I was cycling along the quiet desert highways of southern Utah, beginning with Moab and then visiting five other towns, this week 15 years ago. A team of 25 cyclists pedaled to raise funds and awareness for Habitat for Humanity.
Utah included one of the toughest segments of our entire cross-continental journey, 208 miles over two days. At the same time, it was by far one of the most scenic and breathtaking regions we passed through. I recently reconnected with a very dear friend with whom I enjoyed that adventure, amidst other wonderful experiences and connections that have inspired deep reflection. The latter included the 2012 Ecosex Symposium in Portland.
A few years ago I returned to the southern Utah / northern Arizona region with my partner, with a readiness to see the beauty closer and in greater detail. We embarked upon one of the most exciting hikes I’ve ever experienced, exploring Paria Canyon and part of Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the world. These magical places lie near the Utah-Arizona border, in the region of the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Today, with additional inspiration, I give this natural setting yet another look. Several characteristics make this region’s beauty quite special and rare. They offer many analogies for living and relating.
Much of this region’s most exquisite elegance was created by some of nature’s harshest and most turbulent forces over extended periods—rain, hail, flooding, and winds. Over time, some stone reacts very little to the turbulence of its environment, keeping the same form. Through storm after storm, other stone disintegrates completely, unable to stand up to the elements. But certain types of stone, with just the right balance of malleability and strength, allow for the formation of something incredibly wonderful. The harsh elements also expose the rock’s many complex layers, providing an even more breathtaking display.
Slot canyons provide an exceptionally up close and intimate experience of the sublime—but one that only those who are willing and ready can fully appreciate. Many sights offer the casual tourist an easy view from above, and from a distance, such the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. Such is not the case with the slot canyons, intricate, intimate, and complex in their beauty.
You have to go deeply into them to witness their magnificence. You have to be willing to put your mind, your spirit, your body, into it. You have to be willing to stretch yourself, to take some risks, to experience a bit of fear and discomfort, to leave many of your material comforts behind. No shortcuts. That’s sometimes part of Mother Nature’s deal. Those who merely wish to observe passively may never experience such magnificence.
As we arrived at the trailhead, the setting was very beautiful, and mysteriously enticing, but it didn’t yet look all that different from some of the sights we had witnessed from the road. Then again, we were already in an exceptionally scenic area. Pondering how heavy my backpack would feel in just a few hours, I initially wondered if it would really be worth it. Especially given all the crazy conditions and barriers that seemed to exist up front–passes had to be secured months in advance, with no guarantee we’d even be able to hike in due to weather; only 20 people were allowed into the entire canyon system each day; there only a few short periods per year when hikers were even allowed in; and so on.
Disneyland would have been much easier. But I knew that I didn’t want a sterilized, neatly packaged experience. This was already infinitely better, and all those things that seemed to be barriers were already behind us. And I knew that even more exquisite beauty was only a few miles ahead–it would just take a bit of effort to get there.
We had to hike seven miles each way with our backpacks on. While highly experienced hikers would consider this no incredible feat, it was the longest backpacking excursion we had done, and the terrain was sometimes challenging. Even though we had done a decent amount of reading and preparation, and a bit of training, the “real thing” was still a bit of a stretch. But isn’t that often the case?
We often had to cross back and forth through a muddy stream. On a few occasions I had to struggle to free my feet of mud. Several times we had to stop to remove or add clothing layers, dig out snacks, apply a bit more sunscreen, or just relax and breathe. This happened more often early on, but once we got a rhythm established, we were able to enjoy our surroundings even more.
As our entry had been delayed at the ranger station due to temporary weather concerns, we arrived after nightfall in a light but steady rain. We had to wade through knee-high water in a pitch black canyon with headlamps, trying to find the small elevated area where we could safely camp for the night. It was scary at moments, not being able to see beyond the beams of our headlamps in the vast darkness, wondering what might be lurking around us. After we finally found the elevated camping area and set up our little backpacking tent, I cooked our freeze-dried dinner on an alcohol burner made out of a soda can, beneath a small tarp in the cool desert rains.
The beauty we witnessed made it all competely worthwhile. During daylight, as the sun traversed the sky, the canyon offered a spectacular array of shapes and colors. So many shades of oranges, and reds, and browns, earthy and rich hues. So many textures. As the light changed, infinite combinations of shadows and colors presented themselves to us.
