Shortly after turning north onto a road leading to the Valley of the Gods, I diverted onto a side road that led briefly to a place called the Goosenecks. Since breakfast, the San Juan River had been shadowing my journey, flowing meekly over the desolate land, nearly always visible. Then it seemed to disappear at Bluff. Now, some 20 miles from the village, I stood at a railing at the Goosenecks, staring at the same river 1,000 feet below, meandering through a canyon as convoluted as my small intestine. The dramatic geological transformation was baffling. At what point over those 20 miles, I wondered, did the pleasantly daylit San Juan make the plunge into this appalling underworld, shed its blouse for an overcoat? And why? And how? Staring at this spectacle, I had to wonder: Which had the greater appetite, the river for the land, or the land for the river?
The Valley of the Gods, a vast landscape of sandstone mesas, buttes, and monuments, spread at the base of a 700-foot-high rampart that ran from northeast to southwest. I parked Little Red at the entrance to a dirt road that, according to my map, looped through the valley. Cars and trucks trickled onto it as I remained parked.
Preferring solitude, I decided to avoid it. I reloaded my backpack, including the ridiculously bulky Sears sleeping bag and wide foam rubber pad, hoisted it onto my back, and, after negotiating a barbed wire fence, struck off in the opposite direction, a roadless swale devoid of formations, yet no less lovely. In addition to shrubs and juniper, the land was dotted with tufts of tall grass on which some two dozen Hereford and Angus cattle grazed. Their piles of manure, dark, rippling, and glistening when fresh, gray and crusty when aged, were not infrequent. But neither the smothering manure nor the destructive footprints of these huge, lumbering beasts bothered me. Again, so charmed by the myth of the American cowboy was I that I accepted them as just one more part of the beguiling landscape.
After establishing a campsite beside a tall, broad juniper, I spent much of that afternoon sheltering myself from rain squalls, my plastic ground cover doubling as a rain fly. The purchase of a small tent prior to my departure didn’t occur to me. After all, my two previous visits to Utah’s canyon country involving camping took place in July, when the weather was sunny and 104°F, and September, when the weather was cooler but equally dry. So I had concluded that it rarely rained in southeast Utah. In any event, I considered myself tough enough to handle any weather condition. Thus, in the shelter of the fly, I looked around and around, marveling not only at the distant formations on the valley floor, but also at the rock rampart at my back. This was the fulfillment of a dream: the Pawnee Buttes multiplied beyond imagining.
The landscape fascinated me for a number of reasons, beginning with its “geometry,” a result of its sedimentary nature. The natural world I’d known up to now―the Berkshire hills and mountains of Massachusetts; the Catskill and Adirondack mountains of New York; the hills, mountains, and valleys of central Colorado―appeared more or less fashioned with a waving, cupping hand. Curves characterized these landscapes. Utah’s canyon country, however, with its millions of predominantly rectangular and triangular formations, appeared to be the work of T-squares, meat cleavers, guillotines, and circular saws. It did not flow. It chomped.
Meanwhile, this rather linear landscape had a charming familiarity. I loved it for its natural qualities; yet I loved it as well for the man-made constructs these natural formations recalled: tables, temples, battleships, edifices, pyramids, butcher blocks, all in various stages of silent, mysterious, melancholy ruin. And what curves there were in the land had a striking ability to evoke parts of the human anatomy such as breasts, nipples, and heads of phalli.
It was a naked land. Before witnessing southeast Utah and northwestern New Mexico, I’d become accustomed to a landscape cloaked not only with grasses, trees, and shrubs, but with soils. The canyon country, however, was often paved with nothing but bare, lifeless rock―the very bones of the Earth.
Space in the canyon country looked and felt different. All of these right angles, these vertical rock faces, seemed to arrest the flow of space, trap it, concentrate it, lend it a remarkable substance. Huddled beneath my rain fly, I could almost hear space colliding with the massive rock wall that ran behind me.
All in all, a uterine security, the trance of entrance.