We were laying under the stars, just outside of the city, talking about how we didn’t get out of the city nearly enough, and ruminating on what we could do to remedy that situation. Looking above me at the winking stars I spoke out loud: “You know where I like to look at the stars the most?” I didn’t even wait for Molly to respond before I continued my thought: “Moab. The night sky is so clear there I swear I’ve seen the goddamn Milky Way.” Molly turned her head to look at me, “Well let’s go there then.” She said this so matter-of-factly, posed carefully as a statement and not a question, that I was powerless to do anything but agree that we needed to make this trip happen, and soon.
We went to the desert deliberately; there’s just something about the desert. I’m sad that I never knew a desert until I hit my twenties, but I also could have stayed on the East Coast my whole life and never known one at all. When you find yourself in the desert it is because you chose to leave the comfort of the city and dive into the wilderness of intuition. When you go to the desert you never know what will be explored, and adversely what will be discovered. In Le Petite Prince, author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said this: “I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”
Merely a week later we found ourselves speeding into the night, well maybe not speeding because I was driving, heading down to Southern Utah for what we were sure would be a life-changing, mind-altering, perspective-shifting weekend. Clearly, we were not placing any expectations or pressure on it at all. We arrived around the stroke of midnight and managed to meander through the pitch black canyons to find ourselves a camping spot closeby the Colorado River. I love driving somewhere and not being able to see a thing – you can make out shapes and silhouettes, you set your campsite up in the shadows, and then you wake up in the light of day and it feels like Christmas morning.
Even though our neighbors were all getting ready to put their campfires out and turn in for the night we deemed it a necessity to make a celebratory fire; one that obviously included the consumption of copious amounts of beer and smores. “Do you want to play a game?” I asked Molly. “Of course I do,” she replied. “Well, it’s kind of cheesy, usually you just pick a high and a low of your day and say them aloud, but I don’t ever think you should end anything on a low so I play it high-low-high.”
She smiled in a way that let me know she was down, but contested that since it was my idea, that I had to go first. I obliged. “Well I’d say my high was that I woke up knowing we were going to come here, I was excited about it all day. My low…” I paused considering what I wanted to say, “I guess I feel out of touch with myself, and I feel a little broken.” I took a hearty swig of my beer, “My other high is this happening right now, because it’s absolutely perfect.”
Molly went on in a similar fashion, it was somewhat cathartic – we had hashed out our woes, held the only pity party that we would ever throw ourselves that weekend, bared our feelings to the embers of a fire and called it a night.
We woke up so sweltering that the only thing to do was head straight down to the river. I don’t even think that actual words were spoken; blankets were thrown off our bodies and tiny dogs in tow, all twelve of our paws bounded toward the mighty Colorado with purpose. Annabelle the Adventurer immediately scampered off to do whatever it was that made her disappear into the brush for twenty to thirty minutes at a time before returning, while Nora stayed by my side like there was an invisible tether that held her there. She followed tentatively as Molly and I got closer to the water. She trudged along as though it was the most arduous journey she had ever been on, and who knows – perhaps it was. Annabelle came bounding over, rock hopping like the weird little gazelle she is, giving zero fucks if she was wearing the river on her coat or not. At that exact moment Nora took one misstep that ended with her barely ankle deep in what could be best described as a puddle. The look of horror on her face was so dire I couldn’t help but laugh and say: “Welcome to our world Nora, live or die!” I softened for a second rethinking that statement, and corrected myself “Actually live or thrive, I like those options better.” So the motto of the weekend was born: live or thrive, those should always be the only two choices. You can either go about life just living, or you can fucking thrive, flourish, and prosper – it’s up to you. Nora is still unsure of herself, but I have faith she’ll come around.
Arches, like many National Parks, has some pretty basic guidelines they ask their patrons to adhere too. They are pretty simple, and aren’t asking too much: Carry out what you carry in, do not go off the trail as to trample living vegetation, be mindful of the heat and acquire the appropriate permits for backcountry use. As far as pets as concerned they have this to say: “Pets are allowed only on park roads, in parking lots, or in your campsite. Pets are not permitted on or off trails, in the backcountry, or in buildings.” As much fun as hanging out in parking lots sounded, we found a way to bend the rules a bit:
Were our animals on a trail? Technically, yes. But really; what is the difference between our dogs in backpacks and an infant in a baby bjorn? Chances are, Nora and Annabelle are cuter, cry less, and don’t even poop as much as the aforementioned infants. We figured so long as we respected the idea behind the rule and didn’t let the girl’s precious paws touch the ground, that karma would grant us the lovely favor of not running into a park ranger. So we set forth on our adventure deciding to spend the duration of our day traversing through an area called Devil’s Garden, and would later do several shorter hikes that took us out to a variety of other arches.
Now, when your hiking or even on a casual walk – there is an implied formality; a code of etiquette if you will. You pass on the left, you stay on the trail, and you greet the people you meet. That’s not to say you shake hands and invite every passerby to your campsite for dinner, but a simple smile or acknowledgement of existence is all that’s needed. If you want to get real crazy you could even say “Howdy,” or “Nice Day.”
Now Molly and I couldn’t wipe the shit-eating grins off our faces if we actively tried. The weather was perfect – as it was late September, gone was the oppressive and deadly heat of the summer. It was temperate and warm with a lovely breeze. We were surrounded by red rocks and arches, landscapes that were beautiful and surreal. We were together, surrounded by beauty and a complete part of it all.
