Stories in the Sand: A Desert Narrative

By Adam Heldibridle, Clinical Intern

The ground is cold, it seeps through the material of my Carhartts where I am kneeling in the sand. It’s morning in The Swell, when the sky glows like a sapphire and stretches cloudless out to the horizon, as far as the eye can see. I’m in a place called the Head of Sinbad on a map, but it is far older than any map or name that we know now. Across the rock face here are images scrawled in red, anthropomorphic characters painted anywhere from a 1000 to 4000 years ago. These are someone else’s stories that have been lost to time. The only recognizable figures on this panel are three snakes that frame a mysterious figure standing underneath what may be the moon–or might be the sun. It’s too cold for snakes right now- they’re still asleep in their hiding places- but it is not too cold for the desert dwellers they hunt. In the sand in front of me are the overlaid tiny paw prints of a kangaroo rat. I can see where it emerged from a burrow under a juniper tree, hopped across the sand, dug for something, and then made a returning journey to its home. All tracks through the desert tell a story. These tell of a local resident likely looking for a late-night snack, but there are other stories written in this desert too. 

One of the first things that strikes the eye here is the scale of things. From the towering heights of red rock to the tiniest blooming flower, the mind reels trying to put what it sees into perspective. In some places it feels like the earth has been upended, turned on its side, folded over… and that is because it has been. Some 60 million years ago this part of the Colorado Plateau faulted, folded, lifted, and then collapsed, creating areas we now call the San Rafael Swell, the Capitol Reef, and the Waterpocket Fold. It is a land still in motion, leisurely being molded by wind and water– an ever-unfinished opus. It’s been home to the Anasazi, the Ute, the Paiute, the Dine, the Goshute, the Shoshone, and now to us. The field course area for Legacy Outdoor Adventures stretches from the Aquarius Plateau to the edge of this great Swell. It comprises mountains and deserts, canyons and rivers, and is one of the largest course areas of any Wilderness Therapy Program in the continental United States. 

This is a hard land, insufferable. It is easy to feel small out here, and to find a sense of something greater than yourself. Les Stroud, “The Survivorman,” once called this place “un-survivable” and if you spend any time out here it is easy to understand how that could be true. However, humans have been living here for thousands of years. While excavating a cave in this area, archeologists found a sandal that was dated to nearly 9000 years ago. Notwithstanding the forever changing landscape, things last here. Every layer of rock and sediment holds the story of what has come before us. 500 million years ago, when this area was a seabed, currents and ocean life left ripples and tunnels in sands that are now stone. 150 million years ago, dinosaurs walked across vast mudflats which eventually hardened and became rock, capturing their tracks here forever for us to find. 

Despite the desolation, wherever you go out here there are stories to be found. Fossils, arrowheads, stone tools, broken pottery, drawings cut into the sandstone– all tracing the routes that human life took through this land. Life abounds in every crevice and corner of this wilderness. Bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, wild horses, burros, coyotes, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, reptiles of all kinds, and of course the aforementioned kangaroo rats all share this place with us. In 1941, a small herd of Bison was brought down from Yellowstone National Park to flourish here in the last mapped mountain range in the United States, the Henry Mountains. Life finds a way wherever and however it can in this seemingly unforgiving topography. At night the winds whisper secrets, hidden spaces, forgotten dreams, and memories frozen in time. This is a place that lends itself to prose and poetry. Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Everett Ruess, Amy Irvine, Barry Lopez, and Craig Childs have all made tracks in these sands and written about this place. The tracks carry stories, and we can follow the tracks and read those stories. 

The people who come to Legacy all come to this place with stories too. Often, they are trying to make sense of their stories; trying to sort through wreckage, sift through the sands, and reconcile their stories with themselves. Some people come here hoping to rewrite or forget their stories, hoping the winds here will wipe the past away like footfalls in the sand. But our stories can help to make us who we are. Stories are important, even when they are ugly, painful, or difficult for us to look at. The journey to this place is often hard. However, walking over these mountains, through these canyons, across these primordial shores, is often what inspires us. We feel led to try to write and tell new stories. There is an opportunity here to acknowledge the end of one story and begin writing another. We all share that opportunity, in this ageless space, to begin walking a new narrative. 

The breaking sun finally finds me here and the morning is abruptly warmer. I wipe the sand from my knees and leave these tracks for someone else to find.

Adam Heldibridle, Clinical Intern
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