“I cannot be awake for nothing looks to me as it did before. Or else I am awake for the first time, and all before has been a mean sleep.”
Apparently uncompelled by Bear’s suggestion, Megan and Ula rustled off into the ostensible shelter of the tent with a friendly “Good Night.” I sat in my camp chair lingering in indecision for another few moments, but ultimately my caution got the better of me and I too headed off, muttering “Maybe tomorrow night,” leaving Bear and Justin, our guides on the Kokopelli, to the mercy of the night.
Our little group had commenced this adventure tour by running two early sections of the Kokopelli Trail, beginning on Mary’s Loop from the official Kokopelli trailhead and then, after stopping for lunch, jumping on Lion’s Loop for a sustained low grade climb along a cliff-side trail over-looking the greenish-hued Colorado River. That day, the first on our four-day expedition along sections of the Kokopelli Trail, through the deserts of Colorado and Utah, had stunned us. We stopped every quarter mile to snap pictures and stood rapt, gazing out across the valley in awe. Stretched before us, sprawling for miles and dotted with strangely verdant shrubbery, everything lay calm beneath angular mesas and fissured sandstone cliffs. Occasionally the movement of a bird circling overhead caught the eye, surprising us with its motion among the otherwise still panorama. In a way, it often felt like a classic movie scene: stark open country beneath a blazing sun, the land braced in quiet peacefulness intermittently broken by a hawk’s piercing scream.
Despite the nagging fatigue of the day, sleep evaded me for much of the night–perhaps I would have fared better in the wide open after all-and I fidgeted in and out of consciousness for hours. But with bird song and coyote yips, along with the mooing of an elusive desert cow, the sun finally crept over the hunching Junipers, throwing shadows across the striated landscape. I watched the desert’s morning ritual from my sleeplessness via the open flap of our tent and rolled around trying to position myself off the rock that, palpable through my partially deflated sleeping pad, persisted in jabbing me in the back. Dawn in the desert can feel so fresh, with its brisk, dry air and the broad blue skies that create the illusion of an enormous domed bubble. The morning predicted another pristine spring day and I climbed out of the tent stretching the fatigue and soreness out of my body like a cat.
After raiding a breakfast table laden with everything from Greek yogurt and granola to sausage and scrambled eggs, our little group of adventure-seekers, coffees in hand, huddled up for a briefing on the Western Rim Trail. From our campsite, sections of the trail were visible below, curving in and out along the cliff’s edge, wide swaths of white-ish sandstone mixed with patches of loose dirt and bordered with scrubby vegetation and succulents. Western Rim, Bear explained, was a common bypass to this section of the Kokopelli. Its single and double track meanderings were more scenic and enjoyable than the sometimes rutted and straightforward jeep road called Kokopelli at this point.
The morning we tackled ten miles on Western Rim, it was yet too soon for us all to feel like we knew one another; caution and reticence still pervaded our interactions. Our fearless leaders, Bear Barnett, a rugged-looking but soft-spoken fire fighter, and Justin Malloy, a talkative, easy-going student at Colorado Mesa University (and one heck of a camp chef), had worked together numerous times guiding raft expeditions and staffing endurance events on Colorado’s western slope and in Utah. To dispel some of the discomfort of new acquaintances on the road out of Grand Junction that first day, they presented us with a Goodwill Costume Challenge: $5 and 5 minutes to put together the most awesome and outlandish getup. Losers had to run the first mile in their costumes. Of course, experts that they were at this game, Bear and Justin both managed to find ridiculous moo-moos in about 30 seconds, leaving the three of us girls to hunt frantically through the moth-ball scented muddle for another few minutes before being heckled to the register with our mishmash of items. Despite time violations, which lost us the challenge, Ula’s Hawaiian inspired nightgown, Megan’s fuzzy scarf turned foxtail, and my purple children’s tutu made for a hilarious first mile and an excellent initiation rite. Not to mention the guys’ moo-moos, which made continued reappearances, spawning an absurd hilarity during more than one dinner’s preparations.
Western Rim was a sunbaked and stunning declaration of the Utah desert’s beauty and power. We hobbled into camp, one at a time, somewhat dehydrated, hungry, and renewed by the majesty and grandeur of the experience. Though the day before we had run as a group, that morning the trail had spread us out along its edges. Ula got an early start, following in the dust blown up from the wheels of our guides’ mountain bikes as they raced ahead to scout and point the way. Megan and I got a later start due to an unforeseen wardrobe malfunction, but before long we too separated. It was strange the subtlety with which the transition occurred, but one moment I was waving to a mountain biker going the opposite direction and the next I found myself running alone in the wide open, feeling the apathy, the insatiable Nothing, release my heart.
