Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Adventure Continues

I've been so awful at updating this ever since I left California. I don't have a great excuse except that I've fallen so completely into a 9-5 M-F routine, that the lulls in the day often seem to be pre-determined simply because they fall at the same time and habits reigns supreme. Either way, this by no means is an indication that I'm not having fun. Quite the opposite. I've been so busy exploring, adventuring and trying new things that I feel as though the other parts of my life have fallen a little bit by the wayside. Obviously, it's far too late to catch up on the adventures of the last 15 months, so I'll just start now and try to do a better job. However, Kyle and I have done a great job of exploring some of the best parts of the state - on foot, on bicycle, on skis, on boats. It's been a blast!

When you move to Grand Junction, you have to make a decision: you are either going to become a mountain biker, or you're not. The middle ground is narrow, it's hard to be a recreational mountain biker here because the terrain is technical and challenging. There are few options for beginners. If you decide to become a mountain biker, you're going to fall a lot, you'll be covered in scrapes, bruises, and bumps, and you're going to get pretty good pretty fast. I learned this from experience.

I got a screaming deal on a great bike this winter (always buy from people who work at bike shops - they just want the money to prodeal a new bike and they've probably kept really good care of the one they're selling you). It's a hardtail 29-er (for those of you not familiar with the jargon - that means it only has front suspension but makes up for it with 29 inch wheels. It's been an adventure every step of the way. Twice, I've crashed so hard I thought one of my legs was broken but both times I've walked it off and gotten back on the bike. No permanent damage and I'm having some fun too!

Our first big ride this spring was the Slickrock Trail, very possibly the most famous mountain biking trail in the US. It was hard and I hated it, but the views were phenomenal.

Here we are at one of the overlooks. Slickrock riding all around us, La Sal Mountains the east, Colorado River to the north. It was a pretty great backdrop. 

This is what we were riding up, down, through and around all day. It was pretty brutal. It's hard to tell from this picture, but the trail was essentially 10 miles of VERY steep down hill and VERY steep up hill pitches. It was mentally and physically exhausting. I don't think I was good enough to be on the trail, I think I would have had a lot more fun if I had more experience and was quite a bit stronger. There are a few other details these pictures leave out. The "trail" is marked by a dotted white line, like the middle of a highway, for all 10 miles on the rock. It's certainly helpful, but a little strange to see. In most places, you can just follow the black rubber stains on the rock. The other thing that took some getting used to was the OHV (off highway vehicle) traffic. Moab is world famous for mountain biking, sure, but it may be even more famous for the "jeeping" opportunities. Oftentimes these opportunities overlap or butt right up against one another. In our case, the Slickrock Trail was open to dirt bikes and ran up against several different jeep routes so we could hear engines whining almost all day. Slickrock wasn't what I expected. It was hard and frustrating and busy. But now I never have to wonder, I've done it and I never need to do it again.

This past weekend, we rode the Porcupine Rim Trail. After Slickrock, I was a little skeptical about Moab mountain biking. After all, we're only 90 miles away and have great riding of our own, only much quieter and more peaceful. But Kyle really wanted to check this one off the list too, so I went along. This was a completely different ride. We started at almost 9,000 ft in the La Sal Mountains and rode all the way down to the Colorado River at around 4.000 ft. It was still a challenging ride, but for very different reasons. This ride was technical downhill riding all the way, with very little climbing. On the Slickrock Trail, the hills are so steep that if you miss the first move, you walk the rest of the way. Procupine Rim had short climbs that were very doable. The difference was the downhill. A majority of the people that passed us on this trail were wearing some kind of body armor or another. There were drops of 2-3 ft that you either rode down or tossed your bike down. Needless to say, I tossed my bike. Here are some photos from the trail:

Here's a view of Kyle and I on the edge of the rim, La Sal Mountains in the background.

There's Kyle, hanging out over the edge of Porcupine Rim looking down on Castle Valley.

I'm riding down towards Professor Valley in the distance. The Colorado River sits below those cliffs.

