That Beautiful White Space
It’s late April in northern Arizona and the weather is fussy and finicky as spring struggles to throw off the chill and influence of winter. With the arrival of spring, Earth has reshuffled the cards in the weather deck and spring has been dealt a strong hand. Cards of sunshine, cards of warmth, cards of calm. And there are high cards too. Plenty of Aces, Kings, Queens and Jacks.
But winter still holds numerous face cards and a few trump cards, and it has been playing them throughout the month of April. Spring lays down a Four of Radiant Skies, winter lays a Six of Cold Wind. Spring lays down a Nine of Blue Skies, winter lays down a Jack of Bluster and Gray. Spring confidently lays down an Ace of Warm Sunshine, but winter lays down a trump card: Cold Rain. It has gone on like that for the last three weeks. And for the last three days, winter has played Wind, Wind, Wind. But now, at the end of April, Winter has played all its high cards and is nearly out of trump cards.
On the day I set out to explore The Teepees, spring lays down a Queen of Sunny and Warm and plays it with a flourish and confidence that winter can’t top.
I am at the Wire Pass trailhead. From here, hikers depart on day trips to Buckskin Gulch or The Wave. At 9:00 a.m. it’s already 65 degrees and sunny, and the forecast calls for the temperature to reach 74 degrees Fahrenheit by afternoon. Several of us are gathered at the trailhead filling out fee envelopes and trail registers. We are merry in the way of hikers embarking on a blue-sky day of adventure-seeking, exploration and discovery. The groups gathered at the fee station ask cheerily about the destinations of their fellow hikers, from where they have travelled and what other destinations they plan on visiting during their trips to the American southwest.
“What about you,” one of them asks me. They’re all wearing small daypacks and they have noticed my full-sized, well-stuffed backpack sitting on the ground. It has made them curious.
“I’m going to a place called The Teepees,” I say.
“I’ve never heard of that. Where is it?”
“It’s out past The Wave,” I reply. “Another couple of hours of walking beyond it.”
The Teepees, I explain to them, is a cluster of conical, teepee-shaped sandstone features, each one rising 200 or 250 feet out of the desert floor, clustered in a tight group like chess pieces pushed into a corner.
“That sounds like an amazing place,” one of them says.
“I hope it is,” I say. “I’ve never been there, but I’m sure it won’t disappoint.”
I put my $6 trail fee in an envelope and slide it into the slot of the self-pay box. I then hoist my backpack onto my back, take hold of my hiking staff, and step from the trailhead onto the trail.
I wish the group “Safe travels!” as I walk away, and they call out “Cheers!” They are a happy group, and if I joined them on their hike I know I would have a great time. But I’m hiking solo , and that makes me even happier. Later I will enter a part of the desert I’ve never explored before and when I enter it, I plan to walk across it slowly, mindfully. I want to take photos of interesting things I see along the way. I want to make marks on my map, and notes in my notebook. I expect to have encounters with awe and wonder and when that happens, I want to pause and acknowledge it. I want to sit with it peacefully. I want to partake of the moments like a holy sacrament. I want to be present, silent, and reverent. All these aims will be better served, and more readily achieved if I’m alone.
I am at a place on the Paria Plateau, a little tectonic island inside the Colorado Plateau which is itself a transient plateau that acts independently of other surrounding plates.
The Wire Pass trailhead, where I parked my Jeep and paid my trail fee, is located at the extreme southern border of Utah. During the course of my walk, I will cross into northern Arizona, a land of sand and sandstone. I follow a sandy trail that winds around juniper trees, bordered by purple sage, silver sage, green ephedra, narrow-leaf yucca, millet grass. When I walk by some wild mint, I strip off a handful, crush it in my hands by rubbing my palms together, and spread the crushed bits down the length of my arms and the back of my neck. The beautiful globemallows started blooming this week and they have filled the air with their sweet, nectary scent. The wind, which has churned the desert and dunes for the last three days, has released the mineral smell of the sand.
