(From my book Hoop Dancing. Also available as an e-book.)
US 191, South of Blanding.
I turn onto a dirt road and drive eastward about a half a mile. For two reasons: I need to take a piss, and I need to see that Moon.
The moon’s eclipsing, half way to full eclipse, with an orange shadowy side and a white sunny side. I thought it might be happening tonight but I wasn't sure. I’m sure now. It’s a sight to see.
I get back on Highway 191 and stop at a convenience store on the Ute reservation to get a cup of hot fake cappuccino, some crackers, and a pack of peanut M&Ms. I've got a little food in the truck, but it's always good to have more snacks. After I fill up with gas, I head for the store. Inside, as I grab my crackers and such, I hear the cashier talking with a young teenage girl. Both appear to be Utes.
"You gonna get in trouble with that boy" says the older woman.
"No I won't," says the teenager seemingly exasperated, "He's OK."
"Yea, well, we'll see."
I walk up and place my crackers, M&Ms and coffee on the counter. The young girl moves toward the front door.
"Bye Bye, Gloria," she says to the counter woman.
"You know what I said about that boy."
"I know. I know," the teen says, rolling her eyes as she leaves.
"Will that be all?" Gloria says to me.
"Yep, that'll be it" I say.
"By the way, the Full Moon is eclipsing right now," I say, pointing out the pane glass window of the store to the Moon rising in the Eastern sky.
"They say it's bad luck to look at that kind of Moon" say Gloria.
"Yea, bad luck. That'll be $4.27"
I give her a five. She gives me back the change.
"Thank you, ma'am."
"You're welcome," she says.
Nothing more was said about The Moon.
I walk back to the Pathfinder, stow the snacks, grab my Windex bottle and a paper towel, and proceed to clean the bugs off of my windshield. I'm a little tired. I've been on the road for about ten hours now. Heading north toward the Abajo Mountains. Long haul from Tucson, but the Moon’s full and I've got four days off from the day job, because of Veteran's Day. And I’ve got a couple of hoops in the back, one, a brand new one that needs test driving and an old reliable one too. Just passed Bluff, Utah an hour ago. Got another hour or two ahead of me. No clouds, and the Full moon will return soon, after the eclipse. I hop back into the truck and head north again on 191.
At Monticello, I take a left at one of the two stops lights in town, and head up into the Abajos, a relatively unexplored area of Southeastern Utah. (Abajo means ‘down’ in Spanish, by the way. The Down Mountains. Weird.) With Arches National Park to the north, Canyonlands National Park to the west, and Monument Valley to the south, the Abajos are just a mid-sized range of blue mountains that tourists barely notice. The residents of Monticello hunt and camp up in the Abajos some, but Monticello is just a town of a couple thousand souls if that. It's November and cold, and a bit out of tourist season. Very little traffic on this road. Might be hunting season but I doubt it. I'm at around 7,000 feet now, heading to about 8 or 9,000, I'm guessing.
I look off to the east again at the Moon. Almost full eclipse now. A smoky orange sphere. Hope it comes back soon. It should. I wind through the residential streets of Monticello for about five minutes and then head up the hill, toward the mountains. The road’s great, paved, and smooth. The air’s crisp and clear. I'm singing along to a Bruce Cockburn song. I know the words. This is about as good as it gets.
With no Moon it's hard for me to find the pull off to the campsite that I visited a number of years back. I past it once and do a three point turn on the empty mountain road. I haven't seen a car in the entire 30 minutes it’s taken to drive up here. I had so much energy just a half hour ago, and now all the air’s out of my balloon. I pull into the small primitive campsite just off the road and park the truck but leave it running for a little while. It's really cold now, even though it's only about 9 p.m. I look for the Moon and find it, but it's still in more than half of its eclipse. Hardly any light to speak of. I already have on my deep-winter North Face jacket. I slip on my boo-boo hat and get my sleeping bag out of the back. Truck still running. I move all the CDs, cameras and snacks out of the back seat to the way back area and unroll my sleeping bag. I'm dead tired. I figure I can shoot at 2 in the morning and afterwards. The Moon will be back and high in the sky then. Should get some Zzzs now.
I take off my boots, leave my socks on, turn off the ignition, crack a window, lock the doors, take off my glasses and crawl into my fiberfill bag, clothes and all. Within a minute, I'm sound asleep.
