You Can’t Miss the Arch

To begin, we head into a culvert that pierces a bank of earth built for a railroad. The entrance stretches eight feet in diameter and forms the pupil of an eye in a red dirt forehead. Leaving the bright Moab sun for the dark of the tunnel requires that I trust my feet will land on ground. Temporarily without sight, I walk forward. Moving through, I am reminded of the concrete tubes painted every shade of primary that dotted the school playgrounds of my childhood. The cool air is familiar, friendly even. I know that if I touch the sides they will be cold. I take the lead, my brother and parents behind me.

“What would it feel like to have a train pass over us right now?” I muse. But no one answers. My parents both have total hearing loss in one ear—the left for my dad and the right for my mom. When they stand side by side, they stand in stereo. Because we proceed through the tunnel single file, there is no hope they will hear, and Scott is too far back. I am left to imagine the roar and rumble of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad as it ferries potash from the Cane Creek Mine to processing plants at Green River. Having lived near railroads when I was in college, I know that the sound of pressed iron turns tactile as it shudders up your body when you are standing hundreds of feet away. In a tunnel ten feet below such force, I imagine I would shatter. I think we all are glad to reach the end of the culvert and move back into bedrock and sky.


When my father’s father began to lose his mind, I was thirteen. At the time, I was told by my parents that his emphysema had caused dementia. Such a connection felt false to me, a warning given by adults not to smoke.  Blackened lungs from a lifetime of chain smoking were to blame for his Darth Vader rasp and his inability to walk down the driveway to check the mail, but tar did not produce hallucination. Dementing rarely has such clear causation. Like the disease itself, origin is lost amid loops and pockets. One day, decades earlier, who you are simply begins to diminish, like a pile of salt in the rain. It’s such a soft rain that no one even notices. You can’t, for example, remember the neighbor’s name or the word quicksilver. It’s only a moment, not even a mist. The words return, the world is refastened, and you move on.

I never loved my grandfather. He was abusive and mean, though my father insists this was not always so. When dementia took him, I grew even more afraid. At night, he roved the house calling the names of the dead. Sometimes he entered the room where I was sleeping, his underwear sagging from his hips, mouth just as slack. With arms raised, he groped the air, coming closer and closer to my bed, looking, I imagine, for forgiveness he would never find.


My parents have hiked Jeep Arch, on Ute traditional territory, before. In fact, they hiked it a week ago. But it provides fresh ground for my brother and me. While the trail is new to us, the landscape is not. He and I have spent enough time in southern Utah to know the elemental desert and its signature, the swell of red rock, the clean slate of sky, and the occasional hundred-year-old juniper that reasserts physical scale. We are hiking today at the start of November, the four of us, no partners, no deadlines—a rare event as Scott and I meet middle age, lives busy, schedules full.

The trail begins to climb slick rock, sand beneath our footsteps fine as talc. With only one other car, Utah plates, spotted at the trailhead, we expect to share the day with ravens alone. My father has been sick for the past two weeks, a response to his COVID booster shot. Even though he hikes, as he always does, at the back of the line so that he can ensure no one is left behind, we all watch him with our ears, listening for the scrape of trekking pole, stagger of step, the sound of a soft body hitting rock, a cry.

“What’s this?” Scott asks, and we gather to see where he is pointing. On the ground, someone has painted green marks every twelve to eighteen inches. The rectangles of paint ride on the tops and edges of rocks, not the dirt. They have been placed with intention, even if not uniform in size or distance. Someone might name the dark green color “juniper” had they never had the chance to stand next to one.

“Those weren’t there last week,” my mom says. “Someone has been out here marking a trail.”

Until this moment, we have been meandering along the rock, choosing our path based on intuition, seeing the line that doesn’t exist but that you follow because you have hiked your entire life. Unlike trails in other parts of the country, desert trails are largely invisible. Sand doesn’t wear like dirt. Runoffs and dry creek beds add to the confusion; what might appear to be a trail is really just a wash. In addition, to an ignorant eye, the desert looks the same, mostly empty. It’s why we store nuclear waste and test bombs in Nevada, southern Utah, New Mexico. Desert literacy must be acquired. Mesas, hoodoos, and washes do not speak for themselves. The desert withholds; it is acquainted with lack.

“Those weren’t there last week,” my mom says. “Someone has been out here marking a trail.”

“With paint,” Scott says. “Marking a trail by painting the ground.”