As Ed Abbey wrote, The very names are lovely. The names are as varied as the bedrock that births them. The people who come many miles to ponder and travel the bedrock are as diverse as the names they give to the stones. Creation built the stone canyons, drawing the people for millennia. The loveliness of the rocks is a flame to the moth.

Generations have come. Photograph 2019 Rebecca Lawton.

Abbey’s Country, he called the rock canyons near the small town he called by name in Desert Solitaire. The town also drew me–a town with a river running through it. At least one scholar has written that the name of the town means “his mother is his father.” Deconstruct that, and you’ll learn something, but you won’t know the history of river running in this town. Here I was a young oarswoman with everything to learn. I lived in a bread van and other moveable homes between commercial trips in the 1970s. I frequented the Poplar Place, where the jukebox often played the Doobie Brothers’ hit, “Black Water.” Somehow we related the Mississippi in it to our own river experiences. I walked the dark alleyways late at night and felt safe and powerful but may have been neither.

We rowed the visitors of the day through the Canyonlands. Now the size of Moab triples during tourist season. It’s not the quirky haven for misfits it was four decades ago, but what town is? The Oasis World Tour took me through the capital cities of most of the desert southwest. All communities had grown in size and speed and median house price since I’d last known them as if, back in the day, there had been no other possible imagined future for any city anywhere.

By the grace of a handful of committed individuals, in each one of those cities resides the radical heart of the curious mind: the independent bookstore. Each store holds shelves of beautiful works, like stone fruit or a geode hiding something secret that must be mined. Each store is tended by a fierce and loving cadre of book lovers whose well-tended shops are home away from home for the literati.

Cliff dwellings, Butler Wash. Photograph 2019 Rebecca Lawton.

After Rediscovered Books in Boise and The King’s English in Salt Lake City (read last month’s Oases post), the tour went to Out West Books in Grand Junction. By the grace of the gods, people came to talk and listen there, too. We conversed about the power of storytelling, narrative arc, and the hero/heroine’s journey. In Moab at Back of Beyond Books and at the Bluff Arts Festival, the desert-writing faithful left the privacy of their homes after dark to listen to words beside the San Juan River, the rocks rising mute and immutable behind, the river carving its meandering path into sand and sandstone.

There’s a bond forged from the love of water and rocks and works and deep, dark skies that endures.

His mother is his father. Photograph 2019 Rebecca Lawton.

Seeing old and new friends, I found it easy to recall days of full river trips in the 1970s and 80s. Long days, with labor from dawn to dark, fueled by desire to live the gypsy life and passion for moving water and immense stone walls. Between trips, I’d drive to Moab to spend summer nights on empty river beaches along the Colorado outside town. The river’s cooling power was always there, although those beaches that are far from empty now. Then I made lonely night drives back to Lee’s Ferry to work again. I found the end of loneliness on trips deep in the Grand Canyon.

The end of loneliness. Photograph 2019 Rebecca Lawton.

At Bookworks in Albuquerque, Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff, and Collected Works in Santa Fe, people came to talk about their love of water and wilderness and listen to mine. The love affairs they shared are long-lived and palpable, not whisked aside easily, but loves that stay lodged behind and between all things. Love of the Grand Canyon, love of the Pecos Wilderness, love of the pueblos, love of stone walls with inscrutable writing called petroglyphs. The very names and shapes are intriguing and, as Ed said, lovely.

“Wesley is an outlaw.” Photograph 2019 Rebecca Lawton.

The tour ended with a visit to Wesley’s grave in Williams, Arizona. The last time I saw his headstone was in 2006. My husband Paul and daughter Rose, just finished with their first Grand Canyon trip, helped me find his granite marker, and we left a gift. A river bandanna? A knife? Whatever it was, it’s no longer there. None of the other unique trinkets left by our mutual friends back then remain either.

This time, I placed a small, green heart by Wesley’s name. The stone heart was given to me by lifelong friends in Salt Lake City at the beginning of the Oasis tour. “For your readings,” they said. Wesley’s grave is outlined with rocks from the terrain in which he lived his life. He’s beneath the soil he returned to after service in Vietnam, after a life of guiding on the river, after he’d installed himself in all our lives.

Nostalgic, and filled with new memories, I made the long haul home, up the east side of the Sierra, through valleys I haven’t visited since I was the mother of a one-year-old. The stones in those valleys found their way into “The Wish,” in Steelies and Other Endangered Species. The mountains are made of slices of faulted terrain, wedged among other slices by tectonics. Their complexity has been the bane of myriad geologists. The language used to describe them can fill lifetimes.

And now, in the Outback, fall windstorms coat us with fine dust. It carries through the air and settles on our roofs, our porches, our pathways. Salt and small bits of rock, everywhere. The tour is a memory, and a good one, and I can’t wait to do it all again.

Find my new book of essays, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press), at your local bookseller, Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

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