Do not jump into your automobile and rush out to the Canyon country. (…) In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out and walk, or better crawl, on hands and knees (…). When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe.
I remain silent, setting free my last precise thoughts that originate straight from Edward Abbey’s travel journal. Let them rise along the glowing red rock walls until they disappear into nothingness in the ultramarine sky. I am a pilgrim, my mind is pure and dwells in the freshness of the moment. We have just started walking from the Temple of Sinawava, equipped with a paltry backpack, two water bottles and a shoulder-high walking stick. I am moving along the pilgrim stream along the Virgin River straight into Zion Canyon, the main attraction of Zion National Park. On the way to the most infamous canyoning tour in America’s southwest: The Narrows. The sandstone walls are 600 metres high, and no ten metres apart at their most narrow point. The hike through the canyon goes for 20 kilometres, most of the people do not walk further than the first three kilometres. After one hour, there are hardly any of the other pilgrims left.
Guide Rob has not talked much. I ask him why he has not told us anything. He says he wanted to let nature tell its own story. I ask him, who Sinawava was. It is the name of a powerful Paiute Indian deity that used to live in the area but did not occupy the canyon. Sinawa means God of tranquillity and kindness and was responsible for the harvest of the Paiute natives. On the park’s entrance, the rock Kinasava is sitting there enthroned. This was an evil spirit that is said to have resided in the canyon. This is the reason why the Paitute Indians did not settle down near him and only ventured into the park at daytime. Slowly, Rob starts talking. He is very earthbound: long blond, messy hair, a tangy summer canyon-guide odour is in the air. He tells us the story of Zion Canyon’s great power that attracted many people who moved to Springdale, the town at the entrance – but had to leave the place after a few years because they could not handle its power emotionally. Zion Canyon is supposed to reinforce your karma, too. Rob smiles mischievously. We wade through water, an invisible stream is pulling us, we climb across rocks. I get a strong physical feeling for such sublime nature in its monumental solitude. Until we reach Wall Street, a weird name for such a quiet place. I marvel with a stiff neck, feeling tiny, nearly crushed by dignity turned into stone. So here it is, the power of the rock, of the canyon that Rob was talking about.
Getting lost in a place
Utah’s southwest boasts a magnificent landscape. It attracted many people of different kinds with its magnetic character. Mormons were looking for freedom, artists searched for inspiration and solitude. Thomas Moran painted it, Everett Ruess turned it into poetry. It was them who glorified the landscape, raised it to divinity and turned the rough and remote desert into a place of dreams and their desire. It is a place they and many others got lost in. Everett Ruess is probably the most famous artist of the getting-lost-type. At the same time, he is most clouded in secrecy. He got it right with just one marketing trick: »I’ve become a little too different from most of the rest of the world. (…) As to when I shall visit civilization again, it will not be soon, I think. (…) I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities«, wrote Everett Ruess in his last letter to his brother Waldo, packed his two mules and entered the Davis Canyon, a side-canyon of the Escalante River near the town Escalante, and was never to be seen again. It was November 1934, Ruess was 20 years old. His poetry and his departure without any compromise have made him a cult figure today (more on page 103). Still, many myths and legends about what became of him breeze through the canyons of southern Utah.
You really get underneath the surface of the mysterious area while you walk through the slot canyon: The walls press the air out of your lounges when you try to squeeze through the most narrow spots. When you walk long enough, you can rub yourself against the soft sand stone, rub yourself until you disappear. It might be the way Everett Ruess did it to become one with nature. »A short while ago they found dusted bones in the area where Ruess disappeared. It was quiet a media event because they claimed they were his remains. Scientists examined the bones but found out that they were from a different time«, Bill sums up the latest news. Today, he leads the Slot-Canyon-Tour together with Lanell.
A short life in solitude and poetry
When Everett Ruess disappeared in Utah in 1934, he had just turned 20. Up till today, numerous myths and many unsolved questions wind around his disappearance and his person. One thing is clear: Ruess was a talented poet, evidenced by his poetic nature descriptions. He left them behind in his many letters to his family. He also drew, created woodcuts and painted during his long and lonely travels through the untouched nature of the American West. Nowadays, he is often seen as an earlier Jack Kerouac or a Catcher in the Rye who turned the canyon’s rough landscape into a setting in the search of himself. Everett Ruess’ life is so fascinating because he took responsibility for his actions, his decision to live life to the extreme. When he was 16, Ruess — born in Oakland, lived in L.A. — set off into the wild in California. Later on he discovered Arizona and Utah as his main elements for his painting. It was the start of his long solitude travels.
Literature: »A Vagabond for Beauty« by W.L. Rusho. It includes Ruess’ letters as well as reports on his disappearance and the search for him.
In the tight womb of mother earth.
Enough talk. Difficult canyon terrain in front of us with passages that require long ropes — Bill doesn’t want to tell us how long — in an area you could end up like Ruess. You can still see Zion’s mountains, Lanell points to the horizon before we make our way down. We slide into a kind of rock tube, walk for a few metres, and there is already the next gap in the rock. Behind it, the sky and nothing else. Bill and Lanell ask us how far we think it goes down. 10 metres? 15? 20? A little bit more, replies Lanell and smiles. Get us ready for the descent! Belay, throw the rope and so on. No problem, I just learned it all yesterday. Bill checks the belay system once more carefully, eventually we all have to go down there. For a second I feel like James Bond and I arrive one skyscraper deeper. Even more far away from civilisation and the world. We thought we were already far away before. In the tight womb of mother earth, Novalis would have loved the feeling of security and comfort. An elusive security because you cannot go back. We are all by ourselves, says Bill succinctly, when he unclips the safety carabiner and it falls in front of feet into the sand. Some foolish people dared to enter the slot canyons without a guide although it is technically very demanding. The problem is the length of the rope they might underestimate. So they might have to stop when high barriers are in their way or end up at a rock plateau high above the ground. Each year somebody has to get rescued.
