In March 2011, I got darn lucky. I was invited to work (sort of—more on that later) a hiking trip near the Little Rockies. A section of the Henry Mountains, they’re called the Little Rockies for their incredible steepness and generally rugged and remote mien. The mountains tower above some of the most complex, bendy-twisty, wild canyon systems in all of Utah.
Officially part of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, the canyons just below the Little Rockies snuggle right up against Lake Powell. After turning off the highway past Ticaboo, and onto a seriously confusing maze of dirt roads, my first thought was, Really? There’s a gorgeous hiking area filled with canyons and beauty out here? Because I don’t see it. Everything nearby appeared to be dry rolling hills covered with sagebrush and volcanic rock, and little else. But then we parked. And the canyon was there.
Sandstone ledges leapt downward: melon-colored slices of landscape covered with sand, scrub brush, chunks of crumbly rock. Layer upon layer of the millennia of deposit bulged out, one on top of another. Fins of sandstone swooped here and there. Natural arches sprang across chasms of air and light. Intriguing depressions in the rock invited speculation about ancient two-legged inhabitants or modern four-legged ones with fur. Pinnacles jutted into the sky, framed with breathtaking precision against the robin’s egg blue. The craggy folds and peaks of the Little Rockies pierced up above it all, stretching dark and isolated into the sky.
Wild, empty, so blessedly natural and untouched…I fell in love on first sight of the canyon we entered. It’s the sort of moment that distinctly reframes one’s definition of self: you are inescapably small and insignificant in the face of such a wilderness. And that is a wonderful thing.
I needed that reframing of self. The trip became singularly memorable for the area’s beauty as well as for some quiet inner chaos. I was in the process of redefining myself, wondering where the heck I was headed and if I did indeed know how to make the right choices about this thing called my life. I’d spent the winter spinning about in a maelstrom of questions, recriminations, anger, sadness, and sheer loss. I’d handed my personal power over to others with barely an eye blink. And I knew better! But knowing is different than knowing. These canyons nudged into my life to remind me that it really is just that: my life.
My professional role on this trip was somewhat hazy: basically, it was an extended interview on both sides. Did they want me? More importantly, did I want them? I was not a paying guest, yet neither was I a full-fledged staff. That was a tough spot for me. I am a guide. I’ve been a guide for years for many different companies. But on this trip, I wasn’t supposed to work my tail off…yet I also wasn’t supposed to lounge around like the real guests.
To be brutally honest, I didn’t want to work my tail off if I wasn’t getting paid. Sure, I helped out—definitely. I asked questions about the company, I watched their ways, I tried to parse their microcosm of community. Despite my like of and respect for the leader, an inner clique existed, orbited by a satellite staff member of sorts, then me. It felt a bit awkward, even uncomfortable. I’m one of those people who hates not understanding what’s going on or not knowing what to do or how to do it. But that was my reality on this trip, outside the usual guiding parameters. After so many years of being in charge, this was like going back to kindergarten. And I detest being the new girl.
Yet with each passing day, my gratitude for being in a landscape of unreal beauty grew exponentially in direct proportion to my uncomfortableness. We saw exactly one other party during our six days of wandering. Everything else was empty of people. We had the playground to ourselves.
The canyons below the Little Rockies wash on and on, rising and rolling and folding and crashing together. They create symmetry, dissonance, the vague terror of being lost and the incomparable joy of being found. Layers of color and texture form their essence: tangerine, buff, mauve, brick. Spiny, ragged, glass calm, pebbled. Hidden little slot canyons that run for ten feet, ledges that bank off at angled slopes, testing one’s equilibrium and shoe soles. Ancient hand and toe trails, pecked out by people long gone, scale near vertical cliffs like the child’s play it must have seemed for the nimble architects. Patches of numerous kinds of milk vetch pop out here and there, determined to open under the springtime sun.
One day, a startled bighorn sheep ram bolted crosswise down the trail just before us, leaving scattered rocks and open mouths in his terrified wake.
Another day, we stumbled across the hugest juniper tree any of us guides/not guides had ever seen. We marveled at its draping branches, the trunk so huge and invitingly sloped we could not help but to climb up and pose for photos. Ancient three-toed lizard tracks left in the rock led to comparison with our own feet. The dinosaur lizards won.
On yet another day, modern tiny lizards sluggish from the cold chased one another on our trail, pausing so we could snap admiring pictures.
The endless progression of sandstone waves out there was more than stunning. It was an obeisance to whatever god each of us believes in. We, in turn, were the acolytes of the wild as we tumbled across it, exploring and staring and climbing and laughing; always utterly tiny and insignificant against it all.
I ended up not working for that company, which felt like a very mixed blessing. The mixed part has history and baggage and pain. Naturally.
But the blessing?
The blessing is the gift of the wild canyons. They might be some of the wildest, lostest, unknown places left in this country. What a wondrous temple indeed, which so many have defended with passionate, raw, unfettered love. And the reminder to myself: that I am a guide, that these places are free for me or anyone to fiercely cherish, and that nothing and no one defines me unless I grant my concurrence. It was a powerful lesson for which I ended up being very thankful. Because as it turns out, it is a remarkable thing indeed to understand being miniscule in a huge space, to get lost and then found again, to realize my smallness in the grand scheme of it all.
I can’t wait to do it again soon.