Minutes later, I'm awakened by the full Moon in my eyes. I crawl forward, still in my bag, to check the dash clock. It's 1:30 a.m. I've slept for four and a half hours straight, but if feels like I just closed my eyes. Sweet. I lay back down, trying to go back to sleep but my mind goes to the hoops in the back and the old Aspens that are surrounding me. How will the hoops work? Is the Moon too high? Boy it's cold. I don't think I've every hoop-danced in weather this cold. Well, I'm awake now. Let's have at it.
I put on my boots, my glasses and my coat and open the door to the outside. The wind is mild but it still cuts right through me. Christ, it's cold. I'm shivering now. I jump back in the truck and start it up. Unfortunately, the truck's heater takes forever to heat up if it's just idling. Works better if it's rolling. I light a Camel, and consider my options. I place the smoke in the ashtray and go outside again. I look up at the trees and at the moon. I have a bad feeling about this place for some reason. Not like something's going to happen. More like something bad has happened here. Could be just an argument between lovers, could be worse. I just know that I don't want to shoot or stay here. Time to go but where? I saw a dirt road just down the mountain a mile or so. Let's try that. I hop back in the truck and drive out of the campsite and back onto the two lane blacktop.
I hardly need headlights with the Full Moon. It’s just past directly overhead now. The Moon’s making its way to the west and I have a good four hours of moonlight to work with. This is great. I find the jeep trail with ease, and turn onto it. I put the truck in four-wheel drive and gently climb up the narrow track.
Aspens, large and small, are all around me. I could shoot right here, feet from the pavement, it’s just that beautiful, but I continue my climb up the mountain. The road is worn but easy. What a wonderful place. A small campsite’s off to my left but I press on. After less than a mile, I find another primitive pull off and take it, backing into it, facing out. I cut the lights but leave the truck running and step outside. It’s magical here. I bundle up again, shut off the truck, lock it and head up the jeep trail.
The two track climb’s is steep but not that bad. All around me are large stands of Aspens mixed with just-as-large stands of Blue Spruce. Like walking through a forest of ancient Christmas trees and pale sentinels. Initials of lovers in hearts are carved into the bark of some of the Aspens close to the road. Teenagers from Monticello, I reckon. Some fast moving clouds mix with mostly clear sky. The Moon shines bright, winking off and on with the racing clouds.
I leave the jeep trail and head toward a large stand of Aspens a hundred yards south. This group rises up a very steep hill. These aren't the ancient Aspens that are six feet in diameter but they are old, some three feet in width. Before I climbed much higher, I can see that this is a good place. I turn and go back to the truck and get my camera gear. It's an easy bushwhack from the truck to this Aspen hill. I climb back up the hill and after very little time, find a handsome group of Aspens to hoop-dance through. Tripod and camera go up in a flash. Batteries good to go on the hula hoop. Lights bright and steady. Focus 2/3 back and ready to go. A very fast set up. A very good sign.
I walk back to the Rollei and open the shutter. I grab the lit hoop and enter the frame of view, swinging the light even and smooth high above my head, watching my feet so as not to trip on the fallen logs on the forest floor. I make four passes of the hoop and then lean it against a tree 30 feet out of frame. I look up at the moon and think 'fifteen minutes should do it'. I walk down the hill to the truck and light up a Camel. I finish my smoke and walk up the jeep trail that climbs to the top of the Abajos. I walk, both to pass the time, as the film absorbs the moonlit forest, and to also take in the land. I climb far up the trail. The thick Spruce portions of the forest are a little scary, closed in and tight around me, compared to the widely spaced Aspens.
After a while, I turn around. It's been about fifteen, twenty minutes. As I descend the trail, I see off to my right, a couple hundred yards away, through the Spruces and Aspens, a strange light in the forest. My hair stands on end. I freeze, looking hard into the forest. What is that?
Then I smile.
The light I see is my own hula hoop of lights, high on a hill, seen from far away. I just stand there and marvel at the magical lights that I've placed in this forest. Shoot, this scared me, and I put it there! Can you imagine if you were a hunter from Monticello driving up this road in the early morning, and you see these mysterious lights on the side of a hill on the Full Moon light? You'd tell your friends. They’d tell their friends and within 5 years, the Monticello Tourist Board would be printing up pamphlets, talking about the spooky ghost lights of The Abajo Mountains, that only appear during the time of Full Moon after a lunar eclipse.
I’d like to create a folk tale someday. Be a nice kind of legacy, wouldn’t it?
