Canyon Tales
Temptation of Color
by Phillip Rhoades

The last miles of long hikes are often the most difficult, a time when the lingering desire for the backcountry collides with the yearning to return to home, to someplace other than here. The contrast of these two desires seems obvious as I walk into the landscape of last year’s wildfire, the demarcation between life and death. I feel overwhelmed yet somehow joyous as my feet cross the haphazard line that separates the verdant colors of the Right Fork’s riparian area from the black and gray colors that breached this canyon a year ago. My eyes take several seconds to dilate as we leave the shady canopy of cottonwood trees. My skin becomes noticeably drier as the sun’s heat drinks from my sweat. No matter, we are now only two miles from the trailhead and any discomforts will have a limited duration.

The wildfire that breached this canyon more than a year ago appeared in the form of slow moving flames and billowing smoke. It consumed juniper, oak, and willow without regard to its fuels’ needs or peoples’ expectations of nature. The fire altered a landscape that many believed would remain in a static form, a form that just happened to agree with a common aesthetic. Such expectations are markedly vulnerable as I walk through this raw landscape of burnt trees and barren ground. This canyon, now composed of bedrock, parched soil, and dead vegetation, is a spectrum limited to hues of brown, dull reds, and the many shades of grey. It is as if the garden’s image faded and I am left with the memory and temptation of color.

These frivolous thoughts dissolve as I rest for a moment next to a clump of burnt prickly pear cacti in which one remains remarkably alive. Among a multitude of shriveled and altogether defeated brethren, this one cactus not only survived, it flowered. The colors of its wilted sepals and petals are noticeably dull in the intimate landscape of the flower but, in the larger panorama of the bench on which I stand, such colors seem vibrant. The leaf remains the jade of its infancy and is contrasted by a pale crimson of the plant’s flowers. I imagine returning to this exact location years from now only to find the descendants of this one flower displaying their own unique colors. I wonder if they will appear nearly as vibrant as time proceeds, as more plants and more animals reclaim their historic territory. I can only hope that I have the privilege of such an experience.

It appears that the celebration of this cactus has caught the attention of many neighbors; ants scurry around its pedicle, bees and flies are guests of its nectar, and the tracks of several animals are evidence of the many pilgrimages that have been hosted by this one plant. My oversimplified thoughts of this canyon now seem naïve in the presence of this flower, in the presence of this community. I assumed to find a definitive end to the landscape that existed before the fire swept through this drainage—instead I find continuity, a persistence to survive without a recognition that their place has changed. This construct I have of clear boundaries and definitions fails when confronted with the complexity of something as simple as a wilted flower, an ominous fact for the broader concepts I have developed about environment and nature. I am infatuated with these epiphanies, these humbling moments when my hubris is exposed for the weakness it is; when the clear definition of what I believe blurs with the intricacies of place.

I am interrupted by the impatience of my feet, an eagerness that must mean the day is proceeding fast and our pace is slow. I diligently oblige, leaving yet another footprint, another short-lived thought, and another portion of me that would rather revel in place than hurry through time. Nonetheless, my feet move on.

Our path the next half hour is made easier by a distinct lack of vegetation and the sandy benches that border the sides of the stream. The canyon itself is noticeably wider; the precipitous walls that have flanked our journey for the past two days now recede into the middle ground of the landscape. This new landscape that surrounds us encapsulates a much wider perspective, exposing the mesas and sandstone peaks that litter Zion’s backcountry. We have already passed South Guardian, a large fin of white sandstone that passionately reaches for the azure skies of Southern Utah—it never seems to reach the object of its desire, but I cannot help appreciating its fidelity. Soon the first major side drainages will enter the canyon, the primary artery of these being Trail Canyon, a relatively short canyon that heavily influences the lower section of the Right Fork. Over the course of a year this canyon provides much needed water from flash floods, seeds from a variety of native and invasive plants, and a corridor for many animals as they move across and into the local environment. My fascination with these notions lingers until my eyes witness the sight of the rocks, ridges, and colors strewn through the tributary. Where concepts fail, beauty prevails.

