By: Leath Tonino
The canyon is big. For the sake of this story, let’s call it Big Canyon. Let’s call it Arizona. Let’s call it August, a heat-blasted weekend, no plans.
My boss—crusty government biologist with a passion for prehistory and a back-of-the-hand backcountry knowledge—gets to reminiscing over black morning joe. I jot zero notes, pretending I can commit his verbal map to memory.
Eleven of us. Five cabins and three picnic tables. A remote field station in the woods above the desert.
Saturdays like this—for adventure.
Hey, you lazy, sleepy sonofa…
Mike is groggy but game. Always game. A proper buddy.
And we’re off.
Twenty miles by jeep, the warren of sandy tracks increasingly confusing, the pinyons and junipers sparse, then sparser, then gone. We park the rig. Take a piss at the rim. Take it all in.
How much water did you bring?
Let’s do it?
Indeed, my broski.
With a gallon of sunscreen on our necks and arms, floppy canvas hats on our heads, we pick our way—step after careful step—into the cracked earth.
Trails? Yeah, right. That’s why we’ve got bossman’s beta. Follow X to Y to a spot where you’ll be able to glimpse Z. Contour eastward. Drop through pink sandstone ledges, maybe two hundred feet, maybe three hundred. Once you’ve hit the bottom, turn left. Hike the wash. Scan the north wall. Pay attention. At the house-sized boulder, well, enjoy the shade but realize you’ve gone too far.
We’re lost, stumbling.
What did bossman say, something about one with red earrings, one with a long penis, one panel where gods parade among turkeys and sheep? And spirals, didn’t he say something about spirals?
We’re doing the heat—and done by the heat.
Shrike with hooked beak, perched nearby. Phoebe with peachy belly, grayish nape. Three ravens, six if you count the flying shadows. In the bino’s dark tunnel, I almost feel cool, refreshed.
Really, though, what did he say?
It’s not scary—being here, being in and with this wilderness—but it’s not easy, either. Intense. Intensity. Afternoon gold hammering the mind flat, each blow telling us to turn around, return on a cloudy day, try again in winter. Telling us Big Canyon is big and we are small, so very small.
Yo, let’s keep going, huh?
Yeah, I wanna find that panel.
It happens slowly, quickly, outside of time, inside the depths of time. Inside geology. Inside our parched, blistered, light-shot brains. Inside the outside, the great outdoors.
We’re stumbling until we’re stopping, standing, staring. We’re alone until we’re not alone.
A flipped switch. Awareness.
Peoples—human peoples, animal peoples, squiggly abstract peoples—everywhere.
We gaze and gaze.
Hours have passed. Mike has turned in for the night. The stars are sparking overhead. We’re drinking whiskey, feet up by the bonfire, me and my mentor, my crusty boss.
So it went okay?
Oh, totally amazing. Your directions sucked—chuckle, chuckle—but eventually we found hundreds. They were scattered, tucked into every nook and cranny. Just needed a tweak of the brain to see ‘em.
A special spot, eh?
What I’m thinking is ravens, their shadows, the heat, the sandy roads, the soaring stone, the ancient stone, hands spreading pigment, hands reaching up, today and tomorrow, millennia past, the wandering, the stumbling, the thirst—how there’s no separating anything, no difference between the place and the experience of the place and that long penis we call art, that turkey we call image, that squiggle we call a pictograph or a god or a mystery or whatever.
Tip the bottle. Another snort.
How to answer?
Yeah, a special spot, an awesome Saturday.
I thought you’d like Big Canyon.
Leath Tonino is the author of a collections of essays, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long (Trinity University Press, 2018). A freelance writer, his work appears in Orion, The Sun, Outside, Men’s Journal, High Country News, Tricycle, and elsewhere.