The Twilight of the Official Myth

The passing of Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, has little bearing on my life. To my knowledge, I have no British ancestry. I have spent all of five days of my life on British soil, and have not set foot in one of the various Realms or Territories since a lunch at a Canadian golf course a decade ago. For that matter, I live into a country that came into being by throwing off the yoke of British rule. Like most Americans, I could content myself with reading a news story or two about the passing of the crown and move on.

And yet I confess a fascination with the late monarch. My weekend devolved into long Wikipedia dives down the lineages of royal families and their estates, a quixotic quest to understand the arcane layers of royal titles and role. Elizabeth II earned respect, even among anti-monarchists, for her longevity and ability to project a stable, dutiful image even as Britain convulsed its way through the dissolution of its empire, 15 prime ministers, the lurches of the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and, finally, Brexit. But she represented more than just good health in the age of modern medicine and her meticulous decorum: she was the living symbol of what it meant to be a Briton, the whole churn of history and greatness and oppression and everything else that comes with being an obscure island off the coast of Europe that has shaped world history as much as any other place.

Such symbols are in decline. One of the former Commonwealth countries, Barbados, took its own path to Brexit in 2021; now a republic, it no longer recognizes the British royals. Others will likely follow, and while the outpouring of British mourning has no parallel in American life, even in Britain there appears to be a generational gap in real appreciation. For that matter, republicanism, the cause for which millions died over the course of two and a half centuries in a revolt against the power of monarchs, faces its own crises amid charges of aloof elites and out-of-touch representation, or perhaps a descent into dithering dysfunction that fails to get anything done. Politics devolves into rage or apathy, neither of which has much time for unifying symbols. To hold one’s nation-state in great esteem comes off as a special brand of naïveté, perhaps noble in the case of some members of the armed forces but also quaintly antiquated in a world that is supposedly beyond borders.

The nation-state is far from the only realm where unifying mythologies of the modern era are falling away. To be religious in the educated or fashionable circles of society is now passé, a stodgy formality akin to a fondness for corsets or three-piece suits, and that once-universal language of Biblical references that litters midcentury popular culture now draws blank stares from younger generations. The great media brands of the postwar era are being eaten alive by the cacophonous inanities of social media, the only exceptions being niche interests like the Wall Street Journal or companies that have become one with the beast and turned themselves into full-on lifestyle brands like the New York Times and, in different ways, Fox News. The only national arbiters of culture seem to come through momentary fads, a quick TikTok craze that comes and goes in a blink, the most notable of which we may recall in twenty or thirty years, but disconnected from many broader statements about our times.

The rational mind likes to think this death of myth is a victory: we are dispatching of fictions and living in reality. Leaving the merits of this worldview aside, the evidence that this mindset is actually taking power is wanting. Religiosity finds fascinating new outlets, some of them much less worthy of respect than an omnipotent deity. A dating app now sends me weekly astrology advice; I swipe left in disgust, though apparently there is a market for this. The middlebrow epic film on themes of historical resonance may be in decline, but the myths of Middle Earth and Hogwarts and Westeros and A Galaxy Far, Far Away keep cycling back in a meta-myth that would no doubt chagrin Joseph Campbell. Financially, these reboots pale next to the searches for superhero figures to save us from an ever-grittier perdition of the supposed real world, a childhood wish extended in a none-too-subtle quest for redemption. Vladimir Putin channels a certain czarist revanchism in his Ukrainian adventure; lesser actors on the world stage, from Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Narendra Modi, likewise gesture toward an imperial power they would surely like to wield.

Putin’s floundering offensive, however, is just one of many markers that suggests old myths, once dented, cannot simply revive themselves with a few well-directed artillery rounds. (I will spare this post any discussion of Make America Great Again or a resurgent socialism.) The absurdity of social media as a news source speaks for itself, and meditation for its own sake is hollow solace when darkness comes. Rock consigned classical music to a niche realm of high cultural appreciation, but now seems to be drifting that way itself as its Boomer progenitors age out of the limelight. The humanities revolted against the white maleness of Western Civilization and have wound up not as newly empowered multicultural wealth of knowledge but instead stumbled into the wilderness. Humanities majors have gone into precipitous decline, with a few loud voices sucking up the oxygen for the culture wars while more and more students spend less and less time in any well-structured place where they can figure out what this whole life thing is for. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

There is nothing particular to the death of Queen Elizabeth, or to the uncertain future of the British Empire, that fills me with sadness. And yet, as I look to a world where more and more people around me seem at a loss for things to ground them in a liquid world, ever more consumed by paralyzing anxieties or resignation in the face of it all, I cannot help but feel a slight tug of emotion when William Blake’s lyrics to “Jerusalem” ring out at Westminster Abbey next week. The Queen, for all her monarchy’s flaws, was a stable part of the world we had, and her passing leaves a void. In some ways it may be a welcome void, but it is a void nonetheless. And any project that does not seek to fill the void with something as compelling, whether national or cultural or educational or personal, will see it filled by something else.

The Two Mountains

I use mountain metaphors with a regularity that long ago gave up any pretense of originality. Such allusions come naturally to a hiker, a striver, someone who values both the art of finding the route and exploits of physical skill, to the point that they become rote. They leech through my travel writing, my fiction, and my political advice. “We have other mountains to climb,” I tell a friend who, like me, has suffered a setback in what I have started to call a summer of disappointment. It has been a summer of deferred dreams and stalled-out ambitions, though any frustration is only the product of the lofty heights we have sought for ourselves. The pursuit alone is part of the allure, though after a view from higher up, the same old woods may not feel quite as satisfying.

My annual hiking trip with my uncle Bob, cousin Rob, and friends Amy and Ed takes me to the highest reaches of Colorado. It orbits around Leadville, the only settlement of over 1,000 people at an elevation over 10,000 feet in the United States, and to call Leadville colorful would only start to tell the story. An early silver rush turned it into the second-largest city in Colorado for a spell; even today, a healthy chunk of the world’s molybdenum comes out of the nearby Climax Molybdenum Mine. On the way up, this northern Minnesotan explains tailings basins to his fellow travelers and geeks out on this operation. Large parts of the town look rough, trailers and bedraggled bungalows along some streets that are practically sand, but at its core is some boom era architecture with lively hues, and an outbreak of new construction has created a ski town-style tumor on its northern edge. “Keep Leadville Shitty,” exhorts a local bumper sticker, a window into the battle for its soul now under way.

