Being outside is a bit like being home.
This latest three day trek brought me to landscapes that were both familiar and novel at the same time. There’s a sense of rightness, of comfort. But seen through my friends eyes and with their delight it felt new.
It was an experience intense enough that now in contrast the city scratches against my senses. Like emerging from a dark room. Sitting here at a cafe downtown. Glass and concrete. Almost everybody is the same; scruffy beards, skinny, enthusiastic hackers, large gestures and intent expressions. Crypto, Artificial Intelligence, Venture Funding. Racing to each meeting. The dress code prim and proper, well fitting clothing. Fresh, clean. Rushing to work, the bustle of traffic. Somebody, probably the mayor, has scrubbed the streets of the homeless again; streets drained of their perennial grief. So bright yet weirdly artificial.
This was a group of eight competent lovely human beings; each fiercely determined to apprehend the world, to study it, to leave no thought unturned. Also a birthday celebration and at times a honeymoon.
In any case we all chose to abandon San Francisco briefly for the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument plateau between Utah and Arizona. This includes the Paria Plateau, Vermillion Cliffs itself, Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon, Buckskin Gulch and famously ‘The Wave’ — all a group of brain twistingly deranged rock formations created by a conspiracy of natural forces.
The Vermillion Cliffs area is a mesa strewn landscape similar to the TV series West World. There is a cowboy and western motifs epigenetically burned into our programming, cowboy drawls, cattle snorting and scuffling out of sheer boredom, big old open spaces, tumbleweeds and abandoned dreams. In fact each of the people we ran into out there did have a hell of a backstory.
These are landscapes best described by how they feel; dry heat that feels like being gazed upon with love, windy places that buffet you but also make you want to stretch out on the rocks and make a masters study of how the grasses blow patterns into the sand. Of indolent conversations, exploring just whats over that next ridge, ur-experiences, as if for a moment we all became cats… or a pack of coyotes.
I haven’t done big hikes with a lot of friends. Mostly it’s been solo or small groups. And so rarely with a group of people each of which has a high degree of ‘having their shit together’.
The mechanical details: first we flew out to Las Vegas Thursday evening. From there we picked up two four wheel drive vehicles with high suspensions. We stopped at Whole Foods and ransacked the joint. We’d originally used postmates to order the food but they required a delivery address so the shopping had been broken up into to tranches. As well we had to pick up a couple of odds and ends (one persons boots were too small for example). Probably the only real mistake we made in the rushed shopping was failing to get enough camp fuel for our stove; but this would have an interesting and positive effect later on. Then we drove out to Kanab where we had a hotel waiting. Arriving at 2 am we had two rooms, which turned out to be quite small so I grabbed a third room to save others having to deal with snoring.
We grabbed breakfast the following morning at the Kanab Bakery (amazing in and of itself) and then we all drove out to Buckskin Gulch for a day hike. For those who haven’t been — it’s a river bed that narrows gradually to a 100 foot slot canyon. You walk or wade along the muddy, sometimes water pooled bottom, tall vertical rock walls twist above you like ribbons; a thin strip of blue the only reassurance that there is sky. Sunlight enters from the top and bounces downwards off the red walls creating a varied glow; ranging from white hot to reds to dark ochres. It’s not unlike being an tiny creature held closely between a childs pressed palms with their grinning face looking down upon you. During rainier seasons there’s always a fear of flash floods, and occasionally one can see large trees stuck up high in the gulch — evidence of fury past.
From Buckskin Gulch we eventually rewound our way back to the vehicles. From there it took about three hours of slow driving through sandy roads to finally reach South Coyote Buttes. These are the kinds of terrains that we were glad to have two vehicles in, that often require you to stop and inspect the road ahead, and that you wouldn’t think of driving without gps tracking software, four wheel drive and an extra high suspension. One of our drivers was experienced with race cars, and talked through the subtle details of vehicle dynamics, traction and gearing for these terrains.
Arriving at our backcountry camp area that evening we disgorged massive quantities of food and infrastructure. In the fading evening light we saw the tantalizing hints of tomorrows hikes; tall sentinel buttes in the distance. As it got darker and darker everybody did what it took to get setup. The parallelization of work, the eagerness to help, all of these things made for a great first day. One of our party was an excellent cook, although this was their first camping experience, and we stuffed ourselves silly with pasta, pesto and skirt steak — and then largely all passed out.
Saturday morning we stumbled around camp, acclimatizing to the light, poking at the large black beetles whose six legged traction allowed them to comically wander around the sandy landscape. Eventually all of the hats and sunglasses, daypacks, water bags, boots, socks, medical kits, radios, gps traces, snacks, costumes and the like marched out towards across the desert.
The plan was to cover a lot of ground that day; but as we got closer and closer it became like entering a fractal, like Zeno’s paradox. It was so utterly overwhelming; each new feature brought a gasp of delight. We puzzled over how a landscape could even become so delicious. Most metaphors were confectionary; trying to imagine the master chefs, monks in a monastery inventing sfogliatella, or a greek phyllo from a misplaced ottoman era bakery run amok, strudels and backlava, cream horns and galettes, byzantine kürtöskalács, or french mille-feuille, layers of iron oxide and manganese oxide in umber, ochre, red, yellow, gold, stirred across layers in a crème pâtissière glazed and scoured with sun and wind. One of us wore her wedding dress and permutations of each of us juxtaposed against this wild landscape were taken.
