A child of the East, I had never seen a desert. My eyes had been conditioned to see beauty in the pastoral landscapes of Vermont, the rich forest green of the Adirondaks, and the classic alpine vistas of Switzerland. As I approached Capitol Reef across an open horizon of gray and treeless mesas, I was struck by the bare, unfinished, almost ruined qualities of the land. “My God,” I thought, “this is the world’s largest construction site.”
It was hot and I remember how Factory Butte and Caineville Mesa stood out as if they were all that was left of the surface of the planet after it was excavated. As we drove along, flat cracked and eroded ground alternated with huge graceful mounds of muted ash, elephantine evidence of ancient volcanic activity. Maybe it was the Moon. I turned to my wife, Linda, and said, “What the Hell was Bill thinking?”
We were on our way to Capitol Reef National Park to visit Linda’s brother, Bill Hauze, who had just landed a job as a seasonal ranger in the heart of Utah’s vast complex of redrock canyons. It was our first trip “out West.” We were headed for San Francisco to wear flowers in our hair. Although it was 1973 and the 60’s had faded fast, we still regarded ourselves as hippies, two kids just married, childless and eager to explore. We had vagabonded around Europe the year before and the West was next.
Bill had also lived in Europe. After a couple of years in a German medical school, he became disillusioned with the prospect of practicing Western medicine, which he argued was too focused on dispensing pills to manipulate symptoms rather than understanding and addressing causes and contexts. He had become interested in herbs and chakras long before they were fashionable.
When he returned to America, for the first time in his life he had no plan. It was exhilarating. A friend offered him a ride to Arizona and he took it. He had never been west of the Mississippi. I wanted to give him a going away gift and came across Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire in a bookstore. I read several pages and it seemed interesting, so I bought it and gave it to Bill. He read it on his way across the country and was so inspired by Abbey’s account of his life as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Monument that he made a beeline to Saguaro National Monument near Tucson and talked his way into a job as a seasonal ranger. Capitol Reef was a transfer assignment. Over the years, three brothers, a sister, and his parents would follow his lead and land in Colorado, a small migration inadvertently set in motion by Ed Abbey’s pen.
Eventually, desert gave way to sandstone canyons. We began to relax and look up. My worries about the mental condition of my brother-in-law subsided. I liked what I saw. Redrock is an acquired taste even if you enjoy your first bite. A couple of years later as a guest ranch operator, I had the opportunity to observe how first time visitors respond to Southwest landscapes that differ radically from the Walden Pond paradigm of Easterners. Most were intrigued and fascinated. Maybe their expectations had already been primed by those coffee-table books by photographers who captured the fractured and stained canyon walls as art. Maybe they had seen John Wayne riding across Monument Valley in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” or Robert Redford jumping off a slickrock ledge in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” or any number of car commercials Even so, it took them awhile to fully appreciate what was right in front of their eyes.
A canyon wall may seem beautiful on first viewing but it is only the first act. Canyons capture light and texture over time. The picture shifts from morning to night, with each passing cloud, and from season to season. Rain changes everything and so does snow. Rain creates dramatic and unexpected waterfalls, washes away dust to reveal new tones of color. Snow outlines canyon wall fracture patterns in bright contrast. Rocks also carry aromas that tell you if they are hot, cold, or wet. And they carry sound, absorbed or echoed, so that the voice of each canyon is different from another. Loving a canyon completely requires the time and patience to wait for all her moods and nuances to appear and reveal themselves to all the senses. Today, I am thankful I had the opportunity in my life to have that time and find that patience.
Capitol Reef’s main claim to fame is its colorful geology, especially the multicolored layers of rock along the Scenic Drive. Spires and domes of white Navajo sandstone sit on top of big broken red walls. Layers of chocolate Moenkopi and pastel mounds of violet, lavender, and gray ash follow beneath. The Navajo name for this phenomenon translates as “sleeping rainbow.” In the middle of the park, eleven miles by dirt road from the Visitor Center and the small Park Service community, was a guest ranch owned by Lurt and Alice Knee, also named the Sleeping Rainbow.
