Waking in the desert must be like waking just before the world began. Every detail is slate blue and the horizon blends so seamlessly with the pre-dawn sky that it is difficult to tell where earth ends and atmosphere begins. When the sun blooms from the bellies of distant canyons, the whole world comes to life in shades of red and green and yellow as color blocks against a matte blue sky.
Scrub jays announce the sun’s arrival in eerily human–like moans. Swallows begin their aerial acrobatics. Insects hum through the air and scuttle across the sand. All of this before 7:00 a.m.
The deeply pock marked landscape fills with light and shadow and my own perpendicular shadow reminds me that I am also a part of this. Like the feathered beings and crawling bodies, I too am there, in the midst of it all.
We heat up breakfast over the camp stove. I am recovering from a very bad cold or possibly the flu and I wheeze over and over again until my eyes water. We are starting the day slowly.
I am 23 now. An age that so many think of as so young, and yet it doesn’t feel like a real number at all to me. But to celebrate in the desert, skin against sand and wind and rock, it feels like arriving someplace I have spent my entire life traveling to. Perhaps 23 is the year of arrival.
However, the bustle and crowds in the warmer months always surprise me and leave me longing for a lonely landscape I have only read about. I wonder if I will ever know a desolate desert the way Edward Abbey did, or if I will only know the arid Utah earth behind a line of cars and nestled between overcrowded campsites.
Our first night, we spend close to three hours seeking a campsite among the hundreds that surround the short Moab stretch. Site after site is filled with tents and RVs. Some sort of motorcycle rally reserved nearly 300 spots for the long weekend. We stare through the windshield with tired eyes watching a hundred tough men and women in denim vests surround a massive bonfire. Music is blasting from some distant speaker and the air smells like an outhouse.
It is hard to pull back through the town and feel as though we have arrived at Disney World at peak season. Hotels are expensive, hostels are probably booked, so we take off on a dirt road near Canyonlands National Park, find a quiet spot, and stealth camp. We aren’t the only ones. A few other cars dot the dirt road and I worry in the middle of the night a park ranger will shoo us all away, or hand out a hefty fine.
But we wake in the morning undisturbed. The world slowly comes alive outside the tent. The sun heats mounds of juniper berries beneath their bushes and the air begins to smell of gin. I think of my grandfather whose favorite drink was a gin and tonic (sometimes without the tonic). He made this drink for me when I turned 21. A year before he would pass away from pancreatic cancer. Two years before I would find myself in the desert sniffing juniper berries and thinking of Pennsylvania summers.
We arrive in Canyonlands National Park by 8:30 a.m. and hit the trail by 9:00 a.m. We take to a quiet path that follows a handful of natural springs filled with cottonwoods and holly bushes. The quiet trickle of water echoes around the curved canyon walls. Near the spring heads, oak trees push out of the desert floor like some displaced piece of Appalachia. For a moment, I feel like I am standing in Pennsylvania forest.
Later in the day, J. teaches me to mountain bike on an easy trail outside of Moab. We drink warm beer out of metal cups and watch a storm blow over the horizon. My hair is dry and full of sand and I take pleasure in knowing I haven’t looked in the mirror in two days. I haven’t checked my phone for anything more than the time.
We manage a second night of stealth camping just off of 128 and head out for Fruita, Colorado the following morning. J. mountain bikes at Kokopelli and I walk an easy trail contemplating if I could bike it. A woman in her late forties named Buffy joins me while her husband hits a harder trail on his bike. She is a self described gypsy. She picks up a heart shaped rock off the trail and sticks it in her pocket.
“I collect heart rocks,” she says, laughing. “I have almost 300 of them. Whenever I find one, I know it’s the universe telling me I’m on the right path.”
We stop to look out on the Colorado River and she comments on how green the landscape is, how high the river has risen. The snowpack was adequate this year, unlike the previous season. She tells me the Native Americans rarely went into the valley here out of respect–it was a sacred place. I am not certain of her accuracy, but I find it an easy concept to believe in.
“But we don’t have any respect anymore,” she says.
We finish the trail, Buffy and her husband drive away in their van, and J. helps me complete the loop once by bike.
Later we hike the monument canyon trail in Colorado National Monument where the crowds are tapering off and the trails are relatively empty. We spot a painted lizard basking on a slab of sandstone. The prickly pear cacti are blooming in petals the color of pink flesh. We round a corner of the canyon and the town of Fruita disappears behind the earth. Monolithic slabs rise from the desert sand like obelisks. The turquoise sagebrush rolls across the landscape like a placid ocean.
Perhaps national parks are not the places to go to for solitude. Even this one step removed national monument is quieter than both Arches and Canyonlands. Later that night, we easily find a place to camp on BLM land along 18 Road. It feels calmer here. There aren’t frantic tourists seeking campsites, or hoards of RVs taking up space where tents could go. Everyone is spread out and speaking in muted voices.
We set up the tent in cheatgrass and watch the stars move across the sky, pointing and laughing as we piece together the few constellations we know. The peppery din from crickets and peepers hums across the fields. The only voices I hear are our own against the rustle of the tent over dry grass. We are a little drunk, quite content, and entirely present beneath the Colorado sky.