High Desert Magic Living on the Fringes in Capitol Reef Country

the lush and desert of an expansive Capitol Reef National Park

Photograph by Wolfgang Staudt


We would say, when we were guiding trips in Southern Utah, that the desert was magic.

We would be dealing with a particularly tough kid, and somebody would say, “Let the desert work its magic on him.” And it did.

But that magic worked better if the staff were particularly brilliant, if the week was particularly cold, and if the tough kid made a breakthrough doing something particularly difficult like making a bow drill fire by himself in the dim evening light.

The desert wasn’t exactly magical. It wasn’t holy, either, though we all made the mistake of thinking it was. What we discovered was simpler than that. It turned out that the desert was beautiful, and that exposure to beauty could lead to healing. It could make room in you. It could produce an opening, a willingness to be met where you were, if you wanted such a thing to happen. And sometimes it happened whether you wanted it to or not.

We worked in a wilderness therapy program for kids who were in trouble. They were brought to live in the desert for a few months, to get away from the drugs, the constant clash with parents, and the bad friends. We were their guides. We hiked together. We made them push handcarts and sing songs. We suffered the cold along with them. We taught them things: to make fire the Indian way, with a bow drill set made from a sagebrush trunk and a cottonwood spindle; to tie their tarps so the rain wouldn’t get in and soak all their stuff. We showed them how to treat blisters on their feet, make cord out of plant fibers like yucca, and cook a simple meal over the fire in a #10 can. We taught the kids how to take care of themselves in the desert, and when they learned this, they started to have confidence that they could take care of themselves in the world.

We worked in the land around Capitol Reef National Park eight days at a time, sleeping with nothing between us and that vast sky but tarps, and not even that when the weather was clear. We found water in streams, yes, but more often in water pockets in the sandstone, in cow ponds, and at stock tanks. We dropped our water with iodine to kill the germs, but I could never get over the yellow color of some of it, or the little things swimming in it. I had to force it down, and though I had some Gatorade powder with me, I had to ration that to make it last all week.

My head was shaved, my underarms and legs not so much. I wore a pair of tan Carhartt work pants and the same gray t-shirt day after day. Once after a particularly cold week in December, I got in a truck to go back to town and blasted the heater. The shock of the sudden, warm air wracked me with shivers for the rest of the night. I learned to thaw slowly.

Tourists think of Capitol Reef National Park, but we thought of Wayne County, because we lived and worked all around its 2,000 square miles.

We had a strange culture in those days. Because the wilderness therapy programs and survival schools were running out there, young people came from all over the country to work. Some were living on trust funds, others were hungry for a paycheck. Many were single, but there were a surprising number of married couples. Some were the kind who came to hang out in a desert they had seen romanticized in outdoor magazines. Some came to work the summer and stayed for the winter. And then there were the people who were drawn to work winters in the first place.

Some of us lived in school busses, some in tipis, others in cars. There was at least one Wickiup and one RV. There were rental houses where everyone crowded in together: the Post Office House, the Torrey House, the Crack House (where kayaks and craft beer were the only crack). We were a variegated group of idealists, wanderers, Edward Abbey readers, river guides, climbers, paddlers, writers, wannabe Buddhists, real Buddhists, dreamers, outdoor professionals, and people who wanted to experiment with wearing dreadlocks and with taking fewer baths. We ate nettles and fresh roadkill, talked about metaphysics at parties, hitchhiked, and even avoiding hitchhiking for the sake of all the bugs that were destined to die on the grill of the car, and for which we felt compassion.

We were dirty hippies in this Mormon ranch culture. You’d have thought we’d have a pretty spectacular clash.
But we didn’t, because the locals were a bit odd, too. Some of us, the Utah natives, always said they weren’t “Provo Mormons.” Wayne County Mormons were rugged outcasts, descended from people who had walked all the way to Utah pushing handcarts, who got to Salt Lake City to be told to pack up again and walk south, to a desert at 7,000 feet elevation, a place scattered with so many lava boulders that one town is named after the Hawaiian Mauna Loa. They had to move the rocks before they could even plow the fields, and then they had to irrigate the dry red soil, in a climate that is willing to snow on you even in July.

So there we were: ranchers and river rats, Mormon bishops’ wives and people who didn’t bathe. Our lives were extreme.

Rich was the volunteer ambulance driver, a man who spent his free time generously meeting with the misery of every wrecked tourist. Pam and John hosted meditation retreats at their old farm house. Norman was the de-facto chef of every occasion. Julie took people out on guided horseback rides. Guy tied a dead skunk to his bumper because he wanted it for a hat. Matt walked (yes, walked) to work all the way from Phoenix with nothing but a rabbit snare and a knife. David went to FoodTown wearing only a crown of cottonwood leaves and a buckskin skirt. Dusty painted the inside of his RV with a leftover can of cappuccino-colored paint and ruminated on the meaning of life. Jason ran down off Boulder Mountain and across Capitol Reef National Park, clear through to the Henry Mountains in one day.

