Love, Part 2: Now

 

Love RockersIt was early September in 2009. I was a divorcee living in Moab, Utah. I was writing, editing, working at the thrift store and the library, trying to make meager ends meet in a tourist town known for its difficulty producing a living wage.

One Saturday night found me on a rare date. I had chosen not to see Moabites, as the dating pool was so small and the gossip mill so loud. The hotshot photographer from New York seemed too good to be true. And he was. After dinner and drinks, on a moonlight hike up Mill Creek Canyon, he informed me that he was married. With a little girl at home. He tried to convince me that we should practice the Buddhist notion of “nonattachment.” I think he misunderstood the teachings.

It seemed a less-than-auspicious reentry in the dating scene. The next morning, I was plunging into the wallow of self-pity generated by a life waiting for Mr. Right to get donated to the thrift store, when my warrior-for-all-things-love roommate, Hillary, offered a glimmer of hope. She lured me toward her laptop, toward the promises proffered by online dating. I’m not even on Facebook, but after giving my obligatory sanctimonious speech on the perils of artificial bonding and diminishing face-time, I relented. Those boys she showed me from Durango — just three hours away — were appealing.

After Hillary’s introduction to the wonders of shopping for men online, I began my editing work for the day. However, I was too distracted to get far. I eventually yielded to the urge and slowly typed m-a-t-c-h-.-c-o-m into Firefox’s address field. My finger hovered over the Enter key.

Click.

My life was forever changed by a keystroke.

I spent the morning engaged in the self-conscious and self-indulgent task of crafting a profile — Vox Deserto, The Back of Beyond is Better Shared — and uploading choice pictures. The whole process felt ridiculous, but I soldiered forward. I signed up for the three-day free trial. I wasn’t yet convinced that I wanted to shell out money to maybe meet someone special. I still believed in the starry-eyed notion of seeing my soul mate across the room, locking gazes and feeling the chill of destiny wash over me. Electronic winks and messages delivered by billions of binary numbers seemed decidedly less romantic. But I had nothing to lose with a free trial.

I ignored most messages, sent few. I noticed PondoPitch: 29, piercingly beautiful eyes, sweetly devilish smile. I saved his profile for later, unknowingly altering him to my interest with a mouse-click. I then conversed with a dentist from Vail, found it fun, but decided not to pay for an actual subscription.

One hour before my profile’s midnight expiration, I received a message from PondoPitch:

OK, I don’t know anything about the philosophy of spiral dynamics but your page has absolutely captivated me. You have an incredible smile, a passion for words, the cycles of weather, and the desert. Who are you???

Hi, I’m Tyler.

The message turned into a phone call — amazing for two telephobes — and the phone call turned into an invitation for Tyler Quintano to join me on a Westwater trip with friends. I figured there was safety in the distraction of whitewater. He would drive to meet me in Moab on Sunday night, and we would launch Monday morning.

My absent roommate — this story’s instigator — was the only person who knew of Tyler’s arrival. I was too embarrassed to tell any of my friends that I was engaged in the pride-squelching practice of online dating. Thus, I found myself in the somewhat uncomfortable predicament of meeting a perfect stranger in my empty home, with no one to hear my screams if he attacked me with chainsaws.

The day of his arrival was cloudy and cool. I was restless. I went for a bike ride and a run. I was a worthless editor. I got dressed five separate times, unsure of my appearance and myself. I even Googled the acceptability of wearing brown and black together. Not that my date would likely notice. Or care. I tried to meditate. And failed.

My nervousness was about more than greeting a strange man and entertaining him for a weekend. It was about understanding and embracing the fact that I wanted to fall in love again. And I wanted to do it right this time. To do right by me. It was about knowing that, even if Tyler wasn’t the one, I was now plunging into a world where my heart would once again be open to both happiness and hurt. And in the strange world of dating, the latter is more likely than the former.

My nervousness was also as much about fear of success as it was fear of failure. Sometimes, the thing we want most is the scariest to reach for. There’s less risk in wanting than there is in having.

I saw him pull up in his silver truck (unbeknownst to me, he did arrive with chainsaws; he’s an arborist). With the next beat of my heart, he was on the doorstep: a few days’ worth of red stubble, stature slightly shorter than mine, big barrel chest, beautiful forearms and legs, perfect hands — yes, I’ve always noticed men’s hands — and an enormous nervous smile.

Is that fate smiling at me?

The thing I wanted most was on my doorstep. And I was afraid. My heart sank as I told myself he couldn’t be the one. My first instinct was to apologize for my mistake and close the door, turning my back on my future because it felt so big and new. Like his smile.

But I opened the door. And I awkwardly hugged a man that now holds my being in the tenderest embrace I have ever known. I awkwardly brought Tyler’s heart close to mine. And there it has always stayed.

After a beat of self-conscious silence, I asked, “Wow, do you need a beer?”

“God, I thought you’d never ask,” he exhaled.

We sat down over PBRs, and after nervously emptying a few cans, two shy souls emerged and began to get acquainted. Who knew that beer could be a multigenerational catalyst for love?

Monsoonal rains engulfed our nascent story that night. We watched the lightning and rainbows from cliffs above town. We had our first kiss on his tailgate in the rain. We learned that the Westwater trip had been cancelled. We didn’t care. We filled the days, instead, with hiking and camping, conversation and wonder at the ease of our connection.

The next weekend, I went to Durango, met his parents. That followed with another Moab visit. The days that stretched between were filled with thoughts of his eyes, his hands, his smile. I told him I was falling in love. And so, he professed, was he.

One month to the day after our first awkward hug, Tyler purchased a 1971 Streamline travel trailer for us to live in. Two months to the day, he hauled it to Moab. And here we still reside, in 26 linear feet of paradise.

