Will you seek afar off? You surely come back at last,
In things best known to you finding the best, or as good as the best.
The folks nearest to you finding the sweetest, strongest, lovingest;
Happiness, knowledge, not in another place, but this place–not for another hour, but this hour.
Walt WhitmanWilliam Atkins in The Immeasurable World
After I moved to Wyoming, I found that I missed the low elevation river valleys where I used to hike in the spring in western Washington. It was possible there to get an early start on hiking, for many of those valleys remain snow free year round. I often went on my first backpacking trip in April when the trails were clear and there were few other hikers, and I had only rain to contend with.
The Rocky Mountains offer few such opportunities in the spring, and winters are long and cold. So it was with great delight that I discovered the southwest. I had driven through the Four Corners region on more than one occasion, but after the move I discovered I could make it to southern Utah from my home in Wyoming in just twelve hours.
Here I must admit that I developed a bit of an obsession. By April I was growing pretty tired of the wind and snow, and so I went to great lengths to make it to southern Utah for a weekend of hiking in the sun. I would typically get off work on Fridays around noon, and with the car loaded with my backpack, I would head south and spend the night in Rock Springs in southwestern Wyoming. There I would stay in a hotel, enjoy a nice dinner, and retire to bed for an early departure the following morning.
Saturday I was up well before dawn, grabbed a breakfast sandwich to eat along the way, and then began the beautiful drive south along Highway 191 above Flaming Gorge Reservoir. I would make it to Canyonlands National Park usually around noon, check in at the visitors’ center where I had reserved a backcountry permit, and hike only about three miles to my campsite. I kept these hikes short because the next day on Sunday I would be hiking out and driving home. My pack was always heavy because I had to carry water. The campsites all require reservations and are placed so that it is possible to camp away from crowds, with only the stillness of slick rock and the echo of the canyon walls to keep me company. There I would pitch my tent, sometimes explore the trails beyond my campsite, and sit in the quiet and the solitude that is no place more pervasive than the ancient seas of canyon country. I would fix myself a pot of tea from the water I had carried with me, sit on a rock with a good book, and take in the stillness while surrounded by the red walls.
This was the reason for the long drive, the frantic pursuit of an early hike where the sky would be blue and the canyon walls deep red, simply to be there in a beautiful place for one night after a long winter.
Was this crazy? Of course it was. Was it worth it? Of course it was.
On Monday morning I would get up at my usual time, around four-thirty, and make yet another long drive across the Bighorn Basin to one of the clinics where I worked, and resume my demanding job as if nothing had changed.
But it had of course. I had changed. I could face the day and its demanding schedule with a sense of rightness about the world. I had spent a day in a beautiful place and found the renewal I always seek in early spring. Yes, I was a little more tired than usual, but I would return home that evening, heat up something quick for dinner, and then slip into bed for a catch up night of sleep. There would likely be another month of frozen ground and even occasional snow, but the warmth of the red canyon walls stayed with me.
In the last year or so before I retired I cut back to working just four days a week, and then three, so I could make the long trip with a little less urgency and spend two nights in the canyon instead of one.
Now that I am retired I can of course spend as much time as I wish making these long treks and do not even have to get up and go to work the next day, which has been an extraordinary gift. Better yet, I no longer need to make a long drive to spend the afternoon in a beautiful place. I can sit in my rocking chair and gaze out over the Kettle River Mountains, which are snow covered on this day in early January, the temperature outside hovering just a few degrees above zero. I am warm and cozy with my grandmother’s old afghan over my lap and, of course, the cup of tea and a good book are on the table next to me.
And yet there is this that makes me ponder. When I made those long trips I was living in a small ranching community on the western edge of the Bighorn Mountains, where my home faced east, affording a view of Shell Canyon and the ancient smooth ridge tops of those mountains. Was that not enough? Why must we seek beauty in some other place when we all occupy some part of this magnificent planet that is our home? Even if our home is a high rise apartment in the heart of a city can it be enough to gaze at a single rosebud in a vase or a photograph of a beloved grandchild cupping a grasshopper in her hands and looking at the camera with a toothy grin? Why was it necessary for me to drive four hundred milds to have a cup of tea in a beautiful place?
I do not regret those long drives. Every part of the experience nourished my spirit: the way the landscape would gradually change from mountain scenery to red desert while l drove, those quiet moments seated on a rock next to my tent, even the return to work the next day. But what I do regret is this: what I missed along the way when I was trying to be someplace else, right here in this beautiful place, in the richness of this moment, wrapped around me like my grandmother’s afghan.