I am swiftly smitten by this city on an eternal frontier. Our arrival coincides with the closing stages of the Leadville Pack Burro race, the second leg of the pack burro racing triple crown and one of its most daunting courses. It is a magical spectacle. Every five minutes, the town police car circles back through to guide in another exhausting and sweaty human tugging on the rope of a burro, which may or may not have any interest in cooperating with the exercise. Onlookers cheer as the burros amble to the finish line by the booth from the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation. One collapses into a chair next to us, his fifth 22-mile race complete, spent from the effort of coaxing his mighty steed across the line. The closed-down main street through Leadville hosts grand old architecture, placid burros willing to be petted, and t-shirts spanning the full gamut of ass puns. A week later, on our way out of the wilderness, cyclists for the Leadville 100 have replaced the burros, another reinvigoration for a small, rural town finding its late modern footing.

Our hike covers two segments of the Colorado Trail, a 485-mile path from Denver to Durango that takes its travelers through some of the nation’s most dramatic high country. We begin at the Tennessee Pass between Leadville and Vail and work our way south to a trailhead between Mount Massive and Mount Elbert, the state’s two highest peaks. Our campsites place us at the high-altitude Porcupine Lakes, an alpine meadow beyond Turquoise Lake, and among the wooded roots of Massive. With a tree line at 12,000 feet, the views from this part of the CT are not as stunning as last year’s jaunt on the Beaten Path, but the lodgepole pines provide pleasant hiking cover, and it takes little time for this group to settle into the rhythms of wilderness release.

As trails go, the CT itself is relatively benign. It is wide and well-maintained, sometimes with the feel of a hiking superhighway. On this stretch there is plenty of water, and resupply opportunities are abundant in nearby towns. There are just two great challenges to hiking the CT. The first is elevation, and with the entire hike happening above 10,000 feet, five flatlanders take some time in adjusting to the thin mountain air. Our first day is mercifully easy, but even then sleep comes terribly, and day two beats up the entire party, with me feeling about as gassed as I ever have on a trail after far-from-awful 400-foot climb midway through the day and fellow hikers collapsing in a grove at the bottom of the following 1,500-foot descent, all before the subsequent 1,000-foot march up to the alpine meadow where we make camp. A constant sense of dehydration looms over the trip, occasional lost appetites and bad sleep turning a routine hiking distance into a genuine chore.

The second looming threat throughout the week is the weather. Colorado has a short hiking season, and even now in midsummer, there is a chance that thunderstorms may roll in off the mountains every day. Early starts are necessary, lest the oncoming storms bear down while on some exposed stretch of trail. Our luck holds on the first three days, and though dime-sized hail does rain down on us high above the tree line on Mount Massive and lightning strikes behind the hulking peak, we make it back to camp without any ill effects and ride out the remainder of the lone storm to hit us. The wettest I got on the trip was on a hike from a restaurant to the hotel in Denver.

Mount Massive is the third-highest American peak outside of Alaska, standing shorter only than Mount Whitney and its immediate neighbor to the south, Mount Elbert. It also lives up to its name: while it may be 12 feet shorter than Elbert, it is far bulkier, a sprawling behemoth of false summits and lengthy approaches feeding up to one great ridge atop it all. We make camp for two nights at Willow Creek, which sits at 11,000 feet and cuts off six miles of the round-trip ascent from the nearest parking lot. The climb starts through the region’s characteristic pine forests, but in time the trees thin out into scrubby willows and then into rocky slopes studded with grasses and mosses. This stretch above the tree line is the longest part of the ascent, a steady march up and up through steadily choppier terrain. A saddle between South Massive and the main peak gives a stunning view down to mountain lakes and smaller mountains below, and a clamber takes the hiker up a ridge to a false summit and then on to the twin logs marking the point 14,427 feet above sea level.

Our group plods at a determined, if hardly speedy, pace. On the way down, we are promptly waylaid by a mountain goat, who takes his sweet time in vacating the path. Twenty feet onward, we encounter mama goat and baby. Baby plops down in the middle of the trail for a spell, and mama takes a leak on the path to further get the point across. By the time they finally move, the clouds are beginning to gather, and the goats provide further entertainment through a lunch stop back at the saddle. The Massive menagerie continues as we head down from there, as ptarmigans stroll past and a crew of marmots, some of them appearing rather obese, trundle about the slopes.

The human zoo on display on this trip, somehow, exceeds the variety of the wildlife. At the parking lot at the start, we get our picture taken by a British cyclist who began in Denver and is now working his way down to Mexico, an adventure that he expects will take him until March of next year. (Excepting the wilderness bits, which include the two segments we hike, the Colorado Trail welcomes cyclists.) When we roll into our camp for our first day, we come across two Missouri Mennonite newlyweds in traditional garb and their salt of the earth cowboy guide, riding horses up and down peaks for their honeymoon. One could mistake the image of the three of them for one taken in 1872. On that first night, we share the site with the Gu Girls, three through-hiking young women who have formed a trail family; on a resupply run in Leadville earlier that day, they chased down a truck distributing Gu, the energy gel for distance athletes, and they share some of their rather large haul with us. It all tastes awful.

We pass twenty Outward Bound kids for whom a 3-mile trek is torture, and later meet a teenage girl councilor for another group of OB boys who decides the route up Mount Massive, which she has just casually summitted in no time flat, will not do for them. A University of Florida biologist acclimates herself to hiking at elevation before she heads to Argentina, where she will work to preserve endangered chinchillas high in the Andes. We pick her brain on the diets of local rodents. Inevitably, we encounter a man wearing a shirt from the Bonfield Express, a now-defunct Thanksgiving 5K in Downers Grove, Illinois that Bob, Rob, and I often ran; this is the second straight year of a Bonfield moment of recognition a thousand miles from suburban Chicago, and we sing the praises of its shirts for hiking. Another Mt. Massive day hiker has just bagged his 27th fourteener this year, while the two guys who summit just behind us crack beers together at the summit. No one, however, can top Nora, the 19-month-old through hiker. Her parents are carrying this intrepid traveler clear from Denver to Durango, each with 42-pound packs (Nora weight included), and report she is in good cheer after the first 185 miles.

The trip begins and ends in Denver, a city that inspires mixed feelings. The airport, a monument to 90s sprawl, is a contender for worst in the country, though Blucifer and the lizard people lair do liven things up. Its rapid growth is apparent everywhere, and at least the dense housing is going up in droves, albeit often in far-flung tracts of identical boxes. There is a charming district of craftsman bungalows south of downtown, and grand institutions like the capitol, Union Station, and a lush botanical garden give some status to the capital of the Mountain West. The food scene, with Rob as our guide through it, is solid, and of course I cannot complain about the beer. The American future on display in Denver is more comforting than that of other western American cities, freed from California world-saving hypocrisy or Vegas alternate reality or Phoenix total defiance of nature, but it remains choked by dust and ozone warnings and unattainable real estate, the sort of qualified success story that defines the nation’s epochal lurch. It’s a fun place to visit, but it isn’t home.

