Utah and The Great Basin ~ We were here

After leaving Durango our destination was the Sierra Nevadas and to get there we had to drive through Utah and then Nevada. We had to cross the Great Basin.

Utah was unexpectedly amazing. I don't know why I wasn't expecting it to be so beautiful. I've seen many pictures of Utah on the blog Road it Up, which is the story of Catherine, J.F., and their three daughters as they live on the road in their large bus, exploring the western Rockies. They've spent a lot of time in Utah doing what they love - rock climbing and mountain biking. I've seen the photos, but still, I was unprepared.

We entered Utah in the south east; where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet in a perfect four quadrant corner, four corners it's called. We opted for expediency, to travel north from this entry point, up to Moab and then catch the 70 west before jagging over to the 50, America's Loneliest Road, which would take us almost all the way to Reno.

We didn't visit Zion or any of the other iconic national parks on our drive through, but the drive to Moab and then out on the Great Basin was spectacular. I imagine it's been the same for many travellers. Awe inspiring.

It's hard to express Utah in complete sentences. I've tried now for a couple paragraphs, writing, editing, deleting. I can't do it, so here are my sensory observations: layers of colored rock, shimmering heat waves, red rocks against infinite blue sky; the air, hot, dry and fragrant with the smell of sagebrush; unexpected vistas opening into dry canyons.

My only other visit to Utah was six years ago and on that trip we stayed in the Salt Lake City area. I love Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Mountain range just to the east. But we didn't venture far south on that trip. We didn't see the red rocks, nor did we truly experience "The Great Basin".

As we've been driving on this trip, first through the plains, then through mountain passes and valleys, through the high desert - going west - on a schedule and with a destination in mind, I didn't have time to do much reading or research about what we were driving through. My main concerns were making timely stops at gas stations, planning the day's food, thinking about where we'd stop for the night and also losing (finding?) myself in audio books and podcasts to pass the time.

Driving hundreds of miles in the Northeast and the Plains, the surroundings were the backdrop to our journey. These were places we drove through to get somewhere else. Until we hit the Rockies and then Utah. Then our surroundings became a destination, something that called us to stop and take notice. Pay attention.

We only experienced Utah for a day and night, it was a state we were going through, not visiting, but in that short time it grabbed my attention and imagination in a way that other places on this journey have not.

On the drive north to Moab we stopped at Wilson's Arch. It was an unexpected visit, I didn't know there would be something so beautiful just on the side of the road like that.

We pulled over, climbed up, and scrambled around with the forty or so other tourists up there. In awe of this place. The landscape indomitable and beautiful.

As we started our short, but steep descent back to the car I started to cry. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and my heart was full of gratitude that I could experience this - Wilson's Arch, a trip with my teenagers, Utah, all of it.

After arriving in Berkeley last week and having time to collect myself and not constantly be in motion - driving, hiking, backpacking, visiting - I have been reflecting on our drive through the desert.

I have been reading thoughtful essays on western living and writing by the classic American writer Wallace Stegner, and the historical account of the harrowing (and horrific) Donner party crossing of the Sierra Nevadas in the mid 19th century.

Having arrived in California, our destination and the state of hope and opportunity for so many migrations, if I hadn't already read Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, now would be the time to do so.

In my reflection, reading and subsequent research to answer "what was ___? where is ___? how come ___?", I am learning about the places we have traveled through. I am scratching the surface of geography, history, culture and place.

This was how I found out there was a name for that desolate region covering most of Utah and almost all of Nevada, those interminable mountain passes and arid, mirage-filled valleys between.

This is the Great Basin.

While driving through the Great Basin I couldn't help but think about all the others that have gone before me on this path, especially those without cars, air conditioning, and grocery stores. People came through here, on foot, on horseback, in wagons.

I am fascinated by stories of migration (and belonging, identity, and place) and the journeys that brave souls will make to seek a new life, a better life, a new future.

We stay and we root. And we move to new places. We build communities, here and there.

I think about the history of the areas we've traveled through. I think about the people living in the towns and the countryside, now and then. What brought them here? Why did they come? Why do they stay?

I think about being in a place wholly foreign to me, like the southeast corner of Utah, that draws me in with its stark beauty.

I think about my small place in the world. My small holding.

Humans need other humans, it's the story of our most intimate and universal existence. Just as those settlers could not have crossed the Great Basin on their own, we cannot live independently. Our dependence is different in this current age, we depend on the movements and markets, collaborations and connections in a global context, but still we depend.

There is something about the beauty and force of nature, of those red rocks and blue sky that says, I depend on no one. I simply am.

