Literary Arts | READ LOCAL First

Stephen Trimble: The Blue Gate

            READ LOCAL First represents Utah’s most comprehensive collection of celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction, and memoir. This month we bring you Stephen Trimble—one of Utah’s most influential artists in Utah’s 15 (Vol. II). Among his other honors: The Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award for photography and conservation; The National Cowboy Museum’s Western Heritage “Wrangler” Award; and a Doctor of Humane Letters from his alma mater, Colorado College.

Trimble’s latest work includes an anthology of the best writing about Captiol Reef, The Capitol Reef Reader, to be published by the University of Utah Press in June 2019. His introduction to the Reader (his 25th book) grew from this piece, “The Blue Gate.”

 

The Blue Gate

At 24, I found myself passing through what southern Utah locals call the Blue Gate. Looking back, I can see this path through spare, sere badlands as the gateway to my adulthood, the physical equivalent of my passage to the rest of my life.

I was headed into a new place, Capitol Reef National Park, to begin my season as a park ranger/naturalist. Two “gates” frame this Capitol Reef country. On the east, austere outcrops of eroded clay—the Blue Gate, where the highway rounds the fluted skirts of blue-gray Mancos Shale that drape the slopes of North Caineville Mesa. On the west, it’s the Red Gate, the first flare of sandstone cliffs where the outrageous colors of the canyon country announce themselves, roiling the calm seas of gray-green sagebrush, drawing travelers deeper into the redrock wilderness, downstream toward the Colorado River.

Beyond the Blue Gate, I kept heading west, swinging around the curves and against the grain of the Waterpocket Fold, the tipped-back wrinkle of rock layers that runs for a hundred miles across southern Utah. Each mile took me into new strata, each with its own textural personality and mineral-stained flamboyance. When I reached what I soon would learn was the bentonite clay of the Morrison Formation, I remember calling out in wonderment, “My god, those rocks are purple!”Those Morrison hills were pretty close to magenta, which was always my favorite color in the crayon box.

My highway followed the Fremont River, a ribbon of life-affirming green in a daunting expanse of stone. Cottonwoods defined this verdant corridor, as both river and road threaded the canyon between golden domes of Navajo Sandstone. And then the Fremont canyon widened. The fractured red wall of the Wingate Sandstone lifted and pulled away from the river, creating a tiny, isolated pocket of irrigable fields with rows of fruit trees between river and cliff, a pioneer one-room school and an old Mormon farmhouse sited like a movie set within the green.

This was the village of Fruita, a cherished oasis in the labyrinth of canyons of the Colorado Plateau. This would be my home for the next seven months. In the more than 40 years since I arrived at that seasonal ranger job at Capitol Reef, I’ve lived all over the Four Corners states, but this many-layered little haven where water meets cliff still lies at the heart of my spiritual home.

I came of age at Capitol Reef. I wasn’t yet an adult, but I made strides. I was actively building what University of Virginia psychologist Meg Jay calls “identity capital,” investing in experiences that would find their way into my adult self.

The slickrock landscape expanding outward from Fruita was the matrix that made possible my leaps toward maturity, a blank canvas for personal R&D, research and development into my ripening identity.

I started as a novice. Scared of scorpions, I slept on top of picnic tables at backcountry campgrounds. I drove my 1962 Dodge Dart into sandy washes and up rock-studded hills, places where such a suburban vehicle should never have been, gradually increasing in skill and decreasing the hours I spent freeing tires from the sand. I walked the park trails, photographing everything from Sego Lilies to Desert Spiny Lizards to swirling crossbedded stone. I grew bolder, backpacking into the most remote corner of Capitol Reef—Halls Creek Narrows. I grew comfortable, no longer afraid of scorpions, enchanted by Canyon Treefrogs when I shared a dip with them in potholes. I reveled in making a swath of south-central Utah my backyard.

My home base in Fruita centered these explorations. Everything becomes vivid where precious water runs through red cliffs. You plant your home next to water and range outward into the wilds. You take calculated risks, but return to green, acutely awake and alive.

Solitude in the slickrock feels different from solitude along the creek, by the lake, next to the trickle of a spring. The streams, the rivers, run with an emotional resonance that crackles with life. Near water, I feel connected to humanity, closer to my heritage as just another creature, tethered to the greater community. Beyond, down the trail into John Wesley Powell’s naked “wilderness of rocks,” I strive to meet the challenges of the desert wild and then return from the maze of stone canyons with new ideas, new strength, to water. Here, in repose, I can make sense out of new experience.

To grow, to mature, to become capable of relationships balances independence and empathy. Somehow the stunning contrast of green oases within the redrockscape echoes the contrasting emotional strengths of these two poles of becoming human.

I’m not the first writer to notice the power of that little pioneer village of Fruita, nor the first to return here again and again on pilgrimages.

Wallace Stegner fell in love with the place nearly a century ago. The great western writer grew up in Salt Lake City, visiting Capitol Reef country in the 1920s and 1930s, making his first trip when he was just 15. Stegner’s nostalgia for Fruita gave him a pivotal setting for his 1979 novel, Recapitulation.