Nearly three years, two shared business ventures and one adopted Mexican dog later, I went on a backpacking meditation retreat. I walked through the wilderness for days, hands in pockets, head down, heart working overtime. I returned to Moab and asked Tyler to marry me. With a rare tear in his eye, he said yes. My name will be Jenny Quintano.

I have chosen a man with beautiful hands and a beautiful heart, just like my father. A man of striking eyes, a wonderful smile, and a soul that carries an abundance of love and devotion.

Our love was born online. In a way, we are the trend. And, as are all of us in love, we are so much more.

Senior correspondent Jen Jackson writes from Moab, Utah, where she is currently researching the life of Bates Wilson, “Father of Canyonlands,” for a book due out in 2014. Her blog, Desert Reflections, can be found at
mountaingazette.com.

Read about Jen’s mother and her experiences with love, in Love, Part I.

Wandering Sacred Shores

Wandering Sacred Shores

Dawn found us perched at cliff’s edge, overlooking the Pacific. The pangas were long since out on the water, searching for gilled prey, and the tiny cinderblock-built fishing camp was ghostly quiet. Even the resident dogs held a seemingly respectful silence, as if they knew that their fates, too, were pinned on the bounty of the day’s catch.

With coffee in hand, we walked the craggy Mexico shoreline, absorbing spray at the watery intersection of moon’s playful drag and gravity’s covetous leap. High tide caressed the cliffside incessantly, obsessively, a dangerous adoration that had stolen more than one resident of the fishing camp. The interstices between elements make for the most precarious lives and livelihoods.

Our walk soon brought us to an impromptu concrete shrine holding a skull fashioned out of a buoy. This, perhaps, was made in honor of one of the lost fisherman, proffering a portal toward communion with him. Maybe his family left regular offerings for him — colorful shells, stones lovingly shaped by the tides, driftwood with knotholes, the ocean’s artistic offerings. And maybe they hoped he would sense their sustained love, find refuge in it, and then bring their prayers to the ears of the saints. The small shrine was not only hallowed access to the dearly departed, but it was a portico toward divine grace.

In Baja, these reliquaries blanket the countryside, some as simple as candles lovingly placed in a small cave. Others are grandiose, with tall, brightly colored walls, glass cases for photos and votives and murals depicting the Virgin de Guadalupe or Christ and the Sacred Heart. Offerings range from flowers and rosaries to cigarettes and liquor bottles. We frequently found these small altars along roadsides, especially near dangerous curves and cliffs. In this way, Baja’s highways are a landscape of loss and holy space, a divine drive amidst watchful saints, cross-shaped cordon cacti and the eternal flame of the cirio or candlewood.

The Catholic faith is very much alive in Mexico; it is evolving, not simply some fixed remnant of another time. Here, it is pertinent to people’s lives, malleable enough to match each individual’s joys and concerns. It speaks in terms of the everyday, not the elite. The saints are just as willing to listen to a supplicant offering tobacco as one with jewels. They are as eager to populate shallow caves and arid earth as they are churches or cathedrals.

A religion that once protected salvation from the masses by imposing a high tariff now finds the populace storming the gates, taking what has always been rightfully theirs. Access to God’s grace no longer sits on scales awaiting the requisite amount of gold. Instead, spiritual currency is of subjective value. As such, each shrine, whether made of simple seashells or soaring adobe walls, is a thing of beauty, speaking to the heart and hopes of its creator.

This was true even for a foam skull looking longingly at land from its small, shore-bound shelter — a shrine built to honor death and to hope for a better life through the intercession of celestial beings.

In Mexico, Christ and his entourage of saints walk amongst the masses — just as they always intended.

Farther south, we learned Cerritos Beach is no longer the desolate shoreline of the previous decade. Large resorts have sprung up, a gated RV park blankets the nearby desert and tourists like us swarm the surf beach and beach bar. No furtive candles in the rocks. No holy gaze surveying the sea. It seems the gringo influx has displaced natives and saints alike. The locals now commute to collect trash at the RV park for 50 pesos per bag while the Virgin and her Son seek shelter and employment elsewhere.

We went for a hike through this changing landscape, exploring neighboring beaches by traversing the rocky points segregating each cove. Atop the lower tier of rocks, enormous tide pools offered their warm embrace while tiger-striped fish flittered beneath us. In one me-sized puddle, I floated on my back, ears submerged, enjoying the womb-like calm of the pool with the faint sensation of pounding surf filtering toward my awareness.

Instead of retracing our footsteps along the coast, we wandered back on a rural road paralleling the beach. There, we found a fascinating mix of people and economic realities. The path we walked skirted working farms and modest ranchos, abandoned and unfinished multi-million-dollar homes and inhabited Turkish palaces. An enormous yellow hotel sitting on a point overlooking Cerritos Beach — which we dubbed Banana Manor — has a room atop its phallic turret that rents for $900 a night. Within view of this opulence, mutts scavenged for food and fought fleas while a lone horseman sat on his pony bareback and stared over the waters. Here, Mexico’s past and present seek the terms of an uneasy truce. And the years-long conflict has displaced the saints.

The abandoned homes — ruins of the recent economic collapse — stood on the shoreline battlefield where the forces of nouveau colonialism recently made a hasty retreat, conceding the coast to scavengers and tides. The wounded buildings sat open to the elements, devoid of the warmth and memories habitation creates. Careful brickwork spiraling toward 20-foot ceilings, storied mosaics, polished beams, the artistry of human hands — it had all been created, unknowingly, for entropy and erosion’s pleasure.

Unintentionally, the villas had also become monuments to the unrevealed — just like the shrines. Though their creators had meant them to be bulwarks against the outside world and its unknown undercurrents — a cocoon for one’s delicate mortality — life’s uncertainties had prevailed. This space of onetime dreams, of perished plans, of crumbling monuments to wealth and self now had to allow that there are forces at work greater than one’s means. We can’t buy our safety, serenity or salvation. Nor is it anyone’s to sell — as Mexico’s faithful have learned.

