The Independent

The Improvisor, a story

Rock Canyon was long, narrow and steep sided. The walls were red rock. The bottom was mud cracked and caked where a summer rainstorm had pounded it the previous night and then evaporated quickly in merciless sun.

Charles stared at the cracks and suddenly wished he was not alone and 10 miles from the trailhead where he had parked his car this morning. This part of Canyonlands National Park was as merciless as any place in America, more so than almost all of them. But that was why he was here, seeking out that harshness, that mercilessness to avoid another, inexplicable mercilessness that haunted him when he stopped moving, stopped adventuring, stopped daring the unknown and faced the known. Elsewhere in Canyonlands’ other two disconnected districts, gentle families drove their sedans leisurely through the park. But the Maze District was different, physically and psychologically.

Charles stopped, took a deep swallow of water and resumed walking. He had read that there were springs in this canyon so he had brought along only a single quart bottle. Half of it was already gone but he wasn’t worried. He would improvise.

He was used to improvising. Improvisation was a way for him to ward off the unknown, to manage it, to accept it. And it had always worked out for him.

This was the rainy season, the time for brief violent thunderstorms. When he had started walking at 10 the morning, the sky was clear but now, four hours later, he could see clouds above the cliffs.

He came to a slot canyon off to his right. He hadn’t noticed it on the map posted at the trailhead and he had not brought his own map. Charles had always been good at finding directions. He hesitated. The trail ahead was a known quantity. It made a big loop and ended up back at the trailhead in another 5 or 6 miles, two or at most three hours, he figured. The slot canyon was an unknown, but he loved the unknown. He hated the idea of turning away from an adventure, any adventure, any excuse to improvise his fate.

Charles veered right into the narrow canyon. The rocks on each side were lovely bands of rose and black and brown alternating with each other from the minerals they contained. His footsteps echoed on the canyon floor, which here was rocky. When he stopped walking, he could hear nothing in the silence. Why weren’t there other sounds, the buzzing of insects, the whistle of wind in the rocks, the rattle of leaves and limbs in the dwarf junipers on the canyon rim above him?

Photos by Thelma Bowles

The shade of the slot canyon felt wonderfully cool on this hot summer day. He could no longer see the sun. It could have been behind the clouds but perhaps was just lying behind the cliffs that cut off the views in every direction. But it was almost midday in high summer, and the sun should have been visible. A small matter. It wasn’t worth the effort to worry about it.

The canyon, begun as a narrow opening, was gradually contracting further. Now it was hardly four feet wide. He could easily touch the walls on both sides, and in a couple of places had to slip sideways through a tight opening. The space between the side walls continued to grow narrower, the walls higher and steeper. They rose in smooth vertical inclines from the floor, polished to a high sheen by erosion.

But erosion from what? This canyon was bone dry.

There was only rock in the scoured canyon, no vegetation, no sand. Just rock polished by the flow of water. It was lovely and silent and lonely.

Charles liked lovely and silent and lonely. He had depended on himself and no one else for so long he couldn’t remember any other way of living. It allowed him to do things the way he wanted, go where he wanted, follow his whims and intuition. “Lead on, life, and I’ll follow,” he now said. He spoke aloud to break the silence, which had for some reason grown oppressive. It was a slogan he had mouthed on many an occasion in his 37 years of solitary adventuring.

He started to make some other noises, scuffing his boots on the rocks, whistling a tune whose source he had long since forgotten. He stopped for another drink. Then he realized there was another sound, a sound not of his making. It had been around for a while but he had not noticed, so engrossed was he in his own sound effects and in admiring the stark beauty of the slot canyon.

He couldn’t identify the sound at first. It was like a distant, gentle roar, like the sounds of pebbles moving against stones, stones against rocks, rocks against boulders. It was the sound of water running in a dream. He recalled the description of paradise in the Koran, an aqueous world.

Then he realized the sound was really water. Perhaps there was a spring or a steam further up the canyon. The canyon was rising now, climbing into the mountains that surrounded him.

The sky was darkening. Clouds, he realized, were moving in over the mountains ahead. But here, where he was walking, sunshine still sporadically pierced the shifting clouds. Somewhere, though, it might be raining. He was happy at the thought of rain in the desert, water to refill his bottle and quench his thirst until he returned to his car, perhaps a pool where he could watch tiny desert fish swimming and cool his tired feet.

The slot canyon was all twists and turns. He could seldom see more than 20 feet ahead, sometimes not even half that. But after a particularly sharp turn the canyon straightened out and he could look into the distance.

He stopped walking. He stopped whistling. His jaw inadvertently hung open. He didn’t believe it. In the moments of life still left to him, he was paralyzed. Something 10 feet high and stretching from one canyon wall to the other was in front of him. It was black. It was loud. And it was smashing toward him so fast there was no longer any opportunity to improvise.