Flaming gorges, 9/14–9/17

Everywhere and beautiful and makes me sick

At its north end the highway above the gorge runs a straight shot through a level plain. From here there’s nothing to indicate you’re on an escarpment: away from the edge you can’t perceive your own elevation, how you would tower dizzy heights above the river were it in sight. True of life, I think, as the sagebrush blurs, or money, or luck, or something.

But it is (and I was) there

On the Utah side the Flaming Gorge Dam has a visitor center with views of stately pylons and almost Caribbean water. The desk is staffed by gum-chewing kids in cavernous polo shirts; a security guard with a well-worn set of jokes collects watches and lighters in a dish and waves us through a metal detector. I follow the guide and a big, bored family, taking notes surreptitiously in the back. The dam was dedicated by Lady Bird Johnson and the reservoir took 12 years to fill. Imagine!

Follow you down but not that far

Now 191 crests waves of breathing, turning aspens. The trees yield to rock and dust, then an emerald quilt of irrigated alfalfa with the pale spine of Dinosaur National Monument hunched incongruously beyond. I go there and touch what bones you can, shuffling through an over-air-conditioned hall with a queue of retirees, then find I can’t decide what to do next. I drive in and out of the campground three times before I concede, signing in after a white-haired lady in a beat-up Ford. Her entry in the logbook reads, “Vehicle: truck. Number in party: 1.”

She would have made the perfect neighbor but I end up next to two twenty-somethings, a new couple. I know this because every item extracted from the trunk of the Prius as they set up camp must be asked about or remarked upon, complimented and giggled over conspiratorially. The man in the site on my other side is alone when I arrive but soon joined by a toddler, mother, and grandparent. The adults coo over a portable pink toilet they’ve brought along for the child. The sun’s down by now but I start walking.

In the moonlight the dry river washes look like spilled milk, the ridge of uplifted, sedimentary rock like a row of hooded monks. They seem to watch me wind my way up the ridge—them and the spiders, green eyes glittering in the sand.

Even in daylight the interpretive signage here is … more interpretative than usual.

The next day I turn at last for home. I stop in Roosevelt City, of course, where alas the only sign of Him is on the wall of the aquatic center where I go to to find a shower. The facility is shiny and new, but Main Street is a march of shuttered storefronts. I pull over to ask the Internet for food, opening my door against the heat. The woman parked next to me has done the same while she applies mascara.

Across the road, a man obscured by the open hood of his car hurls something heavy and metal onto the sidewalk, screaming. “Fucking BITCH! Fuck, fuck, FUCK!” The other driver and I close and lock our doors in perfect unison. I suppose these are steps in a dance we all know.

“There is no surer sign of advancing civilization than the advanced respect paid to a woman, who is neither a doll nor a drudge.”

The diner is stacked floor to ceiling with a merry jumble of candles and chapstick and snarky signage, figurines and pocketknives and Pendleton blankets. It’s a place of refuge, I suspect—there is a pierced and pink-haired waitress and a silent cashier with a lazy eye—and I’m a stranger, served briskly and left alone to make time for the regulars. “How’s your brother?” the waitress asks. “He’s a junkie,” the man next to me says flatly, steadying the base of a milkshake as his little boy swipes at the straw. “It’d be pretty alright if he died.”

“He can ruin his own damn life if he wants,” the man continues, eventually. “But you bring those kids into it and now you’ve got a problem with me.”

Always

I head out of town, past ranch houses and boats at rest behind chain-link, through farmland, and up again into the Ashley National Forest. There is an obvious and ominous plume of smoke on the horizon, but as the road twists through the wooded canyons it’s impossible to tell if I’m headed toward it, if this is a problem, until I too clearly am and it too clearly is.

California of course burns everywhere and all the time, but this is the closest I’ve been to a fire this size. As I unfold a map on the hood of the car to reroute—no signal—a hot wind snatches angrily at the corners and my hair. I look up in time to see the roiling, steely cloud seem to fold in on itself, flaring orange in tears and creases. I have never seen anything so animal.

Highway Patrol comes screaming up the road in the opposite direction. The cop slams to a stop and rolls down a window. “Road’s closed,” he says. “Wind’s changing. It’s jumped the canyon. Time to go.”

“Yes, sir,” I say. The words are strange in my mouth, but for once I have no impulse to argue.

FYI: Wildland Firefighter Foundation

Water Canyon to Park City, 8/29–9/4

Water Canyon

Enormous black crickets burst out of the grass.