Shortly before this trip, I polished off David Brooks’ The Second Mountain, the columnist’s midlife crisis book in which he distinguishes between the mountain of earthly success and the mountain of moral formation that people can pursue in life. In my tension-obsessed way, I have made efforts to climb both peaks in the first third of my life, striving both for a home life worthy of an American Dream and a well-ordered life where I believe in what I do. At thirty-two, I find myself frustrated with my progress on both, in many ways proud of my progress but still clearly still gazing up at a false summit. I decide it is somehow fitting that my venture left the conquest of a second peak such as Mount Elbert for some future journey. We do, indeed, have other mountains to climb. But we are on a well-maintained path, and we have fellow hikers to go with us.

Up in the Air

It is with some regret that I choose to fly for this year’s western hiking venture instead of taking to the western roads yet again. Rereading the account of my brooding deep-pandemic self in 2020 or my more mundane appreciation of such roads during my 2021 jaunt has me yearning for some of those cliches about western travel that are true because they are real. A recent Ross Douthat column whose sentiment I support seemed to scold my decision-making: “If you do not drive your country’s highways and byways, what path do you have to a nonvirtual experience of the America beyond your class and tribe and bubble? If you have strong answers to both questions, good. But lacking them, you should give the open road another look.”

A Saturday spent shuttling my dad from one end of northern Minnesota’s Kekekabic Trail to the other only renews this hunger for ribbons of asphalt and gravel. It is a nine-hour dive into the wilds of Minnesota’s north, and I bob and weave along two-lane highways through small towns, some humming with midsummer tourists and others fading back into the woods. Isabella has become a ghost town, while the cluster of bustle on the central Gunflint Trail could use a name on a map, and Ely straddles two worlds. Car travel frees me to eye the wreckage of the Greenwood Fire and drink in the cool lake air of Grand Marais, and to swing off to Sugarloaf Cove, where I can meander down the beach and flip open a notebook to record a few stray ideas. We writers are suited to modes of motion with spontaneous spurts and chances to suck up little details; it is only from these mined nuggets that we can later create grand arcs and sweeps.

While much of America has retreated from air travel, I have spent more time on planes over the past year and a half than at any point in my life. A healthy chunk of that was work-related puddle-jumping to Milwaukee, but I’ve found my way to destinations across the country, too. For the seasoned veteran, air travel is both simpler and more refined, inspiring in its God’s eye view but sapped of the details that allow for immersion and meditation. By plane I give no mind to the fortunes and failings of the towns along the highway, to the Native American reservations I skirt, to the stray roadside attraction that may worm its way into my mind. I bliss out, catch up on some reading, and flip the mental switch to begin living in the world where I’ve landed. It is a simpler, more self-absorbed way to travel, any interactions bounded by the metal tube we share and devoid of any relationship to the landscape around us.

Nor have I ever known air travel as a venture of true leisure and opulence. I have only dim memories of flights before 9/11 and its subsequent security cattle pens, most of which involve my nine-year-old self vomiting into a bag on a bumpy flight from Duluth to Chicago. I’ve had only brief brushes with business or first class, and while a free drink or two is nice, it is hardly a signifier of great luxury. For most of my plane trips, I join the unwashed masses in crunching my knees into ever-shrinking spaces and hoard my bag of nuts and cup of juice. Air travel is also prone to occasional great indignities when the plans go awry, whereas the driver will simply audible and find a detour or sub out a cranky rental car.

I romanticize the road trip, of course. This year’s hike is in Colorado, and somehow the tamed fields of Iowa and Nebraska do not inspire the same sense of frontier freedom as the Dakotas or Montana; time, scarcer and more precious amid a series of new pushes in life, has me settling for the two-hour hop to Denver. I will not miss the zombified state brought on by the eastern Great Plains, nor jockeying for space with long-distance truckers, nor the increasingly antsy push toward home of a final day on the road. These ventures have resulted in two busted windshields in the past three years, and at times I am left with a choice between splurging on an uninspiring roadside hotel or setting up a tent in a campground where I will be serenaded all night by the dulcet droning of RVs. But this decision is more profound than any convenience-seeking or aesthetic impulse: on my last solitary venture I decided that it would be my last one of that nature for a spell, and that is that.

Taking to the air seems a fitting way to head for some of the highest peaks in the lower 48 states. This year’s hike, on the Colorado Trail west of Leadville, will take place entirely above 10,000 feet in elevation, in the shadows of Mount Massive and Mount Elbert, Colorado’s two highest points. It will be a test of the lungs, and if we do indeed try to summit both peaks, a test of the legs as well. I will achieve a new cruising altitude and see just how hungry I am to reach new heights. Off I go, a new adventure beckoning.

Elegy for a Pastoral Dream

Visits to my paternal grandmother were studies in chiaroscuro. They always came in the dead of summer or at Christmastime, either vines and shrubbery slowly swallowing the home on a sweltering August day, or amid the bleak empty fields of a Wisconsin winter, perhaps with a dusting of snow. They came after a long drive across the state, past yellow brick churches whose steeples rise above the plain, German industry and weekend brat fries and bars with Pabst Blue Ribbon signs devoid of irony. They felt like trips into a time machine, back into some past American dream, a dive into a memory of a time half-forgotten yet indelible. They were in my world but not of my world, and with Mary Ann Schuettler’s passing this past week at the age of ninety-five, the lenses through which I see those visits do not seem like my own.

At their best, trips to visit my grandma were a passage out of Wendell Berry: a return to a simpler economy, diligent completion of household tasks, satisfaction from simple work in a bucolic farmhouse haven. She tended a sprawling garden and cared for too many cats and had enough birdfeeders out the window to host a small aviary. Holiday dinners were the same year after year, always the duck and the cranberries and the various side salads that I never really ate. Woe unto any visitor who dared express fondness for any dish on the table, for it would be sure to reappear at every single meal thereafter. She tended to her weekly soap operas and watched the news every night so that she could shake her head at whatever was going on in Milwaukee. Any chat on the phone began and ended with a discussion of the weather, which was always too hot or too cold or too snowy or not snowy enough, but always too something. She held off the passage of time through devotion to simple rhythms, to memories of what had been and what still could come out of them.

She carried herself with a quiet dignity, some cross of Catholic devotion and midcentury decency code morals, both demure and unbending. A visit to my Uncle Pat’s blended family one Christmas, a venture in which I was a fish out of water but suitably entertained by the sociology of it all, had her shaking her head over “how people could live like that.” She barely ventured out of Wisconsin in her ninety-five years, though she and my grandfather made regular retreats to the Northwoods near Eagle River. Later, my dad and I would work to get her out of the decaying house, whether on a tour of family history or just on a drive up the Kettle Moraine of eastern Wisconsin, those oak-studded eskers and kettles that I will always view with elegiac eyes.

