Visiting the southwest, I immediately felt at home. I’ve often felt I need to see a place firsthand to know how I’ll feel about it — pictures, videos and stories from others aren’t enough to judge. It has to do with the feeling of the air against my skin, the position of the sun as it travels across the landscape, and the scent of the earth. When I arrived in southern Utah, I felt a sense of ease coupled with majesty… something grand about the vistas, and also solid and reliable about the surroundings.
I was born near the ocean, and have mostly lived in places that are ocean accessible… a few hours drive to a coast. Staring out at an expanse of water stretching around me fills me with happiness. Life can be measured by times with the sea, salt air filling the lungs and the breeze off the water playing against my face, pulling my hair. A friend told me that the wide vista of ocean makes us feel safe because we could see predators or adversaries advancing from a distance. There’s security in knowing that we can see what’s coming in front of us.
That said, for me, the mysteries of the ocean’s depths are also part of the calling… The Utah desert feels a similar way to me… like an ocean, stretching out, filled with mystery and its own expansiveness. I felt ocean sort of energy. And the more I was aware of how I felt about it, fluid freedom, the more I was reminded of its history: it was an ocean once, millenia ago. In fact, the rocks surrounding me were formed from ocean sediments hundreds of millions of years ago.
Some things that struck me immediately about Utah are the quality of light and the feeling of air in my lungs. It’s high altitude — sleeping at 6-7k ft. and climbing up to 10k+ ft. elevation for some of the sights and hikes. I love the feeling of it, pure and exciting.
My aunt Becky was the best host and “discovery guide” I could have imagined — days were full of ease, flow, however we felt and whatever we wanted to do… no agenda. Time for meditation, writing, and relaxing in the Utah sunshine. Doses of nature each day and sights that were a pure delight, both for their majesty and also the quiet beauty. We stopped to notice and drink in the details, and laughed a lot along the way. Becky’s stories and life are amazing, and she has a connection with this whole environment that makes it shine even brighter.
When we traveled up the serpentine road to Cedar Breaks (pictured above) it was like traveling through layers. The trees in the distance stretching out, with Zion National Forest and Parkland to one direction, and Brian Head ski area on the other. My ears popping with every turn, I felt elated and giddy, partly from the altitude I’m sure, and partly from the beauty. Also, something about these areas being more pristine, less touristy, though I was speaking Dutch with some tourists from Utrecht at one viewpoint, and then heard the lilt of German at the next overlook.
Being there without some sort of tight schedule meant that we could relax, slow down, have conversations, and also bask in stillness. I think the rocks talk back when I listen longer to them. Each time I looked at an area, I saw something new. At first, rock formations looked expansive as a whole. The sight was breathtaking, so much so that it could overwhelm. Then, I stayed with it for a while, not taking pictures… just looking at it. I noticed I could divide the layers and landscape into separate chunks of attention. And each part was absolyutely beautiful and somewhat familiar in wild geometry and form. Maybe they reminded me of something, like finding objects in shapes of clouds. After a while, I stopped comparing them to what I was familiar with and just lost myself in gazing at them, feeling as if I was right there beside them. Finally, those partitions dissovled entirely and I was back to the whole, the gestalt, and my gaze could take it all in and appreciate remembering each detail and component of it. Now, if I picture Cedar Breaks in my mind, I could almost draw it from memory — I know each outcropping, and the uniqueness of the shapes, the color gradations and the areas that had caught a bit of snowfall on their high ridges and kept it there, like a painter’s knife scraping over with a ridge of white left on the surface.
I didn’t want to leave Cedar Breaks… so there was no rush! We paused, we stopped at each beautiful overlook, and often had the views to ourselves, or with only a handful of others. These quieter moments of stillness, along with the rush of wind, let your mind be totally at ease, encompassing what freedom can be. Felt a lot of love in this space. The redness of the iron…
Later that same day, traveling south toward St. George, we went to Red Cliffs National Conservation area in the soft light of sunset.
It’s astonishing to see the canyon around you firsthand and walk deeply into it, step by step. The path is soft sand, demarcated by thin ropes to protect the natural beauty around us. Soft green brush, it’s a fertile valley with slow heat emanating from rock. We came across a piece of wood that definitely has an elephantine vibe to it, don’t you think?
