Words and photos by John Bryant Baker
As the sunlight makes its way to my face, I can see my breath as it leaves my mouth and slowly rises into the crisp cold air. From atop this sandstone dome, my 360 degree view is uninterrupted. Wilderness stretches out across the horizon in every direction. There are steep, narrow canyons and broad, sandy washes. Yucca, with their long, wind-battered stalks cling to small patches of dirt, while the sweet smell of desert sage accompanies the slight breeze.
Mountains rise in the distance, the Henrys to the west and the Abajos to the northeast. Directly south, the mystical and sacred Navajo Mountain stands alone. It is a rugged place, this canyon country, vast and expansive. While on a high point like this one, it could easily be mistaken for endless. The sun is cresting over the horizon to my left as the full moon slowly drops out of view to my right. In this first light of morning, I sit suspended between these two heavenly bodies. This is a magical place. It is a place that I, as others before me, have fallen in love with.
[Above: Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.]
The desert is not an easy place to love though. Upon first glance, many consider this expanse of red rock to be a wasteland, far too harsh to inhabit. The canyons are too steep, the soil is too dry, and the distances too great. Interestingly enough, these are some of the same character traits I have become so enthralled with. There is an untainted beauty that lies at the heart of such ruggedness. It is a deep beauty, the kind that is often felt before it can be seen. Unrecognizable to the passing glance, it will not be found through the windshield of a car. This is a beauty that takes time.
There is comfort found in the harshness here, a comfort that is birthed out of the uncomfortable. To know solace, one must first know distress. Here, I experience the blazing summer sun as well as the soothing shade of a tiny juniper. I feel the bombardment of sand-filled winds and the encompassing peace of a still, moonlit night. I know the taste of parched, chapped lips and the sound of a trickling, life-giving spring. Hidden seeps, where water slowly sweats its way out of rock walls, can be found throughout this land. There are flowing springs to be tasted if one knows how and where to find them. Potholes and tinajas, natural water jugs, lie waiting to be scooped with a cupped palm.
This is a dry land, no doubt, but it is not a barren one. There is not abundance, but there is enough. The desert is a mentor in the ways of simplicity, reminding me of the importance of having only what I need. These canyons are continually revealing to me the truth that differentiates essential from extra.
Working deeper into The Maze, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
My wife and I have found ourselves once again following the floor of a winding canyon, exploring and discovering a new sliver of this land we long to learn. Towering red sandstone walls engulf us on either side. The leaves of the cottonwoods are a golden yellow, fluttering with the sporadic brush of the wind. Perfectly symmetrical splitter cracks run from canyon floor to rim, interrupting the otherwise blank vertical walls. A passionate climber could spend a lifetime scaling the fissures found here. At sharp bends are huge, amphitheater-like alcoves that have been slowly carved and shaped by the floods of time. Sound reverberates off the rounded walls with a sharpness and clarity not to be outdone by even the finest concert venues—more proof that man still has a lot to learn from the earth.
We find ourselves at an unnamed, unmapped spring. Crystal clear water is gushing out onto the canyon floor, spreading and forming smaller braided streams that weave in and out of each other as they glade over the dark sculpted sand. Kneeling down, I cup my hands, bringing the clear cold water to my sun-dried lips. We notice animal tracks spread throughout the surrounding wet sand. Mule deer, raccoons, coyotes, a mountain lion, this place provides life for many.
Looking around while listening to the gurgling water, we notice figures drawn high on a ledge. Staring more intently now, we begin to make out human representations with arms and legs. In other clusters, we see mixtures of handprints and spirals. On the high bench above, remnants of a dwelling are now visible. Simple stone and mortar walls, these are all the handiwork of a people long passed, the first desert lovers.
Hands of the ancients.
Ancestral Puebloeans, Anasazi, the Ancient Ones. Over time, I have been blessed enough to see much of what they left behind: cliff dwellings ranging in size from one room to fifty, kivas with wooden ladders leading down into the earth, and intricately decorated pottery. I have found arrowheads and spear tips and the chipping beds where they were formed, held 1,000-year-old sandals fashioned from yucca fibers.
We scramble up the loose talus for a more intimate view, flooded with feelings of wonder, excitement, and reverence. I study the pictographs and petroglyphs while trying to imagine the stories they long to tell. Pieces of pottery and corn cobs are strewn next to the fire pit where charred wood still remained, as if it had been sat around, casting shadows on the wall, the night before.
In the grass and mud mortar that holds together the stone walls, fingerprints are still evident from the day the mortar was pressed and shaped. Staring at a set of these timeless impressions, I notice a slight inconsistency in the wall. There is a small opening just big enough to fit a hand. Not able to make out what is in the shadows of this nook, I blindly reach in.
Looking down at what I now find resting in the palm of my hand, I am nearly overcome with emotion. The carvings on the handle are intricate and the tip chipped and formed of chert, the two pieces joined together with pine pitch. I’m holding a totally intact, perfectly useable knife. Suddenly, the gap of time that separates me from them seems to dissipate. I stood there, wondering who was the last person to grasp this tool?
Looking back down the canyon and off into the wild landscape stretched out before me, I felt as though I was taking in the same view as they had so many years before. It was as if we stood there together, this family of hunters and cultivators, artists and dreamers, perched high on the canyon wall. More than anyone, these people knew this place. Their understanding was intimate and their connection mystical. The spring below was a gift from the earth, the full moon part of the heavenly cycle, the vastness and beauty of the land characteristics of the Great Spirit. Are these things any less true today?
Desert reflections, Dark Canyon, Utah.
Evening light falls over the land of canyons.
For this rugged, wild landscape I am grateful. There is no pavement here to disconnect me from the land upon which I tread and no skyscrapers to encumber the view across the vastness. In this desert country I am able to feel. The harshness and the solace I experience here are humbling. I am able to connect with what is and what was. I realize and remember the gifts of the Great Spirit and the sacred quality of creation.
Just as the sand seems to find its way into every nook and cranny, every crack and crevice, it has also made its way into my blood. It has found its way into my soul. This land has fascinated and captivated the hearts and minds of many before me, and now I find myself as they did, powerless to its draw . . . just another desert lover.
John Bryant Baker is a freelance writer and photographer as well as a river guide, both in the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River and in West Virginia on the New and Gauley Rivers. In the winter, he's a high school teacher and wilderness therapy instructor who works specifically with kids dealing with addiction and self-destructive behaviors. You can read more from John Bryant on his blog, Time Well Spent.