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Summer 2000, Volume 18.0

Essay

 

Kevin Holdsworthphoto of Kevin Holdsworth.

High Plateau Blues


Although he lives and works in southwestern Wyoming, Kevin Holdsworth maintains a "rude and rustic hovel" in Wayne County, Utah. His work has most recently appeared in
Junction, South Dakota Review and Owen Wister Review. He is pictured with his son, Christopher.

 

Monday.  Way up there: just below the rim where spruce and fir grow thickest--growing their own shade to grow more trees--with thick deadfall and thick talus, and you'd have to be thick as two short planks to go up there a-wandering, because rocks and trees disorient...and grab...and trip...and hurl earthward...making navigation miserable and sour, causing a friend who is fond of the area to call it the Boulder Mountain Ugly, but I call it simply the land of the Blues, because it's easy to get lost and blue, and also because late in the day, when the light is just right, the heavy sky threatening storm and seeming to pull the dark slopes nearer, those distant blue slopes seem near enough to touch; near enough, sure, but it is their blues I cannot comprehend. Blues found only in the plateau country of central Utah. A shade near navy but never precisely black, not even at night when September moonlight casts a cadaverous tint on the land while snipes, yes, snipes, serenade the darkness in the neighbor's pasture, dropping down the scale in whole notes. Sometimes during the monsoon season lighting walks across the mountaintop, splitting the night sky. In the morning, after a rain, the high-washed slopes tend toward aqua. A mid-day they are lost in smoky indigo.

This much I know with eye and foot: four raven miles from my front door to Boulder Cove, then two…or four…rough and tumble hours through the pygmy forest—pinyon and juniper growing on tuffaceous mounds of glacial debris—followed by a gentle slope of ponderosa, aspen and manzanita for half a day. Then comes the Ugly and all its troubles, followed by the rim crags. Not even a June day would be long enough for it all. The big blue mountain rises; maybe it beckons. Maybe not. Maybe it's enough to watch its many moods. 

Geologists speculate that Boulder and Thousand Lake Mountain were once one, that their former embrace has by riven by cycles of glaciers building, then melting, and the flow of rivers carrying chunks and particles of them away. It is true that from the top of Thousand Lake, fifty feet higher than Boulder, a couple miles further north, just across the valley, one can see how the theory makes sense—right at one's feet. Let's accept the postulate. It also makes a certain poetic sense, but it cannot account for the green green blues.

Or, seen from space, or from satellite images taken from space, the Fishlake, Awapa, Aquarius, Boulder and Thousand Lake Plateau complex appears as a gigantic manta ray, with Torrey, where the Fremont River debouches into the canyons, as its mouth. These are the southern-most of the High Plateaus. The names get a little confusing. We are in the High Plateaus geographical region, but Boulder and Thousand Lake are really "flat-topped mountains," Boulder being the world's second largest (after Colorado's Grand Mesa). Okay, one person's flat-topped mountain is another person's plateau (or even mesa).

Nevermind. Looking futher back, in the great cataclysm known as the Laramide Orogeny, this western side of the Colorado Plateau was heaved up in a vast flexure. As the Tushar Mountains formed further west, opening massive cracks and fissures, mammoth lava flows crossed the land, covering the sedimentary layer cake with an igneous frosting.

Recent ice ages gave the land its present shape. Mount Marvine boasts the classic Matterhorn form. Tidwell Canyon displays a textbook U-shaped valley.  Moraines can be found everywhere, along with drumlins, eskers and pothole lakes. It is an odd combination—glaciated lava—fire and ice.

As the Pleistocene glaciers retreated up the slopes, the spruce and fir forest followed. Today the Hudsonian forest remains only on plateau tops and below the rims as reminders, remnants, relicts of cool blue ten thousand feet high.

Tuesday. My companion is a hirsute Wayne County native named Blondie. Born in Caineville, Blondie spent her puphood on a ranch near Teasdale. Her job was to keep cows out of the yard. Although not the brightest minister in the canine kingdom, she took this job to heart. From the back of the truck she presently barks at every horse, mule, llama, cow, sheep and goat we pass. Nearing the Loa drive-in, she lets go with a chorus of barks guaranteed to keep all livestock at bay. Love-On-Arrival.

Blondie and I have decided to turn our backs on Boulder. We could spend an entire week just exploring its North Slope, and there's something oppressive in all that size. We've decided, instead, to assay the plateaus and peaks that surround Fish Lake, a dozen or two miles north, protuberances that can be "managed" in a day, or three-quarters of a day, and return to our kennel at night.

The good people of Wayne County, hard-working Mormons by-and-large, sometimes seem to lack a sense of humor, a sense their ancestors apparently had. Take Loa, for instance. It was named by Mormon missionaries returning from the Sandwich Isles, for whom the evidence of volcanism proved keenly reminiscent of Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa! Kiki Bobo! Brothers and Sisters, where are the palms? Where can be heard the pounding of the surf, seven thousand feet high? Is that Don Hon over yonder, or just Elder Taylor? Where are the lovely girls in grass skirts? Do the local inhabitants greet the visitor with a plate of poi and a fresh, fragrant lei?

