Desolation Canyon

“The wind whips through the canyons of the American Southwest, and there is no one to hear it but us – a reminder of the 40,000 generations of thinking men and women who preceded us, about whom we know almost nothing, upon whom our civilization is based.” – Carl Sagan


With these words as wings our NOLS semester took to Utah’s Canyonlands for a month. Us, the yankee youth of the cluttered northeast deposited onto the moon. What a trip that was, the dust of the van kicking up the road as we ascended the first hill to find no sign of human life – only dunes, rock, and the mesa rimming us in. For one month we traipsed through the Jacob’s Chair region of southeast Utah, each canyon bringing its unique riches (all but one. We spent three days in Red Canyon drinking mud water the consistency and color of chocolate milk). That month brought a simple cleanliness to our lives that cannot be recreated. Our wisdom became purer with each distinct canyon dropped. By the final week, I had unquestionably touched center.

Centered how? The desert strips away excess. I woke up calm and fell asleep calm each night. In between were walls of burnt orange and mesas overlooking the stone maze. We tangled through slot canyons and dove in to pristine pools carved smooth through Navajo sandstone. Every campsite was a dream, each day a challenge to go over or in between an assortment of ancient ocean road. Honeycombed Cutler formation rock created pale alcoves big enough to sleep in – we slid through slot canyons skinny enough to walk with wingspan outstretched, fingertips caressing the opposite walls in an out-the-car-window wave – dromedary showers in the fading canyon shade – stars as our nightlight, the clear evenings a hue of glowing deep blue cosmos – the sun greeting us pink and leaving peach, chemtrails like ribbons trailing over our position – everything else disintegrates. Your life becomes a calm and awake vision of sandstone recesses and the sky. We were all affected in this way. Bunch of kids back in a playground of smooth red rock.

Coming out of that month we assumed the rest of the course would breeze right by us as the canyoneering section did. And in some aspects that assumption was true. Our next two weeks would be spent paddling the Green River through Desolation Canyon, an expedition that appeared on the surface to be more pleasure than adventure – a spring break raft trip on a premiere river. Elaborate meals and backpack-less travel awaited us. And perhaps this would have been our experience had we not put in at Ouray, Utah.

A few words on Deso before I explain the devastation we were to find on the upper section of the river. The first white person to paddle through the canyon was John Wesley Powell in 1869. Before him, the Fremont and Ute people called Desolation home, leaving plenty of pictographs as evidence of their existence. At its greatest depth, a relief of over 5,000 feet pitches off the Tavaputs plateau. That is roughly the vertical drop of the Grand Canyon with narrower walls. You can understand, then, how Desolation Canyon earned its name. With walls steep and inaccessible from above, Deso is one of the most remote areas in the lower 48.

Our initial bliss faded as the upper section of the Green River became our reality. We spent the first days avoiding floating cattle carcasses, drowned victims to the thinning ice that had given out from under them only a couple weeks prior. The water and earth around us were colored a dull slate, the riverbanks flanking us were devoid of vegetation, a stark contrast to the majestic red sandstone that had come complimentary a week before. Our campsites were something out of a witchcraft nightmare. We spent a night on a flood plain, the scene of a recent wildfire – the charred trunks above us bent black towards the sky, the clay mud below us piled 6 inches or more off the bottom of our boots, a development that complicated the most basic foot travel. That was the campsite where we would see the first pictographs, scenes made from ancient men who did not want us there. That night it thunder snowed, freezing the wetsuits that we would need to squeeze our bodies into before getting back on the water the next day. We were temporarily paddling, it seemed, through an intriguing ring of hell.

We were, understandably, questioning our instructor’s decision to put us through these miles of the river. We had looked at the maps, had seen where the canyon would truly start, and marked the boat launch points closer to the beauty. Our questions were answered with sunglass stares. “You will see,” they said, “we chose this section of the river for a specific purpose.” Our campsite the next day revealed their intention. The destruction we had witness, we were to find, was not caused by natural phenomena.

We first heard it on the river – a deep driving bass drum thumping over the ridge. We joked that we had found a desert rave. It was an incessant, raging beat, a perfect background track for our travels into the underworld. By the time we ran our boats ashore, the beat was palpable in our eardrums. We made quick work of unloading the necessary items onto the shore and lit out to make camp. As it was not my turn to cook that night I ventured onto the shale hills to discover the source of the noise. I was fully expecting a car – all doors open – to be blaring death dub metal over the ridge. Since I was hiking on a hill of shale (remember, no vegetation on this part of the river) I was forced to scramble at points as the rocks slid under my feet. What I found when I crested the hill I wish I could forget, though I know I never will. From my vantage point disappearing into the horizon, an oil field, an oil field as far as the eye could see. The noise had been created by the cranes, bending their necks in and out of the earth.

We eventually did make it into Desolation Canyon. And it was every bit as wonderful as we had imagined. Clean blue water crested in to rolling white rapids that we laughed through. Campsites with floors of soft green moss surrounded white aspen trees lush with spring leaves. There were flood plain beach forests you could run through or play Frisbee in. We set up our kitchens on the beach, cooking up delicious recipes while others became masters of KOOB. On tranquil parts of the river I would often lay back in my white water kayak, sending myself into a slow spin. Looking up, there would be one column of blue visible through bands of my beloved red rock.

During those sessions I would often think back to the beginning of our travels. The only feature protecting Deso were its walls, too tall for humans to do anything with. I thank Christ for that. I had seen the destruction humans had leveled on the stretch of river directly below Ouray. That vision – the oil field pumping its death march music, leaching the land from below, slurping the life out of the earth – had scarred me. It was a scene of utter death. There was nothing cute about that vision – a bunch of machines murdering the land. And to see it would make you an environmentalist too, and quick.

This post is not wrapped in politics. I’m not including a link to a ‘Save The Canyons’ webpage. I will leave that decision to support the cause to your search bar. But I will leave this: the oil industry is destroying the earth. We are already aware. We hear it consistently from our politicians who are not in Big Oil’s pocket. We hear it from our friends who urge our universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry. We hear it from renewable energy crusaders who, as we speak, are helping to create wind and solar energies that will sustain us when we drink this earth dead. We are the single-most intelligent life form that inhabits the earth. We have escaped evolution and the food chain. We wield god-like technology to fulfill our every desire. We have focused that technology into creating renewable energies that could independently power our every desire. The excuse – ‘this is the way it’s always been’ – is no longer cutting it. We are aware and able to choose what energy sources we utilize. The choice is yours. Choose wisely.