At other times, life with Grandma could have been scripted by Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, a Midwestern Gothic made all too real by a supporting cast of witch-worshipping neighbors and the excess of cats that spiraled out of control. Visits were vigils through long passages of wordless silence, and if anyone made any effort to improve her lot it was too much trouble, even though subsisting in a tenuous state was far more troubling than any effort to clean up the place. In a visit after a year and a half of Covid isolation my dad, Uncle Pat, and I went at the dried-out cat shit with an ice scraper and cleaning fluids, and as we worked she looked away in shame. Her anxiety at our visits took on an entirely different flavor.

Grandma’s life was not just the sedate passage of time. At one point, my Uncle Chris produced a news clipping with a photo of her and a friend at a Liberace concert; I’m not sure what will happen to the Elvis memorabilia in the dining room display case. Immersion in NASCAR and the Packers livened up her weekends. My dad and I both relish the memory of the night when, after enduring an hour of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Uncle Chris’s behest on Christmas Eve, she shut it off promptly after he went out the door. Hints of spontaneity and verve occasionally peeked out from a life so often buried beneath nerves over the slightest alteration of routine. She was at her best when she cracked that bemused smile and muttered a “God” at some interruption we offered to her otherwise immutable procession.

Above all, she was a survivor. She outlived her rock, my eminently patient and kind-hearted grandfather, by thirteen years; she outlived her entire generation in her family, and all of her friends, too. Even as the trials of life mounted, she kept plodding on, at peace with her pace. She was born in West Allis when it was still a somewhat rural outpost; later, it became a postwar boom suburb and now it is a shifting segment of the Milwaukee inner ring. A similar story took place out in Ozaukee and Washington Counties, where she settled later in life. The farm near Port Washington became a dead end, and later burned; the house they rented after that, near Slinger, became one of two lonely relics at the end of a dead-end road as McMansions sprouted on giant tracts around it. (I’m not sure how often she actually voted, but in sentiment Grandma was a lifelong Democrat, a Catholic still loyal to the party that gave her the Kennedys and disgusted by one that would nominate Donald Trump.) She spent her later years in a state of reminiscence for times gone by, her world now gone, if it had ever truly existed.

Mary Ann Schuettler was the last of my grandparents, three of whom lived into their nineties. The two sides of my family, as I’ve noted in the past, could not be more different. They are two emblematic tales of the divergence of twentieth century America, two different tales for nineteenth century northern European immigrants. My mom’s side moved from the city to the suburbs and, while not lacking a few skeletons, passed along its considerable and accruing advantages to subsequent generations of a sprawling dynasty, a divide made all the more jarring this past week by a rush of emails forming plans for a European cruise. My dad’s side, meanwhile, saw its family farm drift away and clung on afterward in rural poverty. The exception to that trend is my dad, the kid who left the farm for the University of Wisconsin, traveled the world, and, with my mother, created a life for me that had no chance of resembling the one he’d left. My grandparents, while not always fully understanding, were loyal and proud of him, with my grandmother’s letters addressing him as Dr. Schuettler after he got his PhD.

I struggled to bridge this divide, and did so only haltingly. When my grandfather was still alive, I drew some family trees out of them and we visited an ancestral cemetery on her side; in the years after his passing, my dad and I would put Grandma in the car and go on those drives around the sun-splashed hills of the Kettle Moraine, and it was in the back seat on one of those rides not long out of college that I found the jolt that lifted me out of a temporary morass. Later, a more distant relative in nearby Mequon tracked us down after extensive genealogy research, and we came to enjoy visits with a branch of the family with a very different life story, at times even enjoying their generous hospitality instead of the joyous West Bend AmericInn. The addition of the Bridges-Wuesthoff branch to our extended clan showed me my architect great-great grandfather’s legacy in such landmarks as the Schlitz brewery, the dressmaking of another relative for the Pabst family, and the cemeteries dating to the mid-1800s. It was a new window into my Schuettler inheritance that until that point had been one I sometimes struggled to embrace.

The cyclical life brings serendipity: in my grandmother’s final months, my work took me several times to Port Washington, the closest town of substance to the old family farm, and where my dad went to grade school. I got the call that she had passed just before I jumped on a plane for Milwaukee, and later that very day I listened as some of Port’s current leaders reminisced about what the city had been while making peace with its new burst of life on its cozy historic streets and the bluffs that line Lake Michigan. Late the next night, I strolled from my waterfront hotel at one end of a gem of a main street and up to the Catholic church that commands the view of the harbor. I stood before it and felt the burdens of time lift away.

There will be return trips, of course. A memorial at Holy Hill this fall, another work venture or two, likely a few trips down into history for someone who has always experienced the past vividly. With her passing goes a generation, perhaps even a way of life, and a chapter in my own little drama, too. I am left with a gentle hug, a reminder to take care, and a repetition of my mantra from Hannah Arendt: we are not born in order to die but in order to begin.

Twenty-Four

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

– Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Happy 24th, bro.

Ten Years

1. Pageantry

The sun sinks down over the Neogothic towers of Healy Hall and bathes the front lawn in a pink sheen to match my dress shirt. A gentle hubbub rises from the tents. A soundtrack from yesteryear cranks up, and I am surrounded by faces from a past that grows hazy, all familiar but at what point do we introduce ourselves, break down those inhibitions? Groups begin to form and orbit about each other, old networks coming into contact, and over time they coalesce into a pulsing mass, lonely anxieties forgotten in an identity that gives me as much pride as any. We are back in DC for a reunion, here to revel in our greatest shared loyalty, Georgetown Hoyas for life.

2. Brotherhood

The four onetime occupants of 3731 R Street reunite, along with our honorary fifth roommate. The house still stands in Burleith, despite the horrors we inflicted on it, and somehow the powers that be have allowed four of us to become homeowners ourselves in the past two years. The Tombs has a new menu, which we appraise with narrowed eyes, but it’s still wine night on Mondays and trivia on Tuesdays and the pitchers still roll out to satisfy us adherents to this boat-themed catacomb on 36th. Late nights ensue, our minds still twenty-two but our bodies not quite that anymore, though we get ourselves back into shape as the weekend goes along. No beats missed, easy reminiscences and all the old giving of shit, and a certainty that we need to do this more often.

3. The March of Time

The clock hands tell us Georgetown is timeless, but evidence to the contrary does slip through the cracks here and there. I share a hug with my dean, who went on maternity leave while I was an undergraduate; her son is now 13, which seems impossible even though the math does indeed check out. All five-year reunion increments attend for the same weekend, so we get to see our future progression in a steady march through the different tents across campus. One day we too will be the aged souls whose parties wrap up at nine, the middle-aged parents boring our young charges with campus tours and impositions of Hoya swag. But for now we are still among the fresher faces, here for a party and dip back into a time that still seems like just yesterday.

