This is the most beautiful place on Earth, but of course, like Cactus Ed Abbey said, every person carries in their heart an image of the ideal place, the right place. This is just the right place for me. But, right now, something is not right, and it’s pitch black anyways, no beauty to be seen.
Chad and I have been rolling his little Honda box car all across these desert roads for hours now, searching for his missing dog, yelling, “Sheila…Sheila…Shelia,” only to hear the wind replying.
Chad is a war hero; he lost part of his leg in service to our country in Iraq. He’s a climber with one full leg, a below-the-knee amputee. Later on he climbed El Capitan, and Mount Everest. This was before all of that.
by Luke Mehall
(banner photo of Sheila by Chad Jukes)
note: this piece appears in Volume 12. It is an excerpt from Mehall’s book: The Desert
Then, and now, Chad was just another climbing buddy to me. Most of the time, no disrespect, he seems incredibly normal. This moment, in the dark of the night, was normal, to us. Just a couple of guys, in the Middle of Nowhere, Utah, looking for a lost dog.
Sheila may not have even made a full meal for a mountain lion. Surely, too small to be asked to join the pack of coyotes we hear but rarely see.
I’m not even sure when the last time a mountain lion rolled through these parts. I’ve lived amongst the mountain lions for years, but I’ve never seen one. I can only suspect they are out there. The only things more mysterious than mountain lions are the spirits, the original inhabitants of this land, back when you could grow corn here. Come to think of it though, the spirits seem closer than the lions—why else would we be drawn here over and over again? Why else would something so meaningless as inching up maroon-sandstone walls become so meaningful?
I crack another beer. The silence is deafening. “Sheila,” Chad screams, “Sheila…”
He’s hard to read, but he’s worried. He probably feels guilty. He clearly loves this little dog. Earlier in the day, we climbed the South Six-Shooter, a desert tower that is the easiest and most popular in Indian Creek. A nub from certain angles and apparently a gun from others. Everything is about the perspective and angle here. Compared to most other desert towers, the South Six-Shooter is unimpressive. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Sheila got lost somewhere between the approach and the descent, and we assumed she’d be waiting for us back at the car, like any smart dog would. Or, maybe us smart climbers should have done a better job keeping an eye on her?
We gave everyone a ride back to camp and then returned to search. Camp was a good five country miles away, so by the time our search started, it was pitch black. The moon dictates the light at night here in the desert, where cell phones don’t work, and the campfire is the television.
Lukewarm beers on dirt country roads have long been a favorite pastime. Sure, it may be technically illegal, but there will never be funding to police all the dirt country roads, so I think enjoying this pastime of beer and dirt is an American right. Dirt don’t hurt. Benign civil disobedience. This beer wasn’t so enjoyable. I was worried about Sheila and how the coyotes might treat her. Surely they don’t realize we are trying to live in a just, respectful country here—they are coyotes, and they don’t give a fuck about America!
Thus, in our cars, we were trying to see out into the hidden desert world, and that world can never be seen from a metal box. This was all we thought we could do at the time, drive around and yell from a car. So American of us.
Chad wasn’t telling war stories, or any stories really. I’ve heard his main ones. He’s a good storyteller, long and drawn out, like Grandpa. A slow draw. He’s a Jack Mormon, I guess; don’t let me label him. I just know he grew up Mormon, but he seems to live by his own rules now and interacts with the heathens, like us climbers.
Chad is one of those people I knew I’d be friends with right away when I met him. Perhaps it’s because we both like the desert and beer, but I think it goes much deeper. He just has an openness to him, that you could have a meaningful conversation on every topic from deserts to mountains, from politics to pirates. And from climbing with him, I know he has this spirit of invention and improvisation; sure, the guy is missing part of his leg, but he’d rather figure out a solution to the task at hand than complain about it.
I’ve heard the story about how he lost his leg a dozen times by now around the campfire. When forced with the prospect of amputation, he decided to go for it, that he’d rather use a prosthetic than have a useless limb. The decision seemed to pay off for him. He had a climbing leg, a running leg—shit, the guy even had a party leg: a wooden peg leg. One of his legs, I forget which version, even had a flask built into it.
Chad was clearly affected by this, and by war. He drank away his sorrows, but shit, many climbers drank, as much or more than him, who never went away to war, so who knows. He seemed to have a small tick, barely recognizable. With long hair and a beard, he looked more like an attendee of Woodstock than a veteran of a foreign war. In a culture where weed is more prevalent than tobacco, a cigarette often dangled from his lips.
All I remember was silence in the car and a hope that grew more distant by the minute that we would find Sheila. The crack of another Schlitz breaks the silence as we turn around and head back to camp. Fuck, man, I don’t know if we’ll ever see that dog again, I think.
The road back out of there can be glorious at times, something about rubber on red dirt that’s just magical. But Chad’s car barely had the right clearance, scraping the underbelly of that little Honda box more than once. Just don’t hit the oil pan, I think. It would be messy and a long walk back to camp. But we arrived back, back to the Super Bowl, back to the crew, as they read the news of disappointment on our faces: Sheila was still missing.