Perhaps this is where the lost saints of Cerritos now reside, amidst the toils of men who unwittingly built testaments to loss and change. Much like the fishing village shrine to the north, these skeletal remains held space for forces beyond our control.

We hit Punta Santo Domingo near sunset, and Tyler had a chance to surf on the point’s small waves. Our camp sat atop a rocky outcropping where shrines had been placed, likely by and for area fishermen — in honor of those who travel among tides of abundance and loss. Statues of Jesus and the Virgin de Guadalupe stared out over the bay, blessing the waters and those who cross it, including my beloved.

I sat near the holy sculptures and reflected upon these acknowledgements of death and the divine, the inescapable and interconnected energies that shape our world. These energies were now visibly at work on the half-built palaces full of unrealized dreams, each tumbling brick a transcendent footstep among us. And they were imperceptibly weaving their unrealized plans into my own life. Acknowledged or not, the holy, the ghostly, the unseen and unknown — the saints — continue to march through our lives.

My companion soon trudged up the crumbling hillside as purple dusk descended. A salty-wet and smiling kiss was our nod to the divine. To mark this, I placed a heart-rock at the Virgin’s feet. And, as always, she and her Son faithfully cast their gazes upon our watery surroundings, serving as a rock-bound reminder that, if we humbly hold space — landscape, heartscape, dreamscape — the divine will freely walk among us.

Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last piece for the Gazette was “Forgetting in a Landscape of Memory,” which appeared in #188. Jackson’s blog, “Desert Reflections,” can be found at mountaingzette.com. She lives in Moab. 

History, in Black and White

Stand of Popular Trees

When they wrote on the trees, Ansel Adams was capturing the essence of their homeland. As they longed for their origins, the world was learning of forgotten places — Coyote, Gallina, Hernandez — via gelatin-silver. The migrants’ yearning for the left behind is recorded on aged trees along nearby wooded trails. Every aspen-bound signature is accompanied by its source — the town from which the carver hailed.

Ansel Adams finally achieved financial success thanks to an autumnal moonrise above a northern New Mexico village, graveside crosses a glowing testament to the day’s dying sun. Many of the residents of this town — Hernandez — achieved financial security by working elsewhere, leaving the buried and the yet-to-be-buried behind. Some made a livelihood of herding sheep in Utah’s La Sal Mountain meadows.

The oldest inscriptions on South Mountain’s flanks date back to the ’20s, making the trees century-old sentinels. The Spanish names continue to appear through the ’50s: Lovato, Garcia, Chacon, Sandoval, Sanchez and others. Some of the surnames still reside in the Moab phonebook — a surprise considering the connection these men felt to their hometowns. One sheepherder wrote an entire ode to Coyote, New Mexico, on an aspen tree. All that remains now is “Yo creo que Coyote es … ” before it devolves into black blisters on bark.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to know what he believed about his home.

Ansel Adams captured the faces and churches of Coyote in the ’30s. Are these the relatives and reliquaries of La Sal Mountain sheepherders? How did Monticello or Moab become home after centuries of faith and family along the Chama River? When they arrived, Catholicism and Spanish were not practiced forms of communion here. Meanwhile, they left towns so isolated and integrated that a form of 16th-century Spanish — otherwise extinct — is still spoken there.

Today, we delight in walking the aspen glades, finding messages from the past on the papery edge between this world and one now gone. Here, yesteryear speaks in riddles. Its language is a labyrinthine network connecting myriad unknowns. After each alpine excursion, we return home and seek glimpses beyond the abstraction of names, into the heart of the people and places mentioned in the trees. Sometimes we find that the past constellates into the present. Sometimes we find that certain galaxies of interest have blinked into oblivion.

We’ve uncovered some of the men’s names in Moab’s newspaper archives: records of illness and death, birth and travel. We’ve found Coyote to be an enigma, as if we are looking at it through the telescope of Ansel Adams’ lens — looking back in time to a town that once was — with no inkling as to its present condition. And we’ve discovered living relatives seeking connection with their past, perhaps unaware of a hidden, sylvan genealogy.

The most gratifying find has been the website of Cosme Chacon’s granddaughter, Ruby. She is an artist, a writer, a proud and beautiful expression of her heritage. Among her artwork, I found a pastels-on-sidewalk representation of her grandfather, a La Sal Mountain sheepherder. Strangely, I am now able to look into the gentle eyes of a man whose 70-year-old steps I recently followed through the forest.

Thanks to Ruby’s writings, I also have a sense for the world in which Cosme lived in Monticello: Spanish was forbidden. There was no Catholic church, so the family had to travel to Colorado for the rituals that lend life meaning. And though the culture wouldn’t accept them, cancer did. The Clan of Downwinders is multilingual, transcultural, perhaps the only true melting — or melding — pot we have.

I want to meet Ruby and — through her memories — Cosme. I want to travel Highways 96 and 84 through Gallina, Coyote and Hernandez. I want to draw the unseen connections between the mountains beyond my window and the memories beyond my knowing. I want to bring color to the clues left in black and white by carving sheepherders and a camera-wielding man.

Coyote is a place. Cosme is a name. And the aspen trees only hint at the fact that they are also so much more.

Forgetting in a landscape of memory

The Cabin

The Cabin

Upon our arrival in the canyon, with an evening chill following our footsteps down the steep grade, he confided that he might be suffering from Alzheimer’s. His eyes brimmed over, even as he laughed at the realization’s awkward profundity. I tried to comfort him, to hug him — as his trip leader and as a stranger. He pushed me away. He wanted to be alone with his mind and his fate. I had simply caught him at a weak moment.

