I open my eyes. Sleep falls away. I see the night sky, on the East edge, is fading into pale, celestite blue with the shrugging shoulders of dawn. I suddenly sit upright in my sleeping bags, remembering my plan, and begin to move quickly. I know how fast the light will come. I have slept in the bed of my truck, bundled up in two down sleeping bags, with Tater Tot curled in a round pool of silk and snoring at my left shoulder. I have heard the owl singing from a cleft in the heaving, red sandstone landscape. I have heard the silence between his songs and imagined him bright of eye and lonesome. The air is cold. It has been cold all night long. I’m glad to begin a new day. With sleep came a lull in my metabolic rate and I can feel a chill sneaking into the coils of my rested body.
I am in Arches National Park in the Devil’s Garden Campground. I rolled in late last night after dawdling my way across Idaho and Utah, in and out of canyons and patches of red rock and pronghorn herds and isolated blizzards. When I arrived, the campground was quiet, glowing with pockets of campfire and storytelling. Occasionally, people walked past my rig, headlamps winking against the dark, bundled in various shades and textures of Patagonia and the sensibility of double-kneed Carhartt. We said our “hellos and how-are-you and where-are-you-traveling-from and where-are-you-going” at each other as I cooked a pot of soup on the tailgate of the truck. It’s not allowed, but I set Tater Tot free in the campground to stretch his legs and burn off some of his neurotic energy before trying to fall asleep with him by my side. Before I crawled into my little nest, I boiled a pot of water, made a thermos of tea for the morning and filled a hot water bottle to toss in the foot of my sleeping bag. The night was cozy, my feet were warm, and the only thing that shivered was the very tip of my little nose where it reached up and met the trembling light of stars.
Now, the pale blue denim of dawn is creeping in slow streaks across the sky, I see wisps of cloud standing out from the night in deeper, truer dimension. I have packed up the truck quickly, kenneled Tater Tot, warmed the engine and now I creep out of my campsite and down the hill to the main road. I worry I’ll miss it. The light is already so strong, though the sun isn’t yet up. I race along the road that leads out of the park. I drive faster than I should. Time is fleet. I reach the trail head, throw my backpack on my back, and begin the dash into Delicate Arch. It’s a short sprint, really. A quick mile and a half up a blunted mass of wind kissed sandstone. It is quiet. The birds are still sleeping. As I move across the stone, I grow warmer and warmer until I break a fine sweat. I pause for a moment to pull off my down layer and stuff it in my pack. The trail falls into the cold shadow of stone where the snow cannot melt and I skate my way around rock formations, running gingerly through a little canyon, over cactus, following cairns to my sunrise destination. There is color in the sky now. A fine, fine whisper of gold and the faintest blush. I twirl around the final corner on the trail and see Delicate Arch rise up against the sky. The sun has edged its crown over the horizon line, light blazes between the red rock formations and pours itself against my self. The warmth of day is faint and I lean into it. I crawl up into a window in a rock and watch the sky unfold and the day flow into being. The colors of dawn grow stronger and the world is silent. I am all alone. Even the ravens are still sleeping or standing somewhere else in full light, sun worshiping, being heated by day before they take flight.
I have come here, to the crumpled red rock country of Southern Utah to be in the arms of color, to be part of the earth, to walk it and anchor my senses to it intentionally and lastingly. I have come to lay my palms against sun warmed, russet stones. I have come to be combed and whittled by wind.
I have come here to escape the glow of my computer monitor, to be someplace new and tangible and real. I have brought myself here so that I may be transported, refreshed, inspired. I have come to daydream. I have come to mingle with strangers. I have come to embrace my dearest friends. I have come to buy turquoise. I have come to take in the world and discover something new to write about, something wild and beautiful to point my camera at. I have come to fall in love with Earth, with God and the mysteries of each. I have come to be reborn, again, for the millionth time, for the sheer joy of self-discovery and self-change and self-realization. I have come to be licked clean by the water of the desert rivers and baptized by snow storms.
I stay with the sunrise until the day is sure and full. I drink my tea and nibble at almonds. I lose myself in daydreams as I rest there in my window in the rock. It is with reluctance that I finally stand up, reach my hands high over my head and arch my back as I stretch and push my skinny limbs into full feeling once more. I pull my arms through the straps on my backpack, scoot down from my stone ledge, and begin the short jog back down to the truck through muddled patches of snow, cacti, and desert shrub. I dillydally, here and there, with my camera, lingering over the pretty purple of cactus and the gnarled roots of desert bonsai. When I reach the truck, I set Tater Tot free, put together a little kitchen on the tailgate and craft a delicious French press to go with my blackberries and yogurt. Two trucks pull into the parking lot. Four people, my age, fit and handsome all, step out and walk over to the trail head sign. I hear them talk about the distance to the sandstone bowl where the arch stands as a portal to the sun, they shuffle around, they hum and haw. I sip my coffee and wave hello. They decide the distance is too far, that it can’t be worth it. They pile back into their trucks and drive away.
I can’t help but feel badly for them, for what they have missed, and glad that the beauty of the morning in this place, on this very day, is a secret only I know.