Words and photos by Sara Aranda
Hungry, fervent hyenas, eyeing the foil and fire, giggling with the steam and prospect of turkey. Side dishes begin to pop up around the table: sweet potato, mac and cheese, sausage vegetable medley, cornbread stuffing infused with mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, broccoli cheese, pumpkin pie. It’s all laid out to feast, and we’ve held our empty plates long enough, dammit. Fast and wide-eyed, we squeeze and bump our way to every dish and serving spoon—full plates and filling bellies.
In a matter of minutes, fifteen people are gnawing and hovering the table scraps, dishes scraped, bits of food having rained the sand. The dogs bound and dart, sniffing, begging, excitedly barking, pecking their noses into the dark. This is pure gluttony in the desert—a celebration of community and enjoyment of what we’ve brought to share.
We laugh around the fire, let the flames rise and snake into the wind. We lick our chops and our plates and pass the Carlo Rossi, pinky in the handle and butt of the jug in the crooks of our elbows. People pray for beer, and it comes in droves, cracking like whips in the wind. A lad named Zach decides to streak through other camps with just a rack of gear and a rope draping his body. Like a Spartan ready for war, he bellows, “Who will join me?” before running off with only shadows chasing his heels.
Other camps stoke their fires and clap or shout in game and yip with stories I imagine are just as soul-wrenching as our own—every fire its own cosmic center of history, friendship, and love for the desert—or so I’d hope: her ancestral resonance, how the silence of hands that paint her walls still bleed more than ours.
I sit back, enjoy the warmth. The stars are crisp. The moon, a late riser. Time passes and people slowly quiet, crawl into their heads, and we wander into a waking dream of merriment. Sleepy eyes zone into the fiery center of our own universe; even the pups lay down their heads. Drifting to our tents, we let the drunken ooze take over. Frost creeps up to our cheeks, our eyelids; saliva freezes to our blankets, and I dream of wiry bodies baked from the earth, climbing, climbing, always climbing.
The sun is a clear disk rising over the chaos. Beer cans lie about the fire ring, most of them half-full and frozen. The pots and pans are as they were, left for the stars to lick leftovers with frost. The turkey lies stiff in its foil pan, an old carcass you’d find ravaged in the winter backwoods of Alaska. I quickly pick up all the trash I can and tidy our gluttonous wave of being. We are poor dirtbags again, aching and sore. Everyone slowly rises to peer, drearily, into their cooling coffee, the steam glancing their faces with warm fingers.
Muddy, one of the pups, prances around the bushes—it’s another beautiful day, he barks to everyone rising from synthetic burrows. He swings a glove he found with his mouth, shaking his head back and forth. Life is truly now, and we must all play. Though, as wise as he is, frost is everywhere, and we are slow to warm. The metal stoves, the plastic bowls and empty glass jugs, every leaf and shrub, the hardened soil, and the insides of our brains—such a crystalline frost, built slow and sure.
The Wingate walls light up, glow auburn, and we sit with the sun, trace the stories present in our gobies. My body is telling me to rest. Weeks of throwing limbs into these cracks, two years of dreaming myself back here: the morning feels sincere. But I am different now, this Creeksgiving unlike the last; no longer the lone traveler heading east in search of home.
But these walls are only echoes of mantras I beg of myself. Be kind. Be patient. The smell of steaming breakfast burritos is strong. I am on the brink of being over the cold, but I find it necessary. My body forgets what it’s like to be at ease and wholly refreshed; I welcome the dialogue, as my flesh speaks in tenderness, moans in stiff joints when I stand. My scabs have given up on preventing scars. My hair is as wild as the cottonwood and flows as it pleases, into my eyes, my mouth, tickling my nose as snot drips as slow as the sun is rising—Hemingway wrote it best, and today truly is another beautiful day.
