For love, for simplicity, let’s agree with those who call it red.
It was July. I was renting a room in a modular home in Spanish Valley, where the town of Moab, Utah spills into the not-quite-surburban sprawl of trailers and condos. The house faced west, toward the Moab Rim, and just one long block’s walk led to the head of the Hidden Valley Trail. Hidden Valley is a shelf, concealed by rock walls, which emerges after a steep switchbacking climb up the rim. I hiked it early one morning, eager to cross the valley and reach the pass with a view of Behind the Rocks, a sea of huge rock fins scalloping the land into impassable grooves.
Behind the house, a sandy expanse functioned as the backyard, facing the rest of Spanish Valley and the petrified sand dunes beyond. Farther south, the La Sal Mountains loomed. One afternoon I saw a rainbow arching over the mountains from the edge of a storm that never reached me.
The yard held an old chicken coop, a storage shed, and a smattering of pear trees and grape vines: echoes of an earlier time—back before mountain biking, before uranium mining—when Moab was an orchard town. The owner of the house watered the plants constantly in a desert-defying dance. When he left for California and I had the place to myself, I got into the idle habit of checking on the plants often: touching the hard green fruit, waiting for ripeness.
There is a boy in this story but this is not a story about a boy.
We met at the farmer’s market. He was in Moab for the summer, working for Outward Bound. Or at least that was his original plan. The red rock gets into your blood, people in Moab like to say, and half a year later he would still be there, working—in a perfect reverse-parody of the flannel-clad Brooklyn guys who made up my dating pool back home—as a lumberjack, cutting down tamarisk and other invasive species.
He’d come to Moab more or less on a whim after almost going to graduate school in Italy. He was in between things, just out of a long-term long-distance relationship. Choosing not to be in Italy, I gathered, was choosing not to be near her. Red rock as palate cleanser. Desert as salve.
I’d come to Moab to interview Moabites, go on day trips, take in the place whole. To research. To write. I was there on my own. Very on my own—the day I met him, over a week into my month there, was the first day I made any friends.
I think my independence impressed him. I think he liked that I came from far away and wasn’t attached to Outward Bound or any of the other outdoorsy nonprofits whose young employees had poured into town for the season. With my rented car and rented room and short-term plans, I didn’t seem to be attached to anything.
But I was attached, or growing increasingly attached, to Moab itself. Intense attraction to the land had brought me there. I’d been drawn in by the novelty of exotic landforms, pulled deeper by the smell of rain-wet sagebrush, by sunsets slipping behind sandstone cliffs.
He asked for my phone number after a group of us went out for Mexican food. The place was tiny and tucked behind a Chinese restaurant; you’d miss it if you didn’t know to turn at the sign for China Café (Chinese food $1.75 a scoop). While we were eating super-nachos and sipping water from Styrofoam cups, I’d mentioned my morning hike along the Hidden Valley Trail. He said he liked evening hikes best. We could go for a hike together sometime, he suggested. Maybe along the Slickrock Trail. At sunset.
Mornings and evenings are the only times to hike in Moab in the summertime. The temperature rises into the 90s or above most days, so on my more virtuous mornings I got up early enough for at least a walk around Spanish Valley. But an evening hike sounded good to me. An evening hike with him sounded very good. And I’d been meaning to check out the Slickrock Trail anyway.
There were a few false starts—something came up, days went by, he finally called, but he was on call and had to attend to an Outward Bound code-yellow emergency up in the La Sal Mountains—but eventually he took me to a swimming hole he knew, a section of Mill Creek the locals called the Cowboy Jacuzzis. He picked me up, and his car handled the sandy dirt road ungracefully.
Thoughts of him had been creeping into my research-time for days. I was a little bit nervous. Expectant. We parked, cracked the windows, and scrambled across the sandstone in our sneakers.
The Cowboy Jacuzzis: Small cascades of greenish water shushed into a few pools in the smooth red rock as the creek flowed toward the valley we’d left behind. It had been a dry year; the pools were shallow.
We swam and the water was cold. He didn’t kiss me but he looked at me like he might. When we warmed ourselves on a rock, the remaining late afternoon sun on our backs, I wondered if he was trying to work up the nerve. Later, as I clambered back up the path after him, he would tell me that it had taken longer than he’d expected to get over his break-up—that for months he’d felt stuck and uninterested in moving on, and that meeting me made him realize he finally felt ready—and I would be too out of breath and flustered to do anything about it. But there on the rock, he pulled a couple of beers out of his backpack. I was pleasantly surprised by his initiative.
