Wednesday, February 15, 2017

To Sky

Locals call it “ISKY” and pronounce it like it rhymes with “I fly." As if “sky” is a verb. To sky.

The paved road to Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park leads up to the top of the mesa. From this high point, the vastness of the canyons is awe-inspiring. The mesa is wedged between two great western rivers, the Green and the Colorado. Most visitors remain high on the overlooks. Yet, a half dozen trails plunge over the edge intercepting the White Rim Road, which winds 100 miles on a shelf between mesa top and canyon bottom. Popular with jeeps much of the year, one major access point to the White Rim Road is still closed due to snow. Do other hikers read “Road Closed” signs as “Welcome Hikers in Search of Quiet”? It’s my choice as a first solo overnight backpacking trip this season.
View from the rim.
Driving to the trailhead, the parking area for Mesa Arch is full of cars. Photographers stand around shoulder to shoulder to shoot the sunrise through the iconic arch scene featured on countless postcards and posters.

In contrast, only a few sets of footprints stretch out ahead of me on the Lathrop Trail. 
Snow along the mesa top amidst native grasses.
Soon enough the trail reaches the edge and appears to drop off into the abyss. Heights that make my head-spin until I look away and angle my wide-brimmed hat down low so that only the trail directly in front of me is visible. The calming mantra that I use to deal with fear of heights, “Left-right, don’t look down, left-right, don’t look down.”
Lathrop Trail pours over sheer Wingate cliff.
Time to just keep following the trail, soaring over the edge rather than contemplate falling. The trail itself is smartly constructed, steep but never sketchy.
Not as bad as it first appears.
I say my silent thanks to the NPS, trail builders and maintenance crews for keeping this trail feeling safe through such impossible terrain. Despite not having backpacked for two months, the weight of two days water and winter gear settles comfortably against my spine as the body remembers how to stay balanced and strong yet gentle on a steep descent. Perhaps the Washington PCT section K wasn’t as long ago as my head thinks it was.
Soon enough, it’s time to look back and marvel at the tops of the cliffs and the power of legs, and feel the joy of being alive and small in a place of towering sandstone.
Past the White Rim Road, the Lathrop becomes a jeep road on its path down to the Colorado River. Pools of water harbor caddisfly larvae, hidden in their self-made tubes of sand and stone.
Caddisfly larvae
A sign says cottonwood populations are in decline along the Colorado River due to invasive tamarisk and upstream dams. Apparently these gorgeous old trees aren’t being replaced by new seedlings. The NPS planted small cottonwoods protected by fencing and put up a sign to ask visitors to water them. Hopefully this will work because I can’t imagine a future without these gorgeous trees along the river corridor.
I startle a flock of birds and they fill the air with a sudden burst of energy.
Back up along the White Rim Road, the openness of this landscape invites exploration. Yet rambling is restricted by the sensitive nature of the cryptobiotic soil crust. Soil here is literally alive, the tendrils of cyanobacterial life holding the dirt in place and creating favorable conditions for moss, lichen, and plant life. So I resist the urge to tromp around freely unless sandy wash or rock present corridors through the crypto. Fortunately, continuous stretches of smooth flat White Rim outcrops form an alternative to the jeep road.
Air still and silent except for the echo of footfall on rocks, as I leap across cracks and crevices.
The cattle tank I get, but an ironing board? What use would smartly-pressed clothes have out here?
My permit for the “at-large” backpacking zone requires camping 1 mile from the road. A distance that at first seems reasonable until I reach the edge of the cliff and find I’m still only 0.7 miles as the crow flies from the road. Around the edge of the bend, my White Rim rock path meets a sandstone butte and the cliff falls away into the sky and vastness. I stop.
Looking for a camp
A raven swoops down so close that I duck. Then she circles back down below the rim between spires and jumbled boulders. I wait to see if she will come back, wondering if I should perhaps find a different place to be for the night, but she keeps circling down below me on currents. I stay.

