Disclaimer: Ok. This is over long. Nothing as exciting as the title intimates happens. It’s just rumination on aging. I wouldn’t bother with it.
Every year an old friend and I undertake an adventure. H. and I are middle aged now. Past our prime and youth when our adventures were bolder and more carefree. I can remember when we then, full of laughter, took his new pickup and rubbed its shiny sides against aspens for luck while searching out some secreted beaver dam in which to toss a fly. Now we fuss and fret. We worry endlessly about our kids and their kids and temper our exuberance with caution having faced too many sorrows and misfortunes since. We are stressed and plagued with the press of the day to day, and we both in demeanor have that worn edge that cheese graters achieve when used on granite.
But once a year we become eighteen again. We plan a day and fashion ourselves into grand explorers and take to the environs of our youth.
His wife dropped us off on a dirt road. In pictures she took, we cut a pair of comical figures. Camelbacks, pants, and trekking poles, make us look like a pair of amateur bird watchers more suited to a stroll along a paved parkway, then two bold men (in our minds at least) out for rugged adventure. In one of the pictures, one of us points to the desert. It is a hint that today we are not taking to common trails.
We are making for a deep valley. On Google earth it runs like a scar from a plateau that skirts the La Sal Mountains, to the Moab Valley. There are no roads or trails that access that Valley, but dim memories of my friend, and the secret knowledge, rumor, and arrogance that tiptoes through Moab natives, makes us think that there is a hidden slot canyon that runs to that willow-lined Shangri-La. We will try to find it.
We abandon the road and take to navigating through, around, and between the Navajo sandstone fins that slice through the high-canyon desert as we try to make our way to the valley. We are careful not to damage the cryptogrammic soil, wending our way through the frozen dunes fashioned from late Triassic river delta deposits. We wander for a couple of hours, weaving between this rock formation and that, until at last we find ourselves on the precipice of a great cliff. Thousands of feet below us, we see the wide stream of the creek bed lined with ancient cottonwoods. Our objective.
A wind blows hard and cool and we step cautiously away from the edge. There is no obvious way down there. We see several slot canyons entering the wide ravine below, but everything looks as if it ends too far up from the valley floor. We sit down and eat an apple. We realize if we hike about a quarter of a mile forward, we will be on a higher rill from which we may see more of the valley. So we climb up that steep redrock and see hope. There to our left (I cannot give ordinal directions as we are without either GPS or compass, being from Moab we are gifted with a sixth sense) is a slot canyon that may work. It is a slice in the rock like the narrow gouge of a sawcut in a pine plank (on Google Earth you cannot even see it from above—it looks like a small grove in the landscape). Actually there are two canyons side by side. Either one looks like it will get us into the valley.
“We should have brought field glasses.” H. says.
I nod. I think it will work. To get to the place where the narrow canyon begins requires another half-mile scramble but we find it and start down. It is steep and soon we are in deep shadow as we scramble over the debris and push our way through patches of sometimes-thick holly. The grade grows steeper. We decide on some stopping rules. One danger in these canyons is you scramble down something you can’t get back up, and then after come to a drop you cannot get down. You are stuck between drops. You get rescued or die. We decide that if we reach something we are not sure we can get back up we stop. Ok?
We’ve gone a long ways down. Thousands of feet of rock rise above us. Although it is mid-dayish it is dusky and dark. We’ve been scrambling down a while when we reach or first decision point. A large boulder has fallen into the crack we are going lumbering down. It is wedged in the slot. There is a small hole that will take us under it, and a rocky scramble above. I crawl forward over the boulder, edge along a sandy shelf, and find myself rock bound. It’s only about a twelve-foot drop, but I can tell if we go down here we can’t get back up. The sandstone is crumbly and we may have transitioned to Kayenta Formation, much less stable. I try to make my way long a ledge that looks like a possible decent. But I don’t see one. H. wants to look and I back up to where he is and he edges forward. He thinks it looks like he can get down, but I argue that we can’t get back up, it’s too loose. I am the more faint-hearted and skittish and talk him out of trying. Also, when we thought it would be easy, we both foolishly threw our trekking poles down there. We back away and look at the little hole the leads under the boulder. Could we fit through that? Not likely.
