Walking – Brandi Jo Nyberg
For Edward Abbey and Thoreau, who have been with me on many walks.
I am attempting to perfect the art of walking. It has been a lifelong journey of trial and error. I walk perfectly fine, but the art of walking I have yet to master, or quite determine what encompasses this aspect of walking. Today I am practicing with my partner, Dale, and our beloved dog, Banzai, in Granstaff Canyon, Utah. Our goal is to reach the beginning of the canyon, where Morning Glory, a natural rock bridge of 243 feet in length, will span above our heads and Granstaff’s walls will offer us shade. There is but one way in, one way out, and a little over five miles in between.
The sun is also here with us, beating down, following our every footstep, slow roasting our brains. It’s not so much a pounding or throbbing in the head, but a feeling that the brain is shrinking, shriveling, like meat in a smoker. Occasionally, we are able to seek relief in the shadows of the canyon walls or some lonely desert shrubs. In these tiny little pockets, we rest and drink water.
While in the desert, Edward Abbey always advised one should carry water – lots of it, avoid the noonday sun, and avoid the summer all together. Thoreau claimed that, “In the desert, pure air and solitude compensate for want of moisture.” It’s early August and sometime near the hour of noon. I look up and see the sun resting between the canyon walls. It’s so bright against the deep blue sky that it appears white, and I am blinded. I have to admit that Abbey was right. No offense to Thoreau – he may have walked many miles, but not one was in the desert. His assumptions about pure air and solitude have proved to be wrong on this expedition – nothing, thus far, appears to compensate for want of moisture.
Word of mouth is that there is a lot of water along this hike – at least that’s what our friends said. Liars, I think, all of them. All I see is rock and sand and dust and sun. Some cacti too, and dried, shriveled grasses, but no water. We brought five liters with us (two per person, one per dog), which is about enough to avoid the parched death of many other desert wanderers. Back east, in Appalachia, when I needed to cool off, I would touch large rocks, or the ground, sometimes lying on them, and allow my skin to cool. This red sandstone here is so hot that I think if I laid on it I might begin to sizzle like bacon on a griddle.
I take my shirt off and continue in my sports bra – the shirt wasn’t doing me any good. Any sweat my body creates immediately evaporates in this heat, leaving behind my salts, caked to my shirt, so the shirt does nothing but suffocate. I raise my head from staring at my feet and look at Dale, who did the same thirty minutes ago. He always gets the good ideas first. Dale walks slightly ahead of me, each of us in our own world.
As Abbey wrote, “If God had meant us to walk, he would have kept us down on all fours, with well-padded paws,” much like my furry companion Banzai, daintily trotting in front of me. He most definitely walks with more ease, speed, and agility than we do. Or, if us humans were meant to travel long distances, would we not have evolved into a wheel-like shape, rather than having to invent it ourselves? I contemplate these curiosities and stare down at my legs as they carry me over dusty, rust-colored rock. I remember how baffled Thoreau was by those in professions which required sitting, “as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not stand or walk upon– I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.” A bit harsh, maybe. However, upon closer inspection, I notice my own legs don’t seem like they were made to sit upon. My legs seem more fit for walking. Which I guess means I must continue.
The canyon, whose smooth coral walls began with a wide, open mouth, has slowly become more narrow. Somehow, with the narrowing of the canyon, the sun also seems to have narrowed further in on us. I look up at my glowing halo and it intensely returns the stare. I switch back to looking at my feet instead, watching each step over slickrock, then sand, then more slickrock. With every step, every breath, I feel precious moisture exit my body and instantly evaporate into the air. I try to remind myself of how much I love walking on a blue sky, sunny day in the company of my best friends.
Really, I’m more of a saunter-er than a walker. I don’t move quickly – especially compared to Dale. He hates marathons but always seems to be participating in a solo one. From Thoreau, I know that sauntering has two potential roots. In the Middle Ages a Sainte-Terrer was someone in search of à la Sainte Terre, or the ‘Holy Land’ – wherever or whatever that may be. However, Thoreau seemed to lean more toward the second derivative, sans terre. For him, this meant that a saunterer was, “without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” These types of people make the best saunterers, he thought: “For this is the secret of successful sauntering.” I think I might be one of those people.
