My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones.
There are two reasons I came here: my father’s death, and the lion man who prowled my dreams. Perhaps it was coincidence, but a man—half wild, ravenous beyond words—slid from the dream world into the mud of the waking one the same year my father left this world for another.
Ghosts. Paw prints. I have tried to stay put.
The lion man is Herb. His name, his grandfather’s. It doesn’t quite suit him, but then, nothing about the civilized world does. Even my mother, who prefers all things tame, cannot accept it. Instead, she calls him Red for his long copper curls, for the heart pulsing on his sleeve. His eyes are a piercing topaz. And he purrs of dimensions other than this one—says he sees and hears things differently and that’s why he makes up his own rules. Me, I am at a loss for words. After contending daily with the lion man’s incorrigible ways, I still don’t know what to call him.
If Herb is red, then my father was blue. Perpetually immersed in water and nostalgia, to the point of inertia, he passed the days hunting—mostly in cattails on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, just outside Salt Lake City. There he sat motionless, as if he could halt time. It was his attempt to deny the seductive sirens of civility—their incessant beckonings to behave, to belong. He acted as if all that mattered was the water, and the sound of wings flapping overhead. He was a good shot.
But he lost his fluidity. The lake swelled, then retreated. Constrained by convention, dulled by bourbon, his primal reflexes failed. When the banks of soft marsh mud imploded beneath his feet, he simply could not respond. Finally, on the first night of the new millennium, as the rest of the world toasted a new era, my father put a bullet through his own heart.
the redrock desert where I made my home sits on a tall, arid land mass called the Colorado Plateau. This physiographic province sprawls across northern New Mexico and Arizona, western Colorado, and nearly all of the southern half of Utah—my home state. Perhaps the most isolated portion of the Plateau falls within the boundaries of San Juan County, in Utah’s southeastern corner. After my thirty-four years in Salt Lake City—the state’s urban capital, at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, in the northern region of the state—this remote and rural portion of the desert was a welcome change.
San Juan County is the size of three small New England states. And of its 7,884 square miles, only 8 percent of the land is owned privately. The rest is either Indian or federal land—managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service. Included within these federal jurisdictions are Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments. Also included are two million acres of BLM lands with hardly any special designations—loosely managed for “multiple use,” which means they can be utilized for grazing, mining, logging, and nearly any form of recreation.
So scenic are these lands that if any of them—any at all—could be acquired, they would be considered prime real estate. But San Juan County, by and large, is not for sale. The result: Less than two people per square mile. Not one shopping mall or gated community. Only two stoplights and a single liquor store.
But there are eleven Mormon churches—three of them built right on Indian lands.
In the late autumn of our first year in San Juan County, Herb and I hiked into a deep canyon on Cedar Mesa—the connective tissue between the Abajo Mountains and the San Juan River. It was a cold and gray afternoon; the cottonwood trees in the canyon bottom had lost their gold medallions and stood wretched. The birds were gone. Everything was stripped, utterly silent. We tiptoed across stones made sleek and spherical by flash floods. Herb stopped and looked up at an ancient Indian ruin, high on the ledge above us. Perhaps a thousand years old, its earthen walls still stood. The two windows were dark and hollow, like the eyes of an unlit jack-o’-lantern.
The lion man turned to me, his eyes dilated in the fading light. He said, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone.
I disagreed. The ghosts were everywhere, watching. And even their company would prove to be too much.
Soon afterward, Herb and I bought a cabin on ten acres. There were no phone lines, no power lines, no pipes to deliver water or gas. With no service to collect what we discarded, we were careful about what we used in the first place. And with scarcely an aquifer of groundwater in the bedrock beneath shallow soils, there was little point in drilling a well. Instead, we hauled water from town in an old pickup and stored it in a cistern.
