San Rafael Swell

The only thing swell going on these days is a patch of land in Southern Utah.

Lemme restart, that was bad. I guess it’s no secret this year has been kinda messed up, and really at this point it needs no introduction or discussion, all I can say is it derailed everything I had going on. I was going to go on an epic Idaho-Mexico hike along a self-made route in Utah, hitting the Arizona Trail, ending in Mexico. It was supposed to be my leap back into long distance hiking after a year off. Things don’t turn out the way we want or expect them to, but sometimes they turn out the way things need to turn out.

Arguably there are more important things going on in the world than my hike ending, at the same time I pretty much have a one-track-mind, and it usually ends somewhere in nature. The flow-charts in my mind are pretty predictable. I’ve been spending as much time in the wilderness as I can however I can lately after being locked in the house for a few months. My first big trip of the season was at a place I know all too well.

Full of slot canyons, crumbly mud towers, wide open vistas and empty indifferent lands, it was a perfect place to get away from the insanity plaguing us as of late, a good reminder that the world can and will go on in spite of what us humans are up to. A place of quiet and stillness.

A place of wildlife, the likes of which include the infamous and ever-dangerous Canyon Corgis.

This place has always been a bit symbolic to me. I stumbled on it whilst living on the road after my first attempt on the Pacific Crest Trail. After settling into Utah and spending the winter locked indoors, I came out here for a 30 mile prep hike before attempting the Appalachian Trail. Coming here again, I got the echo of those days bouncing around the canyon walls.

There was also a bit of melancholy on the air. Things don’t feel the same anymore. The world we used to live in has been rocked around and has affirmed my belief that the lives we lead are very delicately balanced on the shoulders of those who don’t care about our lives, we have no control over the direction our world moves in. I’m getting older, I just want to be out in the wilderness but there’s an expectation on me to move beyond that. I want to spend a month in the brutal sun staring at the same dry canyon all day before moving to go look at another canyon for a month. If I could be still as a rock for the rest of my life observing minute changes in the landscape, I would be happy.

I was scared if I left, it would all be over. I’d never get to go back out to the wilderness. This feeling stuck with me, my heart ached remembering what life was like the last two times I came here. I had hope on the horizon, I had plans, I had big adventures waiting for me. This time, all I had was the moment I existed in. I looked at my dog hobbling behind me, tongue wagging all over the place as she pushed through the soft sands. She was living now, she was happy now. I wanted to be more like her, I wanted to take the time to breathe the fresh air and feel the harsh wind blowing sand in my eyes. Nothing’s really ever over if you don’t mark the beginning. Just stay present.

The sun set once again over the San Rafael Swell. The crickets began their chorus, the stars rose over head and the canyon walls vanished into shadow. In this place there are only a set of reliable mechanics that happen throughout the day and nothing else. Whatever weight you bring with you vanishes into the vast expanse of desert the moment you step out of your car. The narrow canyons squeeze and exfoliate, the sand cleanses. The desert is a place of healing, there is no doubt about that.

The same air of sadness persisted on the way home. I would have to go back to everything I’d driven away from and face it all again. My days in the desert were only a brief respite. I got home, unpacked, and went back to the hills to sit by a stream and feel whatever I needed to feel. One day I’ll sit by a stream doing the familiar chore of filtering water or eating lunch before another big push in the day hiking as far as my legs allow me. I don’t know when I’ll be back in the wilderness full-time, but I know it’s always there when I need it. I may need to make some changes. After this trip it’s clear I need to get back out there somehow in some capacity. The sooner the better, while of course remaining mindful of the pandemic situation.

The only thing left that needs to be said is Utah is without a doubt a dreamland and I intend to see as much of it as I can while I can.

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