The First Edit

To begin with, writing a novel, particularly if one has literary as opposed to purely commercial pretensions, is an act of, if not hubris, at least egotism.

To believe that one has something important or worthwhile to say and the ability to say it in a compelling way, a way that engages the reader and seduces them into investing their time and maybe coin to enter that created world, to become complicit in that story, may be the height of folly. Unless one is a genius, which I am not.

Nevertheless, you have a story, and you have characters, and you have lived with it long enough, through fits and starts, until the day comes, the compulsion overwhelms you, and you sit down and seriously set to work. And it is hard. As hard, as arduous, as frustrating, as rewarding as anything you have ever done, but the compulsion has become an obsession, and you keep writing, through the inspired stretches and the dull slogs.

Days, weeks, months pass, and eventually you type “THE END” at the bottom of your manuscript. You have strung together over 100,000 words in some sort of coherent fashion. You stretch your stiff back and sigh, filled with a sense of accomplishment and more than a little emptiness, as at the end of a long anticipated and fulfilling journey.

It is your first novel, and you think it is good. You do not have an editor much less a publisher, so maybe you share it with a circle of writer friends or with family and friends whose opinion you value, but share it you do, and you receive feedback.

Feedback and a healthy dose of humility. Your readers generally profess to like your novel, some of them a lot, but for some reason they do not think your novel is as perfect as you do. Almost every one of them has at least one recommendation that will make your novel better, which leads to one of two responses. Either your hackles rise, your neck stiffens, and you swear you will never change one word, not one jot, not a single iota. After all, what do they know? They’ve never written a novel. Or you pause, take a deep breath, and ask yourself why several readers have made similar observations.

Perhaps a few found you syntax convoluted at times or thought they had to look up too many words. Maybe some readers were caught off guard by a character’s action which which they were unprepared. Or maybe some expected a particular scene to be more fleshed out, more dramatic, and felt let down when it was not.

So you print out a hard copy for yourself, close the laptop, and sit down to actually read your novel as a reader would, to read it straight through without making minor edits along the way. Maybe you keep a pencil handy to make notes in the margins. That’s acceptable. And it slowly dawns on you that maybe some of those comments have merit.

First there is the style thing. Writing, for me at least, is an ongoing tension between the workings of my subconscious and the discipline of craft. Words, phrases, and sentences bubble up unbidden. I know what I want to say, but how I say it springs from some place deep inside, shaped by a lifetime of reading, hopefully more influenced by the better writers I have read. The conscious part, the craft, is the struggle to wrangle those words and phrases into some sort of coherent, cohesive, hopefully lucid form.

Your read-through reinforces what you felt during the writing: the flow of words, the rhythms and subtle meter of the prose is exactly what you wanted. That will not change.

But you do notice that the actions of one of your characters especially really does seem to come out of the blue, the emotional trigger never fully explained. You realize that you have lived with your characters for so long, know and understand their desires and demons so well, that every decision and action seems logical and crystal clear to you, but you have not explained all of that to the reader. His actions can still come as a shock that only makes sense in retrospection. You make a note.

You reread one of the climactic scenes and realize that it is a bit anti-climactic. It was fraught with possibilities you ignored in order to get on to the next, more dramatic passage.  You make another note. You notice a loose thread, an unresolved piece of business. You make another note.

Looking back over these notes, you end up making even more notes. You begin writing new scenes clarifying motives. You flesh out other scenes. You rearrange one scene, then another. Each change creates a cascade of other changes, some minor, some profound. some passages need to be completely rewritten.

A new or redrawn scene, a passage that would never have existed had you not listened to one of your readers, becomes one of your favorites. It throbs with a tension only realized when you let it play out. It ebbs and flows with unspoken conflict and resolution between several characters, closes multiple loops simultaneously.

You put in the work. You hone this, trim that, flesh out the other, and before you know you know it you have finished the first full edit of your novel, and again you sit back, stretch, and sigh. Then you pull the trigger and make it available as a free .epub download from and set it up to channel out to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others.

This blog started out as both a thank you note to my wife and step-sons and close friends who took the time to read my first draft and share their thoughts and an announcement of the new version’s publication, but then it morphed to include an unusually long and rambling rumination on writing in general. It seems ironic that a pursuit as lonely and solitary as writing a novel eventually acquires aspects that are, if not collaborative, at least participatory, in nature. There is no doubt that it is a better novel for their input, more complete, more robust. I will never be able to thank them enough.


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Late Afternoon, Thanksgiving Day

Late Afternoon, Thanksgiving Day

Late afternoon, Thanksgiving Day
5:09 post meridian to be exact
Exactitude unrequired yet oddly noted
Backyard air inert but tangible
Bereft of the just-set sun’s last rays
Yet holding the fading light of dying day
Hovering among columns of dark trunks
Trapped under autumn’s lingering canopy
Glowing golds, riotous scarlets, exhausted browns
Still clinging to branch and twig
Waiting to fall and complete the carpet
On the still-verdant lawn
Already lightly covered since the last raking
All motionless in this moment’s preternatural calm
One lone leaf falls
Carried on no current
Tumbling straight down
Like a tattered, dropped tissue
Then stillness again
Not a single leaf aflutter
Even in the upper reaches of the tallest trees
Air so still that it conveys no sound
If there were sound to convey
No breeze-whisper
No muffled bark of the dog two houses down or the one across the street
No sighing hiss of a passing car
Not even the faint laughter of children at play in the cul-de-sac
Absolute still and quiet
Then another leaf drops
Straight down like the first, silently
Yet another thing for which to be thankful
This silence, this stillness
After the familiar, well-loved faces and voices at table
Tables groaning with nature’s bounty
Even those distant brought near
By phone or photo and text
Family even beyond blood, bonds of love
But now, the quiet
Like a held breath
Fragile equipoise
This season of death, nature’s last rattling gasp against the life-sustaining bounty it has provided
Each day shorter than the last
For only four more weeks
Until that longest of nights
Until the sun begins its inevitable, inexorable march back north across the sky
Tracing the ancient analemma
Towards equinox, then solstice
Towards warmth and renewal and rebirth
The old familiar cycle
Its rhythm built into the heavens
Inherent in stalk and trunk, leaf and bough
Buried in sinew and bone
Even as a third leaf falls
Straight down
Through still air

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An Open Letter To Americans

I have carefully and intentionally kept silent during the entire divisive 2016 election cycle, but the post-election vitriol, the hurt and sense of loss, the sense of frustration and vindication, and the prospect of an even further divided country compels me to speak.

I received the franchise in 1972 and have voted in every primary, runoff, and general election since then. I have not always voted my party affiliation, and even that has changed more than once over the years. I have probably voted for as many losers as winners. There have been candidates I did not vote for who, once in office, delightfully surprised me, and there has been the opposite, candidates I supported who greatly disappointed me. I have on more than one occasion felt that I was voting for the lesser of two evils.

But no matter who was elected, that person was my president, my president because I am an American. Furthermore, I believe in and participated freely in the democratic process that put that person in the White House whether I voted for that person or not.

My polling place is Providence Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. The church has been there since 1765. The current sanctuary dates from 1850. One of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers is buried there. He is but one of my many ancestors in that graveyard who fought in the American Revolution and practically every American conflict since.

Every time I go there to vote I look at that graveyard and I am humbled, humbled by the patriots’ sacrifice and blood shed in revolution, civil war, world wars, and countless actions around the world to create, shape, and defend this country. Every time I have taken a seat in the balcony of that sanctuary, which used to be the slaves’ gallery, or wandered over to the slaves’ cemetery just beyond the old stone wall, I am humbled by patriots’ sacrifice and blood shed in struggles against injustice and inequality that have wracked our republic. And through all of these vicissitudes, our republic has endured.

Make America great again? America is continually being made great, not just by one person in the White House, but by Americans, Americans of all stripes, not just Latino-Americans or black Americans or white Americans or Asian-Americans, not just LBGTQ-Americans or straight Americans, not just by deplorable Americans or elite Americans, but by Americans. It takes each and every one of us to keep making America great.

The framers of the Constitution of the United States of America were not a particularly harmonious lot. They may have all been white men, many of them well off, but they argued and bickered and held widely divergent views. Nevertheless, they had one thing in common: they would let nothing, not personal or ideological differences, not all of the wrangling and finger-pointing, not issues of states’ rights versus federal power nor the rights of the individual nor slavery, nothing, stand in the way of creating our Constitution without which there would be no United States of America, this America to which you and I are heir.

They may have pushed some of those issues forward to be dealt with later, tragically in some cases, but that fierce determination to work together, to compromise, and to create something new, vibrant, and living is our heritage, as much a part of our heritage as the document and republic they created. And we must be zealous of that heritage.

