Jenny Walicek takes her family on a US Southwest road trip, where Jurassic sand dunes, desert mesas and sinuous ancient rivers reveal a world of unexpected connections.

The view is dismal as the plane descends over Grand Junction, Colorado. The hills are naked, itchy-looking slumps, their spines and ribs scratch-marked by skinny roads. A sparse stubble flecks the empty slopes, pretending to be green. The sky is a brilliant periwinkle blue, but below it, I just see dirt.

A scorching, dusty drive past cattle skulls and cacti hadn’t been my idea of a summer vacation, but a Southwest road trip had appealed to my Texan husband, Bruce, and I was open to whatever enticed our son and daughter to join us. The house had been too silent since they left for college, my surroundings too full of their absence. I’d been wallowing in memories, aching to renew our connections once school let out. Anywhere they’ll go is good enough, I thought. Still, I had my reservations about the desert. A barren, sweltering environment didn’t seem likely to bring out our family’s best. After all, the wonderment of childhood at every bug and rock was over. We were a combination of emerging and aging adults, of idealistic and disillusioned minds, of varying political and religious values. It was not inconceivable that we might get on each other’s nerves. Continuously, even, and with increasing intensity.

But now the journey has begun, and the view is just as desolate from the ground. We rent a jeep and Tyler and Audrey, shielded by earphones and sunglasses, slouch down in the back seat for a nap. It’s probably just as well – we’ve been up since 4 am. Tyler’s donned his Dr House persona, and Audrey’s getting over a relentless flu, possibly mono. Any attempts I’d make at conversation would be met with begrudging mumbles. I start to suggest, in that Mommish tone they love so well, that they might miss something we came a long way to see, but a quick flip through the guidebook tells me we’re hours from that possibility. Bruce, with work still on his mind, is a taciturn driver. So I turn my attention outward, seeking interest, if not beauty, in this flat, beige land.

Within the first hour the absence of colour makes me conscious of textural shifts, of new shapes in the dusty terrain. As we head south toward Moab, Utah, the land becomes stone; soon it slopes into wrinkled grey mounds that look like sleeping dinosaurs. The book says these are Jurassic sand dunes, each wrinkle the edge of a wind-laid tide of grains. Square boulders edge a chalky hill, like the toothy jawbone of some undiscovered beast. A curving spine of overlapping slabs crumbles the roadside dust, as if an enormous mole were rumbling beneath.

At the end of the second hour, when the ground gives way to an unexpected canyon, my startled “Wow!” wakes up the sleeping kids. Tyler scrambles for his camera, adjusting his lens; Audrey whips off her glasses and rolls the window down. “Oh my God,” she whispers. “That’s insane.” Bruce slows the Jeep and whistles his respect.

We’re in the midst of a flaming stone bonfire, set by the afternoon sun. On the right, red ramparts rise from mesas far above. On the left, steeply ridged cliffs hang like burning draperies from pewter cornices; ash-white rubble hems the range’s base. It’s a majestic, fiery scene that makes me think of Jericho or Jerusalem. A sign says we’re entering Arches National Park.

I’m astounded by the sudden advent of the third dimension, by the vibrant colour and mass of the vertical forms. For the first time, the word beautiful enters this trip’s lexicon. The natural architecture seems both militant and regal, the colours dangerous -- a fortress soaked in fire and blood.

“Can we pull over?” asks our reticent son – the first words he’s spoken since dawn –– and Bruce obliges. Everyone’s adrenaline is up; we want out, not just to photograph, but to breathe and feel what we’ve been seeing. Like errant knights we dismount our Jeep and marvel at the citadels and castles blazing against the blue-marguerite sky. We scatter, snap pictures, take notes. Tyler’s continuous shooting betrays his enthusiasm; his aim reveals his eye for shifts of light, for anomalies and angles that shape silent forms. Audrey affects an insouciant pose and asks me to take a shot on her phone. When she posts it to her Facebook page, she gets 26 comments within four minutes. “About the incredible scenery?” I ask. She rolls her eyes. “Oh, Mom.”