We were in a remote reach of the canyon, miles from a road, a trailhead, a cell signal, a familiar voice or touch. Divorced from comfort and home. We were living on the canyon’s terms, with its flood-rushing river. And he, in turn, would also live by the terms of a mind — a self — rushing headlong into the unknown.

But he refused to leave.

Before embarrassment usurped candor, he told me how his wife had noted some strange behavior, but he hadn’t believed her. That his mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s, a dark misery for a once-sharp woman. That he never thought it would come on so fast. He pointed at his water bottles on the ground. He was sure he had filled them before the hike, and now they were empty. Had he actually forgotten to fill them? It didn’t occur to him that he had consumed the water on the walk in.

The plastic bottles, the mundane source of his realization, caused him to cry anew. And then the door into his heart abruptly closed. The remainder of the week found me wondering at the interior life of an inscrutable man. Which were the quirks that comprised his being in this world? And which were signs of its slow withdrawal? What could be chalked up to the man, and what was derived from his sudden absence? Unable to know, I simply observed: the strength of his work ethic, his disregard for group conventions, his occasional and brilliant wit, his confusion at meal times.

I once witnessed him standing alone, empty-handed, swaying, staring at the ground. There is no sight lonelier than that of a man again witnessing his own departure — and bearing its hollow emptiness.

Though the mind can be our worst enemy, it is at times our only comfort. Oblivion with a heartbeat seems a cruel existence. And perhaps crueler is the life of the loved one who bears a husband’s passing but continues to see his face, feel his touch, smell his scent, hear his voice — grief renewed and impermanence reaffirmed every day.

In contrast, our week together found us working in a landscape of memory, a place that has not yet forgotten. A long-ago cowboy chipped out our route of descent from the canyon wall. The man chiseled his name into the sandstone and constructed a small cabin overlooking the river. The building still stands, now holding only rusted bedsprings, mouse droppings and memories of ghosts.

Up-canyon from the cowboy cabin is a millennia-old wall of pictures, including bighorn sheep, turkey tracks, human figures and concentric circles. A wavy line — a seeming horizon — extends 50 yards across the rock face. Above it appears a celestial body with a tail, perhaps denoting the passage of Halley’s comet long ago.

The long-departed still tell a story in this place. The desert holds remembrances and present reality with equal grace.

However, cabins crumble and carvings fade, as do our bodies and minds. Succession, loss and the slow entropy of forgetting, while painfully poignant, make room for the next surge of stories and songs. And if we are fortunate, a heart or two will hold the spark of our memory long after the embers of our life are reduced to smoke. Remembrance becomes the greatest gift from — and for — the departing and the departed. Whether writ on a canyon wall, heralded by an empty water bottle, or carried silently in the depths of one’s soul.

Jen Jackson lives in Moab, Utah, where she writes to as an act of memory and presence in the midst of this all-too-fleeting existence.

A Meditation on Taxidermy and the Breath that Binds

Bighorn

The walls had eyes. Literally. The cabin was a veritable monument to taxidermy. Every spare vertical inch was adorned with a head that gazed upon our group for the weekend. Bighorn, moose, elk, caribou, deer, antelope — if it had horns, it held space. Enormous chandeliers hung pendulously with the weight of assorted antlers. Flat surfaces were covered in furs and hides culled from feline, ursine and musteline mammals alike. Reanimated pheasants and grouse were frozen in the perpetual motion of fleeing their pursuers

We hung our coats on 40-calliber bullet casings pounded into juniper posts, and each of us took in the scene with varying degrees of awe and aversion. The cabin had been booked sight unseen. But death and dominion be damned, this would be our sacred space. We circled up in the great room, beneath the unwavering stares of onetime beings, and began the silent practice of stalking ever-elusive peace.

We meditated amongst the hunted.

Over the course of the weekend, as wild minds sought refuge from silence in myriad mundane distractions, each of us met the wall’s once-wild gazes in our own time and fashion. Some of us were saddened or startled — excellent fodder for interior work — and some were bemused by the irony of a group of vegan-eating meditators following the precept of nonviolence while inside a wildlife mausoleum.

It is the stuff of which B-rated comedies are made. And it is this stuff — where we see the sublime is the ridiculous — that reminds us all to take none of it too seriously. A humorless world makes one’s presence within it difficult.

Though the container was seemingly incongruous to the event — like shoving a square peg in a bullet hole — upon later reflection, it was unassumingly appropriate. While I own a gun to obtain meat, not trophies, I am familiar with the hunt that landed all these animals on the wall. And it is not so different from meditation.

Hunting is an exercise in singular awareness and absolute presence. It requires silence of being and attention to the smallest details — noticing the ground textures that amplify footfalls, spotting the faint hoof-prints of traveling animals, finding places providing vantage and refuge, water and food. It necessitates a state of not so much thinking as feeling. And just like meditation retreats, hunting requires greeting the day before dawn.

In its purest state, I think the hunt can be a celebration of existence and all that sustains us, honoring what it is to be human, connected to other beings for survival and meaning. Such practice should feel familiar to any soulful, seeking being — even vegan-eating retreat-goers searching for the ground of existence in an unexpected space.

As my mind wandered that weekend — despite my best intentions — I wondered at how a convergence of hunters and hippies might look in this cabin: southern Utah natives uncomfortably perched atop cushions while more-recent imports sat uneasily underneath a taxidermist’s dreamscape. What might we say to one another? Would conversation ever take us beyond the realm of superficial incongruities to that place where we both find meaning? Would we uncover a common language related to the presence and pursuit of something greater? Perhaps not. It could be a very awkward dinner party. Or a great screenplay.