Every four years on the Wednesday after “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November” since 1972, no matter for whom I voted, I have waked up with a prayer for our president-elect, a prayer that our new president would be led to wise decisions and actions for all Americans. Every Wednesday morning, I have waked up with a prayer for my country and the hope that no matter how much I might agree or disagree with my new president, that that person would rise to the challenge of representing not just me but all Americans.

Having voted now in twelve presidential elections, I have some idea how people on both sides feel. I too have waked up on Wednesday hopeful and exhilarated, and I have waked up depressed and fearful. I have even waked up hoping I had done the right thing the day before. But no matter who was elected, our republic has survived. It has survived the results of every election since 1789.The genius of the framers of our Constitution is that they created a government strong enough to survive the actions of any one person.

I still believe that America is a promise, fulfilled for many but not for all. Every American knows that we still have a long way to go. But as sure as the turning of the earth, we will never get there until we decide, as a people, as Americans, that nothing, not difference of race or culture nor fervently held ideological views nor the varieties of self-expression, nothing, will stand in the way of our striving to realize the promise that is America, for all Americans.

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Paria Canyon 2016

It was just after 1:00 PM on Thursday, April 21, 2016, when Stuart greeted me with a big grin and hug in the tiny airport in St. George, Utah. He was clad in his usual travel attire, convertible cargo pants topped with a Hawaiian shirt.

Actually he should have greeted both Vergil and me, but Vergil’s flight from Houston had been delayed and he had missed his connection in Denver. I knew. I had awaited his arrival anxiously, but in vain, first at the gate and then on the plane. Instead, his seat was taken by a young Mormon fellow headed home for some serious backpacking and hunting. After chatting briefly, I turned my attention to the music on my iPhone and my ereader.

Travel for Stu and me is somewhat easier as we live in Portland, Oregon, and Charlotte, North Carolina, respectively. For Stuart it was a simple connection through Salt Lake City, for me, one stop in Denver. Vergil, however, lives in Gulfport, Mississippi, which usually means multiple connections. This time he had to change planes in Houston and Denver. Houston had been the holdup: the late departure ensured a late arrival in Denver.

Stuart had arrived earlier in the day and had already been by the Bureau of Land Management office to pick up our backcountry permit for Paria Canyon in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. Paria (rhymes with Maria) Canyon is a long, deep, narrow canyon nearly forty miles long. It begins at the White House Trailhead near Kanab, Utah, and ends at the Lee’s Ferry Trailhead where the Paria River empties into the Colorado River near Page, Arizona.

Additionally, the canyon can be reached via Buckskin Gulch which is accessible from the Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass trailheads. Buckskin Gulch is longer, more narrow, and host to a number of pour-offs which might have anywhere from ankle- to chest-deep pools to be crossed, as well as climbs where a rope would come in handy. We opted for the White House Trailhead.

Our permit was for six days and five nights. Our rough plans were to head into Paria Canyon, camp near the Confluence where Buckskin Gulch merges with the Paria, dayhike up Buckskin Gulch, then move up and down Paria Canyon, camping and seeking out interesting sights and side trips

But first we needed to know when, or if, Vergil would get to St. George, and I needed lunch having subsisted on only an airline snack all day. Stu and I hopped into the little, white Hyundai Santa Fe Sport SUV that he had rented and headed for St. George. We stopped at the first place we found to eat, a Wendy’s which was conveniently located next to a Walmart which we needed to finish our food purchases.

During lunch, Vergil texted that he had a flight to St. George arriving a t 8:45 PM. As he needed to return home before Stu and I did in order to leave for Spain to bring his younger daughter Gracie home from a semester abroad, he had already reserved a rental car. We agreed that Stu and I would shop for food and fuel, then head to Kanab. Verg would rendezvous with us at the Best Western Red Hills in Kanab later that night.

Vergil had already realized that he had forgotten his fleece hat and asked us to pick one up for him when we went to Sportsman’s Warehouse for fuel. That was noteworthy as he always forgets something, even his boots on one memorable occasion.

Stuart had brought the freeze-dried breakfasts (Breakfast Skillets, Ova Easy Eggs, etc.) and dinners (Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Teriyaki, etc.) with him. We purchased soft tortillas, cheese, and summer sausage for lunches: pre-cooked bacon and bagels to augment breakfast; and Clif bars, peanuts, and M&M’s for snacks.

We returned to the airport to gather Stuart’s luggage which had come in on a later flight. With Stu’s luggage in hand, we headed for Sportsman’s Warehouse.

I quickly located an Under Armor knit cap for Verg and we grabbed the isobutane fuel for our stoves. I also bought a cheap pair of sunglasses, and by 5:00 PM, we were off to Kanab, 80 miles away. We selected the southern route, UT 59 and AZ 389 through Hurricane, UT, Colorado City, AZ, and Fredonia, AZ, in order to avoid the congestion getting through Zion National Park which we had both visited and hiked several times.

The sun sank behind us as we headed east through the darkening desert evening, catching up on this and that as old friends do. Stuart, Vergil, and I have known each other for well over 50 years, so there is always plenty of talk. We checked in to the Best Western Red Hills about 6:40 PM, around the time Vergil finally left Denver.

Kanab is a quaint little desert town tucked up against a plateau of Navajo sandstone which rises over 800 feet from the desert floor. It is populated by roughly 4,500 souls struggling to determine whether to remain quaint and small or grow and cater to the tourists who flock to southern Utah to visit Zion and Bryce Canyons, the Escalante-Grand Staircase, and Arizona’s Vermillion Cliffs. The town has two street lights and several fine eateries as well as a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s, and roughly a dozen motels that range from the chains like Best Western and Comfort Inn to the places like the historic Parry Lodge and the Sun-n-Sand. At least two more motels are under construction.

UT 89A runs due north from Fredonia into Kanab but ends at the first traffic light where it intersects UT 89. Straight ahead takes one north on UT 89; a right turn takes you east, then south. We continued north, passing an assortment of eateries, auto parts stores, filling stations, and motels. Three blocks later, UT 89 takes a 90° left turn at the Parry Lodge which was originally built in 1931 to accommodate movie stars and crews when filming on location in the Kanab area.

Just past the Parry Lodge is the town’s second traffic light and the local LDS church. And there on the next block is the Best Western Red Hills, our home for the night.

As we checked in we inquired about places for dinner and were directed to the Rocking V which was right next door or down one block to Houston’s Trail’s End. Then I asked the young man behind the desk, “Kris, if you were going out tonight for dinner, where would you go?”

Kris didn’t hesitate.

“I’d go to Escobar’s, a Mexican place out east on 89.”

“Thanks,” replied. “That’s where we’ll go.”

We had asked for and gotten a ground floor room for ease in unloading and loading gear. Stu and I pulled around and dumped our gear in the room: a suitcase and duffle bag for Stuart and a duffle bag for me, a 120 liter Patagonia Black Hole Duffel weighing 45 pounds. We dropped off our daypacks too and headed back through town and out to Escobar’s.

Escobar’s was all we hoped it would be, small and funky with great food and cold cerveza. It was a converted fast food place with limited seating. We opted to sit indoors as the temperature was already headed for the 40’s. Stuart’s Corona and my Dos Equis (Negra Modelo not available) were soon followed by his camarones and my chili Colorado burrito.

With full bellies, we headed back to the motel. Soon we had gear strewn all across the room, both queen-size beds, the bureau, the table, and both chairs as we began making last minute decisions on what to take. I was sorting the food into three piles of as nearly equal weight and volume as possible when Vergil called. He had arrived safely in St. George and picked up his car, actually an enormous, black Dodge Ram pickup truck with a crew cab. Stuart gave him the motel’s address, and we settled back to await his arrival.

A couple of hours later, we began to wonder where the heck Vergil was. Then we got another call. He was at 125 West Center Street, in La Verkin, Utah. Right address, wrong town, not even on the way to Kanab. Only Vergil. Destination corrected, he arrived an hour later, looking neat and fresh as usual, his button-down shirt tidily tucked into his jeans.

It was pushing midnight when we crawled into bed, Vergil and me in one queen-size bed, Stuart, the restless sleeper, in the other. It is the same way the tent on the trail. Stuart carries a one-man tent, and Verg and I share a two-man tent. Old habits.

The next morning, we sat down to the complimentary breakfast, coffee for Vergil and me, Pepsi for Stuart, a full breakfast for Stuart and me, a glass of milk for Verg. We’re funny like that.

Breakfast out of the way, we dressed for the trail and finished loading our backpacks. I equivocated over whether to take my Patagonia R1 fleece or my Patagonia down sweater. I opted for the R1, the only time I have not taken my down sweater since the day I bought it, which proved to be a mistake.

I tossed Vergil the fleece hat I had bought him.