Here we are at one of the overlooks. It was probably a 500 foot drop just to my left. It was a little scary riding singletrack with that just off the side of the trail. It was great fun though, this trail has many built-in overlooks and gorgeous vistas. For all the time I've spent in the Moab area, I've never looked down on it from above like this. It was truly amazing. I'd recommend this trail, but everyone who has ever written a review before me has already done that. It was BUSY! As we were getting ready to take off in the morning, three vans of shuttled riders pulled up and took off before us. And they must have kept coming all day long, because we kept getting passed my armed riders on downhill bikes. But everyone was very courteous and friendly. I even ran into three guys I went to high school with on the trail. Small world!

Ok, sorry for the long update. I'm going to try to be more diligent with updates in the future. I love living in Colorado. I love that I have an incredible, driven adventure buddy(/boyfriend) to explore all these amazing places with. I miss the places I've been before, but I love the thrill of something new. Alright, that's enough for now.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A New Tradition for the West

This is the transcription of my final epiphany, read at Whitman College on Dec. 5th, 2008:

In his essay entitled "Exclosure," David Bayles discusses the idea of the natural in an exclosure, an area that has been fenced off from one type of wildlife in order to stimulate the growth of another, often in an attempt to determine the health of a landscape. He argues that in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, that within an exclosure is no more natural than that which is outside. The elk and bison that feed outside the exclosure belong just as much as the willows and aspen that flourish inside. Bayles says that the fence is the only unnatural part of his equation. And perhaps in Yellowstone he is right. However, in the rest of the West, it may be that exclosures themselves are the most natural part of the landscape.

Exclusion pervades the West. In its simplest form, it is a cattle exclosure, a small, fenced vegetation plot placed intermittently across our public lands. A tool used to determine the effects of cattle grazing on a landscape. However, exclusion gets complicated quickly, becoming a little less tangible, a little less practical and a little more convoluted. The historic exclusion of the Native Americans from their homelands onto reservations marks the beginning of the polarization of the American West, a tradition we continue to uphold today. It is time for this legacy to come to an end, time for a new Western tradition.

In September we visited Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp-turned museum and interpretive center. Upon passing through the gate and reading the resentful inscription, "May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism and economic exploitation never emerge again," I immediately felt the sharp pang of remorse for a history I must claim. During WWII, Japanese-Americans, citizens of the United States, whose children were fighting and dying in our armies, were brought here to this desolate, dusty place to live and were forbidden to leave. Functioning under the guise of protection, the internees were surprised to see the guns pointed not outward, but in. It was not an exclosure, but an enclosure, a city inside a wall, justified for reasons of national security. Most of Manzanar was disassembled immediately after the end of the war. Today it is little more than a dirt road, signs marking where houses used to stand, and an interpretive center telling the stories of those who lived inside. As though, with only a couple tractors, America can erase the stain left on Southern California and on our national dignity. We try to pretend that the dismantling of the internment camp makes this exclusion a relic of the past, a result of blindly irrational fear from which we've learned our lesson. It took only one visit to the US-Mexico border for me to know otherwise.

Looking back into the United States through a barbed-wire fence, I tried to imagine what it must feel like to not belong. Historically, movement across the US-Mexico border was fluid. Mexican commuters moved transnationally between their homes in Mexico and their jobs in the United States. These crossings were concentrated in urban centers where migrants moved back and forth, from home to job and back home. Now, with increasing national security concerns, we have built fences through our cities and split families in half. We're trying to overlay the vision of our identity onto a history that doesn't agree. Throughout the West, these exclusions act as reminders of a history pieced together by different sets of stories.

A few states North, a new kind of exclusion determines the cultural climate. Aspen, Colorado is a town built on a foundation of wealth, a foundation assembled and maintained by people who cannot afford to live there. Though it is deemed a progressive city, a national leader in alternative energy solutions, its exorbitant cost of living is the ultimate determinant of its inhabitants. So-called affordable housing starts near $400,000. A community that once was made up of single-family ranching operations is now claimed by absentee owners who can afford the property taxes. This is the New West, exclusion based on economic status.