Winnemucca

The singletrack called “Bloody Shins” rides slow waves of sagebrush, to which I’ve only recently realized I am wildly allergic. (Because the plant’s range corresponds almost perfectly with places I’m interested in going, I had previously assumed that vacation itself was making me sick. This was perhaps a capitalist plot.)

Through a stream of snot and tears, I puzzle over the name: out here, no rocks, no exposure, no bad sight lines, nothing technical at all … what gives? It’s the sagebrush, I discover, with my shins, as I gather speed—or rather, that it doesn’t.

The Rubies

I first came to Liberty Lake in the snow and the evening and it felt like a faraway secret. This time I share the hike up with screaming kids and pairs of women in yoga pants, men with speakers in one hand and coffee in the other. I’ll have to work a little harder for some space.

I find it the next day in the talus fields below Snow Lake Peak, pushing past slabs and scree and the usual crescendo chorus—turn back, turn back, turn back, you’ll fall, you’ll fall, you’ll fall—until I can at least and at last peer over the spine into Thomas Canyon on the other side. This moment of unveiling is 90 percent of what I wanted. I will be back one day for the rest.

The only people I encounter up here are a pair of grouse hunters in their 70s. One is in vintage teal Polartec and a deerstalker, the other head-to-toe camo and a Wyatt Earp mustache. His eyes are lost in the somber folds of his face. “See any big birds?” he asks me. I shake my head. “No birds and no friggin’ goats, either.”

He raises one furry eyebrow and I’m immediately ashamed for swearing. I want to move on from this and so I ask the best way down off the ridge. I could retrace my steps but it’s going to scare me. He swaps his rifle to his other shoulder. “Well, it’s hard country,” he says.

Bonneville Flats

I arrive close to midnight, following GPS to a pin dropped in BLM blankness. I pass turnouts occupied by what appear to be semi-permanent family compounds, pavilion tents and rifle stands, big men watching the road from camp chairs. Peering through the dust and dark for another option I nearly dump my little 2WD RAV4 in a three foot-deep pothole the size of a bus. Enough, I think, and pull off into the darkness. Play it where it lies.

When I open the door in the morning it’s into a sandy wash at the base of a mountain I didn’t know was there. I wander the lower slopes and tell myself the summit is choss so that I’ll continue on to Salt Lake City. How is it even now there’s not enough time?

Park City

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate a Henry Coe bushwhack, our EBRPD fire-break hike-a-bikes, the Sierra suffer-fests and ego-checks, and every minute spent lost in the woods in Santa Cruz. But I’ll admit, every now and then I just want to follow signs to the summit. I want to cruise perfectly buffed and graded traverses, make every effortless switchback like I know what I’m doing, take a roller coaster down, nice surprises only. Eat pizza, take a hot shower, sleep in a bed. For that, Park City and a big bike. Let ‘er rip. 

Ogden, Park City, Salt Lake City, 7/22–7/26

Planes, trains, and automobiles; cowboys and Indians; fire and rain

Planes

Outside the Ogden Air Force Base museum the planes stand serene against the hazy backdrop of the Wasatch, casting their own shade. Inside there are more—old bombers painted with pin-up girls and little Hitlers in crosshairs—and also a replica of a North Korean POW cell, complete with mad-eyed mannequins in bunks behind bars.

The placard includes a photo of three graduating seniors from the University of San Francisco. They’re sitting around a radio, listening for their draft numbers. One vaguely resembles an old classmate of mine. It’s not that I’ve never thought about this—that there was a time when men in my life would have been called away to die—it’s just that I’ve never thought about it while standing completely alone in a 28,000-square-foot aircraft hangar, citizen and subject of a commander-in-chief who Tweets in all-caps.

We could have fighter jets without the fighting, you know. There is no rule against this; we only have to decide that’s what we want.

Trains

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The railroad museum is closed but there are a few big steam engines under a pavilion outside. I’m inhaling creosote and running my hands over rivets in a pleasant state of foamer reverence when two large families enter from the other end of the walkway.

The kids scatter and the parents lean on the railing in the shade. “There used to be a train like this at the park,” remarks one woman, “but they got rid of it after a little girl fell off the top and died.” Jesus, I think.

“It was so sad,” she continues, wistfully. “I loved that train.”

Automobiles 

The little Chevy I rented is black. It’s so hot out that I burn my hand opening the trunk.

I return the car when I get to Salt Lake City—to save some cash, I mean, not because of my hand—and use Lyft. My first driver is from Ethiopia and works with refugees. I tell him about my job and he replies that in his past life he did something similar, as a reporter for Boeing’s corporate magazine. It was the ’80s; he wore a cologne called Editor. “You know,” he says, “to cover up the stink.” We have a good laugh about this.

