Chapter 17 of Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey



"Do we really need all that rope?" I ask Waterman, as he proudly and smugly coils his new nylon and stows it into his pack, along with slings, carabiners, brakebars and other hardware. "Who's going to carry it?"

"I'll carry it," he says cheerfully, through a magnificent, sandy beard; "you can carry the water."

But before we can explore The Maze we have to find out how to get to it. There's only one man in Moab who claims to have been there, a garage mechanic named Bundy, so we pay him a visit. Squatting on his heels, he draws us a map in the sand. Gas up at Green River, he says-it'll be your last chance. Take about twenty gallons extra. Go south twenty-five miles toward Hanksville. About a mile past Temple Junction you'll see a little dirt road heading east. Take it. Keep going about thirty-five, forty miles till you get to an old cabin. That's French Spring. Better fill your water cans there; might be your last chance. Then south a few miles toward Land's End brings you out to the head of Flint Trail. Look it over careful before you try to go down. If you make it head north six miles past Elaterite Butte to Big Water Spring-should be water there, though this time of year you can't always be certain. Keep bearing north and east. Seven miles past Big Water Spring you come to The Maze overlook and that's the end of the trail. From there on you could use wings.

We follow his instructions carefully and they turn out to be as correct as they are precise. We camp the first night in the Green River Desert, just a few miles off the Hanksville road, rise early and head east, into the dawn, through the desert toward the hidden river. Behind us the pale fangs of the San Rafael Reef gleam in the early sunlight; above them stands Temple Mountain-uranium country, poison springs country, headwaters of the Dirty Devil. Around us the Green River Desert rolls away to the north, south and east, an absolutely treeless plain, not even a juniper in sight, nothing but sand, blackbrush, prickly pear, a few sunflowers. Directly eastward we can see the blue and hazy La Sal Mountains, only sixty miles away by line of sight but twice that far by road, with nothing whatever to suggest the fantastic, complex and impassable gulf that falls between here and there. The Colorado River and its tributary the Green, with their vast canyons and labyrinth of drainages, lie below the level of the plateau on which we are approaching them, "under the ledge," as they say in Moab.

The scenery improves as we bounce onward over the winding, dusty road: reddish sand dunes appear, dense growths of sunflowers cradled in their leeward crescents. More and more sunflowers, whole fields of them, acres and acres of gold-perhaps we should call this the Sunflower Desert. We see a few baldface cows, pass a corral and windmill, meet a rancher coming out in his pickup truck. Nobody lives in this area but it is utilized nevertheless; the rancher we saw probably has his home in Hanksville or the little town of Green River.

Halfway to the river and the land begins to rise, gradually, much like the approach to Grand Canyon from the south. What we are going to see is comparable, in fact, to the Grand Canyon-I write this with reluctance-in scale and grandeur, though not so clearly stratified or brilliantly colored. As the land rises the vegetation becomes richer, for the desert almost luxuriant: junipers appear, first as isolated individuals and then in stands, pinyon pines loaded with cones and vivid colonies of sunflowers, chamisa, golden beeweed, scarlet penstemon, skyrocket gilia (as we near 7000 feet), purple asters and a kind of yellow flax. Many of the junipers-the females-are covered with showers of light-blue berries, that hard bitter fruit with the flavor of gin. Between the flowered patches and the clumps of trees are meadows thick with gramagrass and shining Indian ricegrass-and not a cow, horse, deer or buffalo anywhere. For God's sake, Bob, I'm thinking, let's stop this machine, get out there and eat some grass! But he grinds on in single-minded second gear, bound for Land's End, and glory.

Flocks of pinyon jays fly off, sparrows dart before us, a redtailed hawk soars overhead. We climb higher, the land begins to break away: we head a fork of Happy Canyon, pass close to the box head of Millard Canyon. A fork in the road, with one branch old, rocky and seldom used, the other freshly bulldozed through the woods. No signs. We stop, consult our maps, and take the older road; the new one has probably been made by some oil exploration outfit.

