The Journey Home: Diving Deep in Canyon Country


Leaving Utah, I could already sense there was going to be a lot of processing about my adventures there. It was one of the most deeply and profoundly impacting experiences of my life. And as I was driving away I felt like I had only barely begun to understand its impact on me. Things were brewing deeper in me, and I knew that given some time to consciously and subconsciously let things settle, I’d have some realizations about my time there, and of course, myself.


But I wasn’t just leaving Utah. I was leaving the West. I was heading northeast, to a new home. And getting on the road toward the rising sun, in addition to beginning to process my trip, I felt a mixture of excitement and uncertainty about the life ahead of me and deep sentimentality about what I was leaving behind.

Bellingham had been home for the previous 15 years, and other than a couple brief stints, Northwest Washington had been home for my entire life. I loved it there. It was in my bones. The evergreens, the mountains pressing right up to the sound, the cleansing rains, the perfect summers.

But we felt we hadn’t quite experienced the world as much as we’d dreamed of. Jamie and I had talked about our desire to experience living in different places, experiencing new perspectives and cultures. We loved travelling and the feeling of returning home and seeing our community with new eyes, fresh perspectives, and typically, a greater appreciation of the place. We’d always envisioned that we’d live overseas, but when Jamie received a job offer from upstate New York, we decided to jump at the opportunity.Adventures-NW-Canyon-Country-Dallas-Betz3

I had a seemingly endless amount of time to think on my drive alone across the continent. My thoughts wandered between processing my time in Utah and wrapping my head around an array of issues surrounding our move to upstate New York. For one, I hadn’t seen Jamie for a month. That was by far the longest period of time we’d spent apart from each other. I really missed her. She was my best friend. In this sense, I did feel like I was returning home, and I was relieved to be back in that familiar place.

I was also grappling with career direction; an issue that had been a consistent thorn in my side for as long as I could remember. I’d always had a lot of interest in many different areas, and had a hard time narrowing the focus down to one thing at the expense of the rest of the world of opportunities out there. Yes, I was often referred to as a jack-of-all-trades, but the other side of that coin was also equally accurate: master-of-none. I thrived in situations where I was able to learn new skills, but once I got to a point where I had a good grasp of a particular thing, I felt anxious to move on and hungry to learn something else. The result was that I knew a little about a lot of things, and had a moderate level of skills in many areas, while not being an expert in any one area.Adventures-NW-Canyon-Country-Dallas-Betz5

I’d told myself that once I arrived on the East Coast I was going to do some deep digging about this. I wanted to find out what really motivated me and if it was possible to support a family in a way that was in line with my own values and that invigorated and inspired me. I didn’t know how I would start that process, but I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

I also daydreamed about what life would be like on the East Coast, and how it would be to start from scratch, knowing nobody. Over the years, Jamie and I had slowly built up an amazing  group of friends in Bellingham and had become invested members of the Bellingham community. It was intimidating to think about starting that process over again. I worried that our love for Bellingham would keep us from fully committing ourselves in this new place.

While my thoughts on the drive during the day cycled through memories of the desert and thoughts about the transition to the East Coast, at night, my subconscious returned to the canyons. Whether I was in a cheap motel or a tent, every night as I drove across the country, I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking I was in a canyon. Street lights through a curtain became moonlight on the canyon wall. A chair in the corner was a boulder in the wash.

I’ve woken up disoriented before, and it can sometimes be scary trying to make sense of your surroundings. But these nights, as I drove across the country and settled into my new world on the East Coast, I never felt scared. I’d slowly take it all in, knowing something wasn’t right but still taking comfort in feeling wrapped up and protected by the canyon walls, safe in this sacred space.

This routine continued for another week after I made it to our new home. In all, I was immersed in the world of canyons every single night for two weeks. During the day I’d sense it in the background, behind the curtains of consciousness. But at night I’d return to the canyon. I felt like I was hovering in between worlds, resistant to let go of the desert. It was as if the place opened up an awareness in me, a portal to another reality.

On that long drive, I spent a lot of time filtering through memories of my time in the desert, replaying scenes from the trip, the images still fresh in my mind. Early on there was already a very special feel to these memories. I knew this was the trip of a lifetime, and that the magic of the experience would stay with me for a long time. While some of the lessons and perceptions remained a bit cloudy, some became clearer on that drive.

 Something that kept surfacing was the way I felt protected on some of our hikes – like there were eyes on us, or an awareness of our presence. A sense of cautious trust that grew over time. At times I felt we were being looked out for by the desert and its inhabitants.