Dawn at The Needles Overflow Campground.
Campground is too fancy a word for this place. Campground implies services, water and an outhouse. This is just an area of slick rock, outside of The Canyonlands National Park's Needles District. Here and there, there are places to park a car or pitch a tent in the sand and rock. That about it. I like it.
I could unpack the Svea, cook some oatmeal and brew some coffee, but I'll settle for some water on my face, a cold Harvest bar, and a tepid Tab soda instead.
Yesterday, after shooting throughout the night in the Abajos, I drove to the Needles District and hiked most of the day. Good hiking, bad pictures. It happens like that sometimes. I was mostly here at The Needles for the hiking anyway. Then last night, I just drove up here to this funky campground and collapsed. I was bone-tired after hiking up and down the slick rock. Figured I hiked about fifteen miles yesterday, and I'm feeling it this morning. But a soda and a smoke and I'll be good to go, and my mood is bright because I know that there is a remote trading post just five miles down the road where I can get a hot cup of coffee and some snacks. I'll get there in a bit but first I have to pray.
I climb to the top of some slick rock just behind my parked truck, with a Tab in my hand and sit on a rock. Say a quick prayer for myself and others and light up a Camel. I remember the first time I came here in the mid 1990's and how blown away I was: by the air, by the rocks, by the end-of-the-road feel of the place (The Needles are, after all, at the end of a 35 mile long dead end road). It was also near the time I first started trying my hand at long time exposures on full Moon nights. I didn't know what I was doing. I was using film that was much too slow (Kodachrome 100) and not nearly long enough exposures (Around ten minutes), but I was trying. The 35 mm Pentax wasn't a great camera but it was all I had. I was pretty poor and with bad credit. This was before Sterling had sold me his old Rollei Medium Format Camera for a song. But I was having a good time, even though the photographs were mostly pitiful, but I was learning with the help of some friends and from making my own mistakes. Making mistakes is how I learn and sometimes the mistakes are better than what I had planned in the first place. Now ,that is. Back then, the mistakes were mostly just crappie photos with hardly any soul.
It's mostly overcast this morning. I wonder if it'll rain. Maybe snow at the higher elevations. Wait a minute! I am at a higher elevation (even though it doesn't look it, since it’s a flat slick rock plateau.) I finish another soda and decide it's time to hit the trading post for a hot cup of Joe. It's getting close to 8 a.m.
Slowly, I make my way back to the pavement. Take a right on the blacktop and it's just a mile to the trading post. This isn't your fancy Navajo trading post which sells more jewelry than food these days. This one’s a throwback to the days when Indians rode many miles on horseback to get flour, oil, yarn and fuel, at the only place to buy anything for miles around. This outpost doesn't cater to Native folk anymore, but to the hikers, backpackers and tourists that take the long dead end road to The Needles. You can buy a shower just as easy as you can purchase a Balance Bar. Within minutes, I'm parking my Pathfinder in its sand parking lot. The trading post is just one big bunch of add-on buildings, a patchwork quilt of building materials from over the many years. A single plane airstrip lays off to the east. The blacktop’s a half a mile away. Takes a special breed to work out here. I wonder who’s here this year. It was an old couple back in the 90's.
I enter through a wooden screen door and notice a very attractive woman sitting on a stool. Her eyes brighten up like she's known me for years.
"Well, how are you this fine morning," she says.
"Real well, thanks," I say.
"What can I get you for?" she asks.
She has long wavy brown hair. Beautiful thin lips smiling over crooked teeth. Not bad teeth. Just crooked. She's slim and tan in the face and on her arms are thin and strong. Looks to be in her thirties or early forties.
"Just need some coffee," I say. I see it over by the window that looks out onto The Needles.
"Right over there," she points to where I'm walking.
"They say it's going to rain today, maybe even snow down to 5000 feet," she adds.
She still smiling at me. Maybe it's me but I think she flirting with me. Which is fine with me. Annie and I aren't a couple anymore, and Angie is just a weird memory.
As I pour my coffee, I notice a man down a short hallway leading to a back room. He looks at me with only mild interest. He doesn't smile nor frown. He just goes back to working on a piece of metal in his hands. Too far away to tell what it is. Probably something that runs something that's broken. He walks down the hall away from me and out of view. I bet he's her husband or boyfriend.
"You going in The Needles?" she looks me dead in my eyes. Still smiling but now it seems less like flirting and just desperate for company. Any company.
