I wish I’d known we were going to the desert to say goodbye. However, had I known there would soon be a scarcity of you – it may have compromised the very time that came to mean so much to me. My heart has never broken in so many ways and the metaphor of the desert couldn’t be better suited even if I had the luxury of writing fiction and could choose. In the desert all things disappear – every drop of moisture, footprints that lead out to sandstone arches – the arches themselves eventually erode and crumble. I never thought we would.
I don’t know why we decided to go to the desert, perhaps because that’s where you and I always seemed to be at our best. In wilderness there was no noise, confounding variables, and we could just be. Life was simple there, hidden in your red Tacoma behind a stack of hoodoo’s. We had ambitions to wake up inordinately early to get on the road but it was a unanimous decision to hit snooze. I snuck off the air mattress we were sharing and prepared a simple breakfast – a handful of cashews, sliced apples, a hard-boiled egg, and coffee. I was going for sustenance, not splendor.
We arrived around noon – a notoriously dangerous time to be out in the desert sun but in March the temperature is tolerable and even cool in the evenings. We made our way through Little Wild Horse Canyon and saw several hikers holding bags full of what looked like colorful leis. While I was thinking slot canyons seemed like a weird place for a luau, we came upon a clearing strewn with fake flowers and framed pictures of a smiling couple. Ah, not a traditional Hawaiian pig roast although that would have been preferred. If you ever get the chance to watch a proposal perched atop a rock with your ex, I wholly recommend you don’t. I felt a single tear work its way out of the corner of my eye and wiped it away before she could notice.
We headed back by way of Bell’s Canyon. We followed a few dried up riverbeds, and Bridie pointed out how different rocks & features would change the flow of the water. I listened intently as she’d spent our whole relationship always telling me about the native birds, trees & plants and in such moments I’d let my mind wander. “Just let her do her thing,” I’d think as she showed me a Chaga mushroom and explained how to turn it into tea. Ironically this is information I would now be enthralled to know, and I’ll always wish I had been more present in those moments.
She was leaning down, her long hair falling in front of her face from under her hat. I’d forced her to grow it out, not in a controlling kind of way, but out of the sheer envy of how flawlessly perfect it was with no effort required. Having a mop-top that I’ve personally deemed as “Lesbian Albert Einstein,” it just had to be done. She picked up a rock and held it up to the sun examining it closely. “I love this rock,” she proclaimed, before utilizing her lesbian softball skills to chuck it wildly across the sand. This would happen several more times before I made fun of her for it. If you love something, let it go I suppose. The desert was FULL of metaphors.
We rounded out the night by making ramen and two boxes of Mac & Cheese – we affectionately referred to it as “pasta palooza” and felt completely justified in carb loading after a day in the desert. I fell asleep to the sounds of rain on the roof of the truck with Nora nestled somewhere precariously in the depths of my sleeping bag. As I put my arm around Bridie to pull her closer, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of sadness. “How can you possibly be so scared to lose someone that you’ve already lost?” I wondered.
I woke up to Bridie rustling through a crate as daylight started to peek through the cab of the truck. There’s no alarm quite like nature, as much as I love it there have been times I’ve wanted to strangle birds or install blackout curtains in my tent. She slid back into our temporary abode with granola and a carton of Silk. “Breakfast in bed! What did I do to deserve this?” I asked. I finished and let Nora lap up what was left of my soy milk – a relatively new thing she’d decided she liked, which didn’t even surprise me anymore. Whomever said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks clearly hasn’t met her, because this year she also took up chasing jack rabbits and canyoneering.
We laid outside on our Paco Pads settling on a slow sun-soaking morning. The temperature was perfect and being in the desert seldom comes with an agenda unless you go with my friend Jenny. One time she wanted to hike a slot canyon despite some rain. She was so insistent and I envisioned a giant flash flood rolling in and a caricature of her riding out on a boogie board hangin’ ten. It might have been the mushrooms we were on, but I could picture it so vividly. Needless to say we did not chance fate because flash floods are dangerous, deadly, and nothing to joke about. Unless of course you’re giving Jenny a hard time.
