In Happy Trails, my last post before I left on vacation, I anticipated collecting stories while I was away. But one of the wonders of travel is its element of surprise: I didn’t collect so many stories as I collected pages and pages of words. Southwest Utah is beautiful and strange, a place where geology left me slack-jawed with wonder and awe. The only way I could make sense of what saw was to learn the words that explain it.
Happily, geology is a descriptive science, and the language of the discipline is pure delight: lithification describes the processes by which loose sediment hardens into rock; erosion eats away at a plateau, forming a canyon; an arroyo is a dry watercourse; the slot canyon I hiked was a wet one, with the Virgin River washing through it. I saw escarpments and buttresses, pinnacles, valley floors. I saw evidence of sedimentation, faults, uplifts and anticlines, volcanic eruptions and aeolian erosion – the force of wind over time – wearing down rock as if it were a well-used bar of soap.
Whether it was water or wind that whittled the rock, the result was wild with beauty. At Bryce Canyon National Park, sandstone has been washed and blown away, leaving a landscape of hoodoos – the stone pillars that remain after the wind and water wear away the land. The only way to make sense of the landscape was to seek metaphors: the hoodoos stood like sentinels, like chess pieces, like columns, flying buttresses, minarets, towers, steeples, the dome of a mosque. The stone was melting like so many candles, dissolving, like pillars of salt. Advancing like an army. Holding steady like Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. It was almost impossible to see the stone qua stone; it always appeared as something else. Even the park rangers had names to identify landforms: Chinese Wall; Queen Victoria; Christopher Columbus; Fairyland Canyon.
This landscape also taught me chemistry and color. Where water seeps from the rocks, minerals leach out: calcium carbonate makes white; ferrous oxide red; copper sulfate green. It’s a Kodachrome landscape, with White Cliffs and coral pink sand dunes and sagebrush scrub.
The flowers were another source of amazement, growing in soil that was little more than rock dust, parched by the sun and rationed to fifteen inches of water all year. Yet the biodiversity was astounding, and I bought myself a field guide in an attempt to learn the poetry of names: Greenleaf manzanita, juniper, ponderosa pine, aspen and aster, cedar, scrub oak, thistle, columbine, lobelia, holly, box elder, corymbed buckwheat, cliffrose, sacred datura. I saw broom snakeweed, slenderleaf rabbitbrush, yellow beeplant, Freemont’s mahonia, crescent milkvetch and storksbill.
I saw new fauna as well: magpies and ravens, mule deer and bison, Steller’s Jays and one giant, wild, California Condor. I stuffed my notebook with all these new words and learned as much as I could about this desert ecosystem: how it was formed, how it keeps changing, how it was settled, how it’s threatened and how it’s being protected.
I don’t know what I’ll do with all these verbal souvenirs of my trip. I know that simply turning them over in my mouth gives me great aural pleasure. They also remind me how much I love language – the raw material of my work. And they may serve as the source of future metaphors, just as the hiking I did was like writing a new book. Putting one foot in front of the other on the narrow path leading up to Observation Point in Zion National Park was easy; looking over the edge was not. Heights make me dizzy, and my faith in the power of gravity to keep me secure in my boots wavered. I feared that somehow, I’d be pulled over the edge. I didn’t think about hitting the ground; it’s the fall I’m afraid of, of being so completely out of control.
But I battled fear with metaphor. Climbing a narrow trail blasted from rock is not too different from writing a book: challenging, relentless, on the edge. But the sense of wonder! The accomplishment! I practiced embracing my fears. That’s what I’ll keep in mind – that beckoning edge – as I buckle down to the scary hike into a new story. After a great vacation, I’m ready to face the blank page again.
Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story” set in Vermont in 1964. She is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio and teaches for the Vermont Humanities Council. Learn more at her website: www.deborahleeluskin.com