Let me tell you about the wind. The wind that whips constantly from the West, gaining speed as it soars down the San Rafael Swell and collects sand from amongst the hoodoos of Goblin Valley before crashing around my humble old sheep trailer and then plummeting off the edge of Horseshoe Canyon.
I am all alone out here, just me and the wind and the sand, which is always blowing – into my teeth, into my eyes, onto the bare skin of my legs.
I drove seven hours from Denver to nearby Green River, Utah before bouncing down 32 miles of unpaved dirt to arrive here in the canyonlands, far from civilization.
My sheep camp, perched on the edge of the canyon, is quaint and small. It is essentially a quite compact trailer with a raised bed, benches with built-in storage underneath, a pull-out table, a wood stove and a sink that drains into a plastic bucket on the sand, held in place by a rock so it doesn’t get blasted into the canyon.
Really all the space one would need.
My job here, for two weeks, is to patrol the backcountry, this remote section of the national park that only a handful of visitors make it to a day.
At night my trailer rocks mightily – the wind can be fierce – and I hope that I don’t tumble over the edge of the canyon along with the sand. Always long wisps of red sand are plummeting, plummeting over the edge. I sit and watch it from the front door of my trailer, with my bare feet swinging freely.
This is my favorite spot, where I watch the moon rise as shadows slowly cross the canyons and mesas and buttes that stretch east as far as the eye can see when the sun sets.
To the northeast, the Sierra La Sals surge skyward, above the treeline, an unexpected view in the desert. The peaks turn purple at sunset before slowly, ever so slowly, fading into the darkness of night.
There is no silence in the desert. Instead, there is whistling, whooshing, clanging and creaking. The pipe of my wood stove makes an eerie, haunting sound like moaning when the wind blows. It almost sounds like the thundering of drums, but echoing from far off in the distance. My daily soundtrack.
I had never heard of Edward Abbey or Aron Ralston when I agreed to come to this big, empty beautiful place. It was my cousin who insisted I bring along a copy of Abbey’s ‘Desert Solitaire’ when she heard I was headed to the canyonlands of Utah.
Imagine my surprise as I voraciously read page after page about Abbey’s life as a seasonal ranger in the nearby Arches, living in a sheep camp trailer and roaming free through the wilderness of the extreme desert during the day.
I had likewise never heard of Ralston before arriving in Horseshoe Canyon, despite vaguely hearing about ‘127 hours guy.’ Again imagine my surprise to discover that Ralston had stumbled into my canyon after his ordeal, recounted in detail to me one afternoon by a ranger who had been a part of the search crew dispatched after the whole mess to retrieve his severed arm before any tourists found it.
There is just me and the wind, both gaping to the east and that canyon that rips across the land. One day my last visitor rolled away down the road towards civilization at 5 p.m. and I was left alone with the sun and the wind and the openness and the aloneness.
But the wind. That wind! I woke up before dawn to the rocking of my trailer as a rainstorm blasted through. An icy breeze came through the window I’d left open at night for respite from the hot desert air and blasted onto the core of my body. In the darkness I reached for my newly issued National Park Service fleece and quickly pulled it on.
And now the same fierce wind is rocking the trailer as I eat a measly dinner. I feel utterly alone.
Down in the canyon, it is different. The wind blows as fiercely as possible, but the only result is the gentle rustling of the cottonwood trees. They are scattered about the canyon interior, growing along Barrier Creek although there is no water. During the scorching summer months, the creek bed is just a dusty wash, filled with rocks and sand that are arduous to hike through. But somehow the cottonwoods find water along those wash banks.
The sun. The heat. The gnats and biting flies that gnaw on me like I’m dinner. The endless wash sand that I trudge through daily, reflecting exhausting heat and light back up at me, so I am doubly exposed to the brutal elements. I sweat through my shirt by 10 in the morning and from then on am soaked through and salty. My face is dry and gritty.
But always the solitude. I spend a few hours each midday hiding from the brutal heat of the sun underneath a cottonwood tree, in the shade and all alone with only the high canyon walls watching over me. Most wildlife sleeps through the unbearable heat except for a lone mourning dove, whose gentle call echoes through the bends of the rock walls. It is beyond peaceful.
This is the harshest wilderness I have ever known. Edward Abbey called it the harshest and most intact wilderness in the lower 48: the canyonlands, the Maze.