Our exclusions mark our path across the American West. The history of our fears, loves and political agendas can be traced on the landscape in the form of the places that have been fenced off, metaphorically or otherwise, where occupation has been mandatory or restricted. We've systematically divided that which we speak of as one cohesive unit and are left with a patchwork of lifestyles, ideas and values projected onto the landscape. We decry the lack of a unified Western culture and feel that somehow it was the responsibility of the land to create it for us. How could it, when we steadily separated and enclosed those forces that could combine us into something one? Historic traditions are wrapped up in exclusion all over the West. So should we unify into one Western culture? It is these differences, this lack of sameness and cohesion that makes the West unique. Culture is, after all, determined not only by people but by their backgrounds and the land on which they live. Exclusion is a good tool to test a landscape, to isolate the effect of certain factors on the health of the system. But perhaps, like Bayles says, inhabitants from both sides of our fences belong. Exclusion is not natural, and it is not a rule under which the West should function. It's time to embrace our dissimilarities, to glory in them, and to use them to form a new identity of a Western whole.

The West is multi-faceted. In this essay I do not mean to imply that exclusion is the only pattern to be seen in the American West. However, it is one that continued to speak to me throughout my travels. I hope to continue examining this theme in my next several pieces. Updates soon to follow!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

It's Been Awhile

This is going to be a short one. I just wanted to catch up on what's been going on in the past year since I last wrote. I think my last blog was from the Lichty Center outside of Silver City, New Mexico. As I look back on the last month of Semester in the West, it's hard not to get nostalgic about the amazing people, experiences and knowledge to which I was exposed. I feel incredibly lucky and an even deeper sense of debt to have been lucky enough to participate in such an amazing program. Thanks so much to Phil, Season, Jay, and all those along the way who truly...wait for it, Westies...helped me undergo a paradigm shift.

Since then, I returned to Whitman, wrote a thesis, graduated from college, moved to CA, found my calling on the side of the High Sierra, left CA for a new experience in Seattle, WA, and have made arrangements to return to CA as soon as I can. I feel so lucky so have seen and done the things I have in the past two years, but I feel like I am now starting to lose touch with all the personal growth I experienced. I hope to use this blog as a place to reconnect myself with that growth, and perhaps learn new and equally important things about myself.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New Mexico, Arizona

After our time with Sharman, we went South and back toward the border for a quick ecology survey on the El Coronado Ranch. This ranch, owned by the Austin family, has been working toward a goal of sediment deposit in their arroyos through the construction of trincheras, or small rock dams. Our project was to measure the height of these dams, the amount of sediment deposited behind them, and any hydrophilic vegetation that has grown in the channel. This project was our way to thank the Austins for letting us stay on their ranches in Mexico, though this time too felt beneficial to us as well. Their ranches may be some of the most beautiful parts of New Mexico and Mexico, and the work they are doing on these ranches is admirable. Our hope is that our survey will turn into a way they can help educate and encourage the public toward similar work.

We said goodbye to New Mexico and headed west to Arizona. We spent one brief night at the remote desert camp of No Mas Muertes, a humanitarian aid organization dedicated to the efforts of providing water, food and emergency medical care to migrants crossing over the Mexican border. We visited the border station at Sasabe, AZ and spoke briefly with the Customs agents at the border about the challenges of their job. We also visited the grave of a man found dead on his journey to a job in the US. We also got the opportunity to speak with two Whitman alums about their role within the organization.

We are now in southern California. For the next two nights we'll be staying outside of Joshua Tree and looking at the possibility of wind turbines on public land here. After this, it's on to the Tejon Ranch for one final writing workshop, then back up to Walla Walla to complete final projects and reinsert ourselves into society.

The Lichty Center

Our time in Mexico with Paul was both relaxing and stressful - our first real test of the semester and a paper due the day before kept us on our toes, but we also visited the beautiful Los Ojos Ranch and got to enjoy a hotspring on the property. We reveled in the Obama victory from across the border and enjoyed balmy temperatures before heading back up North.

