Desert Southwest

Indian Paintbrush in the Colorado Plateau

Mesa to Canyon along the Colorado Plateau

Notes on my frantic road trip across the
dazzling desert plateaus of Utah and Arizona.

Above: Desert Indian paintbrush, Castilleja Angustifolia, on a steep slope overlooking Marble Canyon


left Los Angeles in the afternoon. I kept a copy of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness on the dashboard, and occasionally, I read passages. Conrad's madness interested me.

I played the Doors song, 'The End', which I often play when I am on the road. It is Marlon Brando's theme song from "Apocolypse Now", Coppola's adaptation of Heart of Darkness. During the course of the song, Martin Sheen, as Marlow, slays Marlon Brando; Mr. Kurtz. "The killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on He took a face from the ancient gallery And he walked on down the hall." Somehow, however, I felt that Conrad's novel had led the public into some wild misconception about madness; of being from people who lived in far away places, in the woods; of Kaczynkski and Jonestown and Waco and Wyoming.

I've seen people go mad. And they are no Mr. Kurtz. To me, it happens to ordinary city people, and it happens quietly. People live out their lives, going about their tasks, and one day they may even have a moment of consciousness. Their brain shuts down - part of it - as a way to protect themselves from their own miserable life. Madness, therefore, is a luxury; the ultimate prozac pill to free yourself from the misery of your own reality.

The traffic on the way to Las Vegas was maddening. Seven hours in what should have been four. But like every other Friday night, Los Angelenos are saying, "Hey I know, let's go to Las Vegas!" Someone else will invariably yell out, "Veigas Bei-bee!" I despise the strip for its oily-faced latesleepers who smell of sour milk, and the ching-ching-ching of the smoky casinos, and the purple carpets and the stale gasoline-smelling air that just kind of hangs there. And I despise that unimaginativeness in Angelenos who could go anywhere in a five hour drive: San Jose. Rosarito. Phoenix. But everytime, its "Oh I broke even" and "They fed us free beer all night" and "Veigas Bei-bee!"

Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Gulch

I sped through that wretched place, and stopped well past midnight in Mesquite, on the Arizona-Nevada border. I stayed in a quiet casino, and went for the bar.

A drunken chap stumbled in, and being that there were only two of us in the bar, we exchanged 'where are you from's?' and 'where are you going's?'

"Oh so you are off to do some climbing," he said.
"Sort of. Do you climb?"
"Oh yeah. I used to climb all the time. Moab. Moabi. Red Rock. Everywhere."
"You don't climb anymore?"
"I had to give up one or the other, drinking or climbing."
"Because I had some bad falls, almost killed myself."
"You mean you drank and climbed at the same time?"
"Fuck yeah. We all did. We grew up that way."
"So you chose to stick with drinking, huh?"

And he raised his glass, "Yeah, my friends still climb. John was climbing this cliff and he just passed out and it took two guys on the belet to hold him up."

"Why'd he pass out?"

"He was fuckin' crazy man; mixing pot and alcohol and other shit. Yeah, and my other climbing buddy was doing this ice face without ropes. He was all drugged out and he fell a hundred thirty feet and nearly broke every bone in his body."

"Did he live?"
"Yeah, he's living out of garbage cans in California just so he can climb all day."
"So why are you here?"
"My brother-in-law. I'm helping him out. He's a horse jockey. Little guy. We're on our way to a race."
"And all these people in this casino, are they from Utah too?"
"Yeah, most of them."
"And any mormons here?"

"About half of these people are mormons. They act all good and shit but they're just as bad as the rest of us." "And speaking of mormons, what happened last night?"

"Oh yeah, it was the geneology center in Salt Lake. Some schizophrenic seventy year old went berzerk and killed and wounded all these people. And the funny thing is, some guy drove all the way down from Alaska to bitch about how they fucked up his geneology records and the SWAT team blew a hole through his truck thinking he might be the man. You know what he said to the TV camera? 'I aint never come back to Salt Lake again!' But you know, Salt Lake gets a bad rap for this shit, man. We got the good outdoor stuff. L.A.'s got the good clubs and bars, but we got the good outdoors, and our women are twice as good looking."

"In Utah?"
"Yeah, man. Maybe its all the inbreeding, but I swear to god."
"Then what does it matter if our bars are better?"
"Yeah, I guess so."

I parted and in the morning I was driving through the northern tip of Arizona; this section was always my favorite from Jesse and my trips back and forth between California and Minnesota. One early morning, maybe 4:30 AM, I was half asleep in the passenger seat; I looked out and saw two beautiful long-tailed blue birds with intricate markings. "Jesse, look at those birds!" I said and fell back asleep. 40 miles later, at a rest stop, Jesse said, "Erik, hey you better come take a look at your grill." And there they were, two blue birds cropped - splatted maybe - in perfect harmony against my grill, wings still spread. We argued for some minutes about who would take them off. "Its your car!" "You were driving."