But I have a vague sense for that shared space beneath it all. I’ve felt the same quiet calm, the same openness, on retreat as I have hunting. Insights have arisen during the rare mind-silences both opportunities provide.

As Rumi wrote:Ancient drawing

I … have seen the two worlds
as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

The walls had eyes. And we met their gazes — as breath, breathing human beings. Because that’s all we can ever do. That’s all that we ever are.

Desert Rat Dumpster Diving

With the car packed for a traditional desert outing — two cameras, two dogs, two .22s and two beers apiece — we left in search of sunset. We found it on the distant Book Cliffs, recently snowcapped, glowing with the low burn of a winter day’s final embers. Though lapine prey remained elusive — and, thus, the guns made no appearance — the sunset was striking enough to abate our bunny bloodlust.

As we watched the shadows race across the flats around us, soon lifting the curtain of light on the cliffs to showcase dusk and her dance into dark, we noticed a jumble of junk in the foreground. Abandoned buildings and the stormy detritus of human-habitation-gone-missing occupied the cracked and barren earth near the railroad tracks. Places like this, where desert meets the outward fringe of its denizens, are always the most compelling, suggesting stories of inventive collaboration. With trepidation — not wanting to surprise anyone with guns more at-the-ready than ours — we approached the scatter of trash.

First, we poked around the coupled singlewides, two riveted together to form a DIY double. The outdoor couch had eroded to nothing but wooden slats and springs. Bike frames rusted, plastic toys cracked and clothing disintegrated as if before our eyes. Though we grew more daring with the lack of shots or shouts fired our way, our courage dissipated at the entrance to the trailers. The sense of vita interruptus, of the inhabitants having been snatched away in the midst of ironing and cooking and changing the baby, was too potent. This disheveled inner sanctum was not ours to invade.

Curiosity then led us to a plywood crate standing on its side. One wall had fallen off to expose scores of used printers and scanners, their squat grey bodies and electric-cord tails giving them the look of nesting mice. Nearby, the undercarriage of half a charred caboose met our gaze. Despite our desire to associate the freight with the railcar, the two seemed unconnected. What we had was a story made only of nouns, like a three-dimensional Mad-Lib scattered across the desert. We needed more verbs. We needed a voice.

And then the real mystery appeared. Beyond the burned-out caboose stood Scraphenge.

Included: a maze of stacked computers in which our dog became lost, innumerable televisions and toaster ovens, Matchbox cars and Mason jars, ornate boxes for jewelry and burly boxes for tools, Cuisinarts and car parts, pots for plants and pans for cooking, laundry detergent and dirty laundry, fluorescent lights and floorboards, Discmen and Visqueen, doorknobs and corncobs, a sewing machine, two bags of topsoil and a surprisingly well preserved recliner. We sorted through the bounty, shouting with delight while uncovering new and surprising treasure, sharing theories on the pile’s origin story. For us desert rats, this was our sunken merchant ship, our Eldorado. Though not abounding in traditional riches, it was rife with mystery — an even more intoxicating currency.

Our incomplete inventory — and our enthusiasm — waned as night enveloped the scene. Soon, we were forced to turn our attention to Jupiter and Venus queuing up behind the smiling crescent moon. On the dark walk back to the car, as the dogs wove our paths together while sleuthing their own scented unknowns, we vowed to return, to continue to tally that which has been forgotten, to enliven lost objects with a contemplative gaze.

We will return to reinvent histories, like rearward-gazing gods, one artifact at a time.

Each item — now on its journey to desert decomposition — was once a part of a story. But we must make it up. We will never know who wore the size-10 high heels or baked in the bread pan. We will never know what was stitched together on the sewing machine or rent apart by the hatchet. We will never know what dreams were dreamed on the pillowcase or plans unfurled on the office desk. The lives that once animated these items are now detached from them, much as souls eventually leave bodies. And seeing these objects isolated from possession and purpose is a reminder that they do no constitute the weft and warp of our lives. They merely play bit parts in the ever-unraveling, day-to-day screenplay.

But beyond the brief bliss we found in it, this inert detritus of a life no longer has a supporting role. It occupies the desert floor under the indifferent gaze of celestial bodies, now a backdrop to the action. Our worlds will rush on around this forgotten waypoint of taciturn tales, the true substance of our lives standing apart from it all, enduring tides of wealth and want. Persisting. Prevailing. Allowing us to take joy — no matter our means — in the simplicity of sunset. Camaraderie. Playful dogs and cold beers. Trash. And the mystery of the voiceless unknown.

Forgetting is a Failure of Conscience

Utah holds a heartrending history with the atom. From the disastrous effects of Nevada’s nuclear testing on unsuspecting citizens, we have a legacy of downwinders and cancer. Uranium mines and mills have left a mark on communities all over southern Utah, from the Navajo Nation, where miners’ exposure to radiation led to alarming rates of cancer, to Moab’s infamous 16-million-ton tailings pile on the Colorado River. Monticello, south of Moab, also has higher-than-normal cancer rates, linked to a now-defunct Department of Energy uranium-processing mill.

“Uranium” and “nuclear” are not words we take lightly here.

Yet, against this dark backdrop of loss and unease, plans for a nuclear power plant near Green River are incrementally moving forward. A group called Blue Castle Holdings is seeking funding for the construction of two reactors at the base of the Book Cliffs. With a combined output of 3,000 megawatts, they would increase electricity output in the state by 50 percent. This power would diversify Utah’s coal-heavy energy portfolio. And the plant would bring high-paying jobs to a rural region where economic stability has never been known.

However, Utah is not short on power. This electricity would be produced for use elsewhere. And considering that nuclear reactors are thirsty creatures, building two in the deserts of the nation’s second-driest state seems like folly. The president of this enterprise is a former state representative and one-time owner of a vegan restaurant, seller of inspirational audiotapes and online purveyor of prescription drugs. He is not an energy guru, but an entrepreneur looking for the next way to make a buck … or a million. This is not a resume that inspires confidence in the company’s nuclear competency.

