West vol. 6: East of the sun, west of the moon

The Book Cliffs

Moab, Utah

21 November 2013

Dear fellow-travelers,

In the dream you might be a banker, or perhaps a thief – at one point, I was darting furtively through an enormous mansion, trying to replace a bronze wall clock I’d initially stolen and then had repaired – when the rooms and the figures you swim through plunge into a terrifying sound.  The ground shakes and hammers with the groan of a mountain falling, a tremendous shriek of wheels, and you jolt awake in the certain knowledge that you’re about to be crushed by a train.

The walls of the tent sway in the night, and on the other side of the grade crossing, an immense load of coal is grinding toward the lowlands.

With winter storm warnings for the road ahead, the fall is rounding to a close.  On the way here from Salt Lake City, nights cold enough to freeze my water bottles and ice my tent were interposed with days so powerfully sunny that the block of pepper jack cheese in my bear can wilted.  I would wake in the morning, shiver for the space of a breath as the sun rose to my left, and then walk the highwayside all day with the sun perched on the brim of my hat, just above my right eye.

At the gas station on the outskirts of Wellington, a long-time trucker pulled out her map of the state and pointed out the places I might look to camp on my way to Green River.  The old gas station at Woodside, the cashier agreed, would be just about perfect, and just the right distance, too, for the following night.

“It’s abandoned?  Just a gas station?”

“Well, there used to be a town there, too,” she said.  “You could put up your tent out back.”

Sundown on the Grand Army of the Republic Highway: trucks running northbound rattling like enormous lengths of chain across the desert, cold piercing stars, and far off on the skyline, the edge of the plateau.  It was getting too dark to be marching at headlights, and there was a break in the fence coming up, across the road.  I set down my cart and ran over to the sign by the cattle crossing.  Woodside Cemetery.  Ahead along the shoulder was the old gas station, looking gaunt and dismayed, still sporting outsized letters reading OPEN.  Behind it, a herd of empty mobile homes and camper tops straggled over a low rise, broken down on the way to the cemetery or broken down on the way out of it.  It looked like the perfect place to stumble into a late-night crime.

Farther down the dirt road was the perfect place to stumble into a ravine – the white desert crust broke away into thorns and a steep drop to a streambed.  On the other side, a path up a knoll looked more promising.  Maybe I could get out of the noise of the traffic for once, and find a flat place at the top to pitch my tent.

I picked my way up the path a little gingerly, not because the way was treacherous but because something I was stepping on sounded like broken glass.  On bending down, however, I could see strange dark straws sticking up from the ground, not quite vegetable but not plausibly mineral and certainly not glass.  I tapped one with my toe and it shattered.  Hmm.

Cresting the knoll, I found the wind cool on my face, the stars keen in heaven, and a startled, indignant llama.  Apparently it had been enjoying the breeze, the stars, the cozy flat place at the top, the quiet, all the little comforts deserved by a wild llama at the end of a long day, and I’d come bumbling in without even stopping to knock.

I was, I realized, acutely ignorant about llama etiquette.  I did recall something about spitting, and something about kicking, and something about powerful blows delivered with the neck, and I could also imagine, without too much of a stretch, something about strong front teeth, but that might only have been imagination playing tricks on me.  In any case, the creature was about my height and twice my weight, it had the high ground, it was there first, and there was more than enough desert for everybody down below.

I set up my tent beside the ravine, the llama standing vigilantly over me at the top of the hill, a silhouette among the constellations.

From where I am now, I had originally hoped to press on south or even southwest, deeper into the canyon country, into Arizona, and into the Navajo Nation.  This is not in the cards.  Coming through Monument Valley, the nearest town and the quickest return to an east-west road would be Kayenta, and from Kayenta to the edge of the reservation at Farmington is a desolate journey of five or six days, in the course of which I wouldn’t have permission to put up a tent – to walk, yes, but to sleep, no.  There’s a lot that I’m willing to try, but six days on the open desert without sleep is not high on the list.

Instead, I’m heading southeast into Colorado, up into the fog and the snow on my way to Durango.  The Rockies keep coming back, and the temperatures keep falling, but there are other seasons turning than the change from fall to winter.  The sun is ahead of me, just on my right, just over the edge of the canyon.


Next: West vol. 7: Watershed

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