Our next stop was the Lichty Center, a Nature Conservancy Owned cabin on a farm in southwestern New Mexico outside the town of Cliff. The cabin is set in a grove of maple trees next to several irrigation ditches, one well disguised as a wide stream. Sand hill cranes greeted us each morning, arriving in our field to snack on grain before heading along their way. We helped the TNC in a service project digging dirt, sand and weeds out of their irrigation ditch so it can more easily water their fields. During this project, we got to take a break and wander down toward an arm of the Gila River, an eventual tributary to the Colorado, and the only river in New Mexico that is not dammed. During our time at the center, we also got to participate in a writing workshop with author Sharman Apt Russel, best known for works Anatomy of a Rose, Hunger, and Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist. From Sharman, we learned the skill of integrating science into our writing. We also wrote a piece addressing what nature writers would be doing in fifty years. Here is mine:

Every day for eight days we rose before dawn, ate a quick breakfast of hardboiled eggs and coconut cookies, and crawled sleepily into the Land Rover. Starting the morning before the sun, we would watch dawn cast its’ light on the Rift Valley Escarpment, turning soft grey and dull tan to the brilliant green of baobab trees and rich red-brown of African soil. Each morning we would drive an hour and a half along the narrow two lane road between Mto Wa Mbu and Mswakini Juu to interview Maasai villagers about land use, agriculture and problem animals. And each morning along the road we’d see clusters of Maasai, clad red, purple and orange in brightly colored woven shukas waiting along the side of the road. They carried, sat on, and leaned against large blue and yellow five gallon containers they would carry to and from their bomas on the tops of their heads to wait for the government trucks carrying hundreds of gallons of water.

We traveled on foot between the communities of the Kwakuchinja Corridor, interviewing the patriarch of each boma and interacting briefly with their families. Sometimes they’d offer us spicy homemade chai, grey-brown in a dirty tin cup. I remember watching one young boy play a game to entertain himself while the rest of his family was preoccupied with us wazungus. He sat down in the dirt outside the door and licked his palm. I cringed, thinking about the cleanliness of my own palms, washed only several hours earlier, but coated already in grime. I looked again and watched as he placed his moistened palm in the dirt. Picking his palm up, he gazed admiringly at the miniature mud flat he’d created. I expected him to smear his hands together, or at the very least, rub the mud on his face. Instead, he again licked his palm, covering his tongue in a green-brown muck which didn’t appear to phase his taste buds. He continued licking, pressing, admiring and licking again throughout our conversation with his family. Every few minutes he’d spit out a mouthful of the mess. I remember thinking, “This family lives 25 miles off the highway. Who knows the next time they’ll see water? This boy will have the remnants of that dirt in his mouth and on his hands for days.” A few days later we came upon a little boy who was very sick, vomiting over the shoulder of his tired looking mother and I wondered if this was the fate of the dirt eating boy.

Traveling in Africa is like playing the role of an extra in a beautiful, heartrending movie. The grandeur of the landscape, flora and fauna seem to hide the dirt and poverty under which its’ residents live, but living and researching in this place allowed me to see firsthand the joy mixed in with the difficulty of life on the African savannah. Here in North-Central Tanzania, along one of the most traveled tourist routes running between Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti, the Maasai live without water or electricity. Surrounded by tourist lodges with warm showers and electrical outlets for computers, phones and hair dryers, they depend on a government shuttle for their daily supply of water, weekly if they live too far off the highway. They use this water for cooking, making tea and watering their animals. Bathing and drinking are water uses for which the Maasai scoff, and they laugh too at our tiny bottles of hand sanitizer that we squeeze from before sitting down for lunch. In fact, they often laugh simply to laugh. I’ve never imagined a day without water until I worked among these people, listening to their apologies for not having enough water or sugar to make tea for us, watching their cracked lips move to a language that I didn’t understand.

Water availability is an issue of world-wide concern. It’s not just rural Africans that lack ready access to clean water, but the disenfranchised everywhere who feel the effects of environmental justice. I saw this again on a visit to the Navajo Indian Reservation in the Four Corners Area. We stayed at the Dooda’ Desert Rock camp, a small plywood shack with a wood burning stove, no electricity and no water. Many Navajo on the reservation get their water from coin operated dispensing systems that fail nearly as often as they function. These dispensers are placed in major towns and communities, typically miles away from the homes of those who require their use, and often involve hours of waiting in line in the blistering heat of summer or the raging ice storms of winter. Electric and water pipelines are not built to reach isolated family habitations on a landscape where neighbors can be twenty miles, not twenty feet, away from each other. This, in our own country.

