In the barren reaches of western Utah, far from absolutely anywhere, clear water flows from caves at the foot of a limestone mountain, splashes down waterfalls into sandy-bottomed pools before following a reedy path to a ranch and some lonely hayfields. I spent over two hours driving dusty roads through the Great Salt Lake Desert before I found this oasis, and by then I was primed to absorb all the cooling amenities the springs had to offer.
I didn't even bother with a suit. Through a swiftly-flowing channel, I swam upstream like one of the native speckled dace minnows towards a log that hung above the creek. Kicking my feet as hard as I could, I managed to grab hold of an old rope that dangled from the middle of the log, and then I simply clung to the line and let my body get batted about by the current. All the sweat and dust from the long journey washed away, and when my arms grew tired, I released the rope and let the water carry me downstream to where my towel and sandals lay waiting.
As a setting for my final summer night in the wild, this place exceeded all my expectations. It represented everything I've come to appreciate about public lands in that it was a national treasure without signs or posted regulations, whose beauty inspired respect and whose remote nature kept many who would be abusive to the land at a distance. Perhaps it would not always remain so. A growing human population breeds all sorts of individuals–environmental protectors, yes, but also callous users. Sites like these owed their survival to obscurity, and in the age of instant information, obscurity is a rapidly diminishing resource. Writers such as myself must be careful not to pull back the curtain too far, lest we lead the masses to the lands we hold most dear and unwittingly aid in their destruction.
Still, I longed to share this place with others, almost as much as I wanted to conceal and keep it safe. Everyone needs experiences like these in their lives–to know what it's like to have a peaceful night on a soft mattress with the dark skies above them, far from any cities so that the only glow in the sky comes from the silken tendrils of the Milky Way. People need moments away from cell phones and TV screens, when the air is still, yet warm and alive with the sounds of crickets and rushing water. My evening was full of those moments–truly a gift, as I was journeying home to California and didn't know when I would experience such joyous solitude again.
In the morning, the rising sun peeked over the arundo reeds, bounced off the surface of the largest pool and illuminated the interior of a fern-lined grotto tucked into the mountainside. I'd been waiting for the right lighting to assist in my explorations of this hidden realm. Carefully holding my camera above water, I ducked my head underneath the overhanging plants at the entrance and waded into the cave.
The room was designed for fairies rather than human-sized creatures; I couldn't raise my shoulders above the water without hitting my head on the ceiling. And switching on my headlamp revealed a complete rainbow of color, beginning with metallic red and purple streaks along the roof of the cave and transitioning to blue rock at the outer edge where the green ferns hung down, beyond which dry orange and yellow grasses could be glimpsed on the banks above the pool. It was also raining inside the cave, with droplets trickling down through cracks in the ceiling, falling and creating a hypnotizing pattern of concentric and overlapping circles across the pool's surface. Dragonflies and damselflies patrolled the entrance, and a persistent current tugged at my chest, indicating that greater mysteries resided deeper within the mountain, if only I dared to follow the water to its source.
The cave narrowed towards the back, and the ceiling lowered even further, forcing me to dip my head underwater to swim past the tightest section. As the natural lighting diminished, I felt increasingly scared, excited and amazed… amazed that a tiny mountain in the middle of a desert could produce so much groundwater–nine thousand gallons a minute, to be exact. The miracle must have owed itself to some complex system of hydrology that carried water from wetter regions hundreds of miles away.
Or perhaps there were more mystical powers at work. The presence of magic felt irrefutable when I emerged from the passage into a chamber ten feet wide, dripping with flowstone formations. This was truly the domain of fairies. No elegant stalactites graced the ceiling… just membranous, wet curtains with coralline flourishes that made the room resemble a living organ. Water seeped continuously from the walls and pushed into the room from tunnels beneath the surface. Who knows what ancient secrets one might find on the other side of those flooded passageways if one had the right size and the ability to hold one's breath indefinitely? A man died back here in 2003, perhaps in an attempt to answer that very question. I was content to let submerged mysteries lie. When I had my fill of the cavern, I lifted my feet and let the current gently carry me down the emerald corridor and back into the sunlight.
I'll never forget how lucky I am to have visited these enchanted places. Not only have I been privileged to live in a country with so much public land to explore, I've also been given good health, a trusty vehicle, and the opportunity to share my experiences with thousands of people all around the world. I'm undeniably blessed.
But there has been a cost. I've paid for these adventures with years of unreliable income, minimal savings and strained relationships. I've run my body into the ground several times, and now my strongest tendons are giving out. Similarly, the rotors and joints of my faithful jeep Charlie are in sore need of a mechanic's ministrations. His scraping and wheezing sounds may go away for a time, but there are broken condensers and cracked manifolds that will probably never be fixed. Our time navigating the rougher roads and trails of North America may be coming to an end.
And that's okay. A more grounded lifestyle might do us both some good. New realms of adventure might open up to me if I wasn't traveling everywhere, risking my neck every summer. I can surrender my responsibilities to the next generation of explorers - perhaps some kids who are small and nimble enough to squeeze into caves where I can no longer fit. They can keep searching for the moments of magic I know are still out there, in suburban backyards and in the depths of wilderness.
It's been a long journey, taken in full. I've crossed the Icelandic tundra, stood stunned by the aurora borealis in Alaska, walked through stone circles on Scottish islands, been locked inside castle towers, stared down thieves in India, paddled through fluorescent waters and wandered the slums of Nairobi. I've seen rainbows and moonbows and fireball meteors bright enough to outshine the sun. And the next day after leaving those caves beneath the mountain, I saw my home again in Santa Barbara. Despite every bolt of lightning, every cliff, every bear and every freezing windstorm that I faced in my travels, I survived. And you, dear reader, have been my silent companion all this time. Thank you for being there, and for helping prod me to go a little further whenever I dove into the wild. I hope what I have brought back, in words, has been worth your interest and reminded you to look out your window now and again. There is magic out there.
With that, I bid you all farewell.
Does it sound like I'm retiring, never to venture again into the mountains? Maybe so. Am I trying hard to convince myself to step back and pursue a sensible, less life-threatening career? Maybe so. But you're read my stories. Do I ever stay on the beaten path long before getting distracted and wandering off?
I will try. But there's always someplace wondrous that waits just off the map. Perhaps I'll see you there.
Bryan is a 1991 Norwich High School graduate and author of several books, including “Renegade Car Camping: A Guide to Free Campsites and the Ultimate Road Trip Experience”. This was his last article for the Evening Sun, but you can subscribe to his mailing list at www.offthemapbooks.com for more stories and news of future publications.