Not usually. This ain't no "Blue Hawaii." Utah's telegenic governor spends part of his summers here. His mother is an Okerlund, and a Wayne County native, and despite that fact, Mike "Teflon" Leavitt, and his brother Mark, who does live here, managing the family businesses with aplomb, are routinely despised in these parts for being wealthy enough to buy up and consolidate old farms, for being outsiders (half one's heritage doesn't count), and worse, for being city slickers (from Cedar City). There was also that business with the Whirling Disease.

Speaking of sense of humor: a few years ago a country song was popular, "Love on Arrival." Its chorus went, "L…O…A…love on arrival." Although I often warbled this number while in Loa, visiting the lumber store ("them beams is strong—them's stress rated."), the Forest Service office (always good for a few laughs), or county commission meetings (not really funny at all), not once did my vocalizing raise a smile of comprehension or appreciation. Maybe it's a question of timing. Maybe it's a question of the past.

A few hours latter, having left all that chatter behind, having strolled up steep dewy meadows and startled cows, having walked the long summit ridge over everycolored rocks and everycolored wildflowers, having smelled the resiny-peppery scent of high dry spruce, fir and limber pines, in early afternoon, Blondie and I find a tangle of guy wires, radio transmitters, repeaters, receivers, and dozens of batteries of uncertain origin littering the summit of Mt. Terrell. These are obviously not remnants of the Fremont Culture. Perhaps feeling territorial, someone has etched a note in a metal "Do Not Disturb—U.S. Government Property" sign, "FoResT SERvice, clean UP Your GarBaGe." Also on the tundra stand a few nice rock shelters, probably of Boy Scout origin. So much for escaping the trappings of modern civilization.

A few decades ago a local bluesman named Lorenzo Larsen also began leaving his mark on this country. Something of a megalomaniac, certainly of pioneer stock, probably a Mormon, and undoubtedly a stockman, Lorenzo took to signing trees. Everywhere on the Fishlake Hightop fancy Lorenzo Larsen signatures can be found, accompanied by the signatory year. Perhaps thinking that aspen trees were not immortal, Lorenzo also began to leave longer-lasting monuments: cairns, piles of rocks. Certainly his early cairning would have served a useful purpose: to mark a route through a canyon or over to a spring. As time passed he took more trouble with his cairns, shaping them into likenesses of animals. For instance, on the ridge above the main road to Fish Lake frolic many members of a mimetic menagerie, or at least crude representations of lions, tigers, eagles and bears.

Three prairie falcons follow us down Terrell's summit ridge, swooping over at a hundred feet. Then closer. I'm worried for Blondie's sake since she would be the tenderer morsel. I have been dive-bombed by birds before. We pick up our pace. Perhaps we are trespassing a nesting area, though there are neither trees nor cliffs nearby. Perhaps the birds are pissed off about all the litter on the summit and want to hold us accountable.

The trio of birds eventually leaves us alone, swoops west and across four or five miles in a minute, then carves the air over the summit of Mt. Marvine. On a previous trip to Marvine's summit I found a register, and on its pages another character, icy blues aficionado, Frosty Tinker. It seems that Mr. Tinker climbed the peak as an adolescent, while staying at K's Kamp (in Koosharem), and returned, from California, twenty-five years later to repeat the feat. One does not know whether Frosty was his given handle, or rather an invented appellation, but surely life isn't easy if your name is Frosty Tinker.

One would like to ask Frosty whether this aspen-girt corner of the world seemed all that different after twenty-five years. The mountain could have been in an entirely different season on his return, obscured by memory to begin with, and perhaps enfolded in August cloud, or shining pretty as tomorrow in mid-September…a different place. As he plodded up the long curving meadow below, or the talus above, maybe he thought of his dead parents, bad business decisions, marital misadventures; maybe he wondered how the hell he ended up in California, or why the aspen don't grow on the slopes below the red-gray cliffs, or what killed the five cows that remained as skeletons, and why there were so many cows unkilled, or how it would be to ski down such a meadow and if life could go on past that, or what was the name of that blue flower, that yellow one…while at his back he must have sensed the loyal companion of physical deterioration. True, the exact pain of ascending is forgotten after twenty-five years, but revisiting the effort—the sweat and hard breathing and recalcitrant muscles—it might make a Frosty Tinker reflect and wonder, "On mountain I am nothing. I do not climb mountain, mountain climbs me."

Wednesday. Blondie in back, Otis Rush on the tape player in my head, Sister Ruth trading husky vocals with riffs, on an overcast day we take the drive up county in early morning. One direction makes me wonder about this obsession with escape and hills, day after day. Maybe it would be wise to dig a few post holes or paint the damned trim. But a better one says, "Don't think so much. Go with it. You don't play by reason. And do play."