“Glad that’s all you forgot this time,” I laughed. “I mean, you did remember your boots, right?”

He gave me that loopy grin of his.

“Yeah, I got them,” he replied, then paused. “But I can’t find my rain shell. Or my polypro shirt.”

“You’re kidding, right?”


“Do I need to make you a checklist?” I asked.

“You already did,” Verg reminded me. “Didn’t help.”

“I guess next time I could fly to Gulfport and help you pack,” I offered.

We both laughed.

Stuart chimed in, “Good thing there’s a camping store here in town.”

With that, we headed to Willow Canyon Outdoor, a faux adobe structure filled with clothing, gear, and books for the outdoor enthusiast plus an espresso bar. Stuart and Vergil bought matching, red Outdoor Research polypro zip T-neck shirts. Stuart had forgotten his hiking stick which he was able to replace with a nice shock-corded model from Helinox.

Vergil also bought a nice, lightweight Outdoor Research rain shell and, since he had brought his MSR hydration cell but forgotten the tube and bite valve, neither of which were available at Willow Canyon, a brand new Platypus hydration system. He had also forgotten his camp chair but elected not to purchase another. His purchases were already well into three-digit range.

I bought a map.

Completely geared up, we returned to the Best Western and stuffed the last few items in our backpacks and tossed the packs and our trekking poles into the bed of the pickup Vergil had rented. We had made arrangements to leave the car at the motel. So we piled the rest of our luggage into the car and parked it around back. We were ready to go at last.

We headed back through town, turned left at the second traffic light, and proceeded south on UT 89 towards the White House Trailhead less than an hour’s drive away. The weather forecast was for high 60’s to low 70’s during the day and mid to high 40’s at night. There was a chance of rain on Sunday, but today, Friday, was warm and sunny.

We drove through the russet desert with the plateau dominating the northern horizon, Vergil at the wheel, me dozing in the front seat, Stu messing around in the back.

I awoke from my nap and asked, “Shouldn’t we be getting close?”

Stuart looked up from his iPad. “Should be,” he said.

“Gotta be close,” Verg added.

I looked at my watch. We had been driving for over an hour.

“Well, let’s see where we are,” I suggested.

Stuart and I had left our phones with our luggage in the Hyundai, but Vergil had his as he was planning to use it as his camera for the trip. I opened the map app on his quaint, little iPhone 4 and pressed the arrow symbol to pinpoint our current location.

I looked up as we passed Cottonwood Canyon Road, then back down at the map.

“We missed it,” I said.

“What?” Vergil exclaimed.

“Yep, it’s about four or five miles back,” I added. “The turnoff was right after we crossed the Paria River.”

Abashed, Vergil took the first opportunity to turn around and back we went. And there it was, right at the Bureau of “Land Management Visitor Info. Paria Contact Station” sign.

We checked in with the ranger, topped off our water, and headed two miles down the dirt road to the trailhead. The BLM only allows 20 backpackers to enter Paria Canyon daily although they do not restrict how long one can remain in the canyon. Friday, April 22, was the only day available in late April when I applied for our permit, so we were surprised to see so few vehicles in the parking lot, and at least one of them was filled with picnickers.

We dropped the tailgate on the truck and booted up. Vergil and Stuart were hiking in ankle-high, Gore-Tex lined boots, Vasques and Lowas respectively. I was in low-top Merrill Moab Ventilators, very breathable, not waterproof. Additionally, Stu and I were wearing neoprene socks over sock liners to keep our feet warm when wet and lightweight Outdoor Research Sparkplug gaiters to keep detritus out of our boots. Vergil had opted to not bring his neoprene socks determined to steer clear of deep water.

One of the less pleasant aspects of canyon hiking these days is that the BLM requires one to bag and pack out all human waste, and yes, that includes Number Two. When Stuart picked up our permit in St. George, he was also given three yellow mesh bags, one for each of us. They looked a lot like potato sacks, but inside of each was six large, foil, zip-locked pouches, one for each of our six days on the trail.

I eyed those pouches and wondered aloud if a few doses of Imodium would lessen my need to use them. I mean, backpacking with bags of poop lashed to your pack. Good grief. Nevertheless, we tucked our bag of pouches under a compression strap, hefted our packs, posed for the requisite trailhead photos, and headed down into the gully.

It was 11:36 AM on Friday, April 20, 2016.


Entrance to Paria Canyon © James Gregory Catledge 2016

The canyon was wide and shallow at the trailhead. The Paria River was ankle-deep, narrow, silt-laden and turbid. We were headed for the Confluence where Buckskin Gulch merges into Paria Canyon. Within the first 30 minutes, we had crossed and re-crossed the river so many times that I had lost track. It didn’t matter. My feet were wet but comfy. At every immersion, the water would cool my feet, but my body heat quickly warmed the thin film of water trapped inside my insulating neoprene socks. Perfection.

As we descended ever so slightly, the canyon walls slowly rose around us although the canyon was still very wide. We plodded through soft, dry sand; slogged through thick, clinging mud; waded through cold, murky water; picked our way through rocky stretches seeking the best footing. The inside curves of the riverbed frequently had elevated shelves of packed sand covered with thin scrub eking out enough moisture to survive and anchor the sand in place.

Occasionally a stiff breeze would whip up the soft, dry sand clouding the air with fine, stinging grains. Vergil has bought each of us a keffiyeh or shemagh. The keffiyeh is of uncertain origin but has been worn by Semitic desert dwellers for centuries and lately adopted by modern armed forces operating in the Middle East.

The ones Vergil got us were 42” X 42” of loosely woven cotton in a green and black pattern. Stuart opted not to bring his, but Verg and I did. Verg wore his folded diagonally and tied around his neck, but I tried the traditional, open desert style, folded diagonally, wrapped over the forehead, and brought around the lower half of the face and tied behind the ear.

I wore it over my OR Swift cap and usually pulled down below my chin, but when the air was filled with flying sand and my friends turning their heads this way and that to avoid it, I simply pulled my keffiyeh up over my nose and kept walking, my eyes protected by my sunglasses.

IMG_0110.JPGThe Keffiyeh © James Gregory Catledge 2016

No wonder the keffiyeh had been worn for centuries. It filtered out flying sand, it captured cooling breezes or kept my head warm as needed. I ended up wearing all day, every day on the trail. It is now part of my standard loadout.

About three miles in the deepening canyon is crossed by a set of high-power electrical lines, a handy indicator of high far we had walked. We had been told that there was a tiny slot canyon on the left with some petroglyphs, but we never found it or them. We also ran into a couple of women here who were backpacking out. They did not know where the petroglyphs were either.

It was about 1:00 PM, so we began to cast about for a likely place for lunch. And found the perfect spot: a broad, elevated shingle with the usual scrub and a stout, twisted cottonwood tree. The day had warmed up making the shade welcome. The spot was actually an established campsite. We dubbed it Cottonwood Terrace.

After dropping packs, we pulled out lunch: tortillas, pepperoni, and cheese. As usual Vergil passed on the cheese. Stuart and I pulled out our chairs, an REI model for Stu and an Alite Mayfly for me. Vergil leaned up against a convenient log. He did not look his best. He had been a little slower than usual on the trail, stopping often and leaning over on his trekking poles. Additionally, his face was flushed and his hands shook.

“You alright, Brother?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ll be OK,” he replied. “Back is killing me though.”

“Want to call it a day? We can camp her,” Stuart offered.

“Naw. I’ll be alright. Let’s go on,” Vergil said although he regretted that decision later.

After lunch, we saddled up and headed out. Almost immediately, the canyon walls began to close in. we were entering the Narrows, the last four miles in to the Convergence, no place to camp, no place to get above high water if there should be heavy rain upstream. Once you enter the Narrows, you’re committed. You have to go all the way.

As the canyon narrows up, sunlight rarely reaches the bottom even at midday. Rather the top of the wall high above blazes read and orange in the bright sunlight and the reflected radiance bathes the lower reaches of the wall in soft light. The walls are riddled with clefts and smoothly wallowed out holes. In places the walls are streaked dark gray, almost black but mostly they are ever hue on the red to yellow spectrum.

Scattered along the cliff walls were some unusual formations, narrow clefts starting at the top of the wall that abruptly flared out to several feet wide before disappearing into the murky stream. Being an inveterate sticker of my head in weird places or climbing up on things for photos, I headed across the stream for a photo op among one of these flutes. The water looked deep inside the recesses, so I planned to stop just short of stepping inside.

I was about ten feet away from the cleft on mucky but reasonably solid ground. The water was ankle-deep. I reached out to take one more step into a deeper pool, maybe a foot deep. My right foot never touched bottom. I sank up to my ankle in thick but insubstantial, sucking mud, quicksand actually, then up my knee, then up to mid-thigh.