After a while, we found a 10 foot stick and scraped them off.plop, plop. Soon, I was in Zion Canyon; steep cliffs and deep canyons and twisted pines and rivers and striated buttes. It was - maybe - themost beautiful place I had ever been, ever. But I didn't stop.

The river Paria called, and I remember Conrad droning on about the lure of the Congo. I drove onpast the Coral Pink Sand dunes and into our newest national monument; the gigantic Grand-Staircase Escalante. The Grand Staircase is actually a term referring to the northern steps of the Colorado Plateau. Millions of years of heavy vegetation breathed the oxygen out of the air - suffocating the plants until they oxidized all the soils of the triassic into varying shades of red. The Colorado Plateau is an uplifted plain from Zion to the Rockies. Sedimentation from those red ages produced steps as the middle of the Plateau sunk under its own pressure.

The top step of the Plateau is Bryce Canyon. After that it's the pink cliffs and then the grey cliffs and then Zion Canyon and the white cliffs. After that it's the Vermillion Cliffs and the chocolate cliffs before, finally, the Grand Canyon. In the middle of all this chaos is the Paria River, at the heart of the Paria-Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness District of the Bureau of Land Management in association with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is managed by both Utah and Arizona. Really, it's a free-range cattle country, and from the road, doesn't look like much.

For some time however, I had looked at the topo-maps of the Colorado Plateau; following the long snake-like route of the Paria. Twisting, writhing and lashing until finally it settles and gives way to the Grand Canyon at Lee's Ferry in Glen Canyon.

I had read about it and studied the different types of lizards and rattlers and scorpions who thrived in it, and about the people who had died there; trapped in slot canyons to face a wall of flash flood water - 50 feet high, and how the cattle fell into its canyons, and drowned in its quicksand.

I drove on, miles from nowhere and when the land was scorched with toppled boulders and balancing hoodoos and mushroomed cliffs in pink and mustard and orange, Paria made itself known - a rather insubstantial trickle of a river. A creek really.


Antelope Canyon Photograph

Lower Antelope Canyon

Five miles from there and I pulled off on an unmarked red dirt road and followed it for an hour as it followed a valley floor; a hundred foot cloud of dust following in my trail. I stopped at a small clearing. 'Wire Pass', was written on the BLM post, so I knew I had landed. I read a passage from Conrad and marked it,

"Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you--smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage,and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.' This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as the be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam."

My backpack was heavy, my tripod and equipment bag were heavy too, and it was hot, blistering hot, and I walked down a desert wash, with cactuses and junipers rising above me, and as the floor descended the two miles toward a mess of rocks and cliffs, the insects thickened. Flying black beetles, moths, deer flies. Buzzing. Buzzing. And some crawled, like the lizards. In the stillness of the air, you didn't only see the lizards, you could hear them pulling their tails along the red sand. Thhhh. Thhhhhh. Thhhhhhh. In time, the wash narrowed until small ledges of red stone, sandwiched it, and soon the stone was overhead, a hundred feet overhead.

The temperature dropped by twenty degrees and it became dark. Soon, as I continued down this dark slot canyon, there was no direct light, only the amber cast of warm tones on the grey and pink walls. These walls became narrower, as I descended. Soon, I was removing my backpack and squeezing myself and equipment through, or walking sideways, tiptoeing. When the tight corners gave way, I found myself on a 10 foot ledge, and I said "Forget this." but the Canyon echoed back, "Forget this, forget this, forget this." And it made me think; well maybe there is a way back up that 10 foot wall? And I said, "Screw it." And the canyon echoed back and I threw my pack and followed with a jump and a fall. Oh the Sweet Paria.

I edged around another dark corner, now wearing my flashlight. I saw a giant log wedged between the canyon walls - 50 feet above me. That made me realize that I was now miles from escape. If it rained, even 50 miles from here, those same floods that crammed that tree 50 feet above me would come roaring down. In time, I crossed into the sunlight; a triangular trough and the convergence between the Wire Pass and the Gulch; the two slots that wind into the Paria. Although the convergence was enclosed by 200 foot cliffs, it was sunny here, and there were green trees.

I drank water on a grassy plateau, and entered the gulch. This slot descended to 500 feet under its cliffs, and it was narrow. Soon, there were patches of water. When they became impassable I took off my boots and waded through them at knee length. The water stank of dead animals, and was a sinewy brown, so I was glad to be on feet, however, began to sink, and I realized that this was the quicksand the rangers had warned about.

Soon, I was following him, and we ended up at a clearing in the desert. A Navajo man was standing there. The travel photographer paid my Navajo fee.

It was mild, and slow moving, so I was able to pull myself out with little problem, and continued on. The Buckskin Gulch was a beautiful slot canyon of changing colors and striated lines and waves.

I turned around in the early evening, tired and dreading the weight on my back. My nose was bleeding as I climbed back through the slot canyons. I stopped frequently for water, changing the angle of the pack on my back. 6 miles to the Wire Pass trailhead and I remembered Mr. Kurtz, dying, "The horror. The horror." Out of the bug-infested slots, I dropped on the sand, I had known I was unfit for this. "Experienced Canyoneers Only" said the outfitting guides. My nosebleed dripping in the sand.