Brother Otis shows me how something vaguely comforting abides in the Blues. Both structure and rhythm are inevitable. The shuffle is the human heartbeat written large. Whatever the chord or note, the Blues begins and ends in the same place, whether upscale or down. The Blues is generally rendered in sevenths—an unfinished, incomplete, slightly dissonant chord that underscores great longing. Sister Ruth finishes with phrases that leave it still undone.

On Windstorm Peak the Blues is painted all in minor chords today, played lefty because it's screwy—and tougher—and hell if you're born that way, and Blondie feels it too.

To climb a mountain entails much plodding, the same slow rhythm punctuated occasionally by a look upward or down. Beyond the swink, however, one embellishes. This much Lorenzo Larsen knew. Life is difficult, let us say. Maybe he was just lonely, or insane, or given to visions in copses of loveliest aspen, or that maybe he felt the need to get away from civilization—Sister Larsen—so strongly that he had to leave his relics, his spore, this Mormon Druid; to say with trees and rocks, "I am. I was here and that I was here matters. My rock piles will surely outlast me. Each time I etch my name on a tree or heap up boulders it is an affirmation—a holy desecration in this my temple, my landscape."

And what of Frosty Tinker? He left us far fewer clues, only two signatures in a notebook twenty-five years apart. But we know without speculating that at some point in the ascent it is easier to continue than to turn back. At some point turning back is out of the question. Maybe there was nothing to it—Frosty had stayed in shape by eating "nut cutlets and green leafy vegetables," and practiced yoga, and took young lovers, and retired early, and traveled the world in a vision quest, only to return to his starting point and fall into a deep deep funk.

Or feel rich, unplayable joy. Oh yes, the standards can be happy or sad. "Let the Good Times Roll," commingles with "The Thrill is Gone." The sky sometimes cries on a sunny day, backed with horns. Red and blue make purple. Purple haze. "Me, I got a woman, but she's two hundred miles away; all I got right now is this dog and a pair of worn out boots." Facts endure both ways: free time and loneliness, a blessing and a curse. I'll find no love on arrival at my castle tonight, and this is the world's most beautiful place. Twelve bars. Twelve times twelve…repeat. Blondie and I, Frosty and Lorenzo, Brother Otis, Sister Ruth. Ghosts passing over, passing through—the notes of a measure, of a song.

Thursday. As it is early September, the whistling bugles of rutting elk take the high register on an early morning ascent of Mt. Hilgaard. Clouds hang far below in the desert, hiding an infernal land. Solomon's Temple, Cathedral Valley, Mussentuchit—all their Entrada pink is gone. Seventy miles away, the San Rafael is lost in the heat haze—spires and buttes and temples, just gray outlines. There's a chilly breeze blowing on the summit, waving the elk grass and clumps of krumholz.

Fleeing the chill, Blondie and I pause in the purplish boulderfields on the west side of the peak, where raspberries and gooseberries hang ripe, red, bittersweet. The lofty tableau creates an idyll of lazy minutes: nibbling raspberries as Blondie chases squirrels while a light breeze stirs the yellowing aspen leaves, and Mahonia, Oregon grapes.

The song is played over and over in central Utah. The Plateau stands cool, ten or eleven thousand feet high, as source of water, timber, grazing, summer coolness, blue. Meanwhile the desert below swelters in reds and whites. The contrast works in winter too. On skis, on Boulder, one glides amid dark spruce and naked aspen and looks down Oak Creek at rocks red as embers—wild and twisted in their warm-looking remove.

Friday. The way up Hen's Hole Peak is windy and long. The way down is scary. Not just because of the steep scree. You wanna talk about a dark wood? We are in Bear Country—the signs are everywhere, clear as lovers names on a trailside aspen, the monument of a thousand marred trees, clawmarks that delineate the territory of Ursus. Given her penchant for bolting after deer, I try to keep Blondie close. We get lost, the trees close in, dark and blue, and we hear things. Just trees groaning? Bears? Our own heartbeats? Heart-attack Grouse? The muddy waters of the Mississippi flowing to the sea?

These farthest-south High Plateaus will not be written up in any guidebooks. Hopefully not—there's nothing but trees and rocks to "experience." No one is likely to travel here from Iowa. It's just as well. Still, it is odd that such fine hills, these pine blue slopes, might suffer in comparison with taller, mightier peaks. But who's comparing? This is the perfect place to noodle a few scales with no one around, to add our own bit to the same old song. Some places are best to hide. Some chords will always sound unfinished. Some hues may never make sense.

Conspiracy Theory 101

"The fundamental problem with globalization is that it transfers the power of the people and by the people to a limited elite," says Paul VanDevelder of Corvallis, Ore., a documentary film maker and co-sponsor of the Oregon Human Rights Initiative, which will be on the ballot in November. It [the initiative] seeks to amend the Oregon Constitution to preclude the state from doing business with any entity that does not protect human rights.

"It's been made abundantly clear that open market capitalism is inconsistent with democracy," VanDevelder says. "Local sovereignty, labor issues and the environment are put in the hands of bodies that have no accountability." — Margaret Graham Tebo, "Power Back to the People," ABA Journal, July 2000, p. 53  

 

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