Craig Childs - House of Rain
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Field Notebook
Field Notebook

Looking for Shelter
Spring, 2009

I am driving alone on the long red road that crosses the San Rafael Desert, low deck of spring clouds sliding by. Everything is wet and richly colored. Calf-deep drifts of sand like across the road from last week's terrific winds. It is like driving through pillows at 30 mph.

Lonely thumbs of Entrada sandstone.

Forty miles along, a swift snowstorm comes on. The long red road and the big red desert around it turn bone white. A sideroad leads to a swell of Navajo sandstone, bedrock to park on. For a moment I conisder putting down the seats and sleeping in the back, but it sounds confined and unpleasant compared to a night at the edge of a canyon. I know of an ornately-eroded rock shelter I've climbed up to in the past. That was about 15 years ago, now coming in from the top. The clock on the Pathfinder reads 6 pm. I hurry along. Rather than packing in the storm, I take off my boots and crawl through the vehicle like a cosmonaut, stuffing this and that into my pack.

Out across slick Navajo domes, the snow gathers and melts in a good, cold wind out of the north. Meltweter leaves sends out fresh riveulettes in the sand, and filled waterpockets, clean heads of foam floating on top. I keep rehearsing in my head what it will feel like to walk straight to these cave-arches, congratulating the compass of my body, but poking down one bedrock draw after the next I see my compass is off. The canyon below sails out from under me, 200-foot plunges down Navajo butresses.

The black lichens are the slickest when wet.

Now, running, I feel like I'm missing the light. Running, backtracking, walking to the slippery edges and peering down into overhung mouths of cliff below.

Now, getting dark, I hear a song in the back of my head. Very faint, it is the alphabet song, one I've been singing to Jaden about this time every night while brushing his teeth. A letter for every bootstep up a bald knob of rock. I drop my pack and run out on sandstone fins until I finally see a black whorl below, the opening of an arch. Go back, get my pack.

I remember there being a way straight down into these natural shelters, but all I can barely see is a bad plunge. Damn, wrong again. I hunt a sneak-route and in the very last light find it, approaching this 5-hole arch the proper way, from below.

It is a mansion in here, interconnected passages at the cliffed-in head of the canyon. I lay out my bag on a flat boulder inside one of these aortal arches, sit in my nest. The canyon frames a short piece of the Green River where a week ago I was paddling with Regan and boys. Right now, I miss the deep emotion of Jade's face, and Jasper's diamond brightness, and Regan's quick, easy laughter. But I am glad to be alone, the world gently falling into night, snow falling across the mouth of my cave.

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