After my time with the Maasai, and after two months in the water warring West, I have learned that most people don’t live the way we live. We’re living outside our means, glorying in the half an hour shower and irrigating fields at high noon in the desert where, in other parts of the world, people have limited access to any clean water. I wonder if this is what it takes for people to see the face of water shortages and lack of infrastructure worldwide. These things I’ve seen are burned into my memory – a little boy gets sick from bacteria living in the dirt, his mother’s shame at not being able to properly welcome her visitors, the shabby lean-to in which Elouise lives. In the next fifty years, our world must become increasingly compassionate to these issues if we are to accomplish our 2015, 2020 and 2050 environmental goals. We are not a world of separate nations, but a world together, inextricably linked by the one thing that sets us apart from the rest of life on earth: our humanity. Fifty years from now, I hope our nature writers will be writing of the things they write of today, I hope these things still exist. Only this time, I hope it is with a status quo of common good, of common access to our shared resources, and of common understanding.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

New Mexico to Mexico

Our time with Bill DeBuys was relaxing. The place he calls home is a beautiful little spot along a river in Northern New Mexico with a large field, several beautiful adobe homes and a dog which made it easy for us feel at home as well. After leaving him, we drove an hour or so Southwest and had a free afternoon in Santa Fe. The town is a funny mix of Native Americans selling silver on the street, yuppy twenty-somethings (a little too much like us Westies) wandering around and admiring trendy coffee shops, and regular Santa Feans just trying to buy some pens at the Barnes and Noble.

This entire trip I've been lusting after a turquoise ring worn by one of my fellow Westies, an intensely beautiful blue stone set in a plain silver setting. And after a few weeks in the turquoise country of the Southwest, I was becoming increasingly discouraged by the tourist prices - $50 and $60 for a small, plain ring. But we'd heard rumors that throughout Santa Fe there are places where turquoise jewelry comes cheap - either because the Native Americans had been forced to pawn it off to pay for electricity or water, or because it had been hunted out of graves and other archaeological sites. Neither of these made me feel great, but I wanted to see what was available, so Ben and I headed out to find some of the cheap stuff.

The very first shop we went into - Native Feather Jewelry - was run by two large Italian men who spoke rapidly back and forth in a broken mix of Italian and English. It seemed like a strange collision of cultures to have these large, polo shirt wearing, mob-like men polishing small pieces of silver jewelry with rags and admiring brightly colored turquoise and red stones in large, gaudy necklaces. Ben and I shopped around a bit, he was looking for a bear-shaped necklace pendant and I had immediately zeroed in on the rings.

After only a few minutes, Ben and I had both found pieces we were interested in. Upon asking the price, I learned that the ring I wanted was affordable, the only problem was that it didn't fit. "It's no problem," I was assured, "Take it across the street to Bear, and he'll resize it for you. Just three, maybe four dollars. You'll find him by his sign - 'Open when I can, Close when I want. Don't joke with him. I'm serious. And don't wear your sunglasses." I was sold. It was a beautiful, imperfect green-blue turquoise with mottled brown spots and I loved it. Ben was still looking around, so I went to the counter and paid for my purchase. Immediately, the man who helped me began berating Ben for his lack of chivalry - "Aren't you going to buy this for her? What, are you guys not married yet?" to which I jokingly responded that he wasn't trained yet, and that no, we were not married.

Ben was deciding between two pieces, both a little spendier than he'd like, but upon telling the proprietor this, he was admonished with the words, "I give you good deal on this, man. You go somewhere else to buy, I kill you." I, meanwhile, was helping the other man pick out a necklace for his wife as a reconciliation gift for apparent adultury. Ben decided he'd better buy one of the pieces so we could leave. After he'd paid and endured a little more sarcasm for his ungentlemanly ways, we left in a hurry, and went to the central plaza to meet the rest of the Westies for lunch. On our way, we passed rows of Native American sellers who had set their pieces out on blankets on the sidewalk. I stumbled across one interesting man who was completing his fourth master's degree and selling jewelry to pay tuition.