Again the road brings us close to the brink of Millard Canyon and here we see something like a little shrine mounted on a post. We stop. The wooden box contains a register book for visitors, brand-new, with less than a dozen entries, put here by the BLM-Bureau of Land Management. "Keep the tourists out," some tourist from Salt Lake City has written. As fellow tourists we heartily agree.

On to French Spring, where we find two steel granaries and the old cabin, open and empty. On the wall inside is a large water-stained photograph in color of a naked woman. The cowboy's agony. We can't find the spring but don't look very hard, since all of our water cans are still full.

We drive south down a neck of the plateau between canyons dropping away, vertically, on either side. Through openings in the dwarf forest of pinyon and juniper we catch glimpses of hazy depths, spires, buttes, orange cliffs. A second fork presents itself in the road and again we take the one to the left, the older one less traveled by, and come all at once to the big jump and the head of the Flint Trail. We stop, get out to reconnoiter.

The Flint Trail is actually a jeep track, switchbacking down a talus slope, the only break in the sheer wall of the plateau for a hundred sinuous miles. Originally a horse trail, it was enlarged to jeep size by the uranium hunters, who found nothing down below worth bringing up in trucks, and abandoned it. Now, after the recent rains, which were also responsible for the amazing growth of grass and flowers we have seen, we find the trail marvelously eroded, stripped of all vestiges of soil, trenched and gullied down to bare rock, in places more like a stairway than a road. Even if we can get the Land Rover down this thing, how can we ever get it back up again?

But it doesn't occur to either of us to back away from the attempt. We are determined to get into The Maze. Waterman has great confidence in his machine; and furthermore, as with anything enormously attractive, we are obsessed only with getting in; we can worry later about getting out.

Munching pinyon nuts fresh from the trees nearby, we fill the fuel tank and cache the empty jerrycan, also a full one, in the bushes. Pine nuts are delicious, sweeter than hazelnuts but difficult to eat; you have to crack the shells in your teeth and then, because they are smaller than peanut kernels, you have to separate the meat from the shell with your tongue. If one had to spend a winter in Frenchy's cabin, let us say, with nothing to eat but pinyon nuts, it is an interesting question whether or not you could eat them fast enough to keep from starving to death. Have to ask the Indians about this.

Glad to get out of the Land Rover and away from the gasoline fumes, I lead the way on foot down the Flint Trail, moving what rocks I can out of the path. Waterman follows with the vehicle in first gear, low range and four-wheel drive, creeping and lurching downward from rock to rock, in and out of the gutters, at a speed too slow to register on the speedometer. The descent is four miles long, in vertical distance about two thousand feet. In places the trail is so narrow that he has to scrape against the inside wall to get through. The curves are banked the wrong way, sliding toward the outer edge, and the turns at the end of each switchback are so tight that we must jockey the Land Rover back and forth to get it around them. But all goes well and in an hour we arrive at the bottom.

Here we pause for a while to rest and to inspect the fragments of low-grade, blackish petrified wood scattered about the base of a butte. To the northeast we can see a little of The Maze, a vermiculate area of pink and white rock beyond and below the ledge we are now on, and on this side of it a number of standing monoliths-Candlestick Spire, Lizard Rock and others unnamed.

Close to the river now, down in the true desert again, the heat begins to come through; we peel off our shirts before going on. Thirteen miles more to the end of the road. We proceed, following the dim tracks through a barren region of slab and sand thinly populated with scattered junipers and the usual scrubby growth of prickly pear, yucca and the alive but lifeless-looking blackbrush. The trail leads up and down hills, in and out of washes and along the spines of ridges, requiring four-wheel drive most of the way.

After what seems like another hour we see ahead the welcome sight of cottonwoods, leaves of green and gold shimmering down in a draw. We take a side track toward them and discover the remains of an ancient corral, old firepits, and a dozen tiny rivulets of water issuing from a thicket of tamarisk and willow on the canyon wall. This should be Big Water Spring. Although we still have plenty of water in the Land Rover we are mighty glad to see it.