In winter, the snow would come suddenly and pick dogfights with the sky. The wind would scream like a woman assaulted. On winter mornings, Herb and I wrestled beneath the covers, to see who must leave our bed to light the stove and scrape ice from the solar panels that stood in the yard like a broken-off piece of spaceship. Summers were just as trying. Mornings would heat up like a struck match, and by noon the sky was bruised with thunderheads. When we moved in, I had laughed at the three lightning rods on the tar-paper roof—now I know they weren’t the least bit excessive. The rain comes and goes so fast, often it does no good. In this redrock desert, only one thing is constant: Evaporation duels saturation—a lesson on how easily matter can vaporize.
The cabin sat on the rim of a canyon, halfway between the towns of Blanding and Monticello. From the kitchen table was a stunning view—thousands of acres of scarcely interrupted public land and Indian land, yawning south for over one hundred miles. In the middle of the view lies the Four Corners, where the Colorado Plateau states converge with rectilinear perfection. This ninety-degree meeting of state lines is arbitrary, and invisible to the eye. But each day, as the light shifted across the sky, I detected new canyons, new mesas. The bones of the earth illuminated.
It was my father’s mother, Ada, who first brought me to this desert, who taught me what to look for. I was six years old when I first sat in red sand, leaning over her shoulder to watch as she painted land and sky. She loved the capricious geography—how it rose and fell like the spikes and troughs on an erratic cardiogram. She pointed out the sagebrush plain that suddenly plunged one thousand feet into a canyon of bare pink stone, glistening with seeps and springs; the roiling river beneath a ragged, bloody spine of a steeply rising anticline; the expletive of a sandstone minaret, erupting from the desert floor like a bold stroke of red ink.
An artist of abstractions, Ada sometimes made the rock look like water. She taught me all that she learned from this place—to look past the obvious, to see what might emerge at the edges.
There is only wind, water, and stone, Amy. Because of them, the desert is constantly undone.
She understood erosion. How the fierce winds—Arctic air in winter, gulf streams in summer—could scour away the soil until there was only bedrock. How the Dirty Devil, the Colorado, and the San Juan rivers—opaque ribbons of chocolate and jade—could gnaw at the sandy banks, granule by granule, until there was nothing left to stand on. How even the smallest seismic shift beneath the earth’s crust could calve pinnacles from canyon walls, or unearth the remnants of ancient peoples.
Early on, I remember sitting on a sandy beach at Lake Powell, in Glen Canyon Recreation Area. On a pad of paper, my grandmother sketched the cliffs that rose from the depths of the water. They were the color of raw salmon flesh. Sunlight leaped from the water and bedazzled the walls. Suddenly she dropped her pastel crayon, held her hands up against the sun. The rays burned through the pale webs of skin between her fingers.
And color. It shifts. Light changes everything.
She marveled at how, in one hour, a single rock formation could run the gauntlet of reds, oranges, even purples. Each shade was so exquisite, she said, that it defied description—or any other kind of human attempt at acquisition. This may have frustrated another observer, but in my grandmother’s mind, that intangible, luminous fluidity was the key to liberation. An atheist, an aesthete, she never tried to reinvent. Instead, she unleashed her self on the canvas. In doing so, she managed to interpret the desert’s sensuality, particle by particle. Back in Salt Lake, she presented her work in galleries. From desert to city. She glided effortlessly between two contradictory worlds, translating the liquid language of landscape—a place others have called barren and harsh.
Moving to southern Utah, I imagined myself as Ada. A visionary who could see, interpret, the desert’s nuances. A woman free to go anywhere the senses led. A woman who could sustain herself on beauty alone.
The desert’s people seemed only a minor obstacle. Mostly cowboy, mostly Mormon, they have their own way of seeing things. But I am used to this: My mother’s side of the family possesses the same peculiar brand of faith—a rawhide religion unlike anything you see in places more verdant, more populated. On public lands, in the high desert of southern Idaho—in a place not at all unlike San Juan County—they too run cattle and submit themselves not so much to the government as to God. I have spent my life among them, loving them. It made me believe my desert fluency to be greater than Ada’s. It made me believe that I could actually move to the heart of red-rock country; that I could inhabit, even claim, its wild interior as only a native could. There, I would grind down preconceptions, abandon past notions, and finally see things reassemble themselves.
It was my only option. Places more crowded, more civilized, had become uninhabitable. To stay would have had me, eventually, duplicating my father’s fate.
