There's a raven's wing in the wash. Angled sleekly, it reveals a blue sheen, the color of space through thin atmosphere. I picture it in a coyote pup's mouth. He drops it to follow his mother through one of the animal-mapped paths out of the canyon, routes I can never find. Raven's Wing Draw.
Twenty miles upriver, where the spruces throng, it was snowing a mean spring pellet snow when I left the house. Knowing a little about Wyoming microclimates, I decided to rummage for something better in the badlands. Until recently, before four-wheelers, only cows foraged dismally here each spring before being sent to the mountains. A few hunters, a few walkers. It's just more Bureau of Land Management land, little attention paid to it.
In the badlands it's not only the colors that capture me -- layers of red, pink, pearl-gray, and buff -- but the substances. Scramble along steep terra-cota flutings and break off a piece. Out pours red sand so fine it must have been sifted by crickets. Thunderstorm sheet-floods are responsible, mixing up a muck that then settles into a clay outer shell with sand inside. But vertically? These columns always look just poured, or melting.
Then there are walls of conglomerate: granite cobbles smoothed by some ancient river, entombed here way back in the Eocene. I like to spring a few, let 'em rejoin the dance after sitting out for 55 million years. There's also a harder layer of pale sandstone that forms lips, brinks, falls, and traps, and is responsible for many a thwarted route.
I'm following the wash, the least efficient path, admiring the braidings in the streambed and the crisp mud curls that look good enough to eat. This little canyon, offered up to the southern sun arc, is now warm enough to make me stop and look for a sandy bank away from anthills where I can lie down. To the north the pellet-spitting cloud is still closed over the spruces, but I'm sweating, and a hover fly is looking me over. Two bends of the draw block any sound from Route 287, a mile away. Now I hear only the spring air molding itself into notes of a mountain bluebird. Time for a snooze, full length, given over, cowboy hat on face, the ground fairly twanging with working roots and ready shoots.
Later, when the shadows start breathing coolness out of side canyons, I cross the color threshold. After an hour outside walking, colors begin to appear much more brilliant, more saturated. Oxygen to the brain? Rods and cones sufficiently steeped? I get out the paints and brushes and pour canteen water into a cup. How many times have I felt this urge, almost desperate, to paint the badlands? It's the repeated lines here, a regular pattern, like the designs on African bark-cloth painting. Cascades of intersecting Vs. Yet if you get too seduced by the flat pattern, you miss the sensuousness -- a creamy expanse of sandstone curved and chiaroscuroed just so, a Botticelli forehead of pink clay, siltstone in langorous poses.
Sometimes I imagine that if I get the arrangement and proportions exactly right -- a massive columned wall above a ribbon of wash, the precise slant of an alluvial fan -- I will be able to conjure up the particular emptiness of this place. When people accustomed to cities, those people who avoid being alone, encounter this almost obstinate stillness, they run, sure they'll be crazy in a matter of hours. The mind does at first rebel, churning out a steady flow of thoughts, then core-memory debris, and sometimes, when the disturbance deepens, gibberish.
As you leave the car and start into the canyon, the place is just another setting. A little while later you look up and realize it might swallow you. Whenever I approach the canyon in that frame of mind, I know I must stop at the first bend and sift through a gravel bar, or go to sleep on the ground, or just sit. By the time I get out the paints I've reached an accord with the emptiness., knowing it to be the original expression of the world. "Stillness becoming alive, yet still," Theodore Roethke describe it.
Next time I look up from my paper, the horizon has changed, sprouting big Vs of ears: a dozen mule deer.
Another dozen look up, startled, as I emerge from a juniper grove farther down the canyon. I try the grazing method to put them at ease: look at the ground and paw it with my boot, turn my back on them idly. Unthreatening gestures. They remove to the next bench, turn their backs on me, and browse on new growth of a wiry grass. Lofty Doe Draw.
I remember seeing a dead fawn in one of the narrow arms of this canyon. There was no sign of how it died, no dismantling by ravens or coyotes. Dead in a cave-painting position, ribs like a Tang dynasty ivory birdcage, a little haystack where its rumen had been.
What about death, its evidence and presence everywhere? Briefly, occasionally, I think I glimpse how life and death embrace. Of course I know the story of their mutual dependence, and keep reciting it to myself for reassurance, but it reads more like a legal document or economics paper. Sadness from witnessing pain has left me with a permanent wince. The vulnerability of all creatures to pain often seems like the most vicious of jokes, and the best I can do is to envision a tangled web of empathy: If the worm isn't stuffed alive down the nestling's throat, the neatling may starve. if the fox doesn't bring the nestling to her kit, the kit may die. We cling to life; the transition is rough.
Many days I'm not content to stay in the draws, but feel a need to get up onto the plateaus, the high mesas, the remnants of an ancient plain. The geometric change from vertical wall to horizontal plateau is itself satisfyingly precise -- no halfway about it. My favorite of these I've named for its giddy aerial wreaths of horned larks. Lark Lyric Plateau. To be accurate, it's a peninsula linked to a long, ascending ridge that becomes a foothill of the Absaroka Range. Except for a few sections, this is all BLM land too.
About a mile long and equally wide, Lark Lyric is napped with low grasses and fragrant white phlox. Oddly, it supports no sagebrush, and there are no badger holes. Rising gently, ringed by mountains, it's cowgirl heaven.
My pony Scout carries me up. We carefully open and shut gates, following trails that avoid the steepest badland walls. This is the time to slouch comfortably, to sing whatever best fits our pace: "Blue Shadows on the Trail" or "Riding Down the Canyon." We top the last rise and suddenly there it is, spread out before us, perfectly smooth and empty. For a while there are just wind-streaming eyes and thundering pony hooves. Then we pull up and the plateau, its sky and larks, its level swell, resolve into a particular music, a pealing air, a welling carol.
All this open western space, unattended! I always get out the maps when I come home and trace my route, amazed at how little ground I've covered, and at how unremarkable the places look on paper. My Lofty Doe Draw, my incomparably lovely canyon filled with bluebirds and echoing swifts, is nameless to the U.S. Geological Survey. Lark Lyric Plateau, an island of heaven, is not considered worth naming either. So I get out my smallest pen, bend over the topo, and carefully write the names the places gave me.