The first few times we passed by unsmiling patrons, I don’t think either of us thought anything of it. However, after about roughly twenty minutes of un-returned “Hello’s” and a even a few scowls we started to wonder. We walked past a couple walking side by side in silence, stoically staring straight ahead instead of looking around them. Molly and I looked at each other baffled. “Do you think he brought her up here to break up with her?” I asked. “That must be it,” she replied. I pressed on, “Do you think that that’s a thing? Like people come up here to break up with their partners?” Molly laughed, “It’s a good place as any to do it. You can’t get too mad at the other person because it’s beautiful and everyone’s pissed because after it’s done you have no choice but to hike out with that person and probably drive home in silence.” I looked at Molly seriously, “Is that why you brought me here? Are we breaking up?” I tried to look concerned, wounded even, but it took literally less than a half a second before we both dissolved in laughter.
And dissolving in laughter continued to be the theme of the afternoon. We walked by so many miserable faces that we started to question if it was amateur hour in Arches National Park. Here we were, in one of the most special and unique places on earth, and we couldn’t get these rookies to crack a smile. We even walked by a woman who somehow inverted her lips instead of smiling back at us. Rather that being disillusioned by the general consensus of absolute misery; we found it hilarious.
We walked by another somber face. “Jesus, where is the funeral?” Molly asked. In an effort to comfort and cajole all the passerby’s with frowning faces we at least reassured them: “You’re headed the right way; the funeral is in that direction.” Half the time we could only make it several steps away before we broke into hysterics, trying our best to do out of earshot of the intended individual or party. The final icing on the cake was a woman who was taking pictures on her iPad. That’s right; this bitch was in the desert taking pictures on her iPad. I mean if she had an iPad I am assuming maybe she had a phone, or maybe a digital camera – hell, I had bought a disposable one for the trip. After capturing a few images on that monstrosity she caught our line of vision and met us with a look of utter disdain. Needless to say with those two things combined we didn’t care that she totally heard us when we started laughing so hard that we even shed a few tears.
Maybe it’s sadistic that we got such joy out of others misery, but really – I dare you to go into the desert and not discover clarity and overwhelming elation. People always talk about finding an oasis in the desert but really – the desert is the oasis. It invites you to leave your footprints in the sand and simply let them be obliterated by the wind. Its desolation is endearing, its vastness calming, and its vulnerability rejuvenating. I simply couldn’t understand how these people could have their eyes open without looking, that they weren’t smitten with their surroundings; feeling both grateful and alive. We have plenty of time to be sad; life isn’t all blooming cactus flowers and canyons but isn’t the fact that a little flower can even blossom in the most barren of conditions a little remarkable? Isn’t life just a little over-the-top and thoroughly amazing? The desert has taken tears from me, but overall; it has given me more than it has ever taken.
Shit eating grins still intact, we went about our day and that day then turned into the evening, and we managed to catch the scarlet sky as it turned into stars over the canyon walls and arches. We drove into town, it’s strange to find a desert that has a town with life and people who actually live in it, but this one does. Surprisingly we found ourselves at the local brewery where we stuffed ourselves full of pints and greasy food, completely and contently doing away with any good that came out of hiking for five miles with puppies on our backs.
We returned to Campsite #12 with several bundles of firewood and enough beer to kill a small horse. Sitting around the fire I turned to Molly; “High-low-high,” I said, not bothering to ask if it was something she wanted to do or not, it was implied that it had to occur. “My high,” she smirked, “Was definitely that woman taking pictures on her iPad.” “Ugh! You totally fucking stole mine!” I whined. “My low…” She paused in thought for a long time, “I guess it was when I decided to wake up and go get us coffee and let you sleep and I kind of missed you when I had to go into town.” “Then I think my high was dinner, that was really nice.”
She looked at me and I realized it was my turn. “Well you stole my original high, so my new high is definitely sneaking the dogs into the park, that was awesome.” “My low, my low…” I trailed off, seriously not being able to pick any point in the day that had been discouraging to me. “Hmmm…there was that time right before dinner that I had a headache for ten minutes and then you told me to just stop having one, and I did.”
Once again we found ourselves laughing, thinking about the more serious tone of the night before; where our lows were low and here we were less than 24 -hours later scrambling to find the negative. It was incredible how quickly our perspectives and attitudes had shifted in such a short amount of time.
I’ve given this some thought and I think we went to the desert because we were looking to take something back. Now I don’t mean souvenirs, even though we took home plenty of those, but I think we both found something in the desert – although I am only speaking for myself here. If you want to know about Molly’s experience, I’ll give you her number and you can leave harassing voice-mails demanding to know a.) if she found her spirit animal in the desert, b.) what she took away from the experience, c.) who was better at making fires, me or her, or d.) the answers to all of the above.
Anyways, here’s my piece:
Sometimes you need to get away; to detach from your external world. Whether its people, or things, or a feeling you’re stuck in; sometimes you have to take a step back and disconnect for your own well-being. Float in the space outside of your universe. Be still, silent, and starved of the things that comfort you. Be alone in the desert and sit with that just to see what it feels like. Trust in the fact that if you’ve lost control you can always get it back because ultimately you’re the one driving the ship. Know that it’s okay when you veer off track, and that you can always change course.
I realized that who I am innately always exists, whether I believe it or not – and it turns out I’m not as out of touch with myself and broken as I perceived. I got to thinking, was that something I had to remove myself from my world to figure out? Could I have hashed this out in the city? Shit, what f I took a vacation in the midst of every existential crisis I had?” Questions aside I think we can all agree on one thing, if I did that – my frequent flyer miles would be through the roof.
“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” – Antoine de Saint Exupéry