The head of Trail Canyon is a minute ridge capped by burgundy sandstones, shale of mauve, and junipers that separate this drainage from those to the southeast. Coal Pits Wash, the primary artery of that system, and its capillaries Jennings and Terry Washes are landscapes known for their petrified wood and lack of visitors. Their ephemeral streams are part of a larger network of tributaries that feed the Virgin River, a perennial river that flows south and west through three states and several distinct ecosystems. The ridge that separates Coal Pits Wash and Trail Canyon may not carry the name of its holier brethren that rise in all directions of the park, but its efforts are no less devout. Its persistence provides the much needed waters that flow through the streams that define this landscape. It will take twenty miles of wandering and the tireless efforts of geologic forces to once again reunite the waters that were separated by a mere two hundred feet of sandstone, shale, and juniper.

My feet stumble across a boulder, an obvious consequence of daydreaming. My shins are painted with colors symptomatic of such accidents. Countless times, countless bruises, countless colors. The standard expletives leave my lips without being filtered through my tact; luckily no one is around to witness my folly. My embarrassment quickly fades as my eyes catch the glimpse of something alien, something I do not recognize. The memories of my trip through this canyon more than five years prior have appeared as mirages throughout the many hours of the current trip. They arrive as vague images that become more focused as the trip proceeds. At this point, there is a fuzzy notion that something just isn’t right, like the flash of something significant yet unidentifiable across one’s peripheral vision.

It takes several seconds, but I eventually decipher the unidentifiable landscape in front of me. Within the last year, vast quantities of water emerged from the mouth of Trail Canyon and rearranged the delicate scenery that survived the fire. Large boulders are thrown about like the erratics of an ancient glacial valley, trees are ripped of the black bark that has defined them for more than a year, and the soil is exposed all the way down to its alluvial deposits and bedrock. I am confronted with something even more raw, more exposed than the bare canyons I have been traveling through the last two days. I feel uncomfortable, almost guilty, looking at a canyon so forcefully stripped of all its possessions, a canyon uncovered to a fundamental level that I do not recognize and cannot comprehend. Nonetheless I keep looking, a rubbernecker in the wilderness.

It is the scale of this devastation that distorts my perception, a persistent theme of the desert southwest. I have witnessed flash floods, been deafened by the sound of water eroding rock, awed by the ominous clouds that rip through the skyline, and awakened to the musky smell of their ancient, flowing mud. I have been scorched by the heat of a wildfire and coughed for days after inhaling its smoke. Yet I had never been witness to the product of both their collaborations until this landscape, this caricature.

At first it appears flawed and riddled with exaggerations. The composition is skewed by misplaced boulders and upturned trees. The color scheme is monochromic and lacks a natural contrast. The lines seem oblivious to the complexity of their subject and remind me of the broad strokes of a novice. Upon further investigation, as I step into the picture, I find the evidence that hints at an uncanny skill, an expert accuracy.

The stream has been rearranged and forced to abandon its old channel. Patches of willows, the common benefactors of a stream’s water, sit limp and neglected on the shores of now dry washes. What had been bucolic tributaries of the Right Fork are now precipitous gorges with rubble-filled channels more than thirty feet deep. We must negotiate their slopes with caution and are reminded of their treachery by the constant crash of falling rock. What were once benches of white sand and easy hiking are now tumultuous piles of rocks, tree limbs, and rivulets of a serpentine watercourse. There is no sign of recent passage by other people, wild animals, or the familial cow. I find it difficult to contemplate the catastrophe that could hinder the travel of livestock in the southwest.