“We are born wise, we are born complete,” my tea bag reads. We visit the Canyonlands Visitor Center and watch one of their films. Nature is not too harsh nor is it too lenient, it summarizes life here in this “rock wilderness.” Later, Patrick and I sit in our chairs outside our tent. We are the only ones at camp. Everyone else has left for home.
We stare at the cottonwoods. Black-billed magpies bicker in short erratic bursts, make claim before sunset. Clouds slowly graze blue shore. We will likely have rain by the time the moon rises. I pull out the book I’m currently reading, Forget Me Not, and Jennifer Lowe-Anker mentions Pascal, how he once said that humankind’s true nature lies in motion, without which we die. But I would of course say it is all of nature that relies on motion to thrive. I watch the world move around me, even the shadow of the sun tilting over the shrubs. Bask in my own pocket of relative stillness (since my blood will continue to circumnavigate). Recognize that I am eternally lucky to not have to bark into the wind from atop a tree.
“I hung from hooks and read some books and rubbed my swollen ass cheeks,” Patrick sings, his new rest day rhyme. A few other people have joined our camp. Chess, checkers, crosswords, ice axes across tree limbs, handstands and acro-yoga—the whole campground has nearly cleared out except for us. Large blankets of dirt lay where tents and cars once pressed. Black fire pits. No lines for the shitter. Holiday is over and it’s back to the real world for them. The cattle guards are silent and the roads, lonely. But the world here is just as real, and arguably, more. Muddy the dog surely knows.
There are faces we may see in another year, and some, likely, never again. I am often the passive observer in large groups of people I don’t know well. I watch and listen, notice all the quirks and nuances of everyone—I find it fun, actually. I like trying to read people, their subtleties and traits. What are their psychological aims? Do they play mind games, even with themselves? Are they self-aware? Maybe this makes me judgemental, I’ve realized. So not only is it a matter of reading others but maintaining awareness of my own interpretations and stereotypes.
I am quiet. Someone once said quiet is the opposite of brave. But I like being unassuming about who I am or what I’ve done in life. It’s the most satisfying way to be. I’m learning to live it more and more, through all sorts of trials of self-discipline, like those small moments in group conversation, where you get that urge to chime in because you’ve been there and done that. I let those moments wash over me, pass on into oblivion, because I recognize that it’s not my time and place to say anything at all. I want to be there to uplift others. I want to have an honest relationship with my ego. Yet here I am, writing, about me.
“We were all just born here. Pop!” RonJohn animates, “You grow, you flower, you feed, you die.” He puffs a joint, meditatively, just outside his van. Guitar plays on someone’s phone. Muddy eats his dinner from the mud-caked bowl. Hail is falling lightly in small pebbles. Pasta is cooking. Sausage and chopped cabbage, onion. Inclement weather is alive and well. “Things can’t all be the same right?” RonJohn happily exclaims.
The van is a cozy niche. Clouds cross the steep buttresses; they shadow and pencil the stones of our eyes. Snow flurries come in waves and change this desert place. Always wind. It’s cold but our clothes keep us on the edge of warmth. We are enough. It is enough. Our bodies still talk of rest. My ankles ache. I heard my heart beating today, loudly, as I tried to lead a thinning crack. This is harder than it should be, I thought. I chose to ignore the pounding. I hate hearing my own heartbeat.
I now sit on the bench in the yellow Westfalia. Music echoes off the windows. The heat of the stove is comforting. Aura and acoustics. Rhythm resounds. I take hits, too. I meditate for context, the day, evening, life. The pot of pasta boils over. Tomatoes sit chopped. Thirty degrees. Puppy ears are the best. The smell of cheap beer reminds me of my grandfather. Not that he drank every day, but when he did, he would smooch my cheeks and I’d get a waft of Bud Light, a smell I had no context for until I was older.
Headlamps, solar lights. Patrick bobs his head to the hip-hop that now plays. Muddy sits inside now, just by the door peering outside, alert. He scans, hops out to bark at something we will never see. Nor understand.
