The Accountant Cousin of the Canyons: Glenn
There was leaving Zion, which felt like driving through a double page spread of a 1972 National Geographic, with the sky pulled tight, its colour stretched out of it, the ground baked white with layers of pink and green. And then we entered canyon territory, great rivers and cliff edges, sudden and deep. Ochre walls and turquoise floors. You can recreate it in your mind but it will never do it justice. This was the edge of Utah, a landscape performing, a show of dramatic hills and sudden movement. As we rounded a hill, at the far edge of the road, a bright blue cut appeared in the ground, a river, or a lake, stark against the white stone.
We swore if we could find a road down there, we would take it.
It was a small road off the highway but we spotted it in time, swinging left toward the blue. There we found Lone Rock, plastered huts like look-out bunkers stepped in a row, and the most surreal beach, white, chalky stones, the perfect kind of water, and the single rock bulging out to cast a slither of shadow under the high morning sun. We got into the recreation area with our national park pass, and drove to the carpark. A pavillion, plastered and painted pale pink to camouflage, offered respite from the heat while we changed. The rock here was beige and pale, stacked and dry, making the water bright. The desert is the kind of place my adult brain can barely comprehend. The less a place looks like New Zealand, the more my mind revels in the impossibility of it, the newness of it, the starkness of other worlds.
There were caravans and boats lined up along the shore, a number of campers, short term and long term, people eating and lounging and playing in the water. A light current pulled the water to the right, around the single figure of the rock, concaving at the bottom like a torso. The tops of the hill forms on the other edge of the river darkened, marking the line of where the water used to be. The river disappeared at both ends, cradled by an undulating white ground.
We got into swim, the water warm at the edge and on the surface, but cooling down the length of our bodies.
In a place like that you become hyper aware of the way the heat has its own silence, and how sounds seem to cut through it more brutally, kids up the shoreline laughing, a too-tanned man on his boat listening to Pearl Jam too-loud. The heat makes you present, makes you think about where you are, but not how you got there, the before and the after of a place like that fade to become irrelevant. You could stay forever, on the edge of the water, in the soft silt of the beach, the water lapping. Maybe the man in his boat had stayed forever, had forgotten how to leave, the sun had leathered his skin and held him in place.
But there is also something lovely about that dry heat in the morning, like the softness is exaggerated by the extremeness to come. Like your body knows to be held by this heat, to revel in it, to lounge and to be content. We dried off quickly on the shore and then reluctantly left. The road continued to twist around and cross deep ravines. Here was where the drama could surprise you, the suddenness of a drop off. The endlessness of a river disappearing not to the horizon but to more red land, turning away but moving on. We were deep in canyon territory now. With not enough time to visit the Grandest version, we decided to visit Glenn, the accountant cousin of the canyons instead. Great horseshoes of water bunched like curls on either side of the highway. There was a kind of unmatched vastness to this part of the drive. An endlessness of the land, an unscalable layering.
Eventually, like it seems to in the States, the earth flattened out again, gradually, like it was ramping away from its crevasses, softening its edges, rolling upwards. And we were rolling upwards too. Towards a small mountain town, the cacti and shrubs almost literally expanding into pine trees, until eventually the highway curved through a forest, the road its own ravine in the woods, the sky darkening.
We stopped for gas and a hot chocolate in Flagstaff as the cafes closed. It was a quaint town, and like so many, carved in two by the freeway. It was a surprise, to be so elevated again, to see so many trees and small buildings, strip malls and diners. We had planned to camp somewhere near the petrified forest, but there wasn’t going to be time for the drive. So we found a free site in the middle of nowhere, near a town called Winslow, and we set off again.
The road there was long, impossibly straight, and surrounded by arid, flat land. It was another way that the desert could challenge my mind, this intense flatness, where the horizon stretched on forever. At home, it was always interrupted by a bulge in the ground at some point, a mountain, the volatility of living on the ring of fire. We could see the weather in far off places, great blocks of rain, smeared by wind, and on one, a rainbow. From where we were, everything glowed in the setting sun.
Winslow looked like the sort of town that only survived because of the rail line cutting along its edge. The roads were empty and patchworked, bordered by windowless buildings, vacant lots and the occasional eatery. One of the houses had a chain link fence with construction mesh pinned to it. I don’t remember seeing any people.
The road to the campground felt even more abandoned, dusty ground for miles, and darkness arriving, huge and encompassing, swelling with our own anxiety of feeling alone in a place like that, strange and other-worldy, empty and lifeless. But when we turned into the campground, we were surprised again, as a big lake appeared, sucking the sky into it, marshy at the edges, and the campground, each site with a picnic table and a fire pit, tidy and homely too. It seemed so unbelievable in a place like this, that such an oasis should appear, and we were almost giddy with it, a day of spontaneity and discovery, ending with stretches on our bright blue tarp, and marshmallows by the fire, their pink fatness dripping into the flames.