Sacred places: Utah’s canyon country

IMG_20131130_105913Every one of us has a sacred place somewhere. I believe there is a physical place on this earth that occupies an unsullied space in each of our lives, where we retreat when we are in need of respite. This is not a “happy place” per se; it is instead a powerful place, forcing us into a state of retrospection, introspection, and an openness of spirit.

For me, that place is the canyon country of southeastern Utah.

There is something about the mesas, towers, and gaping expanses of this place that speaks to me, draws me in and holds me willing captive. We go there on the pretense of climbing, but what I feel is far more than the cold sandstone against my skin, the hollow breeze whispering in my ear, or the echoing cries of coyotes in the night wind.

My memories of this place stack on top of one another in a multifaceted tapestry of joy, sadness, triumph, pain, curiosity, fear and healing. There is a rawness here that envelops me, leaves me exposed to both memory and discovery. This place has its own voice, and it calls to me from open country.

Part of the allure of the Utah desert is that where we usually camp–world-renowned Indian Creek recreation area near the Canyonlands National Park Needles entrance–is a half hour drive from the nearest town and lacks cell reception. It is so rare that I get to unplug for days on end, and the Creek forces me to take a temporary vow of electronic silence. No emails, no phone calls, no Facebook. Glorious silence.

IMG_20131130_105253Another element of the Creek’s power is the physical and mental toll it exacts from its visitors. There is no easy climbing here, and the climate is often unforgiving. I have climbed here in 95-degree heat as well as on snowy winter days. You begin your day with an uphill trudge to the top of a talus slope, knowing that will be the easiest part of your day. The sandstone crack climbing is steep, physical, and strenuous. You inevitably let out a cry or a brutish grunt as you struggle upward and you often leave your blood on the rock, bright red spots like tiny testaments to your effort against the rust-colored stone.

The landscape itself is breathtaking. The cliffs undulate around a widening valley as you descend toward the park, seemingly endless canyons extending to either side of the main basin. Cottonwoods and gnarled oaks line the trickling creek, and migratory birds rest in the small reservoir. Cattle and deer graze in the meadows and wild turkeys warble in the dawn light. Weather forms in dramatic desert style, miring the cliffs in fog or buffeting their tops with sleet and lightning. Cowboys run their herds along the single paved road, and coyotes lurk in the shadows beyond our campfires at night.

There is magic here that is palpable. Instead of diminishing under the weight of time, it has accumulated in me over nearly a decade into something complex, heavy and dynamic. Timeless but mutable. Transcendent but amorphous.

We spent the last week in Indian Creek with friends (old and new) from Oregon, Montana, California, South Carolina and New Jersey. We had to delay our departure from New Mexico by several days because of a large cold front that dumped snow across the West. When we finally reached Cortez, Colorado, late Monday night, the system had abated, leaving a snowy blanket and frigid temperatures in its wake.

We didn’t get much climbing in. The weather was prohibitive for most of us (highs around 40 degrees), and the days on which we did climb were abbreviated due to late starts and early dusk, with queues to climb the popular south-facing routes. We spent our remaining time carousing in camp or hiking in the National Park only twenty minutes away from our campsite, reveling in the wintry weather we rarely witness in southern New Mexico.

IMG_20131130_221337It was, of course, Thanksgiving week. My favorite holiday. A day on which to enjoy good food, good company, and the contentedness of being truly grateful for what we have. We cooked two whole turkeys in a pit, accompanied by the traditional fare of mashed potatoes, root vegetables, stuffing, cranberries and a variety of pies. That’s right—we had a full Thanksgiving dinner for seven in the middle of the dusty Utah desert, with no running water or electricity. We like to do camping right.

This feat was made possible in part by two housemobiles: Randy’s VW Vanagon outfitted for overland travel and, of course, our mini-RV. These provided extra cooking facilities, refrigeration and available water (we have a 26-gallon tank).

This was our maiden voyage with the RV. She is half gutted, but we pieced together a comfortable transitional state including a new futon bed with memory foam topper, laundered upholstery, and covers to hide the hideously ubiquitous pink. The heater kept us warm at night, the toilet allowed me to avoid the noxious pits at camp, and we even enjoyed a shower midway through the week. RV life ain’t so bad.

IMG_20131201_131304We stopped in Mesa Verde National Park on the way home, stealth camping on nearby public land in dense freezing fog. Hoar frost formed tiny spires along every juniper branch, sage twig, and blade of grass. The fog remained for our entire visit, and lent an especially eerie quality to the ruins. National Parks are so much more enjoyable in the off season, and we toured the only open ruin (Spruce Tree House) with the ranger and about eight other people. Well worth a visit, and a fascinating extension of what we had learned of southwestern natives from similar New Mexico sites such as Gila Cliff Dwellings, Bandelier, and Three Rivers. Indeed, part of the magic of desert country lies in its human history.

Now we are home, where December is often 67 degrees instead of the 37 degrees we experienced last week. Utah’s remnants have followed us home: tired bodies, Thanksgiving leftovers, and the persistent ruddy dust clinging to our belongings. But here the sun is shining and the days are warm.

We are wasting no time with the RV improvements, and we will be starting in on the fiberglass repairs this week. A month of visitors and accompanying New Mexico excursions lies ahead, as well as a familial visitation in Southern California and a weeklong trip to Mexico.

Life is busy. Life is good.


Where is your sacred place? How is it woven into the tapestry of your own life?


6 thoughts on “Sacred places: Utah’s canyon country

  1. bilomathews2013 December 3, 2013 / 11:24 pm

    What a great adventure with courage to camp in the wilderness in the middle of winter. We love your 1980’s Toyota Sunraider RV. We owned one of those in the past….they go on and on and on…


    • rameyontheroad December 18, 2013 / 8:48 pm

      Thanks! We are hoping it goes on and on for quite a while. In fact, we’re betting big on that little camper…


  2. Robyn Newell December 5, 2013 / 12:42 am

    Loved the descriptor “hideously ubiquitous pink” since I got to see it first hand. Kudos to you both for giving (Hot Stuff?, White Wonder? White Wolf?) a loving good home! Yes the canyons and desert have much to offer the Heart. Especially space and beauty. I feel especially “woken up” when we are there.


    • rameyontheroad December 18, 2013 / 8:49 pm

      Yes! Space and beauty abound. We will be back in a couple months. 🙂


  3. charlie March 8, 2016 / 6:05 am

    Utah is a special place. I’ve been there in the spring and fall and there’s really no place like it. I’ve climbed pretty much everything between the rockies and the pacific. But Utah has this intense raw nakedness and beauty that is almost overwhelming. Especially when standing on top of a rock formation like The North Shooter or Castleton tower.

    Safe travels.


    • rameyontheroad March 8, 2016 / 4:27 pm

      It is a special place. Sadly, it’s become quite popular and is now getting a little overrun. We were just there again this last November and were saddened to see the impact of so many climbers on the landscape. Things never stay the same, but hopefully canyon country can retain its beauty.


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