.

We 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 sketchbook.

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 did.

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 glory.

I was as happy, right then, as I know how to be.

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.

"The Valley of the Gods," I said. "And the Goosenecks of the San Juan."

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 violets.

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 holy.

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 is.

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 wings.

It is beautiful, and it is also terrible.

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 are.

But I could not explain any of this. So he called me a radical, and kissed me, laughing, and I settled for that kiss.

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.

When an 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 wings.

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.

The author is an artist and copy editor at High Country News.

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