In the shade of the big trees, whose leaves tinkle musically, like gold foil, above our heads, we eat lunch and fill our bellies with the cool sweet water, and lie on our backs and sleep and dream. A few flies, the fluttering leaves, the trickle of water give a fine edge and scoring to the deep background of-silence? No-of stillness, peace.

I think of music, and of a musical analogy to what seems to me the unique spirit of desert places. Suppose for example that we can find a certain resemblance between the music of Bach and the sea; the music of Debussy and a forest glade; the music of Beethoven and (of course) great mountains; then who has written of the desert? 

Mozart? Hardly the outdoor type, that fellow-much too elegant, symmetrical, formally perfect. Vivaldi, Corelli, Monteverdi? -cathedral interiors only-fluid architecture. Jazz? The best of jazz for all its virtues cannot escape the limitations of its origin: it is indoor music, city music, distilled from the melancholy nightclubs and the marijuana smoke of dim, sad, nighttime rooms: a joyless sound, for all its nervous energy.

In the desert I am reminded of something quite different-the bleak, thin-textured work of men like Berg, Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, Webern and the American, Elliott Carter. Quite by accident, no doubt, although both Schoenberg and Krenek lived part of their lives in the Southwest, their music comes closer than any other I know to representing the apartness, the otherness, the strangeness of the desert. Like certain aspects of this music, the desert is also a-tonal, cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, at one and the same time-another paradox-both agonized and deeply still.

Like death? Perhaps. And perhaps that is why life nowhere appears so brave, so bright, so full of oracle and miracle as in the desert.

Waterman has another problem. As with Newcomb down in Glen Canyon-what is this thing with beards?-he doesn't want to go back. Or says he doesn't. Doesn't want to go back to Aspen. Where the draft board waits for him, Robert Waterman. It seems that the U.S. Government-what country is that?-has got another war going somewhere, I forget exactly where, on another continent as usual, and they want Waterman to go over there and fight for them. For IT, I mean-when did a government ever consist of human beings? And Waterman doesn't want to go, he's afraid he might get killed.

As any true patriot would, I urge him to hide down here under the ledge. Even offer to bring him supplies at regular times, and the news, and anything else he might need. He is tempted-but then remembers his girl. There's a girl back in Denver. I'll bring her too, I tell him. He decides to think it over.

In the meantime we refill the water bag, get back in the Land Rover and drive on. Seven more miles rough as a cob around the crumbling base of Elaterite Butte, some hesitation and backtracking among alternate jeep trails, all of them dead ends, and we finally come out near sundown on the brink of things, nothing beyond but nothingness-a veil, blue with remoteness-and below the edge the northerly portion of The Maze.

We can see deep narrow canyons down in there branching out in all directions, and sandy floors with clumps of trees-oaks? cottonwoods? Dividing one canyon from the next are high thin partitions of nude sandstone, smoothly sculptured and elaborately serpentine, colored in horizontal bands of gray, buff, rose and maroon. The melted ice-cream effect again-Neapolitan ice cream. On top of one of the walls stand four gigantic monoliths, dark red, angular and square-cornered, capped with remnants of the same hard white rock on which we have brought the Land Rover to a stop. Below these monuments and beyond them the innumerable canyons extend into the base of Elaterite Mesa (which underlies Elaterite Butte) and into the south and southeast for as far as we can see. It is like a labyrinth indeed-a labyrinth with the roof removed.

Very interesting. But first things first. Food. We build a little juniper fire and cook our supper. High wind blowing now-drives the sparks from our fire over the rim, into the velvet abyss. We smoke good cheap cigars and watch the colors slowly change and fade upon the canyon walls, the four great monuments, the spires and buttes and mesas beyond.

What shall we name those four unnamed formations standing erect above this end of The Maze? From our vantage point they are the most striking landmarks in the middle ground of the scene before us. We discuss the matter. In a far-fetched way they resemble tombstones, or altars, or chimney stacks, or stone tablets set on end. The waning moon rises in the east, lagging far behind the vanished sun. Altars of the Moon? That sounds grand and dramatic-but then why not Tablets of the Sun, equally so? How about Tombs of Ishtar? Gilgamesh? Vishnu? Shiva the Destroyer?