4. Minutiae

DC is a city of trivia. Around every corner sits some monument, literal or figurative, that teaches us who we are. Identify the flag, name the embassy, learn which obscure historical figure has earned a statue or plaque in this little niche. This is a town for lovers of arcane facts, or just those who look for stimulus on every block. The wealth of knowledge expands one’s sense of what it means to be an American, a citizen of the world. I often eschew Ubers and do a lot of walking in inadequate boat shoes, a full sensory experience: red brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets, pastel rowhomes and federalist manors, thick leafy trees and hidden back gardens. I’m not sure another neighborhood can ever top the beauty fixed in my mind’s eye here.

5. The Eternal City

Minneapolis feels radically changed by the past two years. New York, too, has been hollowed by the pandemic. In Chicago, savvy relatives now counsel me to avoid the El. But in DC? It all feels the same. The gentrifiers north of the Capitol keep drifting east, Rosslyn has added a building or two, and the homelessness that has long been ubiquitous has certainly not gone away. M Street seems down from where it was a decade ago, with fewer bars and restaurants and more direct to consumer retail. The gas station at the base of the Exorcist Stairs is no longer, and as we head for the piano bar, we find a wild new urban phenomenon, the murder of rats by trained dogs under the direction of a vigilante pest control. Is a rat carcass in the middle of the sidewalk really an upgrade over a live one inside the trash can?

But otherwise, the city is its lively old self, the streets of Dupont and Adams Morgan teeming with life. New York may be America’s financial capital and the Bay Area may be the cutting edge, but the power of this dear old swamp only seems to grow with every new denunciation of it. DC is perhaps the most stable of great American cities, fed by that ever-growing beast. Porque aquí está el poder, I overhear a man tell his wife on a stroll down Prospect Street. Because this is where the power lies.

6. Rubbing Shoulders

Georgetown knows how to throw a party, but it also hooks us in for some education along the way. The first panel I attend features successful young entrepreneur alumni in realms from college mental health support to lobster restaurants. (This former dining hall regular might suggest a correlation between the two.) In DC there must be political commentary, so a second brings a lively debate ahead of the 2022 midterms. Opinions flow from the lips a straight-talking former Elizabeth Warren campaign hand and a biting Republican adviser who claims she owns Mitch McConnell’s brain. Nancy Pelosi drifts through; will Bradley Cooper show up? Has anyone in our class earned their way on to one of these lists yet? How about some infamous alumni to go with the list of our famous compatriots in the program?

7. The One Percent

Georgetown remains a beautiful people’s club. I thought I’d see a bit more thinning hair, a few more widening paunches, but no, this is a world apart from the toll of time I see in other friend circles. Skin remains unblemished, hair perfectly teased or coiffed, and ambient in the air is a sense of ownership that can only emerge from long years of life in a ruling class. Seated on a bench, I am glad I wear sunglasses to hide my eyes as they follow a bronzed beauty in an orange sun dress, her hand alas held by a lacrosse player and a specimen in his own right. Preppy attire remains the de facto state, but there is also a whiff of elite disdain for care, as with the bro whose definition of cocktail attire features a bathrobe. With beauty comes the power to set one’s own standard.

8. Busy

One of the chief markers of being a Georgetown student, I observed as an undergraduate, was being busy. When asked how one was, the appropriate response was “busy,” and levels of busyness became badges of pride among the hard-charging Hoya climbers. At the time, I swore to never describe myself as busy. I have failed to keep this commitment over the past few years, and am not proud of my lapses. This, I think, is our generation’s great failing: a manic obsession with productivity for productivity’s sake, and falling into patterns that normalize 80-hour work weeks, or worse. There is nothing healthy about this life, and high incomes hit diminishing returns when they crowd out the time for the other pursuits that make a life worth living. But we are Hoyas, so we continue our manic pursuits, certain we can arrive at a place where we have it all.

9. Rebel Against the Sort

At the School of Foreign Service reception, I chat with an acquaintance in the Class of 1972, a former federal relations official at the university. He introduces his freshman year roommate, a Hoya who moved home to Indiana and built a life there, including a failed primary bid for congress in a race ultimately won by a young Mike Pence. A kindred spirit. We part with me admitting how much I waver, and him pushing me to stay the course. My path remains a noble exception among fellow Hoyas.

Later, over gelato in Kalorama, two of my greatest sparring partners take up the question of the Big Sort, the notion that the well-educated strivers are self-isolating in a few specific places. So many of my classmates have drifted to New York, DC, or the Bay Area for jobs in tech or finance or consulting or law, and those intense jobs or advanced degrees they were pursuing at the five-year are now bearing fruit in stepping stones and large salaries. I am far from the lone exception, and there may be some self-selection in who returns for a reunion. But I may be the most obstinate in my pride at what I’ve done, even as I try to find new wells of strength in my Hoya inheritance. What was once a source of social anxiety is now a simple certainty that I belong.

10. Ease

I head straight from the airport to a tour of the Fond du Lac Reservation, and attend a funeral for a great Native woman the following day. This is what I do, though. Further out in either direction my schedule will find a muddy hiking trip, a speaking gig at a conference at a resort on a lake; a garden party at an old money club and political dinner, to say nothing of a work calendar that likewise pulls in ten different directions daily. Busyness? No: richness. In no place did I learn more about how to live richly than I did at Georgetown, how to drift between worlds with ease, adjusting to each to fit in while still retaining some core self. I am still in love with this school, and while there are certain decisions over those four years that I wish I could change, it is also the source of everything that has come since, and everything that could yet be. It was at Georgetown that I found the tools that direct the flow of an ever-churning life, and the self-assurance to ease into the next great push.

In Memoriam: Renee Van Nett

As I got to know Renee Van Nett, I learned the important thing was to listen. She didn’t need my advice, nor to hear my convoluted backstory, at least not unless she wanted to. I was there to learn from her. She had seen things that I never would, had opinions formed in ways that my life would never allow me to do, and through that journey she had become a force.

Renee was a fiercely independent woman. She hid her past pain and suffering from the world, even as she was open and welcoming to others who had endured struggles. Few knew how much she had already been through, how she’d learned to live a life on borrowed time. She never wanted her story to be about her, and always built it around what she stood for, and the often unseen people she sought to lift up.

