Stop and Smell the Sagebrush
Thin puffs of cloud float through a cerulean sky above the high mesa, a rolling sea of pinons and juniper stretching as far as the eye can see. We lean into our hike, shouldering packs with equipment and food to sustain us for several days, as we begin our descent into the labyrinth of canyons carved into this vast landscape. At first, the earth’s fissure is no more than an arroyo winding through the sagebrush but, as we travel downwards, the sandstone cliffs rise higher, becoming more bold, until they are vertical, soaring hundreds of feet above. In places they bulge and billow into fantastical shapes, hoodoos shooting into the sky, and the red, brown, orange and pink rock is streaked with the black patina of desert varnish.
We travel along the floor of the winding canyon, the lightly trodden path taking us through knee high grass, a lush neon green carpet flecked with the purple of milk vetch, and along sandy washes, pooled with water and flanked with sandstone walls.
After a long winter and delayed spring we rejoice to see the desert flowers blooming. From the pink flowers of prickly pear and whipple’s fishhook cacti to the vibrant red of the claret cup, from orange globe mallows, white primrose to blue flax, and from the yellow Hopi blanketflowers to the vermillion penstemon, a veritable kaleidoscope of color unfolds and decorates our journey through the canyon.
The midday heat shimmers and the air is thick. Ballooning clouds turn the color of steel, wind rattles through the trees and thunder rumbles along the canyon walls. As the rain starts we duck beneath an overhang for shelter and watch the storm roll in. Rivulets spill down the rock walls, collecting and rushing through furrows in the rock and sweeping into the arroyos. The canyon roars as the earth is cleansed.
Shards of light filter through cracks in the gray sky. Blades of grass and leaves, stooped with the weight of droplets, glisten and the rock, mantled with water, gleams. The sweet fragrance of sagebrush rises - embodied in its aroma is the very essence of the glorious landscape of the West.
We make camp at the mouth of a side canyon beneath giant cottonwood trees and leaden skies. Although rain spatters on the tent fly as we crawl beneath our quilts, we sleep soundly. At daybreak the sky is washed clear and thin strips of watery sun stream over the canyon walls and filter through the trees. Clasping our mugs of steaming coffee we are drawn to pools of sallow light and warm our chilled bodies.
As the sun rises higher in the sky we continue our journey down canyon, weaving through brushy thickets of tamarisk and traversing arid grassland benches above the wash. Ravens soar along the edges of the sandstone cliffs silhouetted against a brilliant blue and cloudless sky, as the song of the canyon wren cascades down. In the heat of the day we seek the cool shade of the rock walls or the dappled sunlight under the great cottonwoods.
At dusk, like the Anasazi centuries before us, we make an alcove our dwelling for the night. As we eat our supper, the amber planet Venus slowly sinks through the darkening sky, at first indigo then purple and finally an inky blue. From our amphitheatre, a yawning crevice tucked up high above the canyon floor, we watch and listen to nature’s nighttime show - glittering stars wheel across the stage, heralded by the chorus of the canyon tree frogs rising from below.
The next day dawns bright and clear again. After a few more miles that pass by all too quickly, we are clambering hand over foot up a slickrock gully to reach the canon rim. As I take my final and reluctant steps towards the trailhead I grab a handful of sagebrush leaves and crush them in my fist, releasing their aroma, and stuff them in my pocket for the journey home.