H. is unwilling to give up and is looking more closely at the little hole we might be able to climb in, I back up, and find behind a fallen slab about the size of a pancaked SUV leaning against the wall of rock, a passage. I tell H. and he looks and we decided it is worth a try. He goes first (again, being the less timid) and wiggles his way through on his belly. He yells that it ends at a drop off about seven feet high. I hear grunting, huffing and puffing . . . ‘If I can just twist around . . . I can go feet first . . .” More grunting then an exclamation, “I’ve done it!” I then belly through the birth canal and emerge scratched up but smiling. We continue. The canyon is very narrow now. We cannot face forward in some places without each shoulder touching the wall. Two more places require us to chimney to get down similar seven-foot drops, but they are coming more often and getting trickier to negotiate.
Down one, H. says, “I’m going to go see what’s ahead.” I wait above our most significant drop yet. He’s very quiet and I worry a little at the silence. Then his voice returns, “We’re stopped. Do want to come see? Or just believe me and I’ll come up. There is a big drop ahead.” I want to see. Not that I doubted him, but I wanted to stare the beast that defeats us in the eye. It’s a matter of desert pride. I climb and chimney down. He points down canyon and I pass him in a wide space and stare down at about a fifty-foot drop. “If someone put a gun to our heads, I think we could get down.” I say. He says, “I think so too.” But neither of us are really suggesting that we go on. It’s just an observation. We could not get back up it, likely. We also note that our eighteen-year-old-kid-and-spouse-free selves would have continued on.
The way back is much harder than we thought. Getting up some of the things we got down are much more difficult than anticipated. The seven-foot climb up to the hole turns particularly difficult. H. puts up a knee, slaps his thigh and says, “Step on my leg, then when you get up you can pull me up.” I don’t. I’m pretty sure my kind of weight would separate his knee like the joint of boiled chicken being boned for soup. Well, I’m stretching. More likely it would just leave him with numerous knee operations and a lifelong limp. Or maybe, he’d be fine. But I refuse. I grab some handholds and with major grunting, pulling, and some fine rockwork for a lumbering middle-aged man, I get up to the hole. I try and pull him up. It’s hopeless, so he does the same as me. Our stopping rules proved wise. There is no way we would have made it up the fifty-footer if we had gotten pinched off between drops—seven feet almost leaves us stuck. Embarrassing but true.
Finally, after some hard scramble, with constant back and forth mutterings between us of, “I don’t remember this? Do you remember this?” we wend our way back up the slot. We finally reach a nice rock shelf, and stop for sandwiches. It’s been about two hours since we entered the rift.
As we eat, I’m struck with a sense of insignificance. The boulder we climbed over, might have been stuck there since Europeans arrived. Or it could have been lodged there yesterday. I cannot tell. There, next to us is an old twisted pinion. It’s branches yet full of living green and flourishing exuberance. As wide in trunk girth as any I’ve ever seen. We speculate, it might be two-hundred years old. Maybe six-hundred. I wonder how time passes for a thing that was likely old when I was born.
And the canyon itself. There is a presence here. I cannot describe it. I’ve tried to write it, but it won’t come so I yield. Not a sense of watchfulness, because I don’t matter here. Like Moses did, I feel small. Nothing. I sense I am but a fleeting thing, like a fly on the hand, which lands then disappears. Around me are old, old ancient things. They seem present and godlike. It does not surprise me that once people fell to their knees before it. But now I just feel like a minor thread in a grander tale.
After a time. We make it out and find a jeep trail. It joins a more well-marked dirt road which we follow. We reach top of a slickrock knoll and sit for another apple. As we sit there, a shiny yellow jeep drives past. A shirtless man in a cowboy hat, his head out the diver window as he negotiates the rock, sees us. We wave, two characters grinning like hobbits on a stroll. Silly looking, if the pictures we took from that knoll with the La Sals in the background, target our aspect in any way aright. He does not wave back, but gives a slight reluctant nod as if we spoil his manly pursuits. He roars past and we hear his engine a long time after. Finally, the sound of the wind returns and we rise and start our walk back to the main road.
We have aged. Our joints are complaining and we both comment that we will likely be sore in the morning. How did we reach middle age? It was only yesterday we were eighteen. Heck, in my head I’m still eighteen. It’s only the rest of me that protests its age. Unexpectedly, I remember a poem from Tennyson that brings out a smile and causes me to straighten my back a bit and step forward with a little more verve. I end with those lines remembered in part then, but here repeated*:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
* ULYSSES by Alfred Lord Tennyson