I stood in the shower stark naked and perplexed. This is not normally how I begin the showering process, granted I’m usually nude, but rarely confused about exactly what to do next. However I’m not exactly in my normal comfort zone, in fact I’m a good 230 miles outside my comfort zone in the middle of the vast wilderness of Capitol Reef National Park. Quite frankly I’m fortunate to be standing in a shower at all, I suppose I could be bathing in the nearby Pleasant Creek, naked but at least not perplexed. I’m a guest at the Capitol Reef Field Station as part of a 10 day University of Utah Environmental Writing class that is composed of a very small group of students.
By small I mean a total of four students including myself, three of which would be considered non-traditional students. Shauna and I are within a few years of each other and old enough that we don’t like admitting our age and Darrell is old enough that he doesn’t mind telling us that he is 70yrs young. The only traditional student along for the ride is Mike who is the only one who actually looks like a college student. We are led by our exuberant professor, Max, who arguably has more energy than the rest of us combined.
When I first heard about the opportunity to take this class and spend 10 days in Capitol Reef I thought for sure the class would fill up to its student limit quickly and I would be the oldest by far, instead there is less than half that and I’m the second youngest. I admit that I’m curious to see how we will all mix together as we are a diverse group in both age and life experience.
When we arrived at the field station we were greeted by the site manager, Jason, who almost immediately sits us down and goes over the rules of the house with his stern yet lulling southern drawl that demands attention and compliance. As a self sufficient facility the field station relies on being conservative and efficient in every aspect possible. All resources including electricity, garbage, and water, have to be carefully managed which requires the participation and support of every person staying at the field station. Jason makes it quite clear that we will be monitored and held accountable for the amount of garbage we accrue and most importantly the amount of water used.
We will not be measured individually but as a group which means we are essentially relying on each other to meet our goal of not being the wasteful wankers who hogged all the stations resources. And here I thought that I was going to be able to continue my resource raiding ways here in the middle of the desert but apparently I’m going to get a crash course in conservation.
Which brings me back to my puzzlement with the showering situation here at the field station, I generally do my best thinking while nude but it generally involves sitting on a toilet or having hot water cascading down my face in unlimited supply. However in this case I’m faced with a sign in the shower that states I should shower quickly and keep the water off while lathering my hair and body. This is what is creating a predicament for me; I’m used to taking long hot showers and lathering in a lazy almost whimsical way. Because I don’t want to be the one person in the group who uses too much water I have to carefully plan exactly how I’m going to take an efficient shower.
The process of getting wet, turning the water off, lathering, rinse, water off, lather, rinse, water off, and so forth is what has me so puzzled. Should I go hair first and focus on the body wash while the conditioner works its magic, or perhaps forgo the conditioner all together? This is more thinking that I prefer to do in the shower so I decide to put my clothes back on and regroup; perhaps this is what Jason had in mind all along.
Today we go on our first hike as a class along Pleasant Creek towards an unknown destination on a mostly undetermined path. The idea of hiking in the wilderness of Capitol Reef by following the creek and essentially blazing our own path is extremely appealing to me and exactly what I had in mind when I registered for this class. However I’m trying to find my place in the sun, as the saying goes, in regards to how I’m going to deal with hiking with a group when I’m used to going the lone wolf route.
The long shadows of my fellow classmates are dancing around me at times blocking the sun and taking away from the solitude that I crave when I’m in the great wide open. I toy with the idea of listening to my iPod like a I usually do when I’m hiking but that seems a bit anti- social in a group setting so I force myself to try and be accepting of the group around me. I’m reminded of a concept Jason spoke of during our orientation that the field station operates under a sense of community which relies on the engaged participation of everyone involved. I decide that I will give the whole community idea the old college try and much like my previous college experience if I don’t like it I’ll just drop out.
I fall into pace with Max and Mike and observe them as they search the skies for birds and try to identify these winged crusaders as they effortlessly fly by unaware of the gaze of these budding birders. While being observant of the actions of Max and Mike I find I’m slowly becoming aware of the fact there are actually birds flying around me and even more importantly that they are not all of the same species. Stunning concept I know, but such is my ignorance about birds.
Just as I’m starting to fall into a relaxing pace behind Max he stops abruptly and points out a rather large moth just to the left of him. Within seconds the entire group is huddled around the moth like lineman around a quarterback. At first I stand on the outer edge of the group waiting impatiently for the group to move along when I notice Shauna pulling out her rather large and professional looking camera and snapping pictures of the moth.
