By Alex Kotlowitz
Sunday, September 22, 2002
The only way to reach Boulder, Utah, from the north is to climb and then descend the coiling, slender road over Boulder Mountain. In inclement weather, it can be a treacherous drive, and in fact if there's much ice or snow the state closes gates at both ends of the 32-mile-long byway. Under sunny skies, though, it's a magnificent journey--through a forest of aspens, pines and small herds of mule deer. And the views are beguiling: an endless sea of steep, serpentine canyons, and mammoth mesas and buttes rising like rogue waves. All of it is in red, of all assorted hues. In places, the land appears to be blushing, in others it looks to be on fire. This is Utah's expansive high desert, which is where I, my wife and our two children were headed.
Boulder is a molecule of a town. Indeed, when I asked for directions at the car rental counter in Salt Lake City the woman there replied, "Oh, that's in Colorado." Boulder, which sits midway between two popular national parks--Zion and Canyonlands--is rarely a destination. Until 1939, the town received its mail by mule; it was the last community in the United States to get its correspondence delivered by car. It didn't receive electricity or phone service until the 1940s. Today, you can sip coffee outside the Burr Trail restaurant, one of three eating establishments, and watch ranchers herd their cattle through town. Boulder's population is 180, but even that's deceptive, since people are spread out over roughly 20 square miles.
Until 1985, Boulder was virtually at the end of the road, and it has the idiosyncratic nature of a place where people came to be left alone. Four years ago, two women ranchers were charged with trying to intimidate a new neighbor with whom they had had a land dispute; they allegedly shot a .22-caliber handgun into the night and left a dead cow near his home. Charges were eventually dropped after the women agreed to leave the neighbor alone. More recently, two nearby ranchers refused to remove their cattle from drought-stricken federal land, and so the Bureau of Land Management impounded their herd. A few weeks later, a band of ranchers, angered by the BLM's interference, forced the local sheriff to release the cattle back to their original owners.
In some ways, we had come here to be left alone as well. A few months earlier, at a literary awards event in New York, I had met Brooke Williams, who is married to an author friend of mine, Terry Tempest Williams. Terry's most recent book, Red--a love letter, really--pays homage to the red-rock desert of southern Utah. Brooke and I got to talking, and at one point I told him that I was looking for a place to retreat with my family, and he suggested the Utah desert, which he believes, as essayist and novelist Edward Abbey once wrote, "is the most beautiful place on earth." It is, as I would learn, so seductive that one can easily get lost in its folds.
Brooke offered to meet us in Boulder. The town sits at the northern rim of the Grand Staircase-Escalante, which President Bill Clinton declared a national monument in 1996. Though many tourists passing through ask to see the staircase, there is no such thing. Rather, its name derives from the fact that the terraced cliffs rise gradually from the south, stairstep fashion. Its monument status awards it a measure of protection, and it contains some of the most inaccessible land in the lower 48 states; it was the last place in the continental United States to be mapped. Unlike the national parks immediately to the west and to the east, these 1.9 million acres--the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined--contain no paved roads and no information booths. There's only one marked trail, and two campgrounds (both quite small). The rugged terrain hasn't changed much in thousands of years, though on a road map of the state, a brief description of the monument reads: "No facilities have yet been developed." The italics are mine. Finding your way around here requires a bit of navigational skill--or, better yet, if you're fortunate, someone who knows and loves the land, as Brooke does.
Brooke, who is originally from Salt Lake City, is a ruddy-faced, handsome 50-year-old with a preternaturally calm temperament. He became smitten with Utah's canyon land at the age of 19, when, in lieu of the expected Mormon mission, he hooked up with a friend who took refuge in the outdoors. On one sojourn, they camped in a desert cave near Boulder for a few nights. "Here everything's gone but the bedrock. The earth's structure is exposed," Brooke told me. "Metaphorically, it does that to people. It's hard to hide. You spend time here and you get to know who you are."
Years later, Brooke had an experience where, he told me, "I felt connected to something bigger." While camping, he was looking for a place to spend the night and found an alcove, the perfect shelter, with a two-foot-long flat rock in the center, which he moved to the side so he could spread out his sleeping bag. When he turned it over, he realized that it was a metate, a stone used by the nomadic Desert Archaic people to grind grain. They would turn a metate upside down when they were finished with it, knowing that they would return to use it again. "I just had this rush that the last person in this alcove was maybe 2,000 years ago," Brooke said. "They had turned over this metate expecting to come back, but they didn't. And we did. Religion felt important but not in the way it was supposed to. I felt there was some other real force guiding my life, our deep connection to all life."
