July, 2016 Edition

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“Most Beautiful Place”

Camping on Winds Wept Mesa

It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever camped.
I’ve done a lot of camping during my 46 years on Earth, and I’ve camped in some amazingly beautiful places. A spot among the pine trees in the Alaskan bush beside Alexander Creek. On a British Columbia archipelago covered with Sitka Spruces and alders with the Pacific Ocean lapping at the shore and gray whales spouting 300 feet away. At the bottom of the Grand Canyon with a silt-rich Colorado River glowing like molten copper. In a snowbound yurt in southern Utah’s Tushar Mountains, where a full moon caused the pine trees, which were cloaked in fresh snow, to sparkle like midnight blue gowns, adorned with 10 thousand sequins.
But this place!
It’s one of the highest points on the Paria Plateau. An island in the sky. A skyland.
And from our skyland, we have a 360-degree view of the amazing country that surrounds us. South of us, we are bordered by Paria Canyon. Southeast of us, we can see Lee’s Ferry. West of us, we see Navajo Mountain. Northeast of us is Lake Powell and beyond that, the shadowy mesas and buttes of the Kaiparowitz Plateau. To our north and northwest, we can see the cliff faces of the Grand Staircase-Escalante, capped by the cliffs of Bryce Canyon in the far distance.
The top of Winds Wept Mesa is only half as big as a family restaurant. The few pinyon trees, Utah century plants, Mormon Tea and creosote bushes that grow on top of the mesa have a distinct windswept eastward tilt. Most of Winds Wept Mesa is just bare, wind-blown sandstone. Individual leaves of sandstone, excoriated from the mother base, lie scattered across its surface like shingles blown off a roof. It’s as flat and level as a pool table.
But we had to earn this amazing view. The only way to reach it is by foot. It’s not particularly far, only 2.25 miles from the trailhead, but it’s all uphill. More than 800 feet of elevation gain through loose sand and slabs of broken, wobbly sandstone.
It’s the second week of June in Arizona. It’s 102 degrees when we leave the trailhead at 1 p.m. Because of this, I was able to avoid a lot of weight in my backpack. I didn’t need to bring a tent or a coat. l didn’t bring a sweatshirt or fleece pants. But the weight I left behind, I made up for, and then some, with the amount of water I have to carry. George and I each carry three gallons of water, some of which we’ll stash part way up the trail and retrieve tomorrow when we return.
When I pull our backpacks out of the back of my Jeep, I notice that George’s pack is much heavier than mine.
“Holy cow, George,” I say. “What you got in here?”
Just a few essentials, he tells me.
We put on some sunscreen, soak our bandanas before tying them around our necks, take a long drink of water and hoist on our backpacks. From the trailhead, the trail starts climbing immediately, a climb that won’t stop until we reach our destination 2.25 miles way and 800 feet higher. The first few hundred feet of the trail take us up a steep sand dune. A breeze blows out if the west hot as Jack o’lantern breath.
We pause atop the sand dune to catch our breath, then plunge down the dune’s back side, one foot kicking sand into the boot of the other foot.
At the base of the dune, we cross a dry gully and plunge up its sandy bank. And climb, again. Here we’re presented with an option. The most direct route up the hill before us is through sand, which taxes every footstep a heavy 33 percent.
Our second option climbs the hill in a more circuitous route but it goes over rock. SOLID rock.
We choose rock. Though the choice is an easy one, the route is still difficult. It’s certainly not arranged anything like stairs. No, as we climb we must also sidestep cactus, teeter on rock slabs it reminds me — as a new father — of tip-toeing through my own living room while avoiding my 8-month-old daughter’s blocks, balls, action figures, teething rings and other hazards she leaves behind.
In the 20 minutes we’ve been hiking, the temperature has risen two more degrees. But then we catch a break. A huge, significant, lovely break: the sky grows overcast and blocks much of the sun’s heat. In a matter of minutes, the temperature drops from 102 degrees to 92 degrees. If this essay gets made into a movie this is where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will break joyous refrains, playing under George’s half of the dialogue.
“ . . . and I’ve been in the west ever since,” says George.
My hiking companion is George Hardeen. He’s a cowboy with a deep interest in Buddhism. (You don’t see a lot of those). He’s a PR man for the Navajo Generating Station, and a former communication director for the Office of the President and Vice President of the Navajo Nation. Prior to that, he worked as a journalist. In his long career, he’s worked for the Navajo-Hopi Observer, the Navajo Times and the Lake Powell Chronicle, to name just a few.
“I used to have your job,” he likes to tell me.
And he’s very well-read. As am I.
Because of our many shared interests, we stop a lot to talk, or else walk slow enough to keep talking. We talk about journalism, books and horses. About Buddha, Thoreau, Robert Pirsig and the number 40. About college, influential teachers and threshold moments.
After we’ve traveled about a mile from the trailhead, we each stash a jug of water that we’ll pick up tomorrow. We pass through a patch of wild mint. We stop, pull off a few stems and crush them between our palms. The flowery mint smells lovely. I rub some mint crushings on my shirt sleeves so I can continue smelling its wonderful fragrance as we hike along.
As we progress southward, and ever upward, toward our destination the route we follow ascends steadily ledge to ledge, plateau to plateau, dune to dune. As we climb, the view behind grows steadily more beautiful and majestic and more of it comes into view, for behind us is the Grand Staircase-Escalante with its multi-layered cliff walls.
Our route takes us past beautiful juniper trees, which have spent the last two to four centuries being twisted by the wind into helixes wound tight as rawhide lariats. We traverse into washes, and scurry over sandstone walls, and weave through sandstone fins and curtains.
And east