Up close the daunting stone forms are softened by bevels and scallops and rare jewels of life that flare up in shadowed cracks. Tyler tracks the tiny treasures: globemallow blossoming in little orange bursts, like flickering flames; two iridescent skinks standing nose to tail as fire ants scuttle around them beyond tongue’s reach. I put down my camera, moved by his quiet appreciation for such diminutive forms of beauty. The overall scene, though, is one of bulk and power. It’s a roofless mansion of fine bones and bare grace, incessantly remodelled since time began. It’s only slightly marred by the sight of a portly man in socks and sandals scrambling over an arch, flapping his arms for balance.

We get back in the Jeep, bound by our common response to the dramatic landscape, wanting more. After checking the guidebook we head southwest toward Canyonlands National Park to see the Merrimac and the Monitor. We view those two sandstone megaliths from atop a cliff. Massive, solitary remnants of what was once solid earth, they so markedly resemble the Civil War ships that it’s easy to imagine them surrounded by water, patrolling a long-extinct sea. Tyler’s camera points at a stony prow, where sunlight glances like a secret signal lantern.

My husband makes a fading-siren sound; for him, this is “Roadrunner” territory, the topography of his childhood Saturday mornings. I know he’s envisioning Wile E Coyote plummeting over a precipice, because he hovers when Tyler photographs a dozen feet from a ledge. Bruce thrusts his hand out, steps toward our son, retreats. It’s a jolting dance that acknowledges both his own overcaution and Tyler’s overconfidence without saying a damaging word to the fledgling man. As always, it’s what’s not being said that speaks his love.

We drive a little further to Dead Horse Point, its name tragically apt for this rocky overlook.  A fence was once a chain across its neck; legend says that dozens of horses were corralled here and abandoned to die of thirst in the 100-plus heat. Audrey and I cringe. We can too easily imagine the flickering skin, the snorting and pawing, the frantic runs at the fence. “Who would do such a thing?” Audrey asks in an anguished tone. It’s a question I ask myself every day about blatant disregard for life; I have no answer. We stand at the edge of the cliff and stare at the spectacular view through the whited, rolling eyes of the desperate horses.

*          *          *

Early the next morning in Bluff, Utah, we meet our tour guide, archaeologist Vaughn Hadenfeldt. He reminds me of Gandalf the Grey. Vaughn is in his 60s, with silver hair that hangs below his shoulders, a wiry white goatee, a slight, tan frame on which hangs naught but muscle, and squint-lines trenched around clear, pale blue eyes. Those eyes widen at our attire – or rather, at the lack of it. He wants to know where our backpacks are, and how we plan to carry two litres of water apiece. “It’s already 107F,” he points out.

Everyone gets quiet, waiting for me to respond. This private tour was my idea, and the kids had already objected to it earlier. Didn’t they want to visit secret Anasazi ruins and get the lowdown from a renowned local? “No, not really. Not if we’re the only ones.” Even Bruce had made a hesitant face. “It’s just us? Won’t that be awkward?”

I had empathized with their reluctance – I’d rather get lost in a large group myself – and explained that despite the praise the archaeologist had received in Conde Nast Traveler, no one else had booked with him this particular day. Now here we are, in the spotlight and already embarrassed. We don’t even have one litre of water apiece.

I’m anxious about losing the nascent camaraderie we’ve felt in the past few days. I can sense the tension as Vaughn looks us over. I’d told his wife that we’d like our hikes as short and shady as possible, as our daughter was getting over an illness, but it’s clear there’s been a miscommunication. He looks askance at pale, doe-eyed Audrey, who’s really been sick. She looks fragile … and fashionable. She’s wearing simple makeup and casual clothes, but the barefaced days of scuff-kneed jeans and basic tees are gone. I can see Vaughn assessing her resilience.

“Uhhh … I’m not sure where to take you,” he says, turning to me. “I hike. That’s what I do. I hike.”

