The morning sky is as blue as Xiuhtecuhtli’s eyes, dotted with sunrise-stained clouds as red as a vintner’s sponge. Below the clouds are short, white cliff walls that gently reflect the light of the sunrise, like the soft, diffused light given off by an old lanthorn. Below the cliff walls is a wind-twisted, arthritic juniper tree, and below the juniper tree is an old, beat up tent, from which I emerge to observe the cyanic sky, the vermeiled clouds, the lambent cliff walls and the catalepsic juniper.
From my backpack I remove the maps I’ll be using today and carry them to some flat rocks, where l sit down in the sun and spread out my maps across the ground with their tops oriented to the north. I remove my compass from my pocket, and when I do a delightful tingle of anticipation blossoms at the base of my spine and spreads to the crown of my head, sowing goosebumps the length of my back. I let the needle settle north and lay it on the rocks beside the maps.
I bend over the maps and peruse them, carefully studying the features of the terrain, trying to determine places where I’m most likely to find water and what areas look most appealing to explore. Because it’s all unexplored (by me) and wild and uninhabited, it all looks appealing!
I love that unique feeling I get when I’m in the middle of the desert, maps and compass laid out before me, with some free time to explore it. It’s a feeling I’ve named the Explorer’s Exuberance!
To a curious explorer, there is nothing more alluring than a blank spot on a map, and the possibilities it represents. We humans like being the first to explore an unexplored area. It’s humanity’s oldest story.
It’s probably encoded in our very DNA. It’s the archetypal quest story; what mythologist Joseph Campbell termed the Hero’s Journey, which is when a curious member of the village strikes out into the unknown for the simple reason of discovering what’s there, then returns to the village with the news of what he or she has discovered. And the lessons they learned while they were out there.
To a curious explorer there is no thrill greater than standing at the edge of what has been mapped. Right there at the threshold where the known butts up against the unknown. And your day’s journey will carry you out into that sweet, uncharted territory.
It’s the unknown, of course, that makes the blank spots on a map so intriguing. And all the emotions that accompany it. Wonder. Fear. Anticipation. Awe. Danger. Courage. Doubt. And the incomparable magic of discovery.
In our current age of exploration, we’re not likely to discover anything more than the beauty of the land itself.
But wait! That’s still a lot. Certainly reason enough to assemble our Argonauts and set sail.
Don’t worry that you won’t be the first to see Yellowstone’s geysers, the first to raft down the Colorado River, the first to sail up the Hudson. Being the hundred-thousandth person to wake up in a Yosemite meadow isn’t so bad either. When it’s your first time, it’s all white space to you!
I was one of those lucky people born with a magic key. Curiosity is its name. And I’ve used it to unlock many mysterious doors.
Here I am again today. Standing at the edge of a new threshold. With nothing but that beautiful, beautiful white space lying before me.
Even as I stand at the threshold of the day’s trail, I know I won’t fill in any blank spots on any maps but there are still numerous other blank spots I’ll be filling in as I explore today.
I have with me a thick journal. Its leaves are still white, blank; just waiting for the pen.
And tonight, at the end of my day’s explorations, I’ll sit down at the campfire and fill in those blank pages with notes and anecdotes from the day’s adventure and discoveries, its hardships and triumphs, its hard-earned, twice-learned lessons.
What a wonderful feeling: to hoist my pack onto my back, look down the long sandy trail and wonder, What story will I find today? How thrilling, how wonderful will be the story that will fill its pages? What lessons from today will I catalog into my personal almanac of knowledge?
I also have a blank memory card in my camera that I’ll be filling with images from today’s amazing adventure. And when that’s done I’ll print those pictures and use them to fill in the white spaces on my walls back home with photos from this and many other adventures.
I also want to fill in the white pages of my passport with stamps from around the world. I also have a couple bookshelves in my living room that have empty, blank shelves. The bottom five rows are filled with books, but the top two rows of each bookcase are reserved for the strange little knick-knacks and curios I find when I’m out in the varied deserts, woods and rivers I explore.
Already those shelves are quite full. They contain a rusty tin Spam can I found during a fishing trip deep in the Uintas. A rubber duck I found during a river trip. A pine cone from a backpacking trip to Cedar Mountain. Seashells, driftwood, antique bottles, an antler, polished river stones, a machete-split coconut husk, moqui marbles, heart-shaped rocks, a rusty spark plug and an antique skeleton key (how apropos!).
To anyone else it must certainly look like a collection of junk. But it’s not. Each item I see has a fond memory of a grand adventure attached to it.
When I look at the rubber duck, my memory immediately flashes back to a wonderful river trip in the Grand Canyon. When I look at the old glass bottle, I remember coming across it in an old cowboy camp as we wandered through the Northern Arizona desert. When I look at the seashell, I recall four wonderful days surfing in southern California.
And I’ve left a blank space on the shelves for more knick-knacks from future explorations. And when those two bookshelves are filled, I’ll build another shelf and fill it up, too.
There’s something beautiful about the white space of an explorer’s garage, too. The items, tools and gear hanging on the walls of an explorer’s garage represent the white space of his or her future adventures.
When I walk into my garage and see hanging on its walls my snowshoes, my surfboard, my hatchet, my backpack, I am filled with tingles of anticipation for future adventures and explorations. And in another sense, the items in an explorer’s garage are also his or her trophy case. Like the knick-knacks on my bookshelves, they stand as totems representing past adventures. I can’t look at my snowshoes and not remember with great fondness the four days spent snowshoeing across the Virgin River Rim Trail. I can’t see my old Eagle Claw fishing pole resting on its pegs and not think fondly of any of a multitude of family fishing trips.
These are my treasures. Because what is Life’s Journey but a long, blank spot that we fill in as we go?
What amazing little treasure will I find today?
Though today’s journey is not a treasure hunt I will, nonetheless, finish the day with treasures in my pocket, in my notebook, in my camera.
After several minutes deliberation I decide I’ll go west into Woodenshoe Canyon today. I fold up the maps I won’t be using and slip them back into the mapbook.
I stuff my sleeping bag into my backpack. I change from my fleece into some cargo shorts and a t-shirt because I know I’ll warm up quickly as soon as I start hiking. I slip a Clif bar into my pocket to eat later. I break down my tent, roll it up and strap it to my backpack. I put on my socks and boots. I put sunscreen on my face and put it back into my backpack. I put on my hat and, with a grunt, hoist on my backpack. I pick up the map and compass and look west down today’s sandy, unexplored trail.
What a great privilege to stand on the morning trail with a map in one hand, compass in the other, and watch the compass needle turn its attention north, much like myself turning my face toward the horizon, wondering what amazing miracles I’ll encounter today? What story awaits the blank pages of tonight’s journal? What pictures will I emboss on my camera’s memory card?
What strange little desert curio will catch my attention and earn a spot on my bookshelf, to forever remind me of this glorious day I spent exploring in Utah’s deep desert.
The needle settles north and I feel the Explorer’s Exuberance pour into me like electrified champagne bubbles.