Was it better to explore one space in depth or to travel further — to cover more ground — to see more — or to see what was in front of us in more depth? Hard to say, but the landscape demanded our attention. To be witnessed. And further afield we did not stray — largely staying within a couple of miles of camp.
The evening crept towards us; walking inside a dream. The bodies we inhabit swam in shallow desert plateau pools and then finally walked back across the desert as the sun was fading. The voices we use yipping and howling and calling to each other spread out over a mile, and to one of ours back at base camp. Tribal, the pack coming home, voices heard far across the desert, call and return, call and return. To be greeted by a fire, hugs and a starry sky.
We’d ran out of fuel early and as a result were forced to use a campfire. But we’d purchased some wood for fun earlier, and this turned out to be a delicious outcome. Forced around a fire we all cooked together on multiple nights. All in all we settled into a pattern of raking coals over, arranging pans on coals, and boiling water and making food. We had tonkatsu ramen with mushrooms and noodles — which eight mouths made short work of. Carmelized onions, apples, potatoes, baked in the coals of the fire, left overnight for morning snacks. Pears and brandy. Salmon, sour cream, endless snacks and sandwiches. It was a little like being a hobbit.
Large groups tend to be an exploration of the group dynamics as well. Each of us seemed to contribute in different ways. One of us asked us to talk about how we felt, inviting an exploration of an internal mental landscape. Like watching winds blow through leaves we all tracked each others mental states, watching the ebb and flow of connections, new ideas, new inputs. In a group of engineers, entrepeneurs and academics these conversations became as intricate as the rock formations around us. There are hungers we have, instincts, cravings for home and family, and we examined that programming, debating the merits — can we have our cake and eat it too? Or are we cowboys destined to roam and to put down our hats only occassionaly? Baby making was a big topic; people in this group are transitioning to that stage in their lives — and it’s a hard place to navigate in a culture like San Francisco.
We talk like we’re individuals but actually we’re more like kittens. Much as we want to try to filter for the best of us, to select those who are compassionate and caring — from the outside we’re all just some variation of cute and feisty; opinionated and all slightly bitey in the cutest possible way. This group refers to each other as monkeys; acknowledging that endearing primate instinct- and at the same time permissioning the mistakes we all make. Whatever the label we are living in a world vastly beyond our comprehension; trying to make the best of it. Mostly we’re following scripts that were written for us — by our parents, by marketing agencies. We have to learn the master language, learn to rewrite the scripts where needed. For this reason I do envy the resources people have today — to even be able to question, to interrogate to rewrite, the social resources. We are no longer individuals but networks. These are all simply tools I did not have. I do wish I’d had the community and resources to challenge my own scripts at critical junctures and I admire my peers here for that ability — something I’ve seen for years here. Especially admirable recently are the concepts of co-parenting group houses. It’s audacious to weigh nuclear families against collective families and decide for the latter — even though the later is fraught with unknowns. Oddly this trip seems to be freighted with signifiers of new births, new life — as if there is a teleological pull from the future reaching into our present.
Sunday we ended up at White Pocket. A very different landscape. If Coyote Buttes is confectionary this landscape is Geigeresque; a dark arts grotesquerie, walking across human brains, revealing patches of tortured red sinew and bone, somewhat Salvador Dali. One could run up a skull, leap and grab the next protrusion and pull oneself to the top of a heap of bones and look out across the charnel pit. Towards afternoon the mood became familiar; the polygonal tiles cozy. As if we’d become comfortable with our new world. Again many small snacks, more salmon, crackers, cheeses, and soaking of feet and bodies in water pools. Idle conversations in the shade. I myself tended to spiral outwards looping back to intersect the group briefly but glad of their company.
Wandering around I pondered a question — what is the most expressive and succinct expression of a workflow — what is the best possible imaginable interface for “work”. One imagines Iron Man technological interfaces — 3d printer at the ready. But what if you were only a musician — could a 3d interface to music composition be useful? I’ve been looking at music itself — what is music? Exploring composition of multiple notes into a series, and exploring the space of a single note — using Iota and Ableton 10. In my mind there’s such a richness of the sonic expression of the drawn out structure, the envelope, attack, sustain, release, decay of a single note that I wonder why is there such a distinction between notes and melodies. One can compose a melody of multiple notes — we call this a song, but as well one can stack multiple effects modifiers end to end, modifying the fundamental tuning or speed of a sample- and create a sense of musical progression that way. It’s just not clear to me why we use notes — if not to approximate a mental model of the shape of a sound curve over time. And if so are we asking the listener to recreate that hidden fundamental?
On the final day we packed up and drove off. Leaving the scorpions to their desert. Dusty, pretty dirty, eager for the comforts. A day was spent unwinding the outdoor gear and chair rentals, unwinding the car rentals, delightful showers were had, Las Vegas buffets were consumed. There was a returning to airports and then landing back in San Francisco with lyfts to clean sheets.