Suddenly I find that my interest has been piqued. If this moth merits photographic attention then certainly it merits at least a passing glance. I creep silently over to where my peers are hunched over with their hands on their knees and maintain the position. Upon closer inspection I find that it is a rather interesting looking moth that has more color and size than I would have thought. I listen to Max talk about what kind of moth he thinks it is as Darrell and Mike offer their thoughts, Shauna continues to snap away with her camera and I simply start to enjoy the fact that I’m part of something as opposed to standing off by myself.
Later as I’m walking with Max I add my two cents to the intellectual discussion of the moth by asking if he has ever seen the movie “The Mothman Prophecies”, he has not, but he asks me if I have seen “The Pineapple Express”, which I have, and thus begins a conversation about movies as we make our way along Pleasant Creek. The hike has suddenly become a lot more interesting.
Because I woke up later than I would have liked this morning I failed to eat breakfast and about half way into the hike I realize that not only am I hungry but I only brought one granola bar and a small bag of nut clusters. Suddenly my hunger goes from a whimpering cry to a ravenous wail and I start to greedily look around towards anyone in the group who may have a little extra sustenance. My hungry eyes fall upon Shauna’s backpack and I immediately ask if she brought anything extra.
I’m in luck, she has an extra granola bar that she generously offers me and almost immediately my hunger pains abate at the prospect of knowing I won’t have to go hungry. I decline her offer for the time being but find myself thinking that maybe this whole idea of community isn’t such a bad thing, at least as far as food is concerned.
As we make our way along Pleasant Creek we are forced to constantly cross the creek as it snakes its way through the desert, twisting and turning and running up against the canyon walls. While most of the group initially tries to skip from rock to rock to avoid getting their feet wet eventually they give up and splash their way across. I however am averse to getting my feet wet unless I’m actually swimming and make it a point to not get my feet in the water.
Perhaps this is a metaphor to how I live my life, always looking for ways to avoid getting my feet wet, or maybe I just don’t like wet socks. I notice that Mike is trying to avoid getting his feet wet as well so I challenge him to a game of seeing who can go the longest without splashing their feet into the water. This becomes quite a competition as I try to keep up with this young buck as he gracefully skips from rock to rock without hardly breaking a sweat.
I’m quite taken with this game and find myself paying more attention to the creek and the placement of the rocks in the water. I pretend that I’m like the Terminator with computer generated sight that quickly analyzes the quickest way from point A to point B and Mike is my John Conner whom I’m mercilessly tracking down. He is more than happy to indulge me in my childish game and I find that the age gap of over a decade isn’t such a big deal when one is young at heart, or in my case, suffering from Peter Pan syndrome.
As we get farther into our hike I start to lose myself in the adventure of hiking through the wilderness and I begin to embrace the company that I’m keeping. I keep an eye on Shauna every time she pullsl out her camera to see what has captured her attention and by default mine as well. I occasionally fall behind to take pictures myself and am able to catch up with the group by keeping my eye trained on Darrell’s straw cowboy hat that bobs in and out of my sight as he steadily makes his way through and around the surprisingly dense foliage of this desert jungle.
I can hear Max in the distance yelling for his brother Christian who was supposed to meet us at the trailhead. I joke with Mike that I feel like we are helping Max hunt the most dangerous game, his brother, and we both get a laugh out of that. When we finally do meet up with Christian it turns out it was the other way around and he was in fact hunting us. We eventually reach a place in the creek where there are large flat stones that create a natural patio along the creek augmented by rising canyon walls that curve into the distance where a large mesa rises majestically in the horizon. Here we stop and linger for a while soaking in the brief moments when the sun breaks through the clouds.
Max and his brother sit near the creek catching up with each other while Mike busies himself by writing in his journal. Shauna and Darrell relax in the sunlight and stretch out lazily on the smooth red stone. I find that I’m as relaxed as I would be if I were on my own yet somehow feel edified by my companion’s presence and energy. I lay back on the surprisingly soft stone that inexplicably feels as though it is molding to the contours of my back and am lulled into a pleasant doze by the gentle rhythm of the flowing water while the sun warms my face and this is how the afternoon passes by.
Nothing builds a sense of community faster than the prospect of food. Any and all differences can be settled around the dinner table while feasting on the spoils of Mother Nature. It worked for the pilgrims and the Indians and it certainly works here at the field station where dinner time is quickly becoming the highlight of every evening. Rather than having five people cooking five individual meals Max has come up with a rather ingenious system of having each of us take turns cooking for the group. This was determined before we even arrived and proves to be a team building experience every night as we all have dinner together on the stone patio with a panoramic view of Capitol Reef and its towering mesas and buttes as our backdrop.