During a recent Grand County Council meeting in Moab, Blue Castle presented its vague plans and touted nuclear power’s clean track record — no direct fatalities in the history of the United States. The company has been warmly welcomed in Green River, a small town hungry for jobs, but the reception in Moab was different. The council chambers were standing room only, and scores of residents spoke in opposition to Blue Castle’s plans. Even council members expressed concerns. Moab, once the “Uranium Capital of the World,” knows firsthand that nuclear power is about more than generating electricity. We have 16 million tons of uranium waste on the edge of town — currently in transit to a safer resting place — to remind us of the costs of this “clean” energy. The reactors are only one small part of a beast whose tentacles reach throughout countless landscapes and communities across the country.

Nuclear power is mining. It is milling, tailings piles and nuclear waste storage. It is roads across landscapes, holes in cliffs, trucks burning fossil fuels to get uranium to mills and then to plants. It is a millennia-long responsibility to dangerous byproducts. It is miners and mill workers dying of cancer, the indirect and silent fatalities that the nuclear industry doesn’t tally. These aspects of power production pose problems for which we haven’t yet learned solutions — problems whose effects reach beyond the bounds of Emery County and thousands of years into the future.

I do not want to echo the mistakes of a heavy history. I do not want to see 60 million gallons of water a day permanently diverted from the Green River to cool an apparatus whose thirst will not safely be slaked in this lifetime. I do not want to see billions of dollars fund a questionable power source when it could instead fuel innovation. I do not want to challenge fate, to tempt the unexpected, to repeat events at Fukushima, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and dozens of other far-flung sites whose accidents went largely unreported.

I want prosperity for Green River and power for our homes, but not at the expense of the health and safety of generations to come. I want to move forward, but we must remember what lies behind us — our suffering, our losses, the collective grief of fractured families, cultures and landscapes — because forgetting is a failure of conscience.

Navigating the Darkness

New Year, midnight, alone. Standing atop a 70-foot concrete arrow pointing west. The nearby revelry drifted in and out of my awareness on winter’s whispery breath. Aerial explosions suddenly illuminated my surroundings: rocky cliff, creosote, curve of the Virgin River. And the incongruous arrow. Surrounded by desert, apart from and a part of the celebration.

I stood atop the simplest of aviation aids, navigating this life on a wing and a prayer.

Early in our nation’s acquaintance with aviation, few navigational aids existed. Pilots flew with railroad maps and picked their course across the topography below. In the 1920s, concrete arrows were constructed 10-30 miles apart across the nation, offering childlike route markers for the daredevils of the ether. Though night flights were deemed suicidal, it was our need for connection, communion and correspondence that finally drove men to take to the starry skies.

The Postal Service sought to prove to a circumspect Congress that the air was the most efficient route for the country’s mail. This assertion was true only if pilots made use of the light and dark hours. So they did.

The first night fliers relied upon Postal Service employees and friendly farmers lighting bonfires and torches on the ground, illuminating a path across the Midwest and toward the dawn. The most rudimentary innovation carried our most advanced invention safely through the unknown.

The arrow on which I stood above St. George directed commercial and airmail flights from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. A steel post once held an oil lantern to illuminate the arrow in the darkness. A string of these lanterns spoke to pilots — this is the way … this is the way … this is the way … — a small, flickering prayer. Warmth in an otherwise empty sphere.

The early aviators flew on faith: that someone on the ground was thinking of them, that the lanterns would be lit, that morning would come.

The concrete arrow held my weight as I searched for the same assurances: that the darkness would end, that light would follow. The fireworks were my beacon into a new year, toward something more.

When I was a child, as the New Year crept forward, I would ritualistically comb my hair, brush my teeth, put on my pajamas and cuddle the cat — my last chance for the year — each act filled with great significance due to its finality. Every movement was slow, methodical, a way to draw out the final moments before the end, before I could never do these things again within the comfortable embrace of a known timeframe. As a child, I approached transition with such great care, putting the endings to bed and tucking them in before I could greet the beginnings. Hanging onto the befores until the afters left me no choice but to be swept along into tomorrow.

But this New Year, there was none of the care of yesteryear, none of the ritual or grasping. The previous months had been a time of hasty transition, reckless release and grand leaps into the unknown. In one fateful day, I found myself homeless, carless, jobless, penniless — divorced at age 28. Necessity dictated there would be no tenderness toward the finalities.

Instead, necessity dictated flying onward, alone in the darkness — on a wing and a prayer — toward an uncertain dawn, searching for navigational reassurances that this is the way … this is the way … this is the way … somewhere. Perhaps home.

Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last story for MG was “When In Doubt, Pee on the Fire,” which appeared in #183. Her blog, “Desert Reflections, can be found at mountaingazette.com. Jackson lives in Moab.

When in Doubt, Pee on the Fire

Beyond the service industry shroud, there is madness and mayhem in Moab. Within each river guide, shuttle driver, restaurant server, bike mechanic and hotel operator, there exists an undercurrent of something more. This undercurrent is a man rolling down Main Street in a handmade hamster wheel. It is the annual fashion show, wherein minimum-wage workers get to be top models — bedecked in mini-blinds or vacuum hose — for a night. It is Molotov cocktails tossed off Hurrah Pass at 2 a.m. It is a 28-day Daily run on the Colorado River. It is a stealth mission to turn the iconic “G” on the cliffs above town (“G” for Grand County) into a directive to “Go Away!” during Jeep Safari. It is the brilliance of Moab Community Theatre, the thrill of breaking world records at the Pumpkin Chuckin’ Festival, and the hushed glory of prominent community members dancing with nearly naked skydivers — leather-bound leg acrobatically propped up on bare, brawny shoulder — at the bar on Halloween.

