Island in the Sky

Yesterday, we put in a cumulative 5.5 miles of trails, so as we planned out our hiking for the day, we decided to go for a longer walk. As we scanned the national park map (a lovely “throwback” to a real, rather than virtual, newspaper) and the trail descriptions, I felt a little twinge that the accessible trails were all on top of the mesas instead of down in the canyons. I wanted to be close up to the sandstone, immersed in the layers of rock, contained by the walls. But, that wasn’t this part of the park. So, we chose an out-and-back trail, close to 2 miles each way. On the newsprint map, it showed a dashed line to a “point,” a view of the rivers and canyons below. That simple map could not prepare me for what we saw. 

We set out, nine of us on the trail. Thick, gray clouds loomed, but not so low and impenetrable as to make the day dark. We pulled extra layers from backpacks and stuffed our hands in our pockets. The sandy trail, a narrow, rust-colored track, eroded and a foot or two deeper than the grasslands on either side, guided us from the parking lot. Grey-green grasses, yucca, occasional patches of prickly pear, and Mormon Tea dominated the landscape. Stout, twisted junipers and crooked pinyon pines stood taller, though not tall, above the grasses and shrubs.

By virtue of the narrow trail, we clustered into pairs, leaving one person to walk solo for a stretch or to bunch in with a duo. We’ve all known one another for ages: Rosanna and I since graduate school twenty years ago, our spouses for the last 16, our children their entire lives. Our pairings shifted as we stopped for water, stopped for snacks, stopped for views. There was a lovely fluidity and ease, no urgency, no expectations, just a joy in moving through a new space and spending time together.  

Not long after we passed the historic corral–wooden fence on three sides, enormous rock face on the fourth–our vista opened up a little more. The trail split, and we went to the right: the relatively short-and-easy versus the 12-mile-and-“strenuous.” Soon, the cairns directed us fifty yards away from the dirt path to a rock ledge. Our jaws dropped. Every one of us, momentarily speechless. Spread out, thousands of feet below us: desert, buttes, and a deep, steep canyon carved by the Green River. Sunlight shone through the scattered clouds. As the light shifted, different walls of the canyons, different colors in the earth were highlighted. 

We returned to the main path and continued toward the point in a momentary shower of miniscule snowflakes. We walked on, not wet, so not discouraged. Every time we came to another overlook, the landscape looked completely altered based on the movement of the clouds above and the earth below. We studied the landscape, which has been carved by water and wind over hundreds of millions of years: from moment to moment, different details popped as the light shifted, creating the illusion of change, but, truly, for miles and miles we saw evidence of millions of years of deposition, uplift, and erosion, transformation that happens, not in an instant, but over eons. It seems conceptually unfathomable—how do you wrap your mind around geologic time? But, when you experience yourself in relationship to the seeming endlessness of the landscape and what it takes to shape it through minute, persistent, imperceptible changes, geologic time is more comprehensible. And that, of course, becomes fodder for all sorts of philosophical inquiry. One becomes acutely aware of one’s own life as comparable to  Appalachian mineral deposits building a layer of sedimentary rock, to molecules of water forming the Green River, to cyanobacteria, microscopic on their own, visible en masse, making the soil crust: all so very small, yet, still, significant. Landscape is shaped by an incessant presence and commitment to purpose.

We made our way to the point. As we had for the entire walk, we came together, fanned out, explored, wondered, marveled. For a few moments, I moved away from our group to stand on a different ledge. The desert and clouds stretched into the distance, the horizon line was blurred by rain. I had thought that I would find peace and centering within the narrow walls of the canyons, in being, literally, grounded, in contact with the earth; I never expected to feel so anchored when all is so exposed, so open, so enormous, by the long, slow passage of time made visible from such a striking vantage point.

We regrouped, we dawdled, we snacked, we drank water, we talked a bit but not a lot. The temperature dropped a few more degrees threatening another bout of tiny, dry snowflakes. We headed back to the trail, the view—the point—behind us, no longer visible, but not forgotten.

Bradbury Challenge (5)

I’m having fun digging into an essay, a short story, and a poem each day, reflecting on them as a reader and as a writer, connecting them to what I am thinking about in my everyday life, connecting them to one another. I imagine when spring break is over there may not be time to read and quote and reflect so much, but it’s a fun practice to undertake, a good habit of mind to cultivate.

