Marfa, Texas: Sunset, Moonrise

At sunset in this far west Texas town, it’s all gentle, cool breeze on your feet and face as you lay in a hammock and listen to the buzz of the Airstreams’ electric and the chirps of dogs in the distance.

“Where am I?” I ask, reeling as if time stopped.

I am in a Western town that’s been refurbished to suit the vintage needs of wealthy hipsters. I am staying at an upscale campground (perhaps the only one) called El Cosmico. The gift shop sells high-end Southwestern memorabilia. Once a week, the lobby is converted into a theatre. The night I arrive they play American Hustle.

In a day, I have driven, gotten an oil change, pitched my tent, and worked on plans with Claire to go to Florida in a few weeks. I left Albuquerque at 8:00 a.m. and pushed to get here, to spend a night in my first hipster campground—perhaps the USA’s first one. I am in far west Texas, Texas’s left cheek.

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When my grandmother Marian Manning left Lubbock, Texas to become a Brasfield with my grandad in Mississippi, she must have felt the sky shrink threefold. Here in the high desert we are at 4800 feet and the yet the sky is as big as in New Mexico—just not quite the vibrant blue I left in Albuquerque.

At El Cosmico, I am in a hammock for the first time since 2014 in Mexico. It’s a familiar, wonderful comfort–a reminder, somehow, that I am on my way home to Mississippi. I watch the sun set, accompanied not by friends but by a cool, comfortable solitude. It grows dark and the campground ignites the circuits of lights that loop through the trees above me.

I will shower, read what Mandi sent, and plan some stops in Florida. There is WiFi even from the hammock. In a minute. First, I borrow some Mexican time to watch the sun hide and the full moon come out.

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Denver: Expatriates

Driving into the Boulder/Denver metropolis, I have re-entered the Rockies: the same terrific range of peaks that divides the continent up in Montana, where I camped in Glacier National Park months ago. Colorado greets me each evening with stars and each day with partly-cloudy, mostly-sunny skies.

The people are vehemently proud of this place, yet none that I visit are native to it. I unearth upwards of ten former friends — junior high friends, college buddies, second-degree acquaintances — who have migrated here from the South and rural Midwest. They are all happy versions of themselves, surprised to hear from me, sending text messages full of happy faces and exclamation points. I pass a week in Boulder and Denver in the presence of unwarranted friendliness from these gracious millennials: I meet Sara Lin, an opera singer, for cookies at Boulder Baked. Sean gives me the rundown of downtown Denver, teaches me where to eat and take walks in the city. Kaleb pridefully tours me around his bookstore. I catch up with Alex from summer camp, who works in solar energy. Caleb and Lindsay,wearing scrubs, meet me at a vegan restaurant, where I eat yet another version of a breakfast burrito with green chiles. Caroline and I get coffee with her two dogs — she has just moved here from Jackson Hole, where I visited her in October.

My Denver hosts Katharine and her boyfriend Scott ended up here after growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, respectively. I hadn’t seen Katharine since college in Mississippi, and find that she is now a version of herself at peace, mentally free, doing a job she loves. Each morning, Scott makes her breakfast and reminds her to drink plenty of water. Working sales, Katharine doesn’t stop without a reminder from her cell phone: she has five a day that prompt her to eat. She still laughs a lot. Scott is a tennis pro; once he gets her out the door, he cleans up and picks up his tennis bag and goes out to help other busy people like Katharine.

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On their Valentine’s Day, they take me to Red Rocks Park, where an epic amphitheater is carved into the kind of formations I’ve followed here from Utah. Unlike in other states, where National Parks are havens away from the starkness of commerce, this park connects with a small town as if it were some everyday jogging park. Big name bands perform in this amphitheater. At all other times, it is a backdrop for celebrating the people you’re with.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Here is a winter bird-watching trick: park the car with the windows cracked, open a box of Cheezits, and wait. Examine the curves of the hardy trees, which slump like elderly islanders under the longtime protection of the heroic park rangers. Forget time and imagine the collisions that created this continent. When you come to, puzzled aerial creatures alight nearby on a fence sniffing the air for the source of the smells.

In October, I drove from east to west into the Rocky Mountains where they plow through Montana. Driving back into the Rockies from west to east, I creep into familiar shapes, smells, and colors. But with snow.


If Edward Abbey’s melodramatic predictions about tourism’s impact on national parks have not come to fruition in Arches National Park, they have in Rocky Mountain National Park — a place so popular that forty-one inches of snow later, hoards of four-wheel-drive vehicles park in its glacial trailheads and emit humans donning snowshoes and trick skis and crampons. I wear crampons, little spikes that I strap to the bottom of my boots. I trudge about 0.6 miles into each trail before backtracking. Even with the grip of the spikes underfoot, the snow is slick in places that have iced over or grown smooth under cross-country skis and snowshoes. I haven’t exactly reached nirvana, and it really shows when I put myself, alone, into these circumstances that require a new kind of monotonous physical exertion. I am more satisfied bird-watching on a log. Even Edward Abbey skipped town for the winter months.

