Into a rain-filled room

Red showed no sign of going green, and the streetscape was slow to inspire. I felt my vision narrow and my grip tighten on the wheel. Expletives surged toward my voice box. Just in the nick of time, Rachael shed some much-needed light on that view of taco shacks and gas-n-sips.

A few choice words on the Zuni kiva, a place devoted to worship of an earlier world, were all it took to blow apart that twisted urban reality. She explained that adherents entered the kiva’s round embrace through a tiny, roof-top opening, all in the name of inducing a sense of rebirth. Known as the “rain-filled room,” the kiva symbolized the lower worlds from which the Zuni came to the earth’s surface. Worship complete, the same small entrance recycled the people to the upper world. A smile returned to my face, and my grip softened as the light turned. We were back on the road and back on track. Far off, the San Rafael Swell beckoned.

The path through central Utah’s Mussentuchit Badlands and the Moroni Slopes actually passes much more easily than the long highway miles leading to them. Not generally known for their road building, the miners of the uranium boom had actually been kind to the dirt spurs leading to Cable Canyon. Drifting over occasional washboard and an infrequent wash-out, we journeyed dozens of miles from the last patch of asphalt and hundreds from the nearest gas-n-sip.

That forgotten desert corner revealed itself in typical badlands fashion, sandstone escarpments jutting above alien grays and reds. And as they eased on, those deceptive slopes began to reveal a boon. At the edge of the Moroni, an impressive canyon complex yawned.

Dropping into Cable Canyon began with a squeeze through the tight confines of “the Slide,” a steep incline laden with brush and silt. With every step and trip downwards, the Moroni Slopes slipped behind the curtain of hundreds of feet of sheer sandstone. With every step, a flashing “no exit” sign blipped in my mind.

The sensation was complete after a mandatory 30-foot rappel. We had entered the hole. The canyon’s back-door presented the only hope of making it back to the world of asphalt.

Journeying through the Slide, we submitted to tight, rough places narrowly squeezing our packs and shoulders through the confines of the rock. A sliver of blue sky and occasional wisp of cloud loomed high above, bearing witness to our slow progress.

The squeeze through the Slide eventually relaxed, opening wide and greeting us with a broad valley laced with a maze of shallow washes. Bumps of sandstone rested below as a fortress of tall walls closed us in this unexpected sanctuary. Temporarily lost, we opted to spend the night in that open section. In the remaining daylight, we gazed on walls worn smooth by thousand-year-old drips. Our ears followed the movement of winds as they danced across cliffs, through washes and over petrified sand dunes.

With adequate food and water, we could have remained forever sealed in that rare slice of desert and uniquely lonely corner of the world. Unfortunately, the area’s only sustenance rested on our backs. With that in mind and the dawning of a fresh day, it was time to come unstuck, time to find our way out the labyrinth’s other end.

Leaving some of our course to chance, we stumbled upon the exit canyon. The path out of that inner room also tightened to a squeeze and made for slow but involving progress. Where the Slide had been rough and tumble, the exit was one of the most magnificent canyons in the Swell. A long black thread curling through stone, an endlessly twisting narrow canyon shuttled us out.

Scrambling over chockstones, working past giant falls and tip-toeing across calm pools frozen in the canyon’s depths, Rachael and I inched our way through the belly of the earth, gradually making a return to the surface.

The loop closed as we stepped back onto the Moroni. Standing on those slopes, it became clear that something beyond an adventure in tight places had dawned on this journey. And as we made our way back home, the Moroni, Mussentuchit and even the interstate carried different hues. Many hours later, back at a stop light and staring out at taco shacks and gas-n-sips, the sensation was complete. The knot had been cut. Red quickly turned to green. Our “rain-filled room” had started to work its magic.

– Will Sands