I walk in the rock-strewn gully bottom of Wire Pass for a mile, where a new trail breaks off and meanders in a southeasterly direction. Hikers can continue walking east through Wire Pass until they connect with Buckskin Gulch or take the new trail which leads to The Wave. I take the trail leading to the Wave, though it’s not my final destination. The new trail climbs out of the wash and up onto a sharp ridge known as the East Kaibab monocline. The monocline was formed millions of years ago during a seismic event that lifted three layers of rock – Navajo Sandstone, Kayenta Sandstone, Chinle Shale – into the air and left them exposed, tilted on their sides. The ridge is known by locals as the Cockscomb because it resembles the “comb” on a rooster’s head. The Cockscomb starts at the San Francisco Peak (near Flagstaff, Arizona) and runs north 150 miles and terminates at Bryce Canyon. The ridge I’m standing on is an exposed edge of Kayenta Sandstone. From the ridge I can look a short distance west and see the Chinle Shale, a geologic layer that, had it not been uplifted, would lie beneath the Kayenta layer. If I look just a quarter mile to the east, I see Navajo Sandstone, the layer that sits atop the Kayenta layer.
I spend a couple minutes on top of the ridge enjoying the view while I catch my breath, then continue eastward across the sandy trail. In the span of less than a mile I walk across three geologic layers that were deposited between 200 million years ago (Chinle Shale) and 180 million years ago (Navajo Sandstone).
The trail slopes gently down the face of the Kayenta Sandstone into the bottom of a wash, the demarcation between the Kayenta and Navajo Sandstone. Because of the seismic uplift, this section of the Navajo Sandstone is a sharp fin that ranges in height from 150 to 700 feet. The trail follows the path of least resistance and crosses the Cockscomb fin over its lowest point, a saddle about 150 feet tall. I am breathing heavy when I reach the top of it, and I again pause to catch my breath. I’ve also warmed up during the walk and remove my backpack and take off my jacket. I fold it up and tuck it into my backpack.
The ridge I’m standing on is on top of the easternmost strata of the Cockscomb. I am essentially standing atop a tall wall with an uninterrupted view to the east of wide open, empty desert. Because of the air’s low humidity, I can see for miles. A few beer mug foam clouds hang in the blue sky. The desert is silent this morning. Not so much as the wind blowing through the bushes. A silent desert is one of my favourite sounds. Perhaps a better way to phrase that, since there is no sound to hear, is a silent desert is one of my favourite auditory sensations. Somehow a silent desert contains more silence than other silences. I can feel awe and reverence emanating from the desert like heat from a wood stove.
After the short rest, I re-shoulder my backpack and walk down the eastern slope of the wall of cockscomb, steep as a black-diamond ski slope. At the bottom of the steep sandstone fin, I turn south, still on the route that leads to The Wave. The route follows along the base of the Cockscomb. Two short fingers of rock extend east away from the Cockscomb wall requiring that I climb each one. At the top of the first, I get my first glimpse of The Teepees, two and a half miles southeast of me. From this vantage, I see their shadowed north side, which makes them look gloomy, foreboding, and bigger than they are. From the top of the ridge, I also see a group of four hikers ahead of me on their way to the Wave. They’re far away and small, but their bright, colourful backpacks make them stand out against the desert’s dull orange rock.
From this point on, the scenery gets much more intense, much more vivid, and much more dramatic. This part of the Navajo Sandstone has been shaped and sculpted by wind and water erosion for millennia. Because of the uplift, snow accumulates on the top of Cockscomb and runs quickly off its sides, which has carved several gullies. And the centuries of wind have sculpted the sandstone into numerous conical-shaped geologic features.
I have a side gig guiding tourists to scenic destinations in this part of northern Arizona and southern Utah. I take them to Buckskin Gulch, White Pocket, Yellow Rock, South Coyote Buttes, and The Wave, so, I have hiked this path 20 or 30 times. The morning light really brings out the colours of the sandstone. I stop a few times to take photos of the terrain.
From the place where I paused atop the first overlook, I spend 40 minutes traversing south along the base of the Cockscomb fin until I reach the place where I will leave the trail that leads to The Wave and take the route that goes to The Teepees.
Before I step onto the new route, before I step into an area I haven’t yet explored, before I enter that beautiful white space, I pause to acknowledge and enjoy this threshold moment.