“Then let’s hike!” I say brightly. “We’ll be fine, as long as there’s some shade now and then!”

He shakes his head as he opens the door to his van. “There’s really no shade,” he says.

We clamber in. I can feel my family wondering what I’ve got them into. My anxiety escalates. I just want everyone to be happy including Vaughn. And to my relief, once he absorbs that we’re neither prepared nor fit for his usual die-hard agenda, he quickly adapts to our tenderfoot needs. He cheerfully leads us on short treks up washes to show off cliffbound ruins and petroglyphs, considerately stops under rare overhangs to share facts about the absent Anasazi – and regales us with stranger-than-fiction local lore.

As a renowned explorer, tour guide, archaeologist and volunteer firefighter, Vaughn knows the country and its stories better than anyone else. He’s rescued missing hikers, located murder victims and conducted the FBI on a manhunt. He’s set hiking records, spoken at conferences, been the subject of a book and made a cameo appearance in 127 Hours. He’s even served burgers to SWAT teams seeking anarchists in the hills. He’s Bluff’s resident hero – except to the Mormons, who claim to have founded the town in 1880. Vaughn grins as he tells us he’s the one responsible for the gigantic granite signs at either end of the tiny, one-store town. “Bluff, Utah,” they both say on both sides. “Est. 650 AD.”

We’re laughing now, a willing audience despite our exhaustion. I’m so glad my introverted family has relaxed. But it’s about110F, and those two one-hour hikes have done us in. “Can we stop now, please?” Audrey whispers to me. “I mean, it’s more fun than I thought and I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but I’m wiped.”

I’m glad to use her illness as our excuse to call it a day, but Vaughn looks at us as if no one’s ever quit on him before. Determined to give us our money’s worth – or perhaps just wanting to show off some more of “his” land – he drives us to the Goosenecks Overlook. We gaze down at the sinuous carvings of the ancient river as he shares stories of tourists abandoned below by less competent guides – and rescued, of course, by Vaughn. At the shaded edge of a less imposing river, he unpacks the fixings for sandwiches and talks about the full Greyhound bus that went off a nearby bridge one icy night, and his work with the injured as they waited for helicopters. The nearest hospital, he points out, is almost two hours away.

Shortly after imparting this significant fact, he drives us on a white-knuckle ride up narrow switchbacks to the top of 1,000ft-high Cedar Mesa. “I do this all the time,” he assures us, but I know his skills would go out the window – as would we – if he had a heart attack. It doesn’t help that he’s still telling us a steady stream of morbid stories: the drunken drivers whose mangled remains he found; the failed brakes of trucks we see rusted below; the jealous lover who lured his ex-girlfriend into his pickup and then gunned it off the cliff. The Heaven’s Gate cultist who, having missed the mass suicide, drove off the hundred-story mesa in a rented Winnebago wearing nothing but black socks and Mickey Mouse bikini briefs.

We laugh in nervous staccato as the van fishtails on the gravel road. At the top we pull up way too close to the edge and get out. Bruce chats with Vaughn about the economy while keeping an eye on our son, who walks away to take pictures. Audrey follows Tyler a few feet before she turns and climbs back into the van, leaning wearily against the window. She’s biting her lip, and I know she’s nervous, as am I, about our return down the cliff.

I look down at the shapes protruding from this alien panorama. Vaughn’s stories colour and darken the view. For as far as the eye can see, the desiccated earth is the colour of dried blood, split into dark cracks and pieces, a vista of brokenness where all is shattered and toppled. I’ve heard so much about the beauty of the desert’s towers and spires, but they seem tragic ruins to me – not monuments, but testaments to the tenuous nature of stone. To departure, absence and loss. The rusted facades are just stubs; what’s left is simply still to be destroyed.  I see nothing but disappearance.

And yet I am looking at something. Every presence in this stark, eroded setting is created by absence, by missing earth and water, by the missingness of plants and people. As the river carves, the canyon deepens and the mountains gain height from below; as the mountain erodes, its rubble grows hills and rainwater whittles new washes.

