I arrived in the middle of the night, disoriented by the long empty highway I followed from Grand Junction, Colorado, into Utah. I passed cliffs stained pale green by copper, turnoffs for dozens of ghost towns marked by “No services” signs. I watched the sun sinking behind stark grey mountains. It was July, and over a hundred degrees, but I could still see wisps of snow at their peaks. Clouds hovered over them, mimicking their shapes. There are places in the West where you can drive for two hundred miles without passing a gas station, sometimes without seeing another car. Your mind vibrates in strange new ways in all that space. I could die out here, you realize. If the car broke down. If my cell phone stopped working. If no one stopped to help.
As I drove through the town of Moab, I was reassured by the crowded restaurants and neon signs, the drunk tourists stumbling into the road. Music drifted through the night. I turned down the road where I was staying, and the lights receded in the distance. To my right, moonlight rippled on the Colorado River; to my left, the cliff face loomed, a shadow blocking the stars. My headlights surprised mule deer and revealed cairns by the side of the road. A buck ran along beside me as I drove. By the time I found the right campground, exhausted, and sunk gratefully into my friend’s bed, I was half-convinced I’d dreamt the last few hours.
My first week in Utah, it was hard to breathe. Heat prickled my throat. I hadn’t yet acclimated to the elevation, so hiking was difficult, but I pushed through, exploring the canyons, chasing skittering lizards across the sand with my friend’s dog. I was surrounded by cliffs and stunted trees, the smell of juniper and sunbaked earth. Brightly-colored flowers bloomed amid cactus needles. The cliffs were dusty red, streaked by slicks of iridescent black desert varnish.
My second week in Moab, I was at a café when it started to rain, and everyone ran outside, shouting and laughing, opening their mouths to catch the drops. I’m from Virginia, and it storms there almost every day in the summer; but in the desert the rain was miraculous. It streamed down the faces of the cliffs, formed waterfalls in the fissures between them. The path next to our campground became a muddy, rushing river. The rain washed the Colorado river red. Everything was red, even the sky at dusk that evening.
I slept in an old RV and got used to my feet always being dirty, covered with dust, my skin scummed with sweat and grit. I realized that I didn’t need as many things, to take up as much space as I thought I did. There were bats living in the camp showers, and I had to duck and scurry, brandishing my shampoo bottle in front of me in case they swooped too close. I could hear scratching sounds inside the RV at night. I had to go into town to make phone calls.
I found secret swimming holes, deep crevices in the rocks where I floated on my back and watched planes make trails through the sky. I stood under pounding waterfalls, the water so cold it made me gasp. I drove to the mountains to escape the heat. It was a totally different climate up there, at least twenty degrees cooler than the desert around it. The trees, the smell of wood and leaves reminded me of home. The higher I got, the heavier my limbs felt. Suddenly the path opened, revealing a field of purple wildflowers. Herds of cattle grazed and bellowed. They all stared at me in unison as I walked by. I thought about the fact that cows kill more people than sharks every year.
I didn’t go home when I had originally planned. I got a job working at a restaurant on a cliff above the town. The building used to be the home of the town’s most famous man, who got rich mining uranium in the 50s. I got to watch the sun dip below the cliffs every night, see all the lights of the town blink on. I saw my first scorpion run across the floor while drying glasses in the kitchen one night. On my nights off, I sat in the camp chair outside the RV and watched the sky change, the sun set behind hoodoos, the birds gliding high above me, until the stars came out, as bright and close as I’d ever seen them. Camp fires winked and dogs barked in the distance. I soon lost count of all the shooting stars I’d seen. I was all out of wishes.
About the Author: Adriane Hanson is a writer and artist from Richmond, Virginia. She has worked as a turtle-walker, teacher, editor, and lifeguard. She is currently at work on a novel.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.