Jinn of the Canyons -- Arizona, Utah, and California

November 16-28, 2008

Earth shadow over the Grand Canyon and the distant expanse of the Painted Desert and the Navajo Nation.

 

Back in the 90's we were exploring the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, backpacking out to various remote viewpoints (carrying water) and spending the night to witness the magical interplay of light and shadow as the as the sun dips over the horizon. One place we discovered back then was a pinnacle of rock accessible by a cross-country route off the Nankoweep trail. This unnamed spire (far left in the panorama above), is reached by crossing an exposed rock bridge leading off the edge of the rim. We made our way out there and found the perfect air chair -- a slab of sandstone cantilevered over the abyss. We had the feeling that we were the first ones ever to witness this particular view, staring into the depths while huge thunderclouds rolled over our heads. (Later, we were nearly struck by lightning as the storm passed overhead, but that's another story.) At that moment, Liza turned around and noticed this plaque mounted on the outward edge of our slab: Jinn of All the Canyons...

This year, with surprisingly mild weather for mid-November at the 8-9,000' elevation on the North Rim, we determined to revisit the place we have since called Lois Webster Point. At the backcountry ranger office we met a kindred spirit, a ranger who had just returned from hiking the rough Nankoweep route two days earlier. David was one of a very few people we've met over the years who has hiked another of our favorite regions -- the remote Tuckup Trail on the esplanade in the far west of Grand Canyon's north rim. We talked for an hour or two and listened to tales of packing in three gallons of water, later running so low on this precious commodity that he rappelled down a sheer cliff into a side canyon to fill up his water bottles from a deep spring. He said that November (and often later in the winter too) was one of the primo times for hiking the Canyon due to the cool temps and uncrowded trails.

With permit in hand, we loaded up our packs and made the five mile trek out to Webster Point, hiking through a huge forest burn area from a fire that swept the rim in 2006. Eventually we found the rock bridge, climbed to the apex of the flat-topped pinnacle, and set up our tent as we settled in for the evening. Sitting once again on our air chair with a stupendous sunset overhead and a strange feeling that we were flying over the canyons, we re-read the words engraved on this rock. It brought tears to our eyes as we contemplated the transitory nature of this life we live. We are still wondering who was this Lois person...

 

 

 
 

Long eared jack rabbits are ubiquitous, bounding through the scrub on long hind legs. Lizards are everywhere. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of a cute little kangaroo rat flitting through our campsite in the darkness, searching for food as we sit transfixed by the firelight. At night and in the early morning hours, we hear coyotes howling from distant arroyos. But by and large, except for birds, animal sightings are a rare occurrence in our desert wanderings. It would be easy to believe we are alone in the wilderness.

But the sand tells a different story. Here is a vast tableau of the myriad animals unseen but on the move all around us. In the morning, the sandy trail we walked the previous day is covered over with animal tracks, a window into an invisible world of creatures that share our time in the desert.

 

 

 

Friday, November 21st. It's the third morning in a row we have waited anxiously at the BLM office in Kanab for a permit to visit THE WAVE, a now-world-famous sculpted rock playground in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, over a hundred thousand acres of remote buttes, slot canyons, and vast expanses of sandstone on the border of Utah and Arizona. To protect its fragile formations, only twenty people are allowed visit each day. Ten permits have already been won by folks who can plan three months in advance, and are lucky enough to beat the 10:1 odds in the mail-in lottery. We are trying to win two of ten walk-in permits that will be issued today, and there is an unexpected crowd of at least twenty eager hikers, waiting when we arrive. On our first try we have only one chance -- one numbered ball spinning in the wire cage. We lose. Second day, as tension mounts in the room, folks who have traveled many miles for this unique hiking opportunity chatter in German, Japanese and clipped English. What international guidebook sends them to the middle of nowhere? We have two chances, our two numbered balls are tumbling in the cage and...we lose again. Today, our third and final try, we have three chances and...Woo hoo! We win two permits for Saturday!

