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Jim Duke | Author


Most folks that have spent any amount of time hiking and camping in desert canyons will try to describe the experience in terms of being spiritual, mystical, magical, enlightening, or some other intangible, but very deep and basic sort of feeling out of range of words. It's as though the bare rock, when exposed from the protective covering of organic matter, rich soils, and abundant forms of live, connects us to our earth's core and allows us to touch the essence of our foundations.

There must be some sort of energy emitted from the core of the earth, well obviously even hard science would tell us there are many sorts, but some sort of energy important to, and pleasing to living things, that would otherwise be absorbed by all the other life forms that usually insulate us surface dwellers from the power of the bare rock. I've felt the same sensation on mountain peaks high above timberline where the summits of solid rock connect us to the core of the earth. This connection pervades in spite of the overwhelming feeling of being aloof and separated by altitude from the rest of the earth and the endless view planes of life below.

Traveling the harsh, dry, slick rock regions above many desert canyons, the small pockets of vegetation encountered seem multitudes more vibrant than their counterparts in moister, richer soils. The desert Indian Paintbrush, for example, is not only redder than are mountain and plains varieties, but redder than anything imaginable. They define red. And as though in defiance of severe conditions, they stay in full bloom for a matter of weeks or months instead of hours or days. They are even more highlighted by the dark, cryptogrammic soils framing their background, probably in the company of a few prickly pear cacti, a clump of segmented green morman's tea, and an elderly, bent and twisted juniper shrub providing just enough partial shade to allow its neighbors to survive. Life on the edge seems to be the most precious.

The small potholes of water in the rock literally explode with life during the short periods of being filled after rain storms. One can sit and observe a whole food chain in operation, an entire ecosystem, an entire world for all practical purposes of imagination, with most occupants, such as the little 'fairy shrimp', being translucent, allowing us see through their exoskeletons to their inner workings as though we've been granted super human powers for the purpose of observation of this little world. Then, with a splash, enters an alien, four eyed, flying transformer, disguised as a wasp while in flight to discourage predators, and able to become a ferocious, back paddling, aquatic predator the instant he dives into the pool, devouring and dominating all other life in this little world.

When it's time to go, he swims up to grasp the surface tension of the water with all six feet, hanging upside down from the water's surface tension, and then flips himself over, from being a back paddling submarine, to standing upright above the surface of the water and ready for flight in its wasp costume to find the next pool. If you're quick, and it's not too far, you might be able to follow him there because his clumsy, dangling, wasp-like flying abilities don't appear to be as swift, fluid, and graceful as the motions of his predatory, underwater counterpart. Ironically, this strange little predator seems to find more freedom in the confines of a small pothole than it does in the endless horizons of the desert air.

When it appears that the heat of the slick rock is endless and unrelenting, one of the many folds, cracks, and crevasses you've been crossing might open up into a lush canyon, so out of place it might be a mirage. If you're lucky, you might find a navigable access to the bottom amid the otherwise high and convex cliffs that discourage all but birds, bugs, and lizards. To descend from the blazing heat of the surrounding desert into a lush canyon with even the slightest flow of water, and in the priceless, cool shade in the depths of high, narrow rock walls, is as close as I can imagine to entering a different dimension.

It's certainly not hard to imagine a young Native American, after fasting for days and probably ingesting peyote or some other hallucinogen, wandering into such a canyon and believing he had entered entirely different world or dimension. These canyons create a profusion of life in the spring with willows, and cattails, and cottonwoods, and the ever present and dominating call of the never present Canyon Wren that all folks hear but few ever see as they dart in and out of nooks and crannies high up in the cliffs. One might see white tail deer in regions otherwise dominated by mule deer, possibly a few desert bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, and even with amazingly small volumes of water, maybe a small beaver colony.

While generally quiet during the heat of the day, except for the occasional scuttle of lizards or small birds through dry leaves, and maybe the wing flaps or guttural calls of a raven or two, evenings can come alive with a cacophony of sounds including bullfrogs, tree toads, crickets, cicadas, coyotes, turkeys, owls, night hawks, and poor wills. Morning sounds are usually dominated by the canyon wren, the squawk of passing waterfowl, and the lonely, distant mourning dove.

Desert canyons can also provide some of the most intense silence that can be experienced. Edward Abbey wrote of this silence in his book Desert Solitaire and described being able to, in the deep silence, hear his own brain buzz, which he described as the electrical synapses between communicating brain cells. I have come to associate this brain buzz with levels of anxiety or conflict in my life, and try to learn to quiet this buzz, especially when I'm in an otherwise quiet environment such as the desert.

Once inside the canyon, the mystical qualities of the desert become even more concentrated, possibly because one is even more surrounded by the energy emitting rock within the high canyon walls, but also because of the way light, heat, and especially sound, play off the canyon walls. The most immediate and obvious characteristics of canyons involve the various echoes carried through the canyons giving a semi-subconscious impression of being in the presence of someone else when you're alone.

Time and again I have stopped and looked around to locate the intruder only to realize I'd been hearing myself. The spirits are here and they are you. The clarity and magnification of these echoes can be such that it is possible to hear the echo of your own footstep without being able to hear the actual footstep itself. This is due primarily to the fact that, when walking upright, your body is directly between your feet and your ears, and for this reason, muffles much of the direct sound thus allowing the echo to be louder than the source.

This phenomenon is even more exaggerated when riding a horse or mule because their bodies do an even better job of blocking the sound traveling directly to our ear from their hooves while creating even louder echoes off the canyon walls, often giving the impression of being preceded or followed up the canyon by strangers or spirits. Everything about these canyons adds to the mystical and spiritual aspects of the desert. Who knows, maybe the Hopis did have portals leading to another dimension throughout the canyon lands. I find the tangible world offered at the bottom of these canyons to be more than sufficient for any escape I need from the day to day dimensions of life. Like the strange little flying water beetle, I too find incredible freedom within the confines of canyon walls.