Our first night together Max cooks up a feast of grilled chicken and salad, he invites Jason to join us for dinner and this helps to ease some of the tension that had built earlier in the day when Jason laid down the law of the land and the strict requirements of the field station. Over the taste of delicious chicken combined with the fresh night air we all begin to bond and break down the walls that are created by individual differences and misunderstandings.
I quickly find out that Jason is as Atlanta Braves fan and I’m thrilled to have someone I can talk baseball with during the duration of my stay. Over the course of dinner he goes from being the strict southern prison warden to a normal Joe who likes barbequed chicken and baseball. An unspoken peace and understanding is forged during dinner and the start of a productive community begins to form between us and the rest of the group.
Although food can act as a bridge to bring communities together the whole cleanup process can often act as fiery ball of flame that can engulf and burn all the hard work that goes into building that metaphoric bridge. At least that is the case in my opinion because I simply hate doing dishes and am more than happy to let the others do the dirty work the first two nights of our stay. I wasn’t purposely trying to avoid helping out, in fact if anything I was being denied the opportunity to help because of how aggressive Darrell, Shauna, and Mike where about being so quick to the trigger to start cleaning. So in a way it was really their fault that I didn’t initially help out with the cleaning.
Despite my skillful and clever attempts to assuage my guilt of not helping out with the cleaning I’m eventually worn down by a nagging voice inside of me that is telling me that part of being a productive member of any community is to actively engage in building bridges and not burning them. I reluctantly admit to myself that part of this experience is to learn the value of building a sense of community which in this case means proactively taking charge of doing the dishes on the third night of our stay.
I’m rewarded with the aftermath of a dinner that includes additionally mouths at the table and thus more dishes and even worse a giant pot full residue from a culinary masterpiece conjured up by Shauna that now has to be scoured and scrubbed by yours truly. Yet I do so with a sense of satisfaction that I’m officially a productive active member of this new community that is beginning to bloom here at the field station in Capitol Reef.
Gradually it doesn’t seem like such a chore to help out with the dishes or put so much focus on the process of trying to sort out and keep track of what is garbage and what can be recycled. At home I just throw it all away because I can and there is no one to stop me but out here I feel like I’m part of a team whose goal it is to be as environmentally responsible and efficient with resources as possible. If my parents where to look in through the field station web cam and see me cheerfully scrubbing pots and being mindful of recycling they would assume I have been either drugged, brainwashed or both.
Instead it is simply a matter of me being indoctrinated into a sense of community that is self sustained by the proactive efforts of a group of people with the same mindset and goals. Now if I could only figure out how to take a damn shower here in less than five minutes while somehow incorporating a strategic water less lathering system I would have it made.
Today we are introduced to John Alcock who is the first of many guest speakers who will be spending time with us during our experience at Capitol Reef. John is retired biologist and has the easygoing relaxed persona of someone who has time to kill. He is tall and lanky with a tan that suggests he is not spending his retirement watching the afternoon soaps on television. He is polite and reserved but behind the thick glasses he wears his eyes are swimming with confidence and intelligence.
After dinner Max suggests we take John on a short hike to see the petroglyphs. It is a perfect evening for a hike as our bellies are full of Shauna’s excellent cooking and thankfully the dishes are done and squared away. The fading evening sun bathes the surrounding buttes and mesa’s in a soft yellow light and a pleasant breeze serves as a counter balance to the fading heat of the day.
Almost immediately upon descending down the trail towards the petroglyphs John comes alive with excitement and we are treated to his power of observation. He points out and names many of the numerous flowers and plants that line our path and the ones he doesn’t know he thoughtfully reflects on what species it may belong to. Despite having rather thick glasses he points out birds in the distance that rest of us don’t see and with surprising speed focuses his binoculars so he can identify what he is seeing. The lightening fast lizards that zip silently through the sand fail to escape the pinpoint accuracy of his vision.
John is interested in every living thing that is somehow thriving in this harsh desert landscape and his enthusiasm is contagious. When I point out a toad that is trying to remain camouflaged along the creek bed John is thrilled and congratulates me on my find. Going on a hike with John is like having a field guide that unveils a whole new world that previously had remained hidden to me. He manages to shed at least 20 years off his age as he exudes a youthful exuberance that literally transforms him during our short hike.
