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Back to Basics

"There's nothing wrong with the desert." Great opening line and a true statement especially in the middle of winter. In fact, the things that can be wrong with the desert are not so wrong in the winter months. The poisonous insects and reptiles retreat, the relentless heat is gone, many itchies and scratchies are in semi remission, and the vast miles much more accessible for human navigation. The colors can be awe inspiring. The reds of the rocks and the blues of the sky remain but are augmented by fluffy pockets of snow and the sheen of the daily melt. Birds soar and critters scurry. We went back to the desert recently. And it was fine.

Like a holding tank, Flagstaff was on the way so we stopped in and found a mountain town not too sure of itself. A ski area enjoying its first snow in several years, a basketball team enjoying its first win against a major opponent, a group of coeds who couldn't get into CU, a bagelry fronting a dog rescue program, mostly empty motels. An almost money town with an unseemly underbelly not quite exposed but somehow ever present. Graffiti on a  stall wall said "If you live a lame life, lame things will happen to you." We couldn't agree more. After some decent beer and the forced gaiety of the season, we pointed it across the reservation and headed into the serious desert.

The Colorado was snaking and gray
through the fog and the canyon walls socked us in with the weather. Big fat flakes started to fall and nobody was around. Southeastern Utah is not one of the places to be for New Year's Eve which is why we were there and why we were able to walk down the middle of Main Street singing and hoping to find an open bar. When we found one they gave us hats and honkers and some local girls bared their behinds and bosoms to help welcome in the new year. Dick Clark's face was stretched on a corner set but mum as a corpse and the jukebox screamed with metal. A miner came in from the creeks and said he thought he heard that some JD was being poured. Nobody drank champagne and we were presented with a form to sign. You have to be sponsored by someone in order to get any hard liquor in bars in Utah so the bartender did the paperwork on us and everybody else and eventually dropped down in our booth and took the opportunity to throw her arms around our shoulders. Trying to catch my breath she said. A kid came around offering crudités and admitted that his wrist was sore and he didn't think carrots and cauliflower were what people wanted to start 2003. By the time we made it back to our tents the snow was starting to stick as the river gurgled on.

Up at nine thousand feet on the canyon rim your gear gets put to the test. Funny the things that don't work at minus four degrees. Drinking water is one of them. With no paper and only precious brandy to catch the wood we were glad for the first time that Phoenix is so ridiculously, sprawlingly big. We dug a Phoenix and vicinity map out from under the seat and burned Tempe, Awautuakee, Mesa, Chandler, and Scottsdale and were tearing into Phoenix proper when the the cedar logs finally got roaring. The brandy went to its rightful use and at least the pits of our stomachs were warm. Nothing much to do after the fire dies down other than crawl in your bag and wait it out. Reading is not an option as it exposes patches of skin and your gloved fingers are too clumsy to turn the page. Breath freezes on the mesh of the tent and falls in crystals on your face when you bump the sides. Toes ache with the cold. Finally the sun creeps over the east rim revealing the red spires of Bryce Canyon and we make camp coffee in the can with an Optimus and melting snow. A jay puffed out by winter descends bopping out of the tree to try his luck with some frozen scraps. A cooler half full of exploded beers locked in the ice. And air so pure, breezes so crisp, and distances so clean and vast that there isn't any place else you'd rather be.

Twisting through the core of Utah on Highway 12 we ride up onto a track called the knife's edge, a serrated meander of uplift that falls drastically away on each side. Off to the left are the Henry Mountains, which were the last to be named and explored in the conterminous 48. A herd of wild bison are said to still roam through the Aspen meadows but although the vistas are expansive and visibility incredible we don't locate them through the binoculars. We roll out of Lonesome Beaver into Hanksville. Red labyrinth canyons tufted with snow dabbled with deserted Morman settlements, forgotten orchards, and closed roadside attractions. Calf Creek offers plunging waterfalls and a chance to dunk a head in a bracing stream in order to bask dry against a warming wall of sandstone which rises to the sky like a 1000 ft back rest. A pinion and juniper fire boils lentils and cracks the air adding its aromatic pungency to an already perfect day as a pale ale is pried from the ice and enjoyed as amber slush. Hawks and vultures spiral down on thermals as mule dear poke about in the brush, their eyes ever watchful but their bodies calm as if they can appreciate that we're feeling just fine.

Dropping into Zion in a tunnel with breaks in the side offering aerie views of the valley floor, we begin to notice other people again. People behind. People in front. People pulled over gaping at the scene. It's funny how a few people can seem like an unbearable crowd after a few days in the desert. A ranger has to scold a group of sightseers from Beijing about parking their RV the wrong direction and blocking traffic while trying to photograph themselves with a herd of deer. A family of twelve from Salt Lake careen on training wheels down the center of the road. Zion is a beautiful place and we try to keep our eyes focused about twelve feet off the ground to miss the other featherless bipeds and their accoutrements who have also gathered to gaze at the cathedral like rocks. A river gurgles through and we dunk our heads again near patches of grass that remain. We stop to watch climbers navigate a fissure heading up into the blue. A car honks behind us with a group eager to get the sightseeing moving along and over with. Loneliness sweeps over us when we can't lose the crowds and we decide to join them before real depression sets in. 

If you're going to feel crowded you might as well be somewhere where a crowd adds to the scene. We roll up the windows and tuck it down for Vegas.

"Where the hell ya'll been? Iceland?" The easy reading valet wants to know as he regards us with cool amazement taking in our beards and layered clothing in the 82 degree check-in circle as bottles of still frozen water bounce on the ground and roll under the car. We pile everything on a rolling tress and turn many a head as we sweep through the casino lobby on the way to our suite. "In from the creeks," says a woman. "They look like they might know Jesus," comments another passer by as two scottish girls titter at the spectacle. We slap our man a cool twenty for having to endure our company and he gives a wide smile and says, "rock on brothers." Safe in our rooms, we peel off clothing reeking of sweat and
wood smoke, soak in the in room jacuzzi and head down into the din. The tables looked good. 100 dollars on USC over Iowa giving 5 and a half in the Orange, 100 dollars on Arizona getting two against Oregon in the PAC, $340 on a full house in Let it Ride, $120 off a saucy jack dealer with an attitude that said he shouldn't have to be dealing to the likes of us, $50 on keno during the buffet, and one of us was feeling alright. A fan, seven Benjamin's across helped cool the face as we pointed it towards the Hoover Dam. Expect two hour delays it said.

Laughlin wasn't two hours out of the way so we had to go rollin on the river for a spell. A store across from the spot had underwear, socks, Grand Marnier, cigars, and pale ale. The room was almost free. The dealers were friendly and the tables comfortable. Fifty on the under for the first half and fifty on the over for the game made the flawed Fiesta a bit more interesting. Win. Let it Ride tables and Caribbean Draw. Lose. Five Benjamins later we were rolling across the sun baked scrub and into Wickenberg where we drank pitchers of Coors at the Lariat watching the RV's roll by. Back on the road and rambling towards the white zinfindel sky and home in Tucson where they say her January sun feels like a smile. We pull into Bob Dobbs and relax on the patio sipping Hefeweisen as the evening cools away and the stars come out above the street lights. 

Nope. There's not a thing wrong with the desert.


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