Paria CanyonApr_24_4088.jpg

Quicksand!   © Stuart Worley 2016

I threw both hands out wide. My left foot was still on reasonably solid ground, and my immediate reaction as to struggle to get out, which only made things worse. I was now in to the top of my thigh. I weird calm came over me, and I relaxed and quit sinking.

Vergil, to my left, was reaching for me with his trekking pole, but I was pitched away from him and couldn’t reach back. Stuart was documenting the entire event with his camera. I slowly and carefully worked to regain my balance, and once that was accomplished grabbed Verg’s trekking pole with my left hand.

“Brace yourself,” I suggested, a good idea as I outweigh him by at least 50 pounds.

With Verg well braced and me balancing on my left leg, I began to steadily pull my right leg out of the goop. I was wearing low-top Merrill Moab Ventilator hiking shoes, and you guessed it: my right shoe began to slip off my foot. Now the last thing I wanted to do was to have to try to fish my shoe out of that mess. No, actually the last thing I wanted to do was lose it irretrievably and have to hike in Crocs.

I clenched the toes of my right foot which kept the slippage at bay and continued to pull. With a sickening sucking sound, I finally pulled my foot free. The quicksand closed without a ripple, smooth and deceptive, waiting for the next unwary soul.

My leg had come out so slowly and the water had been so deep over the quicksand, that my leg was washed practically clean.

“Wow! That was exciting,” I laughed.

“I’ll say,” Vergil added.

“Catledge, I swear,” Stuart added, no doubt thinking about the time I impulsively headed across iced-over Blair Creek only to crash through thin ice near the far bank.

I am normally a thoughtful, careful person, but I will admit to the occasional impulse that banishes reason far to the background and gets me into tight spots. Another good reason to never go into the backcountry without competent friends.

We continued through the Narrows as the sunlight continued to climb the canyon walls and the temperature started down. It was increasingly obvious that Vergil was not feeling well. He was stopping more and more often, but there was no going back. We were too deep into the Narrows.

As usual, he refused help. We offered encouragement. I insisted that he eat and drink something although he insisted he wasn’t hungry or thirsty. But after walking five or six miles with 30-35 pounds on his back, he needed the calories.

Soon we passed Slide Rock Arch which is not actually an arch, but created when a house-sized slab sheared off the wall and crashed down to the canyon floor, then tilted back against the canyon wall creating a covered passage. It was a rare and encouraging landmark in an otherwise featureless stretch. It was only a little more than a mile to our campsite.


Entrance to Buckskin Gulch © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Twenty minutes later, I saw clear water entering the Paria from the right. It swirled and eddied before eventually blending with silty Paria. We had cleared the Narrows and reached Buckskin Gulf. It was 6:00 PM. We snapped a few pictures and turned left down canyon at which point we walked out of Utah and into Arizona.

Five or ten minutes later, we came to a point where the canyon bent sharply back to the left with sandy, scrub-covered tiers rising 40-50 feet on the right side of the river in the middle of the bend. There were even a few scrubby cottonwoods up there.


Exiting the Narrows, Friday, April 22 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Stuart started up the near, higher side to see if there was a place to camp. I continued around the bend until the river doubled back on itself and started up the tiers from the downriver side. About 40 feet above the canyon floor, I found a nice, large, almost level shelf. Stuart was about 20 feet above me and not impressed with what he saw.

“What’s it like up there?” I shouted.

“Not too bad,” Stu replied. “Rocky. Some small sites. How bout down there?”

“Plenty of room. I think you’ll like it. Come on down.”

Stuart retreated the way he had come where Vergil waited, spent and in pain. I headed down the way I had come and met the two of them at the downcanyon side of the rise.

We were picking our way up when Vergil spotted a small snake. We rushed to investigate and found a young rattlesnake, so young, in fact, that it had no rattles, only a button, having not even shed its skin for the first time. It moved slowly in the cooling air, headed for the undergrowth. We were so captivated that no one thought to pull out their camera.

Everyone agreed that the lower, downcanyon side of the rise was the better site. We were a good 40 feet above the river with commanding views of the canyon to the north and to the south as well as the full sweep of the horseshoe bend. We dropped packs and began pulling out gear. As usual Verg and I were tenting together and Stu was solo. I say tenting. In fact, we both brought only the poles, tent fly, and footprint, leaving the tent body at home to lighten our loads.

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First Camp, Friday, April 22 © Stuart Worley 2016

Stuart brought his MSR Hubba and I brought my MSR Hubba Hubba NX. With the poles fitted into the grommets on the footprint and the stretched tightly over the poles and attached at the pole ends, one has a very stable and well-ventilated, some might say breezy, shelter.

In a matter of minutes, shelter was pitched, sleeping pads and bags had been pulled out, and everything was covered with sand. Our campsite was high and dry but also windy. In fact, so windy that in the blink of an eye, my 20 ounce Alite chair was picked up and dropped 20 yards down a gully on one side of our elevated campsite. I clambered down, retrieved it, and made sure it was secure from then on.

We all shucked our boots and set them in a likely place to dry. Between the breeze and lack of humidity, that should not be a problem. Nor was it. We started every day out with dry boots. Verg and I slipped into Crocs, and Stuart put on his Teva water shoes.

From our commanding perch, we noticed a lone backpacker headed upcanyon. He saw us too and called out. He headed up, we headed down, and we met in the middle. He was a young Frenchman, whipcord thin and wiry with an accent so thick I had trouble understanding him.

He had been in the canyon several days, working his way up and down the canyon, exploring. We asked about water conditions down canyon. He reported that the spring at the ten-mile point near the first fault crack was feeble but that Big Spring at Mile 12 was pouring right out of the canyon wall or the Moses Rock as he called it, an obvious reference to Exodus 17:6-8 where the recently liberated Hebrews are thirsting in the desert when Yahweh commands Moses to strike a rock with his staff causing water to gush forth. We immediately settled on Big Spring for our third night in the canyon.

I noticed that Frenchie was carrying a ÜLA backpack and asked him how he liked it. I had been considering one at one point. He raved about it. Maybe my next backpack, sometime in the future.

The Frenchman headed on towards Buckskin Gulch, and we set about preparing dinner. We considered scooping water from the Paria and letting the silt settle out before filtering but decided to take advantage of clear pools of water left behind by the receding river from which the silt had already precipitated. Stuart slipped down to the pool at the bend of the river below us and filled his 10-liter Sea to Summit bucket. When he returned, we simply filtered from that. At 2.8 ounces, I added one to my gear as soon as we got home.

Dinner the first night was a departure from Vergil’s favorite, Mountain House’s beef stroganoff. Instead we tried Mountain House’s Chicken Teriyaki. Either it was very good, or we were hungrier than expected. The three of us ate two packages which advertised 2.5 servings per package. As usual there was a debate as to who would get to eat from the foil packaging. I offered to use my cup for dinner which meant I was the only one with a dish to clean up.

We sat around after dinner, and Verg and I enjoyed a cup of Starbuck’s Decaf Coffee Via, one of our indulgences. As the temperature dropped and the breeze picked up, we all three began to add layers. Soon by common agreement we decided that our sleeping bags would be warmer, and we each clambered in to our sandy sleeping gear.

As usual, I started out using my bag, a brand new Western Mountaineering EverLite bag, 8 ounces of high loft goose down in sewn-through, box-constructed configuration. Total weight 17.25 ounces. It is rated down to 45° F, which means I am usually good to at least the high 30’s.

We all slept somewhat fitfully that night. The wind shrieked through the canyon all night long. A near full moon brilliantly lit the canyon walls and eventually found its way all the way down to us, causing the tent wall to glow faintly in the soft, lambent light.

The morning dawned clear, and the Paria which had been wide and silty the day before was now shallow, narrow and crystal clear. I headed up to the rockface where we had hung our food. A previous hiker had jammed a forked branch down into the rocks over a deep cleft by the wall. Wedging another desiccated limb into a crack in the wall, they had placed the far end of the second into the fork of the first. We had tied our foodbags together and stretching out over the cleft had draped them over the horizontal limb.

It didn’t look great, but it was the best we had, and it worked. No camp robbers got into our food.

We rose at 7:00 Am and had a good breakfast of Ova Easy eggs and precooked bacon wrapped in tortillas. Verg and I had a cup of Coffee Via Columbian Roast. Yum.

By pre-arranged plan, the only firm one we had at this point, we had decided to spend two nights at this location and spend the day hiking up Buckskin Gulch, but first everyone crawled back into the sack and wait for the warming rays of the sun to creep deeper into the canyon. We climbed back out at 10:00 AM.

By consensus we agreed that our campsite out on the point was too windy. We decided to move up to a more protected spot that Stu had earlier discounted. No sooner had Stu pulled his tent stakes than I heard a shout of warning form Vergil. I snapped my head around just as Stuart’s airborne tent grazed the back of my head.

