I was just approaching the canyon at sunset when the first raindrops began to fall around me in the dust.
Looking up into a bruise colored sky, fast moving clouds began to swell behind the dark basalt cliffs, as the last of the sun’s rays streamed through the sagebrush covered basin, turning it golden in the dying light. I felt the first brisk gust of cold wind break against my back as I left the coulee behind.
I steadied myself against a nearby boulder as I pulled up my hood and prepared to climb. I could smell the air changing around me. The sages released their fragrance and the dust kicked up from the rain filled the air with an earthy, herbal aroma. The scent of the desert, deeply enchanting; I breathed deeply of it and closed my eyes for a moment before carrying on.
I followed a game trail up into the canyon and as the walls began to close in around me, I was sheltered somewhat from the wind. The dark basalt walls still held heat they had gathered after a long day of standing in the sun, their lichen crusted bodies felt warm to the touch. After spending many hours crossing the expansive coulee behind me, it felt like I was entering another would as I ascended into the labyrinth of stone and sage.
Soon, the sages were gone, too, and the trail got steeper, narrower. I began using my hands to climb, and before long, I was scrambling hand-over-hand up a slot canyon. Pausing at a wide landing, I held myself steady with both arms outstretched, and turned to look back towards the valley floor. The sun was behind the hills and golden light was gone. In its place was a streak of pinkish-orange fading in the clouds. I felt the temperature drop as a cold draft of air entered the passageway, sucking the last of the days warmth with it.
I sighed, wrapping my coat tighter, adjusting my sleeves and checking that the zipper was fully fastened, hoping I could retain any last bit of warmth, before I turned and climbed the rest of the way out of the passage.
I was unsure what awaited me as I exited the passageway, and crawling out to find myself suddenly standing on level ground again was a relief. Walking away from the crack in the earth where I had just emerged, I found myself beside an old road at the edge of cliff. Glancing off into the coulee, I traced the old single track road had followed up into the canyon. That seemed like hours ago, but it had only been about 45 minutes.
The sky was growing darker, and the wind was picking up, but I could see the glow of the moon just below the horizon to the southwest. My car lay directly to the east, but first I had to traverse these cliffs under the light of the moon, without getting lost in the maze of boulder gardens and granddaddy sages; the kind with lichen growing all over their bones, orange and yellow flecks.
I gained a high point in the fading light to scout a route among the rocks, but the shadows were already playing tricks on me. I could picture myself as if looking down from above; I knew the cliffs arched from south to east, losing elevation until they rejoined the road. If I kept the moon to my back, and watched that I didn’t stray to close (or far) from the edge of the cliff, I would be more or less on the right path.
Gusts of wind lashed across the flat, open expanse of desert as I traversed the tops of large rocks and followed animal trails along the cliff’s edge. Mountain mahogany stands were interwoven with sages, rabbit brush and wax current; all scratchy bushes that tore at my jacket and scraped at my legs. Below me, the dying light of the glowing sun was fully gone, but the coulee still stood out to me, glowing brighter than it should have been.
On the far side, a small trickle of water flows from a seasonal waterfall, now mostly dry except for what soaks underground from the swamp that forms when the creek runs dry enough to stop flowing. It travels along bedrock to spurt out some six feet below the drop, and disappears into the talus field below, when it’s voluminous enough to reach the floor of the valley at all. I wonder if I’ve ever seen a waterfall that never forms a pool like this one. It just disappears into the wind or runs down into the rocky, porous ground.
I covered a half mile in the light of the emerging moon, when things began to get tricky, on the descent. Being on the uphill, looking down at my route, gave me a navigational advantage I didn’t have on flat ground, but the terrain was more difficult. A few times I became disoriented and my eyes were playing tricks on me in the shadows. The desert rain had faded to the occasional drop felt here and there, mostly carried in on the wind, which had steadily increased in frequency of its gusts, and was now blowing full time.
I was rounding a corner below a large boulder when I slipped on an unseen rock and fell forwards into the darkness. In a single moment I braced myself for the worst- I could see nothing. How long would I fall? What if I was falling into a cave? What if I was falling into a slot canyon? What if I was falling off a cliff? My arms reached out in the darkness, grasping for something to catch me.
