November 10, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson

Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian

How many years since I became acquainted with Moab, Utah? More than I’d realized, apparently. When I first saw the place, a room at the Canyonlands Motel cost $19.95 per night, I recall, and you could get breakfast at the motel’s cafeteria, pleasantly located in the shade of a hoary cottonwood tree, for $2.25. Now the motel has long since been knocked down, the tree uprooted, and you can wait as long as forty minutes for a breakfast seating at any restaurant in town. Who’s surprised? Though it seems like the day before yesterday, June, 1980 has fallen into the past by nearly a quarter-century.

Even in the 80s, I used to avoid Easter week in Moab for the jeep safari and, later, the mountain bikers down from Salt Lake City. In those days, the jeepers were countable in dozens rather than by the hundreds, while the bikers, though annoying, were half female; eye-catching in their tight, bright Lycra pants, and wonderfully silent on their motorless machines. The mountain bikers have been largely displaced over the past ten years by the dirt bikers–not just a different breed, but almost a different species-whose delight is not in physical exertion and peace (of a sort), but bodily inertia and ear-splitting noise. As the pre-Christian Easter was a ritual celebration of the forces of natural rebirth and renewal, post-Christian Easter in the American Southwest recognizes and aggressively affirms the triumph of the machine over nature, and even man. And then, it has to rub it in.

Overnight, the tethered horses had spread a mess of hay and manure in the midst of so much custom-painted and hand-polished steel parked around the Virginian Motel at the end of a side-street a block away from the main drag. My wife and I ate a bad breakfast costing fifteen dollars at a restaurant whose sole virtue was a deservedly short waiting line, went for groceries and two cases of three-two beer at the supermarket, and stopped at a farm and ranch supply store for a new halter and lead to replace the ones the mare had spoiled in her escape from elk camp the year before. Secure within cast-iron tubs warmed by heat lamps, a couple of dozen spring chicks played and peeped contentedly. The red slickrock wall was misting again as we left Moab on Highway 191, and a soft rain fell. “I’ll take a beer now,” I suggested to Maureen. Playing by Mormon rules means never having to feel guilty about anything, including taking a “drink” before twelve.

Alpine storms tented the peaks of the La Sal Mountains in snow clouds, while the desert below, despite the several years’ drought, looked green and refreshed; thin sheets of water glistened in the arroyos. Around Wilson Arch the sky cleared above the plateau, revealing the Abajo Mountains twenty-five miles away to the southwest across the sagebrush plain, a tall blue island bisected laterally by a storm of its own making. At Church Rock we turned west and began the long descent to Indian Creek, on its way around the mountains to the Colorado River beneath Island in the Sky. They had done some work to the Dugout Ranch in the past year; this afternoon the hands were burning piled brush between the irrigated fields. After Charley Redd (an old friend of Ed Abbey’s) signed over the ranch to his wife as part of their divorce settlement, the former Mrs. Redd ran the place by herself for some years, before selling off most of the land to the Nature Conservancy under an arrangement that permits her to continue to operate the place as a working ranch. We crossed the mouth of Lavender Canyon, with its view south to Cathedral Butte standing majestically above the distant head wall, and passed beneath the crimson Six Shooter Peaks ensconced on their triangular bases of red talus. At the Lockhart Trail turnoff, a retired couple stood beside their camper to read the government sign posted there.

“There may be a problem getting off by ourselves,” I warned Maureen. “We’re in a narrow corridor between the park and private lands, managed by the BLM which doesn’t impose a lot of rules and regulations regarding use. That means everyone and his three wives, plus their extended families, want to camp here, along with all their gear. The way the place fills up in Easter week, you’d think the Mormons celebrated the Resurrection. Of course, they have the Easter Bunny. You couldn’t ask for a better fertility symbol than that, could you?”

