The Henry Mountains rise between the Blue Hills and Orange Cliffs, between Hanksville and the Powell reservoir. I camped last weekend on their Coyote Benches, where I could watch the Orange Cliffs through the evening.
Sharp jags of lightning struck Mount Ellen during the late afternoon thunderstorm on Saturday as I drove up the dirt road into the mountains. On the open, up-sloped landscape, my view of the thick, yellow lightning bolts, extending from cloud to ground, was all-to-clear. Mud flung by my tires thumped against the wheel wells. My mind filled with the ‘what ifs’ of a lightning fire as I drove across the Coyote Benches; those ‘ifs’ were reinforced when I reached the eastern slope of Mount Pennell. There had been a fire here in the last few years. In the draw of Straight Creek, which drains a high ravine on Mount Pennell, aspen snags still stood—white-barked as ever, but the whiteness was diffused by the rain and low, storm clouds. The aspen were eerily leafless, as if in midwinter in summer; the emptiness of the aspen canopy accentuated the quiet when the storm moved east. I walked up the road. The Coyote Benches were covered in a thicket of scrub oak about three feet high. These were stump sprouts, forming full skirts around naked, blackened branches.
Later in the night, I pulled my nose from a book and slipped out the truck. I breathed-in the fragrance of someone’s campfire—then realized it wasn’t campfire, it was the landscape—rising with the drying of the rain in the still night was a smokiness held in the soil’s charcoalified litter, the fire-girdled aspen, and those crooked, black branches of the old oak community.