Nothing is permanent in geologic time. Change does happen and humans seem to be hell-bent (maybe hell is living on a destroyed planet?) on violating the ground on which we stand, the earth from which we eat, and the air we need to breath. But even with our tinkering and toxins, these rocks have a permanence that my physical being does not.

I am a small thing, under a big sky. And the only truth that gives me heft, that ties me down in some small importance, is my belonging in an intimate and universal web of relationship.

This landscape makes me think about my mortality. The passing of years in my life, my children's lives, my parents. It's a reckoning, to be so insignificant in the universal, so vital in the intimate. Just like those settlers all those years ago, many of whom died while crossing these expanses. All of whom died, eventually.

This is not something that my oh-so-human heart and mind can hold in consciousness for long stretches of time, but it is the truth underneath the surface of our existence that is sometimes exposed, like layers of red rock, for contemplation in the infinite blue sky. It is the truth of the desert, the mountain peaks, swift flowing rivers, and the relentless surf at the edge of the continent. Our insignificance, our dependence.

Maybe that is why I cried at Wilson's Arch, right there in that aperture of blue, surrounded as I was by other eager tourists and travelers. It was not a private moment as the tears started streaming down my face. A release of emotions in response to the beauty of that infinite sky and the keen awareness of my own finite nature.

So fragile, this flesh, blood and bone. And then equal to that sense of overwhelm and loss (of inflated self-importance?), the gratitude for having someone with which to share this existence, this awareness, both the strangers and my dear and most precious family as witnesses also, to this moment and this place.

We were here.

It was a grounded worship, the insignificance (and therefore prostrate posture of the heart) one feels in the face of glory and awe outside oneself. And the only response that makes sense after such an encounter, a lateral movement of goodwill and love to those around me. Fellow sojourners.

Even the strangers looked beautiful. Huffing and puffing as they scrambled up the smooth red rocks, iPhones at the ready.

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  • Kathleen

    Kathleen on July 20, 2017, 10:31 p.m.

    Wow, you knocked it out of the park with your writing on this post. Southeastern Utah is such an incredible place and there are so many areas that are only lightly traveled if you're willing to look for them. If you ever decide to come back to explore more, and decide to venture further south into northern Arizona, we live in Flagstaff, and there are some amazingly diverse landscapes to explore here.

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  • Catherine Forest

    Catherine Forest on July 21, 2017, 3:57 a.m.

    Ahhh! I'm glad you got to spend some time in Utah. It is a truly unique place where I feel incredibly at home, centered and connected to this vast expanse of land. It speaks to the soul in a different way than the raw wildness of the Yukon, and I find the Utah desert more calming than the boreal forest. There is harmony and peace there. I'm happy you felt it too.

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    • Renee Tougas

      Renee Tougas on July 21, 2017, 5:57 p.m.

      Catherine, I thought of your family when we arrived in Utah, and specifically started driving through all that red rock and then scrambled up Wilson's Arch.

      My thought was this "I get it now". I get why you love this place so. Why you spend time here.

      I loved it there, I felt an expansiveness in my body that I don't experience many places. I didn't feel any anxiety. Now, that could have been the day or the time of month or the stars aligning but when I have that feeling, the lack of anxiety, I pay attention :)

      Harmony and Peace - yes. I wasn't sure how to word that into this post, but you got it because you've experienced it to. And I knew you had, because of how much you love Utah and return there each year. It is my deepest desire to return to this corner of the world someday, to spend time in these rocks and open space. I don't know when, but I'm coming back :)

      (Also, we're in the planning stages of next summer traveling to the Yukon and Alaska. It's funny also that in my early drafts of this post I mention the boreal forest and I edited those parts out.)

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      • Catherine Forest

        Catherine Forest on July 21, 2017, 6:12 p.m.

        This is so interesting. How we connect we places... The Yukon and AK are different beasts. Be prepared for some intensity. Every time I come back here, I feel raw, naked and vulnerable. The North strips you down to your core. There is nowhere to hide under the Midnight Sun. But it's also a land of healing. We are likely to be in Quebec all summer next summer, but be in touch. We'd love to share some of our favorite spots with you (even if it's only to help you plan your trip!).

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        • Renee Tougasq

          Renee Tougasq on July 21, 2017, 6:15 p.m.

          Right now, I'm not ready to be stripped down to my core. Been there, not a place I want to return but I also understand the necessity of that from time to time, to reveal and then heal. We'll be in touch...

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          • Catherine Forest

            Catherine Forest on July 21, 2017, 6:20 p.m.

