by Katie Lee
Reprinted from Sandstone Seduction: Rivers and Lovers, Canyons and Friends (2004)
On this new October day, in the year of our River Gods, 1959, I have walked up a deep, shaded canyon through water, wet sand, and golden redbud leaves. My feet are cold in boots and socks, yet the sun, low in its arc across the southwestern sky, keeps smiling through a sweet-smelling autumn haze.
When I find it, the slickrock bowl is creamed in gentle warmth.
After the brilliant, blazing heat of summer, the ambiance of this place has shifted considerably. Then the bowl was like a sweaty exercise room; now, it’s more like a balcony rimmed with light from candelarias.
Boots and socks – off with them! The second my bare feet touch stone, I become a thermometer. The mercury moves past my toes, up through my legs and body, to form a blush on my face – and what I see before me has already warmed my pulsing innards: this scooped-out place in an ancient dune of sand turned to rock has the look of a hammock, a cradle, a papyrus raft, or maybe Cleopatra’s couch. Anyhow, it’s a tempting space, a space that invites me to lie down, roll over, stretch out, and feel the texture of time-beneath-the-elements that has formed this perfect sanctuary.
Yes, I’ve been here before. The first time, not alone – the other times, always. It’s not that easy to find. We first came upon it by accident, a real accident – stumbled on the ridge and literally, slipped, rolled, and tumbled into this hollow to find ourselves unhurt, laughing, and completely alone. With no chance that anyone would be able to trace us, we stripped, slid into the pool at the lowest end of the bowl, came out dripping slick, and made heady love skin to skin with the stone – same color as our own. I could feel the rock sucking at my back where we entwined above the pool, feel it against my body like warm silk – silkier than his, if you want to know – as if I were the center figure in a menage a trois. And I know it was the slickrock that made that coupling a more memorable one.
I’m warm enough now in this nude place to be the same, so I strip to my freckles and moles and walk down to the pothole, maybe to replay that fond memory as the water caresses me.
Aww … it’s empty … rimmed with dead pollywogs that didn’t make it to the hopping stage before the pool dried up and blew away.
Because of the shape of the pothole, I think it will be only one or two inches to bedrock. It is more, and I don’t have a shovel, but when this sweet bowl is as full as it can be without running over its downhill lip, it’s over my head. I was never able to touch bottom when it was full or even three-quarters full. Seep-seep-evaporate-seep-evaporate after the August-September rains have gone; I can read the weather pattern in the spacing of water rings above the bottom. They aren’t uniform – some a foot, others three inches, some five to eight. There’s a long, cold winter speaking here, with ice on top, here in this quiet, dignified place.
I will say for those who have never seen, felt, walked on, or heard Navajo sandstone, that if you have a feeling for it, you can sense its birth, its formation. If you’ve lain upon a sand dune anywhere in any desert, you have felt not what it looks like, but a hard surface on what appears to be a pillow. A pillow it is not. You can move the top layer, soft as silk, and dig down. Silk falls over your hand and arm, the hardness gives way under you and you can burrow into the layer beneath, find it warm, make it fit your body. It will conform.
There is no silk beneath the Navajo. Fitting is up to you – you will conform. The flesh gives. If you find that place that fits your body, in whatever position you choose to sit, stand, or recline, you will know the same comfort that the live dune gave you after you dug your place into it – the same warmth, the same softness, oh yes! And a new thing: a gift. When you return, it will still be there to fit you, and unlike the dune it will still be yours. Unless you get too fat, or skinny, or too long to fit; then go find yourself another place in the hundreds of miles of curvatures and mounds, dips and hollows, protrusions and extrusions, recliners and chairs, footstools and ladders, potties and peeholes, pillows and beds, and hammocks that don’t swing.
Speaking of protrusions, on the way up here I passed her: “The Virgin,” a shivering half figure of stone pressed into the mass; thigh, hip, and breast standing in bold relief. “Shivering” because of the striations that mark her body. She doesn’t seem to know she’s part of the man/womanhood of that whole mountain of rock, molded by the tears of Zeus, the breath of Thor, the lips of Venus. She trembles there, half done – no, not done at all until she’s mated. That could be sometime within the next millennium, or maybe not. I always wish for her as I pass by, that she’ll be made a whole being, sexually evolved, loved and caressed by those elements into a graceful being – all the shivering gone – with the assurance that she is one of the adored.
