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August 1, 2016

Desert Reflections

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When I was young and they were still together, my mom and dad would take my sister and I camping. We would explore places like Logan Canyon, The Cottonwood Canyons, The Uintas, Needles, Capitol Reef, Arches, Moab, and The San Rafael Swell. When I was just a baby my parents would sit me down in the campsite sheltered by shade and I would play for hours in the sand even though it was too dry to hold a shape. As I got older my dad would have me meditate with him on these trips. I would follow him places where we could sit and be. He would tell me I should listen. “…To what?” I would ask after hearing nothing. He told me to listen harder and I remember trying to physically open my ears to hear what he was hearing that I wasn't. He told me to close my eyes and listen. At first I heard nothing, then I noticed the steady beat of my heart. I was trying so hard to concentrate on nothing but I found when you think about nothing you’re still thinking of something. I was frustrated. I tried and tried to relax and I swear I was on the brink of childhood enlightenment when my concentration was taken away from me to my sore feet from hiking and my sore ass from sitting. I was no longer comfortable. I was concentrated on thinking about nothing, listening to everything, and forgetting about my breathing, which turns out to be a hell of a lot on the mind. I was young and restless and not yet sure how to turn things off in my mind. I still didn’t understand the appeal of meditation. I grabbed a handful of sand and let it slip through my fingers in patterns on the ground. I was impatient, making it difficult to sit still for long periods of time and I also lacked a connection to the land. I thought meditation was “hippie shit” at the time, so I dismissed my dad’s attempts to broaden my mental scope and I’d make patterns in the sand. To this day I’m still not sure if his intentions were meant to resonate with me in the ways they have.

I’ve come to believe that the Southern Utah desert is like the cobwebbed box in the corner of the attic where Mother Nature hides her secrets, and with this profound realization emerged much curiosity. I wanted to know what secrets the deepest corners held, what kind of privacy an area requires in order to display so much beauty, and if I deserve to discover those places.

Recently I was camping near Five Mile Wash, one of many canyons that drain the east side of the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef. With no artificial light polluting the night sky I could see the constellations although without any knowledge of which ones, so I tried counting the stars, quit, then connected the dots into patterns. One night before moonset I slipped into a canyon in Five Mile Wash not far from my campsite. The walls seemed to sway back and forth as I dove deeper into its cracks. At one moment I could extend my arms all the way out and still not reach either wall. At other times I had to turn sideways and suck in my chest to fit through the crevasses. I often panic about the canyons not having exits when I’ve gone past places I know would be close to impossible to climb back up. With each step forward I could feel the entrance of the canyon pull away from me. I pressed forward deeper into the canyon, following the light of my headlamp. I found myself humming to calm my nerves and wandered my thoughts away from being in a maze of endless canyons. I could hear my voice slither across the smooth walls and disappear like smoke into the darkness. It was as if my voice was being sucked out of the air by the wind so the sun would hear and paint the walls with light. But the sun was still tucked away sleeping, where I should have been. I slowed my pace from a walk to a wander around the same time the sun was coming up. With the new light I was able to observe instead of be unnerved. The walls burst with different contrasts of red and orange as if someone had thrown paint on them, and I watched while the sun slowly shifted the light and shadows. I wandered until I found a place where I felt like I could just be; a wide but still rather small opening in the slot canyon where a rock overhang caught the sun and looked out over the valley. I sat down in the cold and dry sand. It hadn’t rained in a few weeks leaving the sand dry and wind whipped. In front of me I could see smooth untouched sand. Behind me I could see my sloppy footprints. There wasn’t much noise, wind mostly. The dry wind had caked my exposed skin with sand that stuck to my sweat. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and began to meditate.

Again, millions of thoughts flooded into my mind as soon as I tried to escape them. I tried to concentrate on being instead of thinking. I wanted to inherit the peaceful calm of the desert, but my mind was restless. I remember thinking about a family member who passed away, how he loved the desert, and how I will never get to hear his laugh again. I started to think about the upcoming presidential election, and how the results could change our future. I wondered if all of the chaos and turmoil the world is wading through is the catalyst for something good soon to come. I pondered the outcome of perpetuating hate rather than unifying the people. Sometimes I fear the future, the unknown. I fear that untouched places like Southern Utah will be eaten up by mechanized greed before my children get to experience them. I felt overwhelmed with unanswered questions. I wanted to lower the psychological barrier between myself and my surroundings but I was stuck in my head. I closed my eyes and began breathing. One… inhale. Two… exhale. Three… inhale. Four… exhale. I counted to 200 before I felt my body and mind calm down. The space between my eyebrows relaxed, my jaw fell slightly open, my shoulders loosened.

Then something happened, I started to hear the sheets of wind brush the cliffs, howling when it snuck into shallow holes. It danced across the landscape grazing it with a feather like touch. It snuck between the cracks more fluid than water. The wind tickled the sage all around me and I could smell it in the air. I could feel where the sun was in the sky based on how hot my back was compared to my front. I could hear nothing and everything. The way a busy street sounds in New York; so much happening and so much noise coming from everywhere, this is how the desert began to sound. I could hear the sagebrush rustle and stand strong through a gust of rough wind. The cracks and formations in the rocks were the winds instruments and it created a natural orchestra. I knew every place on my body that was sore but I wasn't concentrating on the ache any longer. I knew I had responsibilities when I got home, but they weren't with me in that moment. Everything that wasn't physically a part of me was gently washed into the wind. I opened my eyes and saw a place I wasn’t looking at before. I reached down, grabbed a handful of the cold sand, and sat letting it escape through my fingers as the wind carried off my questions.

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