Yes, we are a tourist town. Yes, we survive by the grace of our guests, living thanks to those who love our surroundings. But Moab is also something more. There still exists an element holding steadfast to eccentricity amidst the onslaught of gentrification and commodification. For, once we’ve lost our idiosyncratic heart — beating to a rhythm as unpredictable as summer monsoons and sudden rock fall — then the real Moab is dead. Eccentricity is vanquished. And I will have to plant the seeds of my landscape love elsewhere.

Moab needs its eccentrics. It needs its darers and dreamers. They are the essential artists painting on the canvas of the day-to-day, reminding us that this life is less desperate — and more urgent — than we suppose. The eccentrics advise us that imagination is not a childhood relic, that dreams need not be confined to the brain and that conformity is the first sign of societal heart disease. But eccentricity is a dying breed, relegated to the shadows — especially during tourist season.

My boyfriend, Tyler, is an import to Moab from Durango, a town where, much to his sadness, the flame of eccentricity is flickering out. He came to Moab for me, but other loves have since abetted the original, including mountains, canyons, friends and the town itself.

He, too, is a daring dreamer, an important addition to the Moab milieu. Together, we ran the Colorado at high water on an air mattress, asking hapless boaters, “We just woke up; where are we?” and noting, “Wow! We’ve never seen the Dolores this big!” Inspired by the sweeping cinematography of a National Geographic documentary, he built operational camera equipment — an enormous jib and a dolly — out of scrap metal. During the first month of our courtship, he bought us a 1971 Streamline trailer to live in. He is my mountain man — a firefighter, a flawless feller of trees, a fearless adventurer. And he is my artist — with an ear for the essential, an eye for the emotional and a mind for the intuitive. And when he dresses as a bunny to run the half-marathon or plays alt-country versions of Lady Gaga on the guitar, no one around him can take this life too damned seriously. Like any good nonconformist, he helps me to see the comic within the consecrated. And for that I am grateful.

Tyler was a Moab resident for just a week when he experienced the town’s harbinger of the holiday season, the Winter Sun Festival. We ran the 10K, we visited the craft fair and we bundled up to stand among the crowds on Main Street for the annual Electric Light Parade. This is Moab at its shining finest. The spectacle is an assemblage of trucks full of teenagers and bisexuals on bicycles, antique tractors and elaborately decorated trailers, livestock and live music, dance troupes and costumed groups. The unifying theme is that every entrant — animal, vegetable or mineral — is adorned in lights. And the greatest beauty is that, for 30 golden minutes, Main Street is closed to everything but this one, locals-only holiday event. Suddenly, Highway 191 isn’t bisecting our town, cleaving west side from east with the noise and girth of semi traffic. Instead, it’s simply Main Street. And it belongs to Moab, a town not worried about making a buck — because there isn’t one to be had in December.

I was thrilled to share the parade with Tyler, the neophyte Moabite, to show him that this desert town is much more than the Slickrock Trail and Jeep Safari. We are passionately quirky in ways our visitors will never know. We live hidden lives of authenticity, colorful communion and song. Our increasingly short off-season is full of creative pursuits — parades, fashion shows, theater and craft nights — to while away the darker, carefree hours. We give off a shine that money can’t buy when winter is at its worst. I wanted Tyler to know that he was in the midst of kindred spirits.

At the parade, he got it. He loved it. And I loved him for loving it.

Following the procession, Frankie D’s Bar hosted an after-party with Moab’s best (and only) disco cover band, Sparkle Motion. The bar is housed in a Quonset hut painted with enough magic and memories — or alcohol, I suppose — to make its origins seem less humble. One never knows when Frankie’s will implode with debauchery — it’s hit or miss, directed by some devious turn of collective consciousness — but when the masses arrive, it’s disorderly perfection.

Ty and I sat in my darkened car parked across from a crowded Frankie’s, downing the contents of my thermos (a drink we labeled Hepatitis C on the Beach in honor of one of Moab’s many eccentrics). As any good, recession-era dirtbag knows, you do your drinking before entering the bar, to save money.

Just as we were about to make the move from car to bar, a straggler from the Electric Light Parade rode his bike across our field of vision, headed toward Frankie D’s. The scene was double-take-worthy.

His bike trailer was on fire.

Initially, the flames were small and confined to one portion of the trailer. We assumed that it was perhaps a portable barbecue — in Moab, why not? However, as he swiveled and swayed his way across the street, the mobile conflagration grew. When he hit the curb in front of the bar, the trailer broke free from the bike. With this, he finally became aware of his dangerously flickering hitchhiker.

We watched from our shadowy vantage, unobserved and absolutely titillated.

The cyclist stood above the trailer blaze and scratched his chin, seemingly unperturbed, puzzling over the predicament as if it were a simple mechanical problem that could wait until morning. But inspiration struck, and even in the dark, we could see it light up his features. We watched him unzip, extract, aim and fire. His urine flow was so copious that, not only did our hero douse the blaze, but hardly a wisp of smoke remained in the aftermath.

The alcohol that likely led to the fire’s ignition also helped to put it out. The inundated bladder saved the day for the inebriated brain. It was a glorious display of bodily self-correction. We silently cheered from the car.

Seconds later, a figure emerged from the bar. She wore a glowing, spinning electric fan on her forehead and a boa bedecked in sparkling lights. It was none other than Moab’s Queen of Westwater, our most infamous and beloved eccentric, trained (among other things) in the arts of branding and bondage. She stormed over to reprimand the hapless biker, fan spinning on forehead all the while. We desperately wanted to hear what was being said, so I inserted my key in the ignition to roll down the automatic windows. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten that the key-ignition combo prompts illumination of the dome lights and commencement of buckle-your-seatbelt beeping. I’d blown our voyeuristic cover. We froze. But the Queen of Westwater and the King of Firewater didn’t notice. And we’d already missed the bulk of their absurdly surreal confrontation.

