Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The End of the Highway

When I look out the front window of my house in Canylonlands, I feel a little guilty. I feel guilty because the view from my porch is the kind of view you should have to earn by trudging a dozen miles uphill in the blazing heat. When you climb a mountain, you put your sweat into the climb, trading energy and willpower for the chance to see the world from a completely new perspective. After thousands and thousands of steps, you reach that place where you can’t step any higher, and then you look around. When you’re standing up there, looking down at the blanket of tree-tops and semi-trucks the size of matchbooks, you can tell yourself that you’ve earned that view, that you worked for that rare moment when the light would be right and the clouds would be just so, and the world would be clear and perfect.
That is the view I see from my front window. Every morning, when I drag myself out of bed and stumble into the kitchen, I see The View. And every morning, for just a moment, it takes my breath away. But then I realize that I’ve done nothing to earn that view and the teensiest feeling of guilt creeps in. By walking just a dozen steps in my slippers, I can watch the sun rise over red rock and pink buttes and blue mountains layered up as far as the eye can see. I can go for a run from my front door, and in less than a mile sit down and dangle my sneakers over the lip of a 500-foot cliff, which terraces down to another 500-foot cliff, and then another below that, and another and another, until they reach the unseen river in the deepest gorge. My commute has no smog, no traffic, just a quiet five-minute walk as I wait for the sun to crest the La Sal mountains, casting the warm morning light upon mesas still capped with snow.

Of course, there are more substantial things than easy sunsets to feel guilty about when you are living on the Island in the Sky. For instance, not only are we living in a desert where less than ten inches of rain falls each year, but up here on the canyon rims we cannot drill for water to drink and bathe, so we truck it in. Every few days the water truck drives thirty miles to stock our water tank with twice-chlorinated H2O. If that  doesn’t convince you that no one should be living here, consider this: the BLM land outside the park is biannually allocated for cattle grazing. The cows have the same problem we do: no water. So, the ranchers also tank up their trucks and haul water thirty miles to the mesa top so the cattle can have some vital water to wash down those dry native grasses. Clearly, none of us should really be here.

Or, you might feel guilty because you live in this beautiful landscape, a once-in-a-lifetime destination for millions of visitors from around the world, and yet you’re endlessly annoyed because your cell phone doesn’t work. Begrudgingly, after searching for a way to get mobile broadband, high-speed Internet, or one of those fancy all-in-one gadgets, I called up the phone company to beg for a “land line” in my wilderness home. For the price you pay for your cell phone/mobile hotspot/camera/GPS/heart-rate-monitor communication device, I can get a DSL connection which runs at the whopping speed of 3 mbps. At that rate, I can watch a three-minute YouTube video in just under eight minutes! Imagine the guilt I felt when a seasonal ranger who’d worked here from 1965-67, the first three summers after the park was established, told me how he’d commuted to work every day along a twenty-five mile unimproved dirt “road.” There was no housing up here at the time, so they made the commute every day. Three miles from the main road, where today’s Highway 313 takes a series of switchbacks down to the canyon floor, the old road dropped sharply into the bottom of the wash. This steep trail was continuously and unexpectedly being washed out, so when they got off work and headed home for the night, they would often drive 18 miles down 313, only to discover that the road had crumbled over night. At this point they could either get out their shovels get to work, or turn around and go rough it at the Island for the night, only to come back and dig out the road in the morning.Today, thanks to my 3 mbps Internet connection, I can order my groceries, my shampoo, "Lost: The complete series," and a new sofa from Amazon, and the UPS driver will drive his air conditioned van down the paved highway to drop those packages off on my doorstep.

When they told me my delivery address here I laughed aloud, anticipating the very worst for living at "End of Highway 313, Moab, Utah." But each night as I sit on the blanket in the middle of my empty living room, watching the sunset out my front window, I am humbled by the chance to be here, for the possibilities of a great new job, and to have a huge apartment, clean and freshly-painted, waiting for me when I arrived. When I think of what it would take to make it here on my own, without the conveniences of the modern-day Park Service, I am amazed that for this little while I have to opportunity to live at the end of the highway.
A snowy day in Canyonlands. My outdoor dining room, come warmer days.

1 comment:

  1. Canyonlands rule. It's got to be one of the most remote parks around, especially the Needles & Maze district. Living at the end of the road is surely a different experience!