Of wilderness, the writer Edward Abbey (whose book Desert Solitaire focuses on Arches National Park) said, "the word itself is music. . . . We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination." This idea stays with me, a comfort; it reminds me that I am not irreparably stunned, because the wild places left on the earth still draw me. The places man has left only a small footprint upon, or even, rarely, not even the impression of a toe: those landscapes are where I long to go.
So when I got a coveted spot in the Moab Other Half marathon, I decided I needed to go to Arches National Park again. We went five years ago, the day after I finished my first year of teaching, before Kaleb came along.
That day we managed all of the easiest hikes in the park: broken, landscape, sand dune, turret, double, north and south windows, skyline, tunnel. But we had small ones with us (Nathan was only four then. Four! Not even five!), and my new hiking boots had made hamburger out of my feet (18 blisters!), and Kendell still had his bad hips. So we only saw Delicate Arch from the viewpoint, and left all the other trails, tantalizing though they were, for another day.
"Another day" finally came last weekend, when we had a day in Moab before my race. I’ve debated with myself for weeks about what, exactly, to do with that day. Hike in Canyonlands? (I’ve not been there yet.) Visit Dead Horse Point? Hike in Negro Bill canyon, or to Fisher Towers? Change the hotel reservation for just one night? Arches won out because I didn’t want to do any two-day hikes, which are the best ones in Canyonlands, and Dead Horse wouldn’t have taken the entire day, and the race went past Fisher Towers anyway. More, though: I wanted to stand under Delicate Arch. I wanted to feel, like I had five years ago, the definitive and individual spirit each arch has. I wanted to reconnect to my inner wilderness in a place that had given it to me before.
I wanted to revisit transcendence.
Our first hike was the one to Delicate Arch. We started sort of early; there were a few groups on the trail at the beginning, but not too many. Even though Kendell’s usually not one to stop for the scenic spots down short spur trails, we spent a few minutes admiring Wolfe’s Ranch,
thinking about the people who lived right in the middle of the beauty and the heat and the dryness. It made me think, as we started up the long ridge of slick rock at the beginning of the trail, about why it is I love the red desert landscape so much. Part of it comes, I think, from spending nearly every summer of my childhood in Lake Powell. Powell might be, in fact, my favorite place in the world. The red sandstone, the extreme contrast: dry desert heat, then sinking into water. The glassy smoothness, first thing in the morning. That feeling that fills me up when I am in the sandstone desert, a sort of sacredness.
But still: I’m grateful the landscape is not my usual one. The rarity of seeing it makes it more exceptional. Plus, it is hot there. I am grateful I never lived in that hot little cabin, and tried to grow food in the sandy soil, and had to drink out of the brackish creek. It is a hard country, demanding and unforgiving. Beautiful, awe inspiring. It asks everything from you, liquid and energy and skin. It asks for the flesh of your palms, kneecaps, shoulders. And then it rewards you: vista, stone, the fabulous architecture wind makes.
Aptly named, but not, either. Not delicate, exactly. A spirit that whispers about standing anyway.
We arrived too late to enjoy the arch with any sort of solitude there. A family with young children, a handful of photographers, one quiet hippy-esque sort of hiker; a large troupe of boy scouts and scattered couples. It almost felt like Disneyland. So I scooted/hiked/inched my way onto the other side of the arch,
where at least I couldn’t see the other people, and sat for a few minutes. I didn’t feel transcendent. But I did feel that sense of desert-is-home.
Between the Delicate Arch hike and our next destination, Devil’s Garden, U2's song "In God’s Country" started playing. (We had a bunch of random compilation CDs in the stereo.) God’s country: a perfect metaphor for the desert. On the surface, it seems like God’s country would be lush and easy, rolling hills and gentle, windy warmth. Maybe part of it is. But God’s country is, in my experience, demanding. He gives it to you, a mixed bag of beauty and trial, a trail to follow if you can. The destinations you work towards are always different, the heights and arches harder to reach than you thought.