Although, for me, sauntering may be a little bit of both. I have no home per se, and home is wherever I am in that moment. I saunter my life away, wandering from place to place. But in the end, I think I might be searching for my own à la Sainte Terre. I’m not looking for a god, no. Just a place that I might saunter my way into one day and think: this is it. My only problem is that each time I reach an à la Sainte Terre I think about how there may be a better, more enticing Holy Land somewhere else. A kind of never ending crusade.
However, today I’m beginning to think this walk definitely isn’t leading me to any Holy Land. In fact, if I am to judge based solely on exterior conditions, I might think I’m headed toward hell. I am engulfed by orangey-red walls that are beginning to look more like fiery flames. It’s so hot, I’m starting to see mirages. The kind that glitter in the distance, reflecting sunlight.
Alas! – It is no mirage, but a creek! A comely creek with water so cold it hurts. Banzai, Dale, and I walk straight out to the middle of this creek, standing with our ankles in the water. Banzai laps some up. Dale sits down to submerge as much of his body as possible. I splash some water all over myself to cool my skin.
“How is this water so cold? It’s like a hundred and fifteen degrees outside right now.” This is not an exaggeration.
Dale doesn’t offer up any answers. Neither does Banzai. The desert is a mysterious place.
Once we are sufficiently cooled, we part ways with the creek, but not by much. The trail is now running parallel to this savior. In the desert, small creeks like this completely change the immediate habitat. We are no longer traversing barren slickrock, but are beneath the shade of trees, bushwhacking our way through grasses and shrubs that cling to this creek for dear life. The grasses brush up against my calves, much softer than the cacti I’ve been avoiding along the trail.
Suddenly, the canyon widens again and our path leads us away from the water’s edge. Parting is such sweet sorrow. Behind us, with the creek, is also all that shade. I look back up to the sun, once again, boastfully shining down. At least I can think of today as an excellent opportunity to store up some vitamin D. One has to remember to look at the bright side.
“How much farther until the shade, the Morning Glory Bridge, you think?”
Dale stops to turn and look back at me. He waits for me to reach him. He puts his hand on my shoulder. “Tough sayin’ not knowin’.” This is the response Dale gives in reply to many questions I ask.
I can also be thankful that I am not walking uphill. How unnatural of a thing, to attempt to fight gravity – “not only unnatural but so unnecessary,” sneers old Cactus Ed. Why then, I wonder, do I – much like Abbey and Thoreau once did – always feel such a gravitational pull to walk up mountains, molehills, cliffs, and crags? I always think it’s such a great idea, and then there I am, fighting gravity, walking uphill, complaining about it the entire way. This was your idea! Dale reminds me every time. Once at the top, I forget my struggle, every complaint I uttered, and marvel at the vista view, commenting on what a great hike it is. Dale then looks at me strangely, no doubt questioning my sudden change of heart. When back at the bottom, I am always pointing to some other piece of land, rising up out of the ground, suggesting we walk up that too. Selective memory, I guess. At both the top and bottom, I selectively remember the picnic at the peak with a grade-A view. Only on the way up do I remember previous struggles. Something jogs my memory and I think: why do I do this to myself? Secretly, I know the answer. I think it might be part of my crusade, the never ending search for my own à la Sainte Terre. How could I possibly know I’ve found my Holy Land if I haven’t truly experienced the place and physically suffered along the way? Thus, the physical strain, pain, and suffering continues.
Thoreau believed this type of lifestyle, these types of walks, “in the sun and the wind, will no doubt produce a roughness of character,– will cause a thicker cuticle to grow over some of the finer qualities of our nature…” I can verify the truth in this statement. I look at my hands and arms. They appear to be morphing into leather with each moment beneath the sun’s singeing rays.