"No, I went in yesterday. I’m heading south today," I say.
"Oh, Okay" she says. She seems very nice and very lonely.
I grab some Harvest bars, and eye the orange juice. No, just the bars and a big coffee with cream. I place the bars and coffee on the counter and reach for my wallet.
"Yes, they say might snow down to 5000 feet today and tonight" she says again.
"You gotten any snow yet this year?" I ask. She seems thrilled that I asked her a question.
"Just a little powdering a couple weeks ago. Nothing much. Should be snowing here tonight."
"Well, stay warm" I add as I hand her some money for the coffee.
"Oh I try. I try." If she isn't flirting with me, I'm a dead man. It’s as if she's saying 'Please, just take me away from here. Come back and talk with me. He never talks with me anymore. I'm stuck here. Please talk to me. Hold me. Anything. Please.' I don't think I'm imagining this, but I might be. I may be intuitive but this is very odd. It’s almost like I can hear her thoughts. And she’s thinking ‘You’re cute.’
I smile sadly back at her. In my face is ‘I’m sorry, honey.’
Her weak smile to me says "I know. I understand."
"Take care now," I say.
"You too," she says.
I turn away and push the screen door open with my foot, and catch it, so it doesn't slam. It's the least I can do.
I feel sad for a number of miles afterwards.
Somewhere near Newspaper Rock, it starts to rain. Not hard but steady, and judging from the thick overcast, it's going to rain for a while. The air’s thick with smells of wet sage, live oaks, and the ground itself. After twenty plus years of living in the desert, I worship any and all rain. Even the virga that never reaches the ground. Today, this is a gentle rain. A female rain, the Navajos call it. I hear a shooshing sound as my tires roll over the wet pavement. I climb out of the small canyon that protects Newspaper Rock, and I'm back up at the flats. And off to the south, I see the Abajo Mountains, but only the bottom is showing. The rest is in cloud. It's cold but not freezing here, but I bet you dimes to a donut, it’s snowing up there. Time to beat feet.
In no time, I'm heading south on US 191, and in less than an hour, I'm in Monticello again. I take a right on the residential street I took just a couple of nights ago. Then, the skies were clear and dark. Now, it’s wet and raining but no snow. Not yet.
After I leave the town limits, the rain changes to snow. Heavy snow. I stop the truck and engage the four by four. Thank you God for four-wheel drive. Back in the day, when I had the two by four pickup, this would have been quite the adventure, going uphill on blacktop with snow that's quickly sticking. I still remember that winter night in 1990, outside of Boulder, driving up to Karen's parents house and how I almost slid down into a high ravine. Scared the living shit out of me. But not today. Not with these fat tires, the low-geared four by four, and a pretty strong V-6.. But not too cocky, Stu. I also remember that day just a couple of years ago, in this truck, when myself and about a dozen other folk with knobby tires and good four wheel drive got stuck back in the deep woods north of Flagstaff and we had to be escorted out by a fleet of snow mobilers. But right now, It's just beginning to stick and I think I can at least get close to where I want to go.
The snow’s falling so thick now, that I turn on my headlights. At 10 o'clock in the morning no less. The flakes make trails before my eyes. It may have something to do with all the drugs I used to take, that I see trails so easily. Doesn't really bother me. Rather like it actually.
Peter Gabriel's "More Than This" has been playing on the CD player since Monticello, but I turn it down now and then turn it completely off. I need to concentrate. It’s getting slick now. I can feel it my tires break traction from time to time. The miles click by. Higher and higher I go, thicker and deeper snow. It's like a blizzard without the wind. About two inches lie on the road now. There, over there. The jeep trail from two nights ago. Hmm. Do I want to chance it, driving up there? Walking will be just as good and probably more fun. I five-point-turn the truck around and go back a half-mile or so to a paved parking lot for hikers. Still snowing like crazy. I park pointing the truck out and downhill, just in case. I suit up. Boo Boo hat of course. Pamela's scarf and my Dad's old gloves too. North Face and only one camera this time. I lugged the Pentax 35 mm all over The Needles yesterday and it was mostly just dead weight, now filled with shitty photographs. Which is fine. But today, I grab just the little 127 Kodak Brownie Camera. I check the little bag it's in, for extra rolls. Got plenty. I've got the Camel Bak full of water. I don't need the water, but I'll take it anyway. You never know. I may sprain an ankle and need a drink while I sit in the snow. I pack the Brownie into the Camel Bak and step outside.