“That’s why we need to travel and do shit now,” Patrick adds to the conversation about memory loss in old age. “Because when we’re that age, it won’t matter. We won’t even be able to remember what’s in the fridge let alone the things we did in life. So we might as well do what we can, right?”
Water drips from the jug above me. RonJohn happily moves about his home. He talks about how the stove is due for a cleaning, sits back in the captain’s chair. Old school vibe. His puffy is torn and covered in duct tape, brown pants heavily worn, boots with rubber peeling off. The floor has mud from all our shoes, regardless of their state. Our breath begins to look like clouds. Our hands dig deeper into our pockets, toes wiggle just a little bit more. Dusk, then night. Pasta fills this small space. Butter. Muddy barks in the distant ether.
It’s finally time to eat. Our palates water. Jazz is now the random choice of the evening. The smell of cheese is powerful, delightful. RonJohn shuts the sliding door and the windows begin to steam as we scarf our food, wind wooing outside. We end with warm bellies, warmer than everything else around, stuffing those last, cheesy bites. We lick our sporks and belch and lean, push the plates away. Why does everything always taste so good? We are happy monkeys. Satisfied with exhaustion and warm, good things. Today was the coldest day yet, but we were up there, climbing still, just before the storm. My toes went numb while leading a route. I suddenly had heavy hoofs. Then the shooting pain finally came when I re-warmed them beneath a jacket. Rocking back and forth like a severed chair—
“Yeah, I wear earplugs at night because my dog snores,” RonJohn states as Muddy snores into my lap. Pulls out a tube of cookie dough and we top off the night in sugary style. I daydream of the words that would come, the stories and lives outside our sanctuaries.
“We never truly see our own dilemma,” RonJohn had quipped earlier. He talked mostly of people locked into society and the cities, set in their ways and politics. But honestly, no matter how far off the grid we are this statement rings true so long as we see the world and others as objects outside of ourselves; so long as Western mind states continue to protract between right and wrong. How we see how everything is wrong, how wrong others are, how we then can’t come to the same page because of it. We never start with ourselves. Never.
We wake to our last morning here, lit with snow. Dog prints roam the camp and Patrick’s footsteps meander to the shitter. I suppose you could say my body is finally used to the cold; it no longer feels so harsh. But it is cold enough to start a morning fire, and as we give rise to flame, the campground is once again quiet and empty. We feel alone at last. This is the silence I remember two years ago, that type where your ears can’t help but sing. No matter the world, here I am again, self-assessing ego. Placing myself into the foreground of the landscape when the opposite is very much the truth.
In the arrogant sense, ego seems to be devoid of self-awareness. Ego is not inherently “bad”, Sartre seems to define, it is merely a “flux of Consciousness constituting itself as the unity of itself.” So where does that transition happen from something collectively benign to something arrogant or solipsistic? If you are self-aware, where consciousness sees the self as a unity to reflect upon, then would ego remain benign? No. I honestly don’t feel that to always be true. Still, could I say then, that those who get lost in the self, in some poetic way, have lost this unity of consciousness? Lost the intrinsic ego?
I digress. I’ve made my own way to the outhouse and the sun incites my insides to glow orange. The wooden walls reflect warmth unto me, yet I am sadly constipated. Stuck. Narrator of my life. After a while, we finally pack up camp. Snow drapes the roadside boulders and the rim of the valley—a shared place. The Ancient Ones. Navajo. Ute Mountain. A living place.
Our tires break apart the slush. We shower at the Lazy Lizard, dine for breakfast. Eat a lot of hashbrowns. Briefly trot around Arches National Park, once Puebloan and Shoshonean land. Drive North-West. Purple and red, orange and blue, the sun stains my eyes and the clouds break the skyline apart. Painterly landscapes buzz by, the music hums with the wheels. The glare of sunset reflects off the hood of the Jeep. It turns us orange, turns us deep. Goodbye desert and sandy cliffs, all ever-connecting, older and wiser than the humanity that grips the earth by the collar and shakes coins from pockets. Petrified sand dunes are proof of transient states, how impact and heritage are everlasting.