That afternoon, we decided to head down to a different part of town, stopping by to look for Bear on the way. We weren't sure if we'd find him in a jewelers store, or if we'd find him on the sidewalk, so we wandered for a bit, keeping our eyes out for anyone who might fit the description. After meandering through one small mall, we turned a corner and ran into a small, worn desktop with a closed window over it. A small sign reading "Open when I can, close when I want" told us we were in the right place. Additional signs "50% deposit before work" and one that said something along the lines of "I'm a biker. To all you solicitors, proprietors, and other beggars leave me alone. If you bother me, I'll make you sorry unless you're blind and can't read this." Unfortunately his shop was not open.

The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully - we tried to blend in at the local bookstore, then got delicious organic frozen yogurt at a small shop along a small street. I returned to Bear's shop once more before we left, again to find the lights off and the door locked. Though the ring I bought is too small, it is the most beautiful piece of jewelery I've seen and I hope eventually I'll find someone who can fit it for me.

From Santa Fe, we drove a little South of town and set up camp at the Camel Tracks National Guard Training Site. Over the course of our stay here we would be buzzed by lowflying Blackhawks and Apaches and occasionally run into a military convoy. We spent the next few days doing ecology fieldwork in Bandelier National Monument near the Valles Caldera with Phil's college roommate. Though I can't say ecology is my favorite (or anywhere near it) subject, I really enjoyed the time to hike around the monument - first up and over Scooter Peak, a small mountain on the edge of the Caldera, then through Frijoles Canyon - filled with cliff dwellings, cave art and a small stream that would eventually lead us to the Rio Grande. We then did a day of fieldwork near our campsite on the mesa in the burning heat.

After these days, we moved down to Southern New Mexico to the Chihuahua Desert less than 50 miles from the Mexican border. Here we spend several days looking for the extremely rare Pinocereus Gregii - or night-blooming cereus - the subject of Paul's research at UNM. Though we only found 3 individuals after days of looking, we found several stashes of waterbottles and clothing from border crossers and ran into several horny toads. It seemed a little surreal to be in a place so controversial, something that we were consistently reminded of as helicopters flew overhead and a border blimp rose a few miles away.

We then headed down to Mexico. We've spent the last few days on the San Bernadino Ranch which butts up directly to the US border. Our first night here we walked down to the barbed wire fence that serves to delineate our country from our neighbor. In one place there was even a gate, easily hopped over even if it was chained shut. The ranch is a recovering wetland, a private conservation project entirely supported by the Austin family. We did a morning of fieldwork looking at different marsh plants and their frequency along the edges of the cienega, then wrote a quick paper and headed off to another ranch to spend the night at a hotspring.

The night of the election was spent "in one of the forgotten corner's of the world, huddled around a radio" and though it was strange to be so far away from home and not even in our own country, we were grateful that Obama recognized us and we can't wait for January.

Only two weeks remain in this grand adventure, a fact that most of us are still refusing to acknowledge. Next it's back to New Mexico for a little more writing.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico

Almost another month has passed since my last post. Time alternately flies and goes slowly out here and between cooking meals, moving camp and hiking and talking to speakers, we have very little free time. We've spent the last few weeks moving around the Four Corners area.

After spending a week with Ann-Weiler Walka near Bluff honing out observational and written skills, we produced several short works and one longer essay. I found this experience incredibly rewarding for my own mental health, a break from the crazy schedule we've been living, but also frustrating. A Northern Rockies girl at heart, I had a difficult time relating to the harsh exposure of the desert. As a result, here is the piece I wrote:

I splash cool water over my face, a soothing change from the baking sun and abrading wind. Lying face down on the contoured sandstone, I stare at my reflection in this pothole, surprised at how little has changed. Days in the desert, this land of rolling rocks and shifting sand, has left me raw - burned from the sun, cracked and scratched from the land, and exposed – as though my secrets are uncovered for all to see. I am surprised that this desert capsule has not swallowed me up with its vast canyons and raging winds. No, this desert leaves me solitary, alone in my unease. And so I search for a place here that I can call my own, a home where questions have answers and I am sheltered from the elemental force of this land.

Terry Tempest Williams tells us, “If a desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found,” and, on occasion, I agree with her. Standing on top of Comb Ridge for the first time, we watched a storm descend on us from farther North. A curtain of water engulfed us, washed us clean of our preconceptions and inhibitions about this place and left us bare, exposed to one another, to the landscape and to ourselves. I watched rivulets of water stream between my toes and felt a strange communion with this desert, a communion that quickly dried the following morning with the last sodden remnants of the storm. But those moments have come only occasionally for me and this exposure I feel brings with it a discomfort that characterizes a foreign place.

