Of the many places I've been during wilderness adventures, few of them stand out like the San Juan River.
I've taken a few trips to Cedar Mesa now. The first one, in upper Grand Gulch, was a tune-up hike in a popular area over Easter weekend in the spring of 2014. It was fun. I saw some very interesting Indian ruins, visited a scenic canyon, and generally acquainted myself with the desert, an environment I've come to love. But it lacked one thing - Wilderness.
Wilderness with a capital W isn't comfortable. It's a raw land. There are no trails, no signposts, no other visitors to reassure you that you're on the right track. You get stuck in thorns and brush. You encounter impassible pour-offs and end up backtracking. You have no certainty where the water source is. Your only conversation is with your thoughts. The nearest people are seated thirty five thousand feet above your head.
Nobody's ever been here before. I mean, they certainly have (there's a couple tiny cairns in a spot or two), but for all practical purposes, you might as well be the first person to ever walk this way. An intermittent stream flows through the canyon bottom, feeding stands of dense brush and forming cold, clear, cheerful pools. Soon an arch appears, and there are a few footprints in the dry dust below the arch. Who knows how many years those footprints have endured.
Venturing further down-canyon, you encounter deeper rock layers. Purple-ish rock layers, formed by years of clay dissolving, flowing downstream, and drying in a new location. The dry clay forms smooth waves and ripples in the canyon bottom, continuing its journey of many centuries to the river, where it will eventually be deposited into the abomination that is Lake Powell. But you need not enrage yourself with the damming of the Colorado River. For now, it is enough to soak in the untouched serenity that surrounds you.
As the sun sets, you make camp under a rock overhang, taking care to stay out of the katabatic zones, where cool air will pool in the canyon bottom overnight. The night isn't cold under your natural shelter, and the next morning you awake to hear birds chirping. Spring has come to this part of the canyon. Now just 4,000 feet above sea level, you notice green grass, and a few buds on the cottonwood trees. The morning is chilly, but soon enough, the sun rises above the canyon walls, warming up everything in a sudden blast of illumination.
Onward to the San Juan! The last few miles are hard miles. The next lower layer of rock is very flaky and boulders frequently choke the canyon. You scramble over some sketchy dirt and talus piles to avoid a pair of pour-offs. Route-finding is key, but after a couple of days in the wilderness, that animal instinct has kicked in, and you're able to identify the path of least resistance. Your entire being is oriented toward a single goal - forward progress.
Several times, a twisting of the canyon walls reveals the confluence with the San Juan - or so you think. Around the bend is yet another bend. Your world is small - maybe a few hundred yards long, and even less wide. And yet your world is huge - limitless, in fact.
Finally, the San Juan comes into view. It's much bigger than you imagined - a slow, wide river, cutting a deep canyon into the sandstone of the Colorado Plateau. Most of the rivers around here would be called creeks farther east; this one's a bona fide river. The confluence is magical. Water flows out of Grand Gulch, off a 3-foot high ledge, and into the river below. The San Juan, fueled by annual spring runoff, has carved a deeper gorge. And it's quiet. Rivers in the west are either placid and serene, or surging and crashing. Right now, the San Juan is the former.
It's so quiet you can quite literally hear your own heart beat. Nothing, save the occasional rumble of jet engines overhead, disturbs the utter silence. You want to speak, yet you want to contemplate. You want to run filled with life and energy, yet you want to be still. God is in this moment.
Sometimes the only appropriate response is worship. Not of your surroundings, of course, but rather the author of your surroundings. The One who created time itself - who ordained that the Colorado Plateau rise over millions of years, and that canyons cut through it in millions more. The One who rotates Earth on its axis, the One who decreed that the progression of seasons will not end. The One who sends the first greens of spring, and makes the desert bloom while winter still grips everywhere else. The One who gives me the ability to walk, and the strength to keep going.
That's why I hike.