At the trailheads, Coloradans emerge from cars carrying equipment. The winter wind pulls their skis and helmets out of their hands; they pick them up and keep going, laughing. The wind that struck me as so otherworldly atop Glacier National Park’s Grinnell Glacier is, to these athletic Coloradans, no miracle at all — it is the blessing of winter. It is as given as the sun and as crucial for the snow as water. They are blessed not by the constancy of mother nature’s abundance, but they ride instead the waves of lusty, wayward thrill. I watch them trudge, pull their bodies along the trails in their modern snowshoes, and I could swear that I derive all the same adventurous pleasure that they do.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

On a Monday morning, I skip showering and hit the trails. My skin is dry and I can’t bring myself to bathe when hats are in no short supply. I wear an Atlanta Braves baseball cap from my brother’s little league days.

I drive miles through canyons and spires and salt cliffs to Canyonlands National Park — a fee-free park in winter. The visitor’s center is boarded up. Yet each trail yields a hiker or two, mostly solo or in pairs, walking the wild lands. The earth is red, like at Arches, but it is carved up in endless fluctuations like South Dakota’s Badlands. Like Mordor.  There is an abundance of juniper and piñon pine.

I break my rule against driving after dark and stay through sunset, letting my eyes adjust to the richness of the starscape — notions written in a language I can pretend to understand. I return to the hostel and go to bed blessed behind my eyelids by visions of hikers’ silhouettes dotting the distant canyon rims.

Arches National Park, Utah

“There are the inevitable pious Midwesterners who climb a mile and a half under the desert sun to view Delicate Arch and find only God…, and the equally inevitable students of geology who look at the arch and see only Lyell and the uniformity of nature. You may therefore find proof for or against His existence. Suit yourself. You may see a symbol, a sign, a thing without meaning or a meaning which includes all things.

Much the same could be said of the tamarisk down in the canyon, of the blue-black raven croaking on the cliff, of your own body. The beauty of Delicate Arch explains nothing, for each thing in its way, when true to its own character, is equally beautiful.”

– Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 36

I am beginning to conceive of the American West as an ocean floor that rose up with a great quake and brushed the ocean off its shoulders.  Creatures began migrating in, first from the northwest, and second from the east. I’m part of the latter migration.

This time of year in this part of Utah, the temperatures top out in the thirties and forties, and the lows hover around zero. I miss the luxury of sleeping in my tent, but the first night in Moab I fall asleep at 9:00 and sleep for eleven hours.

The next morning, I meet Moab’s Arches National Park. In this funky, brilliant landscape you can imagine any origin story for earth. You would want your pet fish to live in a tank that looks like Arches–red rock spires and towers and arches and slabs. On the walls of pink rock, you can see the influence of water in its living, moving form. Rocks continue to change.

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Because of the same snowfall that kept me in Flagstaff for three days, I do not hike any long trails — Arches only has one long trail, anyway — but on one of the short ones, I chat with a middle aged couple inside a double-arch. They escaped Iowa’s caucuses, which took place two days prior, in favor of natural beauty. They had done the caucuses enough times. The husband had his knee replaced in 2015, like the man with whom I hiked to Grinnell Glacier in Montana’s Rockies (and like my mother).

A knee replacement, it would appear, is the bionic preventive for a mid-life crisis. It is a reminder of the freedom that comes with inhabiting a body in the America of today;  the side effect is a surge of adventurousness. When we get far enough from our everyday lives spent in uncomfortable positions, we realize how little we actually need to stretch our bodies: a set of crampons on the soles of our boots, perhaps, is enough to facilitate us giving our attention not to the fleeting emotion of politics and finance, but instead to the eternal nature of the crisp winter air circulating under the arches — to (in Abbey’s words) “…compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful — that which is full of wonder.”

You can read more about Edward Abbey’s ideological heritage in The New Yorker or in his books — I quite liked Desert Solitaire.

Utah: Fort Moab

“When I make it to Moab, I’ll get my canteen filled/
There’s nothing that the road cannot heal.”

– Conor Oberst, “Moab”

“I have called it a garden, and it is–a rock garden. Despite the great variety of living things to be found here, most of the surface of the land, at least three-quarters of it, is sand or sandstone, naked, monolithic, austere and unadorned as the sculpture of the moon. It is undoubtedly a desert place, clean, pure, totally useless, quite unprofitable.”

– Edward Abbey, writing about Arches National Park in Desert Solitaire, 29

In the southwest United States, there are towns with names like Surprise and Virgin. In southwest Utah, there is a national park called Zion. I never found out whether or not Mormons are responsible, but in Utah, to ask is almost redundant. Mormons are as much a part of the oral history as the ancient Pueblo people.