To the explorer, to the curious, to the adventurer, there are few things more alluring than a blank spot on a map. We, humans, like being the first to go somewhere new, the first to try something new. The first man to climb Everest. The first woman to fly an aeroplane across the Pacific. A certain prestige and honour follow such an accomplishment. It’s humanity’s oldest story, what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey: when a curious member of the tribe strikes out into the unknown for the simple reason of discovering what’s there and returning to the village with the news – and grand adventure stories – of what he or she discovered.
Perhaps what we find in this new land will be a big discovery. A Copernicus-caliber discovery. Something that changes the way we think, the way we do things, the way we perceive our world, our universe. Ourselves.
When I was a young man, I daydreamed I lived during what I believed to be the great age of exploration, around the time when Columbus sailed to the new world, and when Magellan embarked to circumnavigate the globe. Intrigued by that age of exploration, I have read about it extensively and learned that the vast majority of the journeys made during that period were motivated not by curiosity, not by the joy of discovery nor expanding our knowledge of the world, but most often by greed. The explorers of that age were much more likely to burn, sack, plunder, and conquer any new city they came upon – and attempt to convert its inhabitants to their religion, murder, or enslave them—rather than settle in and learn from its natives. Plain old colonialism.
Now that I possess that knowledge, I much prefer our contemporary age of exploration. Striking out with men and women who are driven by curiosity, a quest for knowledge, and broader understanding. Not armed with swords and muskets but armed with notepads and questions.
There is no thrill greater than that of standing at the edge of what has been mapped. Right there, where the known butts up against the unknown, and your day’s journey takes you and your curious companions into uncharted territory.
It’s the unknown, of course, the mystery, that makes the blank spots on a map so intriguing. It’s the unknown and all the emotions that accompany it. Wonder. Fear. Anxiety. Anticipation. Awe. And don’t forget those incomparable moments of magic. In our current age of exploration, we’re not going to discover any new lands, but we’ll still get to discover for ourselves the beauty of the land itself. Reason enough to assemble your Argonauts and set sail.
Don’t worry that you won’t be the first to see Yellowstone’s geysers, or be the first to raft down the Colorado River. Being the hundred-thousandth person to wake up in a Yosemite meadow is still pretty great. When it’s your first time, it’s white space to you!
Some people are born with a key (Curiosity is its name) that unlocks mysterious doors. Some use the key and are frightened or perplexed by what they find on the other side and hide the key away forever. Others turn the key in the lock of the mysterious door, and they’re thrilled by the amazing things they find on the other side. They keep the key on a necklace around their neck and let it hang over their heart, where it burns against their bosom until it’s again taken up and used. And how could you not use it? You might unlock the secret door and find only a cellar full of potatoes, but you may find a magic portal. Some passages open onto a maze. Some open onto a long series of corridors where one door opens onto another, onto another, onto another.
But really, what’s the point of exploring in this age when everything has already been mapped, and has since been re-mapped with aerial photographs and re-mapped again with satellites and GPS?
Where does that leave us, modern-day, explorers? Why even call ourselves explorers? Sure, we can go Out There but we won’t find anything new. Wouldn’t it be more accurate just to call ourselves tourists? Well, there are tourists and there are explorers, and they often visit the same places, but their experiences are vastly different.
Exploration has always been about going forth with the intent of bringing something back. Some voyages set forth looking for riches, but the best ones go seeking knowledge. Some voyages make a discovery that can be catalogued into the world’s inventory of knowledge, such as a new species of salamander or a new nebula. But most discoveries one makes Out There will be purely personal, without any scientific value, but are valuable to the growth of the human spirit, and to the individual who made the discovery on the voyage.
The exploration of the human spirit is ongoing, so long as we have wild places to challenge us. Exploration and discovery are the rays and rain that allow us to bloom. Yes, the world has been explored, but it hasn’t been explored by me. Just because I won’t be the first person to explore the Escalante River doesn’t make me want to explore it any less. And I’m sure that I’ll make great discoveries of great value to myself. And by going into these new places (new to me), I may even map some of the white space of my inner landscape. This is why I explore. Why we explore. To learn more about who we are, what we’re capable of, and to expand our minds, our thresholds, our borders, and our love and appreciation for this amazing planet and the fascinating creatures and humans who share it with us. These are the most meaningful and noble goals of exploration.