In this novel, Bruce Mason, Stegner’s alter-ego character, takes his first love, Nola Gordon, to southern Utah for a family gathering. When the couple drives off on their own, they make a beeline for Fruita, the place where Stegner himself came of age. With his “dreaming eye,” a much older Mason/Stegner remembers what happened at Capitol Reef.

“They are in a pocket of green among red cliffs. A dusty track turns off left.” “‘Here,’ the girl says, and the driver swings the wheel.”

“On that bedroll in the moon-flecked shadows of the cottonwoods beside the guggle of an irrigation ditch under the Capitol Reef, [in] the stillness that sifts down on them like feathers, [where] a canyon wren drops its notes, musical as water,” Bruce Mason lost his virginity.

In Recapitulation, Bruce and Nola do not live happily ever after. But Mason remembers that night at Capitol Reef as “a great grateful tenderness.” The place and its moment in time, so obscure and distant and remote, remained vibrant to Stegner throughout his life, as my time in that same place does for me.

My job as a ranger consisted of paying attention—and then passing on my stories and newly-acquired knowledge to park visitors. I was fresh to the wilderness, fresh to teaching, fresh to a professional role. I drew my strength and sustenance from the land, from hiking the backcountry, from reading Stegner and Clarence Dutton and Ed Abbey, Ann Zwinger and Willa Cather—and doing my best to sweep up the park visitors, timid and new to the country, and galvanize them with my passions. I was in love with the place. I was in love with learningabout the place. And I wanted every traveler to fall in love as I had, to leave Capitol Reef bubbling with exhilaration about the stunning union here of water and rock, time and twisted juniper.

Wallace Stegner gave me one model for my work as an educator and writer. In his nonfiction, he used his experience in canyon country to take his readers into the heart of the Colorado Plateau. He came back to “the Capitol Reef” whenever he could conjure a reason, “whenever we were within three hundred miles of Fruita.” the village a touchstone, both in life and on the page. He never wrote about landscape without fieldwork, without immersing himself or re-immersing himself in the place, even if briefly.

In 1977, Stegner visited southern Utah to gather material for his essays in American Places. Working with these fresh impressions, he captured the feel of that “lost village” of Fruita, a “sanctuary” for “enthusiasts with the atavistic compulsion to hole up in Paradise.”

His research consisted of soaking up the country and then tracking down old-timers and listening attentively for color, for telling quotes. “The land is not complete without its human history and associations,” wrote Stegner. “Scenery by itself is pretty sterile.”

This, from the man who wrote the hallowed Wilderness Letterin 1960, when he mused over the view from nearby Boulder Mountain and propelled himself to that last soaring paragraph that became fundamental scripture for the conservation movement:

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

And so wilderness isn’t just about solitude. The Big Empties teach us the most when we know about the people who have been there before us, from Ancestral Puebloan to Paiute to John Wesley Powell to Stegner himself. When we know about the Mormon farmers and cranky outsiders who made their homes in places like Fruita. All this, along with knowing the difference between mesa and butte, bobcat tracks and coyote tracks, blackbrush and sagebrush, gnatcatcher and nuthatch.

I discovered literature and local color and natural history and wilderness and love all at the same time, and that mix has been heady for me ever since. I made these discoveries as a college student in Colorado, as the Sixties turned to the Seventies, marked by the first Earth Day and the Vietnam draft lottery and the break-up of the Beatles and the unfortunate presidency of Richard Nixon. I managed to avoid the draft (with bad eyes), and I was appropriately fierce in my protests of the war. But my real passions ran to battling the scourge of development engulfing wild country.

I followed conservation politics. When David Brower was forced to leave his position as director of the Sierra Club—after becoming too political in his fight to save the Grand Canyon from dams—I went with him, outraged by the conservative old Sierra Club board, dropping my membership and signing up for Brower’s new Friends of the Earth. I was just 18.

My hiking buddies and I looked for adventure, we looked for special places. We ventured into the Colorado Rockies to climb and backpack. Even more tantalizing, the redrock canyonlands of southern Utah lay just a few hours farther west. And we came to those canyons just as the great tragedy of losing Glen Canyon under the waters of the “Lake Powell” reservoir sparked a wave of elegiac regional literature.

Edward Abbey published Desert Solitaire in 1968, complete with his story of bobbing through Glen Canyon on dime-store rubber boats. Working with Eliot Porter’s photographs of the lost side canyons, David Brower created the Sierra Club’s 1963 Glen Canyon on the Colorado: The Place No One Knewas an epitaph and apologia for his role in allowing the Glen Canyon Dam to be built.

We couldn’t go to the Cathedral in the Desert, the heart of the heart, now inundated by Lake Powell, but in my ranger job at Capitol Reef, I now had Fruita as my secure perch for exploring outward into what was left of the inner canyonlands. I began to tick off the iconic destinations I’d read about, walking to The Great Gallery of pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon, hiking through Muley Twist, rafting Cataract Canyon, exploring the magical side canyons of the Escalante wilderness.

