Canyon InterludesCanyon Interludes
Between White Water & Red Rock
by Paul W. Rea

on the cover:
Paul W. Rea describes mind-altering adventures on the Colorado Plateau, hiking through Canyonlands, Grand Gulch, Havasu, and Zion canyons, and raftring the Colorados, Dolores, Green and San Juan rivers. He explores and celebrates the enchanted, colorful desert in sensuous, introspective, and playful ways. “Seated on a mossy rock, nude,” he writes, “I wave to the California Zephyr across the river. Many years ago, riding this train home from the Summer of Love, I first beheld the red rock country in this very canyon.” In an area where even the rocks come alive (“The dark gneiss seethes, then shimmers like a translucent veil across the bare-boned rock”), Rea traces his evolution from “greenhorn” to “greybeard” as he becomes increasingly bonded to the landscape.

about the author: As a professor at the University of Northern Colorado, Southern Utah University, and currently at St. Mary’s College in California, Paul W. Rea has taught classes in wilderness literature and environmental studies and contributed to natural history journals.

title page:
Canyon Interludes:
Between White Water & Red Rock
Signature Books ∙ Salt Lake City

copyright page:
Canyon Interludes was printed on acid-free paper and was
composed, printed and bound in the United States.
© 1996 Signature Books, Inc.
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
2000 99 98 97 96             5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Rea, Paul Wesley
Canyon interludes: between white water and red rock /
by Paul W. Rea.
p. cm.
1. Colorado Plateau—Description and travel. 2. Natural history—
Colorado Plateau. 3. Rea, Paul Wesley—Philosophy.
I. Tide.
F788.R 43 1996
917.91 ‘3—dc20             96-18052
ISBN 1-56085-054-X (pbk.)

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate
his mind upon the remembered earth. He ought to
give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience
to look at it from as many angles as he can,
to wonder upon it, to dwell upon it.

Acknowledgements [see below]
Preface [see below]
01 –  Chaos on the Colorado
02 –  Blown Away in Fantasyland
03 –  Enchanted Havasu
04 – Walden West: A Cowboy Cabin
05 – Flowing with the Green
06 – From Slickrock to Bedrock: Tested on the Dolores
07 – Moonlit Faces on the Wall
08 – Dinosaur in March
09 – Kolob Backcountry: Paradise Found
10 – Big Water on the Green
11 – Grand Gulch: The Scream at Dawn
12 – Blissed and Blasted on the San Juan
13 – White Water, Black Rock


[p.ix] Southern Utah University professors James Aton, Department of Language and Literature; Robert Eves, Physical Sciences; Jeff Hill, Biology; Richard Kennedy, Physical Sciences; and Al Tait, Biology. Also Brigham Young University professor Kim Harper, Department of Botany.

University of Northern Colorado professors Bill Harmon, Department of Biological Sciences; Rita Kiefer, English; Mark Leichliter, English; plus editors and critics Becky Edgerton and Jennifer Geerlings.

Colorado National Monument ranger Hank Schock, Utah Division of Wildlife biologist Jeff Grandison, Zion National Park naturalist David Rachlis, and Deseret News reporter Jerry Spangler.

Deborah McGee, Barbara Mogck, and Lynne Pickens, companions and commentators; Carl Putz, writer and friend; Steve Susoeff, writer and editor; Jeff Tracy, contributor and friend; Matt Vandaleur, master boatman and mentor; and Doug Rippe, iconoclast at large.


Nowhere else on earth have I seen the possibilities for
things to proceed in such beauty towards hope for a
positive future. Southwestern landscape, the parts of it
that remain unbowed or undisturbed, seem to offer the
deepest and the most positive connections to our origins,
and a future where not all is destroyed.
—John Nichols

[p.xi]The canyonlands of the American Southwest enchant nearly everyone. Recognized as an international treasure, the Colorado Plateau is a World Heritage Site. A land of passionate hues, raw, brilliant, and unspoiled, this canyon country leaves a strong impression on even the most casual visitor.