She accepted political advice but did things her way regardless, her campaign operations lean efforts that relied on a few key allies and her own force of will. A narrow defeat in her first run for office did nothing to dissuade her, and she twice won a Duluth City Council seat over opposition that wasn’t afraid to take serious swings at her. She governed from the heart, building fierce loyalties that led her on one quixotic final campaign to primary a sitting state senator. Her moves unnerved some when she dared to stray from the progressive orthodoxy that some white Duluth liberals apparently expected out of a Native woman, and at times exasperated even those of us who considered her an ally, too. But we knew that this was what made Renee such a genuine politician, such a person who could take a complex collection of facts before her and form an unflinching belief that only made sense from where she was. She was no one’s pawn, nor was anyone Renee’s pawn. She moved through the world with an authenticity of self whose rarity belies the term’s use.

As I came to know Renee, I took that authenticity as a model for how to move through the world, a lesson all the more compelling when it came from a woman who ventured into realms that were far from what she’d known. It was exemplary. I am a better person for having known her, and I trust that her daughters will know they always have supports who are there for them; may they learn to channel their mother’s strength in their own endeavors.

Renee’s death came far too suddenly, a far too abruptly for a life still bursting with potential. But the vagaries of time and life have no heed for such untapped wells, and it is up to the rest of us to find something in what has been lost and turn it into a beginning once again. Her passing is another reminder to never waste one more precious moment.

An Hour Forty Well Spent

This weekend, whilst recovering from some excessive fun, I was pleased to find a distraction that rekindled my thinking after a stint of limited writing output. The New York Times’ Ezra Klein did a lengthy interview with Patrick Deneen, the erstwhile Georgetown professor who’s been mentioned in my writings more than a few times. It had been a while since I had a new dose of Deneen in my life, and the discussion was as fascinating as ever, worthy of pondering even when his arguments don’t quite land.

The interview is about as wide-ranging conversation as can be, a gentle sparring match between two people who on paper seem drastically opposed: a staunchly Catholic political philosopher whose isn’t fond of many developments since the Enlightenment and a technocratic liberal policy wonk and internet-era media personality at the Times. Klein prods and probes at Deneen’s idiosyncratic views, sometimes landing some real punches. The two circle each other, working toward common ground, or at the very least an understanding. It’s a model of civil debate between two people who generally agree on what is wrong with American society but see both the causes of and solutions to this malaise in radically different, though not always irreconcilable, ways. It is two worldviews, in the richest sense of that word, colliding.

Klein’s interviews are never dull, but this one is particularly wide-ranging. They debate whether Deneen has grown harsher over time, and what Deneen views as a liberal attack on the family as an institution. They spar about divorce law and the drift of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, about what Joe Biden represents and what Deneen’s philosophizing might look like in a political platform. Later, Deneen gets to the core of his critique of the managerial elite and the prestigious universities he has inhabited for most of his professional career, and he offers some words very similar to the ones he shared with this kid ten years ago in office hours at the end of a senior year. (I find it a timely reflection, as I’ll be back in DC in a few weeks to revisit the institution where that chat happened.) They end with some musing on the interplay between culture and politics, a divide that perhaps most fundamentally splits the two of them.

Give it a listen here.

Grand Staircase III: Layers of Time

This is the third in a three-part series. Part 1 | Part 2

Sated by my time in Grand Staircase-Escalante, I drive the three hours back to Zion, where I nestle in at the Novel House Inn in Springdale, a mile’s stroll from the park’s gates. This writer is a sucker for this bed and breakfast, complete with sprawling library and author-themed rooms. I am in the Mark Twain Room, wedged between Walt Whitman and Louis L’Amour on the first floor, and the great red cliffs peek out above some trees through my window. There is a voucher for breakfast at a Mexican place up the block, a tray of cookies and lemonade in the afternoon, an attentive Irish proprietor, and a library where I can sit and organize my notes in the evening. What more could I ask for to round out this trip?

I spend the night at the Zion Brewery, which is, brilliantly, the first establishment one encounters when exiting the park via its pedestrian bridge over the Virgin into Springdale. I settle in at the bar and make a few temporary friends as we throw back beers. “Have these trips ever changed your life?” asks Russell from Philadelphia when I tell him the tale of my journey. Check back in with me later, I reply. A couple from Long Island then joins us, the husband glued to the North Carolina-Duke Final Four game on the TV, and I become a temporary Tar Heel fan at his behest. These are the best nights of solo travel, the momentary community a necessary counterpoint to the solitude of nights in tents.

On my final full day, I hike the full eight miles up Zion Canyon to the end of the road. At times I am on formal trails such as the Pa’rus across the meadows north of the Visitor Center, or the Kayenta between the Emerald Pools and the West Rim trailhead; at times I am on a semi-formal sandy track lining the river; and for long stretches I am just on the road, which is empty aside from shuttles every few minutes, the occasional car headed to the Lodge, and a steady string of cyclists. While the shuttle system has the effect of choking up certain spots when it disgorges busloads at certain popular locations, it means that vast amounts of the canyon, despite the number of visitors it hosts, are basically empty. Even in the four days since my backpacking excursion, the canyon seems lusher with spring, the cottonwoods’ leaves unfurling and purple and red and yellow flowers springing up here and there. I see a condor and a crane and a wild turkey, and at times the only sound is the rushing water of the Virgin River, which echoes off the canyon side walls. Never has a stroll up a road felt like such complete immersion.

After a quick recharge at the Novel House, I go for my final Zion hike: a quick burst up and down the Watchman Trail, which rises from the Visitor’s Center some 360 feet to views over Springdale, the campgrounds, and up the canyon. As on the West Rim, I half expect to find a shrine at the top, but instead it features verdant greenery crawling out of the rich red rock, a perfectly acceptable endpoint for a pilgrim to Zion. I sit for a while at the summit, process a few thoughts, make peace with the paths I’ve trodden over the past week. I read a passage I copied down from Leave only Footprints, a memoir by Conor Knighton, who visited all of the national parks in a meandering, yearlong post-breakup journey. Here, he contemplates a fireplace at the Grand Canyon that serves as a model for all its layers of rock:

Looking at a canyon’s different lines and layers, we can read its diary, seeing the various strata that made it what it is today. The layers are stripes, not smears; they all seem so clearly delineated. I wondered if, inside of each of us, those same markers exist. When we think of personality, we tend to think of it like a soup, a blend of traits and experiences that have been mixed together to make us the people we are today. Over the years, more and more gets added; the broth gets thicker, and the individual ingredients become harder to discern. It seemed to me that we might be more like that fireplace; like the canyon, full of layers with clear dividing lines; moments that say, from this point on, everything will be different. Maybe those lines mark deaths, births, loves, and losses, the moments we’d expect to define the different periods of our lives. Or, maybe they correspond to days and events we would have never initially seen as important.

