Landscape of Desire: Identity and Nature in Utah's Canyon Country

Landscape of Desire: Identity and Nature in Utah's Canyon Country

Landscape of Desire: Identity and Nature in Utah's Canyon Country

Landscape of Desire: Identity and Nature in Utah's Canyon Country

Excerpt

Was somebody asking to see the soul? See your own shape and
countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the trees, the running
rivers, the rocks and sands
.

—Walt Whitman

Everyone remembers the first time. It attains a degree of mythological importance out of proportion to the actual event. I was eleven or twelve, in the midst of those buoyant days before adolescence, when my father convinced his wife, two bratty kids, and his parents to undertake a camping trip to southeast Utah, places he had known in his youth. In Arches National Park, my brother and I crawled through arches, ran around in the Fiery Furnace, followed the crowds out to Delicate Arch, went on an interminably long jeep ride, and played cards in my grandparents’ RV.

Somehow I’d gotten my hands on a copy of The Journey Home by Edward Abbey and was reading it during the trip. (The following year I read The Monkey Wrench Gang and was warped forever.) At the canyon rim at Dead Horse Point I stood on the cusp. Half of me ran around the slickrock chasing lizards, picking up rocks, and crawling under overhangs. The other half gazed into the void. For the first time, I saw a world much greater than my own, one beyond human contrivance, one that stretched back into the ancient past and continued into a future far beyond human imagination. Yet I was a part of it all. Existence was no longer the vacuum experience of growing up in Denver. The world was infinite, and its origins were so far back in time as to be beyond the horizon of knowledge. Time flowed up the canyon layer by layer, through my feet and out the top of my head and kept right on going. I was a connected part of the geology of the earth, just like a dinosaur fossil or a layer of volcanic ash. A whole country spread out before me beckoning; the possibilities were endless.

As it had for thousands of others, the canyon country held my imagination captive, demanding tribute. I returned as soon as I could drive. By the time I was in college, my pilgrimages increased in frequency, and the year after I graduated I took a job as a park ranger in Canyonlands National Park. This landscape on the edge of perpetual collapse added dimensions of depth . . .

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