It is a strange secret I have discovered logging long hours running alone, that peace and freedom are freely available amongst the wilderness, but they are a painful, lonely lot and they come with a cost. Once you know them, you cannot forget; but if you abandon the grasping reach of the modern world, you’re alone out there and I think, at some point, you likely quit being able to come back.
I don’t know if the other girls had a run similar to my own, but we all seemed a little wiped out from the morning. When we arrived at the Overlook Trail for the second run of the day, we were a bit reluctant to get our feet moving, but the clouds had rolled in and huge fluffy cotton ball puffs provided some respite from the unwavering intensity of the high desert sun. Megan, Ula and I puttered off between the eerie, gnarled Junipers lining the trail, kicking up a miniature sandstorm behind us. We couldn’t help but goof off a little, taking silly pictures and ridiculous videos reminiscent of Rocky Balboa’s run up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Eye of the Tiger played in my mind for 5 miles. About a mile out from the rendezvous with our guides, I encountered an epic bonk, the kind that hits at mile 22 of a marathon when you’ve decided today’s the day to run 26.2 on water and a salt tab. My blood sugar fell through the dirt at our feet and landed somewhere in the canyon below. I ate all the food I had packed with me: honey packets, gels, Clif Blocks, and only felt partially revived. I bravely pushed on, knowing Camp Paradise wasn’t too far away. As we crested the small hill in front of us, Terra, Bear’s aptly named truck, came into view. Mentally, I had crawled, I had struggled, I had eaten 500 calories of pure sugar to get me through the next mile… and there our rendezvous sat, 500 feet beyond the hill. Talk about overkill. I laughed my way to the picnic table filled with Oreos, chips, and, yes, even some nutritionally valuable food too, and promptly stuffed my face. It had been a long day already and we still had to drive to camp.
Groovers, in case you don’t know, are a kind of camp toilet consisting of a box with a removable cover, to which an actual toilet seat can be fixed. I was informed by our fearless leaders that Groovers earned their names from the grooves they left in the user’s bottom before the toilet seat became an additional component. For whatever reason, the name “Groover” refused to stick in my mind and I kept calling the contraption a Grinder, which, under the circumstances, was a little more intimidating. Our second camp sat on the most lovely, open clearing surrounded by aged Cottonwood trees and tall grasses. There was even a perfect secluded spot for the Grinder…I mean Groover…behind a clot of trees in the next clearing over.
I’ve always heard that the first night of a backpacking trip no one sleeps well, but by the second night fatigue has its way, yielding a deep slumber. On this second night, I slept, which in itself is a wonder, but I did wake once in the middle of the night when everyone else was deep in dreams. On my way to find relief among the bushes, I discovered the magic of 4am. That rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland–it lives at 4 am. It’s the time of night when the world seems so still and silent because all that you are familiar and comfortable with has disengaged from action, yielded to the physical and surrendered to powerlessness. In its place rises the nightmare and the hunter, the purity and the void. All is strange and attractive, like the witches crooked finger beckoning you into the woods. I found myself wanting to wander out from camp restricted only by the tight tether of my fear, for no logic exists, in the dead of night, that usually restrains a sane mind, and my sane mind was far from with me. I heard “We can’t stop here; this is bat country” echo in my ears and looked up at the clearest blackest sky I’d ever seen, filled with bright yellow stars twinkling on its domed surface. But I turned my head to look behind me, as my fear always commands, and saw the open tent flapping with the wind. Back there was sensible and real, back there lay what I knew as truth and I turned my face away from what seemed like freedom, because I am never brave enough to go alone into the dark.
The morning broke, releasing all the sparkle from the world of night back into the cosmos, and I shook the stars out of my eyes. The trail ahead followed the water and the mud followed that. My shoe literally got sucked off my foot once. But by mid-day both my shoes had managed to tag along for the view and we all enjoyed a pleasant, sunny lunch with an uneventful visit from some dirt bikers, who we mentally belittled from our human-powered movement pedestals. The morning had pleasantly nudged us back to wakefulness, just in time for nature to show us her petticoats.