Did I actually change as a person when I graduated from college? Probably not. Maybe a more significant shift happened midway through seventh grade, when my teacher told us to pick a college to do a report on, and instead of picking one that was good at sports, I chose Yale, a place I knew nothing about. Maybe your life changes on your wedding day, but I’d imagine the actual change happens on your fourth date, when the woman who will one day be your wife tells you a joke that somehow tells you she’s the one. It’s never clear a layer is over until the line appears and a new one starts. Looking past the fireplace, out to the canyon it represented, I began to think that I might be smack dab in the middle of an important layer, an era that was changing who I was as a person. There was the me before the parks, and there will be the me after them.

I ponder some of the layers in my own life, some obvious to any who know me and others more subtle. I was eight when I learned that the world could steal away life in an arbitrary instant, and eighteen when I learned it would be impossible to ever truly go home. At twenty-two I grounded a life that was somewhat adrift in a place, but by twenty-eight I found myself more in tune with the kid who had once run away from that place than the one who’d made a commitment to a thing that cannot love him back.

The world is forever changing, and that there is a sweet spot of knowing it will change you while knowing that you can also change parts of it. At twenty and twenty-one I began to sow the seeds of a worldview that understood this fact. Around twenty-six I internalized the power of forgiveness and began to appreciate that I did not need to define myself by the things I had lost. At twenty-seven and twenty-eight I undertook a writing project to interrogate these possibilities, and to play out the tension between competing strains of thought in my head. At twenty-nine and thirty I learned that more than a place I was in need of a pace, and have, perhaps, at thirty-one and thirty-two, found it.

In the four years since I last came to Zion I have hiked relentlessly forward in the fog, through a snow patch of work life upheaval and a climb up into a new Duluth network and on through the sticking mud of a two-year pandemic. It has been a relentless, and generally successful, but often very solitary phase. My navigation skills in any moment haven’t really been in doubt, but the view has not always been clear. Now, at long last, I think I can see again, and am even more eager to see where I am the next time I make my way to this canyon that has become my Eden.

In a few conversations before I left for the Grand Staircase, I described this venture as a last great solo trip, at least for the foreseeable future. This usually brought about a lament in response. Why stop now? I seem to love it, and I am good at it. But too much of my life has been caught up in a confusion between being good at things and therefore believing these are the things I must do. This doesn’t mean I won’t ever travel this way again, and I had some motivations for making this a solitary burst. But I have done what I set out to do, and I have came home content.

In these canyons there are always more layers, greater and greater depths and heights to explore. Some of it will be forever buried, and that is alright. But there are many more layers to discover, and next time I head forth, I don’t plan to do so alone.

Grand Staircase II: Stairway into the Unknown

This is Part 2 of a three-part travel series. Part 1 is here.

My night outside Zion is fitful, nervous, eager with anticipation, the sense that my plan for the next two days is no casual stroll. I have a one-night date with the West Rim Trail. When I go to collect my permit, the ranger appraises me carefully: this hike is a 3,000-foot climb, the upper reaches of the ascent are covered in snow, up top the trails are thick with mud, the only water source there is probably snow-covered, and oh, have you noticed all the rain in the forecast? I assure her I am a northern Minnesotan, and when she learns I’ve day hiked to three-quarters of the route before, she gains a bit more confidence in my abilities. The day dawns a dreary grey, which only makes for perfect hiking weather. A couple with overnight packs is also on my shuttle up the canyon, and we leapfrog our way all the way up to Cabin Spring, where they settle in at the first campsite on Zion’s roof.

This trek is one of phases. The first 2.5 miles follow the well-worn route to Angels Landing, the iconic clamber up chains between thousand-foot drop-offs that I conquered four years ago and feel zero compulsion to climb again. After Angels Landing is my favorite part of the whole trek, as the crowds thin out and the trail climbs a series of shelves with views to rival those of the famed promontory, culminating in a huge, white dome. From there, it tucks in along the backside of one of the mounts lining the canyon, past cool streams of snowmelt trickling down the rock. Higher up, the snow begins, first as little clumps alongside the trail, and later covering substantial portions of the trail itself, though it is firm enough and well-enough worn that at no point is it awful. At the top of the snow I encounter a family I’d seen high up on the East Rim the previous day, and their intrepid 10-year-old daughter advises me on how best to have fun with the snow. My kingdom for children who someday show the same pluck and guile as her. From here, there are more exposed switchbacks up another steep wall to the West Rim Lookout at Cabin Spring, where most day hikers (including myself four years ago) turn around.

I see no one in my 24 hours beyond Cabin Spring. There are more climbs, but they are gradual, and the muck is indeed treacherous in places, first as an insidious yellow mud that isn’t thick but clings to boots like leeches on legs, and later in a thicker, gloppy ascent with a full-blown stream running down the middle. The views are stellar, or so I am forced to guess: I am in the clouds, the chances to see outward sporadic, and while the mesa here is exposed enough that most snow is off the trail, it still clings to shaded hillsides. The late winter landscape takes on a haunted, empty air, and phantom voices carry through the howling wind. I am as alone as I’ve ever been.

Finally, I arrive at campsite 5, which sits atop a ridge between Phantom Valley to the west and Telephone and Imlay Canyons to the east. The clouds whip directly over me and plunge my ridge into obscurity, and I pass the afternoon cycling from one side to the other, admiring the vista in whichever direction has the higher clouds at that moment. I don’t tire of it. In time, though, the thicker clouds get too close, and rain, interspersed with ice pellets, begins to fall. I have a tent malfunction, but some string and some rocks solve my dilemma and keep me dry through a 12-hour span under the covers. I sleep poorly, never warm but never exactly cold, yet somehow content that I have made it where I want to be. I rise at sunrise and finally look out to see the view from my throne atop Zion. The world glitters beneath me, ignited by a fiery glow. I am transfixed, my pilgrimage at its apex.

I wait until nearly ten to break camp so the sun can eat away at the ice on my equipment and dry out as much as it can. The trek down reveals all the views I’d missed the day before, made somehow more stunning by their temporary withholding, and I plow down in an hour less time than it took me to make the climb. Beyond the snowy bits I join a day-hiking couple from Beaver Bay, just an hour north of Duluth; we trade shared acquaintances as we go. Angels Landing is an absolute zoo, and I may have seen it at its absolute worst: in just two days, the National Park Service is finally imposing a permit system on the famed hike, and only the select, pre-scheduled few will be able to head up the chains. I fight the crowds down the switchbacks and settle for a half-mile stroll along the canyon bottom back to the Zion Lodge for a much-needed meal and a drink.

