It is early—10:30am—when we lock the door behind us. I adjust the rear and side view mirrors while the car warms up, but I don’t look back until we’re speeding forward at 75mph. The canyon walls blur to a pulp. Eighteen-wheelers lumber along next to us, their license plates a grade school geography quiz. What states border Colorado? To the west, where we are headed, there is the Utah desert and even before we cross that imaginary line and pass the Welcome! sign, I notice the blur changing from orange to beige. Stratified walls no longer prevent distant gazes. Instead, wrinkled dunes heap dust into the pale yellow sky; sagebrush dominates the otherwise bald, coagulated crust; the haze stretches achingly deep into the horizon, which beckons, as if winking, for us to wander further into the emptiness.
I know there is something hiding here. Within the somewhat boring landscape there is treasure. I sense it growing closer after a few hours of driving. The road speeds so quickly beneath us and the radio turns so quickly from decent rock to tear-jerking country, that I don’t immediately realize we have entered Utah. Soon, the infernal wailing catches my ear. There is no mistaking the tumbleweed and barbed wire fencing of cattle country. We discuss the various advantages and disadvantages of cows. Main advantage: steak. Main disadvantage: insurmountable environmental degradation. We both agree, like most of the country, that we hate cows but that we love steak. At least we are aware of our hypocrisy. The barbed wire zooms past and the gas tank slowly drains as we curse the cattle farmers and eat Cheetos by the handful. Freya says the neon orange morsels are disgusting. She even begged me not to buy them when we were getting provisions for the trip, but now that I have opened the bag and am licking the sticky “cheese” from my fingertips, she can’t help but enjoy a few. Whether it is from MSG overdose or from the meandering road, we are both feeling a little sick by the time we see the sign for Moab. Somewhere in this depressing landscape, there must be treasure.
Almost instantly, after turning left—South—towards the darkly polished sandstone, we forget our queasy stomachs and become enthralled by the rapidly hardening scenery. Wispy sagebrush becomes lumpy stone; clumps of dust become enormous rhomboid boulders. The road gets skinny and the sky gets closer and our eyes begin moving and searching instead of staying glued straight ahead. Arches like eyebrows wink sunshine from outcrops of red fragmented stone. Cracks in pavement augment cracks in towers. My butt hurts from sitting in the car so long and I want to go explore. The rock and sand is so different, so new to me. I simply want to touch it, to feel the texture on the palm of my hand, the coldness of a shadowed splitter on the back of my knuckles.
But it will have to wait. Justin and Martina, college friends of mine, are already waiting for us in Moab. After all, we will have the whole week to explore, so we pass the columns and arches without stopping and soon arrive at City Market, where I greet Justin and Martina, who I have not seen in over a year, with muscle-bound hugs.
Reuniting with Justin and Martina begins with small pleasantries, but we don’t waste time. We get reacquainted while purchasing camping essentials: beer, cheap wine, water, rotisserie chicken. I am appalled by the obscene cost of alcohol. “They charge for beer by the bottle?” I ask, wide eyed.
“Yeah man. This is Utah. Mormons,” says Justin.
“What is wrong with these people? They don’t even keep it cold!” I say, a little too loudly, in the corner of the liquor store. But the cashier doesn’t seem to mind, although she does ask to see our ID’s. Justin, with his mad scientist curls, looks about ready to snap in the frame of his driver’s license.
“Look, I even wore a collared shirt, but they just cut it out. I was pissed,” he says, showing me the photo.
“I can tell,” I say. I grab the bottle of cheap red sauce and toss it amongst towels and pillows in the car.
“Next stop: The Creek!” says Justin.
“We’ll follow you.”
The creek that he is referring to is, of course, Indian Creek, a mysterious and glamorous destination that seems more suited to the cover of Climbing Magazine than it does to the “X” on our map. Nevertheless, we are driving there this afternoon and tomorrow morning we will be climbing there. As the lines on the road tick past like paces on a treasure map, I drift amongst the spotless stone that I imagine being there; I try to climb more with my feet than with my hands, hoping that the visualization will help me tomorrow. My imagination is based on pictures I have seen, on stories I have heard, of cracks that climb hundreds of feet without changing width, of stone as smooth as a clean-shaven cheek. I am excited, charged by anticipation, but I am also anxious, maybe even a little frightened. It has been months since I climbed cracks. The techniques and strengths are slightly foreign upon remembering. I have forgotten what it feels like to jam my palm into a slot and to squeeze, instead of pull, for purchase. Perhaps I have forgotten what true splitters even look like.