Although at the time we first visited Capitol Reef we did not even dream it, the Sleeping Rainbow was to be our home for almost four years. A year later, during a second visit to the park, we met the Knees and ended up staying. They made an offer and we made a snap decision. We started out caretaking so Lurt and Alice could spend winters in Arizona, warming their old bones and sharing time with dear companions. Eventually, we leased the guest ranch from them and opened it up as our own business. The “ranch” was actually a long motel unit with a spectacular view that perched on the edge of a small mesa at the confluence of three canyons above Pleasant Creek. It included a log lodge, a house trailer, a cabin, and various out buildings. Alice’s Arabian horses galloped through green pastures below. Where it temporarily breaks free of its narrow canyon confines above the Sleeping Rainbow, Pleasant Creek makes a small oasis of tall grasses, cottonwoods, and sagebrush. The profusion of petroglyphs, pictographs, pottery shards, arrowheads, and ancient Fremont Indian granaries that are found in the area testify that the creek has been “pleasant” for a very long while. A hay shed, some stalls, and a tack room clustered under the shade from a huge stand of old cottonwoods that once sheltered the Ephraim Hanks polygamist ranch.
Southern Utah’s first white settlers were sent down by Mormon leader Brigham Young to colonize the area and look for resources. They endured incredible scarcity and hardship in a landscape that could not have been more alien to those the settlers understood from their English and Scandanavian pasts. Mormon polygamists, fleeing harsh federal laws against their newly adopted theology and lifestyle, also fled south where they hoped they could escape prosecution. Scarcity was also the rule for them, since they brought with them the scant resources of refugees. I often thought of those early white explorers and colonists and wondered what we held in common. Linda and I were also poor, starting out, and unfamiliar with this startling landscape that was so unlike our Eastern environment.
The ruins of the Hanks wives’ cabins could be faintly traced on the other side of Pleasant Creek from the Sleeping Rainbow Ranch. Up the creek was a room carved into the rock wall of a canyon with a weathered old door frame built around the entrance. Legend had it that ol’ Ephraim and his first wife spent their first winter on the land in that rock room. It is said that the wife became desperate and delusional at one point and Ephraim, fearing she would wander and get lost, kept her in that stone cell by rolling a stout boulder in front of the door when he left each morning.
True or not, the Hanks were long gone by the time Lurt bought the place in the 1950’s. Lurt Knee was originally from Colorado but his dad was killed while working on the Silverton to Durango train and the family wandered to California. Lurt’s sister married Harry Goulding who had a trading post in Monument Valley. Harry got tired of trying to make a living off of the Navajos alone and went to Hollywood where he camped out in John Ford’s office until the director agreed to see the tall cowboy who wouldn’t go away. Harry had some photos of the unique landscape around his place. As a result, Ford and other directors were soon making movies in Monument Valley and using Goulding’s Trading Post as a staging area. The lesson was not lost on Lurt who hunted for a place of his own and found it on the border of what was then Capitol Reef Monument. When the monument became a full-fledged national park, Lurt found himself within its boundaries, an ideal situation that gave him the competitive edge over all other local tourist accommodations.
Still, despite his scenic location, he struggled to make ends meet. Utah’s redrock deserts were still relatively unknown in the fifties. The hordes of German vacationers, American mountain bikers, and camera buffs you can find on any sunny day today had not yet shown up. So, he tried uranium mining briefly but the mine went nowhere and his first wife left him. Not to be deterred, he eventually found Alice who had old Philadelphia money and an urge to live in the wilderness. She was a tall and big-boned woman with a square face and a high pitched voice that seemed out of place in such a handsome body. When Lurt met her she was acting as a privately sponsored one-woman Peace Corps to the Navajo nation. When we told Alice that Linda was pregnant she smiled and informed us that although we were seventy miles from the nearest hospital we shouldn’t worry. She had delivered two Navajo babies with “nothing but a sharp stick.” We cringed, took note, and made sure the gas tank of our car was always full.
Winters were idyllic. In the morning there was time to hunt for cougar tracks in the fresh snow before feeding horses, checking for frozen pipes, and chopping wood. In the afternoon, our chores done, we would hike the trails of Capitol Reef with Bill or just read under a crisp cobalt blue sky. By evening, we would begin the ritual of loading the lodge hearth with pinion and juniper logs to burn for warmth and entertainment. There was no television and only a ham radio at the ranch. Sometimes snow or mud would block the lone road from the ranch to the park border and we would be isolated for weeks at a time.
Early spring meant it was time to clear and burn brush away from the irrigation ditches that carried creek water to our garden and pastures. Drifts of tumbleweed that the wind had corralled behind the garden fences over the winter had to be removed so vegetables could be planted. Guest rooms had to be cleaned, repairs made, supplies purchased, advertising lined up, and reservations made. The late spring, summer, and fall were filled with long hours entertaining guests, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and pulling weeds in the one acre garden where we grew enough food to feed ourselves and the daily load of hungry guests. Even when the days were long and dictated by a rigid schedule for cleaning rooms and preparing and then serving meals, we could still squeeze in time to hike up canyon to splash in the creek and cool off. The nights still pulsed with the sudden light of meteors arcing across a crystalline sky.