Before we crested the final summit onto Winds Wept Mesa, George and I had been conversing about our favorite books, which got interrupted by our “Oh wows!” as we took in the World’s Greatest View.

of us Navajo Mountain — the perfect landmark — lies on the eastern horizon like the front site on the end of a rifle. As we progress on our journey, we view it bracketed through the rear gunsight of sandstone fins, rock outcroppings and juniper trees.
After two hours of hiking we top a ridge expecting it to be the top rock and our campsite. But it’s a false summit. We top another false summit. But the next summit is true, and I step onto Winds Wept Mesa and become the pin in a compass with a 200-mile radius.
If you’re standing in the spot with the world’s greatest view, the first thing you do is take in the view. Unless . . .
Unless you’ve just ascended 800 feet in elevation over sand dunes and rickety rocks. Then the first thing you do is take off your backpack, which is clinging to my sweaty back like a barnacle on a whale.
I drop my pack and for a few seconds I feel incredibly light. This must be how Superman feels just before he takes flight.
Beside me George lowers his pack to the ground with a soul-deep (or at least thigh deep) sigh of satisfaction.
And we walk to the mesa’s southern edge and purvey the scene. A thousand feet below us, the Paria River slithers forever toward the Colorado River, and Lee’s Ferry, where at 4:30, river runners are no doubt assembling their oar boats, and swampers are strapping on pontoons. And as we continue our counter-clockwise rotation we take in Navajo Mountain — “Next year we’ve got to do the Navajo Mountain to Rainbow Bridge hike for sure” — and Lake Powell with its iconic landmarks of Gunsight Butte and Lone Rock, then the shadowy, opaque steps of the Grand Staircase, with the cliffs of Bryce Canyon in the farmost distance, where tonight hundreds of travelers will be treated to one of the world’s greatest Dark Sky shows.
“Just wow!” I say. Which, said from one writer to another aint gonna cut it. “I’ll think of something more profound later.”
George digs into his backpack and pulls out an insulated bag about the size of a loaf of bread. He unzips it and from inside it he pulls two cans of Coors. Hands me one. It still has a fuzz of ice around its lip like an old man’s mustache. Before I open it, I press it across my hot forehead, and hold its coldness luxuriously against the back of my sweaty neck.
As heavy as George’s backpack is, you’d think he would have brought light beer.
His insulated bag also contains a rectangle of ice and a flask of whiskey.
Just a few essentials.
We carry our beers over to the mesa’s southern edge and sit on some rocks where we relax while sipping our beers and taking in the incredible, incredible views. A breeze blows out of Paria Canyon across Winds Wept Mesa cool as a peppermint kiss, which feels lovely blowing through our sweat-soaked shirts, across our sweaty brows.
After drinking his beer, George returns to his backpack and, while searching for some snacks, pulls out the rest of the stuff that made his backpack 50 percent heavier than mine.
A campstove and a fuel bottle.
“For tomorrow’s coffee,” he says.
A baggy containing oatmeal, bagels, coffee, four hard-boiled eggs and smoked salmon.
“For tomorrow’s breakfast,” he says.
“Geez, George,” I say. “No wonder your backpack is so heavy!”
He sets the breakfast food on the ground and plunges his hand in again.
It’s like watching a magician pulling objects from his hat. I half expect him to pull out a white rabbit for dinner. But no. He does me one better, instead pulling out steaks.
I think I’ll go camping with George a LOT more in the future.
George finds what he’s been digging for in his backpack and returns to the rocks on the edge of the overlook.
From the rocks on which we sit, it’s a sheer drop a thousand feet to the floor of Paria Canyon, where the Paria River lies like a gray-green ribbon. It makes a faint “shew” sound that at first we can’t decipher if the sound originates from the river, or from the wind blowing through the trees at some distant point.
Before we crested the final summit onto Winds Wept Mesa, George and I had been conversing about our favorite books, which got interrupted by our “Oh wows!” as we took in the World’s Greatest View.
Then it’s my turn to surprise George by pulling out my own beers. I had stored them in the freezer for several hours, right to the point of bursting.
They don’t have an icy rim but, despite two and a half hours in today’s heat, though not cold, are still on the cool side.
I twist off the lid and hand one to George. Twist the lid off the other and resume my seat on a rock, 18 inches from a thousand foot drop-off. And the conversation continued.
“Like I was saying . . .” I said.
We sit right there talking and enjoying the view until twilight, then we gather and split juniper sticks and build a fire, and talk about “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” while they burn down to coals.
“It’s all about quality,” George said.
“Exactly!” I said. “If you’re going to do the thing, you might as well do it right.”
And if you’ve ever had that discussion then you know it quickly branches off to every aspect of the human condition.
And while we cook, then eat our steaks, George and I explored many of those avenues, which is a wonderful conversation to have, and it was made all the more wonderful eating steaks and tinfoil-cooked veggies in the deep-desert gloaming, protected by the glow of a juniper campfire.
Until, due to the blissful fatigue that falls upon all backpackers, the fatigue falls upon us. Except our conversation had just reached its riches vein, spurred on, perhaps, by the whiskey George pulled from his bottomless (magic?) backpack.
We climb from our wind-proof nook where we had grilled our steaks over the campfire back onto the plateau top where the wind still sharpens itself as it scrapes over the edge of Paria Canyon. And there l spread out a tarp, bunker down its edges with sandstone shingles, and laid my sleeping bag out across it.
And laid myself down, physically weary but mentally exhilarated, on top of this magnificent mesa of ascendant transcendence.
Where we are kept awake all night by the flirting rain and the weeping winds.