Zion National Park brings together landscapes of thick desert vegetation, enormous boulders, and red rock faces. The “scenic drive” is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, with the scenery rising directly above, encapsulating the car. I imagined the lion and the lamb sharing a space under a bush in the cool belly of the canyons.

Were the low temperatures not hovering around zero, I would camp in Zion — maybe stay for weeks. As it is, my destination is the Lazy Lizard Hostel in Moab, where a night on a bunk costs $11.00 plus tax.

Moab is a town in southeast Utah near the Colorado border. It lies along Highway 191, Moab’s section of which is lined with motels, in a state where the limit on draft beer’s alcohol content is 3.2% ABW (4.0% ABV).

All evening I drive north and then east from Zion on an interstate spotted with ice; but I arrive at the hostel unscathed thanks to luck, God, or dark matter. Inside, I absorb the scrappiness and joyless fatigue of the crowd — a handful of guys, thirty to sixty — in their aged puffy jackets. The front desk guy appears only when someone needs to check in — a sign printed on an office laserjet tells me to call him on the landline telephone. It rings, and he shows up.

In the living room, there is a TV, but it’s not turned on. In the evenings a guy named Chef Denali cooks dinner ($7 minimum donation). The regulars digest their food in various parts of the living room; after dinner some sip malt liquor and others browse the internet. One guy wears headphones and sits with his legs crossed and a tablet propped on his knee. He takes the earbuds out every few minutes to share some observation about the presidential race or about the crime show he’s watching. His audience shrugs and laughs.

I fix a peanut butter sandwich and eat it in their discomforting, quiet presence. I could or could not be the reason for it.

Soon, other tourists from England and California come in, and there’s more talking. I am the only woman, but the manners of my cohort couldn’t be less threatening. The English guy begins to talk about Salt Lake City, about the Mormon girl he met on Tinder there (“Just looking for someone to show me around”). Once someone mentions Mormons, the stories flow like wine — one guy who hasn’t said anything tells about “going back” for his sister’s wedding, of which he could only witness a part, having been excommunicated from the LDS church at eighteen.

Out back of the hostel, in tents and cabins, these guys hole up for winter. They will return to living under a bridge, or hitch-hike somewhere out of Moab, perhaps, come Spring. They are friendly enough, but they are not in the business of growing close to outsiders. They’ll answer questions, share their pizza and beer, and if you’re lucky they will tell you about growing up Mormon.

***

In the days that follow, I move through Moab imagining how everyone I meet is touched by the LDS church. I buy coffee, gas, the conservative draft beer, and groceries. I drive Highway 191 to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and take hiking advice from the park rangers. I begin to see the town as a macrocosm of the hostel: a fort between desert and mountains, whose defenses are the motels which take in the visitors and guard the locals from tourists’ volatility, so that one will never catch wind of the other.

The Grand Canyon: Veins

The Grand Canyon’s winter snowfall makes the downhill canyon hiking and camping absurd (or just adventurous and expensive), so the tourist mecca is mostly populated by elderly bucket listers, hardcore tourists, and those with poor timing. I am the last of these. But I am lucky: I never could have predicted the beauty of the desert in snow. I don’t believe I’d seen pictures of it before.

I have, rather, seen pictures of The Grand Canyon. Of course they don’t convey the experiential aspect; like when you try to stargaze after being in artificial light, you have to give your eyes some time to recalibrate in order to see a canyon after gazing on lots of mountains.

When I see the silhouette of a mountain range, the starkness against the sky sometimes inspires me to trace the shape of its upper edge with my finger. The Grand Canyon at sunset has more than one of these horizon lines. Its upper edge is flat, like the surface of a carton of ice cream right after you open it. Where the time-lapsed water carved canyons in the earth, there are the wild dips and waves inside the scoop. Those dips and turns along the bottom of the canyon absorb the sunlight and cast shadows of their own: a tertiary topographic line of shadows the size of castles in clean shapes so exquisite you could be sure that a human had something to do with them.

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A nature trail along the canyon rim exhibits chunks of the geological wonder excavated from those dips and spires and humps below. Walking the canyon rim along the “Trail of Time,” I touch the chunks of granite and dust the snow off of them. I cannot help but think that I, too, will one day be compressed into a vein in a rock; I imagine no more redemptive movement in the circle of life than to become a part of someone’s kitchen counter, in the room where everything important tends to happen.

***

The second day, I park my car and hop on the shuttle to ride to the edges of the park. I can’t hike without gear, so I am trying to make up for the lack of exercise by walking the flat rim trail all the way back in from the outskirts. I am the only rider; the driver tells me in a Southern accent that we will wait a few more minutes for other passengers.

They never show up, but I learn that this man and his wife live out of their RV, working seasonally for the National Park Service. He is a retired fireman, another in my now large Rolodex of public servants who could not leave society too soon.

“If I’d of known I could live this way,” he tells me, “I’d have never bought a house or any of it.”