Thirsty Dreams of Hungry Country

It’s cold today. My remarkably as yet un-cracked Huawei phone informs me it’s 3 Celsius, or about 37 Fahrenheit. In arid environments, especially with a sun smiling overhead, this could be considered balmy. But it’s humid in Faenza, making the perception of cold more intense. Three degrees Celsius is cold enough to make your hat slide itself further down your ears and your jacket button of its own volition. I used to make fun of the Italians who bundle themselves up like delicate quail eggs transported along a four-wheel drive road. But now, I get it.

Perhaps it’s the chill, then, that propels me towards warmer memories in southwestern Utah. There’s a particular one from late April of 2018, after I’d ridden my bicycle alone across the southeastern United States and a month before I moved to Italy. I had packed up a tent, food for two days and little else as tepid spring frowns upon things like heavy jackets.

My parents dropped me off at the Red Mountain trailhead and, although I don’t remember exactly what they said, it would’ve been something like this:

Dad: “Love you, but don’t fall off a cliff.”

Mom: “Scott!” (Eye roll). “Have fun, be safe.”

I walked off under a bluebird sky, nothing like the one here, which is as gray as a chameleon adapted to blend into cement walls. I had crossed through endless pinion-juniper trees on a dusty road that slanted just enough it couldn’t be considered flat. The path narrowed from car to horse width and eventually to whatever diameter requires a constant, careful dodging of prickly desert fauna. About then, a feeling of wildness soaked into my bones like rainwater into desert sand.

Utah high desert scenery

It had rained recently and, combined with time-and-weather-carved sandstone basins called “potholes,” I may have been able to filter water. But just as the future is never certain, neither is finding water in the desert. So, accounting for at least three liters per day, I decided to schlep in seven. I’d strapped one of my full bladders to the outside of my backpack so I could stash it in a juniper tree about halfway in. I was then a bit lighter and free to use the rest knowing I had water for the hike out.

I’d walked that trail many times with my parents and knew that the halfway point was where we always nibbled ham sandwiches, GORP and apples (standard food for hiking Florences). We always chose to eat there even if we weren’t starved yet because, well:

Snow Canyon overlook in Utah

I continued on feeling more buoyant physically and reflecting on how appropriate “lightness” was for my state of being. I’d made it through a divorce and a solo cross country bicycle tour, both of which I’d doubted surviving many times over. Good thing I had no freaking clue what Italy had in store for me. I may have been discouraged enough to hightail it back to my parents’ house and hide for the next two and a half years.

As it were, I continued in conditions so perfect it seems someone ordered them on Amazon: a sweet breeze, please and unbroken sunshine, but not the scorching kind. And wispy clouds to contrast with the blue skies, red and white rocks and green shrubs, all enjoyed through a filter of chirping birds.

After another solid hour of hiking, I turned left off the main trail and followed the white sandstone bench south-ish. After a certain amount of turning left, it became a hard wave that dove off the side of a two-thousand foot cliff. I still had a decent stroll but it was relaxing as, with the cliff to my left, it was impossible to get too lost. Beyond the bench stretching ahead of me I saw the wide valley that houses St. George, Utah. Farther away still were the smoky shelves of the Arizona Strip in which was hidden the spectacular gash of the Grand Canyon.

Snow Canyon, Utah

I stopped when I reached one of the only potholes which has been established long enough to sprout a carpet of thick, course grass. It was as big and round as a flying saucer and I nestled my tent on its southern fringe, against the only tree tall enough to provide shade. I then blew up my sleeping pad for the next twenty minutes. As I did, I noted how lucky it was that I’m not a dog. Considering that one human year is seven dog years (making one human hour equal to seven dog ones), blowing up my pad took about three canine hours.

Wilderness and a tent

I spent my next three dog hours much more wisely. I grabbed my roll-up chair, water, a bag of dried figs and my journal and set off across the undulating sandstone. I climbed across this alien landscape of off-camber edges and steep bulges with ease thanks to how the rough sandstone clung to the soles of my hiking boots.

White sandstone dreamland

When I found the most spectacular view, I sat down and drank it all in like a parched camel, forgetting about my journal, my worries and the passing of time. I lapped up the rosy reds and the smoky blues that, especially at sunset, began to resemble the depths of an ocean. Faraway houses could have been bulbous creatures waiting on the ocean floor for bits of this or that to drift down. I imagined the desert ridges and peaks with their mysterious crevices to be primordial fumaroles about to spew magma. And then the moon came up and stole me from my dream with its cool luminescence.

I hadn’t realized until then that it was a full moon. As it crested the sky, whatever clouds had accumulated blushed red and pink as if embarrassed by something. I watched the colors intensify until my stomach began to growl. I walked back in the fading light and prepared a simple meal of instant minestrone soup and already-cooked rice, which I ate straight from my Jetboil.

