Friday, June 12, 2015

Black Canyon, Part II. Walking

Better to idle through one park in two weeks than to try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time.
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Post-storm, pre-sunset walk out on East Portal Road (light breeze, cooler air, grouse booming at me from the brush)

It’s a privilege, I know, to get to live in a national park. While others have to fly or drive from far away—or even just up from town—to experience the landscape I see from my front porch, I can just step out my door and be in what Congress agreed is one of the nation’s most important and/or scenic places. [Side note: that’s also a liability.  I meant to write letters last Friday, but found myself repeatedly dashing outside whenever I glimpsed something beautiful through the window, i.e. dawn walk! Cloud walk! Noon walk! Mist walk! Rainbow-at-sunset walk!... I’ll contemplate the significance of that later. In the meantime, apologies to everyone who didn’t get so much as a postcard this week.]

Rainbows at dawn!

Full moon at dusk!

More than the accessibility, I have the luxury of time.  Time to slow down, time to relax, time to reflect, rinse, repeat.  Rather than desperately try to plan which trail to do and which overlook to stop at in the course of a few hours—or, worse yet, to try to race through all of the short hikes and cram in a stop at every overlook, plus maybe a ranger program and of course a look around the Visitor Center—I know that I can always wait and do something another day. Equally as importantly, I can return to do something again another day—experience it at a different time, in a different mood, with different weather.  (It poured all Saturday.  After a week of blaring, bleaching sun, I thought it was lovely to see the canyon alternately obfuscated and gleaming wet, exhaling mist, but also feel sorry for the visitors who stood at the rim and saw nothing. They’ll know its mystery, but not its distance or depth.)(Interesting, will they remember the place in terms of other senses: the roar of the river, the pungent wet sage?) 

Clouds swallowing up the canyon...

...And the canyon, belching out clouds

I’ve known the canyon in the rain, then, and in the snow, and with the sun beating down.  I’ve watched light slowly creep down the cliffs at dawn, and darkness rise up much more rapidly at dusk. I’ve seen afternoon cloud-shadows skitter across crags and linger in crevices.  I’ve smelled serviceberry bursting into bloom and felt the whoosh of cliff swallows swooping too close to my head. The last time I was here, I met a mountain lion, who paused to glance unconcernedly at me over his shoulder, gave his thick tawny tail a sinuous flick, then padded softly away into the unforgettable morning.

All of this happened while I was out walking.

Rim Trail on a rainy afternoon

I love to walk.  It’s my meditation, my celebration, my favorite means of exploring the world. Everywhere I go, I walk. Walk around cities, walk around parks. Walk to explore and, more often, walk the same routes over and over again, day after day. There’s comfort in the rhythm, freedom in the familiarity.  Instead of concentrating on navigation (Where am I? Where am I going? How do I get back?) and/or trying to sort through a barrage of new observations and sensations, I can turn my feet and mind loose, leaving them open to any and all psychological and/or environmental subtleties. Granted, some days, I’m wholly preoccupied with work or other concerns and hardly notice where I am.  On other days, though, I brim with curiosity—will the clouds build and break into rain? Will the snow finally stop and open into sun? Will the dusky grouse be there and, if so, will he boom at me from the bushes or puff his tailfeathers in silence when I approach?

In the three weeks I’ve been here, I’ve walked the entire park road—over to High Point and, yes, down to and back up from East Portal—been twice out to Painted Wall with stops along the way, once each just to Chasm View and Rock Point, looped Oak Flat three or four times, gone up the hill by the entrance booth just about every morning (looking for that mountain lion!), and taken the Rim Trail to Tomichi Point more times than I can count.  I have no idea how many miles that adds up to (not to mention long days hiking around the backcountry for work), but I’m pretty sure that I’ll wear through yet another pair of sandals this season.

Overlooking the San Juan Mountains from a gap on East Portal Rd.

Seeing me striding along the shoulder of the road, several visitors have kindly stopped to ask if I need help or a ride.  “No, thank you,” I tell them, “I like to walk.” (“Yes, even in the rain,” I assured a nice couple from California last Saturday.)  Several more have expressed surprise or admiration at my mode of transportation. “Thank you,” I tell them, “I like to walk.”  (It’s nothing special, I don’t tell them but I could, it takes no skill or special equipment. In fact, it could free you from what Ed Abbey calls variably your “metallic shells” and “back-breaking upholstered mechanized wheelchairs”—allow you to encounter the park firsthand, eyes and ears open, legs swinging, heart pumping, breath steady, except on some of the hills.) I dare not launch into Abbey’s full Desert Solitaire diatribe:
Look here, I want to say...look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras! For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? ... roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it...take a long quiet walk straight into the canyons, get lost for a while… stand up straight like men! like women! like human beings! and walk – walk – WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!
But I do wish that more people would walk. 

Again, I know that because I’m living here—I’ve been here before and have another whole summer to explore—my plans can be flexible, my pace measured.  And I’m also desperately, delightedly aware that this country is rich with beautiful and unique parks, monuments, forests, rivers, refuges, seashores, etc.—it would be impossible to travel to, stop at, and truly see them all.  But if people are going to take the trouble to turn at the brown sign and drive the narrow, windy road from State Rte 50 up to this park, hopefully they’ll have the time or inclination to park their car at the Visitor Center and walk the trails, walk/run/bike/ski/snowshoe down the road, and/or really stop at any of the overlooks (I’ll write about that next.) Anyone would need at least 3-4 hours, preferably a day or two—enough time and at a pace to let the landscape awe, then change, then cut.

Painted Wall freshly washed and gleaming with light

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