I needed intellectual guides into this wilderness. I needed teachers of natural history, writers with a sense of place. These mentors and experiences and places shaped me, tempered me, healed me when I was heartbroken. As a slow-to-mature man, my love for place developed before my ease with intimacy, but gradually my love for mountains and mesas spilled over from land to people. If I could fall in love with Capitol Reef or the Sangre de Cristo Range or Baja California, surely I could fall in love with a woman.

The wilds taught me, the writers helped me to articulate what I saw and felt, and I brought all of that newfound engagement to bear in my relationships.

I was on an emotional journey that took me toward adulthood through the transformative alchemy of the wilderness. The book that most intensely captured my passage was the Sierra Club book, On the Loose. Many of us who discovered the thrill of wild country in the 1960s remember with tenderness this small book that perfectly matched the times. Two brothers, Terry and Renny Russell, had grown up wandering in Joshua Tree, Glen Canyon, Point Reyes, the High Sierra. They had done what I had done and distilled their coming-of-age for me in this book, their hand-calligraphed testament. More than a million copiesof On the Loose circulate out there in the world, waiting to crystallize feelings about the middle-of-nowhere for new readers.

I copied quotes from On the Looseonto the matboards that surrounded my photos from my hikes. I can recite those passages from memory, still. Adventure is not in the guidebook and Beauty is not on the map. Seek and ye shall find.

I didn’t realize until many years later that the two Russell brothers had preceded me to Fruita and Capitol Reef. When Renny Russell published Rock Me on the Waterforty years afterhis brother died in a Green River rapid, he told the backstory to On the Loose, filling in the family history that led to those calligraphed words that had been so influential in my youth.

            Terry and Renny grew up in a California family that celebrated art, horses, music, books, photography, and wilderness. Their Aunt Elizabeth was a key influence. With her husband, Dick Sprang (a cartoonist who drew for Batmanand Superman comic books), she ended up in Fruita, of all places. I knew Terry and Renny had wandered the canyon country, but, to my surprise and delight, here they were in Fruita, hanging out in my favorite village. The Russell boys spent the summer of 1958 there, “mingling with Fruita’s eccentric inhabitants and merging with the slickrock wilderness surrounding the park.”

They returned many times, and “left their tracks along the scant game trail leading to the summit of Mount Ellen and in the blue-gray Chinle Formation soil searching for petrified wood and dinosaur bones.” They hiked down the Escalante to Cathedral in the Desert. They floated through Glen Canyon.

            In 1965, when Terry tragically drowned in Steer Creek Rapid in Desolation Canyon, Renny walked 45 miles downstream with no shoes. He came upon a picnicking couple who drove him all the way to the home of his aunt and uncle, who now lived at Fish Creek Ranch at the base of Boulder Mountain a few miles from Fruita. This had been the planned rendezvous with family after the river trip. Instead, Renny brought the news of Terry’s loss.

The land between the Blue Gate and the Red Gate was one of those places that taught Terry and Renny Russell “determination, invention, improvisation, foresight, hindsight.” On the loose here, they learned who they were. They created a relationship with the redrock canyons and then came back to their family homesteads, cabins shaded by groves of cottonwoods, perched at the edge of wilderness. A few years later, I, too, would pass through the Blue Gate to mold myself from the raw materials of wild country and family and community.

            My identity comes right out of this heady mix of slickrock, solitude, lyrical nature writing, identification with place, and living in isolated western outposts dotted across the map wherever pioneers could find water.

In The Defining Decade,Meg Jay articulates what these experiences accomplish for twentysomethings. These are the years of exploration to build “identity capital,” the mind-expanding encounters that adults draw on for self-definition. Jay notes that 80 percent of life’s most defining moments happen by the time we’re 35.

            For those of us long past 35, this sounds a bit discouraging. But her figures remind us how critical these explorations in our twenties can be.

            We can bond with a place at any age. We can fall in love with a new landscape, learn its history, hang out with the old-timers, attend to the nuances of natural history that define the personality of place. We can add whole new sweeps of the earth to our home landscape.

            But Meg Jay is right. There are intervals of special receptivity that mesh with our predilections, and we are most responsive when we are young. I count the Southern Rockies, the Great Plains, and the Great Basin among the landscapes I love most, and I came to know each region when I was at my most vulnerable. But since I first came to the redrock canyons and swam through a pothole into the cradle of a slickrock slot, wooed by the cascading song of a Canyon Wren, I’ve never been the same.

            That most powerful bond could have happened under the spell of a meadowlark’s whistle and warble in the Dakota badlands. Or below Longs Peak in a sunlit glade between spruce and fir, the flute of a Hermit Thrush and the craakof a Clark’s Nutcracker calling to me in surround sound.

            But that alternative pairing of person and place didn’t happen in those landscapes with the same permanence as my bond to canyon country.

            I built my own identity capital in my twenties at Capitol Reef. I pinned my identity, my life, and my happiness on a spire of slickrock. It was a good choice. I’m still here.

“The Blue Gate”  Originally published in Nature Love Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness, Thomas Lowe Fleischner, editor (Torrey House Press, 2017; reprinted with permission). Text and photograph copyright © Stephen Trimble / www.stephentrimble.net

 

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