But I also knew that I would do it, and I would make it. So I sat there, drinking water and chewing on my last bagel. When I returned to the jeep, there were two cars parked next to mine. Hikers were there drinking beer, and I talked with them about tripods and dust and then I was off, south, and then east along the edge of Utah's southern border, to Arizona, and across the Colorado River to Page, where I stayed overnight.

In the morning, I awoke well before the 5:45 alarm, and left for Navajo country, to the East, and made my way up some district roads to a small turnoff, with a view of Lake Powell to the North, and a vast expanse of nothing to the South. Here it was, Lower Antelope Canyon, the most notorious of the slots.


I parked along the road, there were no signs to indicate this was Antelope Canyon, but I could see the fissure in the distance. There was a red Jeep parked there, and a man reading a map. I knocked on his window and introduced myself. "It looks like the Navajo Guide decided to sleep in this morning," he said. "Its still early." We waited some time. I liked this man right away. He was a photographer in his 50's, had driven here from Georgia on a month-long trek across the West. We talked maps, and places, and then we saw a trail of red dust in the distance, the Navajo Guide driving across the sand in a blue truck.

We followed him a ways and introduced ourselves, paid him the fee, and he listened to the weather, and pointed to the fissure. We walked up to it; it was a one foot slit in the earth - and below, blackness. I said, "Where do we enter?" and the photographer said, "Obviously not here." A better inspection and I found a ladder hanging off the edge of the fissure. "Here it is," I said, looking into the darkness. "You first," said the photographer. He followed me in, and we descended. Lower Antelope Canyon was a wonder; although dark and cold, it was also a tangled display of contorted, smoothed rock angling in every direction; every foot a composition of anarchy, of thousands of years of flash floods.

We climbed its quarter mile length, walking parts, dropping or climbing others. In an hour, we were at the end. We stayed there for hours, and met up near the entrance. I said, "You want to do the Upper?" He said, "Absolutely." While he cleaned his gear by our Jeeps, I wandered the area, looking at desert wildflowers.

Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

"Thanks for all the tips on the Gulch," he said, and soon we were sitting in the open back of a truck as it pulled along a sand valley. The Navajo guide dropped us off at the Canyon entrance, chatted with us a while, and then left. Upper Antelope was much smaller - 150 meters, but it was beautiful. There were 4 or 5 photographers already in the canyon. Antelope, it seems, has become the landscape photographers ultimate exposure challenge. Half hour exposure times in dark variable light. A good testing ground, I guess.

In an hour, the Navajo guide returned for us, and shuttled us to our Jeeps, showing us pictures and talking about schools and cooking and canyons. I parted ways with the photographer, having spent hours talking about Utah and Oregon and Greece and the Virgin Islands, exchanging business cards, and I headed south along the Marble Cliffs, stopping at the Glen Canyon Navajo dam to look at jewelry for a friend. There were dozens of carved animals. "This one means eternal life" she said. "And this one is peace and lightness"

"And this one here is courage," she said, explaining Navajo religion.

I pointed to the turtle. "What does that one mean?"
"Nothing," she said.
"I'll take it."

I liked the Navajo people from my brief meetings, not because you are supposed to like Indians, but because they had that Midwestern joviality, and they were listeners, too, and seemed interested in other places and different people and liked to tell stories. When this Navajo lady tried to sell me jewelry with her knowledge of mysticism, I thought back about all those travel writers talking about Navajo spiritualism, and I couldn't help but get angry. I thought: They fell for the jewelry lady's bullshit. I crossed the Colorado on a grand bridge, and drove the way to Lee's Ferry; and hiked the confluence point of the Paria and the Colorado. Then I travelled on, to the Balancing Rocks, I hiked into a wide canyon, watching the vermillion cliffs shining in the afternoon light.

I heard a noise, like a droning city sound as I kneeled by a thicket of flowers. I looked up. In the absence of wind, it was the wingbeats of a raven echoing across the canyon. I continued along the Vermillion Cliffs, and drove up 6000 feet into the Kaibab Forest, overlooking the Grand Canyon and Bryce at the same time, and I hiked down a cliff, looking at cacti and Indian Paintbrush and gnarled pines. Soon, I was in Fredonia and at 5:30 the next morning, I was up and on my way to Zion Canyon, where I hiked the rocky mesas and plateaus after sunrise; traversing the lower portion of the checkerboard mesa, and into the canyon itself.

By evening, I was doing the last length of the 1348 miles and 29 hours of driving. It made no sense really; not my water temperature gauge or the 'Notes from the Road' or why my back wasn't sore. It was, at best, random, all this. People live out their lives, going about their tasks, and one day they may even have a moment of consciousness. Their brain shuts down - part of it - as a way to protect themselves against 'Melrose Place' at 9:00 PM and the alarm at 7:00 AM and the drone of the dishwasher, and their own misery and I knew that I was not mad. I drove into Manhattan Beach with its green grass, salt air, the smell of grilled food and the radio playing.

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