Luminous light, wild rivers, crystalline skies, expansive space, and gloriously exposed bedrock all intensity the impact of this country. Primal colors prevail—bold, contrasting greens, browns, reds, blues. Even the infrequent cloudy days are seldom drab and, at night, stars often blaze down to the horizon. These canyonlands are places of unique rock forms, lush hanging gardens, and amber twilight in the afternoon. Like distinctive Greek islands, each canyon projects its own ambience.

This is also rugged terrain, much of it high desert that has resisted development. There are still places where the only prints are those of pack rats or mountain lions. Unlike areas that are hazy or overgrown with foliage, this is great [p.xii] country for seeing. Exposed rock walls, well spaced plants, and visible wildlife inhabit the vastness between earth and sky. It is not uncommon to spot a thunderstorm a hundred miles off or, in a winding slot canyon, to hear a drip minutes before it comes into view. Even the ordinary—a wind-sculpted juniper or a boldly streaked cliff—enlarged our underdeveloped capacity for wonder.

With its expansive vistas, bare walls, and deep silences, the desert enforces a degree of sensory deprivation, yet with its vibrant colors, blinding light, and extreme temperatures it also generates sensory overload. The desert invites intimate contact yet it also forbids familiarity. Because plant life is generally sparse, the plateau confronts us with otherness—stark bedrock that occasions inner change, forcing us to redefine our relation to the natural world.

Among those who ache for recharge, for fresh energy, the Southwest exerts a powerful attraction. In his essay on “New Mexico”, novelist and seeker D. H. Lawrence extolled a transforming intimacy with the earth: “To come into immediately felt contact and so derive energy, power, and a dark joy. This…sheer naked contact, without intermediator, is the root of religion.” Today Terry Tempest Williams asks similarly, “What would it be like to make love to the world?”

Amid so much barrenness, each juniper and lizard seems miraculous simply because it lives where all life seems remarkable. As William Lee Stokes observed in his Geology of Utah, the naked rock is fascination because it embodies the extraordinary: “Bare rock is less common than covered rock, smooth rocks rarer than rough rocks, and light-colored rocks rarer than dark-colored ones.” Because this is such an unusual environment, it requires [p.xiii] psychological adjustments: How do we attune ourselves to so much space, so much dryness, so little green? Beyond our senses, how do we access all this?

While nature essays attempt to speak for plants and animals, for rocks, air, and water, they also render human reactions. Art critic John C. Van Dyke’s impressionistic The Desert reveals such transformative effects, as do young Everett Ruess’s heartfelt letters home in A Vagabond for Beauty. Uttered by a drama critic who left New York for Tucson, Joseph Wood Krutch’s Voice of the Desert celebrates discoveries made in mid-life. And Edward Abbey’s classic Desert Solitaire captures his way of experiencing the outdoors with abandon, even outrage. In each case the writer subjects himself to the reality of a strange landscape.

This is also a book about such resonances between earth and mind. My essays attempt to advance this tradition of the humanist evolving into a naturalist, drawn in to the desert like a moth to a sacred datura bloom. For two decades I have made pilgrimages to the Southwest, but now I savor the red rocks through the window of my study, torn between roots and wings.

For anyone, but especially for the writer, the challenge is to experience nature wide open to new perceptions. We nature writers often reveal privileged moments when we come fully alive, when the energies of a special time and place course through our being. In these intense moments our minds, hearts, and bodies embrace natural wonders, however minute, that our duller selves would miss. The mundane becomes magical, and when we respond deeply to nature we’re changed, awakened to more magic in our daily lives. Most importantly, those of us who’ve made new connections with the natural world become more [p.xiv] likely to treat it better.

Wilderness seekers have long affirmed the benefits of their forays: awe, amazement, healing, transcendence of the ego, spiritual purification, an expanded sense of self, a healthy humility, a rejuvenation of the more primal self. Today research corroborates nature’s salutary influences: natural scenes visible from hospital windows can aid in patients’ recovery. More than most landscapes, however, the profoundly beautiful, engaging canyon country is restorative, even redemptive. How tragic that each year it faces more threats of degradation.

In tracing my growth from greenhorn to graybeard, Canyon Interludes deals with learning about and learning from the natural world. Greater comprehension deepens one’s vision of nature. Direct experience leads us back to where we once belonged, striking deep into heart and mind, body and soul.