I watched in fascination as the wind carried it off the point of our elevated campsite and 20 yards down the slope. I dashed down after Stu’s tent, and just as I grabbed for it another gust picked it up and lifted it over my outstretched fingers, back up the hill, past my tent, and dropped it back at Stuart’s feet where it had been pitched. Stu grabbed the tent, and the three of us stared each other in surprise.

“What the heck.”

“Did you see that?”

“Are you kidding me!”

We shook our heads in disbelief, and went back to moving camp.

I pulled up my stakes uneventfully, and hefting my tent overhead, headed uphill. Several rock formations provided windbreaks and Stu and I re-pitched our tents at the new location.

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Relocating Camp, Saturday, April 23 © Stuart Worley 2016

That accomplished, we pulled out our little REI Flash 18 Packs. At 10 ounces they make a great daypack that also doubles as a stuff sack.

We each tossed our hydration systems, lunch, snacks, and extra layers of clothing (including raingear) into our daypacks and then booted up.

About ten minutes up Buckskin Gulch we found an ideal campsite on the north side of the gorge. It had several tiers, very flat, and more trees than we had seen in one place since entering the canyons. A party of three was setting up camp on the lowest tier. We marked it down for possible future use, particularly the highest tier, and headed on up canyon.


Buckskin Gulch © James Gregory Catledge 2016

The walls rose and narrowed simultaneously, at one point narrowing to only six feet wide, and the trickling stream completely disappeared.


Buckskin Gulch, Saturday, April 22 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

At about two miles up the Gulch, we came to a rock-fall that appeared to be easier to climb over going upcanyon than coming back down. We claimed victory and turned around. Vergil’s back was better to day, but no one wanted to take a chance.

We settled in to our new site, both tents nested among protecting boulders with all additional tie-downs staked out. As we had the night before, we piled rocks on top of our stakes. It had been an easy day, and Vergil’s back was still doing fine. We dined on beef stroganoff and had settled back with our coffee when we heard voices of what turned out to be a large group down on the canyon floor.

It looked like a large family, two or three adults and the rest kids. They were headed upcanyon at a reasonable pace but paused to call up to us to confirm directions and mileage. We shared that it was at least eight miles to White House Trailhead and be sure to take the right fork at Buckskin.

They thanked us and continued on. It was about 8:00 PM.

“Wonder where they’ve been all day?” I asked.

“No idea,” Stu replied. “We sure didn’t pass them earlier. Course we were up Buckskin most of the afternoon.”

“Well, they only had daypacks, so I guess they came in from White House. Still …” I said.

“Yeah,” Verg added. “They’re going to have some whipped kids by the time they get out.”

“Roger that. With luck it’ll be pushing 11:00 o’clock before they get out. Getting colder too,” I said zipping up my R1 fleece. “And they look pretty lightly geared.”

“Good reason to keep moving,” Stuart noted.

We all shook our heads in disbelief.

We were early to bed again.


Down canyon from Camp 2 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Day Three dawned, still clear. In fact, the night had been so clear that when Stuart got up in the middle of the night to relieve himself, he set up his camera on his tripod, and got a beautiful picture of the Big Dipper hovering between the moonlight drenched canyon walls.

We rose at 8:00 and feasted on egg, bacon, and cheese burritos. We leisurely broke camp and were on the trail by 10:30.

At one bend there would be tall columns of stone, tapered at the bottom so that they resembled pipes in a pipe organ, at the next turn deep clefts with stair steps leading deep into the rock, shafts of sunlight filtering down from 200 feet above. One formation resembled nothing so much as a pair of praying hands, palms together, raised in supplication.


A Sense of Scale © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Stuart and I were so busy with our cameras that it took us nearly four hours to walk four miles. Vergil’s back continued to hold up.

On the left side of the canyon at another bend in the river, there was yet another tiered shelf of sand with a mixture of scrub and large cottonwoods. we were at Big Spring. We climbed up and began scouting for a likely spot to set up camp when we ran into the people we had seen camping in Buckskin Gulch the day before. They were from Pocatello, ID, a man and his wife and brother. They were even older than us. We chatted for a few, and they headed back up the canyon.

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Big Spring Camp, Sunday, April 24 © Stuart Worley 2016

We found a nice wide flat spot close to the canyon wall which included a convenient overhang in case the weather turned wet. And it looked like it might. High, thin clouds began to roll in.

Stuart and Vergil went down to the Moses Rock to get a bucket of water which we nevertheless filtered. We pitched our shelters, and hung our socks up to dry. We set our boots under the overhang just in case.

I was lolling in my Alite chair when I felt something brush the back of my head accompanied by a fluttering sound. I swapped across the back of my head once, then again. I thought it was a large butterfly. The third time it brushed my head, I swatted harder and knocked a small gray and white bird with a russet crown to the ground, some sort of flycatcher, I believe.

Stunned, the small bird hopped up under the log beside me and cowered in a convenient crook. I pulled out my camera and shot a close-up. Something bright green clung to its beak. I had noticed caterpillars the same color scattered about on the cottonwood leaves. I still could not imagine what he had been after on my head. I pulled off my cap and looked at the back, and there on the dark olive of the cap was the Outdoor Research logo in bright green, the same color as the caterpillars.

All through dinner, the cloud cover increased and the temperature dropped. We made it our third early night in a row. As the temp dropped, I snuggled deeper into my bag. Eventually, I climbed all the way in and zipped the bag up. I was warm but pushing the lower limit of my bag’s range.


Canyon Abstract © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Monday morning broke cloudy and noticeably cooler. We could sense the moisture in the normally dry air and suspected we would see rain before the day was over. We soon had all of our layers on for warmth. We powwowed over breakfast and looked at our options: head further down the canyon with borderline gear, spend another night here and dayhike downcanyon, or head back and camp in Buckskin Gulch. With the wind picking up, we thought that Buckskin would be more protected. We selected the third option, planning to ease out to Cottonwood Terrace for the last night.

Plans made, we cleaned up after breakfast and packed up. Walking, as usual, warmed us up and we pulled off layers. We were back at the Confluence in a little over two hours. The Paria River was still clear, still only a shadow of what we had seen last Friday. The wind had continued to rise and the temperature had continued to fall throughout the morning.

With the wind whistling down the even more narrow Buckskin Gulch, we decided to push on to Cottonwood Terrace for the night. Maybe we could take a better look for those petroglyphs.

We headed back into the Narrows, and within two miles, the Paria River simply disappeared, dried up and gone. Assuming this might be the last water we might see on the way out, we backtracked to the nearest pool and filtered enough water to fill every container we had. We each carried four or five liters as we headed back out.

There was no sense of urgency. We meandered along taking photos and talking. We cleared the Narrows a little after 5:00 PM. In the widening canyon we could see darker clouds to the north and west, and it must have been raining there because a serpentine flow of foamy water came twisting down the canyon floor, gaining strength and volume by the minute.

It is impossible not to be moved by these little wonders of nature, knowing that in but four short miles, the flow would reconnect with its receding waters downcanyon. Then it started spitting rain. We hustled on towards Cottonwood Terrace, adding the rain factor to the equation.

We dropped packs at Cottonwood and cast about for tent sites. The sand was deeper and softer than we remembered. It would be a challenge anchoring our shelters. The temperature continued to fall, and we soon had on every layer off clothing we had brought. And we were still cold. Howling wind and intermittent rainfall didn’t help.

The rain was an irritant, but the wind was a huge factor. Wind chill as an abstraction becomes very real in these situations. It robs the body of warmth that becomes increasingly hard to replace. Our layers of fleece, wool, and polypropylene were designed to trap air in small spaces so that our bodies could keep that air warm, but our rainshells did not block all of the wind and those warm pockets of air were being depleted faster than we could warm them back up. It was not a winning equation.

“Well, what do you think?” Stuart asked.

“I’m with you fellers,” Vergil replied.

I pointed out the obvious: it was getting colder, it was raining, the river was rising, even if we got the tents pitched and anchored, the wind would be whipping sand and rain under the rainflies, and the trailhead was only three miles away. I had initially been reluctant to walk out early but was being swayed by the safety factor.

“Let’s cook and eat dinner. Maybe that’ll warm us up. Then we can decide whether to camp or push on,” I suggested.

Verg and Stu agreed.

Using a log and two flat stones stood up on edge, I created a windbreak and lit my stove. We decided to try the Mountain House Beef Stew which proved to be our least favorite dinner. Everything, beef, potatoes, carrots, everything was diced into the same sized cubes, about ¼ inch to a side. It was just not very beef stew-like.

