We left at ten, the trip roughly six hours, the drive from Grand Junction to Utah’s west end a spur-of-the-moment vacation. It was middle July, in the 90s since May, the mesa just starting to get summer storms after one of its driest springs ever.
Past state line, we stopped for gas. A road to Moab bent to the south. In the men’s room, a stall toilet wouldn’t stop running. It flushed again and again, the tank filling up, the water sent down, new water filling. We wandered the aisles, touching at things, food-like items purchased more for their dubious aesthetic than any sort of desired edibility. At home, day-to-day, I try not to do this. On road trips, however, I admit to sometimes consuming as wastefully as the stall toilet.
Out at the pump, the numbers turned over. The Book Cliffs, striated pink, tan and gray, stood to the north, thousands of frozen ripples of rock carved by the wind for thousands of decades. They border the Grand Valley to the north and northeast, continuing west well into Utah. They’re said to harbor mule deer, bobcat and bison, but in my few trips to their base, I’ve only seen shotgun shells and discarded furniture—the droppings of a different species.
We drove past Black Dragon Canyon, Goblin Valley and Ghost Hill, the rock gone to beige, the scrub brush more prevalent. I-70 doesn’t end so much as give up, conceding that the mountains that lie to its west are simply not worth the effort to pave over or bore through, just to get to east-central Nevada. For this, the roughly 260 miles from Grand Junction proper to where 70 meets with I-15 (which goes north to Salt Lake and south to Las Vegas and, eventually, Southern California) are typically absent of anything other than freight trucks and the occasional tourist.
At view areas, we wandered away from the lots. Mahogany bushes pulsed in the heat. Lizards scraped over boulders of gypsum. In the distance were ranges ancient and ridged, huge swaths of rock that were reef before they were mountains. We stood, not even wanting to speak, at the top of a world that was once underwater. The region I live in is a fracking hotspot, and over the course of my time in Colorado’s Grand Valley, I’ve learned it’s nearly inevitable that much of these landscapes will be bought—that drills will come here and break through the earth and break through unbroken vistas.
Every story that takes place in the desert is—necessarily and ironically and in one way or another—about water. The storms began near 70’s terminus, the clouds balloon-like, looking as though their bottoms had scraped upon something and punctured. Near Richfield, we watched lightning strike a shale bank at the base of a mountain. A bright vein, it stood a full second, just long enough for the mind and the eye to try to understand and see its points of origin and conclusion. We were sure that from flash floods the freeway would be closed—rain arrives to this part of the West violently, and in washes. Human infrastructure is unable to process the deluges, as it’s water’s absence—perhaps more than anything else—that gives the West its identity.
I’d stopped through St. George once before, while driving back to the Bay Area for Christmas, choosing the southern route: 70, then 15, then I-5, the last of these containing stretches that compete for least interesting drive in all of America. (Another contender that must be mentioned is I-55 between Springfield, Illinois and St. Louis. No mind can withstand the boredom it elicits.)
We stayed at an “inn” that was part of a country club, though I didn’t realize that this would be the case when booking the reservation. I do not play golf; to play golf in the desert is to not care about the earth, to laugh in the face of conservation. I’d once heard a statistic that in Southern California, 60% of total water use goes to two things: amusement parks and golf courses. I have no children and am not Tiger Woods and adults who go to Six Flags alone have failed to grow up or are super-creepy or both, and I want nothing to do with them.
The inn was new development, gated off at the street. Much of the northern end of St. George—miles of it—was exactly these kinds of dwellings: a golf course surrounded by adobe luxury suites, their windows looking out at cacti and fields of lava. Every intersection held big humps of red dirt, pushed into place by Bobcats and plow trucks. At the club’s entrance we were told by a guard in white shirt, “you sure picked the wrong day to come here.” We looked at each other. I asked him what he meant. “Everything’s closed down from the floods,” he said. “Even the golf course.” The irony was too much not to grin at—rain had closed down a golf course in the desert.
“We’re checking in,” I told him.
That night, we walked the grounds. Down the street from the inn portion of the development was a restaurant overlooking the golf course, and between these two things was a fountain.
From afar, the fountain seemed normal enough, but as we reached its edge, we noticed something: the resort was pumping in blue dye, to cover up the silt that the floods had brought in to its pipes and filtration system.
The pro shop was closed, as was the restaurant itself: there’d been too much rain for the resort to manage. The place held the feeling of how I imagined a European estate during wartime to feel—everything elegant and all but deserted. We made our way around to the front of the building, where iron beams greeted guests whom on other nights would arrive to the restaurant. Hints of dusk clung to the sky in the west as we stared at the sculpture, which looked like something between a monument to old gods and a lighting conductor.
The next day we woke to clouds but no rain. Our suite—a duplex of sorts—had a small lawn and pond in the backyard, and a collection of flowers whose names I don’t know, but whose aesthetic I found stunning.
We went north, into Snow Canyon Park, its gate untended, a sign asking that we put the fee in an envelope and leave it in a drop box, which we did. We came upon the dunes immediately, parking the car and taking off our shoes, the sand hot under our feet, the world silent around us. Bunches of sage sprung from the earth, the desert beach rung by short cliffs of boulders. Further on, we parked again, climbing a bluff and looking out at the lava. Behind us were the dunes, the tall chunks of tan rock. In the two hours we were there, we saw three other cars and one pedestrian.
Later that day, and just to say that we’d gone through four states, we kept heading west on I-15, crossing into Arizona and then Nevada, where we stopped in Mesquite and wasted twenty dollars playing video poker. On the way back, we stopped in another small park, its gate also untended, its confines empty. We paid anyway, citing bad luck if we didn’t, citing that this land could be here and okay because of the money put in the container. But it was also a way of assuaging our guilt for the gas that we’d used and the donuts half-eaten; for the spent water bottles rolling around on the back seat; for our privileged stay at a water-swilling, gorgeous monstrosity. To call a manmade pond in the middle of the desert West “pretty” is not untrue, but it’s a prettiness, too, that’s unforgivably, unforgettably selfish.
As I write this, it’s Shark Week, the semester almost afoot, the books in the bookstores, the campuses swelling with students. Autumn will come and the world will feel different. We’ll turn inside ourselves, our families and traditions, as so much of being human is memories, and the making of them. The land, of course, can’t remember the same, though it does in some ways show us its pictures: the holes where we have drilled through its skin, the results of the dye we pump in to our fountains. And as those trips, for us, begin to recede, and perhaps lose at least some of their importance, the reverse holds true for the land around us. It keeps thick albums of all that we do, its pictures tattoos we’ve inked on its body—paths that lead straight into the mountains, straight into the sun.
Charles McLeod’s first collection of stories is National Treasures (Outpost19). His fiction has appeared in publications including Conjunctions, Five Chapters, The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses and the new Norton anthology FAKES. Look for his story “How to Steal Electricity” in Hayden’s Ferry Review #51, out this fall! McLeod is also series editor for a new anthology focusing on Californian writers. Submit to it here!