As I stand on the trail to The Wave, about to step off it into a vast, empty desert, I know I won’t fill in any blank spots on any maps but there will still be other blank spots I’ll fill in as I go. I hope.
I carry with me a thick journal. Its leaves are still white, blank; just waiting for the pen. And tonight, at the end of my day’s explorations, I hope to sit around a campfire and fill in those blank pages with the details and anecdotes of my day’s adventure and discoveries, its hardships and triumphs. And tomorrow morning I’ll arise again, hoist my backpack onto my back, look down the long, sandy trail and wonder: What story will I find today? How thrilling, how wonderful will be the story I add to pages of my journal tonight?
I also have a blank memory card in my camera that I’ll fill with images from this amazing adventure. And when I complete the journey, I’ll print those pictures and fill in the white spaces on my walls back home with photos of this and many other adventures, and my fellow adventurers.
I have a lot of white spaces in my life. What about my passport? I want to fill in the white pages of my passport with stamps from around the world. To the explorer, to the curious, to the adventurer there are few things more alluring than a blank spot.
I also have a couple of bookshelves in my living room with blank shelves. The bottom five rows are filled with books, but the top two rows of each bookcase are reserved for the strange little knick-knacks and talismans I find out in the deserts, woods, and rivers.
The shelves in my home office already contain a rusty tin Spam can I found during a fishing trip deep in the Uintas. A rubber duck I found during a Colorado River trip. Pinecones from a backpacking trip to Cedar Mountain. A rusty can from an old cowboy camp outside of Arches National Park. Seashells, driftwood, antique bottles, an antler, polished river stones, Moqui marbles, heart-shaped rocks, a bird’s nest, a rusty spark plug, and an antique skeleton key. To anyone else, it must look like a collection of junk. But it’s not. Each item is attached to a fond memory of a grand adventure. When I look at the rubber duck, my memory flashes back to that wonderful river trip. When I look at the old glass bottle, I remember coming across it at an old cowboy camp as we wandered through the Northern Arizona desert. When I look at the antler, I fondly recall a weekend exploring Arches National Park. And I’ve left a blank space on the shelves for more. And when those two bookshelves are filled, I’ll build another shelf and fill it in too.
There is something beautiful about the white space of an explorer’s garage, too. The items and tools and gear hanging on the walls of an explorer’s garage represent the white space of his or her future adventures. When I see my snowshoes, my surfboard, my hatchet, my backpack hanging on the garage walls, I tingle with anticipation for future adventures. The items in an explorer’s garage are his or her trophy cases. Like the knick-knacks on my bookshelves, they stand as totems representing past adventures. I can’t look at my snowshoes and without remembering the four days spent snowshoeing across the Virgin River Rim Trail. I can’t see my old Eagle Claw fishing pole resting on its pegs without thinking of a multitude of fishing trips.
And, most importantly: what is our life’s journey but a long blank spot that we fill in as we go?
What a great privilege to stand on the morning trail with a map in one hand, compass in the other, and watch the compass needle turn its attention north, like an explorer turning his face toward the horizon, and wonder what amazing miracles I’ll encounter that day? What story awaits the blank pages of that night’s journal? What moment of beauty or wonder will I capture on my camera’s memory card? What strange little desert curio will catch my attention and earn a spot on my bookshelf, to forever remind me of a glorious day I spent exploring. From my map case, I remove a paper 7.5-minute map. Not so much to serve as a tool to help me navigate to my destination (my destination is clearly visible in the distance) but as a medium to record the interesting things I hope to find along the way. On it, I mark what will be the first of several little red Xs to mark the spot where I’m standing, the spot where I deviate from the known trail into unknown territory. From my pocket I remove my compass and watch as the needle settles north, and I feel the Explorer’s exuberance pour into me like electrified champagne bubbles.