But it was warm and filling. Only we were still cold and getting colder. We had planned for temperatures at least a few degrees cooler than the forecasted high 40’s nights, but we were already below that and falling. The wind continued to be the real warmth sapper though. It was shaping up to be a miserable, cold, wet night, and I was seriously regretting opting for the R1 fleece rather my down sweater. I’ll never make that mistake again.

At 6:00 PM, by consensus, we decided to head on out to the White House Trailhead three miles or so away. With the river filling back up, we dumped most of our water to lighten our loads and saddled up. We had already put in a solid nine miles but were determined to set a fast pace.


The Gathering Storm, Monday, April 25 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

The river continued to get wider and deeper, evidence that the dark clouds to the north and west were dumping heavy rain upstream. Light rain came and went with maddening frequency. The only way to stay warm was to keep walking. We were now spending nearly as much time in the water as out, deeper water at that, as we trudged through stretches of rock and sand and mud and water.

We made pretty good time and covered those three miles in a little over an hour. We climbed out of the canyon at 7:15 PM. The parking lot was full of vehicles. People were setting up tents in the adjacent campground as the rain continued to fall. We had backpacked 12 miles with about 35 pounds on our backs, more than any of us done in a while. But we had made good time and were in good shape.

We got a stranger to take our picture: three old guys swathed in most of our clothes. Piling into the truck, Vergil cranked her up and turned on the heater. Soon we were headed back to Kanab in the increasing rain, tires humming on wet pavement.


Trail’s End, Monday, April 25 © James Gregory Catledge 2016

Back in Kanab at the Great Western Red Hills, we got a room for the night, not ground floor this time but conveniently located next to the guest laundry. We hauled our gear up and proceeded to strew it all over that room.

By 9:30, Stu and I were showered and changed. Verg, as usual, was focused on washing clothes and opted not to go with Stuart and me to find something to eat. We tried out the Rocking V but found it too high end for our tastes. We both wanted a hamburger to the exclusion of anything else.

Houston’s Trail’s End was already closed. Apparently 10:00 PM is the witching hour in Kanab. We ended up at the Wendy’s/Walker’s Convenience Store/Gas Station right across the street from the Kanab Bureau of Land Management Office. We got our hamburger just before they started closing up. After eating, we grabbed some milk for Vergil at Walker’s and headed back to the motel.

It rained all night and was still raining the next morning. Coming out early we thought we might have extra chances to get into the Wave before Vergil left on Thursday, but that was not to be. After a late breakfast at the motel, we checked in at the BLM office where we learned that the last 10 miles to the trailhead for the Wave is a compacted dirt road, considered a challenge when wet even for a four-wheel drive vehicle, which we did not have. Our disappointment was somewhat mitigated by the absence of blue sky for contrast and the flat light conditions created by the overcast and rain. The Wave would have to wait.

With the Wave out and Vergil scheduled to leave on Thursday, Stuart decided to head back early too. I looked into changing my flight and was shocked at the cost, but my only option was renting a car, paying for another two nights in Utah, and wandering around in the rainy desert. The weather forecast was for continued rain and very cool temperatures. I bit the bullet and booked a flight home for Thursday.

We spent the rest of the day checking out Kanab and shopping for gifts for family. Denny’s Wigwam was suitably tacky, but the Little Hollywood Land Museum with its movie sets from countless Westerns filmed in the area, relocated and preserved, was pretty cool. I even found teardrop-shaped turquoise earrings for Sherrie. The pair I got her several years ago had recently become a singleton. I found some neat scarves for Annabelle and Sawyer, our fashionista granddaughters.

We finally got a meal at Houston’s Trail’s End and enjoyed it.

The next morning, we decamped for St. George, heading back west on UT 89, but first we decided to go by Coral Pink Sand Dunes Park. The dunes were more yellow than pink, no doubt because the sky was overcast. After a short stop we headed on. I rode in the Ram truck with Vergil. We cut back down to UT 389 rather than take the slower route through Zion.

It was still cold and spitted rain the entire way to St. George. The plateaus to the north and west were covered with new snow. Stuart wanted us to see the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site, and Vergil and I wanted Stuart to see Snow Canyon State Park. We headed to the dino site first, and it was wonderful.

Apparently back in 2000, a local optometrist, Dr. Sheldon Johnson, was leveling a hill on his property in St. George when he uncovered a thick level of sandstone. Flipping over the large blocks, he discovered perfectly preserved dinosaur tracks. Eventually thousands of tracks made by dinosaurs and other animals were discovered from what had been the shores of an ancient lake some 200 million years ago.

Now the site is a museum with catwalks over the excavations and scientists hard at work teasing fossils form the surrounding rock. There are even life-size representations of the creatures, Dilophosaurus, Megapnosaurus, Scutellosaurus, and Protosuchus, arrested in mid-stride in the tracks they once made. Dimorphodon hovers overhead. It is truly fascinating. I purchased 200-year old fossilized shark’s teeth for my grandsons, Jake and Dylan.

We lunched at the ubiquitous In-N-Out Burger, then headed to the Best Western Travel Inn on East St. George Boulevard. It got exciting when Stu, while making a left turn, startled a pedestrian in the crosswalk who gave Stuart a piece of his mind in no uncertain terms.

Once checked in, we all piled into the Hyundai and headed up to Snow Canyon. In 2009, Vergil and I had spent several days in St. George when our buddy Ralph McCumber had needed to be hospitalized with severe gastric issues. After Ralph’s release, we had camped in Snow Canyon and done some dayhiking.

With its cinder cones, lava tubes, both red and white Navajo sandstone petrified dunes, rich black basalt, scrubby green sage, and shifting dunes, Snow Canyon is a study in contrasting colors and textures. There is no backpacking, but the park is covered with trails, even if like us, you don’t necessarily feel the need to restrict yourself to trails. We had wandered and scurried and climbed to our heart’s content.

Of course, with the overcast and rain, it was less than vivid but still spectacular. We drove about and took a few pictures, then headed back to the motel to pack for Thursday’s morning departure. For our last night together, we walked a couple of blocks to George’s Corner Restaurant, a cozy, funky retreat with live music-one guy, his guitar and harmonica.

Vergil had the grilled ribeye; Stuart ordered the battered fish and rings. I had the smoked turkey club. The food and the music were good, the company even better. We walked back to the motel with full bellies and finished packing.

Vergil and I were on the same 7:25 United flight to Denver. Stuart’s Delta flight to Salt Lake City left an hour earlier. Having two vehicles was working out great. We set every alarm we had and turned in early.

Stuart’s stirring around roused Verg and me. We bid him a fond farewell and tumbled back into the bed for a few more minutes. By 6:00 AM we were on our way to the airport. We dropped off the truck and went to check our bags.

The St. George airport only has two gates, only one of which they apparently use. One security line accommodates both TSA Pre-check and the common folk. For some reason, my boarding pass had not been flagged as usual for TSA Pre-check, so we had to wait until those three people were cleared before it was our turn.

Then the fun began. I had won the lottery and got wanded, then tested chemicals that could be used to build a bomb. Next the ultra-vigilant screeners became suspicious of the two irregularly shaped lumps, each about the size of a large potato, stashed in the bottom of my daypack. I must admit they did look suspicious on the screen, although they were only sandstone blocks holding petrified shark’s teeth all swathed up in bubble wrap for protection. The TSA screener unwrapped one to satisfy that all was safe, and I was free to go.

Vergil had gone through with no complications, and we entered the boarding area to find Stuart waiting patiently for his flight. He looked up somewhat abashed.

“I misread my boarding pass,” he admitted. “I got here before the airport was even open.”

We all had a good laugh and sat down together for those last few minutes. Stuart’s Delta flight was visible through the window. The United jet Vergil and I would take was parked way around to the left. We had seen it as we walked in.

For some reason, Vergil’s layover in Houston had increased from one-a-half to six hours. No one at Ticketing had been able to explain why or correct the issue. He was less than delighted as he had a quick turnaround to leave for Spain.

Soon Stu’s flight was called, and with one last embrace, he was gone.

Vergil and dozed until our flight was called. We headed through the same gate. The jetway had been swung way around to the United jet parked around the corner. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible in adjacent seats and settled in for the one hour 41-minute flight.

Despite the lack of activity at the airport, we still got away late. It was snowing when we landed in Denver. Naturally our connecting flights were nearly as far as they could possibly be from our arrival gate. We hustled through the airport, paused long enough to use the restroom, bid a hasty good-bye, and boarded our respective flights.

There is a particular poignancy saying good-bye to old, old friends that you only get to see once or twice a year. The previous October, my father had the stroke that ultimately took his life. I got to Tupelo the morning after his stroke and moved into the hospital with him. Vergil drove up from Gulfport the next day and stayed the week as I moved with Dad to hospice where he spent his final few days. Vergil would come drag me out just to get me away or just sit with me in Dad’s room. That is the kind of friend he is.