Our progress becomes exponentially slower with the surmounting challenges provided by the flash flood and our apparent appetite for distraction. My hiking partner and I are now spread out farther than any other time in the course of our two-day hike. Our bottles have noticeably less water, fewer stops are taken to eat and nourish our dwindling energy supplies. The final stages of these adventures are a delicate time, and we seem to have abandoned our motivation in the presence of this violent scenery. I feel exposed and naked without the cover that such focus provides; I feel burdened by our momentary negligence. Authors and paperback gurus so easily speak of the benefits of living in the moment without mention of the inherent risks. Many times I have learned what it means to travel without consulting the map of our past experiences and our future desires; we can easily become lost in the presence of a moment. I feel ill prepared as we continue our journey without such guidance and are left to experience the lessons of the canyon.

Shade becomes a precious commodity during desert hikes, and we consume every morsel that is provided by a boulder marooned in the middle of the stream. Sweat drips slowly down my brow. Salt burns my eyes every time I blink. The long conversations that defined the first day of the trip have been supplemented with quick glances, simple gestures, and symbolic actions; I have become a specialist in this backcountry language. Unbuckling a pack belt means a fifteen-minute break, at least for the first person sitting down. An extended hand is a compassionate offer of a shared snack. A smile grasps at any motivation that has not been lost to heat, fatigue, or distraction. Yawns, hands on the hips, and moans are the omens of a pending camp or long day.

My hiking partner rises, places her hands on her hips, and moans without even looking in my direction; we are destined for a night hike.

Within ten minutes, we can see the lava intrusion and the shadows that define the junction of the Left and Right Fork of North Creek. The landscape and our moods make an abrupt change. The drainage is once again filled with cottonwoods, grasses, and the youthful sound of a healthy stream. At the first opportunity, we both step into a deep pool and immerse ourselves in cold water, an act that refreshes our bodies as much as our spirits. As soon as the initial shock fades, I repeat the act and dive back into the pool for a second dip. Water glissades down my forehead and for the first time in hours my cotton shirt is saturated with something other than my own sweat. There is nothing quite like a cold swim during a long hike. I make the mistake of looking at my watch and, despite the strong desire to linger, we move on. We both know that the sun is low, sinking fast, and that dark clouds are on the horizon.

I have impatiently been calculating the remaining distance of our hike for the last two hours, making desperate attempts to decipher every meander we pass and every landmark on the map. I quickly learn that we are within a mile of the trailhead, yet a mile is a subjective term. It can be a simple five thousand two hundred and eighty feet, a reasonable challenge for most individuals. Or it can be a rubble filled gully with cold rushing water, scorching heat, and a devious climb through sharp, black rock. We had regained a motivation and reclaimed a respectable pace with the simple knowledge of the approaching trailhead. Context eventually erodes what little progress we gained. The benefits of our watery celebration are no match for two days of fatigue, for the daunting climb that has appeared in front of us.

Over the next hour, our pace becomes determined, it is noticeably slower but steady. Words are again replaced with well-timed glances. Our feet follow in order without effort. All eyes stare down, limited to the intimate landscape of the trail five feet in front of us. Our arms pendulum back and forth, the composers of the predictable nylon swoosh. Our lungs work hard as we crest the final hill. Even as I stop for one last break, I can feel my heart pound against my chest and hear the residual exhalations of our strenuous hike.

I look up and stretch my neck from left to right. At the moment I hear the definitive crack of success I also manage to glimpse the final shades of sunset. Reds contrast blues, and the purple black colors of the approaching thunderstorm are projected upon the distant horizon. Brazen flashes of lightning appear at random intervals and withdraw with an abrupt speed. For several minutes I am immersed in this scene, engaged in the perfect meditation. I gradually awaken as the last light wanes and darkness prevails. I am too tired to reach for my headlamp and concede that the remainder of our journey will be walked under the faint glow of twilight.

My eyes gradually adjust as I meander between juniper and piñon. Any remnant perspective of distance, time, and ambition is lost to the hypnosis of the moment. I think back to the vocabulary of the trip as my feet stride down the trail. Persistence and effort. Stability and change. The temptation of color.

Phillip Rhoades

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© 2008 Phillip Rhoades