Just as I’m about to collapse and tell my companions to go on – you’re better off without me – we meet back up with the creek, which has formed a large pool of water, due to a natural dam-like narrowing of the stream somewhere unseen to us. I step into the translucent water and look at the rust colored rock beneath my feet. I submerge myself and wonder whether or not such temperature extremes could put my body into shock. Dale joins me, swimming to the middle of the pool. We float on our backs, staring at the stunted cottonwood trees and willows that have taken to this small oasis. Then, I latch onto Dale’s back and ask him to swim around the pool, pulling me behind him. He entertains my request under one condition: he’s next. Banzai stays at the shore, stepping in and out, pacing back and forth, staring at us. He can’t stand that we’re having fun without him, but he also doesn’t want to have to swim. He prefers to stand or lay in shallow water. We attempt to coax Banzai into the water. He does not entertain our requests.
The rest of our hike into the depths of this canyon follows much of the same pattern: just when I think I may die of a heat stroke like all the other ill-prepared assholes who wander through the desert on hot summer day, we re-converge with water. After a few hours of this pattern, we come to a place where the canyon narrows more than it has before, and eventually the walls merge. The end of the trail. The beginning of the canyon. The halfway point on our walk.
The area is cool in temperature and heavily shaded. Morning Glory natural rock bridge spans above our heads from one side of the canyon to the other. The bridge is stained with smears of black, tracing the lines where water glides when it rains. A small trickle of water comes from a crack in the tall walls, and water is collected in small impressions scattering the floor of the canyon. Banzai lays flat on his side in one of them. Dale and I sit on the ground and chew some jerky. The cathedral-like space is quiet and our sounds echo, as if bouncing off stained glass.
I speak softly. “Do you think that whole creek comes from the little trickle of water?”
Once again, Dale has no definitive answer. Neither does Banzai. Just another one of those desert mysteries.
“I think this is one of my favorite walks we’ve ever taken.”
Dale looks at me strangely, but then smiles. “You sure did seem to suffer a lot for this to be a favorite.”
I agree with his statement. It appears to confirm a pattern I follow. I think about something else Ed Abbey wrote, a good thing he had to say about walking: it “takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life.” Today’s walk may or may not have prolonged my life. But it did stretch time, or at least allow me to move at the same pace as time, instead of speeding through. In some ways, I almost wish I had crawled through this canyon – stretched time out even longer. Yes, this form of locomotion may have increased my physical suffering – my legs, especially my knees, would most likely be rubbed raw and I would probably be riddled with cactus needles – but sometimes a person needs more time. More time to truly understand a particular place and exactly what it is they’re moving toward. Doesn’t all art require, at the very least, a small amount of suffering to be worthwhile? To fully comprehend the beauty, the fleeting moment, the sublimity of it all, a little pain is necessary.
After hanging out for a while, our skin cools and we begin to get goosebumps. Banzai leaves the pool of water, shaking off his fur. It’s time to finish our journey, to circle back. Which reminds me of wheels, and how thankful I am to have legs instead, so that I can take my time and enjoy my saunter back. Which reminds me that soon enough we’ll reach our set of wheels, the car. And I know you can’t rightly see anything up close from the window of a car. And what you can see is just that – vision. You don’t get to touch or smell or hear or taste the environment. With only a visual connection to a landscape, a person can’t truly comprehend it, learn it, physically suffer from it. Abbey agrees, “Walking makes the world much bigger and therefore more interesting.” In my humble opinion, cars take the fun out of locomotion, yes, and most definitely shrink the world.
It crosses my mind that the only good kind of walk is the one which causes physical suffering. Gritty sand in your teeth. Scraped knees. Profuse sweating that sucks every last drop of water from you. Sore calves. That maybe these pains are what bring perfection and fulfillment to the art of walking. Perhaps I am still delirious from the earlier heat and am trying to make the best of it, or maybe it’s because I’m at the top.
“Which canyon should we hike next?”
Brandi Jo Nyberg spends her time on rivers, in the woods, growing food, and writing about those things. She currently lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she is pursing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Alaska and working on the editorial staff for Permafrost Magazine.