For days here I struggled to find meaning, to create a deep map that portrayed my own feelings and understandings of a place that isn’t mine. I find myself falling too easily into cliché and don’t know how to add meaning, add newness and shine to a landscape I do not know. Rather, I begin to depend on the words of others to conceptualize the desert. I can feel the sandstone beneath my feet, but don’t have the words to describe the way it confounds my toes into thinking I walk on crushed velvet, not rock. I admire the vistas, but see these mesas and canyons as static landmarks to help me get my bearings rather than stops along the crawling geologic process of time. I need the words of others because I do not possess the words to write the desert, to unearth, within myself, a sense of place here.

This time in the desert has left my feeling lost. My compass still points North, but learning the landscape so I can get my bearings is a slower process among landforms that look to me like one continuation of the same grand idea and leave me turning circles. I stand alone here, between sand and sky, and think about home. Home is a place I haven’t been for awhile, but the more I move the easier it is to find. And so I take this idea of home and translate it here onto the desert.

After days of wandering on this slickrock slope, I came to a place yesterday I can point to and say, “This place, this place I understand.” Ancient grey-green juniper trees and overgrown, snarled shrubs shade two pools – one large and one small – that probably see no more than three hours of sunlight each day. Two stones configure into stairs, complete with juniper handholds, and lead down to the larger pool. On one side, a private changing room for the shy guest, on the other a perfect shelf on which to re-warm stiff muscles after an icy dip. In a desert, famous for its absence of hiding places, this spot is sheltered, overhung and obscured from the passerby. And so, I’ve found my home here in a little alcove completely uncharacteristic of this land. The water is chilly, and moss stays green for days after rain in the shade of a thick slab of sandstone. Rather than exposure, I feel a deep sense of secrecy, of comfort, of conspiracy as though this place and I plot our clandestine enjoyment hidden from the rest of the land. It’s not rawness, but refreshment that brings a tingle to my skin as I slide my naked body into the frigid water of this desert pot-hole. Refreshment and relaxation, relief to have finally found a retreat for myself. Though this haven is not the quintessential desert written about by Mary Austin, Ellen Meloy or Terry Tempest Williams, this is the desert for which my words convene. We are told that deserts are a sacred journey to the self found only because there are no places to hide. But for me, I’ve found my hiding place here, my blue amidst a sea of red, and so I am home.

After the week with Ann, we had our mid-semester break, a four-day rafting trip on the San Juan River between Bluff and Mexican Hat. Though not the warm, sun-basking trip we'd hoped, we enjoyed rock art, cliff dwellings, garnet deposits and the wonderful company of our field managers father and several of his friends. Highlights included an animated version of the Hokey-Pokey and guitar serenades in the morning.

After taking off the river, we headed South for several days on the Navajo reservation. We met with several different organizations including two fighting the incoming coal fired power plant and a few lawyers working on various environmental issues. We also got the opportunity to stay just outside of Canyon de Chelly and take a moonlit tour with a national park service employee. Once again, we are reminded of our relatively recent hold on this land the immense amount of tradition that came before us.

After Navajoland, we returned to the Bluff area of Utah for a four day writing workshop with area writer Craig Childs. The first few days were spent romping up, down and around Mule Canyon, exploring cliff dwellings, frigid pools and learning to move like lizards on the sticky sandstone. Our time with Craig was highlighted by storytelling, of his adventures in the area and the outside world, the history of the people who inhabited the four corners, and his many harrowing tales of living outside for a majority of his life. From Craig we learned that everything is a story, that everything can be somehow tied to everything else, and that an unimproved road is the one most likely to lead somewhere exciting.

We've now moved South to New Mexico once again for a brief stay with William DeBuys on the property he writes about in The Walk. This morning we took the walk with him, and listened to his stories of the 35 years he's spent on this land. Again, we count our lucky stars to be here with this group, traveling through a landscape both coveted for its; beauty, but also controversial for its' resource use and extraction.