From This Land, which will be published this month by Viking. Ketcham is a journalist who reports on the American West. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Rogue Agency,” appeared in the March 2016 issue.
The house I end up renting in the village has a view of the thousand-foot monocline through which the Escalante River cuts a deep cleft, beyond which is wilderness. Nearer at hand, by my porch, is a pasture for cattle and horses. The pasture has been beaten to hell by the animals, requiring in spring, summer, and fall a constant upkeep of irrigation to maintain the grass for forage. The sprinklers click a metronomic music of the agricultural West all day long. At the front of the house, two doors attest to two wives who lived here in Mormon polygamy with their husband sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century. The house of two doors is ramshackle, weathered, prematurely ancient, and part of it, the veranda out back, is slowly collapsing. It is currently owned by Wiccans, whom I prefer over Mormons. The bedroom reeks pleasantly of timbers, mildew, brick; the kitchen at night races with mice and assassin bugs; and in the pasture the cows moan and ruminate and gather under the shade of the trees to escape the withering sun. Sometimes horses pastured with them neigh and vie for power and kiss and kick one another. The house, if the breeze is right, smells rich with animal flesh, like a manger.
Sometimes my neighbor Erica Walz, who publishes (and writes and edits and does everything else for) the local paper, The Insider, rides one of her horses bareback past the house, trailing the other. It’s a two-horse town, she says. Until very recently you could ride down Main Street—it won’t take long—and find no movie theater or bar, no sidewalk cafés, no art galleries, none of the upscale amenities designed to fleece people who conspicuously spend. It was almost un-American, this lack of opportunity to consume useless crap.
Really there was nothing to do in Escalante if you were a visitor but to leave it and go out on the land. The main employers here are the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service. The BLM is the most important of the agencies in town, for it manages the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. The monument surrounds and engulfs the village of Escalante, an atoll of private land in a public sea. The Grand Staircase, my favorite place on earth, is the reason I have settled in Escalante.
To be precise, Paradise Gulch1
is the reason. For it was here I first discovered the joys of the Utah outback. It is a gorge a thousand feet deep, and from the steps of the house with two front doors I can walk to it and back in an easy stroll of twenty hours. I go with a backpack and stay awhile, a week or two. Occasionally the canyon threatens to keep me longer.
On a hot September day in the depths of Paradise I was clambering up a cliff, naked except for a pair of boots and a hat. A gust rushed up-canyon. The hat blew off my head and clung to a lip of rock on the cliff. I liked that hat—it had been with me many hundreds of miles on foot—and I wanted it back. Off the cliff edge, hailing in the breeze, were welcoming arms of poison ivy thirty feet below. Not a fatal fall, with luck. But for the ivy. Even the cliff fears the poison ivy in Paradise Gulch, which grows in bunches the size of yachts. Toxicodendron rydbergii loves water, and in Paradise Gulch there is water beyond the dreams of desert kingdoms, water more splendid and generous than almost anywhere else in southern Utah, running in sluices and cascades, in gold and silver coinage when the sun hits the can- yon floor. The poison ivy drinks at it from every bank. Now, if I slip trying to grab my hat, I’ll get a body dose of the ivy, head to toe, maybe a broken ankle at the bottom of the fall, followed by mummification in buboes and a three-day hike out howling for help in the rushing of the water. Or not. Perhaps the journey ends here.
Approached from the top of the Aquarius Plateau, Paradise Gulch is difficult to get to, many miles of bushwhacking through brush in dry trailless canyons. You drop deeper into Paradise, and then, like a blessing, springs pour from the cream-colored walls. They fill the canyon with a swirling stream that carves deep slots in the sandstone, and you are wading through pools, swimming in the slots in terribly cold water. You float your pack on whatever you can use—say, a sleeping pad—and push it along. There are countless drops into unknown blackened depths where the light of the sun looks to be swallowed forever, which explains why the water is so cold. After much struggle and resistance the canyon opens its arms, widens, allows the sun in, and sweetens with vegetation.
The water runs fast, flashing between banks of oak and willow, cottonwood and box elder and hackberry, and intricate wild-haired tapestries of fern. And everywhere, like a green giant malignant, the walls of poison ivy. The ivy forces me into the river. It’s slow going. Quicksand. My boots packing with so much mud that every half mile I have to dump them out. Deep potholes hidden in the froth of the water, and the rocks underfoot like greased bowling balls. The canyon turns and twists and calls with the mystery of what lies around the bend. I make friends with an American dipper, Cinclus mexicanus, a pudgy bird, robin-size, better known as the water ouzel—North America’s only true aquatic songbird—who bobs in the flow, looking for food. I mistake this bobbing for a dance, and mimic it not very well with my heavy pack. The bird flies away as I approach, and settles on a rock always a few feet beyond me up-canyon, its song clear and ringing, saying, Come. I find the tracks of a cougar, fresh in mud, and an otter swims away in a wide pool that the beavers have built, and one day at dusk a big buck, a mule deer with antlers grand like a crown, stares me down.
Camp is a bed of sand soft and warm as velvet, under a monstrous overhanging amphitheater of cream-colored stone ensconced with walls of the promiscuous ivy. Someone forgot all clocks. Time is told by the rising up and rolling down of the sunlight on the cliffs, by the glimpse of Cassiopeia in the narrows turning around the polestar through the stardust of perfect clear September nights. The monsoon has gone. It is the halcyon season. By the second day I am certain there is no time except canyon time.
In the deepest parts of Paradise Gulch, the walls rise sheer, cream-pink, tall as sky. The light refracted against the walls seems to thrum, resonant with voices of the water echoing on the cliffs. The water is so clear it makes me think I can reach to the bottoms of the pools with my pinkie finger. On the bare stone canyon floor, the pools, carved and curetted by hundreds of thousands of years of flow, are long and oval and colored like emeralds, sculpted like oyster shells, so deep and wide you can swim Olympic laps. Now I find a garden of boulders, now gardens of hanging ferns. The native maidenhair is luxuriant, luminescent. The canyon renews the meaning of paradise, a Persian word that describes a walled garden, the place where you are content to be no other place. Time to swim in the sun, chasing the stillness of the flow. Time to lie around and do nothing, mindful like the Buddha, without a thought. Occasionally I get arrogant and try to climb the walls. High on a ledge I find a seep of manganese as bright and thick as blood, and paint my face and chest. This is how the wind stole the hat off my head above that punji trap of poison ivy. Suffice to say that the naked ape, in a desperately calm maneuver, with a finger-grab on sandstone, retrieved the favorite old canyon hat.
I went into Paradise Gulch once with a desert rat I’d picked up hitchhiking. Spike Boylan was the name. Stinking, long-haired, with a face of scars, and fantastically well-read—much of the weight in his pack consisted of books. The plan was to spend a week there, maybe longer. “Not into the adrenaline junkie thing,” Spike told me. “Mountain bikers, rock climbers, the white-water freaks, the ski bums—can’t understand ’em, don’t want ’em around. I’m a backpacker. I go into wilderness and I do nothing. I sit. I read. I think. I listen. I watch. Amen!” In a society of ambition-addled maniacs, we don’t trust these sorts of people. After our trek, I never saw Spike again.