Ada tried to warn me. She knew how hard it was for me to stand my ground, to hold my own. She knew I was my father’s daughter.
There are contradictions, you know. Stone becomes dust, then stone again. And the dead stand between the grains of sand.
People lived here before the Anglos—long before even the Utes and Navajo. There were four eras of prehistoric culture: The first period of known human habitation, the Lithic, took place about ten thousand years ago, during the Pleistocene; the great game-hunters are understood only through a vague scattering of ancient campsites and spearheads. The second period, the Archaic, evolved as the region warmed, and was characterized by a highly mobile lifestyle of foraging. Then came the advent of agriculture and two phases of people that are collectively called the Anasazi: First, the Basketmaker period, named for the woven containers in which domesticated seeds were kept until sown—when the harvest’s bounty could fill them again with edibles. The fourth period, the Pueblo, ended in mystery; it was marked by an increasingly religious and sedentary lifestyle that seemed like progress but was probably doomed from the beginning.
In San Juan County, the mark of the ancients is everywhere. High on the canyon walls. Strewn across mesa tops. Buried along the banks of rivers. So numerous are their relics and ruins that sometimes they are taken, literally, for granted. Of course, there are federal regulations to protect these cultural artifacts, to honor the lands on which the dead reside. But in San Juan County, people hang federal officials and environmentalists in effigy. They have enough rules to follow in building up the desert in anticipation of Christ’s return to earth.
Sure, there are attempts at tribute. There is a museum in Blanding, and tour guides take tourists to some of the more spectacular ruins. When sites are vandalized, it makes the front page of the San Juan Record. But when the relics are removed, or even disturbed, they seem to lose their context, to be excised of their meaning. The loss of the past dislocates the present, makes it stagger and fall from what was once a stirring and sensual synchronicity between people and place.
I don’t mean to romanticize, to promote the loincloth and life in a cave. But there is something in those primitive ways that deserves close examination—a way to measure the life that has evolved in its wake. To exhume those ways is to gain a glimpse at the architecture of our own rise, at the potential for our demise. To shed light on their remains, on their ancient animal affair with nature, is to disinter what is buried in ourselves.
The desert holds the past with the reverence of a pallbearer. I want to witness the procession.
I began to dig for what I needed to know. I thought that the
people were something to work around—that my quarry could take place outside their peripheral vision. But the opposing forces were greater than anticipated, for they are fueled by something far more fundamental than a love of profit, or an ethic of progress—a belief so deeply inherent one could almost mistake it as primal.
My presence, my rooting around, would inspire resistance and uneasiness. Not that I blame anyone—even the most superficial existence in this country ravages the soul. There are deprivations. Depredations. And one is ultimately driven to commit passionate, irrevocable acts.
At some point, all desert dwellers are asked to submit. And eventually, the land sinks you to your knees. Then you have two choices: Pray, or crawl.
The desert’s people most often opt for prayer. I was quite certain I would choose the contrary.
Salvation would come, I would learn, by a wearing away of the body, by a grinding of bones into slickrock until they mingled with sand and the howling dead. It would be how I found my way back to myself—to something more basic, more original, than all that has been prescribed to me. Only then would I understand my response to the lion man—the way the cinnamon hair on his wrists makes me tremble. Only then would I understand my father—how losing his ability to quiver with anticipation when the geese flew in slid him into the bottomless backwaters of grief.
It wasn’t graceful. It was a messy business to walk on such disturbed ground. Still, an excavation was required. Even the deepest layers enlightened. Old relics brought new meaning.
Light changes everything.
There are questions that linger: Have I further intruded upon this desert by claiming it as my home? Has my father’s memory, or the honor of my marriage, my family, my neighbors, been desecrated in the telling of these tales?
This unearthing of things, it threatens. The dead may be aroused. But how else does one dig without disruption? Without disturbing what is sacred?
From ruin to restoration. Already I beg forgiveness for the encroachments.
One must get to the bones of things.
Excerpted from Trespass by Amy Irving. Copyright © 2008 by Amy Irving. Published in February 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.