November 9, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson

Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian

Nineteen ninety-one was Operation Desert Storm. In 2003 it’s Operation Shock and Awe-or was it Awe and Terror, or Shlock and Glock? We make progress backwards, as befits the new millenium. Twelve years ago, the Pentagon managed at least to get the desert into it. The Mesopotamian Desert, as the troops have discovered on two occasions now, hold awe and terror aplenty (dust storms, heat, drought, marauding A-rabs). The desert as you see it in newspaper photographs and on television appears flatter than West Texas on a gray day, with here and there a palm tree growing from a crack in the crazed and baking flats and on the horizon (sometimes) sere sharp mountains like those back home in the State of Utah (another theocracy, formerly polygamous). All deserts are good deserts, but this Iraqi specimen looks to be really not my type, certainly not my ideal. The American military seems to agree; anyway, it is more than willing to desolate and flatten it still further, while adding a few bomb craters for the sake of topographic diversity. Our culture does not respect desert, which it treats with either indifference or contempt (for which it unconsciously pays a penalty, as often as not). If Iraq were not largely a desert “waste,” this war might not be happening at all.

We left Laramie two days after hostilities had commenced and less than a week after a spring storm dropped three feet of wet snow on eastern Wyoming, headed south across Colorado to Interstate 80 at the Wolcott node, from Wolcott west into eastern Utah to the Cisco exit, and from Cisco down the canyon of the Colorado River, through Castle Valley to Moab, formerly a shabby old uranium town dug solidly into the slickrock desert at the foot of the La Sal Mountains before tourists and mountain bikers from Salt Lake City and Grand Junction rescued it from a handful of long-retired miners, gasping out their lives through cancerous lungs. All deserts everywhere in the world, from the Kalahari to the Great American Desert, are marked for destruction. The Colorado Plateau, at least, has its defenders. Also, it really is my kind of desert.

For fifteen years, a camping trip in the slickrock country of southeastern Utah during the last week of March had been an annual tradition. Tradition always ought to die hard, and this one would not rest easy. Also, my bride of seven weeks had yet to discover the vibrant splendors and tender beauties of this vast and still largely intact country; the war and the snowstorm were added incentives. I cashed in a gift certificate from REI, given us as a wedding present back in February, and bought Maureen a three-season sleeping bag and myself the expensive multipurpose Leatherman tool I’d coveted for a year. “That should keep you plenty warm,” I told her, “but if not, you can always crawl in with me. It’s one of the privileges of marriage. You know?”

A real journalist–to say nothing of a patriotic American–would have brought a short-wave radio and a battery-operated TV set along with the camp gear, to stay up on the war news. So far, however, Operation Shock and Awe, however great as a propaganda triumph, didn’t amount to much as a war-no Rough Rider charges, no Hamburger Hills; no enemy-and we needed the space for three cases of 3.2 Utah beer. As Andrew Lytle remarked upon giving up radio, television, and the newspapers, if something important enough happened, we’d hear a rumor, eventually. Real news never dies, it just becomes history: Time enough to catch up later. Until then, we’d relax and contemplate what Eliot called the permanent things. The desert, for example. This desert. Our desert.

The desert, of course, is not permanent; indeed, there is nothing permanent about it. It just seems that way to us humans, incapable as we are of perceiving the erosion and rearrangement over a handful of years of trillions of grains and granules of dust and rock that, significant as they are in the natural world, remain invisible to our dim-sighted eyes signalling our fatally time-cramped brains. So far as I could tell, Island in the Sky-a six-thousand-foot-high redrock plateau tapering to a point above the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers-was unchanged in the ten or twelve years since I visited it last, except for a number of unwanted human additions-the paved road that had been washboard and a few new ones leading to “scenic overlooks,” a toll booth at the boundary of Canyonlands National Park, an emptiness beside a sandstone outcrop where I remembered the brush corral, blackening under the desert sun, built decades ago by some evicted rancher, half-nomadic Indian, or roaming outlaw. I pointed out for Maureen the red dirt track wavering across the green meadow toward the rimrock 2000 feet above the Green River, where twenty years before we’d built a stone oven to conceal the campfire from the prying eyes of any park ranger who happened to be lurking in the vicinity and eaten supper by the light of a full moon, reflected out of the shadows from a bend in the river, far below. (I was impressed enough by the setting that I used it, the year after, for the conclusion of a novel where the hero and his girl, on the lam from civilization as personified by a Mormon sheriff, conceive a child in their sleeping bag.) Memory can widen the time gap, or narrow it. This morning, it seemed to be doing both, simultaneously. “I’ve never seen country like this before,” Maureen said as we stood together at the precipice, looking down the talus slide to the wide bench a thousand feet below and gazing on across the river to the Henry Mountains, fifty miles to the southwest and gleaming dully under an opaque spring sky. “I never knew it even existed.”

“Sometimes I think it doesn’t,” I told her. “Except in memory, and in books.”

From the tip of Island in the Sky, looking around Junction Butte standing out a few hundred yards in proximate detachment, I indicated the Six-shooter Peaks, North and South, hard to discern by the inexperienced eye at the southern edge of the tortured slickrock desert stretching twenty-five miles to the foot of the Abajo Mountains.

“South Six-shooter’s where we start up Lavender Canyon,” I said. “It’s 130 miles around, going by way of Moab–the only way.”