I was lucky in my seat, a bulkhead seat, and because the bulkhead did not extend all the way to the deck, I could stretch my legs all the way out. The two seats beside me were empty, but I couldn’t flip the armrests up as that’s where the tray-tables were located. I called Sherrie to tell her that we were leaving Denver on time and settled in.

As we flew over Kansas, the beverage cart came by. I hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before, nearly eighteen hours ago. I ordered the heartiest sandwich on the menu and a rum on the rocks, then caught up on my sleep.

In between naps, I thought about the trip. Had we made the right decision coming out early? I thought so and still do. Could we have stayed in? Undoubtedly, although it would have been a miserable night with at least the potential for hypothermia. It might have come down to breaking park rules and building a campfire.

Considering the ease of travel in the canyon, I would like to go back and do a point-to-point, from White House all the way down to Lee’s Landing on the Colorado River. We only saw 12 of Paria Canyon’s 38 miles. That’s for another year.

Our plane landed right on time, 3:16 PM EDT, and I headed for baggage claim. Warm 80° F air spilled in from the open doors as I descended on the escalator. Cold rain to snow to warm sunshine in less than six hours. Sherrie was already there, waiting patiently at the carousel with that radiant smile of hers. I was home again.

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Filed under Backpacking, Canyon, Hiking, Uncategorized, Utah

A Different Christmas

This is for those who already know and for those who will one day learn.

I am one of those with soft-focus, happy, glowing memories of childhood Christmases. As effortlessly as visions of trees draped in tinsel and multi-colored lights, frosted windowpanes, and warm, snug rooms float into my mind accompanied by sound of Mom’s favorite carols, it is the rich panoply of smells that is most evocative, the redolence of roast turkey, the zest of fresh oranges, the tang of evergreen, that trigger the most intense memories.

The house where I experienced most of my childhood Christmases still stands. Although expanded and reconfigured, the core still remains. My sister lives there now. Mom passed away two years ago, Dad two months ago. Even though Dad, gripped by Alzheimer’s, could not tell Christmas Day from any other day for the last few years, this is our first Christmas without at least one of our parents physically existing in that place that was Home. As long as just one of them was alive, that Home had a sort of tangibility that transcended mere concept, a tangibility which is now irrevocably, irretrievable gone, unrecoverable.

My wife and I discussed this the other day while out Christmas shopping, listening to carols as we drove around. Or rather I tried to express how it felt. For the 30 years of our marriage when I have thought of Home, I have thought of her. Home was where we made it, whether in Atlanta or Greensboro or Charlotte. These days the boys are grown, gone, and married. Our Christmases are now graced with the happy laughter and warm snuggles of grandchildren. Life is fuller, richer than any I could have imagined, undeserved, cherished.

Subliminally if never articulated, I suppose that I always knew that Home was really two places: the Home from which we sprang and the Home we made. The former, if we are fortunate, a blessing, an example and template for a good, well-lived life; the latter the Home we strive with God’s providential grace to build .

What I found so surprising was how strangely unmoored I suddenly felt when I realized that that first Home was gone, how unprepared I was for that revelation, how much more important the thirty years of new and evolving traditions had become, the Moravian Love Feasts and Christmas Eve services, the multi-part family singalongs of familiar carols, the Christmas Day fire laid and lit, the companionable babble of familiar voices around the breakfast table, cold winter light streaming through the tall windows onto well-loved faces.

We grow older. Things change. We realize that are many things that we cannot fix. We lose friends and loved ones to distance, neglect, or death. Our bodies don’t work like they once did. All are a reminder to recommit ourselves every day to seek out and cling to the good, the beautiful and life affirming, the vibrant, the blessings that are available, not the ones that were lost or squandered.

This year we will go to Christmas Eve services with both of the boys, their wives, and all four of our grandchildren, then pile into bed to sleep under one roof and wake up on Christmas Day together. Later after the blizzard or wrapping paper and squeals of delight and thank-you hugs, we will sit down for Christmas Dinner with four generations of family. We will embrace and laugh and share the little things in life, that sharing that binds people together, that creates family, and Home.

I will call my sisters and my oldest friend’s parents, who have been my “other” mother and father for years on end, to wish each of them a Merry Christmas, family far away but no less dear for the distance.

As Christians we celebrate the miracle of Christmas, Christ’s Advent, God himself appearing among us, no gift more undeserving or more freely given. Amid the enormity of that concept, I will also take time to celebrate that first Home and Mom and Dad who built it with God’s grace, the Home that held those Christmases of long ago, that Home intangible now that they now longer inhabit that place, but substantial in its effect, foundational, that Home which cannot be supplanted, but which can be, should be, built upon, the gift, the blessing without which the new Home and all of its Christmases would never, could never, have existed.

The capacity of the human heart is amazing. It can encompass sorrow and joy, loss and renewal, at the same time. We simultaneously rejoice that a loved one who has passed away has gone to a better place and grieve that they are gone. Some say that loss makes us more appreciative of what we have. That seems too simplified a response to me. The spectrum of human experience is too rich and varied, shockingly obvious or finely nuanced, overt or subtle by turns. All of it can, must, be embraced, each for its individual and relative value, each for its impact upon us, just as God in the form of His Son, wholly God and wholly human, must have experienced the entire variety of human life when He walked among us.

For me, that has been the unexpected gift of a different Christmas.

Thanks be to God for life and loss and wonder and blessing, and Merry Christmas to all.

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How Distant Is the Past?

I was ruminating on the passage of time, the way the years seem to slip by faster and faster the older one gets. For some reason I thought of something that happened the summer I turned eight years old.

It was 1961. As was not uncommon, I was spending the summer on my grandparents’ farm two-and-one-half miles north of Brazil, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta.

One day in late summer, August, I think , Pop – the same name my grandchildren who have heard and read countless stories about my Pop, call me – informed me that we were going to visit Mrs. Ferguson for her birthday.

Pop and Mr. Ferguson had been great friends. In fact, at one point Pop was purchasing a place out at Friendship (where my father was born) from Mr. Ferguson and his sisters in the late 1920’s when the Great Depression struck. Unable to make his annual payment, Pop asked for additional time. That was fine with Mr. Ferguson, but his sisters disagreed  and outvoted him. Pop lost the farm and every dollar he had put into it.

It is hard to imagine how crushing that must have been, but it did nothing to diminish Pop’s and Mr. Ferguson’s friendship which lasted until Mr. Ferguson passed away. Pop took over management of the King place shortly thereafter.

I was not enthusiastic about putting on church clothes on any day other than Sunday. Actually I was not very enthusiastic on Sunday either, but Cat – that is what I called my grandmother – insisted, and off we went.

What do I remember about that summer day in 1961? I remember that Mrs. Ferguson’s garden was close to her house and that she had rows of tall sunflowers down one side of the garden with blossoms the size of saucers tracking the sun’s progress. Sparrows and finches flitted among the stalks, chattering incessantly.  The house was wood-framed and painted white. Despite  the usual humidity it felt and smelled dry and slightly musty inside. The rooms were filled with curtain-filtered sunlight cascading through tall, open windows.

I approached Mrs. Ferguson cautiously. She was very old, thin but not frail, lively actually, and seated in a rocking chair where she was receiving her guests and well-wishers. I shook her dry hand and mumbled ‘Happy Birthday, Miz Ferguson,’ then got a cup of punch and settled into an unobtrusive seat in the corner.

Soon Mrs. Ferguson’s parlor was filled with people, mostly very old people to my thinking, and the stories started flowing with the gentle give and take of people with long and intertwined histories, but the parts that stuck out with me were the old, old stories. You see, it was not just any birthday. It was Mrs. Ferguson’s 100th birthday.

I may only have been eight years old, but I could do arithmetic and had some idea of the history of the South, so I quickly put together that Mrs. Ferguson had been born in 1861, the year before the Civil War began. She did not remember much about the War, but the hard times after the War were vivid. The stories eddied and flowed about the room, hard times and flush, good crops and bad, loved ones gone, nods of agreement and gentle corrections of imperfect memories.

So how distant is the past? Most people consider the Civil War ancient history, but it resounds in many families. Cat never knew her mother who passed away two months after Cat was born, and ironically Cat’s mother never knew her father who died of pneumonia in North Carolina on his way back to Mississippi from the surrender in Virginia. In fact, he is buried less that ten miles from where I in live in Charlotte.

And I am a white man. How much more must that war, that truly watershed moment, resound in the lives of the descendants of freed slaves?

Viewed in that light, the past does not seem quite so distant. A few years ago, I told the story of Mrs. Ferguson’s 100th birthday party to a black co-worker. He stared at me in disbelief, trying to process the concept that he was talking to someone who had heard stories of the Civil War from a survivor of that conflict.