The walls still open up to the top like a V but the deeper the water cut into the rock, the steeper and closer they get. After a while the blue sky is only a tiny gap high above us. Tons of heavy sand stone blocks, torn out by the water centuries ago, obstruct our way or are wedged up high between the walls. Now it is an especially wide way and Bill slides into a gap between block and wall until we can only see his upper body: »You have to push your bottom against the wall and slide down slowly until you can push your feet against the wall«, he explains with an exhausted look on his face. Our tailbones will thank us tonight, at least Edward Abbey would be proud of us — if he was still alive. Those are my trains of thought while I hang in the gap, scraping my skin, blood begins to run and my feet cannot find the opposite wall. Bill asks: »How many words for bottom are there in German?« Po, Arsch, Hintern… We try to think of all the different versions while I somehow manage to slide down — Bill and Lanell repeat all the words like parrots. Even our laughter sounds lost in reverie in this own world. The Slot Canyon becomes tighter and tighter, abrasions bloodier and bloodier, the atmosphere more intimate. It bleeds into the conversations between climbing and abseiling: We talk about dreams, desires, recipes for good relationships, our lifelines. Bill who was a deep-sea diver in another life, built a hut close to the Observation Point in Zion. If possible, he wants to stay there forever. He is only 41. Lanell always wanted to live outside, Zion is his dream come true. A year ago she arrived in the desert. Previously she had a fulfilling job in trendy San Francisco. All that was nothing in comparison to guiding Slot-Canyon Tours.
»Those canyons are special places. I gain the power of elements in a very special manner, I feel connected to them. Each time I am in a canyon it is a spiritual experience«, she tries to capture her feelings in words. Bill agrees, silently nodding, his blue eyes seem to shine of happiness. We keep walking silently, the silence talks to us. I try to see, let my eyes wander along the filigreed vibrations of the walls. I feel inside. Contours, textures, chasing in the sand stone – the rings of Saturn, orbits of planets, spiral galaxies. The whole universe, formed by sandstone. Light never hits the ground of the canyon directly but jumps from wall to wall and slides down along the curves. And then, the sandstone lights up in several red shades as if somebody has illuminate the rocks from the inside. The curtain drops with that last scene. We step out into a hot late afternoon. On our way back another spectacle: dove grey thunder clouds gather on the horizon, rays of sunshine hit through them like a swords down to Zion. Shortly after, the bottom of the clouds are flamingo and salmon-coloured, the mountain peaks are ruby-red. Bill grins: »We even got a word for that scenery: zionesk!«
The messenger of death in my neck
I am being pulled deeper and deeper into the emptiness, heat and solitude; the relentless call of the southwest has gripped me. Or in Everett Ruess’ words: »A few days ago I rode into the red rocks and sandy desert again and it was like coming home again.« Innumerable slot canyons exist in and around the Zion National Park as well as east of it, in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. I decide for the king of the slot canyons, the Buckskin Gulch. It is the longest of its kind, it takes two days to measure it. The Buckskin Gulch has a similar feel to it as the Grand Canyon with the fine difference that there is far and wide not a soul that you can share your feelings with. Oh well, I am not totally alone. The messenger of death is sitting in my neck: a raven. Patiently waiting on rocks only a few metres away from me. If I happen to bite the dust — which cannot be ruled out as there are regular spring floods that rush through the canyon, or I could get hurt and die of thirst — the raven will not wait any second longer but get my eyes. The perception makes me see again. This time, my inside — crystal clear. And suddenly I know what kind of seeing Edward Abbey really meant.
Canyons of the American Southwest
The best way to start for Utah’s southwest is Las Vegas. US Airways leaves e.g. from Frankfurt to Las Vegas, www.usaairways.de. The flight leaves in the morning, an overnight stop is possible e.g. close to the airport at Carathotel, www.carat-hotel.de. Cheap rental cars at Alamo, www.alamo.de.
Central in Las Vegas is Bellagio, bookable via ADAC Travel, www.adacreisen.de. Recommendable is the Cable Mountain Lodge in Springdale, it’s on the border to ZION NP so it is only a few steps to the park and the shuttle buses. www.cablemountainlodge.com.
Canyoning and Slot-Canyon-Hiking
Zion Adventure Company is also located in Springdale. You can book tours or borrow equipment, www.zionadventures.com. Find an overview of the Slot Canyons and its equipment demands on www.americansouthwest.net/slot_canyons.
When you are in the area it is worth visiting the Bryce Canyons. You can go on slot canyon tours in the Grand Straicase Escalante NM. Stay overnight at Bryce Canyon Grand, www.brycecanyongrand.com. Worth seeing: Capitol Reef National Park. Accommodation at Torrey Schoolhouse in Torrey, www.torreyschoolhouse.com.
21. August 2012, Text: Ingo Hübner