Low clouds move with surreal speed along the cliffs above the Colorado River; they swirl, shapeshift, and from time to time, they seem to disappear altogether.
Day will come soon, but until then, the movement of the clouds brings unexpected shapes. Now, a monolith rock emerges from a landscape of slickrock from shifting clouds. Immediately, it reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki's rendition of a metallic, mechanical castle in Howl's Moving Castle.
I do not find comfort on a cold plateau in the dark, and I thrive in the pleasure of company. Solitude pulls at me, telling me to go home. It always has, and it always will.
My traveler's habits – trying to identify animals or learning to find an edible plant – keeps solitude at bay, and over the years I have added habits to my repertoire. But today on the Utah-Arizona border, it is mid-January; and the cold makes the desert north of the Grand Canyon barren. I can expend no habits to relieve the quiet.
Except one. It is something that happens to me in these sorts of situations. And I wonder if it happens to you too? That monolith rock above that canyon wall, I imagine it held up by four mechanical legs. Although clouds make it disappear, I see it walking in the dim light.
I imagine the machine much smaller than Howl's Moving Castle. More like an oversized vehicle, which fits a small crew. Legs, not wheels, because the isolated and rugged nature of these slickrock, scrub and canyon landscapes.
Arizona's Kaibab Plateau remains an isolated place. This region – the Arizona strip, or, Arizona north of the Colorado River, is an immense geography. But only 3,500 people live here; isolated from the rest of the states by the Grand Canyon. Winter isolates this region even more; the North Rim now lies covered in eight feet of snow. It is impenetrable. Even its animals march from the snow. North, to here.
Along a ledge, I can see dozens of desert cottontails. The way they seem oblivious to my presence is offsetting. I awake them, sure, but shouldn't they run away?
And that's why, these machines with their mechanical legs - they are bunny harvesters. You see, I tell myself, it's the future. And climate change favored a certain vegetation, and with an ecosystem out of whack, this brushy vegetation feeds too many rabbits, and they are everywhere.
The machines are called arks, I tell myself, and in a dystopian future, men cling to their machines, harvesting their last resource, a bounty of bunnies.
I walk along the canyon-top; the more detail I add to my science fiction, the more I enjoy the cold morning. In the first signs of light, a raven perches on a nearby rock, which hangs over the cliff wall. He sits there for a moment while the Colorado River is shrouded in cloud. When the clouds move away, he springs into the air. Up first, then a steep dive, and then up again, and then his wings go stiff and he glides a mile, maybe two, in a single, effortless movement.
Arks are as much a means of rabbit collection as an arguably unfounded fear of the subsequent rise of cougars, whose numbers rose on account of the rabbits.
Most women are confined to these long, cylindrical buildings to the south, where they spend their days perfecting various rabbit recipes. But some women ride arks; and they are known south of the rim as gauchettes.
I imagine that on the ridge to my left, the silhouette of a horse-rider appears, and she rides down toward the ark. As she rides, she unsheaths a club, and when she nears the machine, she whacks a single lick at its legs. And for reasons unknown to me, she collapses this machine, and it falls down into the Colorado River; its crew now lost.When I reach the car, it is only eight in the morning.
I had been thinking about driving the eighty-miles to Kanab, just to see if I could get a permit to Coyote Buttes North.
Getting a permit is unlikely. Only twenty people are allowed to visit Coyote Buttes North a day, and travelers from across the world vie for these permits. The area, part of the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, is one of the most unusual places in the world, and also incredibly fragile. The permitting system means a four month wait. Something about this weather, though, gives me a hunch.
I drive to Kanab in Utah, and stop in at the BLM station. "You've come to the wrong place," the ranger says. "but just so you know, I don't think people are able to get down there right now, House Rock Road is too muddy."
She sends me to the old ranger station in Kanab, where, it turns out, somebody had turned in their permit for tomorrow. "That's because nobody can get in," the ranger says. "With all this rain and snow, its real slick on the road. You need a high clearance vehicle, but even then?"
I decide to just buy the permit, even though we had walked out and looked at my rental truck, and decided it would be a bad idea to even consider taking it in that mud.
Then, possessing a permit I had wanted for years, I ask around about the possibility of a driver. "Betty," somebody tells me at the ranger station, and hands me a number.
The next day, I meet Betty in Page, Arizona. Betty walks with a cane. She has been driving people on rough roads for seventeen years. We agree that if at any point the road looks unsafe, we'll turn back.
On the way to the House Rock Road, she shows me a number of gullies, slot canyons, and desert roads which she says, "are virtually unknown."
In a dry future, I say to myself, these cracks in the Earth would house people – protection from wind, sun, and cougars.
We turn left onto House Rock Road. I've driven this road before several times before. Nothing out of the ordinary about it, as far as dirt roads go. But it becomes clear after a quarter mile that were I to have attempted this road on my own today, I'd already be stuck.
I realize: the mud is almost a foot thick. And the last set of truck tracks turn around right here.
Betty carries on, but it's clear that the the slick mud keeps veering us toward the edge of the road. "Like driving on ice," I say. But Betty says, "except that ice is predictable. Here you slide and then it just throws you a surprise."
My approach to questionable driving conditions has always been to take it slow. But Betty needs to maintain forward motion. On an uphill slope, losing momentum would mean sliding into the creek, a fifteen foot drop. So Betty moves at a fast clip. When we approach a hilltop, we can see the slick downhill beneath us. Betty has no choice but to keep moving. The downhill slope is nightmarish: I cling to the truck and brace myself for going over the ledge. Betty loses all traction with the tires, and they become like dull skis on ice.
