I'm going to try to reach a wider audience with this thing, and I hope the stories I'll tell in the next few months will be worth it. The pretty new picture is me in the Painted Desert, on my first visit.
It's my last night in Golden. Suddenly everything is poignant; my last time walking by Clear Creek, last supper sitting on the deck watching the sun set on Green Mountain, last time driving in the dark with the lights of Denver in the distance. I'm suddenly regretful of leaving this town, and also of leaving my friends. It's a very nice testament to the good times I've had this summer that I feel sad about leaving. Most of all I've been very lucky to have met some very nice people in such a short time, and to have had company for so many of the things I wanted to do this summer; hiking, learning to dance, even tubing. Yes! From the first day I strolled through downtown Golden and saw people on the creek I wanted to go tubing, and I finally did, yesterday. My butt is covered in bruises from encounters with the rocks. It was tremendous fun, and there will be pictures, eventually, once they are rescued from the disposable camera.
I have no pictures for you right now. I also don't have much to say; I'm very aware that soon there will be no more dancing, or seeing friends at all, and no more bed, no more refrigerator with a pound of ground beef and a cold beer in it for supper. But I do have a booking for a helicopter tour of Glacier on Saturday, and at the end of the month I am going to be picking Katie up and we will travel together through October.
I have an unusual thing for the rest of this blog entry, which is an excerpt from an essay I wrote once about backpacking in the Painted Desert. It's by way of apology for the lack of pictures in this post, and also because I only ever include one kind of writing in this blog anymore, and that's a sort of matter-of-fact reportage I dash off without editing, knowing I'd never get it done otherwise. Below, for the interested, is a story that is actually composed.
I don't know when I'll blog again or from where. I hope to have an entry up every week. To my readers, new and old, please leave your comments! I will be lonely. There are some different options that blogger offers when you click on the comments link, including posting anonymously, which is fine. Just lend me your words and the memory of your company for a little while.
I’m at a place called Chinde Mesa. There's not much here except sunlight, and it's hot. I've been hiking since eight AM, already climbed to the top of one 6,000-foot hill, and right now my feet are heavy and swollen. I'm going to rest here, despite the fact that this will be the first time I've settled for a shadeless spot all trip. But there's no shade anywhere at Chinde Mesa, not at two o'clock in the afternoon.
I don't know exactly where I am, but I know I'm close to the border of the Navajo Nation. I'm not sure what I'll see when I scale the last few hundred feet. Cattle? Green in the distance, or just more desert?
In front of me, five miles to the south, is the volcanic-capped mesa from which tourists are taking pictures of the Painted Desert through their car windows. I can't see the cars. I can't see the road or the Painted Desert Inn or the low, boxy 1950s apartments where the park volunteers live. But the mesa is clear as day, a black and green bluff thrusting out of the nothing. And it looks small from here.
At this point I realize I'm going to do something uncharacteristic. I am shortly going to get up and head back down to my pack. I am not going to keep slogging through the sand to the very highest point on the mesa. Exhaustion has beaten the ambition out of me. Last night I descended into the badlands with ten pounds of equipment and thirty pounds of water on my back, and now the water is hot, half-gone and heavier than ever. I haven't been able to walk for more than two hours at a time today without needing to stop for a significant rest. I've been lucky—-the temperature has only been in the low 90s—-but late June in Arizona is before the monsoons arrive, and there hasn't been a cloud in the sky all day.
I'm taking this last weekend before the rains hit to backpack through the wilderness of Petrified Forest National Park, my summer employer and also one of the most understatedly beautiful places I've ever been. Since I first saw it three months ago on a school field trip, I've been dead set on getting out where I am right now. The Painted Desert actually stretches 160 miles from the Petrified Forest to the eastern Grand Canyon. It's an alien landscape of mesas, hoodoos, distinctively rounded hills and dry river valleys with very little vegetation. This is what the badlands are; there weren't a lot of things native peoples and early explorers agreed on, but one of them was that these places were good for no kind of hunting, farming or homesteading and were hellish to travel across. Plants can't get a toehold on the steep clay that cracks in the sun most of the year and swells and sloughs off its skin in the July rainstorms.
As I approached Chinde Mesa I saw a little pile of broken bone nearly the color of the clay at my feet. It was an armor plate of an aetosaur. This creature, something like a vegetarian crocodile, had died two hundred million years ago, rotted or been consumed, and had its bones separated in the tumble of the river. One plate had fetched up where I stood. When the land eroded in recent times, the plate neared the surface, where the clay around it was shrinking and swelling and cracking under assault of the weather. The bone burst with it. Now there it was, a pile of pitted fragments at the surface. In another hundred years it would be dust. I may be the only human being ever to see it.
There's so much purple here. And orange. They blanket each other in horizontal layers, bordered by red and white and blue bands; from a distance the crumbly popcorn clay surface looks like dyed velvet. I couldn't keep from taking pictures as I approached. I took a hundred pictures, knowing none of them will be any good because the sun was above me and the light was even harsher than the landscape. Then I got ready to climb.
I had to leave my backpack in the full sun, where inside it, the only water for miles around is now getting warmer by degrees in its five-gallon plastic bag. The bag with a hole I discovered the first night. I lay my pack on the red ground and tried to adjust it so the hole was still at the top, where no water would drain out of it. I got past the first, easy bit and the real climb began, dry clods of clay skittering down the slope into the thirty-foot gullies either side of the ridge. I knew that if I followed them, most likely I'd end up with enough bruises to have me gritting my teeth weeks ahead. But there’s also a chance I'd slide wrong and strain or even break something, and I wouldn't be able to walk out by myself. And I would hate that more than anything.
So I told myself I wasn’t allowed to fall, and when I finally looked up the slope had eased off and I was trudging up through the loose sand on the top of the mesa, heading for the summit. And that was when I sat down. Because I realized I am truly exhausted. Not the exhaustion of a long day at work or five-mile run a or even a day hike up a mountain. I am beyond being exhausted in my bones. I am exhausted in my cells. I am exhausted in my mitochondria. All the food I managed to shove down last night and this morning is not enough, the steaming water I'm constantly forcing down is not enough.
Maybe it's the heat. Maybe the sun itself is exhausting me. Maybe it's the fact that although I've only walked six miles today as the crow flies, in reality it was more like twelve, because the badlands don't allow a person to walk in anything like a straight line. There was no even ground and nowhere is flat. But there is a thin shred of cloud coming in now from the north, over the mesa, miraculously, and suddenly there's a breeze, for a few seconds. The wind gets in around the buttons of my old collared shirt, and for the first time in hours I'm comfortable. I have to get down and go back home. I know I won't make it in until sometime tomorrow. Tonight I have to walk another six hours and set up camp again.
I want to share this place and I want to keep it all to myself. I want to live here, raise a hogan of dead junipers, eat purple and drink silence. But there are people who would miss me. Sometimes the great virtue of having friends, I think, is to ensure I come back from the wilderness.