Canyon country

What is it about the desert? Why does it make something wake up in us, just to be walking over dry red dust, seeing clay-coloured cliffs in the distance, and to be in a world mostly free of vegetation? You would think it might be forbidding and alien. Yet it feels familiar, invigorating, and somehow like home.

Maybe it’s just me. I happened first to hear about the Four Corners – the epitome, the heart of the American desert – when I was an impressionable teenager, from the mouth of a beautiful older American artist. The way she described it, the Four Corners sounded like heaven on earth, the freest place imaginable, outside all the normal constraints and mores, where traditional natives, hippie farmers, liberationist Catholics and inspired artists and poets all drew inspiration together from the red desert. It was like Paris in the 1920s, she said, except in the desert.

I suspect you could search for that lost Paris for a long time. But the desert won’t let you down. Of all the quadrants of the Four Corners – the one place in the US where four states meet in a cross – the reddest, remotest and most atmospheric of them all may be south-eastern Utah.

It is an empty place: a few small towns such as Mexican Hat and Bluff, a swathe of the vast Navajo reservation and a small settlement of Ute Indians, amounting together to a total population of 15,000 people in 8,000 empty square miles – an area the size of Wales. Wherever you happen to be, you feel like you have it to yourself.

The desert is a mix of powdery dust under foot and elegant cliffs of crumbling sandstone that break up the flatness. Usually these have a long skirt of shale at their feet, and then sheer faces ranging from yellow to crimson. But the feel of the place is also in the air itself, thick and pungent with peace.

It’s a land of canyons, too. To get to know this country, you have to go out into it. That means leaving town and heading out to the empty desert and up a canyon, either on foot, in a raft, or on horseback. I decided to try the last – or, more precisely, muleback.

Mike Murphy runs T Bar M Outfitters in nearby Durango, Colorado. (An “outfitter”, out west, is another name for a tour operator: they “outfit” customers with the equipment needed for back-country travel.) His company runs strings of mules over the southern Rockies and the Utah desert, taking people and supplies through the rugged, barren terrain. I joined him on a three-day trip, setting up a base camp about 15 miles south-west of Blanding and striking out from it into the desert each day.

Murphy is a rugged old cowboy with a blithe charm and a wry wit, and has been working with mules for close on 50 years, preferring them to horses. “People have the wrong idea about mules,” he says. “They’re not stubborn, they’re intelligent. Back in wartime, you could point them at an enemy line and they’d say, ‘Uh uh, I ain’t goin there.’ Whereas your average cavalry horse ...” And his weathered face creases up in laughter.

Mules are much more than just horses with big ears. With narrow, dense hooves, and a peculiarity of gait that means the hind hooves step in the exact prints of the fore-hooves, they are exceptionally sure-footed. They’ll gracefully find their way up and down slopes that look unassailable. On top of that, you can somehow feel their intelligence. After a while of clomping along on Mona, the whitish mare (or “Molly” mule) that I was put on, I began to realise that she was busy feeling out what I wanted her to do. The merest squeeze of my calves or twitch of the reins, and she would respond immediately, as if she had just been waiting for me to give the signal she was already anticipating.

I had hardly ridden since being put on a horse as a child and exploding in spectacular allergies. But for this trip I dosed myself with the latest sprays and inhalers and felt like I could have been a rider all my life. I even started to get the feeling Mona liked me. I might have been wrong, but short of bucking me off (which she never did) she couldn’t really contradict me. When I dismounted for lunch on the first day, and I was tying her halter to a ponderosa pine, she pushed her head gently into my chest and just stood there, breathing. The one eye I could see at the time shone like a huge polished grey-black gem. It was hard not to fall for it.

The main objective for riders in this part of Utah is not clomping aimlessly through the desert but searching for ruins. It feels good to have a purpose, and there are abandoned dwellings everywhere. A thousand years ago three times as many people lived in this area – about 50,000 – and their favoured habitation was the cliff-dwelling.

Many of these former homes can still be found up side canyons. The people, now known as ancestral Puebloans, who lived in them chose beautiful, harmonious places to live – big cambers on bends in canyon walls, shelves of smooth yellow rock that are like petrified beaches, suspended 100ft or more above the canyon bed. It’s a slog to get up to them, but well worth it. They generally have sweeping views up and down the ravines, and broad overhangs above. With roof and rear wall pre-installed, the inhabitants only had to build three walls of masonry, fitted with mud mortar. You can still see blackened overhangs where they had fires and grooves in the rock where they ground their arrows. Nearby petroglyphs carved into rock faces, of geometric shapes and animal designs, leave some sign of these people’s spiritual lives.