Why call them anything at all? asks Waterman; why not let them alone? And to that suggestion I instantly agree; of course-why name them? Vanity, vanity, nothing but vanity: the itch for naming things is almost as bad as the itch for possessing things. Let them and leave them alone-they'll survive for a few more thousand years, more or less, without any glorification from us.

But at once another disturbing thought comes to mind: if we don't name them somebody else surely will. Then, says Waterman in effect, let the shame be on their heads. True, I agree, and yet-and yet Rilke said that things don't truly exist until the poet gives them names. Who was Rilke? he asks. Rainer Maria Rilke, I explain, was a German poet who lived off countesses. I thought so, he says; that explains it. Yes, I agree once more, maybe it does; still-we might properly consider the question strictly on its merits. If any, says Waterman. It has some, I insist.

Through naming comes knowing; we grasp an object, mentally, by giving it a name-hension, prehension, apprehension. And thus through language create a whole world, corresponding to the other world out there. Or we trust that it corresponds. Or perhaps, like a German poet, we cease to care, becoming more concerned with the naming than with the things named; the former becomes more real than the latter. And so in the end the world is lost again. No, the world remains-those unique, particular, incorrigibly individual junipers and sandstone monoliths-and it is we who are lost. Again. Round and round, through the endless labyrinth of thought-the maze.

Amazing, says Waterman, going to sleep.

The old moon, like a worn and ancient coin, is still hanging in the west when I awake. All night long the wind has been blowing, haunting my dreams with intimations of disaster, and in the east above the rim and mountains are salmon-colored clouds whipped into long, sleek, fishlike shapes by the wind. Portents: Red skies at morning, sailors take warning. Northeast the sky is vaguely overcast, a pallid gray.

As I start a fire and prepare breakfast the wind stops, suddenly, and the tremendous silence flows back, sealing the canyon country beneath a transparent dome of timelessness. The sun comes up, a resounding fire, the great golden gong of the dawn: Waterman stirs feebly in his bag.

After breakfast we get ready for the descent into The Maze, the first so far as we know since the Indians left seven centuries before-if they were here at all. Once again Waterman checks the beautiful rope, all one hundred and fifty feet of it, and his other climbing equipment, while I divide and pack our rations for the day: raisins, shelled nuts, hard chocolate, cheese, dried beef, oranges and water.

The drop-off over the white rim is too far for our rope but about a mile to the east we find a break in the caprock where we can descend to the dark-red stratum below. We are still nearly a thousand feet above the actual floor of The Maze. We traverse the red ledge in a westerly direction and find some notches through which we can climb down to the bulging, rounded, buff-colored rock of the Cutler formation, principal material of The Maze and of the similar Needles area on the east side of the river.

Here we find ourselves rimmed-up, five hundred feet or so above the canyon floor. After further exploring we find a good spot for a rappel, with a pinyon pine to serve as belay. The only trouble is that it is impossible to see from here whether or not there is a feasible route the rest of the way down. If further descent turns out to be impossible, then whoever goes down the rope first is going to be in a tough situation. The wall at this point is somewhat overhanging, requiring a free rappel of forty to fifty feet-easy enough going down but cruel hard work to get back up. I don't know about Waterman but am certain that I could never climb that far up a rope myself. Of course there are various techniques for doing it but none of them is easy. I invite Waterman to go first, he invites me, and we waste about ten minutes in the Alphonse-Gaston routine.

He loses patience first, as I felt sure he would, gets into a sling, hooks up his carabiners, runs the doubled rope around a brake bar, backs over the edge and slides out of sight. I crawl along a narrow shelf to one side and watch him free himself from the rope and disappear below among the crevices and boulders. Presently he comes back and tells me to come on down, he has found a way clear to the bottom.

So it's my turn to dangle in mid-air. I've never made a free rappel before and am a little nervous about it. As I lean back over the edge I can't help but look down and the sight of Waterman far below looking up at me is frankly kind of sickening.

