THERE'S MORE TO SEE
Excess baggage is a symptom of something we are missing on the inside – a fear that we won’t be accepted for what we are, as if our selves are not enough. We bring too much of our past experience, the clutter of our emotions. These things get in the way and keep us from getting close to others. -- Mary Morris
This story was published in the 2015 Desert edition of the Utah Adventure Journal.
Frost stuck in the teeth of the zipper as I tried to escape from the breath-filled nylon bubble that had been our home for the past week. We were wandering across southern Utah and northern Arizona; our Nissan wove a trail back and forth across the border as if we were trying to stitch the two states together. I crawled out of the tent and started the stove to prepare our oatmeal-packet-breakfast. Sitting by the gas burner with my hands outstretched I pondered the trip so far.
We arrived at a place named after an animal's body part just after the sun had set and the view in front of us was dim, grey, and gloomy. On the map the place didn't seem like much - the little road wiggled away from the highway for about 15 miles and then ended near the San Juan river. We figured it would be a nice place to spend the night.
We erected our tent on top of a stone slab and under a metal awning that was certainly intended for picnicking only. Fearing rain we decided to abandon the rules and camp under the little shelter but in the end it made no difference.
The rain came around 3:00AM. More like slush than snow or rain and falling more horizontally than vertically the metal awning above us did nothing to stop the water. Instead it rattled loudly as the slush blew under it. The stone slab yielded nothing for the water soak into. Nothing besides our sleeping bags, that is.
It was January, bad weather was to be expected, so we couldn't complain too much, but after realizing our boots had sat outside all night we did anyway.
My wife Whitney, our friend Tyler, and myself had set out in an attempt to see new parts of the American Desert. We didn’t want to follow a script or tick off a list of places and experiences. Instead, we wanted to experience whatever the planet had to offer us, without bias. So with that mindset we had traveled south, painting, photographing, and enjoying each other’s company as we went with the guidebooks back at home on the shelf.
We purposely left the guidebooks at home in the hope of keeping our hearts and eyes open to the entirety of the world. Guidebooks have a tendency of directing you down a straight and narrow path. You may find something nice at the end of that path but of course it will be the same nice thing that everyone sees.
Shouldn’t the world be more open ended than that?
This is true of landscape and scenery in general – a guidebook will only show you the things along the beaten path it was written about – but its true in another sense as well. Guidebooks are terribly selective; they tell you “look here, not here.” They might lead you to something nice, but it’s inevitably something singular such as a specific stone arch, waterfall or mountaintop. A canyoneering guidebook will lead you down canyons, a climbing guidebook will lead you up the canyon walls, and a birding guidebook will lead you to the Canyon Wrens. But the world is so much more than the sum of its parts. The desert is more than its climbing just as it is more than its cactuses. So without a guidebook we hoped we would experience the desert in its entirety. We would take whatever the earth offered us. History, wildlife, geology, climbing, hiking, scenery, culture, climate, we would embrace it all without a book telling us how.
We did bring along a Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer. It broke the state of Utah into 54 pages of vaguely topographically delineated maps. (As for our time in Arizona; we traveled mapless.) This would be our only sort of guidebook, it contained no “Must Sees” nor “Recommended Trails” nor “Best ofs," just roads, trails, and towns. All options laid out before us with stark equity. As we traveled we learned to seek out the places with constricted topographical lines and the places where the roads squiggled together like balls of string cheese; these were clues that the landscape would be interesting. Once arrived in an interesting landscape we’d venture from the car and explore, using only bodily senses as our guide.
To an outsider it might appear that we had tried to assemble the tent in a shallow lake. After a change of clothes and the car's heater set to high we felt comfortable enough to journey on but the tent would need some attention before we slept in it again.
We stuffed the slushy nylon into the back of the car and drove up the Moki-Dugway (a steep, unpaved, assembly of switchbacks that looks like a anxiety attack on the map) in the middle of white-out blizzard. The views from the Moki-Dugway are probably amazing, but given the conditions, we wouldn't know.
Surprisingly, we didn't die, and a few hours later and we were chatting with the rangers at some obscure National Monument who acted as if they hadn't seen any visitors in a few weeks. It took almost an hour of schmoozing but eventually they permitted us to hang our tent inside the bathroom where the heater could dry it while we went hiking.
Even today the tent is not completely dry but the our thirst for adventure hadn't been wet nearly enough so we continued onward without any mishap isn't now a fond memory. We drove through beautiful landscapes and stopped to explore anytime the world seemed unfamiliar. We also drove past a number of places made famous by paintings and photographs, these were the places the guidebooks led; Horseshoe Bend, The Wave, Delicate Arch. But the road beckoned us onward. We had no interest in checking off the "Top Ten Sights of the South West!" Instead, we followed the curve of the earth and took in everything it offered. We rarely knew the name of our location but it didn't matter.
On the last morning of our adventure we watched the sun beam a golden spotlight on a sandstone arch a thousand feet above our camp. We lay in the ruins of an old mining town several hours from the nearest paved road. The sun only half way up and Tyler told me to turn the camera on him. He then proceeded to present what I now see as the thesis of our trip together.
"Life is about not fearing the unknown! It's about going on cross country road trips with friends, its about setting up a tent in February, in the cold! It's eating mac and cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and liking it too! It's about building a fire - with paint thinner! It's about standing on the edge of five hundred feet. It's about sand. Sand in your hair, your food, your coffee and your bed."
If we had cared only about painting the prettiest landscapes, or only about descending the craziest canyons we wouldn't have had the adventure we did. We were open to anything and as a result we were rewarded with nearly everything! Back at home we assembled the footage from our travels and made this short film in remembrance of our journey and as a reminder to take the world as it is. The less baggage the better!