At camp the primal peace of our hoodoo haven was suddenly disrupted with the shrieks of children teetering on the formations above us. Their Mother was not far away, staring vacantly at her phone which seemed odd considering there was no service. Also strange, was the fact that we were on vast BLM land with plenty of space and they had chosen that particular spot as a playground. Since Mom wasn’t paying attention I sent her some “subtle” nuances. If you know me, low-key is not a specialty of mine – currently I have bright fuchsia hair and often ride around town with a Chihuahua on my back. My obvious response was to blare the song ‘Party Up’ by DMX, and when that didn’t work I kissed Bridie proudly stating: “Now she’ll have to explain lesbians to her children.” Eventually they left by their own accord and we went about dancing in the dirt and drinking coffee before heading into Goblin Valley.
Goblin Valley looked like a bunch of dicks. Bridie joked that when God was creating the Earth, he drew this area as a teenage boy. We hiked out to Goblin’s Lair, which had the appearance of a massive cavern. Light shone to the bottom which lay 100 feet below. It looked like a small scramble, steep for the novice hiker – but entirely doable for a bunch of butches like us. We climbed down quickly and it felt as though we were standing in a cathedral. It wasn’t long before our solace was again interrupted, this time by person after person that would get to the entrance, start their descent, yell at us: “Is it worth it?” and then decide regardless of our answer to turn around saying: “Honey, we can see it just fine from here!” They’d snap a picture and leave.
We stayed long enough that it got quiet again and stayed that way. The air was damp and different than it had been outside, the sun flirted through cracks in the ceiling above us, it felt sacred. “Church,” I thought, “I bet this is how people feel there.” Eventually we climbed out and were met with swarms of the same tourists we’d deflected below. We’ve truly paved paradise and put up a parking lot, it’s Edward Abbey’s & Joni Mitchell’s combined nightmare. Such things being so accessible is a double-edged sword and I choose to leave my opinion out, but you can likely use your deductive reasoning skills.
We were tired and had a four hour drive back to Salt Lake so we opted to make dinner. Below us were a guy and a girl with their arms around one another, also enjoying an impromptu meal overlooking the valley. “Is that hetero us?” We laughed while cuddling close. It felt funny to even use the term “us” because truly there was no “us” that existed any longer. While fundamentally it should have felt wrong, nothing ever felt more right than being with her. Later we decided we would return the next weekend, because we didn’t feel quite done.
A few days afterwards Bridie had told me she was going to move home to Vermont. COVID was at its infancy and her job in the hospitality industry seemed to be an hourglass on its last strand of sand. I was dog sitting at a friends house, when she came in to find me face down in a puddle of my own snot and tears. We spent the remainder of the evening switching roles of “Strong one who holds sad one” and “One who gets to fall apart.” We were crying in the shower when she decided that she would stay and figure it out. I didn’t question the solidity of this statement because I so badly needed to believe its truth.
When Friday evening rolled around I needed the desert more than I had ever needed anything in my life. A drink when I’m thirsty, food when I’m hungry – fuck it all. I was ravenous in a way I can’t explain to you unless you’ve ever been there, for everything that it provides. It is a stagnant, unforgiving, and harsh environment but it is also soft and merciful. It is full of inexplicable beauty and pain and it cradles & nourishes you without asking anything in return. We didn’t wait until morning like before, instead we wound through darkness that was now laced with familiarity and settled on the first place we found with the stipulation of looking for something better the next day. We set up what we needed and turned in early.
A coyote started howling nearby and despite neighbors being camped far away, I could hear everyone’s dogs barking in response. When coyotes howl it serves one of two purposes: they’re either letting it be known this is their territory so stay away, or they’re trying to find fellow pack members when they’re apart. It seems like a good reason, I mused while looking at the moon, to cry into the night when you feel lost and alone. It was chilly so I zipped my sleeping bag into full mummy form until the soul-haunting sound of the coyote lulled me into slumber.