With the eventual dissipation of the spectacle, Tyler breathlessly broke the silence in the vehicle with, “I think I just fell in love with Moab.”

And he’s been falling in love ever since.

Finally, we made our way into the bar for a typical night in Moab — fires, fans, freaks and all — our lives painted vibrant by the creative palettes of our compatriots in nonconformity.

Jen Jackson resides in Moab, where she will spend the off-season learning the finer arts of driving a 1976 Kenworth W900A, servicing a Stihl MS290, shooting rabbits with a .22 and loving this life —quirks and all — with an ever-bigger heart. 

Questioning answers, strengthening humbleness and other gifts of the desert stream

As we prepare to leave for our first-ever float of the Grand Canyon, I find myself reflecting on my relationship with rivers. For one who grew up next to Oregon’s iconic Rogue River, worked alongside the Snake in Jackson, and who now lives on the shores of the mighty Colorado, I have little river experience. One Westwater trip and a rush along the Price River at flood-stage, two long flat-water floats on the Green, and three Daily runs on the Colorado (two of which were on an air mattress) are the sum total of my notable river outings. Sad, I know.

Though the rivers most talked about have always been out my backdoor, it has never been with them that I’ve built relationships. Chalk it up to a lack of gear or gear-laden loved ones. Instead, it’s been the ephemeral, fickle and fiendishly flashing waterways that have held my heart in their changeable currents. The adrenaline-laced beauty of these streams lies not in their rapids but in their rapidly changing demeanor. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and I lay my heart at their feet, even as the hidden predator’s fangs are revealed in flash flood debris 10 feet above my head.

Though I want to build big-river relationships — and what better chance than on the Grand? — it is thus far the inglorious stream that has been my companion. And I do not regret it.

One such creek near Moab only flows with snowmelt and strategically placed monsoon showers. Forget calendar dates and the whims of groundhogs; the canyon is my almanac. Spring is officially here when I’m able to float supine in a deep pothole, circling with the gentle current, watching the canyon walls spin above my head. Summer arrives when desiccated algae replaces the meandering stream. A new configuration of sand and driftwood against canyon walls announces monsoon season. This is where I come to set my internal clock and place question marks where I have always assumed there to be periods.

Then there is a bit of Eden west of here — a clear, spring-fed creek overhung with box elders and ponderosa — constrained to a 1,000-foot-deep defile, surrounded by harshest, driest desert. Every small bank and bench is colonized by poison ivy. Heaven and hell coexist in a space as narrow as 15 feet. There is no better — or worse — place to be, depending on the time of year and the placement of your feet or tent.

This spring, we attempted an 80-mile float on a small desert stream that we found to be aptly named. Unfortunately, it disregarded the notice that all rivers in Utah were flooding at the time. Instead of a float, it was a push-pull-tugging at about 60 cfs. The trip was a sun-scorched, wind-and-sand-chafed, rain-soaked, oh-my-God-our-dog-is-foaming-at-the-mouth misery. We performed 10-hour marches each day through ankle-deep water and knee-deep quicksand, towing our gear the entire way. There was no idyllic floating or exploration of tantalizing side canyons. There was nothing more than the monotonous and enduring rhythm of right-splash!-left-splash! on down the stream.

A powerful monsoon pushed these same river flows to an incomprehensible 35,000 cfs a few years ago. As the water level dropped during our trip — despite the intermittent showers we endured — we stared wistfully at enormous cottonwood trunks still balanced on rock ledges 20 feet above the canyon floor, gently placed there by the once-upon-a-time wall of water.

The day we exited the canyon, the river came up to a runable level … and stayed there for three months.

I have never admired a canyon so much.

And I can’t wait to return, to do it all over again, to be reminded of how much is beyond my control and my knowing, to let the gods once again giggle at my ignorance.

But these are all flirtatious trifles compared to my true love, my heart-home, a river that I have slept near countless nights, one whose flows recently jumped from one cfs to 1,000 in 15 minutes. Sometimes in looking at all the leaps and valleys of the blue line on the river data graph during monsoon season, I wonder if a map of my heartbeats would chart a similar course. Perhaps silt from this stream flows through my veins.

While this is a river I’ve gone to for solace, healing, hope and a sense of home, it does not offer comfort in a traditional sense. I’ve found the upper section dry when I’ve been in need of water. I’ve been stranded on the opposite bank from camp when a flash flood pushed through on a clear and starry night. I camped for a week with unrelenting 90-degree temperatures in the canyon only to have a wall-to-wall, 100-year flood follow my exit out of the drainage. I’ve sunk to mid-thigh in quicksand, and I’ve had that same sand ruin two water filters. And I’ve loved every minute because they’ve all acted as counterpoint to other, more sublime moments: early-morning tea under Orion’s watchful eye, the salmon-colored glow of sunrise bleeding down sandstone walls, canyon wren song in the air and turkey feathers on the ground, drinking centuries-old water seeping from the canyon wall amongst ferns and box elders and wild mint. My love affair with this place includes the catastrophes and the kindnesses in equal measure.

As we prepare for 18 days on the Grand, I wonder what kind of relationship I will develop with the canyon. It is a river with so many admirers and managers. Where will my hopes, intentions and affections fit in? I know there will be plenty of chances on this trip for the gods to find amusement in my foibles, but beyond the 22 seconds I will spend in the likes of Lava or Crystal, I am most anticipating the moments that often go untold — whether it be communion with constellations or quicksand — when life’s great questions emerge from encounters with the unexpected.