Notes on arrival, Southeastern Utah, May 1994


Notes on ArrivalTraveling through the desert southwest makes me write bad poetry. The cerulean sky aches longingly under my ballpoint pen. Amber-colored, deathflies, agate, cataract.

I’m on my first trip away from home, unless you count a couple of trips to different camps in grade school, which I don’t.

There are five travelers, two cars, and a little-used CB channel between us. Though I should, I don’t know how to drive yet, so I spend the ride stretched across the backseat of the front car. It’s a navy Volvo sedan, and no one but Warren drives it. His roommate John rides shotgun. If I am not working on my terrible poems, I am sketching the hills that lunge past my window.

“Hey.” Tony says from the red Corolla bringing up the rear. He and his girlfriend Shelly organized the trip. They work with John and Warren stuffing futon mattresses back in Portland. Tony and Warren and I all went to high school together.

“Hey, man. Hey.” Warren says back. They crack one another up like this for hours.

I don’t stuff futons. I sleep on a cheap, thin mattress on the floor of a room that the last tenant painted a searing turquoise. I am a twenty-year old art school student and Tony invited me on this trip to act as the photo-journalist.

I have the last line to a poem that I write again and again in the margins of my notebook. The startling first birds have risen in Utah; it feels like a last line. I have this sense of myself as a finisher. My third year of college is over, and I’ve finished it successfully, just like I’ll finish college. Like I finished high school. Some days I feel like a dairy cow, waiting for the chute before me to open, so that I know which direction to walk.

But today, I’m riding in the backseat and it feels like floating. I draw a single tire rolling across the stubbled clay I can see beyond the backseat window. The road we’re on isn’t even on the map bouncing around the backseat with me.


The Comb Ridge is loosely west of Bluff, Utah, but it feels like the middle of nowhere. We get there late in the afternoon and set up camp across the highway in the wash, under a hot sun. Tony and Warren refuse to pay for camping, so they drive the cars far enough off the road that they won’t be seen.

The rest of the daylight is spent as lizards, draped over rocks, lazily putting tents together, acclimatizing. We have a terrible dinner of undercooked white rice with canned stewed tomatoes (“camping food”), then head to our tents. I am off the map, I think. My mother only has a vague notion of where I am. In two days I’ll be twenty-one.

At first, it’s country-quiet outside. But after only a few moments, intimate murmurs shush from one of the other tents, snoring from another, and the third is silent. Then, the frogs begin to croak and the toads to screech and the sound follows the ribbon of stream off into the canyon. I unzip the side of my sleeping bag, and stretch out like a starfish.


The startling first birds have risen in Utah.

The next morning greets us with overcast, low-hanging skies and a steady drizzle. We came from rainy Portland to the parched majestic desert and it looks just like home. At least we aren’t afraid of rain.

We pick through prickly pears and soft, gray sagebrushes, making our own trail. The sage smells spicy in the wet air and it mixes with the sweet dust of the red clay, which clings to our boots, leaving pink parentheses wherever we climb.

Up one side of a low rock face, there is natural depression, nearly a cave. Inside is a crumbling bricked wall. We scramble up and walk through the rooms, look out someone’s thousand year old window, stuff our pockets with chips of painted pottery no bigger than pinkie fingernails. Then we slide back down the cliff side squealing through the wetness and starkness of the shrubs and rocks and cacti around us. I take pictures of everyone. I take pictures of the rocks, the bricks, the clouds in the sky. Later, I’ll regret the pottery shards, but for today, there is only possibility.

I don’t know that in less than three months I will meet the man that, in one more year, I will marry. My life will narrow, the chutes fewer and the walks between them longer. I will get a career, then my marriage will collapse. I will get a house, and then the economy will collapse. Suddenly, with nothing and no one to tether me, it will be just like this again: a wide open space stretching out before me.


The startling first birds have risen in Utah.

On the morning of our departure, I wake up early. Rustling comes from the tents, the sounds of spines cracking, stuff sacks being stuffed. Zippers zipping up and down. Lighters flicking against morning cigarettes.

“I’ll start the coffee,” I hear someone whisper to someone else.

I stand at the edge of our campground in a violet light and inhale the dry perfume of desert air. My eyes trace the routes we have picked through and over the wash, the terrain more familiar now, but still pathless. I make an impossible promise to myself to remember everything.

We are not alone: a tinkling, chicking, and croaking chorus of warblers, wrens, sparrows, and kingbirds bounces wildly around the canyon. It takes a moment for my ears to adjust to the depth of the sound, like pupils to dim light. From where I stand, it feels like I can hear for miles, the sound progressively more layered and complex. It feels like the entire continent, the whole of the globe, is just this desert, this great expanse. I turn toward camp, I want to explain the birds, the distance, the way that even I feel edgeless, somehow, but everyone is in motion, folding tent poles, fluffing powdered eggs in a skillet, swirling sandy water in yesterday’s coffee cups. The moment passes into action and before long, we are packed back into the cars and on the road toward home.    .


Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of Ologies (Etchings Press, 2015). Her essays have appeared in OrionSonora ReviewPassages NorthBrevity, and others. She is a former Olive B. O’Connor writing fellow, and has an MFA in creative writing and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming.