| May 26, 2016

I believe that curiosity, wonder, and passion are defining qualities of imaginative minds and great teachers; that restlessness and discontent are vital things; and that intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways less intense emotions can never do. ~Kay Redfield Jamison

I had to visit the canyon again, not for any reason I could name, but because something in me felt I needed to. I didn’t need to do anything there, I just needed to be there. Something in me wanted to know what flowers were in bloom, how deep the water was, whether the spring passerines have arrived, and how weather and light and rock might conspire. I needed to be a part of it, to witness it, to not just see it with my eyes but to feel it with my nose and my skin and my ears; to forgo reason and rationale and to just yield to the siren call of solitary wildness.

So I went. And the dog came with me.

I was not in the best of moods; I have been sick for some time, uninspired and unproductive. I did not go intending to photograph or to write or to do anything in particular; I did not expect to be healed or redeemed or even cheered; I just needed to stop resisting the draw that rocks and water and cottonwood trees hold over me. And I was grateful to be able to do just that. In other times it was not as easy. I recall sitting in offices and meeting rooms, my mind attempting to focus on some inane task, struggling and failing to ignore the rattle of such urgent questions as whether the indigo bushes were already in bloom, and such pressing existential needs as gazing into the night sky from a quiet desert camp where no evidence of other human presence is perceptible.

As I drove, my thoughts still struggled for purchase at the edge of an abyss of sickness and morass. And then a light rain came, and with it petrichor and memories and glistening drops on desert flowers. Reunited at camp with an old cottonwood that kept vigil over me on countless nights, I stroked its deeply grooved bark. I arranged my temporary home so I did not have to do it later and then walked into a nearby canyon for the day. The effort of making progress where there was no trail kept my mind occupied for a while until I stopped for a break at a large alcove. Realizing I noticed little on the way in other than the branches and chockstones that obstructed my path, I wondered what voices called me here. I shed a tear, kissed the dog, and kept walking.

I scrambled up a steep sandstone slope to arrive at the top of a cliff on the other side, ordered the dog to stay and put my toes to the edge. Far below, a desert river cut a massive canyon en route to the Colorado: a narrow band of green snaking among immense layers of colorful earth and sheer rock. It is a country that demands attention. It either scares you or fascinates you, and sometimes both at the same time. With familiarity established slowly in the course of years, I made friends with this place. Its sheer immensity is now comforting to me, not in the sense of being protective but in asserting without ambiguity that time forgives and erases all inadequacies.

I found foothold below the rim, wrapped my fingers around a solid hold and leaned over the edge. An errant thought, a loosening of just one muscle, and I can embark on the swan dive of all swan dives, hundreds of feet, past hundreds of millions of years of spectacular geology, to rest forever with this beautiful river and what it will yet become as the eons unfold. Not today; not for a long time. But with the fragility and transience of my existence made so vividly clear, a great burden was lifted. I get to live, to feel, to perceive, to contemplate and to understand, to be happy and scared, to love and to experience. I am no longer a sick and mournful animal beset by discomfort and ennui; I am, for the moment, immortal, and without a care for what the next moment might bring. Right now, my spirit hovers above a grand spectacle, all my senses satiated and aroused and inspired, and I am intensely alive without need for further context or aspiration, my being filled to capacity with exhilarating sensations. The sirens were right. I needed this.

It is a worthwhile thing for a person to ponder, I think. Knowing that such things are to be had, would you put your livelihood on the line to experience something as this? What about your life? Can you ever truly call yourself free until you can answer such questions in the affirmative? If only to yourself. If only in your darkest and loneliest moments.

I pulled myself back. I was not healed or changed, but I was again me.

Back at camp I lit a small fire and watched as the warm light faded from the red walls and a gentle night took its place. Time to cook dinner and attend to the last of the bourbon. Not far from me, artists of the past left their marks in the rock—people like me whose names and thoughts, loves and fears, are long beyond recall. And in my mind, more art and wisdom is stored from those whose lives and work I found inspiring along my journey. My learned friend Nietzsche was sick, too, and lonelier than I will ever be, as I was fortunate to make friends with solitude since my formative years. Young Everett, wise beyond his years, is not all lost to me as he may be to some. Sit closer to the fire, Mr. Seneca, you may be cold in these robes. Toss that powdered wig into the blaze, Herr Mozart, we have much to talk about and I am not big on etiquette and ceremony, and frankly you look a bit ridiculous.

Another swig and then another, alternating my gaze between the starry heavens and the dancing flames, talking to the dog and to the tree, and to the spirits; listening to the crackle of burning wood and to classical music, and to a few old and new favorites. There may have also been some air guitar and air sax at some points, perhaps even a little dancing. And then I ran out of liquor and went to bed.

What was your Friday like?

Rock, Light, River

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (12)

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  1. Mary says:

    I read this just now after having written you on a more personal note. This is beautiful… There are no words to describe my thoughts on this writing.

  2. Mark says:

    A medicinal night in eloquent detail Guy, yet I found myself asking one question. Your dog’s name?

  3. Doug says:

    Thanks for taking me to that place I have been so many times, mentally while not the same location. What a great break from a messed up day in the office. I need to get outdoors and take it in.

  4. Margaret says:

    ” . . . the siren call of solitary wildness.” I love that line and relate to that pull to be spend time alone in a wild place. I am reborn each time I go.

  5. Todd Reed says:

    My Friday? Feeling that same tug, I left work at 2pm, 2hr 15 min later was standing under a cloud filled sky at Glacier point, in Yosemite, 37 degrees, with a few snowflakes falling, but shafts of sunlight painting Half Dome with rapid moving light bands. Almost as if God was doing light painting! Started a short hike up the hill, but ran across a large cinnamon bear, so I turned around and headed back to wait for moonrise. 2 roles of B&W film and one role of medium format Ektar, and my tank was filled. So no solitude (except for the short hike and bear sighting) but some fun people watching, and the smells of rain, fresh pine and cedar trees, and the tactile feel of the wind and gentle touch of a few snow flakes. My soul refreshed!

  6. Lori Ryerson says:

    Why doesn’t it remotely surprise me that your familiar is the colour of Utah rock, on legs?

    Fairly certain the canyon is your version of a smoothie, filled with all the goodness you need to nourish the hard-to-reach places. Paraphrasing for a 2nd time today (from myself this time): you’re like a dowsing tool seeking a plasma transfusion, refueling from the canyon wilderness.

    You already know I’m not a big fan of edges.

  7. Luis Afonso says:

    This time… only this time… the photograph at the end of the words was not needed.

  8. Literary beauty, Guy. I hope you’re moving back toward the center.

  9. Jim Crotty says:

    Just to venture forth and simply be, without expectations. That’s where and when we discover – or re-discover – the artist in the photographer. And we all have our “go to” places for such beautiful and simple endeavors. I have mine here in Ohio. It is a privilege to be able to do this, venturing off on our own to woods and wilderness. Nature and landscape photographers sometimes take it for granted. Let’s face it, you, like me, have headed out to the woods or up to the mountains on our own probably way before we could even drive. For a very many it is a frightening prospect. Thank you for sharing what is you discover on your journeys, whether it be photographically or expressed in written word. Inspiration, connection and the magic that happens when you just go with your gut and your heart. It’s pretty cool.

  10. Norm St. Landau says:

    Thanks for letting me tag a long a bit on this trek, Guy. What comforting and valuable guidance.