Yet forms that catch the eye are not what I’m trying to convey. There is more, much more, to learn about objects we deem inert simply because we don’t know how to communicate with them. The years I was able to spend in Glen Canyon before its demise led to at least a partial understanding of those inert things, or let’s say one to my satisfaction. You see, I don’t want to know everything. A world without mysteries would be appalling to me. Though I try for answers, someone else’s theory is not what I seek. I want to hear it from the rock. If I search long enough, feel the skin often enough, and listen intently, I will find the answers I need.
There are glad rocks, sad rocks, walls and ledges dark and brooding. In River tongue the name that whispers past calls them “Visssshh-nuu.” To some this rock is cruel; to me only haunting, wise, and beautiful. All formations have personalities as convoluted and contradictory as our own, and we are either attracted or repelled by their presence. Yet how are we supposed to know about them without spending time in their company, studying them, being curious about them, trying to see through them to their inner life, wondering how they came to be the way they are? My soul was stolen long ago by Navajo slickrock. Its uncluttered intensity has the directness of an arrow piercing the heart cleanly, swiftly, fatally! – as if a mature and practiced lover had somehow found his way into the dunes. It is ‘come hither’ stone, but not a tease. It declares itself eligible, then waits to see if a suitor is ready for love and marriage – a forever kind of relationship.
It has been observed by a few close friends and lovers over the years that when a man’s relationship with me reached the point of commitment to steady dating, I would head for the hills; anything smelling of commitment to a lifetime partnership, I would vaporize.
Why was that?
Sure, I’ve been married, more than twice, but not for long. And those men don’t enter my vision or flash across my memory screen as often as Glen Canyon and the gentle winding Colorado River that ran through it.
Why is that?
Is it possible to be attached to or love a place more than one does a human being? When you think about it, places are a large part of our psyche. We go to places we love – wildlands, rivers, deserts, seas, and mountains – go there when we’re hurting from the treatment of other humans or the society we live in. We need those sanctuaries, those sacred places; they’re medicine for whatever ails us.
Therefore, I must concede that when a place has altered my life, sent me in a direction other than the one I was striving for, and shown me possibilities I was unaware of, that place deserves more than one or two visits and a few photographs. It deserves my attention, my curiosity, my involvement, and finally my devotion.
The sandstones of Glen Canyon rest in the palm of my love.
Go! Hike the slickrock, swim the river, plunge the potholes, chimney the crevasses, twist with the canyon. Do it alone; that’s where the finest discoveries are made. But before you go alone, here is a primer, not a preachment:
Learn the slickrock like boatmen learn waves and currents in rivers: respectfully and in various seasons. After which time you will realize there are places here that have the power to tempt, bewitch, and kill. I’m one of the lucky – bewitched, brought to the brink, then allowed to go on. It was an intense and frightening experience that infused all my senses. The many changing faces, moods, and textures of the rock need to be learned. Only then will you be aware of what the stone is telling you.
The wise number for exploration is three. Two for reappraisal and engrossment. Alone for fulfillment.
My wondrous sandstone bowl of flesh and warmth is high above the river and slanted enough to catch most of the sun’s orbit until a couple of hours past noon. The air is still, not even a breeze; it hugs me gently – feels like I was in a warm pool just floating … floating … as if I could levitate from this spot slowly, sweetly, up to the rim. It’s so quiet I can hear the sun conversing with the earth in the gentle way it has during the autumn months of the year. Nude beside my now-and-then pool, I raise my arms high to the sky and feel my whole resurrection take place in just these few minutes. Back to the earth, back to who I am and who I am not, back to my kin, the sandstone in my veins.
The dreck drains away. Peace overwhelms me.
Two ravens, their speech like dice rattling in a leather cup, sit above me on what looks like a sheaf of Navajo stone pages. Torrents have shredded and winnowed the sand into forms that resemble papers and books on an ill-kept desk.
“Yakkety-auuuk. Ung-guck?” (What the hell’s that down there?)
