By Tamim Ansary
Fifty years ago, I went to Canyonlands, a place in southern Utah. I was a student at Colorado Rocky Mountain School then, and the school traditionally took us kids on two camping trips a year, one in the fall, and one in the spring. Fall Trip was only three days long, we went to places near campus; but Spring Trip lasted for a week and we went to places far away and hard to get to. Each year, there were eight or nine trips to choose from, and we signed up for the one we wanted. That year, my senior year of high school, my second year in America, I wanted to go rafting down the Green River, but everyone wanted to go rafting down the Green River, and by the time I got to the sign-up sheet, it was filled. So I signed up for Canyonlands, my second choice. I remember the big covered trucks the school used to transport us to the park, one long day’s ride away. I remember my (relatively) new American comrades playing guitars in the truck as we hurled along, and singing “folk songs” such as Kumbaya (I still don’t know what a kumbaya is) and Blowing in the Wind. And I remember how the ride was flavored with subtle romantic excitement because we were boys and girls together, a dozen or more of us in the close quarters of that truck, in the sexual flush of late adolescence, riding through Western landscapes, headed toward adventure.
And I remember where we camped: a large cave-like hollow under an overhanging sandstone cliff and how, in the distance, from the campsite, we could see the Needles–spires of red sandstone, a virtual forest of them, thrusting up from the desert floor, each one a hundred or two hundred feet tall.
The next day, a group of us guys headed for those spires. The Needles were a maze of labyrinthine cracks and passageways among towers of red sandstone, full of chimneys that a climber could shimmy up inside of, and vertical faults that a guy could climb up by using layback techniques, and ledges that a fellow could inch along to perilous and thrilling heights, and cliff-like faces studded with toe- and fingerholds that were all the more exciting to cling to when you knew that you’d be falling fifty feet to your death if you lost your grip.
Rock climbing was the only sport I was ever really good at, because I had grown up in the mother of all rocky places, the Hindu Kush mountains, I had no fear of heights, and I was a skinny stick of a guy, not strong but strong for my weight, strong enough to lift twice my own weight. We had a climbing rope along, but it wasn’t that useful because none of us was at the top of any of the places we were climbing, in a position to belay the others. So the rope was mostly just a heavy coil of awkward extra weight to carry and maneuver.
I don’t remember how many of us were in the group at the start, maybe five or six, but it thinned out one by one as guys got cowed by one challenge or another and turned back. After a couple of hours, it was down to two of us, Burr Overstreet and me. And we went on climbing around in that magnificent maze for hours. The next day, I should have been sore, but limbering up took no time, and I soon felt vigorous enough to embark on a hike along a dry stream bed, through canyons of red rock twisted by erosion. There were only three of us that day: Mary Janss, a gorgeous superstar athlete (she had a plausible shot at going to the Olympics as a downhill racer) Ken Hause, our brilliant math teacher and climbing instructor, and me. We hiked twenty miles that day; and that’s how I know that twenty miles was the absolute maximum distance I could walk in a day at my peak physical condition. (Mary, I think, could have gone another twenty.)
A few days later, when we left Canyonlands, I looked back at the Needles receding toward the horizon and said to myself, “I am going to come back to this place before I die.”
Forty-five years passed and “go-to-Canyonlands” was always on my to-do list, but it was down near the bottom among the items I never get around to, like “achieve perfection” and “clean out the basement.” And every time it seemed like it would be a viable option, something came up. Then one year, in May, Debby and I considered going camping on Vancouver Island; but someone said it would be raining. So we decided to go to Yellowstone, but someone said it would be snowing. Then it hit me–Canyonlands. Yes! The Needles. May is the perfect time to go, it hasn’t gotten unbearably hot yet. And 62 is the perfect age, if you want to go before you die. ‘Cuz after 62, you never know. It was a 2600 mile drive, and gas had just climbed to $4.40 a gallon, but the distance would never be less, the gas would probably never be much cheaper, and neither of us would ever be younger.
Well, it turned out as I remembered: this is a landscape like nothing else anywhere. And for me (just as I remembered) there is something mystically thrilling about rock itself, great hunks of it carved into strange shapes by natural forces: the imposing solidity of it all, especially in that desert atmosphere, the aroma of desert scrub, under that huge desert sky.
But things are different there now. And no doubt they should be. No doubt it’s for the best. Canyonlands (I discovered) was first declared a national park in 1965, just one year before I was there the first time. In 1966, I’m guessing, regulations and limitations had not yet been promulgated. Boys like Burr and me could just take off across the desert and roam wherever we wanted. Today, the park is laced with paved paths that take one to “viewpoints”. Signs warn visitors not to step off the paths because the desert is a delicate environment in which each human footstep can crush a fragile crust of bio-soil that took centuries to mature. The actual Needles are a three-mile hike from the nearest place one can drive to–more than I could manage, considering that it would be another three-mile hike to get back. Therefore, I never got in amongst the rocks I remembered from long ago.
What’s more, today, only proven climbers with special permits are allowed go right into places like the Needles, and climb around there. And they have to climb only particular routes that have been identified as official rock climbs, not just anywhere that looks interesting.
In other words, the experience I had of Needles fifty years ago is one that I can never have again–that nobody can have. And frankly, when I think about it, I’m amazed the school let Burr and me tool off into that forest of rocks without supervision. We could have been hurt or killed. No one even knew where we had gone. No one asked when we would be back. No school would allow such a thing today. It would be unthinkable. It would be a lawsuit waiting to happen.
So I feel all the more fortunate that I was there in that fleeting moment when the experience existed–not just the place, but the experience! All of which is not to say the place is trivial. What we just did at Canyonlands, and at nearby Arches, and at Zion Canyon further south was like going to a museum. We moved from viewpoint to viewpoint and gaped at a jaw-dropping sighs. Occasionally we had to hike a mile or two to see something. And seeing was good enough for me now. I can cross this one item off my master list. I said I would go back there and I’ve done it. And I’m here to recommend: this is a pilgrimage everyone should make at least once in their lifetime if they are able.
Copyright 2016 Tamim Ansary: All Rights Reserved