We stopped in town to buy beer at the City Market and load it in the bed of the truck where the radio and TV should have gone. Much healthier to sit around drinking 3.2 beer than tuning in to George Bush’s 3.2 war.

“I’d like to look into the shops when we come through here on our way home next week,” Maureen suggested.

“To the best of my memory, there isn’t a Nieman Marcus in Moab,” I explained. “Though I wouldn’t be surprised, one of these days.”

Ignoring state law, I drank a couple of near-beers on the road south. (You get more of a buzz from the sugar in a can of Pepsi which, though it contains satanic caffeine, is kosher for Mormons on account of the Church owing a large chunk of the company.) Since I visited the area last, the Dugout Ranch, in the Redd family since the nineteenth century, had been bought by the Nature Conservancy under a contract permitting Charley Redd’s ex-wife to live on the property and operate it as a working ranch for her lifetime. We passed the Dugout, set back from the road beyond a green meadow tinged with purple vetch, and drove on a few miles to the turnoff onto the dirt trail leading back under South Six-shooter, a slickrock chimney rising above the desert, to the mouth of Lavender Canyon. “I’ve done this so often I could drive it with my eyes shut,” I promised Maureen.

The road went through a gate and followed above the creek, past a stand of budding cottonwood trees that looked familiar. “We used to leave the truck and trailer there, under those trees, and begin the ride in from here,” I mentioned. “We sounded like a tinker’s wagon, all the pots and pans banging together in the horse packs.”

“You’re always bringing up the past,” my wife mentioned. “You do it all the time.”

“I know it,” I said, “It’s what I do for a living. But that was all a long, long time ago, now.”

I eased the truck off a rock ledge and into the dry wash, where the deep sand drew the tires down. I climbed out to lock the front drive shaft in and we continued on in the wash, six or eight feet below the greening grass and the budding prickly pear stretching to the red cliff walls converging ahead on either side of the meander. “We used to tie up for lunch under those cottonwoods ahead,” I started to say, but changed my mind. The grove, though familiar looking, seemed changed, but not in a way I could explain, the trees appearing smaller in stature and bulk after ten years.

The two-track climbed out of the wash and entered dense thickets of salt cedar on the approach to the stony gap where the canyon pinched together. I hadn’t remembered the salt cedar, but the stuff (imported from Asia a century ago) grows like topsy. Beyond the gap the canyon widened out again, and I looked to the right for the trail going into the box canyon and the Fremont Indian ruin set back in a narrow cave in the cliff face, fifty feet above the canyon floor. Only, there was no road.

“This isn’t Lavender, this is Davis Canyon,” I thought aloud. “I didn’t think we’d come any thirteen miles getting here. I should have turned up the second canyon we came to, instead of the first.”

“This is fine,” Maureen said. “Davis is a beautiful canyon. I think we should make our camp right here, and enjoy something new.”

“It is a beautiful canyon,” I told her. “Also, it’s yours.”

“I know it,” she agreed.

We found a clean sandy place beyond a screen of juniper trees a few hundred feet from Davis Creek and I drove the truck up as close as I could get it, steering carefully between the pancake pear with its inch-and-a-half long spines to avoid a flat tire. I dug a fire pit and surrounded it with rocks, and together we raised the tent on the smooth sand upwind of the fire. Finally, we brought up the food boxes, the collapsable chairs, the book bag, and one of the cases of 3.2 beer. “F-k the war,” I said. “It’s springtime in the desert. I’m going to build a big fire and mix a couple of martinis, and afterward we’re going to eat our supper and sit by the fire looking at the stars and listening to the tree frogs down along the creek. And tomorrow we’re going to make sheepherder coffee at breakfast, and take a long hike in the side canyon. In the afternoon, we’ll sit in the warm sun, while I read Burke and drink beer. It would be good to have the horses along, though.”

“We don’t need horses, this trip,” Maureen told me. “You’re living in the past, again.”

“You’re right,” I said. “And Faulkner was wrong. The present, not the past, is what we have. Anyway, it is sometimes.”

The sun dropped behind the canyon wall and the blue sky overhead purpled, as the air thinned toward the evening chill. Inside the tent, Maureen rolled out the sleeping bags and arranged her boudoir, while I took a hike up the wash in search of firewood. Dessicated juniper limbs, split away from thousand-year-old trees four and five decades ago, lay partly buried in hills of red dust supporting the trees. I gathered a bundle under each arm and returned with the load to camp. Then I went back for another load. With a pile of good firewood and another of kindling stacked to hand, I laid a fire in the pit and lit it. The dry wood sent up a heavy smoke which evaporated as soon as the fire burst into orange flame, but the pungent scent of juniper intensified as the flames caught and waved higher. Maureen came from the tent, wearing a sweater under her windbreaker and carrying the bookbag. I mixed a couple of vodka martinis and we sat by the fire to drink them, holding our books open in our laps. “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom,” I read in the speech on Conciliation with America; “and a great empire and little minds go ill together.” (“Mr. Burke, meet President Bush, successor to the office of George Washington and John Adams.” “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. President. I perceive I ought to have supported Lord North, His Royal Majesty, and the British Empire, instead.”)

“See that, honey?”

“What are they?”

“Bats.”

Oooo! Bats have rabies, don’t they?”

“Some of them do. The whole world’s rabid, except for you and me.”

“It’s just as well we got married, then.”

“Yes,” I said. “I think it is.”