Absence isn’t nothing. It’s a different something. It doesn’t quite make sense, but it feels like the start of a comforting line of thought.

We get into the van and wend our way down the mesa. I put my arm around Audrey and she leans her head on my shoulder as I rub her back. I remember how, for months after 9/11, she’d ask me to “stay with her awhiles” at bedtime, to rub her back until she fell asleep. How afraid she was that I’d die while she was at school. I push aside the memory and focus on what’s here now, easing our mutual anxiety by laughing at how much safer we feel when we’re “only” 800ft up… 500… 100… and then, at last, a truly safer 10.

As we drive back through the valley to our motel, the nothing-something paradox prods at me. The kids are quiet. Vaughn is telling Bruce about his worst client, a rich banker who only wanted to run for hours each day, caring nothing for the beauty of Bluff. I hadn’t thought bare, shadeless Bluff was beautiful, but Vaughn does. That makes it so.

That evening we eat dinner at the only restaurant in town, a steakhouse where the walls are covered with the pelts and glass-eyed heads of wild things. Audrey and I keep our eyes down, away from their stares. We’re all talkative, though; the day has been full of conversation starters. I feel vindicated. But the trophies and Vaughn’s tales have destroyed my appetite. I sip micro-brewed ale, drink ice water from a plastic white cowboy boot, and order homemade apple pie to go.

*          *          *

After dinner I sit behind the motel by myself, watching the sun drop behind the bluffs. I’m anticipating the fade to utter black, to a sky untainted by neon or streetlight glare. I’m waiting for the night’s first star to pierce and void the virgin night. One tiny light is all it will take to extinguish complete darkness. I close my eyes; a thought is coming through. One tiny presence to extinguish complete absence.

I blink. It’s so true – there’s no transitive state, no little-bit pregnant or present. Something is or is not – or it coexists as both. This valley, for instance, is only vanished rock. It’s like the famous inkblot image that can be seen as either a beauty or a hag: though the mind can only comprehend one at a time, the picture is always of both.

I think back on the forms I’d seen from Cedar Mesa. Like a chisel in the hands of a sculptor, time removed the pieces of earth that weren’t those shapes. And just as the chips and shavings on an artist’s studio floor become headstones, vases or mortar, so the detritus of elemental forces continually creates mesas, buttes and spires – and from them, boulders and dust. There is no destruction, no wasted material. Art simply forms new shapes, fills new pedestals and finds new canvases. What’s been lost to shape one artwork, shapes another.

*          *          *

This morning we’re bumping along in an old school bus, lunging down the Hualapai road to raft the Colorado. We spent our first day at the Grand Canyon with hundreds of other families along its southern rim, marvelling that the little brown trickle at the bottom has carved out such an elemental void. Though the vista was decidedly grand, we were eager to get down to that destructive trickle a mile below, to do something besides point and shoot.

Audrey’s sitting beside me, trying to apply mascara without getting it all over her face.  You realize you’re spending eight hours on a raft, right? I want to ask, but she’d say that’s the point; she’s conscious of how many boys that raft might hold. Her delicate features and fine-boned frame belie her strength. She only looks like someone who might need rescuing.

I peer through the dirty windows as we descend. Sharp-sheared rectangular boulders lie strewn over hillsides, as if tomb raiders have plundered giant graves above and cast the empty coffins down the slopes. The mountains are riddled with caves – I wonder what creatures concede to share that shade. So far I’ve seen only two herons, gliding so steadily beside a line of striation that they seem to be using it as a guide. I hear the soft, slow shu-shick, shu-shick of Tyler’s shutter behind me, and track his lens direction. He’s caught a solitary goat, grazing in a rare shadow underneath a ledge. Bruce sees me watching and flickers a smile my way. Be careful, he means. Don’t let him know you’re watching his every move.