Brooke and Terry now live outside Moab, about five hours northeast of Boulder. Brooke, who now considers himself a non-practicing Mormon and who left his family's plumbing supply business to spend time in the outdoors, wants to introduce eco-tourism to this area. If tourism became a viable economic option for communities like Boulder, he hopes, it could nix any inclination to mine or drill in or around the Grand Staircase-Escalante. He has recently begun taking paying customers out on trips like ours, but since we were friends, and since he wanted to figure out how he might gear the experience to families with children, he didn't charge us for his services as a guide. Consider this trip, he said, a kind of experiment.
On our first day, Brooke took me, my daughter, Mattie, who's 7, and my son, Lucas, who's 4, for a hike along the Escalante River, a slim waterway that, if we were to follow it for 60 miles, would eventually lead to the massive, man-made Lake Powell, down on the Arizona border. My wife, Maria, chose to relax at the Boulder Mountain Lodge, where we were staying. The lodge's spacious, high-ceilinged rooms were built in 1994, constructed of rust-colored stone and spruce logs; most of the 20 rooms overlook a 13-acre lake, which serves as a bird sanctuary. In our five days there, we spotted great blue herons, yellow-headed blackbirds, rufous and black-chinned hummingbirds, as well as pintails and mallards.
We followed the Escalante, a river so clear we could spot rainbow trout and so cold not even Mattie or Lucas dared wade it. (In the spring, people run the river in inflated kayaks.) Brooke had given each of my children a small nylon sack to collect small rocks, feathers and various flowers; they filled them instead with sand that was such a deep red it looked as if it had been dipped in blood. Along the high canyon walls, Brooke pointed out a semi-circular stone structure that had been built by the Anasazi, a mysterious people who lived here roughly 800 years ago. No one knows for certain what happened to the Anasazi, who were farmers, though it seems clear from the placement of the dwellings that they had much to fear--or were simply paranoid. They built their homes and granaries sometimes as high as 200 feet off the ground, in the shallow coves of cliffs, their only access often a narrow ledge. (In town, there's a small museum honoring the Anasazi; the displays mesmerized Mattie and Lucas, especially the reconstructed dwellings, which they could explore.) Brooke also took us to see "A Hundred Hands"; 50 feet up the side of a large, rounded rock formation, the Anasazi left neat rows of 120 painted handprints on the sandstone. The speculation, Brooke said, is that they did it to give a sense of perspective--though, to be honest, all one needs to do is stand at the base of just about any canyon here and humility sets in. It's why I suspect the homes around here tend to be like matchboxes. There's no way one could compete with the spectacular scale of the landscape, the grandiosity of the mesas and the canyons that can run on for miles.
Mattie and Lucas were less interested in the pictographs than they were in honing their climbing skills, though, as they quickly discovered, it was much easier to scoot up the boulders and honeycombed canyon walls than it was to get down. So they learned how to descend on their butts, and Brooke and I spent much of the afternoon--and days to come--chasing after them.
Back at the lodge, Lucas unloaded the red sand he'd collected onto our room's red carpet, and Mattie proudly showed off to her mother the mouse skull and part of a deer leg she had found among the cacti. Maria promptly whisked her and her zoological cache to the balcony, where she could display her treasures, outside. The red sand, through no fault of our children, stayed with us, turning up in socks and pants pockets weeks after we got home.