Incredibly, she sails the truck down the road, and when we hit the bottom, we break through mud. We go through this sort of thing for four miles, and now I wonder, how do we get back? When we get to a creek, Betty says, "There's another way out." She is thinking the same thing as me. "Really?" I say, relieved. "Yeah, its longer, but it meets up with the 89A. Problem is, this creek is really running."
Betty decides to try the creek elsewhere. "Looks okay here," she says. "So, should we keep going?" she asks me. What do you say to that? Of course.
We ford the creek easily, but the next four miles to the trailhead only get worse. "Did I scare you?" Betty asks. But I can tell she's not comfortable with our situation either.
When we make it to the trailhead, I tell Betty that I'll try to be back by sundown. It dawns on me that Betty is handicapped – if the roads get worse, hiking out would be impossible.
This is when rain clouds envelop the valley and it begins to rain. Just a few years ago, about twenty percent of hikers wouldn't even find Coyote Buttes. But now the ranger station offers detailed instructions – eight pages of maps, photos, text and GPS coordinates.
It is only three miles to Coyote Buttes, but incredibly, it starts to rain and the dampness makes the ink on my instructions bleed. I follow them as clearly as I can – but the weather makes it hard to spot the landmarks I'm supposed to follow. To make up for the weather and my failing directions, I start dragging my foot deep in the sand to make a sort of notation for my direction. As I progress, I am confounded by the intricate slickrock wilderness I've just entered into. Buttes and gullies and hoodoos. But how do I find my way through all of this in this rain? I look at the map again, but by now it has completely bled itself unreadable.
I consider turning back, but I figure as long as I keep marking my way, I'll find my way back.
Soon, though, the sand gives way to slickrock, and while I can no longer make tracks, the geography starts to make sense. I realize too, that up here on the slickrock, I see occasional footsteps in pockets of sand. And from time to time, I'll notice a cairn. I pocket the directions, and walk.
The rain fails to relent, but I gain confidence. I note fresh coyote tracks, and jackrabbit tracks.
At a streambed, I note more tracks. Several coyotes had come here to drink water. And even mule deer. Among these, feline prints: bobcat.
Another mile and I know I am nearing Coyote Buttes. Another stream and more animal tracks. But here one print is deeper than the rest – cougar.
I walk up a sandy incline, now clearly able to follow footsteps from previous hikers.
Coyote Buttes is actually a large area, and it is administratively divided into two sections: this, the more famous North, and several miles south of here, the southern section, which many believe to be even more spectacular than this.
But walking into the 'Wave', the entrance to Coyote Buttes, is an experience like no other. This structure of yellow, red and orange sandstone is sculpted into shapes that are so brilliant, so strange, they seem unreal, unfit for this world.
Photographers have learned that within a two mile radius of the wave are countless subjects; pink sands, rocks sculpted into lace. Tracks of dinosaurs found embedded on exposed rock.
The rain picks up, and then a stiff blast – a single hurricane-force puff, blasts through the wave. I am pushed to my knees, and I yell in surprise!
But then the sky turns blue and a rainbow appears over a mesa, and all of the intricate and fragile glory of this place opens up. I look out over a landscape of rocks shaped like tents, of twisted forms, and I cannot stop but imagine this place as anything else but the backdrop for speculative drama. And just as soon, I see eight or nine arks crossing along slickrock cliffs.
Their crews live in perennial fear of cougars, which is why they do nearly everything within the confines of their machines. These people, isolated from survivors on the Grand Canyon's south rim, have little knowledge about the dawning civilization on that flat plateau. The two groups only confront one another (suspiciously) when the Colorado River dries up completely, and they can ford the mud at Lee's Ferry to trade honey and coal, and to recount common stories of hatred for the girl on the horse.
I promised myself to leave not one minute later than four-thirty, to guarantee light my entire walk back. I leave promptly, and walking back in good weather, I have none of my fears of getting lost. I am surrounded by my simple story; it keeps me company the entire way.
When I return to the truck, I realize how late it is. It has been dark for half hour. Betty breaks from her book. She had collected dozens of photos from her album for me to look at. While I look through her photos, we agree to exit House Rock Road to the south. Stars come out brightly, and in the clear night, we see a layer of clouds lit by moonlight a hundred miles south: it's snowing in the Grand Canyon.
When we reach the highway, Betty's cell phone beeps. "I have to call my friend before eight. Because if she doesn't hear from us by then, search and rescue come after us."
This is when I call my parents and tell them I am off the trail. When I hang up, I explain to Betty that this is my habit. "My parents embedded that in me in grade school. If they didn't hear from me, they called all my friends parents, looking for me!"
Betty, who must be fifty-five years old, says, "I didn't tell my mom where I was goin'."
Betty is the daughter of ranger-parents. She was raised in this setting while her parents moved through the Grand Canyon area. When her father passed away, she settled in a small town near Lee's Ferry with her aging mother. "This entire valley has only a population of about one hundred in the winter." She tells me about how electricity is generated, and water is collected from the Vermillion Cliffs area. "My sisters moved to civilization. But I like this land, it speaks to me."
When its clear we have good cell reception, Betty calls her friend. It turns out her mother is worried sick over her, and they had even called her sisters in Texas. "You better call your mother!" the woman says.
While we drive through the starry night, I hear Betty's mother on the other end. It turns out Betty didn't want her knowing she was taking clients on the mud roads in winter. When she hangs up, Betty slouches in the driver's seat and says, "My mother really chewed me out." Better than fiction, I think, and I say, "see! Always tell your mother where you're going!"