I heard you’re gonna be in Bluff. Got people telling me I should go—stand up for the places and the things I know. I wish someone had told me a month ago. Life gets in the way of life—you know?
by Chris Kalman (spoiler alert, this piece is an excerpt from Volume 9, The New School issue, now on the stands and online. Banner photo by: Michael Shaw.
There’s somewhere I’d like to take you to. But I can’t. And the reason I can’t is because there is somewhere I need to be. And there is somewhere you need to be. But even though they are not the same two places, I have an idea for how to bring you there—where I think we both ought to go—with me.
To start with, we need to drive out to the desert. No need to specify—you know the one. There is only one “the desert.” It’s this one.
Cruising down from Moab, you feel something drifting away. Street lamps, restaurants, hotels, cafés, Wi-Fi, LTE, 3G, 1X, and then—radio silence. We can start to breath a little better now. There’s the smell of mesquite, juniper, sage if it’s morning or evening, or if it has rained. Do you smell it? See the red everything? And here’s our turn.
We wind down through time itself. Watch for the cows—but pay them no mind. That’s the last sign, on today’s journey to the past, of present times. Did we fill up water? Do we have our food? We’ll need it. No amenities out here. No “stuff.” You are left alone with your thoughts, and what you brought.
We’re winding down now, through the Chinle, the Kayenta, the Navajo, the Wingate. I’m not sure the order—I’m not a geologist—but I can feel the changes in my bones. To the right, there, is a good tourist stop. But that’s not for us. We’ll catch it on the way out. Worth seeing for sure, but I have secrets. There are hidden jewels to be seen here, up among the cliff lines. We’ve come for something sacred, quiet, holy, ancient, pristine, primal, unadulterated, pure, and visceral. We’re not there yet. We have to keep on going.
Here’s our next turn. Pavement turns to sand. Cattle guards, washboards. That’s what we’ve done to this land. But look, still, up at the high hills flanking this enormous wash. There is beauty anywhere the crows or vultures fly—and more beauty still than meets the eye. The dirt scar of road is a tiny blip next to that. Think of how much worse it could get, I mean, come on, seriously. Not too many places like this, these days, that we could just go out and be.
We’ll park here at this little pull out. Got the water? Got your camera? Okay, now put the camera back in the car. Got your phone? Ditch it. Your notepad, sketchbook, GoPro? None of it can come here. Leave it all behind.
Here’s the trail. Took me a moment to find it. Fainter than plenty others ‘round these parts. Not too many come this way. See those greenish-whitish dots? Uranium, they tell me. That’s what the people say. I’m not a geologist, so I don’t know. Don’t you think it’s beautiful though? Out here in the red sandstone desert, reminds me of petrified flakes of snow.
Keep an eye out for these flinty shards. Chert—think they said it’s called. The people used to work the stone, sharp-edged, true-tipped point for arrows they’d shoot from homemade bows. No kidding—pre-Walmart. I swear, sometimes, I can feel them hunting here. I can see the herds working their way down valley. Not the cows, you know, but …whatever it was before. Antelope or deer, or…I don’t know what; I’m so out of touch, but somehow, something less domestic…somehow something more.
Up and up and up we go (don’t fall), and suddenly, look—here’s the wall. Now, let me see if I recall the way. Round the buttress here to the left. Do you see how the red wall splits in these long, black cracks? The definition of elegance, to people of a certain sort. I’ve heard they come the world over to bloody appendages on these cracks in the name of sport. See the metal at the top? You’d never know from down below, but they say it’s the best place in the world to go.
Here’s the sink in the back, and the seep, and the green. You see how green the green is against the red, red stone? There’s water there in the seeps. See the calcite built up in the fissures? See the trickle of water creeping out of these tiny places? These people knew, who came before—and much more than us—but who’s keeping score.
We’re almost there. Bear with me. Just a little farther.
Ok, now stop.
Up ahead, do you see it?
It’s like when they say, the natives, back in the day, never even saw Columbus’s ships—because they had no previous frame of reference to compare such things against. I bet you’d never think you’d see an apartment complex, way out here in the middle of nowhere. But yet, there it is. Take another look. See it now? Three stories tall! Leaning up against the wall. With windows, doors, balcony, and all.
Funny to think of them watching the herds. See the road? Can you see no road, if you think of it hard? Can you see no cattle, no fences, no cars, or scars? Can you imagine sitting here under the stars, the people of the desert, choosing day after to day to live within the desert this way?
And that, Sally, is when I would walk you over to some tiny, unnamed remainder of some wise and proud old civilization. And you and I would sit there, on olden foundations, older than the United States of America itself, staring out into the vast open empty, looking for ancient deer or antelope or whatever they were hunting from up in that alcove, watching patiently as the wind swept by and through our hair, making it stand up on our necks: right there.
And eventually, I’d break the silence to tell you why I brought you here; to tell you why I had to do it this way, in writing, from afar, from my car, from the glow of a screen, from burning eyes before a midnight computer binge, from somewhere other than where you and I ought to be, not from the moment, from the place itself, but from some distant memory.
And I’d tell you that life is crazy. I’d tell you, Sally, that I know you know. That we have these lives that we live attached to phones, to computers, to so many different screens with their eye-burning glow.
I’d tell you about how, really, I feel silly caring for some old relic, when, shit, I mean look at Nice. Or Alton, or Baton Rouge, or Dallas, or how about the Middle East? Or the melting ice, or the feast and the famine, the rich and the poor, shit, this world is so fucked up, I just don’t know if I can take it anymore and I swear I care and I try and try and sometimes I feel like I want to cry but I can’t and I don’t because I’ve got it so good so I won’t and it’s crazy crazy just feeling this way but it is what it is and I am what I am and I just don’t know what to say and…
Then I’d just…simply…stop.
And we’d look at the ground.
And we’d hear that silence everywhere—wafts of sagebrush in the air.
And that, Sally, that would be the way I’d try to tell you how important it is, to keep places like this around.
Because I need them. Because you need them. Because we all need them.
And with all the terrible horrible shit in the world to get me down—somehow this is the most import thing I’ve found.
These walls of stone—I swear they have faces.
And I have to admit, Sally, it gets me to wondering…
How can we begin to save ourselves, if we can’t even save our sacred spaces?
So in short, no, I can’t make it to Bluff. The timing and spacing are simply tough, and all that other life stuff, but I wanted to make you a solemn promise, so you know this letter was more than fluff.
I’ll take you with me, Sally, anytime. The offer’s on the table.
You just tell me when you’re willing, and I’ll let you know as soon as I’m able.
That is, to say, if it still exists. One never knows which way the road goes, and which way the future will bend and twist…
Chris Kalman is a writer, climber, Internet sprayer, and halfway decent belayer. He is a bona fide sell out, currently stationed in the Front Range, spending most of his time looking at a computer screen. You can read more of his philosophical ramblings at www.fringesfolly.com.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.