After attending the Writing About Testing conference in Durango (which you can read about here), I spent a few days in the desert canyons of Utah. Finishing a masters degree, presenting at PNSQC, getting a new job and moving to a different hemisphere have all taken their toll. Thus, my challenge was to clear all the shit out of my head that’s been accumulating for the past 12 months.
I started out with a pack full of “stuff” I thought I would need to survive in the desert. The picture to the left shows me as I’m hiking down into the canyon. I’ve only ever backpacked in mountainous environments, such as the Appalachian mountains of the Eastern U.S., where there are plenty of streams and water is never a problem. This time, I was hiking in a place where the environment is so harsh and water is so scarce, it is all but inaccessible for 2/3 of the year. Thus, I filled up my pack with lots of water and the “stuff,” intent on keeping nature at bay.
The area of Utah I visited was formerly inhabited by a native american tribe called the Anasazi. From what archaeologists can tell, the Anasazi were able to thrive for quite a while in a place modern-day humans would call un-liveable.
For the first couple of days, I was very careful not to get my stuff too dirty. I was worried about getting my camping equipment through customs in Sydney because they are strict about camping equipment being clean on re-entry. As we hiked on, however, I quit caring and began to let the sand of the desert into my boots and quiet of the desert into my head.
The canyons were full of ruins and rock art. The Anasazi are long gone, but the dry desert air has preserved many of their dwellings and art. My host, Chris McMahon, calls it, “the museum of experience.” We were able to walk right up to the art and look through the dirt for pottery shards (which we left in place). I put myself in the shoes of an Anasazi artist as I sketched the figures I saw carved and painted on the sandstone walls.
The art in this desert was not on a canvas and because its creators are so long gone, there is no way to know exactly why it exists. The Hopi, who are alive, believe they are descendents of the Anasazi so they probably have some very good ideas, but there will probably never be solid answers about the creation history of this art. I love that. Because I love questioning and imagining, I made up a thousand stories for every painting I saw. I devoured every paint stroke and compared to every other paint stroke I saw. If the wind blew while I was looking at a painting, I questioned the direction in which it was blowing and whether or not the painter felt the wind coming down the canyon the same way I was feeling it as I observed the results of their labor.
One way to get a more intimate connection with any piece of art is to find your own way of reproducing or re-interpreting it. I took a small sketchbook with me and sketched out a ruin and some of the paintings. I’ve also sketched a few more paintings from photographs my husband and I took. Although the Anasazi paintings are quite ancient, I found figures that were well-drawn by a practiced hand. “I don’t know who you were, but you did some good work here,” I found myself whispering as my eyes looked over the figure you see in the photograph below.
As I immersed myself in the evidence of an ancient culture, I began letting go of the present. My mind began to wander past the 140 character restrictions of my everyday life and the ruins of my own existence. As my thinking shifted, my physical needs changed as well.
By the third day, I had taken anything I hadn’t yet used or worn and sheepishly stuffed it into the bottom half of my pack. Why did I bring 2 pairs of pants? I guess I thought the desert would be cold (ha ha). I also didn’t need my rain jacket. There were some other items I also didn’t need and they were much on my mind as I dragged it all on my back through the heat and the sand.
My husband and I were going through a similar dilemma with our tent. On night one, we set up the tent and the rainfly we had brought. The second night, we ditched the rainfly because it was hot, even at night. On our third and last night we finally came to our senses and slept outside, not even bothering to pitch the tent.
I’ve always had a fear of night creatures when I’m camping. I have heard bears and mountain lions growl at night. On one trip, an animal brushed against our tent and I couldn’t go to sleep afterward. Outside, in the canyon, I lay awake in my sleeping bag, watching the light cast by the moon on the canyon wall across from our campsite. I thought about why my fear had vanished.
Aside from the environment itself, there is nothing to fear in the desert. Everything except for the animals small enough to subsist on the bare minimum of water has already fled. I had succeeded in leaving all of my anxieties about nocturnal predators and life itself behind. I went to sleep in the light of the moon, picturing the motion of hands making brush strokes over warm sandstone.
We hiked out the next morning. We had been hiking through sand for most of our trip, and my feet were relieved to finally feel the earth pushing back against them. As we ascended out of the canyon, thoughts about work and “real life” began to come back. I made peace with them as we drove away from the wilderness area.
This trip allowed me to gather my strength, and I felt fearless as I left the desert. It was the same feeling I’ve had before when I’ve ascended from a cave on a rope. Once you’ve crawled out of a 90 foot pit with nothing holding you up except for a rope, priorities shift and you remember what you really care about in life. The same holds true for slogging through mile after sandy mile in Grand Gulch. Fear has departed.