"What are you waiting for?" he wants to know.

"Are you sure this rope is strong enough?"

"It held me, didn't it?"

"Yes, but I weigh more than you do."

"Well, give it a try anyway."

A very humorous fellow. But there's no honorable way out of this for me. After another minute of equivocation and technical inquiries, I lean back farther, keeping my eyes on the rope, and go down. Nothing to it. Half an hour later we're down on the sandy floor of the canyon and inside The Maze. We've brought the rope with us, of course, and therefore will have to find a different route up to the rim, if there is one. But that problem can be deferred for a while. If necessary we've got enough food for two days.

The air is hot, clear, dry and our canteens nearly empty; we've taken three hours in the descent. The first thing we've got to do is find water. We start walking down the canyon. If we keep going we will reach the Green River, about ten miles away according to our map, just above its confluence with the Colorado. There may, of course, be obstacles; we don't know.

Within half a mile, however, we find cottonwoods and shoals of damp, firm sand on the canyon floor. I dig a hole as big around as my fist and elbow-deep and come to wet gravel; a few more inches and I find water.

There is a stand of wild cane nearby. I cut two stalks, a fat one and a thin one, and punch the pith out of the joints of the bigger one by using the smaller as a ramrod. Happy now, greatly relieved, I recall for Waterman's edification a few appropriate lines from Burns:

Green grow the rashes, O!

Green grow the rashes, O!

The lasses they have cozy bores,

The widows all have gashes, O!

Now we've got a siphon, two feet long. I offer it to the thirsty Waterman, he sticks it in the hole and drinks heartily. When he is finished I take it, blow out the sand, and also drink. The water is warm, smelly, but potable and quite refreshing. Feeling much better we sit in the shade of the trees and eat some lunch. I cut a few holes at odd intervals in the drinking straw, creating a sort of crude recorder, and play a few tunes in a barbarous scale never heard before this side of the Atlas Mountains. I stop, Waterman comes back and lies down for a siesta. I go exploring.

At one place on the canyon wall I find three arches or natural bridges, one above another, all three spanning the same drainage chute. Going farther up-canyon I come to a fork, the first of many branches in the canyon system. The main or wider canyon turns to the left, revealing vistas of alluvium flats covered with sagebrush, more cottonwoods, more and more branching canyons with deep alcoves high in their walls, likely sites for Indian ruins. But I keep to the right, under the rim of the overlook where we had camped the night before, and scan the walls for a possible route to the top.

I come after a time to a lovely pool in a basin of sand, fed by a trickle of water flowing down the canyon's rocky floor. I drink again, fill my canteen and go on. This canyon, like all the others, forks again and again; I keep to the right-hand branch each time and finally arrive at a dead end, a box, with unscalable walls rising three, four, five hundred feet straight up toward the hot blue sky. I go back to the pool and take a dip in the water.

Lying on my back on the smooth sandstone beside the pool I notice a fingerlike ridge that juts into the canyon from the base of the main wall under the plateau above. If we can climb the ridge to the maroon bench above the Cutler, we might be able to traverse laterally to the opening in the white rim through which we had originally descended. From here it looks as if it might go.

I'm just starting up to investigate the ridge when Waterman appears, tracking me up the canyon floor. He joins me, we climb the ridge together and discover that it does indeed go all the way to the red ledge. There are a couple of tricky pitches with rotten rock and fingerholds of exquisite delicacy but most of the way is easy. We return to the bottom of The Maze to get our packs and the rope, and to do a little more exploring, if possible.

It is now late in the afternoon. We don't have much time left before sundown. Our sleeping bags are up on the rim in the Land Rover and we have nothing to eat but nuts and raisins. We decide it best to climb out of The Maze before dark and save further exploration for tomorrow. We go back to the pool and the base of the ridge. On the way Waterman points out to me the petroglyph of a snake, which I had missed. The Indians had been here. But nobody else, so far as we can tell. Nowhere have we seen a trace of the white man or of his horse or cow-or helicopter. But then we have seen only a tiny corner of The Maze, maybe no more than one percent of it. The heart of it remains unknown.