The mere act of walking across this beautiful landscape for the last two hours has been a peaceful, meditative experience. I already feel calm and centred, but even so, I do a short meditation to help me enter a deeper state of mindfulness so I’ll be more aware of and in tune with my surroundings. Crossing from the known into the unknown is crossing a sacred threshold.
With a measured inhalation of mindfulness and an exhalation of gratitude, I step off the trail into the empty desert. My tracks are the only ones on the wind-swept sand. How marvellous!
The new route descends into a gully filled in with sand; its surface is dry, but it channels enough rain that a few cottonwood trees grow along the banks. As I walk past them, I smell the snapped-asparagus scent of spring cottonwood leaves. I cross the dry gully and climb out the other side. Here the route climbs up an escarpment of Navajo Sandstone. There is no path that leads to The Teepees, partly because very few people visit it, and partly because the route travels over rock and sand, neither of which hold a footprint. I pick my way around rocks, cacti, and cliffrose as I climb out of the gully.
It’s a long climb up a series of sandstone terraces. When I reach the top, I discover I’ve reached a broad plateau, covered in sand. I have a direct view of my destination, lying about a mile away. On top of the plateau, the plant life has changed considerably. I now encounter manzanita and prickly pear, many blooming with yellow, pink, and orange flowers. Manzanita grows low to the ground in broad patches and acts as an anchor plant trapping the sand in place. It also catches and traps leaves and other blowing debris. The added detritus acts as a moisture barrier, allowing the manzanita to thrive when summer temperatures may reach 105 degrees. This also allows other, less hardy plants to grow at their edges. Nearly every manzanita patch is surrounded by a perimeter of flowers, yucca, and millet grass. Between the manzanita patches, the recent winds have blown the sand into small furrows, like the ribbed ridges in the top of a cat’s mouth. On my left, the first of several conical spires and hoodoos appear like 50-foot-tall stalagmites rising out of the desert floor. I veer closer to them.
I walk slowly, stop often to take photos, and add notes in my notebook. I touch the sand with my hand, something I’ve been doing all morning, feeling it transition to cold, to cool on its way to warm. The top of the plateau contains several indentations, some filled with sand, and some filled with water. Swamp grass and yellow flowers grow around the ones with water.
I reach a spot where the manzanita and other plants haven’t yet extended their territory. Before me lies a blank sand dune about the size of a hockey rink. Here the wind has swept the sand into a ridge, narrow as the back of a giraffe’s neck, curved as a yin-yang dividing line.
I write in my notebook: Windswept ridge of sand, narrow as the back of a giraffe’s neck. I write: The wind, which has blown very hard the last three days, has swept the sand clean and last night, the area’s nocturnal creatures have left fresh, distinct tracks. I see tracks of beetle lizard, kangaroo rat and rabbit.
I write in my notebook: The surface of the sandstone has been eroded down to flat nodules, that resemble eggs sunny side up.
I walk across the sand dune. On the other side are more manzanita bushes, cliffrose, pinyon trees, and white oak. On the top of the plateau, every plant over two feet tall is wind bent. All the branches grow toward the northeast, shaped by the prevailing southwest winds.
I reach the north side of The Teepees ten minutes later. The guidebook says the cones of The Teepees are about 200 feet high, but they feel higher. Larger. Looming. Part of the reason for this is that the hoodoo structures stand atop a large slab of Navajo Sandstone. The north side of the sandstone slab has been eroded into a sheer vertical wall, four-story tall. The wall, because it receives little to no sunshine, is covered in green, grey, and black lichen, the texture of damp papiermâché, which gives it an overall greyish-green colour. The wall, with the hoodoos standing on top of it, gives it the look of a medieval castle fallen into ruin.
I am standing on the Teepees’ north side, at their six o’clock position. I walk counterclockwise and skirt the four-story wall of sandstone by climbing up a four-story sand dune. When I reach the top, I am ready for a rest. I walk to a flat section of stone at the foot of the hoodoo, take off my backpack, and sit down on a sort of patio that overlooks the vast desert to the north.
I remove my hiking boots and pour out 15 minutes of sand (think hourglass) from each one. I drink some water, catch my breath, and eat a sandwich for lunch while enjoying the stunning view from atop the hoodoo wall.
