Letting Go in the Desert

I skipped town for a few days last week. A local outdoor recreation group invited me to audit their canyoneering course and join them on their Utah field session, and of course I went, because it was a terrific excuse to sleep outside. Why I need an excuse, I don’t know. There’s a perfectly good patch of lawn outside my back door, but sleeping in the backyard just isn’t as inviting as putting up a tent on the outer reaches of nowhere, with no phone, no internet, and no facilities. Sleeping outside like that gives you permission to stop worrying about everything, because really, there’s nothing you can do about any of it when you’re miles from anywhere.

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I camped in the Utah desert on BLM land at the San Rafael Swell and it was wonderful. The air was fresher, the sleep was deeper, and the food was more savory. When the rain came at night, pounding the tent, I could hear the creek rumbling, tossing boulders about and scouring debris from nearby canyons. The roads flooded and the canyons filled with water and there was nothing I could do about any of it.

By morning the land was dry again, every raindrop soaked up by sand and porous rock, and the rest cached away, hidden from sight below the earth in plunge pools, punchbowls and slot canyons. It’s like that in the desert. The sun rose and I couldn’t stop it. Rays painted the sharp peaks and rounded domes of the swell with brilliant reds and deep creams and oranges and all I could do was watch it happen. That and drink tea, which I did, because it was all I could do.

Eventually I walked. I ventured for miles over slickrock to high vistas with views all around, and dabbled in a pool at the base of a grotto in a patch of sunlight that shone through a natural skylight eroded in the rock above.

I scrambled through shallow arroyos littered with puddles, remnants of the night’s deluge. Deep in a dry canyon I gazed down at dinosaur tracks and up at walls of sandstone glazed in desert varnish. I marveled at thousand-year-old pictographs, ancient art that symbolized something, but what? Who knows? There was nothing I could do about any of it but sit on a rock with the sun on my face, and smile. I ate watermelon out there in the desert, and the fresh cold fruit was sweet, so sweet.

Getting away like that makes everything better and I thought about that for a while. Is everything better outside? Was it the fresh air and the sunshine and the views, or was it something else?

I’m back here at work now and there’s a rainbow over Blodgett Peak. The rain’s hitting my window and the wind’s tossing the leaves about. I’m daydreaming about the desert and how peaceful that was. Here at work, and in my life, there is so very much to do and I’m working hard to organize it, manage it, and get it all done.

I can’t bring the desert back with me but maybe I can bring something else, something better. I can bring the peace of knowing there is so much going on in the world that I can’t do anything about. The wind and the rain outside my window, the rainbow over the peak, the leaves in the air, and even the birds staring back at me from the rooftops are all beyond my control. They don’t fit into my schedule or on my calendar and there’s nothing I can do about them.

Maybe that’s the secret to that feeling I get when I sleep outside, that blissful sense of rest and relief, and openness to experiencing everything more completely and without worry or distraction. Maybe everything was better out there in the desert because there was nothing I could do about any of it.

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This column first appeared in the October 12, 2016 Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

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