Chapter 8: Airwolf and Other Trash
The next morning was Saturday, so I decided to spend the weekend camping out in the canyonlands.
I keep a second set of bike bags packed and ready to go with all of my camping gear. All I have to do is fill up all of my water containers — two bottles on the bike frame, a large CamelBak that I wear going down the road, and another flexible water bag in one of the bike’s panniers — and fill the other pannier with a mix of ready-to-eat and easy-to-cook camping foods. Swap bags with my commuting set and I’m out the door and ready to get close to nature for a few days.
At the last minute, I decided to throw in the doomed bike shorts. I had a plan for those.
I decided to take Kane Creek Boulevard southwest along the river, away from Moab this time, getting out into some of the areas a bit less traveled than Arches, which was mobbed by tourists this time of year.
If you ever saw the old TV show Airwolf, you know the kind of country we have around here. The opening sequence was shot a few hours drive away from here, but it’s all part of a broad stretch of similar country across most of Southern Utah, with spectacular red sandstone formations all over it.
You should now be thinking: here we’ve got a renegade helicopter crew living near Los Angeles, and they fly 600 miles into southeast Utah to park their helicopter, then they drive back to LA, probably 700 miles because of all the winding backroads, only to arrive a solid day later, clearly exhausted from packing a two-day road trip into one, with red sand dust all over their Jeep, but looking all innocent-faced. “What black high tech helicopter, Mr. Scary Government Spy Man? I got no such helicopter! You see a black helicopter? See, this one’s white and has stars on, not all black and spy-looking! Stop looking at that Jeep! You get your hands off my gas receipts! What do you mean it says I filled up in Mexican Hat, Utah, then in Kingman, Arizona? There’s certainly no helicopter hidden out in the Valley of the Gods! Ridiculous! Why would anyone park a helicopter way out there? You know how much avgas costs‽”
Airwolf is fun, but kind of stupid. It’s even stupider when dubbed into Marathi, one of the 22 official languages in my birth country, the one I happened to have grown up speaking.
Just then, I realized that I’d pulled an Airwolf on that cop last night. Mid–1980s American TV taught me how to lie to authority figures. Thanks, Hollywood! Well, it was time to go park those black and red bike shorts out in the middle of the Utahan desert, permanently.
I biked about four miles away from town down the Kane Creek Boulevard until I came to a canyon entrance. I got off the bike and started wheeling it up into its sandy bottom. This was plenty remote for my immediate practical purposes, and it was also well suited to my later spiritual purposes.
I hiked several bends back in from the road with my bike, stopping about half a mile in. Almost all of the tourists would just pass the canyon entrance by, staying on the road. Even if some adventurous tourist did walk up the canyon, I was betting none would make it up this far. A mountain bike walked up a canyon wash doesn’t leave much of a trail. The first good wind to come along would erase it.
There’s an old hiker’s saying, “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos.” Well, I wasn’t even going to be taking photos this trip. I didn’t have any electronics on me at all, not even a digital wristwatch. I’d left most of my high tech camping gear back at home, carrying nothing more technologically advanced than a humble nylon stuff sack. I’d be leaving even that behind in due course.
I stopped at a spot that gave me plenty of sun most of the day, being lined up roughly East-West. The canyon also broadened out here with a significant rise toward the edges before it became too steep to camp on, giving me some security against flash flooding should a freak thunderstorm come up. We don’t get a lot of rain out in the desert, just about 9 inches total around here all year, but every few years we get a real gully rusher, and these sandstone canyons absorb almost none of it along the way. The rainwater just gets funneled straight down the canyon, building up the further down-canyon it goes, washing out anything in its way. Hikers and campers get killed by these storms every now and then, their bodies ending up battered and drowned miles down-canyon from their campsite.
Imagine a river that someone had dammed up long enough for the riverbed to dry out, then you put your campsite right there in the center of the riverbed, and then they open the dam on you. That’s what a desert flash flood in a sandstone canyon wash is like. PSA for the day, kids: Don’t set up camp in a riverbed, even if it happens to be dry at the time you arrive. The more you know… ? Ba dum da daaa! ?
I got my campsite set up on a rock shelf a couple of feet above the wash, then I stripped naked, stuffed my biking outfit into the trunk bag, retrieved the other night’s offending bike shorts from same, and took off hiking up the canyon, my tackle swinging freely and my buns caressed gently by a breeze. There’s no feeling exactly like nude hiking, especially when completely bare, scalp-to-soles. Even walking up a nude beach isn’t quite the same.
A couple of miles up I found another nice wide spot, so I sat down underneath a juniper. Junipers are stunted, twisted, broad trees, perfectly suited to a dry climate, not tall and straight like most conifers. They look like overgrown bonsai trees. The wood smells a bit like cedar, but it’s usually only red in the heartwood, if at all. It makes excellent firewood, being easy to split and easy to light.
I wouldn’t be burning anything this trip, though.
Not exactly, anyway.
I lay the shorts out flat in front of me, away from the tree’s base, slipped into a working trance, and concentrated on the fabric of the shorts. The synthetic fabric is a petroleum product, being spun from a type of plastic. It’s pretty far from natural in that state, but ultimately it’s just a long chain of hydrocarbon molecules, which is natural. All we have to do is unravel it.
Once I’d sat down and fully grokked the nature of the fabric, I began to see how I could start reducing it to simple molecules like pulling a loose thread on a sweater. Once I got the pattern going, I could let it loose semi-autonomously, running until it’d consumed everything, as long as I fed it a trickle of power. The long polymer molecules began to unwind, then to fall apart into shorter and shorter segments under the spell that rearranged matter to match my demands. Eventually, I was left with a bunch of carbon dust and a whiff of ozone. A bit of the hydrogen combined with oxygen from the air, producing water, and a bit of the carbon dust oxidized as well, making CO₂.
I’d done a few things like this before, but it’d be a stretch to say that I was skilled in the technique. Yet, the result was still cleaner than if I’d literally set the shorts on fire. Technically, I did burn them, defined as rapid oxidation leading to a release of heat and other byproducts, but with less soot and melty synthetics than doing it the old fashioned way. If I worked at it, I think I could get the process down to almost entirely vapors. I hoped my new friend the juniper liked the CO₂ I just fed it.
I then turned my attention to the foam rubber in the crotch chamois, also a hydrocarbon byproduct but with a different structure, so I had to break it down separately. A few dozen seconds later I had another moist black smudge on the sand, as natural as a coal seam.
There now, Officer Poulsen, prove that I ever owned such a pair of shorts!
I lay down in a star shape on my back and reached out to feel around me for anything unnatural. I found a faded and dented Coke can about 15 feet away by magical touch. Turing and Ritchie give me patience!
I went over, picked that up, and put it up on a sandstone shelf. Then I lay back down and began to feel outwards once again. Items placed up on that sandstone shelf were easy to ignore, rock being so nearly dead that it didn’t register at the level I was looking at. 20 minutes later, I’d found several other bits of trash, getting increasingly irritated at my fellow humans. It was like pimples on a Playmate!
With the area cleared of trash, I lay out and this time metaphorically melted into the Earth. My body still lay atop the warm sand of the wash, soothed by a light breeze, but I could also feel down into the Earth and out for a radius of perhaps twenty feet. I spent a good hour just soaking it all in.
I then turned over to avoid a sunburn, eager to do another hour that way. The feel of the breeze and sun over your bared buns and back is another experience from the same over your front parts, and I wanted it all.
In some sense, I was making love to Gaia, far more intimately than any human coupling.