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The Portal

He was leaning against the wall of the visitor centre when I came out, shaded from the bright Utah sun. His eyes found my face and he began to shamble towards me. I tried to avoid him, but his two bright eyes sunk into his brown wrinkled face made it impossible. The old Indian – native American, rather – came and stood between me and the car.

‘I have something to give you’ he said, ‘I know you are the right one to have it’

‘How much does it cost?’ I asked suspiciously.

‘Nothing. It is a free gift from the Great Spirit to you through me. Here, take it.’ From an opening in his shapeless clothes he brought out an object and held it up. It was a piece of stone, roughly circular, with a hole in it somewhat off-centre. Round the rim were engraved stylised bird and animal figures. I had already seen a hundred pieces of junk more attractive than this, and I tried to push it away.

‘Here, take it’ he persisted, ‘It is for you’

‘Why me?’ I demanded, feeling the stupidity of my position, standing just outside Arches National Park Visitor Centre arguing with a demented old Indian – sorry, native American. But he thrust the object into my hand and began to turn away. I grabbed his arm. ‘Why are you giving this thing to me? Do you want money?’

He turned and looked me in the eye again, and for an instant the desert wildness looked out of his. ‘The time for me to use it is past, and none of my people have the longing within them. But you do, I saw that at once. It is yours now.’ I pulled out some dollars, but he brushed them away and hobbled off, back towards the highway. I thrust the talisman into my pocket and shrugged as I went over to the hire car.

The drive from the Visitor Centre to the far end of the park is spectacular and soon banished all thoughts of the weird hobo. The landscapes that wild painters produce of alien planets are no more bizarre than that part of Utah. Strange gnarled, pierced and tumbled rocks rise up on all sides, burning in every shade of red and yellow and brown and orange and ochre under the solid blue sky and the merciless sun. In that small area of the south-western USA are more natural rock arches than anywhere else on earth, and I was determined not just to view them but to experience them.

The road ended at the Devil’s Garden trailhead, and I parked and picked up a map of the trail. As advised, I was carrying in my rucksack a plentiful supply of water as well as some food to sustain me through the rough paths and blistering heat that lay ahead. The other tourists and I walked into the Devil’s Garden between massive walls of red sandstone, great fins of rock that jutted up from the earth and created the weird landscape of this part of the park. Small but impressive arches whetted the appetite – Tunnel Arch high up, and Lone Pine Arch with its marvellous view. But a mile down the path we came to the most amazing sight of them all – Landscape Arch.

On a sane world this arch would not exist. A delicate sliver of rock spans a gap of 291 feet, a geological absurdity and a mere transient feature of the local landscape. But there it is, defying all sense, and I struggled along the winding path that rises through the arch and up the hill behind. From there you can stand in the shade and view the countryside framed in the span of red rock. This, I thought, is it – the ultimate experience of this wild land. But the other tourists distracted me, and I wondered if there was a way to be alone with the true spirit of the wind-carved desert.

I went on through the heat, sipping constantly from my water-bottle. I passed other arches, beautiful but not as awesome as Landscape. At one point the trail went along the top of one of the sandstone fins, with a dizzy drop to either side. I came to ‘Double-O’ Arch and climbed through the lower hole to admire the breath-taking view through the upper hole. There were fewer people here, but I still resented their presence and resolved to leave the marked trail and strike out into the true wilderness.

I scrambled over rocks and outcrops and through sand-choked gullies. The red walls cut me off from the tourist-ridden trails and no human voice could now be heard. A lizard scuttled up, ran over my shoe, and disappeared under a bush. At last I felt free, and starting to be in harmony with the wilderness around me. I turned a corner of rock and saw in front of me a tall sandstone fin. A wide round arch was bored right through, and I could see the blue sky beyond. No arch was marked on my map in this position, but there are so many in that area that it was not surprising that one should be omitted.

I climbed the rock slope that led up to the hole in the rock and stood in the centre, looking through it at the landscape to the south. Here at last was the experience I had come for, the true spirit of the desert which ignored humans and all their works. The country was ragged, tumbled and broken, reflecting the light of the sun at the zenith in countless different colours. But as I looked, I noticed something on the far horizon that stirred no echoes in my memory. It was as if a tall silvery needle stood there, reflecting the sun, but I knew of no such thing in the direction of Moab.

Then my gaze travelled down from the horizon, and I saw something even stranger. At the foot of the rocky slope that led down from the portal where I stood was a figure, moving across the sand in an intricate pattern. It was approximately human, but clad in an outlandish costume like that of a native bird-devil-god. It had two arms and two legs, and presumably a head underneath the grotesque mask, but the proportions were subtly wrong, as if the limbs were too long for the body, or jointed at the wrong angles. From the mouthpiece of the mask came a low chanting sound. The figure’s gaze was directed at the ground as it circled and turned, so I was able to watch unobserved.

I was puzzled, but not yet frightened by this apparition. Obviously a medicine man from a local tribe intent on summoning some god or demon by his archaic rite, I reasoned. I remembered the talisman then, and tried to pull it from my pocket. It caught, I tugged, and it flew out and clattered down the slope. The figure looked up and saw me, and the dance stopped at once. I called out ‘Don’t stop!’, but it fell to the ground and seemed to stare up at me as if in the most abject terror. I looked behind and around in case something else had startled it, but we were alone in the wilderness. But as I glanced about, something caught my eye and I looked up into the heavens.

Then terror did strike me, and I fled in wildest panic, back through the portal and down the slope beyond. For looming over me I saw the moon in the daytime sky, halfway to the full but huge, vast, bloated beyond belief. It seemed to fill half the sky, and to be near enough for me to touch its cratered face. The primitive terror that seized me was of being crushed by its great bulk, as well as the knowledge that the universe was totally out of joint. I ran, and my brain’s higher functions had no say in the matter.

Two rangers found me, running and babbling about the moon falling. They stopped me and soothed me and gave me cool water to drink. They pointed out the moon, which was almost full, on the horizon opposite the setting sun, and exactly the same size as normal. ‘You’ve been out in the sun too long’ they said, but I insisted on showing them the place where it had happened. It was easy to retrace my tracks in the sand, and I began to relax a little in their stolid calming presence.

‘Just round the corner you’ll see the arch’ I said, ‘I don’t know what it’s called’

‘There’s no arch near here’ one of them quietly assured me.

‘Look!’ I pointed as we came round the corner of rock. The setting sun shone slantwise on the rock wall in front of us, highlighting every dent and crevice. My tracks led up to the rock face and returned. There was an indentation in the rock but no arch, not even the smallest hole. One of the rangers strode up to the rock where my tracks led and thumped it with his fist.

‘No arch here’ he said, ‘Nor ever has been. Wait a million years or so, perhaps, and the wind and sand will blow an arch through here, but there sure as hell ain’t one now.’

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