The Lodge is not quite what the doctor ordered for a weary hiker. The food has all the flavor of a McDonalds with none of the speed. There is only one beer on tap until the distributor’s truck arrives again, though at least it is a decent local microbrew. There are no open tables and alcohol is not allowed off the patio on to the inviting lawn, so I decamp on a wall by the beer stand until a departing couple takes pity on me. I pay it forward and let a couple from St. Louis join me, and we bond over our fondness for road trips and incredulity over the crowds. (Shouldn’t all these children be in school?!) I share my shuttle back down the canyon with a clump of high schoolers on some sort of Christian retreat, all of whom ignore the mask mandate and talk earnestly about what they are looking for in relationships. Is it bad that my instinct is to buy them a case of beer?

I return to my car and climb back up out of Zion, back through the Mount Carmel tunnel and then north on US-89. My abode for the next two nights is a no-frills roadside cabin some 20 miles west of Bryce Canyon, and my dinner that night comes at a family diner in the town of Panguich, a bustling joint staffed almost entirely by teenagers. From my spot at the bar, I get a front row seat to the chaos, as the POS system is deemed a POS and three orders come out for tables with no one sitting at them. At least the wings are tasty.

A poll of acquaintances who have visited both Zion and Bryce has been inconclusive on which is better. While Bryce cannot match the sheer scale of Zion, it has an intimacy to it, and its famed hoodoos never cease to amaze with their wild shapes. Trails chart labyrinthine courses around the pinnacles of rock, never flat as they wind down to the floor of the canyon and then back up and around to get over to the next feature. South of the bustling amphitheater, a 17-mile road snakes its way up past 9,000 feet in elevation, with repeated overlooks up and down the Grand Staircase and across the Paria River valley. It’s snowing when I arrive, and while it is a bit too warm for anything to accumulate, three more squalls break out over the course of the day. The most eventful one comes as I traverse the Bristlecone Trail at the far end of the scenic drive; the woman I am following loses the trail entirely for a spell. She is one of five lost people I help over the course of the day, and I can’t pass up the opportunity to lament the decline of navigational skills. “Trust me, I don’t get lost!” I want to yell at the dude making his second circuit of the Peek-a-Boo Trail even though he is sure he isn’t; later in the day, we meet at an overlook and he concedes defeat. Don’t mess with my geography skills.

The burst of wind and snow that nearly stole my hat away atop Bryce Point tells me it’s time to wrap things up here. I wrap up my Bryce hiking with a quick trot to an ice-filled cave off Highway 12, where dripping water produces a trickling symphony that silences the cluster of viewers. I am glad I saw Bryce, but in a day, I feel like I have seen what it has to offer, while after nearly a week in Zion across two trips, I still haven’t touched its northern unit or The Narrows or Observation Point or its little-known southern desert. I conclude my tour of Bryce with a geology lesson in the visitor center, content with a rock-filled day sandwiched between two experiences of wilderness sublime.

This entire trip is, in effect, a traverse of the Grand Staircase, a series of rock layers that rise up from the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River into central Utah. These different bands of geological time give the rocks different hues, often ending in dramatic dropping shelves. Closest to the Colorado are the Chocolate Cliffs, while the Vermilion Cliffs rise near Kanab, just south of the Utah-Arizona state line, and include the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, the areas around Colorado City, and the lower layers of Zion. Next come the White Cliffs, which look like a jagged scrape on an aerial image; they form Zion’s upper reaches. The drive from Zion to Bryce follows the cut of the Sevier River up through the Grey Cliffs, and finally, at the top, are the Pink Cliffs that reach the heights of Bryce at 9,000 feet. Above these sit the great upland plateaus of south-central Utah, themselves rising in steps: the Markagunt, the Paunsaugunt, and the Aquarius. The Staircase’s eastern railing is the Kaiparowits Plateau, which stretches down from the Aquarius to the Colorado and falls off on its own eastern side from the Straight Cliffs into the canyonlands of the Escalante River. It is in this remote land, the last portion of the lower 48 states to be mapped by the US government, that I will spend the bulk of the next two days.

The drive east from Bryce has the distinct feeling of heading deeper into the wilderness. I tumble down from the Paunsaugunt through a series of Mormon frontier towns in the Paria River valley, oasis outposts with verdant fruit trees clustering around dust-choked homes. The road winds up into the Kaipirowits and down through funky Escalante, traffic thinned to a trickle. My eagerness at this fresh landscape grows, but nothing quite prepares for the Head of the Rocks Overlook, where the scrubby plateau disappears and the rocky canyonlands of the Escalante River undulate out in all directions below, the ribbon of the CCC-built Highway 12 the only thing interrupting the march of these rocky waves out to a few snow-capped ranges on the fringes of the wilderness.

At the direction of a ranger, I head straight for the Calf Creek Campground and claim one of the 13 sites nestled just above that small stream’s confluence with the Escalante. I wish I could have arrived just two weeks later to see this small Eden at its best, but as it is, these oases in the desert are budding and coming to life. I plug up the creek some three miles to Lower Calf Creek Falls, a 120-foot plunge of water into a deep, cold pool. The route is gradual, with views to ancient pictographs and granaries up on cliffs, and while a healthy crowd hikes this trail, it has nothing on Zion or Bryce. I dip my feet in the icy waters and take my time to soak in the warmth on the stroll back.

After a recovery spell in a hammock, I drive north into Boulder. On the way, Highway 12 skirts high above Calf Creek and the canyonlands to the east, an Angels Landing for cars atop the ridge, and then plunges into Boulder, the last town in the US to have mule-delivered mail, accessible only by unpaved road until the 1980s. The Burr Trail, an old cattle route, swings east from here, and a cheery sign announces a mere 72-mile trip to the Lake Powell Ferry. The trek would take hours; I settle for a trip in to the aptly named Long Canyon, a deep red gash in the stone, and home to a lonely slot canyon worthy of a quick exploration. That night, back at Calf Creek, I hop up on a natural red rock seat, sip away at some wine, and drift into a reverie as the stars emerge, deep in this lonely desert, the crackling fires and stray laughs across the campground filling me with a warmth independent of the cool evening air.

Some ice forms in the water bottle I leave out on the picnic table, but I have my soundest night of sleep in a tent on this trip. After packing up, I do a 6-mile stroll up and down the Escalante, wading its frigid waters 14 times as I process up the canyon to a natural bridge and an arch. The trail snakes along those pure flowing waters, up and down ledges and across dry washes, nestling beneath cliffs and cottonwoods and through fields of sage. All is at peace.

I take my time in making my exit from Grand Staircase-Escalante. First, another hiker mentions some unadvertised petroglyphs just above the parking lot by the river where I’ve been hiking, so I head up the trail opposite the river and, after a few false turns, arrive at these signs from the past. On the other side of the river, I pause for a scrumptious lunch at the Kiva Koffeeshop, a new agey wonder built right into the hill, with views up and down the canyon. Grand Staircase-Escalante is a beauty, Zion’s essence distilled to its basics and stripped of its crowds. I shall return.

Part 3 is here.