We hike out to the Coyote Buttes and spend a full day wandering about The Wave and nearby formations, hiking up and over crazily folded sandstone formations, like stretched and pulled taffy that has frozen in time, watching the colors change and mellow as the sun dips below the horizon. What a spectacular sandstone wonderland!

 

 

 
We spend the final days of our two-month journey at California's Mojave National Preserve, enjoying time with our good friends Andy and Carol in their very cool land yacht...mighty comfy! We share stories of our travels, and reflect on the value of solitude, wild places, and the unsolved mysteries of these magic lands.
 
 

 

 

 

As I reflect on the last two months, my mind is full of amazing images. Brilliant red sandstone or the muted greens of a pencil cholla, the incredible smell of sage released by a light smattering of rain, the vast expanses, mind-bending vistas that calm my mind, the crazy, yipping calls of distant coyotes at dawn, and the silence of a still evening, an all pervasive stillness that envelopes and soothes me. I remember and yearn for nights by the campfire, listening to cedar and juniper logs crackle and pop, my knees roasting as the warmth of the fire makes it possible stay out as the nights get colder and colder. A crescent moon ever so slowly dipping below the horizon, first a glowing parenthesis, then a comma, finally just a dot, with Venus shining like a beacon just above. The Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon, masses of stars like tentacles stretching from its center. I finally understand why it is called "milky" -- there are so many stars a smudge of white fills the sky.

 

But we've witnessed another side of life in the southwest, a darker, sometimes sinister side. In Saint George, a front page article describes gun sales skyrocketing following the election, as locals fear tighter restrictions on their right to bear arms. The Guns and Diamonds pawnshop advertises an "Obama Special" -- a .50-caliber sniper rifle for $5,995 -- that makes me shudder in disgust and boil with anger. At Hovenweep National Monument we settle into our bags for the night and a low drumming, a deep continuous booming reverberates through our bodies. We ask the ranger about it the next morning and discover it is the sound of natural gas being pumped from underground caverns at the border of the park. On election day, BLM offers up 375,000 acres for oil and gas exploration, including lands next to Arches, Canyonlands, and at Nine Mile Canyon, one of the finest petroglyph panels in the southwest, often called the world's longest art gallery. At the laundromat in Bluff, I read with dismay the notice offering free testing for health effects from Uranium mining, the aftermath of the Colorado plateau's Uranium boom.

We gawk at a family visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The three women are wearing long, Little House on the Prairie powder blue frocks, their never-cut hair poofed up in front and elaborately braided down their backs, two are pregnant. Their ten kids race excitedly to the edge of the canyon, as their lone father ushers them along. A lighted plastic sign at a corner church beckons: Sinners Welcome! The neighborhood store offers all the party essentials: Beer, Bait and Ammo. The enormous Fire Rock Casino, the Navajo Nation's first, opens in Gallup as we drive westward, heading home. We make solid plans to miss next year's Easter Jeep Rally in Moab, where 30,000 off-road crazies will have nine solid days of fun ripping through the desert.

 

 

Ravens are our constant companions, roosting on signposts, hanging out in campgrounds, flying through remote canyons. We delight in their antics and admire their craftiness. At Buckskin Gulch, we hear the slow whoosh-whoosh of a lone Raven's wingbeats and look up to see him flying twenty feet overhead, through the narrow slot canyon. A group of six chase their shadows across the sandstone walls towering high above Chaco's kivas. Two daredevils peel off, ducking behind a huge block cracking away from the wall, barely scraping through the narrow crevice. Later that day, we are warned not to leave our tent up when we are away from the campground...Ravens might tear it open in search of treats. After an afternoon exploring geysers at Yellowstone, we see a pair of bandits break into a soft top jeep, pulling open zippers, ripping into grocery bags. Getting ready for the hike at The Wave , I hear a rapping, a gentle tapping, and Mark says: "'Tis the wind, and nothing more"... but indeed, Ravens are trying to break in through the window molding of the car next door. They destroy windshield wipers at Canyonlands, tormenting tourists. Ed Abbey would be pleased. The Raven, playful and joyful, mischievous and wicked, beautiful but somehow ominous, our desert mascot.