I search the distances for a reminder, an example to jog my memory, but the landscape betrays nothing. Not far outside of Moab, the sandstone formations have disappeared and we are left traveling through sagebrush and dunes and barded wire again. Even gazing far ahead I can find no sign of hundred-foot walls. The desert is almost completely flat. It is so disconcerting that I actually ask Freya, “Where are we going?” And my voice does not echo, but falls eerily silent, as if diluted by space.
Now, as if on cue, Justin’s right taillight blinks commandingly and the road we take begins descending beneath the open range. Crossing cattle guards, we enter a labyrinthine world of vast canyons and steep formations regaled in evening sunlight and gossamer clouds. We have found our hidden treasure and it is inexhaustible. Thousands, perhaps even millions, of cracks adorn the sun burnt sandstone towers like pinstripes on a boss’ suit. Later, Justin tells me about the first time he came here:
“Martina and I were arguing about something stupid. We were yelling at each other, really getting into it, but when we came around that first corner and saw the walls, we both shut up instantly. We were totally silent after that. The argument was over and we just stared in awe at everything.”
Although Freya and I are not arguing, our reaction is identical. Drop-jawed, we stare and point and stare and point. If I was nervous before, now I am terrified. The walls are huge and the stone, at least from this angle, looks as polished as chrome. Friction seems impossible. I’m sweaty but a shiver runs down my spine. The shiver is invigorating. Anyway, this is what we are here for: to get scared shitless and overcome it; to jam and balance and scream our way up some world class rock; to climb and fall and get better and get stronger. This is our version of a good time.
We tail Justin and Martina—they are driving a blue Forerunner—down a gravel road. The canyon we are following is like a giant mortise in the earth and I can’t imagine what sort of magnificent tenon might fit into it. There is climbing everywhere, on both sides of the canyon. Cars are parked in turnouts along the road and when we slow down we can see figures on the formations above, tiny spiders rhythmically ascending the massive fractures.
We don’t have time to stop. We don’t have time to climb today. The sun will soon fall behind the desert towers and all warmth will disappear with it. The desert will go from scorching to freezing in less than an hour and when this happens we want to have a fire already built; we want to have our cars unpacked and our beds set up and a warm meal cooking. Justin leads us along an unmarked, pot-holed road. Deep indentations are no problem for the Forerunner and the Subaru does fine too, but we have to go slowly. Rumbling down a steep hill that is rutted with flood marks, we arrive at a small, dusty plateau that is perched serenely above the guttural waters of a creek. Cottonwood trees protect the creek like umbrellas. Whether this little creek is the Indian Creek, I do not know, but judging from the characteristic majesty of the walls that surround us, it very well could be.
Martina attends to the fire building while the rest of us unpack and organize the obscene amount of gear that we carry with us. By the time she has a living flame, the sun has disappeared, but our stoves are primed, our beds—camping pads in the back of the car—are set up, and Justin is already sipping on his second can of beer.
We huddle around the fire while we cook. The smell of garlic mixes with the flavor of Modelo Especial. The stars mix with sparks. All this mixing calms my emotions. I cannot say that my anxiety leaves completely, but it no longer dominates me. I am now in a much calmer state of anticipation. When I visualize the splitter cracks, I know what moves to make. In my mind, my hands fit perfectly and deeply into the fracture and my feet stick painlessly to the wall. I do nothing except climb. It comes easily.
After a stomach-swelling dinner of rice and vegetables, sleep does too. Even though I must lie diagonally in order to stretch out fully in the back of the Subaru, I have no trouble getting comfortable. I feel like we have come a long distance, but all in one day, and I know that tomorrow we will find what we came for. Tomorrow, we will get to touch the treasure.