As we got further and further into the canyon, it often narrowed significantly. Initially the closeness felt a bit claustrophic, but we always had plenty of room to move and to breathe. And during those times of closeness I saw, smelled, heard, and touched an exceptionally rich level of detail. It was like the canyon was holding and nurturing us, while also exposing itself and providing plenty of room to observe while we continued our adventure. All we were required to do was to respect it, to experience it, to embrace it.
At one point we ventured into Buckskin Gulch, the narrowest part of the system. We probably didn’t go more than half a mile to a mile beyond the confluence with Paria Canyon. Relatively few people hike this segment end to end, because if hard rains occur, the chance of death from flash flooding is significantly higher than in Paria Canyon. There are few places of refuge from the same high waters that created many of the canyon’s intricacies. So this is a place to be highly respected. Although the weather forecast was pretty safe for that day, I still experienced a bit of fear as we entered.
Only at few points of my life have I felt so fully self-aware as I did in that canyon. In thinking back, I can recall parts of how my body reacted to the curvy walls, hundreds of feet high, on either side, winding above us. At points the walking space narrowed to just a few feet wide. My breathing quickened, my heart beat faster, my eyes were alert to every fine detail. But at other points I simply felt in awe. My breathing and heartbeat slowed, and I felt an incredible sense of connection with something unbelievably large while also feeling incredibly small.
During one of the most memorable moments of my life, I stopped, simply closed my eyes, and surrendered to everything around me. It was so quiet that I could hear the blood rushing through my head with each heartbeat. For a few minutes, the only other audible sounds were the occasional echoey call of a bird, and my own breathing. It was incredible.
On one hand, the experience of entering this space had provided a rare opportunity to witness great beauty born of seemingly destructive, but highly creative, forces. On the other hand, it provided the space for me to really see and observe myself.
I now also appreciate that the canyons have a very rhythmic nature to them, one that embodies our various states of being. A few inspiring people recently led me to Gabrielle Roth’s concept of rhythm and dance. She poses that our states of being can be represented and expressed by the 5 Rhythms: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness. Some of the canyon walls, like the flowing river water, had smooth, undulating, curvy waves. Many formations were offset by sharp staccato edges. At times, such as during the rain, our surroundings seemed to take on a partially chaotic nature. The birds, the rain, the wind, provided some natural lyrics, punctuated by frequent moments of stillness and relative silence. Natural settings can provide many cues for self-awareness.
Reflecting back upon this adventure brought to mind some analogies for everyday living, presence, and relationships. Below are some questions it has inspired me to ask. Perhaps you’ll find them useful for yourself, or for someone you know. If you think of additional ones, feel free to comment.
- As I reflect upon my own life or those of others important to me, how has exceptional beauty or lasting strength resulted from life’s sometimes harsh storms and turbulence? This might include a deeper understanding of one’s self and others, enhanced empathy, a stronger sense of self, uncommon social grace, a greater ability to give and receive love, increased compassion and forgiveness, or an enhanced ability to handle certain challenges.
- What opportunities do I have to convert my past challenges, however difficult they may have been, into beauty? What actions, if any, must I still take to make this occur? How can I ask those closest to me to support me in this, and how can I support them in the same?
- As I get to know others, what must I do to show up powerfully and authentically enough so that I’m not just a passive observer or tourist? How must I take a few risks, open myself up to some of the dark and muddy patches of others’ paths as well as the light, stretch myself a bit?
- With those I wish to be closest to, how do I handle both the more close-up and intimate parts of the journey, as well as the wider and less intense parts of getting to know them? Or do I rarely venture beyond the first mile, and tend toward taking an overhead view?
- Just like that slot canyon provided a space for me to hear my own pulse, to be fully self-aware, how can I be present enough to hold such a space for others? A space where they can also be fully aware, and comfortable enough to let their various colorful layers and rich textures fully shine? Because in doing so, I may not only experience more joy from their beauty and energy, but I may come to better hear and see myself. And perhaps even catch a glimpse of that higher energy that connects all of us, and shines through us when we’re courageous and open to seeing it.
- When someone expresses a desire to get to know me better, what is my style of showing my various colors and textures? What rules and boundaries do I place around them? Are these boundaries generally healthy and helpful, hindering, or somewhere in between?
- How can I take what I learn from my “close up” or most intimate relationships, and apply some of it to other connections?