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Canyons of the Imagination

Jeff clay canyonlandsI once went on a teenage wilderness trip to chase glossy photos of the West. It was my first time in the burned, twisted canyons of Utah. What I got was my own crow’s nest a deathly distance above the Colorado River, and a sense of unimaginable places over the horizon. That September, I returned to Chicago, my home. The streets felt like desiccated riverbeds and the skyscrapers blocked out the sun like glassy canyon walls. Red rock was everywhere, a spot that stuck to my eye after I’d stared into a bright light.

I’ve been back half a dozen times. Soon after that first trip my family travelled to Moab, the boiling desert port of Southeast Utah. It looked to me like Earth’s Tatooine, only with ice cream outposts and drive-in motels. I remember teasing a girl on the main drag of the town because I had a crush I didn’t understand what to do with, and she got me back with itchy powder from a magic-trick store. On that same trip we went to stare at rock paintings. As I tried to guess what had changed since 1200 AD, the crowd started chirping. Some onlooker had stumbled backwards onto a chipmunk. I cried while my father magnanimously videotaped it dying, fending off my pleas that he let it pass without an audience. “It’s an experience,” he explained. That night he sulked on his foamy motel bed because my mom had made him jettison the tape. 

Years later I floated out again from the silent mesas of the desert. I was the captain of a van full of kids, and they were all asleep, their heads on each other’s shoulders. I’d been one of them on my first trip to the West. Now I was the leader, and I was swimming in some kind of lucid daydream where I could recall things while experiencing them for the first time. The sun seemed to rise again and again. My imagination flowed across the desert plane, plunging over cliffs, swirling up hoodoos, and came back carrying a blueprint of the entire region.

These canyon moments have collapsed into one glowing ball of memory, a thing that bobs forever off the coast of time. But this can’t preserve the real desert expanse, in many people’s eyes an obstacle to oil, gas, and potash development. I hope we can keep them safe, because I want to scare myself on eerie desert nights for the rest of my life.

--Jake Abrahamson/ image courtesy of Jeff Clay

This post is part of a series on threatened American landscapesPresident Obama can protect the Canyonlands area by naming it a national monument under the Antiquities Act. Sierra Club activists across the West are encouraging him to do so. Follow the campaign at www.sierraclub.org/habitat.

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