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28 November 2010

The Touch of the Desert Goddess

The stark night surrounds me. The humming starlight casts its glow on sand rock and sage. Black massifs lean in from the skyline. My breath clouds vivid shadows. A smiling crescent moon climbs gingerly over the canyon rim and crawls into the night. I cough to make sure I am real. Erin moves close to me and I know I am real. Cows moo in the distance. We have arrived in the desert.


There's sand everywhere. Under my nails. Clogging my nose. Thickening my eyebrows. Flossing my teeth. It has ground itself into a permanent paste in the threads of my water bottle. Red blankets the car, the tent, the shoes, the gear, the cookware, the food box. The landscape is swallowing us...

Every evening there is another centimeter of sand atop our bags in the tent. It doesn't matter that it was zipped and secured. It doesn't matter that the wind didn't blow. We breathe red. In the mornings, the horizon blazes burgundy, more than the day before... is it the sun or is it... my eyes, saturated?

My skin is desert varnish.


I kick my feet in rhythm off the front and back of the crack as Laurelyn leads off on the next pitch. She talks to herself, keeps herself company. So I take the liberty of leaning off my perch and glancing down to the base of the tower, a hundred feet below. I smile. It feels good to get off the ground. I bang my feet some more.

I glance back up to her. Not sure which crack to take... left or right. She goes right. She starts cursing so I pay more attention. Looks slippery. Calcite can be a boon or a bane. The white mineral was deposited on the sides of geisers a little while back that used to pepper this landscape. The hard white stuff is harder than the sandstone bedrock, so it kept these spires and narrow mesas around longer than the rest of the land. One of the results is the fine piece of stone we find ourselves perched upon.

But, man is that stuff slippery. On the last pitch I puzzled for many a minute before figuring out how to hump my way up a slick calcite squeeze chimney. My mouth goes dry thinking about it.

I follow Laurelyn up and the pitch is exciting, for sure. Now my turn for the crux offwidth crack. I warble the pinon jay call to get my energies revving as I start up (imagine a toothless old woman standing on a precipice. She begins to lose her balance and is about to fall in, but steadies herself at the last minute. This is the noise she makes. This is the pinon jay call). It's my signature call.

Offwidths demand creativity. They are cracks too big to get a reasonable hand or fist jammed in there, and too narrow to squeeze your whole body in and use chimney-climbing technique. You have to use ridiculous maneuvers. Some of the more popular styles are the chicken-wing, the arm bar, and the heel-toe. Of course, much of what you do is your own. Some of "my own" were: the head stuff, the curse-and-scoot, the shuffle-and-slip, the pull-push-clench, and my favorite, the triple pirouette.

Grunting and thrutching, I make it to the top. I then have the pleasure of watching as Laurelyn laughs and narrates herself up the pitch, styling nearly everything I struggled on. Since I watch through the wide crack itself, her peals and commentary echo off the walls and into my smiling ears.

She dances the next pitch, and we are on top. We laugh and smile and hug. We talk of the Desert Goddess.


"The damn hooker got away from me!"

The flaming log sails through the air. Fortunately it lands where no one is standing. Scalding coals burst out from underneath the fireball and sputter into the dirt. I make a silly face, part bewilderment and part beguilement, and hook the escapee back into the fire ring.

The hooker is my new favorite toy. It is a beer-brewing carboy brush, with the brush tips melted away. After a slight adjustment in the L-shaped tip, the hooker was born. It is a semi-flexible fire hooking device. It is quite unlike the standard poker we are all familiar with. It requires precision and tact. With a flick of the wrist one can whack a log and precisely remove excess coals to free up more burning surface area. It is also capable of hooking, scooping, and lifting flaming logs for repositioning within the fiery furnace. Maximal burning efficicency is the hooker's code.

Unless of course you start to jettison missile-torches at the rest of the party. This is less efficient.


"Rowan, you need to go lower." Laurelyn looks nervous.
"Yeah Rowan. Lower." So does Jen.
Erin isn't saying anything.
None of them are looking at me.