            How I hear you. I wasn't ready to come back North this summer for that exact reason. I'm ready for a break and smooth sailing now. I have to say that I have a 5 year history here too. The girls were born here. And that adds to the experience. Still, it is something many people have mentioned about the North.

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  • kathy

    kathy on July 22, 2017, 12:56 p.m.

    Renee - I loved reading this post! My husband, two of my sons (I have a grown son in Texas), my daughter and her husband, and I moved to Utah from Texas 3 years ago. When I attempt to describe it to friends and relatives back in Texas, I can feel frustrated because they just. don't. get. it. But how can they? Unless you've seen that blue sky and red rock with your own eyes, you can't get it! It's a long story how God in His infinite mercy moved us out of Texas and into Utah, but I know it was His gift to me. I'm a nature girl ( though I love, love the vibe of Salt Lake City, too!), and for years as I homeschooled my kiddos in north central Texas, I would seek out nature wherever I could find it to fill my hungry soul, a true aching in my heart. Many almost uninhabitably hot summer evenings my husband would come home from work to find me crying on the sofa. "What's wrong?" he would ask, and my answer was always the same - " I can't find nature. I try, but it's not here." Utah takes my breath away even after incessant exploring these past 3 years. We've only scratched the surface, though I've personally attempted to greedily devour this state! I am HOME here, my soul aches no longer. One of my top priorities as a homeschool mom has always been that my kids know nature is far more soul - filling than any materialism or technology this culture has to offer. This is why I persisted in Texas, amidst blazing heat, fire ants, poison ivy, and poisonous snakes. In our 3 years in Utah, my now 17 and 14 year old sons are so at home in nature - a dream come true for this mama. They never, ever mention aquiring x boxes or cable tv - things they know exist because of the guys on their hockey teams or kids at church. They could care less, because they KNOW what's waiting for them as soon as chores and school are completed - sooo many places to hike, fish, kayak, or simply stand in awe in less than an hour's drive from Salt Lake City. Through flyfishing, they know the lay of the land, the way of the water, the hatch, the sky - they are STUDENTS of the natural world. I just breathe in and out and perch myself on a rock with a book; they STUDY. I didn't require them to do this; Utah has led them like the pied piper of Hamlin. If you are ever back in Utah, you must visit Bryce Canyon overnight during a full moon and watch first the Milky Way stand out as stardust on black velvet and then watch it disappear as the full moon rises above the misty hoodoos, illuminating the darkness in a way that you know you will remember for the rest of your life. Thank you again for your descriptive post of Utah. You really get this state, and that makes me so happy! And I really get your heart as you work SO HARD to make your summer trips actually happen. These days with our children are fleeting! May God bless the remainder of your summer trip! Take good care!

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    • Karen Toews

      Karen Toews on July 22, 2017, 3:53 p.m.

      Kathy - between Renee’s post and your comment I yearn to go see Utah (beyond my one-time weekend conference view of SLC in 2015!). Looking back growing up on a farm l think of ‘nature’ being mostly work-related: gardening, fetching milk cows - and of course riding bike and skating, etc. In early years of marriage, acreage living/nature was more of the same - however with more tourist trips to the Rockies: with some skiing, cycling, running. Later the Kootenay mountains (Renee’s previous post reference to Nelson, British Columbia) -an annual 2-week summer stint nestled in a community surrounded by ‘nature’. It wasn’t until visiting Renee and her family in Maine, over 14 years ago, that I was introduced to a bigger and life-changing way of nature. Hiking - for a day or a longer back-country camping trip - it’s developed into a pasision. I love the exercise of it and the huge kick-back of nature’s beauty. I am privileged to live in a place of beauty, on the edge of woods from where owls and deer and other creatures show themselves - YET it’s when I’m on a hiking trail and see nature that’s maintained without my care (i.e flowers and a garden) where my soul is filled and re-charged. I am so grateful for this aha discovery - fifteen-twenty years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed in my mid-60’s I would be buying my first single-person tent so I can go solo camping if a friend or my husband isn’t available!! Having this new window with its freedom ( and challenges) has moved me into a desire to inspire other women in their middle years to dare to try new things - whether it be in nature, creativity or something else. Nature is truly divine - our Creator’s gift is so expansive - I don’t want to miss a bit of it!

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    • Renee Tougas

      Renee Tougas on July 25, 2017, 7:24 p.m.

      Kathy, Thank you for sharing your heart in these comments and telling your experience of finding home in Utah. I loved this story. I'm a sucker for a good story of belonging, and nature, and family life. Thank you for reading, and affirming the work of making these memories with my kids :)

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