I’ve driven through Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon twenty or more times in the last few months, but I’ve never gotten out of the car. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to; it’s that I haven’t been able to. Every one of the official parking lots has been full on every weekend day I’ve been there, and every pullout in every shoulder has been crammed with cars whose tires encroach upon the main flow of traffic. Oak Creek Canyon is one of those places that is being loved to death.
The creek itself provides much of this place’s appeal. In the desert, a perpetual water source that flows through a dark and verdant canyon is a welcoming environment – especially as the Arizona days get longer and hotter. For much of the winter, I wasn’t too bothered by the crowded trailheads; I was living in a cold and windy place, so I was just as happy to drive through the canyon and out the other side, to the sunny, open, redrock playground and its cactus-spattered ledges.
Last week, however, I was craving the nurturing embrace of a slot canyon. I also knew that the trees in Sedona’s streambeds had just “leafed out.” If I wanted to catch them in their new and vibrant green state, a riparian hike would have to happen right away. And a riparian hike on a Sunday in Sedona requires setting an alarm.
I got to the West Fork of Oak Creek at 7:30am. The trailhead itself was still closed, and the sign on the locked gates indicated that the barriers would be in place for another hour and a half. Nevertheless, there were five cars already lined up in front of them. I parked a half mile back on the highway and walked in.
For some reason, I equate riparian environments with solitude. While I don’t relish being around people anytime I’m wandering outdoors, I don’t mind being surrounded by humanity when there’s a lot of open space to share. In a tight streambed, however, crowds just don’t feel right. I get a little claustrophobic, as though my bubble of required personal space has expanded, and any pressure against its fragile boundary feels like an invasion.
That perception might have to do with the nurturing sensation I seek from riparian zones. There’s no good reason why the desert canyon can’t embrace me at the same time it swaddles everyone else, but I guess I’m greedy. Like an only child, I want the undivided attention of the canyon. I want to be surprised by what’s around the corner. I want to startle an American dipper or see a lizard dart across my path.
Walking up the West Fork of Oak Creek at 7:30am does provide solitude. Not complete solitude, of course – at least five people were headed out of the canyon as I was headed in. But I nodded to them respectfully; after all, they were the real early birds. Since I never caught up to anyone going my way and no one passed me, I got to puzzle through the rock-hopping sequences on my own, and I could maintain the illusion of splashing solo through the stream.
This hike has a “destination” of sorts – a narrow pool with steep sandstone sides. In previous years, the pool has apparently been deep enough to swim in. Not this one; thanks to the season-long drought, Arizona forests have been under fire restrictions since mid-April. I wouldn’t be surprised if this pool dried to a puddle before the onset of the July monsoons.
When I arrived, a man was watching his two dogs romp around in the water. Just around the corner, a woman was doing a sort of sun salutation ritual on a brightly-lit rock. I kept walking past her, and past the end of the maintained trail, in search of an empty nook. When I found one, I stretched out on a slab of sandstone, took off my boots, and drank up the sun. I have no idea how long I sat there, alternately closing my eyes to listen to the wind rustle the brand-new box elder leaves and opening my eyes in the service of taking pictures. It doesn’t matter, really; that’s the magic of hanging out in a tight desert canyon. It’s shadowy, and it’s hard to see the sun move, so there’s a distinct perception of being outside of time, tucked up in a wash, forgotten by whatever concerns and constraints have been left behind at the trailhead.
This feeling, this out-of-time-ness, seems to grow out of solitude. Lack – of people and their myriad forms of communication – is its prerequisite. And lack creates demand, in this context as in others.
Recently I have become more and more aware of solitude as a resource. Like other resources – coal, water, petroleum, natural gas, uranium, time – it needs to be managed. On a personal level, I have to manage my social time and my solo time for optimal energy, as do many other people. But it’s possible that we as a society will have to manage solitude as well – by managing for it. If we decide that we value outdoor experiences for the human-free opportunities they provide, we are going to have to start limiting visitation – and not just by keeping the parking lots small. I see more permitting in our futures, as well as more lotteries, more fees, and more restrictions of every kind.
Of course, there are a host of other biologically-based reasons to keep us from trampling riparian corridors into dust and overrunning these magical spots with our waste products. Any and all of these reasons could be argued to have greater significance. But the human need for space and time away from other members of the species is a very real one too – and one that is getting more pressing as each number on the population clock whizzes by. I wonder how we’re going to preserve this resource in a way that isn’t discriminatory. I wonder too, how we can manage solitude in a way that doesn’t require us to jump through even more human hoops just to escape from those very same barriers. Right now, the hoop is a 6am alarm on a Sunday morning. In the future, the hoop might be a lot more complicated.
I packed up to go before anyone could stumble upon me and my spot. By the time I’d reached the destination pool, people were taking turns posing for photographs against the salt-caked sandstone wall. From there on out to the trailhead I was never alone. There was a steady stream of people coming my way, and groups had planted themselves on every flat rock ledge with access to the water. After an hour and a half of saying hello, nodding, thanking people for stepping to the side, and answering the “how much further?” question, I arrived back to the parking lot where ten cars were waiting to pay their fees at the entrance booth. The last three of those cars were out on the main road, causing the highway traffic to swerve into the oncoming lane to avoid them.
I thought about going into downtown Sedona for lunch, until I saw the vehicular procession. Deciding not to push my luck, I went home and had a salad on my deck – a spot from which I can only see ponderosa pines. I can hear the roar of I-17 though, loud and clear.