The washboard road ran a couple of miles across the gently rolling plateau, and began the descent to Indian Creek. Trails diverged among the juniper trees and eroded sandstone cliffs toward improvised campsites half buried by the deep red sands only slightly less fine than talcum powder. Here and there a camper trailer showed, tucked against a cliff wall or within a grove of trees: not much population–yet–to speak of.

“Today’s only Tuesday,” I said. “Or else-who knows? It could be the herd’s moved down to Grand Gulch, or somewhere, these last few years. In there among those rocks looks like a good place for someone to put a Winnebago. Vivo jo! as they say in South America. First come, first settled-it’s the law of the Old West. Anyone wants to dispute it with us, we have the firepower to take him on.”

I drew the horses from the trailer by their tails, snubbed them to the tie rings beside the rear doors, and dragged over a bail of hay from the truck box. Together Maureen and I raised camp, dug a pit, and gathered wood for a fire. The canyon was scavanged as thoroughly as India or the Sudan, and we spent nearly an hour accumulating enough fuel for the evening meal. Fortunately, I had the white-gas Firefly stove along for a backup. When everything was fixed, I saddled the mare and rode out from camp, leaving Maureen seated with her book in a canvas chair and leading the gelding on a ten-foot rope I held coiled in my gloved hand.

The weather had passed away to the east, along with the afternoon, and the sky showed a soft spring blue above the slickrock cliffs, glowing in hues of rose and yellow in the horizontal light of the low-down sun. The sun burned on my cheek below the brim of my straw hat and on the backs of my hands holding the reins, but the downhill twilight breeze was pleasantly cool. The gelding, remembering, and scenting water now, pushed ahead on his lead, nearly uncontrollable without the bit in his mouth. I wrangled him back and kicked the mare into a trot as Indian Creek swung into view below us around a bend in the road, running slow but sure within green margins of aspen and tamarisk. Years ago, I used to strip to my shorts and gallop bareback for a half-mile in the sandy riverbed, through silver sprays of water. Tomorrow, perhaps–assuming a warm April sun overhead and not a lot company arrived down here by then.

The horses stood with their noses together in the stream, sucking up water with a deep interior rumbling sound. Back at camp I gave them a measure of grain and went to pour drinks for the human members of the expedition. Seated together in comfortable chairs beside the pale flames of a climbing fire, my wife and I drank wine while the opposing cliffs flamed with color, the shadow in our private canyon deepened, and a pair of ravens performed an aerial show in the purpling sky overhead.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked Maureen.

“I’m fine! I feel much more relaxed here than I did last year. It’s easier for me when we aren’t camped in the middle of nowhere, away from civilization, the way we were the other time.”

“It’s the middle of nowhere that’s civilization, actually.”

“Anyhow–I don’t think I’m going to take a sleeping pill tonight.”

“That’s good. By the end of the camping season, the only pill you’ll need will be the stars overhead, the good earth beneath your sleeping bag, and the joyous squeak of bats in the darkness.”

“You mean, there are bats here–in this place, too?”

In the morning I watered the horses at the creek and rode out from camp again on the mare, leaving the gelding pawing the sand behind the trailer and neighing shrilly, at intervals. From the top of the bluff we paused for a look down into camp, where Maureen sat peacefully reading while the horse ran back and forth at the end of his lead. Then I turned the protesting mare’s nose away from the canyon, toward the high desert stretching west to a horizon formed by some of the most fantastically beautiful country on earth.

