The bountiful wastelands

Barren.

The landscape before me is apocalyptically empty en route to Moab. A flash of colour from a hill lures me to trek and discover a crafted flower and a jellyfish fossil. The wasteland undulates lazily into the distance. I foresee a long, unremarkable ride ahead.

I love it when I’m wrong.

Adjectives begin to fail me as unimagined geographical features unfold before my eyes. The route to Moab turns into something as gorgeous as anything I’ve seen yet – massive sandstone canyons rise to flank me on either side, iron-red streaks streaming past, skyscraper sized patterns leading me to the land of adventure.

I park at the Lazy Lizard, the cheapest game in town despite the ubiquity of free camping available – I’m feeling sociable, ten bucks is a cheap tax on good company. Not to mention the offroading Lost and I can test our skills against if we stash the panniers.

I don’t waste daylight seeking company today, however – I get out riding sharplike down what I’ve been told is an alternative (free) path into Arches National Park. Definitely underestimated the difficulty. As I ride through increasingly deeper sand discernible tracks disappear and eventually I am alone, the alien landscape of this ancient seabed the only witness to my folly. I finally get to use my GPS for its intended purpose – I mark my position, and set off.

Several paths branch out before me, and no indication of where they lead – just my kind of adventure.
I battle sand and steep rocky drops deeper and deeper into the desert, keeping a close eye on my water supply and stopping several times to debate whether I’d be able to make it back from some of the intense drops.

Probably.

Good enough, I go for it, acutely aware of balancing on the razor edge of recklessness.

The path transforms into a rocky ledge and I notice an info sign revealing secrets in the landscape. Dinosaur tracks – millions of years ago Lost wasn’t the baddest and loudest thing in these wastes. Fossils in museums lose their impact, anything could be a mock-up, and even the genuine product is hard to conceptualize in context from its hermetically sealed glass case, dry info card giving the most digestible tidbits that have nothing to do with the story of the creature itself. I’m standing right here, looking at tracks left millions of years ago by a terrible lizard.

The distance I travel feels epic, magnified by the difficulty and grandeur of the terrain. I pass a sign advising 4×4 only. I made it this far, I’m not being scared off by a sign.

Okay, so the sign was right.
After picking up the bike a few times and impressing myself by overcoming several stretches of what is certainly the gnarliest path I’ve ever ridden until now, I am finally defeated by a steep dune.

Lost may be stuck, but I’m not done yet. She guards my helmet for me whilst I trek off into the trackless wastes, another point on my GPS set to ensure that I might eventually return to her. I haven’t seen anyone in hours, no sign of life whatsoever. The junipers that somehow grow here look like driftwood, appropriate for this desiccated ocean. I marvel at how these splintered and dry pieces of apparent deadwood sprout green, the tenacity of desert life. Following the tracks of some unknown denizen of the desert, I wander over dunes and between low scrub, ancient shells shifting in sand underfoot.

Eventually I feel that this is it – nowhere, the middle of.

Down on the sand, I sit and observe life from the ground up. Tracks lead in all directions, no sign of their makers. The solitude is palpable. Desert wind blows by, soft and dry, shifting loose grains of sand and little else I can discern. In silent communion with the land I find a nourishing peace, nothing on my mind but the gentle breeze and the subtly living desertscape surrounding.

Off in the distance, monolithic forms beckon my eye; I regret not bringing my zoom lens. Fortunately, I have a motorized zoom at my disposal. I trek back, completely disoriented but somehow returning to Lost.
The way back reveals a fork that leads to the main park, where I can come up close to the playfully arranged sandstone, marvel at the colours and contrasts so surreal I feel as if I’ve stepped into a Salvador Dali painting.

Delirious with delight at the sensory overload, I soak in this visual splendour til sunset and ride back still mesmerised, barely able to rein my focus on the treacherously winding road. I just can’t drink my fill of these vistas.

Persistent rain thwarts plans to explore goblin canyon the next day, I wander aimlessly instead and take shelter from the rain in small caves between attempts to capture the grim clouds against the breathtaking scenery. It ends up being a slow day; I spend most of it around the hostel poking around rocks and shrubbery looking for black widow spiders.

According to the all-knowing Internet, black widow spiders produce a painful but non-fatal venom. A large number of people seem to suggest it is a deadly creature. I toy with the idea of performing a hands on experiment – I’m healthy, why not see what it’s like?

I decide some things are best learned from textbooks and leave the hourglass bottomed beauties in peace to get some rest – it’s been brief, but it’s time to leave again.

The morning sees me visit Arches one last time. This time I’m ready to pay, so of course there’s no-one at the toll booth.
Sweet.
I take the “primitive” trail, pumping past elderly tourists in uncustomarily brisk fashion – it almost feels like just checking tourist sites off.

The opportunities to climb around are too tempting and I end up losing the trail, sliding down into some canyon, looking down at all the adventure and realizing I either park myself here for a month and truly absorb it, or get going and make it to California on time.

California wins, I get out of Moab through Monument Valley and more breathtaking panoramas than I can digest. I need to make distance, the ride is fast and the tiny figures in the distance grow into towering monoliths that never quite feel real.

The dreamscape of Utah’s magnificent sandstone monuments and valleys gives way to flatlands, and as much as I try to race the light I still find myself in empty scrublands at the end of the day. Riding on as the temperature drops, I finally spot what I’m looking for at dusk – an abandoned diner by the side of the road, no more than a shack really. I make sure the bike is well hidden from the highway as I set up for some shots of the stars.

My rice boils with jerky and spices; cars pass by unaware of me and the stars shine impossibly bright. This simple lifestyle is not how I was raised, but it feels comfortable and right. The sky is full of stars instead of haze and I feel unalloyed serenity, an impossible feeling to describe of satisfaction simplified. There is too much artifice in Western lifestyle for my taste, and while I love the indulgent opportunities it provides, the purity of these moments makes me realize that all we’ve managed to do with our luxury and excess is create endless layers of abstraction from the satisfaction we are engineered to extract from surroundings.

My nocturnal ruminations are underscored by a morning sign. A silver dragon hangs in the cobalt sky above the fiery hint of dawn.

The most important facet of radical doubt is to doubt your doubts – who are we to presume such wisdom that we can absolutely claim a thing to be impossible? Everything is based on a foundation of one assumption or another. Clinging to certainty just seems like intellectual vanity, or desperate need to delineate logic by what our limited minds can conceive.

I stand on the pegs and race down the highway, from this perspective I can’t even see the motorcycle – it just feels like I’m flying. The engine pumps like a fiery heart, its loud fury matched only by the wind roaring past. I ride my dragon, and laugh inside my helmet with inexplicable joy at the madness of the world bleeding into itself as I blur by.

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2 thoughts on “The bountiful wastelands

  1. What a stunning entry- I’m not sure whether it was the poetic ebb and flow of your words or the photos that seduced me, but now I need to visit Utah 🙂

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