We’ve rented a house in Moab, Utah, for a few days. On our first day, we drive up the Colorado River to Professor Valley to hike. Although there was sun in the morning, clouds have come, and they hang close to the mesa-tops by the time we arrive at the trailhead. A few raindrops fall as we shoulder our packs. We walk over the sand and cobble hills and along a creek bed in a light mist. Blackened cottonwood leaves that are spotted with mold lie like shingles on the creek margin. Skeletons of last season’s penstemons and blazing stars, weathered to beige and dried to stiffness, stand along the creek. The Indian rice grass—its leaves curved like scythes—has delicate fruit stalks that hold nothing—its ellipsoidal fruits have long fallen.
I have difficulty finding the trail, and we wander over hills and through ravine bottoms looking to intersect it. Eventually, I see the ridgetop where I expect the trail. and we work toward it. It is work to walk up the hills, then down, around junipers that block the ravine bottoms, over the bouldery edges of the ravine, and up the final ridge. We find the trail. We follow coyote tracks. There are large prints and small—perhaps a mother and pup.
We climb among the iron-red hills. A canyon has deepened below us, and hoodoos stand close on ridges above us. Clouds have thickened and descended over the mesa-tops to obscure their high faces. We are perhaps a mile from our destination and have entered the bottom of the cloud, where the mist is more persistent and more chilling.
I hear a crack of thunder—sharp, then rumbling. I look toward it—expecting lightning—half expecting the dark face and puffed cheeks of a storm god to look at us from the pass we are trying to reach. Instead, I see a red cloud. It expands from a high cliff face across the canyon from us. The thunder was rock fall. A slab has broken from the cliff and tumbled into rocks below, raising the loud crack, the cloud of red dust, and the rumble of falling stones. We watch the stones fall down a steep, narrow shoot in the fan of stone below the cliff face. How long does it last? Long enough for my heart rate to raise and beat hard and fast. A few seconds. The dust cloud expands and dissipates in the mist. We can see the oblong scar where the rock broke loose. We see also the darker red trail of disturbed stone where the stones tumbled.
We continue to walk upward, but I am now very conscious of the cliffs directly above us. I look from one detrital shoot to another where rocks have fallen repeatedly over the centuries. How often do rocks fall? How often do cliff faces fragment and send room size boulders tumbling down. I look among the huge boulders that stand along the trail—each has fallen at some time and tumbled from the cliffs above us. I wonder whether—if I heard another thunderous crack above me and saw stones coming down toward us—we could run for protection behind one of these large boulders.