“It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives.” Samuel Johnson
We snatched ten days out of our lives and drove the B.A.T. (Big Ass Trailer) to Canyonlands/Needles District. Twice a year, Needles District hiking is our destination. We’ve hiked the same well-marked trails for years… for me, since 1989. But I never tire of the red rocks, of the slickrock or the smooth sandstone layers. I never tire of the sunrises and sunsets, of the silence and solitude. I never tire of working my body—stepping up onto rocks, crawling up on the sandstone overlooks. And I never tire of early morning journaling as the sun crawls across the landscape.
Each year becomes an opportunity to evaluate what time is doing to my body.
There was a time when I jumped off ledges landing with confidence on my feet and continuing on my way. There was a time when I could run up steep slickrock, quadriceps strong and knees steady.
Then there were the seasons following knee replacements when I needed to use poles and crawled when it the steps were too high.
This year I have no need of poles, but the knees are not so steady nor the quads so strong. I find that I have to use my hands more than I used to, the knees bend more slowly and my confidence not quite so firm.
And I think to the future. Next year and the next and the next. Will there be a time when I can’t hike to the Joint? Will there be a time when I will need a headlamp to finish a hike that used to take only a few hours? Will there be a time when I must use poles to balance? Or when I will be forced to crawl and slide on my bum to negotiate slickrock?
These thoughts almost immediately give way to: ‘I am here, this is now.’ And with that, I smile. Gratitude washes over me like sunshine on a cloudy day.
The desert has been wet this October. After our first sunny day of hiking, it began raining that night and continued until almost dawn. We woke to low clouds and wet rocks. The day threatened rain and we hiked closer to home. But… Canyonlands is a desert and though the clouds looked full, they held their moisture. Potholes that were usually dry were full of water. We stopped at each one and searched for critters. We found potholes with fairy shrimp scooting along the bottom, filter-feeding on algae and plankton. I love aquatic critters like these, and especially love the adaptations they have to living in an extreme environment. Fairy shrimp are crustaceans related to crabs and lobsters. Their life cycle is short–about two weeks long in this area, to take advantage of water before it disappears in the desiccating winds and heat of the desert. They must be able to survive extremes of temperatures as well: below freezing to hot – sometimes-triple digit summer temperatures. The eggs (called cysts) can survive desiccation for years, even decades.
At one larger pothole we were lucky enough to see one of the fairy shrimp’s predators: a tadpole shrimp. With a slightly longer life cycle, they need deeper pools, which hold water longer. They were recognizable by their larger head and different swimming style. These tadpole shrimp are some of the oldest animal species in the world—some have been around for at least 220 million years! So very cool to see these creatures; I geek out on them big-time!
Worlds within worlds. A whole lifetime in just two weeks. A whole world at my feet. I look down into a micro-world with life and death happening under my nose. I gaze up into a macro-world with life and death on a grander scale. What makes us as humans think that we are separate from these worlds? Putting my bare foot in one of these pools could destroy the fragile balance these critters need in order to survive. I compare that with sticking a ‘bare foot’ into our macro-world by burning fossil fuels, cutting rainforests, and ignoring solar energy as an option. I kneel down and look more closely, watching gills feathering fairy shrimp through a few inches of rain water held in shallow rock bowls. My hope for fairy shrimp is the same as my hope for our species: that we hesitate and think twice before we take that final foot step.
“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.” Lao Tzu