These aerial homesteads sometimes made up sizeable villages. The inhabitants would descend precipitous paths to fetch water, tend crops and hunt for deer and rabbits. They kept turkeys and dogs, both as pets and to eat. Formidable potters and basketeers, they traded with the Aztecs for prized macaw feathers. Otherwise, they had to make do with what their own land provided. Which wasn’t much. To live in harmony with a desert takes know-how, patience, frugality. They lived on just 600 calories a day. But when the “great drought” struck in the 1250s they vanished, dying or moving south into the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico, where their descendants live today.

Ruins in Mule Canyon

It is through the ruins that the landscape comes to life. You can’t help imagining how these people lived: where danger might have come from, where they would have grown corn, where the children would have played. There is something intrinsically inspiring about visiting ruins when you have them to yourself. The distance between our time and those who lived there becomes thin, and you can’t help seeing our own ultimate fate mirrored in their disappearance. It’s humbling too, as you find yourself figuring out the host of skills that each adult must have mastered: making bow strings from animal gut, creating pots from river clay, fashioning grinding stones for corn.

On our first day we had a long ride up Arch Canyon, making our way back at the end of the afternoon, when the late sun enflamed the dust put up by our string of mules. They looked as if they were walking through fire, gliding effortlessly through a smoke-storm back to camp.

Camp itself was in a stand of cottonwood trees in the bottom of Comb Wash, a broad 30-mile-long canyon. A high sandstone ridge skirts one side of it, and a series of rock-waves marks the other, part of the Monument Upwarp – a geologic event that took place 30m years ago in which a bed of rock was forced to the surface from a mile underground. This was the second “upwarp”, and it created the Rocky Mountains; the first had been 300m years earlier. Before then, the whole region was a shallow sea of coral atolls, like the Bahamas, right on the equator.

Steve Holt of T Bar M Outfitters

We built a fire and helped water the mules in the creek, sending ripples across the silvery surface in the twilight. Then Murphy and his assistant Steve Holt offered us a slug each of smoky, sweet whiskey, and we watched the dying sun linger on the topmost leaves of the cottonwoods. When the fire had burnt down, Murphy slapped spice-rubbed steaks on a rack over the coals, and we gathered round with our plates. A frog hopped in and out of the firelight, a ring-tailed cat spooked the mules as it shot into the bushes, and two toads shrieked long into the night.

At dawn, the air under the cottonwoods is cool. Walk 40ft up out of the valley bed, and the breeze is warm. From here you can see how the glossy trees below jostle like a crowd on a narrow street, all the way along the canyon. Birds are calling, one chattering like a magpie, another twanging like a high banjo string. A small, tired, brown creek sifts through the trees – all that’s needed in the desert for a blaze of life.

As always at dawn, patience is rewarded. You look up and a far canyon rim has a golden crust, a band of direct sunlight striking its topmost strata. Soon after, light shoots down a side canyon, turning the trees effervescent green. It is a beautiful start to the day, matched only by a mighty camp breakfast of blueberry pancakes, bacon and eggs, all smothered in maple syrup and washed down by strong cowboy coffee. Then we pack lunches, help saddle the mules, fill the water bottles, and head out for another day’s searching for the traces of earlier humanity in this arid land.

Perhaps the wonder here – fantasies of a lost Paris aside – is not just the peace of an empty land but the fact it has changed so little in so long. We’re face to face with geology, with the bare bones of the planet. Somehow that brings us closer to all living things: we’re all in the same boat, not just the mules and us, but the toads and cottonwoods and cacti, which in spring flower in brilliant purple and yellow. It’s one way of slipping under the hem of our post-industrial world, and rejoining the thousands of generations that preceded us.

No mules required: The desert from a designer poolside lounger

Design and fashion magazines are full of “mid-century modern” furniture and Mad Men-influenced clothes, so it is perhaps little surprise that Palm Springs, California, is enjoying a surge of interest not seen since Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra visited during its 1950s heyday, writes Tom Robbins. The desert city had become increasingly thought of as a destination for retirees, but a string of new openings are drawing a younger, more fashionable clientele.

The Saguaro hotel

The candy-coloured Saguaro, which opened in February, is a renovation of a 1977 building by New York-based architects Peter Stamberg and Paul Aferiat, with 245 rooms arranged around an angular pool and a bar specialising in tequila.

Further west along the same street is the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, a whitewashed 1960s motel updated by the young company behind the Ace properties in Portland, Seattle and New York. With DJs by the pool and the hip Amigo Room cocktail bar, the hotel attracts bands and fans heading to the nearby Coachella and Joshua Tree music festivals.

Architectural tours give visitors an insight into the development of the Bauhaus-influenced “desert modern” style, and every February Modernism Week features films, lectures and parties.

Just north of the city, a building created in 1947 by the architect John Lautner as a prototype for desert living has reopened after a three-year restoration project as the Hotel Lautner. It offers four suites in concrete, glass and redwood, with vintage designer furniture and outdoor showers.

Next year, fans of the desert style will have another compelling reason to visit, with the opening of the Edwards Harris Center, a museum of mid-century design and architecture housed in a 1960 former bank building.

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