I am hanging off the side of Morning Glory Arch, a rather massive landbridge that hovers eighty or so feet off the canyon floor. A canyoneering adventure has brought us to the top of the arch, and a simul-rappel is to be our finale. But it's not going right.

A simul-rappel is when two people rappel off opposite ends of the rope. In this case we have two ropes knotted together and draped over the top of the arch. Rowan is lowering off one side, and I am on the other. The key is for both of us to weight the rope and descend at the same rate. Otherwise we risk pulling the other off and both falling to the bottom.

After committing to the rope and sending my rear over the edge, the girls instruct me to stop. I keep my hand on the brake but I continue to descend in fits. I lose sight of Rowan as rock rises up to my face. I am not asking questions and I am not getting answers. I can guess why they aren't looking at me.

"Rowan, you need to go down NOW." Laurelyn is getting more assertive, and more anxious.
Jen and Erin stare intently off the other side.
I drop lower.
My heart races.

I watch the girls but my internal strings continue to tense as their faces get tighter and their pleading voices waver more. My white knuckles chafe against stone. I lean my forehead against Morning Glory and close my eyes. The darkness is overwhelming at first. I breathe deeply once, twice. A swirling fit of lights ignites behind my eyes and I watch the patterns ascend in a spiral. They leave me again in black. I suddenly feel deep comfort in the darkness. I listen to my accelerating heartbeat and find amazement at its pace. Breathing. I understand for a brief moment that I will die, and it may be now. And it is completely out of my control.

I don't know how long I hang in my reverie.

When I open my eyes, the girls are looking at me again. They are talking to Rowan in a more relaxed tone. I can go down. I lower myself fifteen more feet and look across to see Rowan's smiling face hanging in space.


We pull into the lot as the sun slips down and out of sight. Erin and I read the description and stare up the wash. The route is unmistakable. A massive left facing dihedral on the edge of the buttress. There is nothing else around it. It stands firmly on the sun-shadow line, and we watch the shadow grow. The Heart of the Desert.

We are running and laughing our way up the wash. A wide sandstone bed acts as a trail in this part of the canyon and small curves and dips and bowls still hold water from the last rain. Cams and carabiners swing from my harness and clang and jangle against themselves. I look back and Erin smiles. We are out of breath, and we are walking.

The corner looms large above us and we ease our way up the fragile slopes to get to the base. Don't bust the crust, bonehead! I can't resist and run the last few steps. The Heart of the Desert.

We rack up and rope up. I huff a couple times and look toward Erin for moral support. She gives it. The sun has started to climb the wall at my side. I decide to climb with it.

The crack in the corner is perfect. It undulates and performs. Narrows and thickens. Grows sandy then firm. Takes blood. I sweat and I breathe. I balance and pull. Thrust and jam. Take rest. I smear and it smiles. I'm at the top.

The sun has left the corner and I don my hat as the cold creeps in. I settle into a comfortable stance and proceed to watch Erin climb with such grace and style as I have not yet seen. I admire her form silently. She moves fluidly up the crack, and I mentally contrast my brusque technique with her feminine strength. She comes to a difficult section and works and hangs for a while. I can see she is getting frustrated. Then a lightbulb. An "aha." She steps back into it, breathing steadily, moving rhythmically. She works through another hard part and is at the top.

We smile and kiss and go down. Walking out my heart is full. Erin makes fun of me for my ginger elf-stepping when I must cross the crust. I tell her it works. We walk down the wash holding hands.

The Heart of the Desert.


I stand naked.
She stands next to me.
My hand is around her waist and hers around mine.
The brisk air blows through us.
It cleanses, replaces our dust.
I kiss her moonlit shoulder.
She shares her radiance in return.
We have warmth though our teeth may chatter.
Sand covers our toes,
A patina, our skin.
We breathe the desert.
It chokes us with beauty.
I smile, she nods.
We walk together.


The Touch of the Desert Goddess