It's cold but delightful. Wet but good. I pull the Boo Boo hat down low on my head, and go.
About three inches in the road now. I grew up in the Piedmont South, where it snowed, but rarely stuck, because the ground was hot enough that it usually melted right away. But not here, in the Abajos, where the ground has been cold for a month. Like throwing shaved ice in a freezer. It doesn’t melt. Another difference from here and Down South, is this is powder. We don't have powder east of the Mississippi. Least than I’ve ever seen.
I walk up the pavement toward the jeep trail. The cold air feels wonderful on my face. My lungs breathe in the frigid air. It does help that my North Face is toasty and warm. I'm wearing Levis but that's ok. The wool socks inside my hiking boots compensate for my cold legs. I'll be fine for at least three hours before I get real wet. We do have some snow near Tucson, on Mt. Lemmon. I’m not a complete bayou boy.
No tire tracks at all on the road. I walk right up the center line, just because I can. Then off to the right, near the shoulder, I see recent tracks in the snow. What are they? I bend over and examine them. Bird. Big bird tracks. Only one big bird that I can think off that would be here. Just as I'm about to say the word aloud, movement catches my eyes in the low trees just off the road. A half dozen Wild Turkeys slowly strut through the forest. Not scared of me a bit. May not be aware of me at all. I think about that moment in history, when Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the National Bird the Wild Turkey, not the Bald Eagle. He was voted down. Today I would have voted with him. These are big, strong, impressive birds. Within a minute, there're gone, swallowed up by the forest and the snow.
I continue walking up the road. Not far now to the jeep trail. Then up ahead, I see headlights and then an old Ford Econoline Van slowly drives by. I wave in acknowledgment as he passes. The driver head-nods me. Good thing he's going downhill with those skinny tires. First car I've seen in close to an hour.
I almost walk past the jeep trail from two nights hence. The land’s so different now. I walk up the dirt track that is now a snow track. Snow’s about half a foot deep, but my woolies are doing a good job, keeping my feet toasty. I pass the spot where I parked the other night. I see the hill of Aspens where I danced. The forest has turned truly into a winter wonderland now. I enter the place on the jeep trail where the large Blue Spruces hugged the road. This time it isn't scary, but comforting, like being held by the spirit of the trees. I grab a Blue Spruce branch gently and shake it like I'm shaking someone’s hand.
"Hello, Tree. How are you?" I say.
The Blue Spruce says nothing, but I don't feel it's unhappy, with me or anything else. It just is. Being Tree. Wish I could just be Stu with such ease.
I release the branch and climb higher up the trail. Still snowing hard. Little wind. Close to a foot on the ground.
I walk for a long time, stopping from time to time to catch a snowflake on my tongue. Stopping to just look up at the tall Aspens ascend toward a vanishing point in the clouds. Stopping to marvel at the numerous shades of the color White.
Stopping to listen to the silence of snow.
And then a song comes to mind, a song I'd last sung in my truck almost a year ago while driving around Tucson.
"Sleigh bells ring, are you listening,
In the lane, snow is glistening.
A beautiful sight, We're happy tonight.
Walking in a Winter Wonderland."
I begin to do a soft shoe in the snow while I sing. I ain't Fred Astaire but I don't care.
"Gone away is the bluebird,
Here to stay is a new bird
He sings a love song, as we go along,
Walking in a Winter Wonderland."
I'm making quite a playful mess in the road, kicking the powder high in the air. Looking quite the fool perhaps, but who's here? It's me, and the trees. And now we're at the bridge of Winter Wonderland. I love the bridge of this song. I do a full 360 spin as I sing.
"In the meadow we can build a snowman,
Then pretend that he is Parson Brown,
He'll say, Are you married? We'll say, No man,
But you can do the job when you're in town."
And now the grand finale. I'm swinging my arms and my body like a whirling dervish. I'm stomping the snow like Gene Kelly splashed puddles in ‘Singing in the Air.’ I'm singing loud enough to hear it echo in the forest.
"Later on, we'll conspire,
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid, the plans that we've made
Walking in a Winter Wonderland."
I stop, throw my arms out, arch my back and tilt my head way back. Snowflakes fall on my face. I close my eyes.
I'm alone, in my own little Broadway Musical.
Stu’s in a Winter Wonderland.