Rivers in the Desert: A Roadtrip to Utah's Canyonlands
It was past midnight as my roommate, Chelsey, and I sat outside a Motel 6, the neon “no vacancies” sign lit up through the reception windows.
“Hello, we have no vacancies,” greeted another voice over the phone as we continued calling every single reputable, bed-bug-free hotel in the city. We had just driven 14 hours across the hills of Tennessee and Arkansas, through the empty plains of Oklahoma and the flashing red windmill lights of the panhandle of Texas, only to have Amarillo go all Bethlehem on us—“there is no room in the inn.”
The next major city was Albuquerque, still four hours away, the road between the two cities black and empty, just prairie dissolving into the darkened desert. Even hotels in tiny towns dotting the Interstate within an hour in all directions were at capacity.
Do we sleep in the car? We debated. And if we do, where does one park so as not to get murdered? The police station, I suggested. (Note to self: This is actually illegal.) The Walmart parking lot?
“Sleep in shifts,” Chelsey’s dad strongly advised. But what the heck do I do during my awake shift? Plus, it was cold, and windy, and we had no blankets. Sleeping in our car was not part of the plan.
In fact, driving across the country was also not part of the plan.
Originally, we were to fly into Denver, rent a car, take a 5.5 hour road trip through the Rockies to the tiny red rock valley town of Moab, Utah, our destination for the week. A perfectly sensible plan, save for it is March in Colorado, and a Tuesday of sunshine can quickly dissolve into a Wednesday blizzard that shuts down the city of Denver, its airport, and the Interstates that traverse the plains of Colorado. And that it did, one of the biggest snowstorms to hit the state in years.
So we did the next most sensible thing one can do when faced with cancelled flights and a nonrefundable Airbnb that’s waiting for you, empty, seven states away: We got in my car, and we drove there.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to sleep in shifts in the Walmart parking lot, after all.
Lubbock, TX, the true hero of this story and an hour south, had an open hotel room. So with a One Direction playlist bumping, we pointed the car down the empty Texas Interstate, the moon now a bright bulb inching closer to the horizon, the night only a few hours away from dissolving into day. We arrived at our hotel at 4am—17 hours after we had begun.
And then only a handful of hours later, we were on the road again, headed into that Great American West.
I read a quote in the book Eiger Dreams, recently:
“I grew up in the Deep South, where you’re surrounded by thick, soft trees, and it’s hard to see the sky because of the humidity. The landscape, by and large, is flat. Nature doesn’t confront you there.”
While I was home in Louisiana this summer, I thought about this—the heavy blanket of humidity, the broad-armed pecan trees, the levees against the muddy river, all hemming you in to create a small space for you—“a cloistered existence” as this man described it. Your eyes are limited to your own slice of life, and there is charm there, no doubt, a coziness.
But when you head west, the land opens up before you like a sunflower in summertime.
Suddenly the horizon isn’t the magnolia tree in your backyard—it’s a mountain range thirty miles to your south, the gap between filled with cholla cactuses as plentiful as dandelions on the Louisiana highway.
Suddenly the sky isn’t simply a small window of blue above you, but the entire earth itself.
So for a few sunny days in March, I was confronted by the west.
And for a few sunny days in March, I was confronted by the things that had been weighing on my heart during the previous months.
Because, real talk: I spent the first three months of this year stuck firmly in 2018. It had been both a beautiful year and a heartbreaking year crunched together, like strangers sat uncomfortably close to one another on a subway train at rush hour.
A relationship that I had hoped to mend ended without even the dignity of goodbye, like turning the page in the middle of a novel only to realize the rest of the book is bound with blank, empty pages. No resolve to the story. An ending that never really ended.
And while 2018 bowed out like a rendition of “so long, farewell” by the Von Trapp children, and 2019 made its way onto the stage with taps and jazz hands, I was disappointed by the closed curtain of the former year—my plans gone sour, my foolish decisions, my seemingly-unanswered prayers.
Because here’s the thing I’m learning about prayers—answers often do not come instantly.
And here’s the thing about me—I’m a terribly impatient person, which is a thrilling quality to possess when you are on a 24-hour road trip. But after a general observation of human nature, I know that I’m not alone in this right-now-please attitude.
Waiting is Time’s equivalent of my cat scratching on my door in the middle of the night—annoying as hell. And yet, we’re always waiting on something: a career to shift, a relationship to change, a vacation to arrive, Christmas to come, an invoice to be paid, Donald Trump’s presidency to finally be over. And that really gets my goat, because I’m an instant gratification type gal. “Immediately” is a really wonderful word when it’s applied to things I want. I would make for a terrible farmer or nanny.
There are some prayers I have been praying for years—desert prayers—the kind of prayers that seem just a little bit impossible when you look at them from a human perspective. And as I look at the passing months and years on the calendar, I begin tapping my foot and watching the clock like I’m back in high school all over again desperate for class to end. I grow impatient, sometimes even confusing the lack of visible evidence to my prayers answered as straight-up unanswered prayers.
And then I begin questioning the power of prayer at all, which can quickly lead to a downward spiral of hopelessness.
And it was in this emotional space that I arrived, with a sleep-deprived headache that two Starbucks mochas did little to relieve, in Moab, Utah.
Moab and the surrounding land is a place of rock—the Colorado Plateau cut over millions of years by river and wind to create towering arches and spires that rise up like worship and a maze-like labyrinth of canyons. Massive boulders appear to glow from within as the moon shines upon them and the sand seems to sparkle like starlight at high noon. Silence mixed with raven calls bounce off the canyon walls. And then there are those desert skies… always the skies.
There’s a verse in Isaiah—this verse and I go way back—that I came across shortly after returning from Utah.
“Remember not the former things,
Nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing.
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness,
And rivers in the desert.”
Those words from Isaiah promise “rivers in the desert”—at first, a seemingly pastoral, gentle scene.
yet I have seen what rivers in the desert can do. Rivers in the desert are powerful forces capable of shaping entire landscapes.
But—and here’s the kicker to my impatient li’l heart—they are slow workers, cutting out canyons miles-deep into the earth over millions of years.
Of course, it’s the same as our own lives.
Rarely does change come as quickly as the sending of a text. And that’s true of answered prayers, too. It takes time—more time than floats my boat, but God never asked for my advice on his timeline, I suppose. It’s easy to let the song of “How long?” steal your hope when waiting on God.
But I’m coming to realize that it’s often in the slow work that prayers are answered, that miracles are made, that promises are kept, and that canyons are cut by rivers in the desert.