Remounting, I roll down the road in the wind-protected lee of the ridgeline in front of me, but at the top of the next hill, I'm thrust into battle against the gusts once more. After another twenty minutes pistoning my legs along this blast furnace of a road, I see a group of motorbikers passing me on their way to the Maze District of Canyonlands. The dust from the motorbikes blows straight into my face, clogging my nose, my eyes, my tear ducts, even gluing itself to my teeth. I grimace at the grit pasted on my lips, lick my teeth clean, and press on, thinking about where those bikers would be headed.
I've visited the Maze only once myself, for about half an hour, nearly ten years ago. When our Cataract Canyon rafting party pulled over in the afternoon to set up camp along the Colorado River at a beach called Spanish Bottom, I hiked a thousand feet up over the rim rock into a place known as the Doll's House. Fifty-to-one-hundred-foot-tall hoodoo rock formations towered above me as I scrambled around the sandstone and granite like a Lilliputian. When I finally turned around to look back at the river, I jerked to a halt and sat on the nearest boulder with a view. It was the first time the features and formative processes of the desert had made me pause and absorb just how small and brave we are, we the human race.
Down behind the boats at Spanish Bottom, a furious river churned; suddenly, I perceived in its auburn flow that it was, even at that exact moment, carving that very canyon from a thousand square miles of desert tablelands. From the Doll's House, I had the unexpected impression that I was watching the ongoing birth of an entire landscape, as if I were standing on the rim of an exploding caldera. The vista held for me a feeling of the dawn of time, that primordial epoch before life when there was only desolate land. Like looking through a telescope into the Milky Way and wondering if we're alone in the universe, it made me realize with the glaring clarity of desert light how scarce and delicate life is, how insignificant we are when compared with the forces of nature and the dimensions of space. Were my group to board those two rafts a mile in the distance and depart, I would be as cut off from human contact as a person could be. In fifteen to thirty days' time, I would starve in a lonely death as I hiked the meanders back upriver to Moab, never again to see the sign or skin of another human. Yet beyond the paucity and the solitude of the surrounding desert, it was an exultant thought that peeled back the veneer of our self-important delusions. We are not grand because we are at the top of the food chain or because we can alter our environment -- the environment will outlast us with its unfathomable forces and unyielding powers. But rather than be bound and defeated by our insignificance, we are bold because we exercise our will anyway, despite the ephemeral and delicate presence we have in this desert, on this planet, in this universe. I sat for another ten minutes, then, with my perspective as widened as the view from that bluff, I returned to camp and made extra-short work of dinner.
Riding down the road past the metal culvert that marks the dried-up source of the West Fork of Blue John Canyon, I pass through a signed intersection where a branch of the dirt road splits off toward Hanksville, a small town an hour to the west at the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park. Hanksville is the closest settlement to the Robbers Roost and the Maze District, and home to the nearest landline public telephone in the region. Just a half mile farther, I pass a slanting grassy plain that was an airstrip until whatever minor catastrophe forced whoever was flying there to head back to more tenable ground. It's an indication of how small planes and helicopters are typically the only efficient means of getting from here to there in this country. Some of the time, though, it's not financially worth leaving here to get there, even if you can fly. Better just to stay at home.
From Between A Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston, pages 1-30. Copyright © 2004 by Aron Ralston. All rights reserved, no part of this excerpt maybe reproduced without specific permission from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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