Heat intensified and rock walls closed in around us as we went deeper into the park. It felt otherworldly, magical, to see stars emerge. We found the spring source at the heart, and it felt like an achievement to discover it! I put a few drops on my neck — cooling effect! — and we turned back toward the way we had come. With a bit of a “Hundred Acre Wood” feeling at the turnaround, I realized each path looks different from a new vantage. Could we remember the way back? Yes, the familiar rock forms guided us, and a sliver of moon emerged just as we reached the entrance once again. This is a magical place, for sure.
Once again, sleep was easy and deep that night, under a blanket of stars, above twinkling lights of the city in the valley. Our next adventure involved traveling to a nearby obsidian field, where the rocks glistened black in the afternoon sun.
Being in an obsidian field is an absolutely amazing experience. The sun was hot and the glassy rocks — originally lava — were glimmering all around as we hiked through them. You can “wander and wonder,” just gazing down at the shapes, colors, and designs of obsidian, picking them up to examine their qualities, and it becomes a walking grounding meditation. I even laid down in obsidian and felt the rockbed with its delicate points against my back, which was wild… footsteps nearby echoed loudly even though they were about 50 feet away. It can be invigorating and also relaxing. A powerful experience and a fun game after, looking at what you collect and making up stories for the shapes and the feel. The smooth glassy surface of obsidian feels amazing to hold and it’s also a pleasure to behold.
I should also mention Aspens… leaving the golden highlight for last in this installation… There’s so much to say about Aspens, in bright yellows, at the edge of fall. Other countries don’t say “Fall” by the way — it’s a US word. They say “Autumn” and much as I like that word, I somehow prefer the monosyllabic “fall” and the sheer surrender it represents. Leaves dancing through the air, falling in a swirl. This is how it was, up in the hills in Aspen groves, with their beautiful white bark and the yellow leaves all elegantly rippling in the wind.
They looked to me like paillettes on dresses, each catching the light. Happy, exuberant even, and completely unhindered by any sort of formal sense. That was it. I danced with them, they dances with me. Losing yourself is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? This is how it should be, with those Aspens.
Another wonderful thing about Aspens is their cosensing and ability to collaborate. An Aspen stand of trees is actually a giant clone network. They are a singular organism, with the ability to share resources, cosense need, and regenerate when parts are dying off.
A Stanford study found that “working collectively on a task can supercharge performance.” How can we encourage that collective mindset, and allow people more chances to see themselves as part of a greater whole? In a time of loneliness and isolation, this message is empowering and needed for sure!
Deer found us nearby, or we found them, bounding through Aspens, literally bouncing to move through the trees. They looked to me like the horses in a surrealist painting, something by Magritte, where they emerge and disappear instantaneously, a Trompe D’Oeil, and we end up laughing with each other. Fanciful.
The closing note is one of Uplift. Some say the Ocean has uplifting properties, the Salt itself a salve of sorts. I tasted salt here, in the heart of the country… my own ocean of rock and salt, iron and ore… obsidian dreams and calming breeze. I’m grateful for the time, the trip, the connection. The love.
Some people will say that the greatest commodity we have in life is time. How we choose to spend it is our greatest gift. I would add that time is nothing without our attention and intention placed on it. The time itself can drift by if we are in a mindless stupor. That said, the ability to hold attention loosely, to bask in reverie, and to let go of a fixation on time itself is part of the skill, nuance and balance that wonder + mindfulness bestows. It’s a practice, even, to name emotions and be with ourselves, attending to the inner landscape, while appreciating that outer world and our belonging in it. Good friends make such a difference on this journey! The greatest lesson is self-love, expansively extending from that core. Ahhhhhhh!!!
Sources and Readings:
Fantastic Fossils Reveal Utah's Cambrian World
Fantastic Fossils Reveal Utah's Cambrian World
Fantastic Fossils Reveal Utah's Cambrian Worldnhmu.utah.edu
Geologic History - Utah Geological Survey
Seas containing fusulinids, brachiopods, and conodonts cover most of Utah. Sediments continue to accumulate in the…
Obsidian is an igneous rock, a volcanic glass used for thousands of years to make cutting tools.
OBSIDIAN IS HOT STUFF By Jim Miller, B.Sc., M.Sc. Geology* Obsidian... even the name is exotic. Ever since I had my…
Tree Profile: Aspen - So Much More Than a Tree
From the Midwest, across Canada, north into Alaska and across the West through to Arizona and New Mexico, quaking…