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Experiencing the Utah Desert

Heading to the desert is a craving for me, as the sun begins to return but the days are still filled with snow I start to crave the feel of sandstone under my fingers and the smell of new sage. This want for land that is both scrubbed clean and busy with life has been with me always, but until I met the desert I did not know what it was.

A misplaced feeling for someone growing up along the eastern seaboard I always associated my unrest with the bare trees of February and March. I translated this as anger at their starkness, how could I know I was craving something that I had never known.

Then after my first long winter in the southwest mountains of Colorado, a friend invited me to go for a hike in a near-by canyon in March. We were less than an hour from the five feet of snow that stood around our houses but in Sand Canyon I had soon tied my jacket around my waist and was letting the sun warm my forearms.

On that day in that canyon I understood what I had been longing for. And then, as if I had always known it I constantly craved the desert. Every day off  I would search out new spots where I could taste and touch the desert.

The desert of the Southwest is not a sandy one; this is not the Sahara or Gobi. Our desert is a dry place but not without life. It is filled with yucca and sage, mice and coyotes and much more. It is a busy place filled with life. But it is still a place of extremes. While it may be close to ninety in the mid-day sun it can drop to below freezing in the dark.

The animals, plants and people who make it their home have spent thousands of years learning to adapt and live together. Unlike the leveling of New England the Southwest could not be tamed, instead those who chose to live there had to learn to live with what the land gave them.

I will always be a guest in the desert, my need for it is seasonal. As the Vernal Equinox approaches I can feel it grow in my bones but once the ground thaws my focus shifts and the desert only seems a nice memory, a place I was as a tourist visiting but not seeing.

Then deep in the summer months when the desert is too hot for me I remember it again, if I did not visit that year, my longing returns in my dreams. But I dream of the desert of March not August and so I put the need aside letting it grow until the following winter when it will blossom in me earlier as if to give me time to plan better, to get my body out into the desert ‘or else’.

If you want to taste the desert I suggest going to Utah, to Moab and the surrounding area. Arches National Park is a good starting point, it is a little sterile with paved roads and guard rails in some places but the views of the naturally formed arches are beautiful. Try to catch Delicate Arch at sunset or by a full moon and walk one of the primitive trails.

For a longer, less populated trip I would suggest the slot canyons of the Eastern edge of the San Rafael Swell. Here you can camp on BLM near the entrance to one of a few different canyons. You can spend the day, usually alone, in the canyons among the sandstone walls and looking out on the layers of color that make up the reefs above. These canyons vary in sort, some are winding sandy paths that reach all the way through the Swell while others have sections so narrow that you can touch both walls and drops that have you scrambling over cliffs five or six feet high. Each one has its own beauty unlike another’s.

Remember the desert is a harsh place, you will need to bring water in with you and since it is hot and dry you should be drinking a lot of it. At the same time, flooding is a threat in the canyons. Make sure you know what the weather is going to be before you enter the canyon, flash floods do occur and when they do there is no place for you to go. Don’t be scared off but be cautious in canyon country.

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