I’ve often heard the running aphorism claiming anyone can run downhill fast and that the climbs are where the winners earn their victories. In reverence to this, I’ve spent many a run trying to learn to love the incline, a tool I found quite useful ascending the mesa on the Yellow Jacket Canyon section of the Kokopelli. But, while this mesa climb possessed a certain duration, it wasn’t a climb with teeth. The grade remained relatively gradual throughout, and it turned out to be an easy hill to love. As our motley band of runners spread out on the trail, I chased after Bear on his mountain bike and watched the skies blacken around me. By mile three, the storm had caught up, pelting us with rain and hail, transforming the terrain with roiling ravines of water where only shallow washes had been before. The formerly peaceful shrub-land seethed to life with water rushing in every direction towards its one final destination. Down.
Freezing in the cold deluge, I left Bear waiting for Megan and Ula near the top of the mesa and took off on a solo sprint toward Terra and the promise of dry clothes. But soon the storm had passed and all that remained was the rushing of the water as it found it’s way, relentlessly, through a parched and unwelcoming terrain. The miles ticked off on my Garmin and went unnoticed. The desert had stolen my soul in it’s tantrum, leaving me running, mindless, lost in all the beauty. I didn’t want this run, this adventure, to end. The sandstone cliffs loomed like rainbows in the distance, too far to touch, but seeming so close and tangible. The depth and immensity of time confounded me. It’s span stretched out and yawned, but the shallow confines of my own short existence slapped me in the face. I did not endure; I did not flow. I opposed like we all do, in the way that is the nature of man. I wanted to roll in the sand, and cover myself in the essence of the desert, and yet I knew I would always be an outsider. I am tied too intimately to our modern existence, too much to ever escape: the stranger in the wild and a discombobulated member of mankind. Where would I ever find a place? Alone, alone, alone, but no…wait. I was not alone. There was Terra! There was Justin! There was FOOD!!! And such was the mental state I embodied running into camp on the third afternoon of our four day adventure. How quickly one can fall down the rabbit hole and into…what? What would you call that, madness, mere confusion, or some version of truth? I still don’t know, but I did turn around and run back up the Mesa for a bit before surrendering to the welcome of warmth and sustenance and company. I just needed a little bit more of the profane to satisfy my lust.
Though the Goodwill Costume Challenge broke the initial ice, it wasn’t until the final evening, huddled together beneath a canopy tent watching Justin whip up a delicious stir-fry and Bear build a struggling fire in the rain, both wearing their Goodwill moo-moos, that we really felt like friends. A bottle of Bitch Bubbly, supplied by Megan, the team’s resident sparkling wine connoisseur, was popped open with a bang to celebrate the last night of the tour and we drank it out of our plastic camp coffee cups with gusto, maybe too much gusto. In truth, it may have been the margaritas, the bottle of Lagavulin, and the tiny bottles of Fireball making their way around our little huddle that were consumed with too much gusto, but who can tell? By the time Bear broke out the giant marshmallows for an epic battle of chubby bunny, which Megan won with a startling 2 whole marshmallows, we were all acting pretty silly and a scandalous game of Catch Phrase ensued. The game eventually wound down in cackling fits of laughter and someone put on some music, sending Toto’s “Africa” spilling out into the crisp La Sal mountain air. Needless to say, a spontaneous dance party broke out. We were almost in Moab, halleluiah! Well, of course I made a fool out of myself, as I do, but it was the most fun and not even the epic hangover the next morning could make me regret it.
Until the next morning, that is. I awoke before everyone, as is my nature when camping. What? There was absolutely no reason to get up early, and yet…there I was brushing my teeth for 20 minutes in the snow, while the rest of the crew snored and wheezed their way through the earliest and most delicate hours of dawn. I think I must have still been drunk. Once I ate, however, the hangover set in and I transitioned into zombie mode.
I barely got my bag packed before we were winding and bouncing along the Kokopelli Trail once again, this time toward our final run. With car-sickness and hangover combined, I was doing my best not puke in the back seat when we encountered some mud. This is actually an understatement. The mud we encountered sucked poor Terra into its quicksand-like grasp and the more she struggled, the stickier the situation became. Despite the use of four wheel drive capabilities, a wench and copious creative thinking, we were soon hoofing it down the trail towards Moab, leaving Terra halfway submerged in snow and cliff-side muck in the distance. Our prospective run on Porcupine Ridge had now evolved into a much longer trek from the La Sal mountains down into Moab, and I, in my severely debilitated state, had decided to meander every. single. step. A few hours down the road, I finally regained my composure and felt ready to run again. It was just then that a reluctant couple in a rented jeep drove by and was willing to give the two cleanest of us a ride to town. That meant Megan and me. So we hopped in and cruised down into town, trying to be friendly to these people who refused to take all of us back to civilization, despite plenty of room in their jeep.