You have to bring your own water.
Kendell wasn’t happy but I insisted on repeating that song until we got to the Devil’s Garden trail head. Got there along with 57% of the nation’s population, it seemed. We had to circle the lot four times before we found a parking spot, which wasn’t an auspicious start for the hike. Parking-lot anxiety meant I forgot to grab a few extra water bottles. And we’d forgotten our hiking hats. Still, we headed down the trail. Tunnel Arch
where last time, five years ago, we turned around. This part of the trail is easy: pebbled, and rolling, and wide. But after Landscape Arch, it changes. You immediately hike along the top of a sandstone fin,
following cairns to find your way. The trail takes you right past the now-broken Wall Arch (wish I had seen it before) (its remains are visible on the right middle edge of that photograph), and then, after scrambling, to a spur trail that takes you, alternately, to Navajo Arch
and Partition Arch, which is on the same fin as Landscape, just further north.
At each place, people were already there, and I still didn’t get the solitude I was craving. The people at Partition Arch were especially bothersome: talkative and happy and young, with their very young children, the group of friends still had that hopeful thing about them, which left me thoughtful as we hiked away. Plus, they never moved out of the arch, so I didn't get any good photos there.
The next part of the hike takes you along more sandstone and slickrock scrambles. One ridge we walked along had cracks in it, small enough to simply step over but still threatening enough that the altophobic hikers turned around. This was my favorite part of the hike, because of the height and the view.
In front of you is a canyon filled with fins, sandstone and shadow, a place I’d like to wander through. Once you're off the slickrock, the takes you to the Dark Arch overlook
(the arch-shaped shadow way behind and to the right of me is Dark Arch) but I wanted to leap off the trail and find my way down to it. Next, more fins, more scrambling, and then: Double O Arch, which is amazing—two arches, stacked on top of each other.
But also crowded.
We decided we wanted to see everything, so we headed up the trail to Dark Angel. I thought this was an arch, too, but it is a monolith, the remnant of an old fin.
The skeleton of a long-crumbled arch? I don’t know, but no one was on that trail, except for one man at the Dark Angel herself, who was preparing to leave when we arrived. Maybe we disturbed his solitude. I wanted to sit and admire, watch the hawks that were flying through the landscape, but Kendell had had it, plus: we were out of water in the camelback. So we headed back to Double Arch, where the trail splits. You can either go back the way you came, or you can take the Primitive Trail. After discussing our options, we went with the Primitive Trail. The ominous "difficult hiking" warning on the trail head sign might have spurred us on.
At first, the hiking wasn’t difficult. We wandered through sandy washes and along slickrock; there are unnamed arches here and there, and stone switchbacks that seem made by the earth just for convenience. Then the trail turns south, and the scrambling starts. That is why it is difficult hiking. The cairns lead you:
over, down, around; right into the center of that fin-filled landscape we saw before we got to Dark Arch. I tried taking pictures but they don’t capture it, the way you feel down in the crevice between two sandstone domes, skirting the side of a bowl with sandy water at the bottom, using your hands to steady yourself up the curve of a fin. Sandstone and shadow.
Of course, this part of the hike would have been much better with, you know, water. We were parched. And once we got out of the sandstone mazes, there was still a wide, sandy, hot desert meadow to cross. Shade was our most precious commodity, and we hiked, silent, tongues dry. And hiked. The crowds at Landscape Arch (where the Primitive Trail loops you back to) were gorgeous, because they meant we had less than a mile left till we could get water.
Back in the air-conditioned car, when lukewarm water had never tasted so good, I felt a sort of satisfied emptiness. It had been too crowded to really feel that transcendence, but I did feel the spirit of the arches. I did get to exhaust myself in the desert, to push myself, to scrape my knuckles on ancient stone. I bled a little, and left something of myself there, and took something with me, of God’s Country.