A Utah Experience

The following was originally written shortly after it happened, during a solo cross-country road trip I took in October, 2012. -Mark

It took me only two days to drive from upstate New York to the Colorado border, with a lot of energy foods and the aid of about a metric ton of coffee. Once you get into the Rockies, it gets pretty unnerving when some of the most eye-catching and jaw-dropping places in the country have a speed limit of 75, because you can’t just slow down and look around at everything when you’re booking it down the I-70.

I crossed west into Utah, then for the first time in 2000 miles I left the highway and headed south to Moab with the intention of hitting Monument Valley. The sunlight was fading fast though, and I was still in the northeast end of the state, so I decided I didn’t want to make that drive in the dark; the red rock canyons of Utah are far too stunning to pass up. Not just stunning, but humbling: Eastern Utah is thousands of square miles of everything being the hugest goddamn thing you’ve ever seen.

A mile back, I passed one of the many roads into Canyonlands National Park. So I decided to turn back, because I didn’t know when I’d ever get the chance to see it again. I followed a road that snaked up into the park, then I pulled off at the first parking area; a scenic view with a small restroom at the base of a huge red rock mesa. I noticed the sign had the little designated campground symbol, so rather than sleep in my car as I had a couple times on this trip, I decided to load up my backpack with water, trail mix, a flashlight, roll up and fasten my sleeping bag and pillow, and look for a spot around the bottom of the mesa. I remembered I also brought the steel-toed hiking boots that my old job provided. They told me, “go get something for working the yard”. Now, I live in British Columbia. It’s 99% mountains, and for 8 months of that job I was always one day away from quitting. So if you’re putting free steel-toed boots in your budget for me, I’m getting sweet-ass hiking shoes.

There wasn’t much along the base of the mesa. My attempt at climbing the sheer rock face led me up about five feet before I realized any rock climbing enthusiast watching this would be thinking two things right now: One, that guy’s a complete idiot, and two, that complete idiot is going to die. I’d be one of those people they’d find days later and remark on the news about how underprepared for climbing and wilderness hiking I was, or I’d get trapped and have to lop off one of my limbs. So between Into the Wild and 127 Hours, I wasn’t keen on either outcome.

I trekked around to the other side of the mesa, and found a spot with a steep incline. Not enough to walk up, but enough footholds to make it doable without equipment. After pulling myself up, I realized this specific path would be a one-way trip, especially with the sunset already past its prime. So I was going up having no idea how I’d get down, when it struck me that I had no clue what the landscape was like at the top: It could’ve been piles of knives, for all I knew. Luckily, although surrounded by solid rock that would otherwise make camping unpleasant, the flat center of the mesa was covered in a thick layer of soft red dirt, with dozens of dried-out desert shrubs about five feet apart each. Enough space to spread out a campsite, after a little landscaping maintenance.

MY mesa.

When I reached the top of the mesa, at first I figured I must be far more out of shape than I thought, because it took me several minutes to catch my breath. Slight sidebar: Despite the burgeoning mountain man beard I’d been growing over the summer, I am not a particularly rugged man. I met a real cowboy once, in southern Arizona. The kind of man who showers by patting his body with handfuls of dirt, and combs his hair with a snake… Point is, I’m not that guy. When I did meet that guy, I was immediately frightened back to the warm glow of my computer monitor to make sure on WebMD that I didn’t have some kind of estrogen surplus. Don’t get me wrong, I do work out. I was hitting the weights consistently all summer, but I didn’t do nearly enough cardio due to a recurring knee joint issue. So although I haven’t changed shape, I’m pretty much a brick shithouse. Only, a brick shithouse surrounded by a thin layer of cookie dough. Soon though, I remembered I’d spent the last three months in a river valley near the Atlantic coast, and now I was over a mile above sea level, so my lungs hadn’t adjusted yet: Getting winded was normal. I felt a little better about myself.

By the looks of it though, nobody had been up on the mesa for a long time; I figure the real, experienced climbers wouldn’t just stop at the first site off the main road, and the casual tourists won’t climb it at all because it’s haaaaard. Maybe I was the first person up there in a long time. Maybe ever. I looked at Google Street View a few days later when I regained the luxury of wi-fi, and I found I may be correct: Of the hundreds of submitted user photos, all were taken from the designated scenic area, and none are from up on the mesa. Judging by the cracked mud cakes in the rock pools, and the general state of the vegetation, I can also safely say it doesn’t rain much there. So I wonder how long the me-shaped indentation in the dirt from my campsite will be there. I’m purposely not submitting any pictures to Google, just so nobody else sees them and says “Hey, let’s go there.” Because it’s mine, goddammit.

This tree no longer exists.