We carried a little booklet with us in “the field,” which meant, “the desert.” It was a collection of inspirational stories one could use with the kids, and in this booklet I first read the famous quote from The Velveteen Rabbit on the subject of Becoming Real.

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

I was getting very shabby. My feet were sunburned in a criss-cross pattern made by my Chaco sandal straps. My heels had cracked so much I had to super glue them back together. I no longer looked like the college girl I had so recently been. I hoped that was a good sign.

When we lived on the edge of Capitol Reef National Park, we just called it the Park. We spent hours talking about it, looking at it, and walking in it.

Part of the astonishment of the place is that the red cliffs’ contrast in color with everything around them. The green cattails that grow along the Fremont River make the cliffs look redder. Up top, the cliffs contrast with the bright blue of the sky.

Then there’s the rock. It isn’t all red. Some of the sandstone is white, and some is yellow, and while some is dark red, there’s variation on into the pinks. Then you have desert varnish, which is an oxidized strip of black where the water has dripped or rushed over the side of the rock, staining it and creating vertical stripes. Not far away from that, you might have a clay mound with purple and white horizontal stripes. There’s all this variation of form and texture: while one mesa is so flat it looks drawn with a transom, there’s another feature jutting out of it like a knife blade. There are arches and windows in the rock, twists and hidden nooks, canyons small and large. There are spires of crumbly Moenkopi sandstone that look just like the drip castles children make on the beach, only fifty feet high and scarlet. There are giant balancing rocks. It’s a landscape full of things you just wouldn’t think of.

On our days off, we played around in the Goosenecks and hiked Capitol Gorge when we wanted some shade. We hiked the Panhandle when we wanted a good workout. We drove Highway 24 on Boulder Mountain and pulled over at the turnout to see the Park from above.

light from a distant sun casts deep shadows and gentle illumination against the cliffs
Photograph by Nathan Swartz

At that point, everyone would get out of the car and stand there on the east side of the Boulder, just stand there in silence. There were always German and Japanese tourists nearby, clicking away on their cameras, but we didn’t do the camera thing back then. We just saw things and ingested them. “Look at that,” someone would finally say. Then there was the inevitable, “Wow.”

It was beautiful. We said so every time. There was never anything else to say.

We had been meditating upstairs at Pam and John’s house one Sunday when I couldn’t sit still anymore. I came down to find Wabi at the sink, washing dishes. You did things like that back then: you washed other people’s dishes.

sandstone hills topped with copper and red mesa, bright green foliage fills the cracks between
Photograph by Wolfgang Staudt

Some people went by their nicknames, and you never knew their real names. Wabi was like that. He was working at the edge of the county, on an organic farm in Caineville, on the east side of Capitol Reef, the absolute last place on earth any sane person would try to farm. The soil in Caineville is gray-green bentonite clay, fissured everywhere with washes from flash floods, and the pale rubber rabbit brush is the liveliest thing going.

Wabi, like the man he was working for, was the most sincere person on earth.

He looked as heart-heavy that day as I was. I had called myself out of the field a week before, which meant I had quit in the middle of a shift and had used the radio to call someone to come get me. Here I was, entirely surrounded by people I worked with. They were being polite, but I knew they all had opinions. I knew I had been wrong. I had made my husband look bad. I had outed myself to everyone as a pretender.

Now here was Wabi, standing at the sink with a dish brush in his hand, and we were the only two people downstairs in the house.

He looked at me from his own private stores of misery and said, “Every single day I do something I can’t live with.”

I nodded. I began to dry the dishes.

There was a window over the sink, and beyond that we could see the Velvet Ridge. Did it help, just doing the dishes in the presence of such a thing? Did our constant exposure to beauty wake us up out of our little selves for a few minutes at a time?

Did our hikes in Capitol Reef provide moments of realization that everything was okay, because at least the Waterpocket Fold was lovely and well-made? When we stopped at a turnout and got out of a truck and put hands on hips and looked over the panorama and said, “Wow,” was that moment a jolt out of our ordinary ways of seeing things? And do moments spent out of the ordinary eventually add up?

And did we grow stronger in the cold? Could we say that the distance and loneliness and weather was changing us? Did it help that we were so far out on the fringes that there wasn’t a single stoplight in 2,000 square miles?

Was the work itself having any effect? The bow drill fires, the traps and snares, putting up shelters, walking long distances, tanning hides, making bowls out of gourds and birch knots, using knives and cordage, carrying heavy packs, digging holes, eating little, gorging ourselves, all the intensity of life on the high desert? Was it changing us? Were we learning to take care of ourselves in the desert, and gaining confidence that we could take care of ourselves in the world?

And was my own shame, and Wabi’s inability to live with himself, a good sign? Did our desire to do the right thing amid the constant reassurance of our failures show something like character? Was there in it the seed of hope that we might become the people we wanted to be?

We rubbed our edges raw in the high desert. We broke pieces off. We wore plumb out. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, we were becoming Real.