Blackened twilight, silhouette-textured by stunted trees and this endless road to anywhere but here. There’s many that like to live in this off-colored fringe land. I imagine wind chimes, throats mourning the passage of wind and time, speaking where the sun is now, a thin line between dark things. The sun flashes a final wish and we are the fiends who see endlessness and smile with anticipation. What does this mean? Nothing, really. It doesn’t have to mean anything, but it is beautiful and it makes me feel alive. The more time I spend in the present the more I see tangible choices that not only greatly affect the way I wish to experience life, but the lives of others as well.
I honestly see silence as a virtue. Not the silence of you. Or me. But where the dark swallows our headlights on this long forgotten county road. My mind is the lone light in the dark. To pursue unknown space, we entrust our lives and purpose to it.
We arrive and pass through Ferron, Utah and Christmas lights drape windows and the roofs of large family homes. Smokestacks from the local coal plant flash their lights and spew billowing carbon emissions every Goddamned day and night.
11.30 – 12.1.16
Cheap coffee and tea are only satisfying when the roads are icy and your toes burn from the return of blood. We camped in six-inches of snow last night. Joes Valley was empty and completely soaked in winter. A total bust as far as intentions, but magnificent. Fog sat about the reservoir, cloaking eerie cliffs. I stuffed my toes into my puffy once we packed up and drove off, clasping them with my hands until the pain subsided.
We drive I-70 through the passes toward Las Vegas. Yellowed cow pastures on undulate hills are tucked beneath a backdrop of rounded winter peaks. Cows graze contently in the frigid open country. Little ponytails of shrubs and grass poke through knitted snow. I spot two foxes prance near the fence bordering the highway.
I stare out the window and search for words, my mind lost in process. Sometimes it helps to write down these empty gaps in this story of me. They are plentiful and they are necessary. Content comes and goes, that is the reality of life. But these zoned-out glitches in consciousness can be comforting. Our thoughts carry us for miles, hundreds and thousands, as we patiently ride the roads to destination. There are long stretches of just us inside our heads, no music and no conversation, but for me, I’m glad it’s a relaxed environment. I’ve come to realize that I can endure the silence longer, and more contently, than Patrick here in this car. As to me, the world is not always music. It sometimes, rather grimly, is devoid of it. I enjoy silence because I can find stasis in it. It is not any less beautiful or less inspiring and the world feels that much more raw. I enter clear headspace and my energy is not manipulated by sound. But music comes into my life when it needs to, and gosh, does it move me then, too. The thing I miss the most is playing piano. For all of this, yes, I might be strange. I know people who cannot handle silence for any length of time. I would not say I am necessarily better for it. But have you tried to sit with yourself without sound? Who are you when you are not moving?
We finally reached the Red Rock Campground and, of course, it was full. Luckily, we ran into the camp hosts and they set us up in overflow (I had no idea that even existed). Another page to our road trip had been entered. Southern Paiute. We watch the sky play symphonies with pink clouds. We sleep too warm and I wake early with the sun radiating the tent.
Sport climbing is at the forefront of our minds, a break from the crushing momentum of crack climbing. And we do just that for several days, clip draws on routes we have energy for, watch the red landscape, the sky, and all the faces that happen to flow through.
The world is full of “never” and “other.” Long lists that grow as long as we are old. We need diverse outdoor educators now more than ever, stewards and lovers of the environment. I pick up trash at every crag or campsite I visit, because why not? The little things matter the most. It is giving for the sake of giving. A pay it forward type of mentality, and what’s better than picking up trash: never finding it in the first place, right? Well, let’s hope that one day trash won’t be a thing anymore. In the meantime, I’ll keep on keeping on, doing my part, learning to share, writing it all down, one word at a time.