The next morning we went off in search of “the spot.” We’d spent some time the previous weekend scoping out the lengths of the land and despite so bickered briefly over where to go. I rolled my eyes at one suggestion and exclaimed: “Are you kidding me? This is in the middle of EVERYTHING!” Everything being nothing really, because we were in the back of beyond. Our squabbling dissipated when we found it: our own private oasis. Less desirable than the hoodoos and red rocks where most seemed to settle – we twisted and turned and tested the Tacoma to skirt a small dirt path that took us to a desolate cove. We both knew the moment we landed, this was the place.
We pitched a tent for storing gear and drove off towards Ding & Dang. The two canyons were to be done in a horseshoe like route, all the literature suggesting you do it Ding to Dang – it would become clear to us why when we unintentionally did the opposite. We started down a bumpy road and after a few minutes stumbled upon a grove of Cottonwood trees providing the only refuge from the sun which was now blazing hot despite the spring season. We took a look at the map by the trail head which showed a singular path that would lead us to a fork in which Ding & Dang came to a meeting point.
The trail was not terribly well marked and when we came to this pivotal junction we stumbled upon our first passerby’s. “Which way do we go?” I hate asking this question on hikes. The young boys looked at us with dismay: “This is the end, it’s a loop,” one replied. They smacked their gum as they sauntered off, and we found ourselves armed with no more information than we’d had the moment before. After a short debate we chose to go right and decided we’d do what we could and if we had to turn around at any point that was okay.
The first section was about 3 feet wide with cold, still water at the bottom that went up to my knees. Later we’d say screw it and succumb to soggy socks and boots but initially we did the ole slot canyon shimmy. I loaded Nora in my backpack facing frontwards and braced myself between the rock walls, carefully moving my feet and ass in tandem until reaching solid ground. Shortly thereafter we arrived at a section of rock that seemed like a barrier. We looked up at an old piece of webbing that was anchored twenty feet above and realized immediately why it was suggested to go Ding > Dang. If you went that way you’d be essentially lowering yourself down these obstacles, rather than heaving yourself up them.
Bridie and I once shared an ironic couples pass at a climbing gym post break-up and were feeling stronger in that sport, but we weren’t ready to demonstrate that in this real world magnitude. Still we pressed on taking turns throwing bags and the dog ahead of us and then scrambling up. Of course we couldn’t help but to take the opportunity for some topical humor exclaiming “DANG!” excessively as we struggled. Eventually we found ourselves on flat land and when we saw a family holding a fat wiener dog under one arm we knew we’d inadvertently done the most complicated part first, and the rest would be likely be more breezy if they’d come from that way.
Ding proved to be an ample reward for our hard work – beautiful, not inherently technical, and we were riding the high of accomplishment as we waded through dirty pools of water with no concern for our clammy feet and soaked shoes. The water reminded us of the garbage compactor from Star Wars and we speculated the dianoga monster was lying in wait to pull us under. Before we knew it, we’d reached the grove of Cottonwoods again and headed back out the washed up road.
We changed out of our wet clothes and sauteed some veggies and hot dogs. On the other burner we made some pesto pasta and mixed the whole lot together. I don’t know if it was actually delicious or it’s just that after a long day of strenuous activity anything seems like five-star cuisine. I had also felt that way the previous weekend with pasta palooza and in retrospect it was literally just a boatload of noodles. As it grew dimmer we made a fire and put on music. ‘Crowded Table’ by the High Women came on and their voices stirred together over the setting sun:
You can hold my hand
When you need to let go
I can be your mountain
When you’re feeling valley-low
I can be your streetlight
Showing you the way home
You can hold my hand
When you need to let go
We took turns giving each other foot rubs, an endeavor that sounds gross in practice but was quite sweet. Truly, there’s no ultimate act of love greater than touching someone’s filthy and waterlogged foot. “I wish I’d done this more,” I thought to myself. Maybe not that particular thing, but I wish I’d paid more attention. For moments I could have done something nice, completely of service and gratitude, showed my appreciation with gestures both small and large. I never knew love like I had with her, no matter where we were or what we did it was always an adventure. But with adventure comes risk and the ability to get hurt, and here we were. Hindsight is a ding-dang bitch.