I watched the stars emerge, but cursed the moon rising. It was a few days past full into a waning gibbous, so it robbed me of the rare chance to view the desert sky without light pollution (fortunately I got that opportunity several nights later when I drove over the Sierra Nevada). I curled up in my sleeping bag, but then realized it was only about 8:00. Although I wanted to rise with the sun in the morning, I wasn’t quite ready to sleep. The day’s heat left the toasted rocks soon after dusk, so with an increasing desert chill, I started wondering how long those dead shrubs would burn.

I lit one up. It went fairly easily, though it took lighting in more than one place to fully engulf it, and even then it only burned for roughly five minutes. I kicked at the roots of another shrub and it came free, so I added it, along with a few twigs. I left it at that, and ignited it – somewhat ironically with the gym membership cancellation form I filled out before I left home. The fire was only slightly more impressive, and slow burning. It was then that I considered the dead trees surrounding my impromptu campsite. These trees had been dead for so long, I don’t know that they were ever alive, that’s how old they were. They didn’t even have roots anymore, and were just sitting on top of the dirt by this point. They were also very brittle: Smaller branches snapped off easily.

So I began to weigh the pros and cons. I know a thing or two about campfire safety, so I’ve cleared out the immediate underbrush, and I know enough to throw dirt and water on a fire that gets out of control. However I also have a tiny amount of weed in my pack in the middle of ultra-conservative Utah, and the fire could draw attention, and I’m probably violating all kinds of national park laws by building an unauthorized campfire. Still, there’s only one road a half mile away and below, and cars pass at about one or two per hour max, a number which will decrease as it gets later in the night. Technically I’m also outside the park’s gates, and no park ranger is going to scale this mesa freehand in the dark just to yell at me. So worst case scenario, even if the fire spreads across the top of the mesa, it can only get to the edges of the underbrush in the dirt. Everything surrounding that is just rocks.

Mind you, I’m having this internal debate WHILE I’m already building the fire. So it’s entirely possible that I could’ve come to the conclusion: “Oh shit, this is a terrible idea! Oh well, too late.” But I realize that I’m surrounded by rock canyons and other mesas, and my fire’s not even Beacons of Gondor sized, so I’m pretty sure I won’t be summoning war reinforcements from the horse-lords of Arizona. Also I’m a little baked at this point, in which case fire is ALWAYS a good idea.

I ran out of smaller branches, and stopped wanting to kick up the shrubs, because they threw clouds of red dirt all over me. The thicker branches became much tougher to break. I started thinking back to my teenage years, remembering my karate classes, where they had us break boards with our feet. I wondered if an axe kick would work. An axe kick is when you stiffen your back leg, keep the knee straight and unbent, swing your leg up, and use the downward momentum to hit your target heavily with your heel on the way down like the swing of an axe.

After the first kick connected and severed the thicker branch, I remember saying out loud, “That worked WAY better than I expected.” Henceforth, I decided, I would get ALL of my firewood using karate. Front kicks, side kicks, hook kicks, axe kicks, jumping stomp kicks, the ways of the Far East all started coming back. I chose each technique judging from which direction to apply proper force, and hacked apart several thick, dead trees with feet of fury. When the branches were gone and the rest was too thick to break, I would kick or push the stumps over and roll them across the dirt until they rested on the fire. The final tree was particularly huge, far bigger than me, but with enough dragging, rocking, turning, and rolling, I got it to its destination. Once the fire broke the biggest trees down to individual logs, I’d push them around and arrange them in a neat pile to keep the fire going.

I took off my shoes and felt the cold dirt on the soles of my feet, mixed with the heat of the fire. Cliché as it may sound, I felt one with nature. Just me, the fire, the mesa, and nothing else for miles. My worries were both several days and several states away. I felt I wasn’t even upsetting any sort of balance of nature, as I was clearing out dead trees and underbrush for warmth and light, as people centuries ago must have done. This was Navajo country, after all. Nothing alive was disturbed. One slightly ornery bat chirped around every so often, and later on, a curious owl hooted from a neighboring precipice. Aside from me briefly mistaking the planet Mars for a helicopter coming to arrest me, I was also undisturbed with my nature experience. I swear, through the fire it looked like it was moving closer.

For the rest of the night this was my routine, until I ran out of immediately available firewood. I decided against maintaining the fire beyond that point, as I’d have to trek back and forth further and further several times to keep it going. A final few branches, and I was done. I thought of the cowboy I met years ago, and found myself satisfied with my accomplishments:

I found a practical, survival-related use for martial arts.

Which I used to build a raging bonfire.

While solo camping in the desert.

On top of a huge, red rock mesa.

Which I had climbed up freehand.

“Today…” I declared, while staring at the fire I built with karate, “Today I am a man.”

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