We climb the ridge, scale the bluffs, and traverse without difficulty the sloping red bench for a mile to the east, where we find the notch that leads to the top through the white rimrock. As we proceed we mark our route with pointer stones; this will be known hereafter, for a thousand years, as the Abbey-Waterman Trail. Maybe. More likely the BLM or the Park Service will bypass our trail with an electrical chair lift for crippled tourists.

We reach the rim a little before sundown and after a quick supper-for it's cold and windy up here-go early to bed. Above the Orange Cliffs a dismal sunset of bloody sun and gray overcast lingers for a long time on the horizon while the wind howls across our prostrate forms all night long.

In the morning the wind is still blowing, it's much colder, and the entire sky is dark with storm clouds threatening rain or possibly, judging by the chill in the air, even snow. It would not be the first time that a blizzard hit the high plateaus in mid-September. I try to wake up Waterman: snow, I tell him, it's going to snow. He only curls up tighter in the sack; he doesn't want to go home.

I build a big roaring fire, hang the coffee pot in the flames, dump a pound of bacon into the skillet and stir briskly with a fork. The fierce wind fans the fire and chases sparks, coals, and shreds of juniper bark over the edge of the cliff, ten feet away. A dried-up tumbleweed comes over the rise from the north, dances past and sails into space above The Maze. Ecstasy-and danger: we'll never get the Land Rover up those switchbacks if it storms. A few drops of rain sprinkle the sandstone at my feet and patter gently on Waterman in his bag. He makes no move. Breakfast, I tell him; let's eat! He comes to life.

As we eat we discuss the situation. We each have another day to spare but no more; I have to return to the Arches, he has to register for the fall term at Colorado University, far over on the eastern slope. If we get caught down in here by the storm it may be a number of days before we can get out. And we don't have much food left. Of course in an emergency we could always descend again into The Maze, hike down to the river, build a raft, float fifty miles down to Hite, and hitchhike a ride from there back to civilization, if anyone happened to be going that way. We agree, regretfully, to start back at once.

It takes us only a few minutes to roll up our sacks and pile our gear into the vehicle; a light rain sizzling in the fire encourages our movements. Soon we are grinding back along the trail, four-wheel drive all the way to Big Water Spring through the grand and beautiful desolation of the middle bench country-above the inner canyons, under the ledge-where nothing grows but the sword-bladed yucca, the scattered clumps of blackbrush and occasional stunted junipers. Next time I come this way, I think (and may it be soon!) I'm going to bring a boxful of Christmas tree decorations-silver-blue tinsel, red candles, peppermint canes, silver bells, golden stars and frosted baubles-and I'm going to pick out the loneliest, most forlorn of those little junipers and dress it in splendor, gay and glittering, and leave it there shining in the wilderness for a season or two, until the winds and the sun and the birds strip it bare again.

We reach the foot of the Flint Trail. The storm is building up, the wind colder and harder than ever, but luckily for us the heavy rain has not yet come down. Waterman shifts into low range; I get out and walk along behind to assist on the turns. There is no trouble: getting up proves to be no harder than coming down, though we do find it necessary to add a little water to the radiator when we arrive on top.

7000 feet up now; we put on jackets and hoods as a fine sleet drives down from the sky and turns the dust into mud. While Waterman pours more gasoline into the tank I load my pockets with pinyon nuts-might need them yet. We go on, past the old cabin at French Spring and through the woods and past the flowery meadows now gray beneath a mist of snow and rain. We stop at the BLM shrine to record our visit.

"First descent into The Maze," writes Waterman in the book, though we cannot be absolutely certain of this. And I write, "For God's sake leave this country alone-Abbey." To which Waterman adds "For Abbey's sake leave this country alone-God." The air is thick with a million fluttering snowflakes; we hurry on through the forty miles of desert, reach the paved road without getting stuck and get back in Moab at dark, just in time for cocktails and dinner, while a great storm, first and biggest of the autumn season, blankets the high country with snow from Denver to Salt Lake City.