Most folks that hike and camp in desert canyons will describe the experience as being spiritual, mystical, magical, enlightening, or some other intangible, but very deep and basic sort of feeling out of range of words. It’s as though the bare rock, when exposed from the protective covering of organic matter, rich soils and abundant forms of life, connects us to our earth’s core and allows us to touch the essence of our foundations.
There must be some sort of energy emitted from the core of the earth important to, and pleasing to living things, that would otherwise be absorbed by all the other life forms that usually insulate us surface dwellers from the power of the bare rock. The same sensation is experienced on mountain peaks high above timberline where the summits of solid rock connect us to the core of the earth. This connection pervades regardless the overwhelming feeling of separation by altitude from the rest of the earth and the endless view planes of life below.
Traveling the harsh, dry, slick rock regions above many desert canyons, the small pockets of vegetation encountered seem multitudes more vibrant than their counterparts in moister, richer soils. The desert Indian Paintbrush, for example, is not only redder than mountain and plains varieties, but redder than anything imaginable. They define red. And as though in defiance of severe conditions, they stay in full bloom for a matter of weeks or months instead of hours or days. They are even more highlighted by the dark, cryptogrammic soils framing their background, probably in the company of a few prickly pear cacti, a clump of segmented green morman’s tea, and an elderly, bent and twisted juniper shrub providing just enough partial shade to allow its neighbors to survive. Life on the edge seems to be the most precious.
The small potholes of water in the rock explode with life during short periods after rain storms. One can sit and observe a whole food chain in operation, an entire ecosystem, an entire world for all practical purposes of imagination, with most occupants, such as the little “fairy shrimp,” being translucent, allowing us to see through their exoskeletons to their inner workings as though we’ve been granted superhuman powers to allow the observation of this little world.
Then, with a splash, enters an alien, six legged, flying transformer, disguised as a wasp while in flight to discourage predators, and able to become a ferocious, back paddling, aquatic predator the instant he dives into the pool, devouring and dominating all other life in this little world. When it’s time to go, he swims up to grasp the surface tension of the water with all six feet, hanging upside down. He then flips himself over, from being a back-paddling submarine, to standing upright above the surface of the water and ready for flight in its wasp costume to find the next pool. If you’re quick, and it’s not too far, you might be able to follow him there because his clumsy, dangling wasp-like flying abilities aren’t as swift, fluid and graceful as his predatory, underwater counterpart. Ironically, this strange little predator seems to find more freedom in the confines of a small pothole than it does in the endless horizons of the desert air.
When it appears that the heat of the slick rock is endless and unrelenting, one of the many folds, cracks and crevasses you’ve been crossing might reveal a lush canyon, so out of place it could be a mirage. If you’re lucky, you might find access to the bottom amid the otherwise high and convex cliffs that discourage all but birds, bugs, and lizards. To descend from the blazing heat into a lush canyon with the priceless, cool shade in the depths of high, narrow rock walls, feels like entering a different dimension. It’s not hard to imagine a young Native American, after fasting for days and maybe ingesting peyote, wandering into such a canyon and believing he had entered an entirely different world.
These canyons create a profusion of life in the spring with willows, cattails, cottonwoods and the ever-present call of the never-present canyon wren that all folks hear but few ever see as they dart through nooks and crannies high up in the cliffs. One might see white tail deer, a few desert bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, and even with very limited water, a beaver colony.
While generally quiet during the heat of the day, except for the occasional scuttle of lizards or small birds through dry leaves, and maybe the wing flaps or guttural calls of a raven or two, evenings can come alive with a cacophony of sounds including bullfrogs, tree toads, crickets, cicadas, coyotes, turkeys, owls, nighthawks, and poor wills. Morning sounds in spring are usually dominated by the canyon wren, the squawk of passing waterfowl, and the distant, lonely mourning dove.
Desert canyons can also provide intense silence. Edward Abbey wrote about this in his book Desert Solitaire and described being able to, in the deep silence, hear his own brain buzz, which he described as the electrical synapses between communicating brain cells. I have come to associate this brain buzz with levels of anxiety or conflict in my life, and try to learn to quiet this buzz, especially when I’m in otherwise quiet environments such as the desert.
Once inside the canyon, the mystical qualities of the desert become even more concentrated, possibly because one is even more surrounded by the energy emitting rock within the high canyon walls, but also because of the way light, heat, and especially sound, play off the canyon walls. The most obvious characteristics of canyons involve the various echoes carried through the canyons, giving an impression of being in the presence of others when you’re alone.
I’ve often stopped and looked to locate the intruder only to realize I’d been hearing myself. The spirits are here and they are you. The clarity and magnification of these echoes are often louder than the footstep. This is because your body is directly between your feet and your ears and muffles much of the direct sound thus allowing the echo to be louder than the source.
This phenomenon is even more exaggerated when riding a horse or mule because their bodies do an even better job of blocking the sound traveling directly to our ear from their hooves while creating even louder echoes off the canyon walls, often giving the impression of being preceded or followed by strangers or spirits. Everything about these canyons adds to the mystical and spiritual aspects of the desert. Who knows, maybe the Hopis did have portals leading to another dimension throughout the canyonlands. I find the tangible world offered at the bottom of these canyons to be enough of an escape from the day to day dimensions of life. Like the strange little flying water beetle, I too find incredible freedom within the confines of canyon walls.