Colors change as they do each evening. From this spot, feelings of awe wash over me. Pulling out topo maps, I can connect a few dots in the vast landscape of spires, mesas, and layers of canyon. The La Sals peek out behind taller cliffs, their warm pink snowy glow melting my heart. An overlook that I visited the previous evening with a new friend is just across the river. Anchors of familiarity providing comfort.
To connect the dots.
Colors that seem like the first time I’ve ever really seen them. Maybe it’s being alone with the expansiveness of these canyons. But maybe it’s finally not feeling lonely, because of these growing connection to these landscapes and the people I’ve me here. Maybe it’s falling for this place, as I seem to do every time I move.
To camp.
Temperatures plummit as the sun drops. By 6 PM, I am zipped up snug into sleeping bag. Watching stars come into focus, satellites traveling their arching paths, marveling at the quiet and absence of light pollution. Feeling supported by the ground and open to the sky.

The Lathrop Trail in Canyonlands National Park is 6.8 miles to the White Rim Road and 10.8 miles to the Colorado River. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight camping. Carry all your own water. Even if fresh surface water is present, leave this precious resource for the caddisfly larvae and other wildlife. January provided cool temperatures with bits of snow at higher elevations and complete solitude (no other people seen on this trip).

Monday, February 6, 2017

Moving adjustments

My eyes have trouble adapting to this new place. The verticalness of the rocks and seeing-forever views make my head spin. The palate of the landscape is shockingly red. How can there be this much red?
Where even the trees sometimes glow red
As it happens, I arrive on a snowy day and the sky is mostly grey. The dullness of the light makes the red rocks covered in snow seem less imposing, if that could be possible. I feel not so much overwhelmed by their massive size, but by the details that I don’t understand. What does each layer mean? Why are they shaped like this? Why are these ones all rounded and those ones more angular? None of this seemed important when I’ve visited here before. But now this is my new home and I have become responsible for this information.
Arriving the first day to my new home for the next few months
While the rocks appear to dominate, eyes soon learn to focus on the rustle of dead leaves quivering in the wind. If I were back in Montana or Georgia, I’d be able to recognize the plants by their bare twigs. The shriveled grey foliage would mean something and I’d be able to anticipate the rhythm of spring’s emergence. But here the unfamiliar shapes make my head spin too with the overwhelming amount of unknowns.

Trails take me to the cliffs above town, and I climb each of them one day to compare and triangulate. Map and compass reveal a geography of place, as I try to make sense of my new home. The house where I am staying is a tiny speck. The La Sals seem even more massive and give me that “I NEED to go there” feeling of longing. The formations spread out as I try to make out each one, find where it is and make sense of all the inbetween.

Then there is the news and changing political climate. At staff meeting, we are handed out copies of the Hatch Act and told not to discuss politics. Two days after I land an interview for an exciting summer job, the federal hiring freeze is announced. I walk around overwhelmed with nervousness, worried I will stay something wrong.
Sometimes the rocks turn sherbert
By the time the clouds roll out, I’ve been able to found a place of green refuge. Or at least it will become green, suggest the dried up tan, grey, and brown sticks and dried up leaves. Here lurk tiny hints of the familiar. My eyes are drawn to the humped ivory shapes of scale, a type of insect related to the aphids I used to study, clinging to twigs. Something familiar, exquisite, specks that feel like friends.
Tiny, beautiful scale (insects that looks like white blobs)
I meet someone who wants to be my friend. Those are even the words, “Let’s be friends!” So I let down my guard and confide and laugh. Only then do I realize how much energy it takes to feel such uncertainty and fear.

We drive around the morning after another fresh snowfall taking in the awe of it all. Exclaiming, “We live here!” Almost in disbelief. A hawk soars and then lands in a tree nearby. The clouds hang low in the canyons.
Animal tracks criss-cross the fresh snow, revealing life and activity that is hidden. My camera is full of photos of all the unfamiliar plants. How much of this will remain strange over the next few months, and how much will become like an old friend, familiar and well-loved?