Before we had traveled a quarter-mile we had passed, the mare and I, from the Mormon playground on Indian Creek into another dimension–completely removed from the human world by the pressing wind, the circling space, the howling silence of the slickrock desert. Underfoot the sand, the blackbrush, the prickly pear in flower; around, the circle of red plateau cut by arroyos and dotted with the dark juniper trees; beyond, in a sweep of three-hundred-sixty degrees, an arrangment of mountains, cliffs, buttes, and gnomons, like compass points in bar relief on an ornate circular map beneath a shiny tumultous sky. A mile and a half out, at the eleven o’clock position, an outcrop of rock and trees broke through the desert floor. I heeled the mare in both flanks and we were off across the sands like Bedouins, the horse as responsive to the reins as a sports car as we dodged among rocks and cacti, and seeming nearly as well-suspended over the resilient ground. We arrived at the outcrop at a gallop, veered hard right, and galloped on toward purple distant cliffs carved in the plateau by a tributary of Indian Creek. The fresh wind, compounded by our own velocity, chilled the sunshine, leaving the mare unsweated and still frisky after a run of several miles as we approached camp at a trot. I slowed her as the unshod hooves struck rimrock and drew rein at the cliff’s edge to wave my hat to Maureen below. The gelding, spying us in silhouette against the sky, shrieked once-his eager cry insufficiently strong to cover a sound of greater intensity still, as alien and distressing as the neigh of a horse is natural and consoling. bbrrUMM-puhpuhpuhpuhpuhpuhpuh-bRUM-RUM-RUM-puhpuhpuhpuhpuh.. The Easter Riders were arriving at last, and almost up to full throttle already.

We eyed each other resentfully, the Mormon party and we, as Maureen and I gave the sun a helping boost over the yardarm by uncorking a magnum bottle of red wine. They wanted our space; we wanted our solitude. It was a family reunion, apparently: the obligatory Winnebago with dirtbike trailer attached, surrounded by three or four pickup trucks, also towing trailers, and several sedans. Each of the adults had his own bike; so did the six or seven pre-adolescent kids, each dressed in complete outfits that included striped pants and crash helmets. For the next two days, the human ability to walk seemed to have been suspended. Everybody rode-and rode noplace: up, down, and around, wherever virgin sand stretched, in however small a spot, like alpine skiers seeking fresh powder. bbrrRUM-puhpuhpuhpuhpuh-bRUM-RUM-RUM-RUUUM!!!!. But skiers are not entirely mindless. Almost the whole aim of modern globalpolitik is to maintain and protect an idiotic way of life. For bbRUM-bRUM!, hundreds of thousands have already perished, and thousands are dying now. And just wait until the credit empire that is its other support crashes. I hope to be off in the wilderness somewhere with a horse, a rifle, a frying pan, my wife, and a case of whiskey when that happens.

We stood it for forty-eight hours, then struck camp, packed it into the truck, and pulled out, leaving piles of horse manure and trampled hay where the Winnebago was going to go. Emboldened by our imminent departure, the bikes swarmed closer and closer like angry asteroids, looking for something to impact and destroy. It was Easter Saturday anyhow, and we had to be at Mass in Cortez, Colorado, by nine-thirty the next morning.

Whoever knows the Rocky Mountains knows also that, out here, snow is certain as death and taxes on Easter Sunday. Maureen and I awoke next morning in a Cortez motel room, surrounded by the camp gear and horse tack we’d dragged inside to protect them overnight from prowling Utes from the nearby reservation, to discover several inches of wet snow on the ground and the cliffs behind Mesa Verde shrouded in cloud. Mass at St. Mary and Margaret Church, where a pianist played what sounded like cocktail bar music throughout the Consecration (and elsewhere), failed to elevate our spirits. We got on the road, finally, after eating a surprisingly satisfactory Easter dinner at a chain restaurant (all the local places were closed) across the street from the motel, and caught up with the snowstorm on the mountain pass between Cortez and Durango. It was snowing hard again at Pagosa Springs, where I made a decision against pulling horses over Wolf Creek Pass (elevation 10850 feet) and in favor of detouring south to the Spanish village of Chama, New Mexico, where we spent Easter night trapped between two snowed-up passes, in bed together in a primitive motel room at the edge of town, surfing across the four or five accessible channels on an ancient television set.

There are times when belief in the possibility even for natural rebirth and renewal seems as much an act of faith as the glorious fact of the Resurrection Itself.