How distant is the past? Both near and far. The span of long lives allows for the transfer of a sort of institutionalized knowledge, which only has value when shared and internalized and used to inform our lives and actions.

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The Mississippi Delta

I have just finished reading Richard Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, and yes, the title is perfect because not only is there a Pluto, MS, but the Mississippi Delta in many ways might as well be another planet. Or former planet. Or dwarf planet. Or whatever.

Regardless, Mr. Grant’s book about a British travel/adventure writer and his then girlfriend who move to the Delta on a whim, grabbed me by the throat. Having been born in Greenwood and having spent an inordinate amount of time on my grandparents’ place two-and-a-half miles north of Brazil and generally roaming around the Delta visiting my 32 aunts and uncles and numberless cousins, the book was somewhat of a travelogue of my youth.

But more than just a travelogue of places,  more importantly it was a travelogue of the cultural, social, and racial geography of a place like no other. A place that one never quite gets out of their system no matter how many years pass or how far away they roam. I have not lived there in 54 years and presently reside in North Carolina, but I will always be a son of the Delta.

A place of friendly and open-handed people of all races, of wealth and soul-crushing poverty, of strangely institutionalized racism where people mostly get along with each other, the Delta makes me laugh until tears roll down my face, renews my faith in humanity, and breaks my heart again and again. Often all at the same time. And this is the part that Mr. Grant gets absolutely right, not just the dichotomies of the place and its peoples, but the polychotomies, if you will. People of the Delta cannot only hold two opposing views simultaneously but often several. With very little effort. That is just the way we are. That is just the Delta.

And this too is the Delta. I recently connected with a childhood friend that I have not seen or had any contact with since the third grade. He too has wandered far from the Delta, all the way to the west coast but has returned to land farmed by his great-grandfather. We have had a high old time catching up online, but that is nothing compared to the time we will have on my next trip to the Delta. We will travel some backroads, both actual and metaphorical, and continue to try to make sense of this place we still call home.

In the meantime, I suggest that if you get the time, correction, I suggest that you make the time, to purchase and read Dispatches from Pluto.



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Filed under Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Richard Grant

Autumn Musings

It is a glorious November morning, cool, with a crisp bite to the air. Crimson and vermilion and gold leaves etched against a cerulean sky flutter like tattered flags from bare, black branches.

The harvest is in. Fields that held corn and soybeans and cotton are now but corrugated rows of gray and ocher stubble. The last vegetables have been gathered from neat garden rows and are being put up for winter.

The far line of woods is a gray smudge, the bare trunks indistinct in the distance but known for what they are: tall, silent sentinels rising from a carpet of autumn’s reminder of summer’s riotous growth.

Wasp and dirt dauber nests cluster under the eaves, abandoned, the drones and workers dead, starved, willingly sacrificed to the survival of the colony, the newly impregnated queens underground, dormant until spring.

Spring and rebirth are only a promise held in abeyance through the long winter, taken on faith as the rising of the sun.  Is it that promise that brings beauty to this annual death? Or is it some deep, unvoiced appreciation of the bounty gathered in? Or is it the wonder of the thing itself, accepted for its contrasts, cool air and warming sun, bare oak trees and luxuriously verdant cedars, crunchy leaves and soft grass?

I hope it is for the thing itself, but I know that buried in the back of my mind, subsumed, dormant like the wasp queen, is the kernel of knowledge that the annual violent eruption of life will roll around, a kernel which will sprout and bloom come springtime.

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As I Lay Dying-Tragedy or Comedy?

I put it off as long as I could but finally broke down and watched James Franco’s film adaptation of As I Lay Dying, and although the film has many fine moments, on the whole I was not enthralled.

The first thing that one notices is the split-screen effect, or rather affectation, used from the opening scene and throughout the film. There were a few scenes where the split screen actually works, but they were few and far between. Mostly it is simply distracting. Does one really need to see the same character from two different angles in the same scene? Does that pull one into the story or add additional layers of meaning?

Filming a novel told from several, in this case many, viewpoints is undeniably daunting. The one thing that did work for me were the voice-overs where Faulkner’s rich prose was on display, even though often hard to understand. I did half of my growing up in the Mississippi Delta and the other half in the Mississippi Hills, so I am reasonably conversant in those two argots. Nevertheless I struggled to understand what practically every character was saying.

On the other hand, the casting however was a strong point, particularly Beth Grant as Addie, Ahna O’Reilly as Dewey Dell, and Brady Permenter as Vardaman.

Now for the crux of the matter. Am I the only reader who thinks As I Lay Dying is a comedy, albeit a decidedly dark comedy? How many times does Anse say “I’ll be beholdin’ to no man” as he borrows and begs his way to Jefferson? Dewey Dell was raised on a farm and falls for the “You’ll need the rest of the cure” line. And really, a ten-cent concrete cast on Cash’s broken leg. Farmers treat their livestock better. I could go on and on, all the way up to “My mother is a fish.” But the penultimate moment is when Anse shows off his new teeth as he introduces his children to his new wife. i actually laughed out loud the first time I read that scene.

These are not tragic characters unless one considers ignorance and a lack of self-awareness as tragic. Having just written that, I realize that, yes, that is tragic in our modern sense of the word, but not in the classic, literary sense of one who makes a serious error of judgement leading to their downfall. These people are a bumbling mass of incompetence stumbling their way through their lives. They are extreme, over the top characters, intentionally drawn that way by Faulkner, and they are sadly, morbidly hilarious.

All of this does nothing to take away from the novel. It is brilliantly written with its multiple viewpoints and deep, accurate revelations of character. But if As I Lay Dying is a comedy, then as a film maker, James Franco didn’t get it.

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Filed under As I Lay Dying, Mississippi, William Faulkner

The Most Southern Place in the World

Just read Richard Grant’s New York Times article “Sweet Home Mississippi” which stirred up more memories and emotion than I would have expected.

I have not lived in Mississippi in 37 years or the Delta in 53 years, but I will always think of Mississippi, in general, and the Delta, in particular, as home. I was literally born on the banks of the Yazoo River because that’s where the Greenwood-Leflore County Hospital is located, right on the riverbank. Except for a brief sojourn in Drew in the heart of the Delta, I never lived further than three blocks form the Yazoo River until our family moved to Tupelo the year I turned nine.

I attended Davis Elementary School, named for Jefferson Davis, of course, for two-and-a-half years. I spent weekends and summers on my grandparents’ farm two-and-one-half miles north of Brazil, a town consisting of three stores, two churches, a school, and a relocated post office still named Stover after its original location a mile-and-a-half north of Brazil. A spur of the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad ran through Brazil but did not stop. The nearest train depot was Sumner, site of the infamous Emmitt Till trial, and yes, I use the term trial loosely.

My first best friend’s great-grandfather was one of the first white settlers in Leflore County and a major landowner. I like most of my friends growing up am descended from Confederate veterans of the Civil War. My playmates at school were all white; my playmates on the farm were all black.

To this day I am both drawn to and repelled by my home. Its heritage of poverty and brutality is abysmal. The reality of the place is confounding to one who knows its history. On a personal level race relations are more amicable than an outsider might expect. My grandparents and their family bought all their clothes from one of my grandfather’s best friends, a Jewish merchant in Webb. Almost every little Delta town had a Pang’s Store operated by a local Chinese family, probably descended form railroad workers. No one gave a second thought to shopping there. Migrant Mexican workers followed the harvest north through the Delta every fall. My mother’s family, farmers too, relied on their help during the cotton harvest.

It is a land of contrasts: the crushing poverty of a family living in a tar paper shack and stately, old multi-generational homes of comfortable excess; the staggering beauty of sunset over a cypress brake, verdant green foliage etched against a fading crimson sky, and the heart-breaking decay of once-flourishing little towns crumbling into vine-choked gray shells; the soft cry of mourning dove over fields shimmering with the early light of dawn and the harsh roar and clatter of soybean harvesters at work into the night; black, white, brown and yellow children at play in parks and ball fields and segregated churches and country clubs and private schools.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Delta, the thing that always seems to get a visitor’s attention, is that its people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, age, income, or profession, are open-handed, kind, and friendly. To neighbor and stranger alike. Sir, Ma’am, Hon, and Sweetheart are all used liberally and sincerely, without artifice.

In all honesty, I do not know if I could go back and live there. Maybe I could, maybe not. I have been gone a long time but am still pulled back regularly to visit. I cannot escape it, nor would I. What I do know is that to this day I draw strength from having been born and raised there. Whatever I may be, I am because of that place, the most Southern place in the world, the Delta.

So, thank you, Richard Grant, for taking me back. And for adding “Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta” to my reading list.

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Filed under Delta, Mississippi, writing