On our very first hike in the desert, my hiking buddy and I started the 40 mile traverse through Paria Canyon with some anxiety about what lay ahead. Neither of us had spent much time in canyon country, and we’d been repeatedly and profusely warned of the danger of flash floods. It’s true, ultimately, we were at the whim of nature. If there was a thunderstorm a hundred miles away in mountains we couldn’t even see, we could get washed away. Adventures-NW-Canyon-Country-Dallas-Betz4

As we stood in the middle of the river, with the canyon walls arm-width apart and towering hundreds of feet above, we could see the high water marks from previous flash floods. Brush, branches, and trees were deposited on shelves fifty feet above our heads. We wouldn’t have a chance. But we’d done our research, we’d kept an eye on the weather, and were relatively confident that we would be safe. Light rain was forecast, but no thunderstorms.

Still, entering the canyon had a finality to it. We’d left our car at the opposite end of the canyon, 40 miles away, and gotten a shuttle to the start. The only way out of this was through to the confluence with the Colorado River. There was no communication with the outside world. Cell phones were useless.

As we approached the narrowing of the canyon walls, a duck flew down and landed in the river in front of us. It felt a bit out of place, almost humorous. We watched it land and then look back, as if waiting for us, inviting us to follow. As we got closer, the duck flew to the next bend in the canyon, looked back and maintained its place in the river, waiting for us. This happened again, and again, with each bend in the canyon for the entire afternoon – just myself, my hiking partner, the duck, and the canyon, with the duck leading the way.

We walked silently through that narrowest stretch of the canyon, in awe of the scene and the sounds, with the duck right there as our guide. Sounds of the trickling river reverberating off the canyon walls, the dropping sun casting shadows, the walls still radiating a warm glow. We soaked it up.

Five hours later, we found a sandy shelf to set up our camp. The duck continued to wait for us at the next bend, but we weren’t going anywhere until morning. Grateful for its company and support, we thanked it and hoped it’d be there in the morning, but it was gone by the time we got started the next day.

I’m not an especially spiritual person, but I am certain that this duck was acting in some sort of protective way, as it guided us through the canyon. It felt like a gesture confirming that the path was safe and that we were welcome in this place. And not only that we were physically welcome but that we could have access to the place on a deeper, spiritual level. We had gained its trust and were allowed to experience the most intimate parts, the depths, of the canyon.Adventures-NW-Canyon-Country-Dallas-Betz6

I tossed these thoughts and images around my head on the drive, already beginning to wonder if it all had really happened. The further I got from Utah, the more I felt myself slowly slipping back into the modern version of the “real world”; The one with work and roles and responsibilities and pretenses and cities and traffic and global warming. The one with little room for mystery or magic.

I reached our new home in the Northeast and started the process of settling in. I unpacked my bags and put away my camping gear. I washed the desert out of my clothes and put my guidebook back on the shelf. On the surface, I was saying goodbye to the desert.

In the past, I’d mostly been attracted to hikes that ended at mountain tops or ridges where you earn a good view after an elevation gain. And I’ll always love a good vista. However, I feel drawn to canyons on a deeper level than I can quite understand. There is some dichotomy there involving fear counter-balanced by intrigue, curiosity, mystery, wonder.

The fear feels deep-seated but subtle, like a distant voice which I can’t quite make out with my conscious mind. Like there is something ominous down in the canyon but it has cast a spell on me creating a powerful sense of curiosity and wonder which ultimately will get the best of me.

Part of the fear may be the claustrophobia, and part of it likely has to do with the threat of flash flood. But there is more to it than that. The shadows and darkness, the depth, the feeling that this is an intimate place, deep inside the earth. It feels like I’m a visitor in a place where I shouldn’t be.

But after some time in the depths, I feel that the canyon begins to understand me – and me, it. I feel not only welcomed but also protected, that there is an intimate sense of trust that has been developed. Maybe even love. Adventures-NW-Canyon-Country-Dallas-Betz1

All told, I was in Utah’s canyon country for two weeks. While I was there, I was often in a state of awe and wonder. Even so, I didn’t realize how deeply I had been impacted by this trip. My subconscious was processing it long after I’d left the canyons behind. Much of it was played out in my dreams and accessed by me in the space between waking and sleeping. My conscious mind can only really guess at what it all means. I’m sad that I now wake up knowing I’m in my apartment. I miss that feeling of being wrapped up in and protected by the canyon.

One comment

  1. Dallas. Great read. That feeling that you get is the same that I get when I am on the trail for more than a few weeks…and it just gets deeper and more profound. I am hoping to hike the Hayduke Trail at some point in the next few years, which runs through canyon country. I’m sure you’ve read some of Edward Abbey’s books, especially Desert Solitaire? Anyways, great writing and good luck with your new digs on the east coast!

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