It was too cloudy for stars but I felt like I could see them when I closed my eyes. The purples, blues, and greens of the milky way you can only see in places so remote where civilization is all but null and void. I took comfort simply knowing that they were there and slept easily after we retired for the evening.
The last day we simply wanted to hangout. No hiking, biking, canyoneering, or even driving away from camp required. We ate a breakfast of Udon noodles and after some coffee, I had to use our portable toilet. I lugged that loo to the top of a mound of dirt and took the most scenic shit of my life.
We put on our sneakers and went for a run. We hopped over cracked sand, down washes, over hills, and stopped to admire anything intriguing in our path. Nora trotted behind, seemingly content, or secretly plotting how she could return herself to the Humane Society and retire to being a lap dog. We moved intuitively without destination sidestepping sagebrush, thistle, and cacti. The air was cooler so we used our remaining wood to make a fire upon our return.
Bridie heated up some water and we peeled off our clothes. Even though we were leaving that day we were in need of a bitch bath, which consists of washing your pits & bits that occasionally need some attention whilst outdoors. We kept the flames going, gathering kindling that had been left by past tenants of the site. In addition we kept finding rollies, they were sandwiched in between and under rocks like a bizarre Easter Egg hunt for marijuana cigarettes. The day was slow and unattached to any plan – I did yoga, wrote, and plucked at my ukulele. The whole setup looked like an idealistic REI ad in which Bridie was ambling nude in the background like a fun ‘Where’s Waldo?’
We packed up and headed out around 4. Bridie let me drive out, my first time ever on such an undeveloped road. Really there should be emphasis on Bridie letting me drive, because I’m a historically terrible driver. When we finally got back to where I was staying around 8pm, we crashed. That morning as we had stood in nothing but our birthday suits Bridie looked out and spoke aloud: “I’m so glad I decided to stay.” I again chose not to question the fragility of such a declaration, still hoping it was fact.
I’m not good at writing conclusions – I never have been. This one is especially hard because I never wanted it to be anything besides “and they lived happily ever after.” A week later I’d watch her drive away from the home I’d just barely moved into, alone. I followed her tail lights until I couldn’t see them anymore. The Scamp bumbled behind her, my favorite home I’d ever lived in, and I knew I’d likely never see it again. Over the next few weeks the distance would do us no favors and for the first time since we actually broke up, it was real. It felt impossible to be grieving the loss of her all over again, and like I couldn’t do it. Yet somehow I kept waking up each day and getting through to the next.
I went down to the desert myself recently, armed with the cute idea that simply being there would expedite my healing. I packed up my car with every outdoor recreation toy I could fit and had this vision of all the countless bad ass things I would do in a day. Halfway through the week, I abandoned the idea that being among arches would be a catch-all for my woes and surrendered. I was exhausted, and I wanted to simply exist without exertion – so I did. And the desert held me like the great little emotional hammock that is it, and absorbed each and every tear into its vast sands.
Five days in the desert. It’s how I choose to remember us. Rather than weeping into the desert because I was sad, I cried to have memories so wonderful they evoke that kind of reaction. How lucky I was to have loved and lived that life at all. How hard to realize now it’s just time to learn from that. I still think of her often, but every day I grow a little more into myself too. On the nights I toss and turn, I dream feverishly of the desert and when I will return again. And I understand now more than ever, why the lone coyote cries at night.