The next day I find myself thinking about the change in John that occurred during our evening hike as I ramble along Pleasant Creek in the opposite direction of the hike we did as a class on our first day. I have no particular place in mind to go rather I’m just enjoying the world that I’m fortunate enough to be able to explore on my own. My thoughts are clear and free from the clutter of everyday life. I find myself thinking about how John became like an innocent child exploring the great outdoors for the first time.
What is it about the untamed beauty of nature that inspires men like John to unabashedly shed the shackles of the daily grind and completely lose himself in the world around him at the drop of a hat? These are the thoughts that flow freely through my mind as I walk through the desert landscape that is suddenly changing before my eyes. I find I’m trying to see the world in the way John saw it instead of just focusing on getting to my destination. I have been self diagnosed with a severe case of tunnel vision and as a result I generally focus on getting from one place to the next and miss out on everything in between.
Taking a cue from John I decide to use this hike to focus on the journey and not the destination which is why I have no place in mind to go. I’m simply focused on being engaged in the experience of observing the world around me in sight, sense, and smell. I look past the tall grass and through the abundant juniper bushes and see the bright yellow and pink prickly pears that dot the desert floor in surprising number. I had seen the prickly pears during our first hike but only the ones I almost stepped on, but today I’m seeing past the camouflage of the grass and shrubs they hide behind.
Because I’m not on the clock I take the time to admire the stark beauty of a flower that has somehow bloomed amidst the sharp thorns of the cactus. I breathe in both the experience and the sweet floral scent that I wish I could capture in a bottle and keep for myself. However I gently remind myself that sometimes the best experiences in life are the ones that can’t be replicated on demand. They exist only in the moment in which they happen.
My senses are as sharp as they have ever been and I’m aware of everything around me. The deep green of the pinion pines seem more lush than usual and stand out in sharp contrast to the copper red sand and the deep blue sky. I feel like I’m experiencing what its like to be in a Monet painting. I feel a sense of calm and peace that embraces me like a warm blanket. These heightened senses that I’m experiencing is an example of the spiritualism that exists in nature that, at times, can transcend spiritualism contrived from religion.
It’s somewhat ironic that for me experiencing the solitude of nature can bring more peace, clarity, and answers to life’s questions than any cathedral, mosque, or temple. One could argue that nature in itself is the only true non-denominational church in the world. A church in which money can’t buy happiness and the idea of God is in the heart and mind of the beholder.
While I subscribe to the concept of religion I rarely find that same sort of calm and happiness within the walls of a church that I do when I’m wallowing in the reality and beauty that nature shamelessly exudes. When I’m in church there are people all around me and voices from the pulpit that take away from my attempt to clear my mind from the smog of daily life and achieve my desired goal of singular thought and clarity. Yet this is exactly what I’m able to achieve within minutes of stumbling upon a clearing near the creek with large, smooth stones that runs up against the water and invite me seductively to partake of its natural perfection.
I of course accept that invitation by stripping down to my shorts while relieving my self of my socks and shoes and dipping my toes into the ice cold water as I lay back on the sun warmed stone. I gaze into the azure blue sky whose own perfection is broken up by a series of perfectly placed fluffy white clouds that have me lusting after cotton candy. In nature perfection is in the eye of the beholder and the competition is fierce.
For me it’s embracing the concept of solitude that allows me to experience a deep sense of spiritualism that stands apart from the theology that religion promotes. This is not to say religion doesn’t have value or importance to me but I find that being completely immersed in nature is where I feel the most spiritual. Guy Tal, a successful landscape photographer, spoke to us about this concept when he talked about the importance of solitude for an artist. He gave the opinion that an artist needs solitude to reach their true artistic potential. Guy said that solitude isn’t the same as being lonely, in fact he shared a quote that if you’re lonely when you’re with yourself than it’s probably due to bad company.
Despite the overriding humor in that statement there is a serious truth to that. Feeling lonely is different from solitude because the latter is a direct choice of separation from society in order to attain clarity of thought and soul. That, in my opinion, is the very essence of a non-denominational definition of spiritualism that is as gift from Mother Nature to those who are willing to accept it. As I lazily swirl my toes in the cold crisp waters of the creek and think these deep thoughts I decide that I will accept this gift of solitude as well as a gift of cotton candy if Mother Nature is feeling overly generous.
Tonight I’m pleased to be invited to a night out with the stars. I should make it clear that I’m attending a star gazing party with the focus being the night sky and not the Oscars or the Grammy’s. While the latter also has stars they simply don’t shine as bright, though they do seem just as cold and vacant so at least they have that in common. Tonight’s event is being hosted by Darrell Mensel who assists with managing the field station and is a passionate star gazer.