The desert, as Brooke suggested, strips away any pretensions. It exposes your soul. "You have to make a conscious decision to come here," one Boulder resident said to me. "Unless you can live with yourself, this place won't appeal to you." I can see how the young artist Everett Reuss became so charmed by this terrain that, in 1934, he set out by himself to hike and camp for weeks, bringing along two burros to carry food. But I can also see how easily Reuss might have gotten disoriented. The problem is that you alternately find yourself either deep in the bowels of a canyon or standing in the winds along the lip of a mesa or butte, and so your perspective of the landscape is constantly shifting. Reuss disappeared, and his body has never been found. (Some speculate he simply got turned around; others believe he might have been killed by cattle rustlers.) Abbey, in his book Desert Solitaire, told the story of a 60-year-old amateur photographer who, out for a day hike in nearby Arches National Monument, got lost. Abbey, a Park Service summer employee, joined the search. He wrote: "Most of the surface of this high mesa . . . is bare rock--there are few trails . . . There are, however, many washes, giant pot-holes, basins, fissures and canyons in which a man could lose himself." Abbey eventually found the man, parked under a juniper tree, dead from exposure. Patricia Dietrich, the owner of the Burr Trail restaurant in town, keeps the back door unlocked so that lost hikers who wander in late can help themselves to a meal. Brooke at one point told me, "There's nothing to fear out here." But there is. Getting lost. Which is one of the reasons I was grateful to have Brooke guiding us.
The next day, Brooke took us 25 miles down the Hole-in-the-Rock road, a series of ruts and potholes connected by red dirt. Had we followed it to its end, we would have arrived at the rim of Glen Canyon, where in 1879 the members of a Mormon wagon train--known as the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition--with pickaxes, shovels and blasting powder carved a path down into the canyon so that they could reach the Colorado River. The road parallels Fiftymile Mountain, which is just as advertised, 50 miles long, and an endless stretch of rocky terrain grazed by cattle, though amid the snarled junipers, windblown sagebrush and purple beavertail cactus, I'm not sure what there is to graze.
Brooke steered us to Dry Fork Coyote Gulch, which we hiked into for a mile before arriving at our destination, Spooky Canyon, an unusually narrow slit carved into steep rock formations. Mattie and Lucas, who could fit easily, scurried ahead, ducking and weaving their way back into the canyon, while we adults slowly inched along, turning sideways so that we could maneuver through the tight passageway. We wandered back about a quarter of a mile before it began to feel too claustrophobic. On our return through the gulch, after a lunch of sandwiches and apples, we considered climbing 20 feet of terraced rock to enter Peek-a-Boo Canyon, but after watching a fit, middle-aged couple give it a try and then turn back, we decided to pass. Mattie and Lucas, though, did clamber halfway up, and edged into a shallow overhang, Mattie quickly striking the pose of a young Buddha. She understood, it seemed, the meditative powers of the desert. "She belongs," Brooke said. Lucas, on the other hand, had to be persuaded not to leap.
On the drive back along the Hole-in-the-Rock road, Lucas got it in his head that he wanted to hunt a cow. So, when we spotted some cattle grazing 50 feet off the road, we stopped, Lucas got out and, with stick in hand, crouched on all fours and crawled from sagebrush to sagebrush. Every now and then, he peered over the brush at his prey, then looked back at us, giving a thumbs up. Suddenly a shout. "Brooke," he yelled, "there's cow poop." The hunter stood up, and retreated to the safety of the van. "He's got some distance to go," Brooke suggested.
Because this is cattle country, horses abound. In addition to the quarter horses used for herding, there are wild horses--both mustangs and runaways--that roam the maze of canyons. On summer days, from the deck of the Burr Trail restaurant, one can spot an occasional stray wandering through town.
That evening at the lodge's office, as we were sipping wine with some locals, Brooke introduced us to Bill Muse, a white-haired, white-bearded, rotund gentleman, who is a real horse whisperer; he schools quarter horses and thoroughbreds for racing. He invited us to come out the next day and watch him train.
Muse ended up here because of an accident. In 1985, at his farm near Salt Lake City, a horse he was riding went head over heels. Muse broke his back. He fell into a deep depression, popping pain pills and swilling tequila, so his wife, an amateur archaeologist, took Muse to Calf Creek, a small strip of water that cuts through a canyon in the Grand Staircase-Escalante, and camped there, for a month. "I found God here," he told me. He asked his wife, "How am I ever going to repay you?" She told him that she wanted to live here, so they purchased 110 acres in the lower Boulder Valley, a lush plot of land, and stocked it with 55 horses.