The bus rounds a corner and chugs to a stop in a swirl of silicate dust. Here at the Colorado’s cutting edge, the river has taken on the mythical proportions of a raging destroyer god. The roiling river before us runs wide and high, the colour of coffee rich with heavy cream. Any boulders are hidden within the frothing channel, creating a reassuring illusion; I’m glad our guides will handle our navigation.

Following instructions, we stash our sunscreen, don the vests and board the motorized raft. Audrey’s already chatting with the two girls sitting across from her, having graced with a glance some disappointed boys in other boats. Tyler, with the confidence gained from having rafted a California river once, has taken a seat in the bow. Bruce and I introduce ourselves to the other set of parents as the raft is untied and our guides point the pontoon toward the churning flow.

The raft smacks into the first rapid and baptizes us with an icy blast. We’re all downing Colorado cocktails, whooping with idiot delight at the thrill of it. Audrey and the other girls are shrieking. I hear Tyler’s hearty, unrepressed laugh, a sound I haven’t heard in a long time. I squint through the downpour and see a rare grin crinkling his blue eyes, and I think, That’s worth a few facefuls of water, oh yes it is.

Soon we’re roaring past cliffs that soar out of scab-red rubble, wind-picked from long-gone peaks. At the waterline, I see glistening cross-sections of the planet’s innards: muscular, rippled mudrock, undigested chunks of granite, marbled streaks of faults. Shingles of shale protrude like rotten teeth from shiny gums. The earth’s skeleton is exposed, beaten, slapped by storms, scraped by wind, blasted by bullets of rain, flogged and flayed bare. In places, even its primeval marrow juts out: where the river flattens we slide evenly past eerie, vertical folds of Vishnu schist, which our guides tell us whistle when the wind blows through its billion-year-old fins.

Along the bank, a breeze sweeps pink sand into the water, a cloud of fairy dust twinkling in a beam of sun. It’s a rare pastel show in this gothic realm of charcoal, verdigris, cinnabar, ochre and chalk. Pale tufted plants line massive rising terraces, evoking but predating the hanging gardens of Babylon. I scan the heights of these river-bevelled cliffs through haze-diffused light, as if peering through a misted plate of glass, and I see pictures in the rocks, as if in clouds – swarthy beasts lunging over the dark desert varnish, random murals formed by the dalliance of iron and air.

After awhile, we stop to explore a waterfall we’re told is in a cave. I follow Tyler, who is first off the raft, up a streambed and over some boulders; he doesn’t wait for me. When I reach the dank portal and step into the cavern he’s standing under the waterfall, shoulders back, face illuminated by a piercing shaft of sun. I make myself turn away. He doesn’t want his mom to identify with his love of beauty, to understand. He knows I do, but he’s trying to be something other than just my son. He’s trying to find his own balance of was and am. I get it. Neither of us speaks as we share this space, moving about in the mist to photograph. And when the occupants of all six rafts appear, the silence vanishes.

I walk back to the empty shore, my summer-long sense of division slipping away. Soon the crowd piles back into the pontoons, and we resume our boisterous journey through this canyon that exists as lack of rock. Listening to Audrey’s happy chatter and tracking the gaze of my silent, light-conscious son, I feel presence and absence as one. I know the truth, both geologic and familial, that you can’t have what you have without missing what you’re missing. The erosive effects of our maturation create us, sloughing and shedding, dusting and polishing as we grow. Like the destructive yet creative Colorado, what takes also gives. And from this weathering we get our height and depth, our texture and dimensions, our facets of character and being. From this we take our ever-shifting shapes.

Audrey tucks her soaking hair behind ears sparkling with studs and sequined posts. Bruce whispers something to her, and she giggles all up and down the scale, like she used to when she was little and being tickled. Whatever he’s said reminds her of a funny story about her ex-boyfriend, a memory that would only have pained her a few months ago. She tells it with perfect comedic timing, and we’re laughing so hard even Tyler is wiping off tears. Her face, washed bare by the river, is radiant. I look at my kids within this frame of crumbling canyon walls. I’m at peace. It’s a beautiful scene, where there’s nothing’s missing at all.