The next day, Chad went back out searching for Sheila while we searched for cracks to climb. His terrain to search was vast and desolate, a setting of surreal colors, plants, and rocks. If you’ve never been to this desert, Mars might be a good comparison, because no other place on Earth really compares to the Colorado Plateau.
I didn’t go with Chad that day, but I know what he saw. Towering behind the South Six-Shooter is the North Six-Shooter, which was really packing heat, standing taller and prouder than its Mini-Me, a three-hundred-and-change-foot-tall pillar, the most singular and impressive of all the sandstone formations in Indian Creek.
That’s the obvious formation, the one that will make the magazine cover or the Instapost on Monday. The subtle beauty is harder to see, and it doesn’t really care if you see it or not. It’s just surviving in the desert, like everything else.
I’m no scientist—I’m just a fucking poet—but it seems like, from what I hear, the life depends on the cryptobiotic soil, that chunky black layer that lives on the surface and provides nutrients. “Don’t bust the crust” is what they say, and so we avoid stepping on that black gold at all costs. The cows, which usually outnumber the humans out in these parts, again, like the coyotes, don’t give a fuck about America, and they bust the crust all day long. That karma is on you, cows. But, we eat the cows, so I guess all crust busted by cows is crust busted by man as well.
If I could be transported to any time period to see how people lived off the land, I’d like to see this landscape, a thousand or so years ago, as the Ancestral Puebloans saw it. When they could hunt big game, grow corn, and had access to clean water. When they created the rock art, the pictographs and petroglyphs that we still marvel at today. What lives did they lead, and how often did they smile? Were they free, and how did they talk? Were they as enraptured with this landscape as much as I am, or was it simply home? Just a place to survive?
I don’t have that luxury, but I guess my imagination suffices. And, I think this engagement of imagination is one reason this land is preserved as it is. Well, maybe other land. Up until recently, this was just wasteland, Bureau of Land Management land or Bureau of Livestock and Mining as they say. Some say the national parks and monuments were “America’s best idea.” I don’t know what that means for this land of leftovers, with few protections or regulations.
The ranchers and the miners were here before us. Miners searching for that uranium, to make a buck, so we could blow up the Japanese in World War II. I don’t know how much they found in Indian Creek; from what I know, there ain’t much as far as valuable minerals or oil. Just a wasteland of sandstone, cactuses, and wind. The ranchers seem to have had a better go of it, and long before any modern climber stepped foot on Wingate, they had set down their roots and made this a home.
I’m trying to get an imaginary whiff of sage and juniper here to reminisce a little more. Trying to see the cactus flowers in bloom, when I know, as I’m writing this, they are not currently in bloom. Hearing the piercing screech of a falcon, protecting territory or their young, flying faster than any bird on the planet, damn near two hundred miles an hour. Stepping in cow shit, god dammit. Better than crypto. Don’t bust the crust, man. Not a bad mantra. It’s not how you leave your mark in this desert anymore; it’s how you don’t leave your mark.
But I’m not one of these leave no tracers either—that’s bullshit, and all those folks drive their SUVs to the hiking trail anyways, leaving the carbon footprint that’s oh so hard to see. Our trace is inevitable; to err is human. We are a doomed human race right about now. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
For some reason it all feels right out there. The cell phone is turned off. Red dirt, red rock, and blue sky—a simple formula, to feel simple again. The mind isn’t racing with thoughts of presidential decisions, deadlines, or to-dos. The to-do is simple, and it is to be.
Still, I doubt Chad was mesmerized by much of this, that day. I bet he just wanted Sheila to come back. To see that little pup come running, scared and excited, into his arms. But mile after mile, inch after inch of searching, led to nothing. Chad returned to camp that night again, with only a look on his face revealing the results of his searching.
Sunday had arrived, and it was time to go back home, to leave our treasured sanctuary and return to the grind. Chad wasn’t giving up on his search for Sheila, but the longer Sheila was gone, the longer we knew that the odds weren’t in her favor. We heard the howling of coyotes at night, and we felt the late-November chill in our bones.
The desert had delivered its promise I’d stored in the recesses of my mind though; I left feeling tired and depressed, and now five days later I left renewed. I’d played in the dirt, used my muscles, slept in a tent, and I felt like a new man. As we drove out of there, I would have been on cloud nine, but I thought of that poor little dog, surely dead, meeting an early demise because it got caught up in the world of climbers.
The drive back to Gunny lasted into the night, turning from a pleasant cap to the weekend into deer dodging. Monday morning would come too soon. This was the truth. At least I would be sore and satisfied while I sat at my desk, I think.
I showered, ate some pasta, and went to bed. Around midnight, my buzzing phone awoke me. It was a text. It was Chad. Just as he was getting ready to call the search off and head home that night, he’d walked back to his car. And what did he see? Sheila had crawled in—three days and two nights on the loose but now safe and sound. That, my friends, is the magic of The Desert.
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine and the author of American Climber. This piece is an excerpt from his book, The Desert. He is enduring the Trump presidency by spending way too much time in Indian Creek, while also trying to be more active politically and socially on issues that are important to him. He recently quit his night job, so he hopes you subscribe to the Zine.