I always carry a book with me on the trail. How I quickly I read the book I carry depends on how hard I’m hiking, how tiring the terrain, because I read in the evening once I’m folded into my sleeping bag, after I’ve written the blog post and reviewed the next day’s maps and done all my chores. I read until I fall asleep with the book on my face, startle awake, and slip the book back into a ziploc, turning off my headlamp. If I’m hiking into the ragged and thin edges of exhaustion I can end up walking with the same book for a very long time. I remember one trip looking at a scratched up blue cover of Toni Morrison’s Jazz for a very long time indeed before I finally finished the book, an excellent book, at a snails pace of less than a page a day, often reading the same page night after night because my eyes slid from the page and the book from hands in the middle of a sentence, barely a paragraph in, and the next night I wouldn’t remember the scant bit I read. I can measure a trail this way, the level of my exertion, by how quickly I change out books. I keep spares in my bounce bucket.
On this hike I started with Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. I had to do this, and even if the Hayduke Trail had turned out to be a crappy experience (it hasn’t), I would thank it for finally helping me to read a book I’ve meant to read for a very long time. It bears the namesake of my trail, a character iconic of the area, though I wonder whether it should have been called the Abbey Trail. He probably would have hated that. Edward Abbey I mean.
I finished The Monkey Wrench Gang weeks ago, back in Escalante, and since I’ve been reading a book of Annie Dillard essays. As a naturalist, Annie Dillard is seeking and interpreting confounding mysteries of existence. She presents an idea in one of the essays that has been turning in my mind, a stone getting polished by the ruminations of thousands of footsteps. In Arctic exploration, the placeless spot in the ocean that is equidistant from all landmasses is called the Pole of Relative Inaccessibilty, as far from land as possible in any direction. It is a cartographer’s exercise, to place this imaginary spot, and an explorer’s game to find its physical incarnation, bobbing in a boat as literally in the middle of nowhere as it is possible to be. The desert has a quality of the inverse, feeling as far away from the seething water masses as it is possible to be, but the rock in the desert is seething too, simply on a different time scale. About the Pole of Relative Inaccessibilty, Annie Dillard says “It is for the Pole of Relative Inaccessibilty I am searching, and have been searching, in the mountains and along the seacoasts for years. The aim of this expedition is, as Pope Gregory put it in his time, ‘To attain to somewhat of the unencompassed light, by stealth, and scantily.'” When it is unbearably quiet in the desert hills so that the heartbeat of the earth could almost be made out beneath the slow-heaving crust, when the notion of ‘I’ dissolves somewhat into that crystalline stillness, I feel closer to the Pole of Relative Inaccessibilty. I feel my ship, richly provisioned for the expedition, bobbing in an indistinguishable sea. I taste salt on my lips. I too am after that Pole, that place as far from what we know as possible.
But I’m still in Kanab. It rained all day, misty, fat, sideways, hard, thin. All of it. Kanab sounds like Seattle today, the steady pitter patter on the ceiling vent and car tires on wet asphalt. I finished up a lot chores. I boxed up food for the last three resupply days and teetered off to the Post Office under the precarious stack, stopping every half block to rest my arms. I ate eight cakey sugar cookies with pink frosting and sprinkles. I went to the BLM office to try to win the lottery for a permit for the Wave in the most bizarre beauracratic ritual I’ve ever witnessed, wherein a hundred yearning people show up in a small, badly lit room and wait hopefully for their number to be called. I didn’t win the lottery. Almost nobody did.
I hike out tomorrow after this long but ultimately necessary layover. No need to be hiking slot canyons in rain storms. No need to be suicidal. The next section is five days, down Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River, across the top of the Paria Plateau, and then down to Highway 89A, where I’ll hitch back in Kanab to resupply (imagine a triangle, Kanab a corner, the highways and my hiking route the legs). Until then dear friends.