“Grak-oooie, ark-click.” (Nonedible; just saw it move.)
“Nn-guk.” (Smells funny.)
“Gurgle-argle-urk.” (You got that right.)
The ravens pace and strut atop this casual creation, touch beaks and turn in circles, cock their heads, stare and shake more dice. Their lingo is so familiar, so much a part of this canyon, that I laugh and chat with them until they tire of translating and flap off in regal disgust, their curiosity sated.
My eyes trace a zigzag pattern of switchbacks under the cluttered desk where crossbedded ridges catch the sun’s rays as it slips into the bowl. After countless visits to this spot, something new? I could probably enter and leave by this route never noticed before now. Our eyes are poor things in this world of arrested swirls if all it takes is an inch of sunlight to point the way. Think how long it would take for anyone to discover the thousands of possible trails threading over and through this trackless sea of humps and hollows.
The last time here was a glazed, windy day. I came planning to get away from the blast in this protected place. Sweat dribbled down onto the stone where I stood on the rim. I took off my clothes to make my own evaporative cooling system, and hurried down toward the pool. In an instant I was a human emery board. The sand that didn’t stick to me swirled and bit, stung and blasted my bare bod until I sought the refuge of the water, only to find it covered with a gauze of pink sand so dense it looked to be the dry bottom of the pool. I touched the surface, waded in, and lay back hardly covered, to find myself bedded down with swarms of wiggling pollywogs! They tickled me everywhere. I giggled and flopped about so much I’m sure I squashed a bunch of them.
Living with the slickrock, I’ve made some startling discoveries; even better, mysteries never dreamed and never solved. And to my astonishment I found it a very sensual place, not just visually, but engaging all the senses. I never thought I was crazy to have such an attachment to simple rock and stone – it seemed a natural evolvement. There have been times when the river, the canyon, or the sandstone has spoken to me, rather than me speaking to it, or asking questions. Those times are as vivid today as they were then.
Fall. The most perfect time of year. The side canyon pulled me through every kind of sandstone magic – pools to swim, ledges to crawl, open spaces with sandy bottoms and redbud trees, fluted narrows, banks drenched in maidenhair fern, monkey flowers, and penstemon – to where there really could be no more surprises. I leaned against a water-cut rift no wider than my living room to take the scene in through every pore, and to bless the gods that let me find this Eden.
I was about to turn back when I heard a sound I’d never heard before. Someone, something running across the slickrock in soft leather soles. Instinctively, I felt a promise of something wild, beautiful, personal, something I was supposed to see. Like a beckoning, the sound urged me on upcanyon.
I climbed a sluiceway, to top out at the bottom of many small cataracts where water played soft musical notes beneath an overhang. Everything was in faerie light, refracted down through the curvaceous sandstone walls rising two hundred feet on either side. To my right, bordering the stream, the stone resembled the open fan of a pleated skirt. Above that lay a ridge of chipped ice, then long sweeps of Navajo tapestry, topped with a lacy border of honeycomb depressions dribbling colors from maroon to pink-gold down fifty feet of wall. Some of the depressions were large enough to crawl into, others no bigger than your head. Homes, of course, for owls and canyon wrens and those spunky little lizards who constantly hug these walls to make sure they don’t go away.
My God! The place was out of this world. Alice never knew what a wonderland was.
I lay down on the cataract ledges, rolled over them, and hugged them, drank the pure water, stood, and pulled the mosses over my breasts and let them drape down my body, literally dressing myself in nature; all the while feeling as if this was a perfectly natural ritual I had always performed.
The patter of running feet came again.
At the same moment a streak of sunlight shot into the canyon, startling me. It beamed on part of the honeycombs, and in the center of the beam, in a comb no bigger than the circle of my arms, sat a perfect jug with two handles, decorated in a pattern I could not discern, but clearly decorated – black on buff.
A prickling within raised goosebumps on my skin.
I strained to see it, to make out its actual size in the maze of hollows and holes, and scanned the wall for any possible way – above, below, or from the side – that anyone could have found a route to place it there. There was none. Two, maybe three minutes, and the streak disappeared as quickly as it came, the pot could no longer be seen, and the running feet died away.