My knees, then thighs slammed into another boulder before me, as I catapulted forward, and my upper body collapsed across it. My head came down and I cracked my chin against the rock, clacking my teeth together. I lay there for a moment, groaning, feeling defeated. Rising up on my arms again, I rolled onto my back and laid out across it, regaining my composure. I bent and flexed each leg at the knee, while inspecting my face. Touching my chin, I felt a sting as my fingers traced an ooze of blood. I looked down at my hands, which I knew were filthy from climbing, and decided not to touch my open wound again until I was able to clean it.
Fighting back tears, I dabbed at my eyes with the corner of my filthy tshirt, and sat upright. My eyes had fully adjusted to this new, darker space and I could see easily where to squeeze between two walls. I sat up and took a few deep breaths to calm my nervous system.
Swinging back onto my feet, I cautiously stood up. Using both my hands for balance, I braced myself as I walked through the passage way and out into a garden of smaller rocks. I smiled to myself, relieved to be out of the most technical sections of the route. I could see my car on the road below me, windows glinting in the light of the moon.
Winding my way through smaller rocks took no time at all, even when the brush became thicker again, and started to overtake the landscape, as the larger rocks disappeared behind me on the descent.
I took the last steep section to the road in three jumps, and then I felt my feet hit the pavement again. Jogging up to my car as the wind gusted around me, I smiled to myself and at once felt my chin sting. Time to clean up and attend to my wounds.
Slinging my pack into the backseat, I dug through my box of emergency supplies, until my hands seized upon a battered gallon bag that serves as my first aid kit. Snatching it up, I slammed the trunk shut and hopped into the front seat. Eager to assess the situation and clean the dirt from my wound, which was surely full of all kinds of disgusting bacteria after cracking open on a rock covered in rodent and bird feces.
First, antibacterial wipes were deployed from their pouch, and I used them to scrub my hands clean as best I could. I added a large glop of hand sanitizer, and rubbed my palms together, interlacing the fingers, and covering the backs of the hands.
Next, I tore open the alcohol wipes and, taking a deep breath, began to recite the ABCs while wincing in pain and scouring the underside of my chin. The alcohol sting was unbareable, and although I tried to tough it out, I had to take a break half way though, and wipe the tears from my eyes. Cursing softly to myself, I made disparaging comments about the rock I tripped over, and finished out the alphabet, scream-singing the letters while scrubbing every last bit of grit from my wound.
With that task finally out of the way, I peeled open a pouch of antibiotic ointment, and pressed the goo between my fingers, before smearing it on the split in my chin. I chose a large bandaid to hold it in place, knowing it was just for the ride home. Once I arrived, I would tear the thing off again and take a long hot shower, scrubbing all the dirt from my head and body, so it didn’t need to be pretty or perfect.
Once the bandage was fastened to my face, I looked in the mirror and I laughed out loud at myself. ‘Look at you. Filthy, hair a mess, chin bandaged up just like when you were four and you fell off the swings on the playground, tearing open your face in the gravel.’
Except instead of four, you are forty. Instead of a metal play structure at the bottom of the hill, you have this canyon and coulee. Mazes of basalt and lichen, sages and sand. The foot prints of deer. The sunrise and sunset. The moon, the stars and the sky. The wind, the rain.
I am still as wild in my heart as I have ever been.
5 thoughts on “Canyon and Coulee”
Thanks for sharing your adventure, both the joys and vulnerabilities. I admire your gumption Emily.
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Great stuff Norther, glad to see you back adventuring in the wild desert again. Well written and descriptive narrative. Heal quickly!
Awesome. I love your writing, your descriptions of the land and of your asdventures. Where was this awesome place? Living in the Four Corners area, it reminds me of many of so many of our ruggedly beautiful areas. Thanks for sharing. Hope your chin heals quickly and well.
Love this. Your writing always enlightens me, gives me hope about the search so many people have abandoned in their own lives. Actually thought about your writing moving four months ago from Colorado to the Tri – Cities area of Washington. Passed through some of your lands of Eastern Oregon. Thank you.
This is such descriptive writing. I felt like I was right there as I took the tumble, and as you cleaned the wounds and bandaged it all up. Hope everything healed up nicely! 🙏