A spatter of rain hit the tent fly sometime in the night, confirming that the predicted storm had arrived. Soon the drops coalesced into a steady drumbeat. Rain in the desert: a welcome sound if one is properly equipped and situated on high ground.
I was with a group of eight other folks who were taking part in a volunteer service project in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. The forecast was for a wet, cold day ahead, so we'd been given the day off. Dawn was slow in arriving this late in the season, and it felt good to lie in my sleeping bag as the storm beat against the rainfly. Before long the sound took on a finer tone, a hiss that denoted sleet. Sitting up, I put on an extra layer of fleece and reached for my rain jacket, which I’d remembered to bring into the tent the evening before. I could hear running water nearby—not the best sign when camping in the desert.
I stepped into the chill gray dawn and noticed that a lively waterfall was cascading down a cleft in the slickrock. It pooled at the base of the cliff and continued on toward the cavern where most of the group were camped. A sizeable pond was lapping at one of the picnic tables. I hefted a few flat chunks of sandstone into the stream and stepped across to see how the others were doing. They seemed unperturbed by the transformation occurring just outside their tents, so I joined them for a hot breakfast and more specu-lation about the weather.
By this time the snow had stopped and the cas-cade behind our camp seemed to be lessening. A few spots of blue suggested that we’d have a chance at a decent day, although the forecast high was in the low 50s. Several of the group chose to drive up to Moab to explore Arches National Park, but I had another idea. Directly south of camp a lay a trailless, unnamed drainage that led back into a maze of slickrock fins and ridges. The rain meant that its sandy wash bottom would be easier to walk, and I convinced Chris, a retired physician from Austin, to join me.
For some reason my GPS wasn’t working, so we navigated using my inadequate, small-scale topo map, sticking to the sandy wash so that our return would be unmistakable. We passed through a grove of cottonwoods, their leaves fluttering in the morning breeze, and soon were deep within one of the many stone labyrinths found in the Needles section of the park. We paused to examine the blooms of asters, globemallow, and other wild-flowers which had sprouted in the welcome (and in recent years absent) late-summer rains. Tracks in the sand denoted the nighttime activity of something larger than a raccoon, possibly a ring-tail cat. There were cow pies here and there, despite the park having been officially closed to cattle grazing for thirty-five years.
As we threaded our way up the ever-narrower watercourse, signs of cattle disappeared and vegetation increased correspondingly, forming thickets of willow, tall grasses, and even cattails, the latter signifying water. Soon we came across a small pond, then a larger one. Perennial water is a rarity in Canyonlands, but this corner of the park benefits from the extra precipitation falling on the northern flank of the Abajo Mountains.
The going became more difficult. We followed deer paths for a while but soon even these merged into the general tangle. We were reluctant to leave the watercourse for dryer ground, which was covered with fragile biocrusts. Finally, at a ledge overlooking a particu-larly verdant meadow, we called it quits and took our lunch. Nearby lay the antlers of what must have been a large deer that had met its end in this other-wise hospitable locale.
The abundant grasses and shrubs in this part of the drainage suggested that it had not been grazed by cattle for many years. There’s an undeniable beauty to such surroundings, even though the vegetation makes for slow travel. Various forbs had been munched on by deer or possibly elk, but we saw none of the tearing and trampling that characterizes most southwestern deserts. The streambanks appeared to be stable, the ponds unfouled. Away from the stream, the sandy soil was held together by microscopic organisms and their mycelia--the delicate biocrust we wanted to avoid.
We had seen boot prints farther down the watercourse, but none up here. We were in a small section of the national park that lacked stunning geological features to attract the throngs. There was a minor arch on the skyline, and the banded and sculpted rock forma-tions we passed would have attracted notice anywhere else, but these were run-of-the-mill in a park such as Canyonlands. No prehistoric structures or rock art panels were in evidence, even though a neighboring drainage held them in abundance. Given the lack of such focal attractions, this canyon attracted few venturers like us--perhaps no more than a dozen a year.
As we picked our way along a deer path that ended in a morass of willow and water, we realized that we were being treated to something even more rare and precious than scenery. It was a sense of traveling back to an era before humanity existed, when this high desert with its convoluted canyon drainages belonged to Earth’s other creatures, from the lowliest bacteria to large mammals and their predators. It was not so much a feeling of awe, such as I would experience a few days later when I hiked to one of the park’s most notable arches, but a sense of satis-faction, of discovering a hidden treasure one doesn’t quite believe exists. While sitting at our lunch spot it was possible to imagine a world that might survive the changes we are visiting on this planet.
Chris and I returned the way we had come, but before reaching camp I hung back for a while, resting against a boulder that was catching the last of the day’s warmth. Our camp would soon be in shadow, and I craved the sun’s light. Pleasures are so elemental out here, so dependent on the diurnal rhythms and the passing of storm and sun. Surely the earliest humans were keenly attuned to these cycles.
Was this no more than an exercise in nostalgia, one of those rare, brief respites from civilized life? Perhaps, but something about that day’s exploration touched a deeper nerve. This place seemed to exemplify a more valid reality than the ones of our construction. Here, I could imagine the Earth would outlive us, both as individuals and as a species. It seemed inordinately important to me, at that moment of beholding, that we permit this other world its continued existence. Yes, one could visit such a place, just enough to maintain contact, but no more.
This national park, which like all others in Utah and the Southwest is experiencing a flood of new visitors, remains a place where such experiences are still possible. That alone justifies its existence, as well as its expansion to include nearby BLM lands to the east in the Indian Creek and Lockhart Basin drainages. President Biden’s recent reinstatement of Bears Ears National Monument took in those areas, effectively increasing the level of landscape protection around the Needles section of the park.
The value of a place like Canyonlands takes two forms: one is the collection of strange landforms that display such extraordinary geologic forces, which allow us to experience such awe and wonder. The other is found in the wayward places, the little canyons without easy access, the waterless blackbrush flats, the inaccessible side canyons where humans are infrequent visitors. In those places we can experience the deep pleasure of knowing that life goes on, independent of all human measure. It exists for itself, not for us.
By this time the clouds had cleared just enough to warm the rock against which I was resting. I snoozed a little, but soon felt a few drops on my face. Streamers of silver cloud were draped against the Hatch Point cliffs to the east, and farther away the La Sal mountains brooded under a dark gray sky. With the sun gone for the afternoon, I got up and wandered the last mile back down the wash toward camp. There good company and a warm fire awaited. I would spend three more nights here while our group participated in various projects the Park Service staffers had outlined for us. Those days would be satisfying in themselves, and I would learn more about the recovering grasslands of this section of the park. This short walk, however, a gift of a sudden storm, reminded me of what our national parks serve to protect, and how meaningful the small and seemingly mundane places within them can be.