This is a fascinating opportunity that attracts everyone in our group, including Jason and John, despite the late start time due to the constant meddling of daylight savings. Generally after dinner we all scatter like dust in the wind but the draw of seeing the stars in skies that are among the darkest in the United States is akin to seeing a movie in IMAX as opposed to standard definition. There is just no comparison.
As the sun drifts in to the horizon taking with it the light of day the pre show begins with the crescent shape of the moon on display followed by an appearance by Jupiter. We eagerly take our turn looking through the telescope for an up close and personal glimpse of the craters on the moon. As the sky begins to darken we can see four of the moons of Jupiter which whets our appetite for more as the drama begins to build towards the main event of seeing the rings of Saturn.
While we wait patiently for the dark of night to finish chasing off the light of day the group begins to pair off into casual conversations that fill the air with a pleasant background noise as though we are in the lobby of theatre waiting for the show to begin. As night finishes its conquest of day the individuality of our bodies melt away into shadowy figures on the patio and metaphorically speaking the lights go down and the performance begins.
Because John is our guest and the most eager to retire for the night he gets first crack at seeing the rings of Saturn through the telescope that Mensel has expertly set up for our viewing pleasure. At first John has trouble locating Saturn and then all of a sudden he sees it and utters a rather loud and excited expletive as the rings of Saturn come into view. He is as excited as a child on Christmas morning and his enthusiasm once again is contagious.
As I anxiously wait my turn I think back to the night I saw the rings of Saturn for the first time. It was nearly 20 years ago during my sophomore year of high school and the experience and wonder of seeing Saturn has stayed with me ever since. There is something about the stars that inspires even the most pragmatic of people.
When I saw the rings of Saturn that night it jolted into me a sense of reality to the fact that it was real, it wasn’t just some picture in a textbook. I was actually seeing this heavenly vision firsthand. This experience changed my perspective about what it actually meant to exist in a universe that is more vast and complex than we will ever understand. That is to say I no longer felt that my existence was insignificant in relation to the universe, rather I realized that my life was very significant because of the fact I exist in the first place.
As far as we can tell from an intelligence perspective we are alone in the universe and so the fact our planet has beat the odds and yielded life, yielded my life, means that I’m unique in my existence. Rather then feel like I was being suffocated by the vastness and indifference of the universe I chose to appreciate the fact that I was living and breathing. I would consider that moment as the first real spiritual experience of my life at the time.
John’s reaction suggest that he is having a similar experience and the fact that the rest of us are eagerly lined up to witness this event is a indicator that we are all primed to feel the same sense of wonder and awe. The concept of community and spiritualism that is brought on by the magnificence of nature is on full display this night as seems we are all sharing similar thoughts and feelings. Even though we are all different in age, religious theology, education, and life experience on this evening we are just shadows in the night, equal in all things and united by our desire to be inspired by the night sky.
After the main event of seeing Saturn much of the group retires for the evening but Mike, Darrell, Mensel, and I linger as the night sky grows darker. We are treated to a clear night sky that explodes into an array of glittering stars as the evening begins to work its way into the early morning hours. While we can barely make out each other in the dark we can clearly see, at least through the telescope, a globular cluster, the crab nebula, and other interstellar treats that Mensel serves up to us. The energy of the evening is fading away as our group number begins to dwindle.
As each person leaves they take with them their unique brand of companionship and spirit that was edifying me in ways I didn’t realize was possible. The night’s activities are drawing to a close and immediately I began to feel the pains of withdrawal and loss even before our fellowship comes to an end.
I sit by myself on a large boulder with my arms wrapped around my knees and stare out into the nearly pitch black darkness at the imposing shadow of a nearby mesa that stands out sharply against the sparkling diamonds of the night sky. I began to feel sense of loneliness brought on by the loss of companionship and the excitement of the evening. It’s through this isolation that I realize how much I appreciate the group that I’m with and the energy and perspective each of them bring to the community atmosphere we are building. I muse on the delicate balance of life that requires fusing the desire for companionship with the need for solitude while learning to bridge the gaps in between.
As I mull on this thought the loneliness begins to give way to solitude and I regain my sense of self. The night is just a few hours from being chased away by the light of early dawn and I briefly dwell on the emptiness that I feel when good things come to an end. But at the same time I’m reminded that a new day is lingering on the horizon and along with that a hope for even better things to come. As though it’s a sign a shooting star streaks across the night sky with vibrant exuberance and lingers longer than normal. I lose myself in the moment and this is how the evening passes.