Desert Dog


Chapter 1

This is the most beautiful place on earth, but of course like Cactus Ed Abbey said, every person carries in their heart an image of the ideal place, the right place. This is just the right place for me. But, right now, something is not right, and its pitch black anyways, no beauty to be seen.

          Chad and I have been rolling his little Honda box car all across these desert roads for hours now, searching for his missing dog, yelling, “Sheila….Sheila….Sheila” only to hear the wind replying.

            Chad is a war hero; he lost part of his leg in service to his country in Iraq. He’s a climber with one full leg, a below the knee amputee. He has a celebrity status in the climbing community, especially later on down the road after he climbed El Capitan, and Mount Everest. This was before all of that.

Chad and Sheila

            Then, and now, Chad is just another climbing buddy to me. Most of the time, no disrespect, he seems incredibly normal. This moment in the dark of the night, was normal, to us. Just a couple of guys, in the Middle of Nowhere, Utah, looking for a lost dog.

            Sheila may not have even made a full meal for a mountain lion. Surely, too small to be asked to join the pack of coyotes we hear but rarely see. I’m not even sure when the last time a mountain lion rolled through these parts. I’ve lived amongst the mountain lions for years, but never seen one. I can only suspect they are out there. The only thing more mysterious than the mountain lion is the spirits, the original inhabitants of this land, back when you could grow corn here. Come to think of it though, the spirits seem closer than the lions—why else would we be drawn here over and over again? Why else would something so meaningless as inching up maroon sandstone walls become so meaningful?

            I crack another beer. The silence is deafening. “Sheila,” Chad screams, “Sheila….”

Chad w running leg

            He’s hard to read but he’s worried. He probably feels guilty. He clearly loves this little dog. Earlier in the day, we climbed the South Sixshooter, a desert tower that is the easiest and most popular in Indian Creek. A nub from certain angles, and apparently a gun from others. Everything is about the perspective and angle here. Compared to most other desert towers, the South Sixshooter is unimpressive. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Sheila got lost somewhere between the approach and the descent, and we assumed she’d be waiting for us back at the car, like any smart dog would do. Or, maybe us smart climbers should have done a better job keeping an eye on her?

            We gave everyone a ride back to camp, and then returned to search. Camp was a good five country miles away, so by the time our search started it was pitch black. The moon dictates the light at night here in the desert, where cell phones don’t work, and the television is the campfire.

rock art makes you think

            Lukewarm beers on dirt country roads have long been a favorite pastime. Sure it may be technically illegal, but there will never be funding to police all the dirt country roads so I think enjoying this pastime of beer and dirt is an American right. Dirt don’t hurt. Benign civil disobedience. This beer wasn’t so enjoyable. I was worried about Sheila and how the coyotes might treat her. Surely they don’t realize we are trying to live in a just, respectful country here, they are coyotes, and they don’t give a shit about America!

            Thus in our cars, we were trying to see out into the hidden desert world, and that world can never be seen from a metal box. This was all we thought we could do at the time, drive around and yell from a car. So American of us.

            Chad wasn’t telling war stories, or any stories really. I’ve heard his main ones. He’s a good storyteller, long and drawn out, like Grandpa. A slow draw. He’s a Jack Mormon, I guess, don’t let me label him. I just knew he grew up Mormon, but seems to live by his own rules now, and interacts with the heathens, like us climbers.

Sheila and Chads leg by Chad Jukes

            I’ve heard the story about how he lost his leg a dozen times by now around the campfire. When forced with the prospect of amputation, he decided to go for it, that he’d rather use a prosthetic than have a useless limb. The decision seemed to pay off for him. He had a climbing leg, a running leg, shit, the guy even had a party leg: a wooden peg leg. One of his legs, I forget which version, even had a flask built into it.

            Chad was clearly affected by this, and by war. He drank away his sorrows, but shit, many climbers drank, as much or more than him that never went away to war, so who knows. He seemed to have a small tick, barely recognizable. With long hair and a beard, he looked more like an attendee of Woodstock than a veteran of a foreign war. In a culture where weed is more prevalent than tobacco, a cigarette often dangled from his lips.

            All I remember was silence in the car, and a hope that grew more distant by the minute that we would find Sheila. The crack of another Schlitz breaks the silence, as we turn around and head back to camp. Shit man, I don’t know if we’ll ever see that dog again, I think.