My last driver is saving up to skip town. She tells me her family disowned her for leaving the Mormon Church. “You can’t escape LDS in this city,” she says. “I just want to go somewhere I can be me.”

The only thing I don’t love about where I live is sharing it, the attendant inconveniences of crowding in with millions of others who wouldn’t belong anywhere else. “Come to California,” I say anyway, and mean it. “California would love to have you.”

Cowboys

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At the rodeo:

  • Paragliders descend into the arena bearing the Utah and U.S. flags.
  • Breast cancer survivors release pink-dyed doves from a dozen plastic pet carriers.
  • A woman in a fuschia jumpsuit enters the ring on a pair of white horses, one foot on the back of each. She’s holding another American flag, this one on a pole with fireworks shooting out the top. After a few laps at a casual gallop they start jumping barrels that the rodeo clown has doused in lighter fluid and set on fire.
  • There are several rounds of mutton-busting, an event in which one deposits a small child on the back of a sheep, sets the sheep loose in an arena, and incites a thousand people to scream at it until the child falls off. On the Jumbotron the six-year-old winner is asked if he’d like to go again and replies flatly, “No.”
  • Horseback musical chairs is won by a six-foot-something man strategically mounted on a Shetland pony.
  • A woman is pulled “randomly” from the crowd to remove the rodeo clown’s pants with a bullwhip.

Everything about this is gaudy and absurd; it seems to lack any sense of irony. It’s awesome; it’s pure; I love it. It’s the most American thing I’ve ever seen.

Indians

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It’s Pioneer Day. I’m in Salt Lake City for Outdoor Retailer, which could be characterized as a convening of businesses that profit from public land. Either because of or despite this, depending on how you look at it, the trade show is leaving Utah in protest over the administration’s threats to the state’s newest national monuments, which contain indigenous religious sites, rock climbing, and uranium.

Not so far away is another convention, a pow-wow in a screened-off section of Liberty Park. Before this was public land it belonged to Brigham Young, who presumably took it from the Shoshone or the Ute. Now legally it’s mine as much as either his or theirs. There’s an argument to be made that this is more democratic. There’s an argument to be made it is unjust.

Those are the facts at hand but from all of them, and the flash and whirl of the fancy dancers, and the rise and fall of the elders’ chant, I’m unable to make any sense. There’s only a fog in my head and stomach, abstractions and static—ownership and inheritance and freedom and loss. It’s all significance and no relevance. It’s pulsing with the drums.

Laugh all you like, but until this moment it’s possible I didn’t fully grasp what other people mean when they refer to feeling. I’m not saying, exactly, that I understand an emotion only as the the animal chaos that precedes a thought. But when you live in language you have to wonder what it is, this antecedent. More honest? Less true?

Fire

I’ve only just reached the ridgeline when the storm breaks, in long, steady rolls of thunder I can feel in my ribs. A group of guys who passed me on the climb reappears going the opposite direction. “Time to go!” one shouts.

In all my outdoor pursuits I am accompanied by a continuous film reel of unwelcome scenarios. I’m going to get injured or lost; I’m going to run out of food, water, fuel, or daylight; I will encounter a mountain lion or a swarm of bees or a serial killer; I’ll break a shoelace, trespass on a pot farm, die slowly of appendicitis. There is literally one hazard I worry about less that other people, for some reason, and it’s lightning. This has always been the case, and sure enough as the steel-cast sky flares bright again I feel nothing but a mild interest in seeing more.

“Are you coming down?” The last rider has stopped and is looking over his shoulder at me.

“I’m going to wait for it to—”

BOOM

“No way. Listen, I’m a professional guide and I’m telling you to —”

B-BOOM

“Get off the mountain!”

” I think I’ll just—”

“Let’s go! You’re coming with us!”

I’m impressed by his intensity so I follow him. The fine dust of ten minutes ago has liquified to treacherous grease in the downpour. I’m going to eat shit on those tree roots, I think, and I do.

Rain

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I’m lost and pushing my bike up what the rest of the year is probably a double-black ski run. The first people I see to ask directions are a pair of retirees hiking hand in hand. In addition to their respective favorite routes back to town (he likes wildflowers, she goes for views) they have a variety of other advice for me, some items less actionable than others. Buy property, they tell me, retire early. Hike with trekking poles. Marry your best friend. Dance in the rain.