Sometime in 1974, my husband Tom and I and our friends, Art and Dave, decided to explore the San Rafael Swell area of Southeastern Utah. This area wasn’t too far from Carbon County, Utah where Tom and Art had grown up. If you’ve driven on I-70 through eastern Utah, you’ve seen how remote this area is. Even now, the 110 miles between Green River and Salina, Utah is the longest stretch of the Interstate Highway System with no services for motorists. Back in 1974, the freeway wasn’t even built, so we were really in the middle of nowhere. That’s not the accurate thing to say, though. We were alone in the middle of thousands of acres of beauty and silence.
That’s not what I have been thinking about all these years, though. I have been thinking about two things. First, I think about how we—not scampered, not trudged— more like just persevered up and around the swells and valleys in the blue Volkswagen Squareback. I always pretended the car had 4-wheel drive capabilities, and it generally rewarded my high expectations. This day, we were on a sandy, rocky track toiling up to a rise. There was a large rock ahead on the side of the track. When we got almost next to the rock, it shape-shifted into a golden eagle. The eagle unfurled his wings—almost close enough to touch—and flew from the brown sand into the blue sky. Was it magic or some kind of benediction or just nothing out of the ordinary? I’m reserving judgment.
But I mostly think about how I almost killed our friend Art, all around good man and best man at our wedding. With all the hundreds of canyons of the San Rafael surrounding us, it just seemed natural to start climbing up and that’s what we did. I was young then. My bones didn’t creak and I did not step gingerly. We started scaling a cliff—mostly straight up—and I was first. I don’t remember why I was first, but I suspect it was because I was the non-Utahn in the group, by far the shortest, the woman, and so they wanted to let me set the pace. After me, came Art, then Dave, and then Tom—one straight below the next.
I don’t remember now whether it was sandstone (probably) or limestone, but I felt indigenous to this place. My hands felt at home on the rocks. I knew how to carefully search out footholds and handholds, and soon we were high above the canyon floor. I grabbed a large—and, I thought, secure—rock. It dislodged and fell down on Art’s shoulder. He fell straight backwards towards the canyon floor 50 or more feet below. Probably before I could even scream, Dave caught Art and stopped his fall. That’s about when we finished that climb. I don’t remember anything else about that time. We all resumed our lives. Some things changed; some things stayed the same.
Last week I saw Art for the first time in thirty years. Tom, Art, and I were having dim sum at the Café Anh Hong in Salt Lake City. Art said he sometimes thought of that incident in the San Rafael. He thought maybe that throughout our lives we don’t always know when or how often we just miss death or calamity. I am glad that Art missed that San Rafael exit point and that his good will has stayed in the world all these years. Art’s favorite old rock CD is Love, Forever Changes. It does, but it stays the same.