Sheila photo by Chad Jukes

            The road back out of there can be glorious at times, something about rubber on red dirt that’s just magical. But Chad’s car barely had the right clearance, as he scraped the underbelly of that little Honda box more than once. Just don’t hit the oil pan, I think. It would be messy, and a long walk back to camp. But we arrived back, back to the Super Bowl, back to the crew, as they read the news of disappointment on our faces: Sheila was still missing.

            The next day Chad went back out searching for Sheila, while we searched for cracks to climb. His terrain to search was vast and desolate, a setting of surreal colors, plants, and rocks. If you’ve never been Mars might be a good comparison because no other place on earth really compares to the Colorado Plateau.

            I didn’t go with Chad that day but I know what he saw. Towering behind the South Sixshooter is the North Sixshooter, which was really packing heat, standing taller and prouder than its Mini Me, a three hundred and change foot tall pillar, the most singular and impressive of all the sandstone formations in Indian Creek.

            That’s the obvious formation, the one that will make the magazine cover or the Instapost on Monday. The subtle beauty is harder to see, and doesn’t really care if you see it or not. It’s just surviving in the desert, like everything else.

            I’m no scientist, I’m just a fucking poet, but it seems like from what I hear the life depends on the cryptobiotic soil, that chunky black layer which lives on the surface and provides nutrients. ‘Don’t bust the crust’ is what they say, and so we avoid stepping on that black gold at all costs. The cows, which usually outnumber the humans out in these parts, again, like the coyotes, don’t give a shit about America, and they bust the crust all day long. That karma is on you cows. But, we eat the cows, so I guess all crust busted by cows is crust busted by man as well.

tim and me stance            If I could be transported to any time period to see how people lived off the land I’d like to see this landscape, a thousand or so years ago, as the Ancestral Puebloans saw it. When they could hunt big game, grow corn, and have access to clean water. When they created the rock art, the petroglyphs that we still marvel at today. What lives did they lead, and how often did they smile? Were they free, and how did they talk? Were they as enraptured with this landscape as much as I am, or was it simply home? Just a place to survive?

            I don’t have that luxury, but I guess my imagination suffices. And, I think this engagement of imagination is one reason this land is preserved as it is. Well, maybe other land, up until recently this was just wasteland, Bureau of Land Management land, or Bureau of Livestock and Mining as they say. Some say the national parks and monuments were “America’s Greatest Idea”, I don’t know what that means for this land of leftovers, with little protections or regulations.

            The ranchers and the miners were here before us. Miners searching for that uranium, to make a buck, so we could blow up the Japanese in World War II. I don’t know how much they found in Indian Creek, from what I know there ain’t much as far as valuable minerals or oil. Just a wasteland of sandstone, cacti, and wind. The ranchers seem to have had a better go of it, and long before any modern climber stepped foot on Wingate they had set down their roots, and made this a home.

            I’m trying to get an imaginary whiff of sage and juniper here to reminisce a little more. Trying to see the cactus flowers in bloom, when I know as I’m writing this they are not currently in bloom. Hearing the piercing screech of a falcon, protecting territory, or their young, flying faster than any bird on the planet, damn near two hundred miles an hour. Stepping in cow shit, goddamnit. Better than crypto. Don’t bust the crust man. Not a bad mantra. It’s not how you leave your mark in this desert anymore, it’s how you don’t leave your mark.

            But I’m not one of these leave no tracers either—that’s bullshit, and all those folks drive their SUVs to the hiking trail anyways, leaving the carbon footprint that’s oh so hard to see. Our trace is inevitable, to err is human. We are a doomed human race right about now. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

South Sixshooter Nov 29

            For some reason it all feels right out here. The cell phone is turned off. Red dirt, red rock, and blue sky; a simple formula, to feel simple again. The mind isn’t racing with thoughts of presidential decisions, deadlines, or to-dos. The to-do is simple and it is to be.

            Still, I doubt Chad was mesmerized by much of this, that day. I bet he just wanted Sheila to come back. To see that little pup come running, scared and excited into his arms. But mile by mile, inch by inch of searching, led to nothing. Chad returned to camp that night again, with only a look on his face revealing the results of his searching.

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