To backpack in Canyonlands is for me a deeply moving experience. It is a place that offers opportunity to experience the sensation of setting foot on another planet, and at the same time, moving through a space both comfortable and familiar.
During the past week I thought often about how to share what transpired as Sarah and I rose from sandy valley floors to slick rock, from cool, deep ravines cast in shadow to high, bare, red stone saddles and ridge lines heated by the sun’s harsh embrace.
Every major elevation change, every transition from valley to adjacent valley, even the rounding of a corner left us breathless, saying aloud, “Oh my god. I can’t believe what I am seeing …” only to fall silent again for there were no words worth speaking in attempt to capture what we were experiencing.
An Open Book
Edward Abbey often stated that Canyonlands is like no other place on Earth. Situated in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, it is a geologic anomaly which has exposed a layer-by-layer account of 1.6 billion years history. Mountains rose and fell as many as five times, seas repeatedly swelled to fill the Southwest only to retreat again when uplifting forces caused igneous basement foundations and layers of limestone, sandstone, schist, and shale to rise thousands of feet.
Records of these events are presented to us as an open history book, literally documenting in stone the lifeforms of ancient, warm seas and forests where deserts now lie. More recently, Native American cliff dwellings, grainaries, tools, pottery, and foot paths provide evidence of healthy hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies which traded far south into the Americas, to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
A Home to Many
To explore Canyonlands at the heart of the Colorado Plateau is to feel as though you may be the first to ever walk in this place and at the same time to recognize a rich, human history that goes far beyond that of the terribly inaccurate, standard fare text book description of Mormon re-settlers and cowboy rustlers, outlaws, and miners who are too often given credit for having discovered and tamed the American Southwest.
When I walk along spring fed creeks in the shadow of cotton woods, alongside twisted juniper and pinion pine which have experienced two to ten times my own years, I relish the fact that the Colorado Plateau holds a higher concentration of National Parks than anywhere else in a country which protects its wild areas like none other on Earth.
At the same time, I look back to a time when it was not necessary to protect land from overuse and abuse, when the estimated ten to twenty million inhabitants of this continent were living not in perfect harmony as Disney has portrayed, but in numbers whose consumption was incapable of the drastic, large-scale environmental change we now employ.
The first human inhabitants of this land did not come to this place for recreation nor as an escape from their work, but in migration to follow game or to cultivate crops where river deltas provided rich soil and cliff band shelter to seeds for the following year, or to establish dwellings which supported families for many generations.
In “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James Loewen, it is made clear that American history books fail to teach our children that so many European descendants on the American frontier left the “comforts of civilization” to live with the Native Americans, where they were treated with greater dignity and enjoyed a higher quality of life, that laws were enacted to punish those who were captured and returned.
While it is not my intent nor place to glorify the relatively harsh existence of living entirely from the land as did the first people of this continent, neither would I tell you that I am ever wanting to return to my home on the Front Range of Colorado when living this way. My feet were sore, my shoulders tired, yes, but I was alive in a way that I cannot duplicate here, in my home, with bath, stereo, computer, and mobile phone. I need none of these things when I lie beneath a star field so bright that it illuminates my very dreams.
A Lighter Footprint
In six days and five nights, Sarah and I together consumed less water, in food, drink, and personal hygiene, than that used for an average ten minutes shower; less electric power to light our nights than that consumed by a single 20 Watt bulb burning for just nine minutes; less food by weight or calories than that likely consumed in half as many days given typical American diet and proportions. Yet, we both returned with our bodies leaner, stronger, and far more capable of moving with agility and grace over the challenging terrain while carrying nearly one-third our total body weight. We never fell to sleep hungry nor awoke without energy for the day ahead.
A Simpler Way of Living
Backpacking is for me neither a recreational activity nor a vacation—it is not a departure from the realworld. Rather, backpacking is a return to a simpler way of living, a reminder that the rest of my life need not be as complicated nor as hectic as I often allow it to be, a reminder to breathe deeper, to enjoy food and friends more, to cherish those things left relatively untouched by human hands.
There is no movie, no music, no restaurant, no paycheck that matches the passion I feel, the sense of true joy in simply walking, climbing, eating, and sleeping when I have lost track of the hour and day. It is the rising and setting of the sun, the rythmic flutter of a single cottonwood leaf in the steady breeze which provide endless entertainment, intrigue, and education when I carry all that I need to live from day to day on my back, on my feet.