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The view from the rim—Abiquiu Lake, Truchas Peaks, and the yellow-white-red cliffs around Ghost Ranch.
Photo credit: —Evan Belknap

Lonely desert spring

~Evan Belknap

I drove up to Las Vegas, New Mexico, last Thursday to help my groups get prepped for our weekend backpacking trip. My groups, from United World College (UWC), were made up of the kids who had taken all of the wilderness courses offered in their two years at UWC. The trip was called “Wilderness Finals.” They had to plan the whole trip, plan the meals, pack the gear, and then, finally, go by themselves on a ten-mile overnight backpack trip. My job was to drive the bus, drop off my two groups at their respective trailheads, and then ghost ahead on the trail and be around—but not around—just in case anything went wrong. Once both groups had checked in with me, en route to their campsites, I was to call in to the wilderness department head on a satellite phone and report.

Our bus was packed by ten on Thursday night and then, with the trip not leaving until Saturday, I hopped in my car and drove to Diablo Canyon near Santa Fe—where the sky twinkled with stars and a cold wind whipped across the desert. I crawled into the bed in the back of my car and had vivid meandering dreams all night.

I woke to the sunrise like coming up for air—the pink glow on the canyon walls through sleepy eyes made me feel as if I was still dreaming. I made coffee and sat in my chair and listened to the birds. I had a friend coming to climb with me that day, but he wasn’t going to show up until two or three in the afternoon so I was to be alone until then. Time seemed to be moving especially slowly that morning. A young couple camped nearby walked past me on their way down the canyon. I waved. I thought, ‘Anyone alone is automatically weird.’ I watched them disappear down the trail, hand-in-hand.

Soon, I had to move. I had heard there was a hidden cave somewhere on the West side of the canyon, and I wanted to find it. I went down canyon, scrambled up a long scree field to the West and soon neared the top of the canyon, among the black-red cliffs and boulders. I was giddy; everything was mine to discover and instead of finding one cave, I found a labyrinth of rock tunnels to crawl through. Soon, I found myself in a pit, sunken about one hundred feet into the ground, filled with vibrant emerald plants and the sweet smell of water in the desert. Again I thought of being alone—that I could never describe the feeling of this place to anyone in words, but that maybe someday I could take someone back there and show them. But, of course, it would be different by then.

I tunneled my way into a corridor underneath the cliffs until I saw a fluttering down below. I had found where the bats go during the day, and I could see hundreds of them flitting back and forth. I felt like I was looking in on a secret. I was glad to go back to the sun.

Eventually, my friend arrived, and we climbed some rocks. Perhaps, I was not weird anymore. We ate dinner in Santa Fe, and then I drove back to the UWC castle.

The next day, I had dropped off my two groups, locked the bus, and I was alone again, tramping up the Continental Divide Trail to get a headstart on one of the groups. We had parked, to my surprise, right at Skull Bridge Rapid on the lower Chama River. Once upon a time I was about four years old, in the front of a canoe, with a useless paddle clutched in my tiny hands in that very spot. It was raining and black, and my dad plunged me through those waves. I remember being cold and scared and holding onto my paddle as hard as I could.

Up on the rim of the canyon, about two thousand feet above the Chama River, I dropped my pack, panting and sweaty, and took a break. Out in the distance, I could see Abiquiu Lake, the Truchas Peaks, and the yellow-white-red bands of sandstone around Ghost Ranch. Ravens croaked, gargled, and cawed as they played in the wind at the top of the canyon. Small forbs had begun to flower on the rim—making a carpet of tiny blue and yellow and red flowers. I shivered as the wind dried my sweaty clothes and soon, I continued on.

At my campsite about five miles in, I set up my camp chair and waited for my groups. Everyone was doing great, laughing and uninjured. We chatted for  a while, and then they went on their way. I couldn’t stop thinking about that feeling of aloneness, how quickly one could transition—together, alone, together, alone.

And then I was alone for the rest of the day. I tried to kill the hours by wandering the canyon rim, by eating various things, by reading a book I was not interested in. The time hardly passed at all. Eventually, there was no avoiding it— I had nothing else to distract myself with—and so I sat and embraced my loneliness. It was, at the very least, very pretty up there. I watched the sun go down slowly over the mountains

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