We leave the canyon Zion through a tunnel in the very stone, bored through the body of the mountain. We emerge from this worm hole in the earth into wide vistas, bare desert, mesas eroding to tumbles of rock. Wind in the low brush at the roadside, movement in the corner of the eye.
Isolated storm clouds stand upon pillars of rain. We drive through them, the droplets darkening the roadway, drunk up by the thirsty sand.
Long descent from a mesa toward Lake Powell in the afternoon. Boats are mere chalk-mark wakes on the vast mirror of the water. We cross the canyon on an impossible bridge, suspended above the abyss. Upstream, the dam is a massive block of constructed stone choking the throat of the canyon. Downstream the walls drop below seeing, as if descending into the guts of the earth.
On the lands of Diné, Hopi, and Paiute people. Single-wide trailer outposts, empty paddocks, a few trees stationed around, or none. Still pickups. Crumbling mesas like theater scrim.
In failing light we turn toward the rim. Out of rolling sagebrush hills into scrub pines, low and dense. An elk waves his wide rack in the headlights as he rips grass from the roadside.
The immensity of the canyon shows briefly through the trees under a fiery sunset. We make camp in the dark. Pinyon pines gray scrawls in the shadows. Thunder again, close by.
A land both ancient and sudden. Out of the desert we enter this slot canyon oasis, cottonwoods lining the silty river, deer browsing the grass in the shade. Above us, pillars and bastions and domes in gray and red and monarch orange, rising three thousand feet as the canyon’s walls.
We set camp beside the river in the shade, our eyes burnt by the white heat of the desert. The children are red-cheeked and upset – we draw a bath into a plastic tub and they sit in it cooling, watching the deer come through, eating their evening meal.
We raise our small tent and put the kids to bed on their little cots, watch the ruddy sunset withdraw up the canyon walls. Breath the cooling air that settles, listen to the rushing of the river. When full dark falls, we see lightning flashing in the mouth of the canyon, intimations of power held in a dark chalice. The storm wind comes down and stirs the leaves overhead.
Flash flood warnings, heavy rain imminent in this wild place. We lift the children still sleeping on the cots and place them outside, as if to let them absorb a little of the wildness of the storm. The wind eddies the sand beneath them.
We take down the small tent and begin to erect the canvas bell tent, larger, sturdier and more protective. We pound stakes into the desert hard-pan. The tent up, we lift the children and move them inside. They have not woken through all of it, nor will they when the rain comes drumming on the canvas through the night.
The storm yet to descend, but the children protected, we stand with the power humming in the air around us. The spires and pillars, unseen in the night, are imbued with it. They have stood here all these millions of years, endured countless storms and weathers. They loom above us, not malevolent but imposing, not beneficent except their presence makes a haven for life at their feet. Under their shadow, we are both sheltered and cowed.
The storm comes over, thunder above us, light filling the tent in flashes. In the night I have to go out and reset the stakes in saturated earth, braving the weather to keep the tent erect.
Next day, having drunk up the brief downpour, all the grass and leaves have taken on a bright green glow, lit from within. We walk to a waterfall that pours over a canyon overhang as if from a pitcher mouth. We stand under its cool spray, receiving a tenuous benediction.
In a thousand years, perhaps much less, this place will be like Chaco Canyon, megalithic architecture worn to its foundations by relentless wind and gnawing grit. Students of the past may chart its grid of streets, oriented to the cardinal directions, name its fallen bridges and pyramids and great houses. They will unearth and puzzle over its cubic stone living quarters, its catacombs and subterranean kivas with their thousands of pillars, where supplicants once knelt at prayer. They will dust away the sand from the mounds of chits and wonder what religious conviction, what cultural imperative would bring so many from so far, bringing so much, only to leave it behind.
Now, even the gold veneer is faded beige by desert dust. Mid-afternoon, 110 degrees. The concrete aqueducts fall behind us and there is only the gray road through gray sand, the gray-green tumbleweeds and the black escarpments, the stone that was hard enough to survive.
On the slopes of a wide sand-filled valley stand twin solar collectors, concentric rings of mirrors stretching out for what must be miles, all focused inward on the twin towers, impossibly tall, all out of scale to the humans who have constructed it for their inscrutable purposes. At their heads, brilliances of focused light, two burning white suns, descended upon desert altars.
We walk down the paved trail with a thousand other supplicants, most or all unaware of what we do, thinking it mere tourism. A woman coming up the path: They don’t look any bigger than the rest.
The heat is sedentary on the mountain. We peer between younger trees for our first glimpse. The kids show their excitement by leaping along the rocks at the path’s edge.
At last out of the forest it appears, so obviously superlative. Many times the size of the ponderosa pines and incense cedars around it. Its trunk knuckles down onto the mountain stone like the foot of a mammoth. Larger than mammoths, or whales. Larger than any other single living thing, and older than all but the oldest trees. Two thousand years and more.
Rusty haired bark covers its spreading base, which widens to meet the ground like rolling flesh or cooling lava. Higher up the trunk goes scaled and gray. And then there are its branches, thick and gnarled, hundreds of feet from the ground, larger than trees themselves. The foliage, a burst of gray green, is indistinct at this distance, a cloud halo around the crown.
So huge there ought to be but one in the world, yet many stand side by side on this mountain slope. Like columns in a cathedral, whose roof is the sky. Around their bases, we are teeming like ants on our paved paths. Yet unlike the echoing space in a cathedral, the thick forest floor and the warm air and the furred bark of these giants absorb sound, so that our chattering is muted. Our human sounds are made appropriately small, like the speech of squirrels or jays.
The trees have stood here silent and enduring since Rome was young. We are brief sparks flickering around their feet. Though their long-term survival is in question, because of us – our climate-warping gases, the crawling pests we bring – their trunks contain the wood of millennia. They are lived time made flesh.
Last night we slept in the open on the mountainside. The forest dark was silent as the far stars, so that our steps in the pine needles seemed loud as thunder. In our future lies the desert, wind clawing the sage brush, the road like a streak of ink on the white hard-pan.