Essay: John McPhee, Introduction to Basin and Range 

As the magma crystallized and turned solid, certain iron minerals lined up within it and turned themselves into compasses, pointing toward the magnetic pole. As it happened, the direction in those years was northerly. The earth’s magnetic field has reversed itself a number of hundreds of times, switching from north to south, south to north, at intervals that have varied in length. Geologists have figured out just when the reversals occurred, and have thus developed a distinct arrhythmic yardstick through time.

Reading John McPhee on geology is an entirely new way of seeing into something that I always assumed was dry and lifeless. He is a master of the essay—short for the New Yorker, longer for a book—and this happens with everything I have read that he’s written: his intense curiosity, his detailed inquiry, and his skill with words, sentences, and paragraphs, make me interested in anything he gives his attention. I’ve read many of his books and essays on far-ranging topics—oranges, the Swiss, FedEx, for example—and each has been massively engaging. Same, too, with a book on geology. From page one, I am hooked. I want to understand sills and diabase and sedimentary structures. He writes in a way that assumes the intelligence of the reader: it seems he figures I will catch on, and if something is unclear, I am confident he will tell me what I need to know in the pages to come. His writing is magnetic. So much to learn about the world from him; so much to learn about writing. 

Story: Neil Gaiman, “The Last Days of Loki” and “Ragnarok: The Final Destiny of the Gods,” from Norse Mythology

There will be snow driving in from all directions, fierce winds, and cold colder than you have ever imagined cold could be, an icy cold so cold your lungs will ache when you breathe, so cold that the tears in your eyes will freeze. There will be no spring to relieve it, no summer, no autumn. Only winter, followed by winter, followed by winter.

How can a story about the end of the world (and the rebirth of the world) feel like a song? Every paragraph is a perfect composition: rhythm, repetition, varied sentence length, words of harmony, words of dissonance, nothing superfluous (even the parenthetical invitation to the reader to save scraps of leather for Vidar’s plot-changing shoe feels necessary). Everything working together to shape a story of the death of the gods, the destruction of the worlds and (almost) all of its inhabitants—a story that is inherently messy and incomprehensible is pared down and made clear. 

Ethan and I have been reading through this book together, one story at a time, for about a month. He knows Norse mythology from his Rick Riodan obsession, so, as I read aloud, he corrects my pronunciation of the names of the gods and goddesses, their weapons and their great halls. Sometimes in the morning before anyone else wakes, sometimes in the evening, the last thing before bed, we read, we pause, we question, we laugh, we imagine. It’s been so lovely. This morning, we read the last two stories and finished the book. We may consider Neil Gaiman’s last line of the last chapter—“… and the game begins anew.”—and turn back to the first line of the first—”Before the beginning there as nothing—no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky: only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world, always burning.”

Poem: Wisława Szymborska, “Dreams” (translated from the Polish by Clarea Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak)

that in our dreamings,

in their shadowings and gleamings,

in their multiplings, inconceivablings,

in their haphazardings and widescatterings

at times even a clear-cut meaning

may slip through.

Every stanza seems like a dependent clause and there is no resolution, just a weaving together of strands, until this final stanza. I felt like I was holding together these layered elements in my mind until they all came together at the end. There’s a tension in that: how long can the reader go without a conclusion, or at least a container, for the ideas in the poem. I love that. I also love that Szymborska made adjectives into gerunds (“in their multiplings, inconceivablings, / in their haphazardings and widescatterings,”) to imitate the gerunds that really do exist (dreamings, gleamings). What a poem.

3 thoughts on “Island in the Sky

  1. “Landscape is shaped by an incessant presence and commitment to purpose.” What a profound tie to human behavior. Your detail and imagery in this post allowed me to experience these trails and majestic views as you had. A lovely depiction of your picturesque surroundings!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your descriptions, coupled with your stunning photographs, made me feel like I was right there with you.
    “Our pairings shifted as we stopped for water, stopped for snacks, stopped for views. There was a lovely fluidity and ease, no urgency, no expectations, just a joy in moving through a new space and spending time together.” – This is when you know you’ve found your people.


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