The desert is one of the only places I have been where, at some point, utter silence descends. It is broken now and again by the yips and howls of coyotes, the hoots of a prowling owl or the otherworldly symphony of tiny frogs. But as the air cools from warm to where’s-my-jacket, nature is still transitioning and the quiet itself becomes another living thing. It’s a silence which is so pervasive I’ve heard it described as “unsettling.”

It makes sense, I suppose; we modern humans have grown accustomed to a cacophony of our own creation, comprised of our vehicles, factories, social lives, emergencies and the like. A space without all of that is now what seems completely unnatural. Not until the height of the quarantine in Italy–when even the starry skies were devoid of planes–did I find a comparable stillness to that which I found in the desert.

After dinner, the full moon was reflectiong off all the rock and casting eerie shadows everywhere. The white sandstone produced a similar effect to snow by amplifying the moon’s brightness. I had brought my old Canon Rebel XT camera, which had entered its geriatric years but was still functioning. I grabbed it to capture how the moonlight shone off my tent and peeked through the leaves of the juniper tree as if impersonating her blinding brother, the sun.

Hours later, I was still clambering all over the rocks playing with different exposures. By then, the frogs had worked themselves into a compositional frenzy; I fell asleep to what I think may have been a wishful mash up of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” and Debussy’s Claire de Lune.

I was awoken many hours later by the staccato yips of coyotes from somewhere nearby. I realized I needed to use the ladies’ room, so I stumbled out of the tent. The sun was coming up over the horizon just then, and I stood watching it open-mouthed. Also because me being awake for the sunrise is like Donald Trump actually conceding that he’s lost the election.

Sunrise in Red Mountain Wilderness

Broad sunlight turning the tent into a sauna served as my next alarm. I arose misted with sweat and was cooled off by a light breeze. I boiled water over and over for coffee and read my book as the sun climbed up the ladder of the sky. Soon, it put the cool breeze on the shelf and replaced it with a warm one.

Camp breakfast in the desert

I slapped my big sunhat over my knotted hair and got up to stretch my legs on a different part of the bench. There, I discovered there were indeed potholes full of brackish water. As I strolled, I contemplated whatever one contemplates outside, alone, between one life and another.

By then, all concept of hours was gone; I ate when I was hungry and drank when I was thirsty. When relaxation made me sleepy, I took a nap in the shade of the little tree, curled up against the tent like a juvenile fox. When I awoke I saw that the sun had long passed its zenith. I packed up the tent and gear and hiked out, backtracking to the halfway point where I grabbed my full bladder. Then I crossed back through the pinion junipers to the point where the trail became a dusty road and the road became the parking lot. I arrived just as my dad pulled up in their Toyota Corolla, which is the color of watered down peanut butter. My dad probably said something like, “Welcome back punk.”

“Takes one to know one,” I would’ve answered. We turned onto Highway 18 and towards what was then their one-story home in rather redneck Dammeron Valley.

I became quiet at some point on the ride home, watching the desert scenery blur outside the car windows. In contrast to the rusty earth and white sandstone where I had camped, here the dirt was suddenly tan and the rocks a volcanic black. It never ceased to amaze me, that stark visual change. It was like coming out of a strange dream. I suppose I was after being immersed in the desert for over thirty hours, disconnected from screens and other people. But at the same time, profoundly connected to my inner self and to nature.

Sandstone bench southeastern Utah

Two and a half years later, I am relegated to my tiny studio apartment in Faenza in a sort of second semi-quarantine. Meanwhile, I’m listening to a radio station in Reykjavik, Iceland and writing about a backpacking trip in Utah. Again (but in a different sense), so connected and at the same time, so disconnected. And for whatever reason, feeling more restless than I have felt all year.

“You can spread your wings, but you can’t go anywhere,” my friend Jess said to me yesterday when I expressed this to her. “For once, you’re not in survival mode and you’ve got a home base where you can ride it all out.”

Jess is right: I’ve landed. For the very first time in a very long time, I’ve also stopped. While getting divorced, I was working three jobs, packing up the house and planning a summer in Italy. When I got to Italy, I was dreaming up the bike tour across the US. While bike touring across the US, I was setting up my studies and permanent move to Italy. When I returned to Italy, I was organizing more trips, learning Italian and becoming an English as a second language teacher. And so forth.

So, the music has faded. The laughter has diminished. The frenzy has slowed because it’s 2020 and the entire world was forced to stop and rethink things. It sounds sad but actually, I see that this stopped-ness is my new adventure. Instead of running around, I’m reflecting and grounding. Instead of planning and storytelling in real time, I’m processing and revisiting lost adventures. And how dear they all still are. What joy it brings me to recount them to you as we pause and dream. As we wait for the time when we will walk out of this strange desert dream together and into our next adventure.

3 Replies to “Thirsty Dreams of Hungry Country”

  1. I love that place! But I also like Faenza. They are two different worlds. I’m glad you found one you can rest in for a while.

  2. Yes, you’re right — both are amazing places in different ways. I’m very grateful to have experienced both of them 🙂

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