The clicking shhk of a can opening, a release of pressure. In the quiet tension between us I imagined I heard the sound bounce off the sandstone walls.
The love was for the scrubby plants, the long flat stretches, the rocky strangeness that jutted up into sudden unearthly shapes. For vastness, for dry heat, for wide-open desert. For unexpected pools of water, for life persisting in a desolate place. The love of what was novel, what was not mine. The love of a thing I could touch but not claim.
When he took me to the Slickrock Trail I knew we’d crossed a line I couldn’t uncross. The Slickrock Trail is one of the most popular mountain biking trails in the world, so it came up constantly in my research. And earlier that week, I’d learned that the Steens, the family behind the biggest strike of Moab’s uranium boom, still owned the land beneath the trail. Of course it was fine, a good idea even, to experience the places behind my research, to touch the sandstone and see the trail’s appeal for myself. But to go there with my heart fluttering awkwardly and my writer-brain dissolved to static seemed to me a transgression, if only a small one.
We walked the practice loop, tracing on foot the path meant for spinning wheels. We caught the edge of the sunset and then we sat and talked about how I was leaving soon and we finally kissed and then kissed too long and lost the light, so we hiked back to the car in the mostly-dark.
Kissing him on the Slickrock Trail felt electric in that good kissing way but also in a funny wires-crossing way, like I’d accidentally scrawled a slightly steamy diary entry right over my research notes.
Love of land is diffuse and pervasive, easily grafted onto nearby objects or people.
I had first fallen for this place while driving up in the La Sal Mountains, where in summertime, cool air provides a reprieve from the hundred-degree oppression of the desert floor, and where the view of the broken land is vast and jagged. So when he and I headed up there to camp for a night, I felt that rush. I maybe told him that this was the place where I’d realized I had to come back to Moab. I maybe just stayed quiet and drove extra slowly so I could gaze at the land below.
He’d picked up food for us, cheese and crackers and hummus, while I was busy with my other life, interviewing Moab’s economic development specialist and community development director and the executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. On my way to pick him up, I bought a bottle of wine.
After setting up camp, we meandered around Gold Basin, an area of woods and meadows between two peaks. Full of pines and aspens, the lush landscape contrasted sharply against the red world I’d been living in. When it got dark we drank all the wine.
Camping is a date outside the bounds of social anxieties. When you go camping with someone who grew up on a farm in the Midwest, it’s easy to convince yourself, for a moment, that the neuroses of New Yorkers are somehow escapable, that there is a purer, simpler way to live and love and maybe this it.
Huddling under blankets in the chilly tent as the sun streamed through the aspens the next morning felt sweeter than anything had felt in a long time.
I liked him, but he wasn’t anything much to me—or he shouldn’t have been. He was someone to kiss on a still-warm rock after sunset and in a tent in the crisp mountain air. I didn’t know him well enough to explain the bitter disappointment I felt when, after I left Moab, he failed to call when he said he would, failed to visit me when I spent a month writing just across the Colorado border, failed to apologize profusely enough for these failings. I felt myself humming with anger and wanting to forgive him at the same time.
These kinds of small failures had wounded me before: communications slackened, expectations unmet, fantasies unspooled and yielding nothing. The tiny ways we hurt each other and ourselves all the time. But this time, I’d cultivated the disappointment all on my own, applying pressure and hope in a place where they didn’t belong. He didn’t owe me anything. We were just two people trying to fill different spaces in ourselves.
He hadn’t led me to expect much. He collected succulents, plants that need little water, plants that thrive in the desert. The little fissures of hurt that opened then shouldn’t have surprised me because I knew I needed more than that.
What I loved was the land and everything I hoped to shape it into. Love of a vast, open place is hard to contain; it sloshes off the cliffs and floods everything. He was a vessel for a feeling I didn’t know how to hold.
REBECCA WORBY received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The Common Online, Treehouse, and Late Night Library. She lives in Brooklyn, where she hosts Shelf Life, a nonfiction reading series. Right now, her favorite road literature includes all the books in which John McPhee gets into cars with geologists and her brand-new road atlas.