When our first child was born, we added tending the baby to our list of cares. We could dote on Brian during the winter in our warm cabin, or carry him with us in a tight yellow sling as we climbed the narrow passage up the cliff wall behind the ranch on our daily trip to a stand of old trees we called “the bonsai grove.” There we would look out on Mount Ellen in the distance, where a herd of buffalo still roamed free. We would count our blessings and wander home past Anasazi Indian carvings and a nest of peregrine falcons. Hours passed like prayers, quiet and hopeful. We were humbled and awed by the beauty and mystery unfolding around us.
During our years in the redrock wildlands, we learned compelling and fundamental lessons that we had missed during our modern education while immersed in the American way. For the first time in our lives, the connections between our bodies and the water and soil that nourished us appeared short and simple. Back in the city, water was an abstraction. It poured magically from a tap on an underground network of pipes that drained a distant reservoir I had never seen and probably couldn’t locate offhand. To keep it flowing, I merely paid a bill. At the ranch, our drinking and irrigation water gathered on the Aquarius Plateau and tumbled down the face of Boulder Mountain, our view to the east, where it fed the riparian oasis under our window. I was responsible for clearing the irrigation headgate and ditches of flood debris and maintaining the pump and pipes that brought water up to a cistern under the lodge. When the pump failed, we literally carried our water each day. One winter we melted snow for cooking and drinking when a pipe between the springhouse and cistern froze.
Our water supply was a daily concern and the cycles that replenished it were at hand and sometimes dramatic. In the summer we could watch thunderheads build and burst, then wait for a flash flood to rumble down Pleasant Creek and hour later. Days later, a carpet of fresh growth would fill in the flood path and deer, bees, and birds would seek the tender grass and wildflowers that embroidered the flood’s green wake. Over time, then, if we were attentive and patient enough, the stone-loaded percussion of a flash flood would be followed by a chorus of birdsong and bee buzz.
In eastern America where water is everywhere, water’s life sustaining role is hidden in the lush background. In the baked desert lands of the West, water’s gift becomes foreground that is underlined boldly. As any desert dweller will readily attest, water is life. Humans, too, are fluid creatures. I do not mean that we are graceful and agile, though some are, but that we blister, bleed, urinate, salivate, sweat, and cry. Our bodies are a community of fluids. While living on the ranch, the ways water reached our habitat from the sky and how we incorporated it became obvious.
Likewise, years of growing the corn, tomatoes, and melons that attracted and pleased hungry guests taught us that the nutrients our bodily fluids carry arise from soil that was once leaf, limb, stone, root, bone, carcass, carapace, and flower. It was churned, swallowed, and excreted by worms, ants, mites, millipedes, beetles, and bacteria so it could feed the plants that we tended in our garden that, in turn, used the generous chemical energy of the Sun to make food available to us and our wilderness pilgrims. Under the Sleeping Rainbow, our continual bodily communion with the whole wide world was a biological fact of life and the walls we had built between the personal and the planetary during a previous education melted away.
We made a good life under the Sleeping Rainbow but it was not the life I expected to lead. I had lived in big stimulating cities like New York, Boston, and Cologne. I thought I would teach or become an anthropologist, hobnob with intellectuals and engage in fascinating conversations. Instead, the canyons and desert spoke to me and I stayed to listen carefully. I found out “what the Hell” Bill was thinking. My life, too, was drawn and turned by the land.
The most important lessons of my life were learned there, under the Sleeping Rainbow. Those lessons became the lens for the next phase in my life as we moved to northern Utah and lived on the rim of another desert, the Great Basin, where we raised our kids and made our modest careers. We inadvertently moved from the grandest wilderness area in the continental United States to the most extensive environmental sacrifice zone in the nation. In an odd twist of fate, lessons learned living in the wilderness gave me the insight and resolve I needed when I found myself on the rim of apocalyptic ecocide.
The stark contrast of those experiences revealed to me how our bodies are grounded in ecosystems and how we all live downwind and downstream from one another. Those lessons made me understand how the collective decisions we make about what we allow into our air, water, and soil are translated into flesh and blood and living daily experience. I also learned how the mythic West of our pop culture hides a shameful legacy of environmental abuse, toxic wastefulness, and betrayal. Eventually, I also learned to fight back – to defend the land that generates our health and well being from those who would trade that natural health for wealth, profit, and power. My struggles carried me into capitols and corridors, television studios, and meeting rooms. I became known for my political activism and advocacy. But no matter how far into the halls of power my journey took me, I never really left the Sleeping Rainbow. I will hold its gifts close to my heart forever.