When we arrived, Muse stood in the center of a small ring, talking with a young quarter horse named Orrin. "Pressure points," he explained, as he pushed his fingers into Orrin's nostrils and then massaged the region above the horse's eyes. Orrin's eyes fluttered, his muscles visibly relaxed. Muse then walked around the horse and began to pull his tail. Orrin's eyes closed. He was asleep. Muse then brought a young filly into the ring named Nicole, and to a recording of "Over the Rainbow" sung by the late Maryland singer Eva Cassidy, Nicole pranced around the ring, stopping and starting to Muse's gentle entreaties. Nicole, a redheaded paint he had found running wild with a herd of mustangs, is being trained for dressage and jumping.
A light rain had begun to fall, and Mattie and Lucas, unimpressed by Muse's rapport with horses, were themselves prancing about, most definitely not in rhythm to Eva Cassidy, so we headed to the Burr Trail restaurant for dinner. Mattie flirted with the ranchers, and Lucas skipped from table to table. A young woman hiker said to Lucas, "You have way too much energy." Brooke, who I suspect if there were such a thing could find work as a child whisperer, told Lucas, "Take a deep breath." He then kept him and Mattie occupied with an impromptu game made from business cards and had them, in the spirit of the Anasazi, tracing their hands into sketchbooks he'd given them.
It's hard not to become entranced by this spare landscape. It's humbling. Sidle up to a ledge along the top of a 100-foot-high mesa, or hike in the shadow of a canyon's towering sandstone walls, and you can't help thinking about your place in the world. There are moments in the desert when you want to surrender to the surroundings, to lie on a slab of rock, the sun beating down, the light changing the sandstone hour by hour from copper-colored to crimson, as you consider the possibility of leaving the frenzy of work and city life for this, the reds, the sandstone, the bareness, the solitude. This place has such devotees that there are various chapters of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance around the country. "One of the things we've lost is a sense of discovery," Brooke said, "but around here, because there are no trails, you can wander up a bluff into a canyon and feel like you're the first one there." Indeed, on our second-to-last day, while Maria and Mattie were off horseback-riding, Brooke guided Lucas and me to a small gulch where we hiked along a shallow creek. We dipped our hands in the cold water. We found deer antlers. Lucas climbed the notched wall of a low mesa, and Brooke scrambled after him. We anointed this small piece of space "Guys Gulch." Perhaps it already had a name. I'm not sure. But I do know that when we come back here, I'll visit this gulch again. If I can find it.
Indeed, the land here has a way of twisting one's sense of direction, as well as one's sense of self. The next day, our last, Brooke took us to visit a couple who were building a home atop a mesa. Their two sons prowled the scrub brush and pine forest like young coyotes, and Lucas, who likes nothing better than to tag along with older boys, excitedly joined them. The rest of us toured the house, and then hiked along the ridge overlooking Boulder Valley and Muse's ranch. The two brothers soon joined us.
Lucas wasn't with them. The boys, preoccupied with their make-believe game of hunting, hadn't noticed his absence.
I don't remember much of what anyone else did, but I began to walk, then run, recognizing rather quickly that I had no notion where to head. Such vastness, terrain that turned from pine forest to sagebrush to canyon to steep ascents, all, it seemed, with great randomness. I tried to think where a 4-year-old boy might wander, but wandering here, even under the best of circumstances, can be aimless. All I can recall--and I don't know whether it was a matter of minutes or longer--is that a friend of Brooke's emerged from a cluster of pine trees holding Lucas, who was sobbing. The adult had heard something wailing in the woods, and thinking it might be an injured animal, gingerly worked his way to the sound. It was Lucas, frantically running back and forth, forth and back, over the space of 20 feet. My wife got to him first, and hugged him, hard. I looked around, feeling both relieved and overwhelmed. This land is easy to lose oneself in.
That evening, we decided to treat ourselves and Brooke to locally raised beef and organic vegetables suffused with Southwestern flavors at the lodge's restaurant, the Hell's Backbone Grill. The weather had turned, and while we dined it began to snow. One of the restaurant's owners, upon hearing that we planned to drive over Boulder Mountain that night, asked, "You have a four-wheel drive, right?"
"No," I replied.
"Do you have chains?"
I was beginning to get a bit nervous.
"Well, at least you have a cell phone."
We got three miles up Boulder Mountain, the wet snow now two inches deep. It was nearly impossible to see where the road began and where it ended, and so we turned around to spend another night in Boulder, which, to be honest, we weren't quite ready to leave anyway.
Alex Kotlowitz is the author of "There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River." He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 3 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.