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 & cheese, sausage vegetable medley, cornbread stuffing infused 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. 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, 15 people are gnawing and hovering, the table completely ransacked, dishes scraped, bits of food having rained the sand. The dogs bound and dart, sniffing and begging, excitedly barking, pecking, stealing. This is pure gluttony in the desert, a celebration of community and enjoyment of what we all 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. The tribe, now fed, beer also comes in droves, cracking like whips in the wind. A guy named Zach decides to streak through other camps with just a rack of gear and a rope draping his body. “Who will join me?” he had bellowed before running off, like a Spartan ready for war. Other camps stoke their fires and clap or shout in game, yip with storytelling – every fire its own cosmic center of history and friendship.
I sit back and enjoy the warmth. The stars are crisp. The moon, a late riser. Time passes and people slowly quiet, crawl into their heads, wander into a waking dream of merriment, climbing, and camaraderie. Sleepy eyes zone into the fiery center of our own universe, even the pups lay down their heads. We drift to our tents, let the drunken blackness take over. Frost creeps up to our cheeks and eyelids, saliva freezes to our blankets, and we dream soundly buried in our dens.
The sun is a clear disk rising over the chaos of last night. Beer cans lay 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 the crusty leftovers with frost. The turkey lays 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 in warm fingers. Muddy, one of the pups, prances around the bushes – it’s another beautiful day, he barks to everyone rising from their synthetic burrows. He swings a glove he found from his mouth, quickly 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 tents – such a crystalline frost, built slow and sure.
The Wingate walls light up and we sit with the sun, remember last night’s symbolic hedonism. My body is telling me to rest. It is on the brink of being over the cold, but I find it necessary. It forgets what it’s like to be at ease and wholly refreshed. It talks in tenderness, moans in stiff joints. My scabs have given up on preventing scar. My hair is wild and flows as it pleases, into my eyes, my mouth, my nose – tickling 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 accurately 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. Besides three others, everyone else has left for home.
We stare at the cottonwood trees. Black-billed magpies bicker in short erratic bursts, make claim before sunset. Clouds slowly graze the bluebird sky. 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 say it is all of nature that relies on motion to live. I watch the world move around me, bask in my own pocket of stillness, recognize that I am 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 lifeless dirt lay where tents and cars once lived. Black fire pits. No lines for the shitter. Holiday is over and it’s back to the real world. The cattle guards are silent and the roads, lonely. But the world here is just as real, and arguably, just as important, if not more. Muddy the dog surely knows.
A lot of people passed through this campsite. 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 them, their subtleties and hidden character. What are their psychological aims? Do they play mind games, even with themselves? Maybe this makes me judgemental, I’ve realized. So not only is it a matter of reading others but maintaining awareness of my own judgements. Overall, 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. It is nothing but ego.
“We were all just born here. Pop!” RonJohn animates, “You grow, you flower, you feed, you die.” He puffs, meditatively, just outside the 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 haven. Clouds cross the steep buttresses, they shadow and pencil the stones of our eyes. Snow flurries come in waves and change this desert place. The wind is back. 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 from the jamming. 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 and kept going.
I 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 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 everyday, 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 much 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.
“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 stuff we did in life. So we might as well do what we want, right?”
Water drips from the jug above me. RonJohn happily moves about his van, his home. He talks about how the stove is due for a cleaning, sits back in his captain’s chair. He gives off an old school vibe. His puffy is torn and covered in duct tape, his pants heavily worn, boots with rubber peeling off. But 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 dark. Pasta aroma fills this small space. Butter. Muddy barks in the distant dark. I think I will really love the van life.
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 down 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 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.
“Yeah I wear earplugs at night because my dog snores,” RonJohn states as Muddy snores in my lap. He pulls out a tube of cookie dough and we top off the night in sugary style.
I dream of freedom. Farther travel. The words that would come, the stories and lives. “We never 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 no matter how far off the grid you are, his statement rings true. We see the world as an object outside of ourselves. We then see how everything is wrong, how wrong others are, but never start with ourselves. Never.
We wake to our last morning here, the ground 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 quiet and empty. We feel alone at last. This is the silence that I remember two years ago, that type where your ears can’t help but ring.
I’ve begun to dive into Jean-Paul Sartre. I contemplate ego. 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 benign to something arrogant and transformative? If you are self-aware, where consciousness sees the self as an object to reflect upon, then ego would remain relatively benign, right? Could I say then, that those who get lost in it, in some poetic way, have lost self-consciousness?
I digress. I made my own way to the outhouse and the sun makes the inside glow orange. The wooden walls reflect its warmth unto me, yet I am constipated. After a while we are finally ready to pack up camp. Snow drapes the roadside boulders and the rim of the valley, a place we called home for a short while. Patches cover the road and our tires break apart the slush. I watch the walls – I still haven’t gotten over my fear of falling. In the amount of years I’ve been climbing now (7), I should undoubtedly be climbing harder routes. But that is my ego talking, isn’t it?
We shower at the Lazy Lizard, we dine for breakfast. We briefly trot around Arches National Park. Then we drive North West with Joes Valley in mind. 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 our glasses and the hood of the Jeep. It turns us orange, turns us deep. Goodbye desert and sandy cliffs, all ever-eroding, older than my flash of life and wiser than the humanity that grips the Earth by the collar and shakes coins from its pockets. Petrified sand dunes are proof that we are all transient, yet our impacts and legacy are everlasting.
Blackened twilight, silhouette-textured by stunted trees and this endless road to anywhere but here. There’s a tribe of us that like to live in this off-colored fringeland. I imagine wind chimes, hymns mourning the passage of wind and time, chanting where the sun is now, a thin line between dark things. The sun flashes its 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 for myself and my dreams the more I see tangible choices that greatly affect the way I wish to experience life; and I am less willing to waste time on things that don’t simply make me happy.
I see silence as a virtue. The dark swallows our headlights on this long forgotten county road. My mind is the lone light in the dark. We 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. Smoke stacks from the local coal plant flash their lights and spew their billowing waste every Goddamned day and night.
11.30 – 12.1
Cheap coffee and tea are only satisfying when the roads are icy and your toes burn from the return of blood. We camped in 6” of snow last night. Joes Valley was empty and completely socked into winter. A total bust, 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.
Yellowed cow pastures on undulate hills are tucked beneath a backdrop of rounded winter peaks. Cows graze contently in the frigid open country. We drive I-70 through the passes toward Las Vegas. Little ponytails of shrubs and grass poke through delicately knitted snow. Two foxes prance near the fence bordering the highway, their tails bushy and playful.
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 it is 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 head space and my energy is not manipulated by sound. But music comes into my life when it needs to, and gosh, does it move me. 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 am not necessarily better for it, but I take pride in knowing how fruitful silence can be.
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. We watch the sky play symphonies with pink clouds. We sleep too warm and I wake early with the sun radiating throughout the tent. We meet a few people in the campground and move into their site. Sport climbing is the only thing on our minds, a break from the crushing momentum of Indian Creek crack climbing. And we do just that for several days, clip draws and stuff as many routes as we can, watch the red landscape, the sky, and all the Vegas faces that happen to flow through.
The world is full of “never.” Long lists that grow as long as we are old. But my generation seems to be continuing the turn of “never” into “why not?” I’m already proud that more and more people are drawn to the outdoors, but I’m terrified that we’ll love everything to death. We need 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, sharing the love, and writing it all down, one word at a time.