After eating my sandwich, I set off to explore The Teepees. I walk around the perimeter, continuing in a counterclockwise direction. The Teepees are roughly a city block in size. They’re made of iron-rich, Navajo Sandstone, yet each layer of sandstone contains varying levels of iron. In addition to iron, they may also contain hematite or other minerals which colour the rock different colours as they oxidize. The result being the sandstone varies in colour from dark purple, to red, orange, brown, and yellow. The colours all swirled together give them a tie-dyed appearance. No geological formations like them exist anywhere else on the planet. Indeed, the whole thing looks like something straight out of Dr Seuss’ imagination.
I expected the individual hoodoos to be separated from each other, with space in between for me to walk, but they’re packed together tightly with no room at their bases. Except for one place. On the structure’s western side, I discover a narrow hallway between cones. I walk into it and find that it winds and twists and climbs and eventually delivers me to The Teepee’s northwest corner. I find a flat area comprised of sand with some sagebrush and cliffrose. From here I look out to the north and out across the east. I feel like I’m in a castle’s watchtower. This is where I’ll camp tonight.
I retrace my steps till I’m again on the outside of the conical village, and I continue my counterclockwise explorations of the hoodoo’s exterior. It takes me an hour to complete the circuit back to my backpack. I lift my pack onto my back and carry it to the secret hallway that leads inside the hoodoo village.
I make my camp in The Teepee’s northwest corner. Redrock spires rise from the sand on all sides of me like pagan steeples. I situate my tent in the centre on a flat spit of sand. I have broad, stunning, wide-open views to the north and to the east overlooking hundreds of acres of red sand desert. For the last two hours, I’ve been sitting cross-legged on my sleeping bag reading poetry and writing in my notebook. During that time, my camp has been engulfed in shadow. I stand up, stretch my legs, and put on a fleece jacket, fleece pants. The evening has grown chilly.
While I’m standing, I walk a short distance to the edge of the cliff wall and look out over the empty, silent, sacred desert. The iron-rich Navajo Sandstone was built to capture the soft, red-orange glow of the evening sun. The last of the day’s sunlight falls upon the upper corner of a sandstone monolith, illuminating it like a bare shoulder when a chemise has fallen to one side. From my camp high above the desert floor, I watch the shadows of the hoodoos grow longer and longer as they stretch toward the east. With each degree of darkness, the hoodoo shadows stretch farther across the desert sand.
Another day of my life has been mapped. I outline the day’s borders in gold, to help it stand out from a duller, lesser day. To make it easier to locate at the end of my life when I look back. Today could have been another day at my desk. Another day blind behind a screen. Another day forced to care about things I don’t care about. A day of the faked and the forced. A day of cheap distractions. It could have been another day of enduring the slog. Another day of mind fog.
Another day of dog eat dog. Another day sinking in the capitalist bog.
But it wasn’t. Today was real. Authentic. It unfolded slowly, richly as I explored an enchanting blank spot of desert and now, this day is immortalized on my Life Map as one of all-too-rare Golden Days. The satisfaction sits so deep in my bones and my marrow, creating peace and calm that my red blood cells deliver to the rest of my body. Another gift from the holy desert.
Joyfully, my Life Map contains one more Golden Day. Sadly, it contains one less white space on the map.
Steven Law is a Contributor for Panorama
Steven Law is a poet, essayist, and storyteller. He’s the author of Polished, a collection of poems about exploring the Colorado Plateau by foot and raft. He is host and co-producer of Poetry Snaps!, a radio segment highlighting poets of the Colorado Plateau for KNAU, Flagstaff, Arizona’s NPR station. He’s a Contributing Writer for Panorama: The Journal of Travel, Place and Nature. He writes an occasional travel column called “Gone,” and an occasional opinion column called “American Dreamer,” for The Lake Powell Chronicle, a newspaper in northern Arizona. He’s the founder and producer of The Grand Circle Storytelling Festival, an annual storytelling festival in Page, Arizona. His travel writing has won numerous Gold and Silver awards at the Travelers Tales Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing. He has received numerous awards from the Arizona Newspaper Association for his feature and opinion writing. He is a Master of Sabaku Yoku meditation.