We eased on down Utah’s “Blue Highways,” drifting like sand in the wind, eddying up here and there without plan nor purpose, living the “good life” like a couple of peripatetic hobos with stolen credit cards.
After wandering San Raphael’s barren slot-canyoned Swell, we caught up with Ms Autumn in Capitol Reef. Gnarly old Cottonwoods stood in line along the banks of the Freemont, leaves of gold palpitating in the breeze. Necks craned skyward at sheer, sky-piercing, buff red walls. On top rested massive domes of white, thrones fit for the gods. Overwhelmed by goose bumps and the pervasive spiritual aura, my agnostic tendencies can’t help but teeter.
Later, we are both awed and dwarfed to insignificance by Spring Canyon’s precipitous, bleeding walls…navigating over, under and around house-size boulders that routinely calve from eroding rimrock. Pretty much anywhere one wanders south of Utah’s I-70 corridor is enough to turn a skeptic into a Bible-thumping believer. It’s just a freaking amazing state, and I’m thrilled that it’s only a stone’s throw from off-season tedium in Lovely Ouray.
Writer/photographer, Boris Mikhailov, said, “A person reproduces themselves by what he has done.” Yes, Boris, “life” properly lived is a verb. And so it is that I take additional pleasure in life this time of year, “On the road” like Jack Kerouac, exploring William Least Heat Moon’s “Blue Highways” and searching for the last vestiges of Edward Abbey’s untrammeled desert camps. Such stars…slung to eternity on moonless black nights far from the madding crowd. I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: I’m a fortunate son-of-a-gun.
I count myself lucky. I didn’t die at a disheveled desk with reams of paper awaiting my shuffle, lived long enough to recoup most of Social Security’s deducts from a lifetime of paychecks and somehow managed to put a little money aside to boot...just in case I lived longer than my dear ole daddy, a good hardworking man who passed only a few months shy of retirement.
Nothing mellows a self-admitted “crank” like old age and alcohol. Somewhere near the bottom of a third beer (or was it four?)—alternating my short attention span between the milky-light vortex of a perpendicular galaxy and glowing embers of a dying campfire—I get a little weepy-eyed. Sorrow and gratitude are not strange bedfellows. It takes one in order to appreciate the other.
Maybe it’s some sort of “survivor’s guilt,” you know, Why Me? I’m not near the man my preacher-daddy was. I mean, what have I done (or not done) to deserve a pardon from “Grim,” to see my working-days dream retirement come to fruition? In the scheme of life and death, with all the celebration and suffering betwixt the two, why, of all people, do I still have a pulse? My ordinary existence hasn’t eased anyone’s hunger or thirst other than my own. I haven’t found, looked for or contributed to a cure for cancer. I haven’t reduced tensions in the Middle East or done anything, really, beyond making a half-assed attempt at being a decent husband, father, provider and a clay-footed, learn-by-my-mistake example of what not to do. But hey, one must pass “the facts of life” on as best they can, lest our children and grandchildren learn them the hard way during recess or on Facebook.
A long, long time ago, a wet behind the ears kid stood at the intersection of naivety and idealism in Les Miserable, Missouri, and dreamed of a life in Colorado. While on vacation there, sitting around a campfire much like the one that dies at my feet here in Nowhere, Utah, I made a beer-inspired vow to my daddy. It was 1975, and we had reunited for a few days in the Amphitheater Campground above Lovely Ouray, a mutually admired location. The clock was pushing midnight, that time when adolescents let beer do their talking. I’ll never forget it. “Dad,” I said, “Someday I’m going to live here…in Ouray.” About a month later, I got a call from my mom. She was crying. “Mark, honey…your daddy died last night.” To this day, I can’t sit at a campfire without it taking me for a heart-rending “ride.”
Were he alive to witness it, Dad would be disappointed in my spiritual incertitude. Perhaps if he saw what we see now, the greed, consumerism, political palm-greasing and wars that rage in the name of differing religious ideologies he would understand. I’d give anything to have one more “fireside chat” with my father. I can see him now, pointing to the Milky Way, and saying, “I rest my case.”
Mark Johnson is a restless soul who lives in Ouray, Colorado with his wife, Bobbie. He is happiest when explor- ing the West's nooks and crannies, hiking, climbing and mountain biking. He authors a "wanderlust" based bloog: www.Boxcanyonblog.com.