Steve Tuttle, MFA program director at BYU, leans over the arch with a camera. Meanwhile, onlookers faint.

Steve Tuttle, MFA program director at BYU, leans over the arch with a camera. Meanwhile, onlookers faint.

Have you ever lived somewhere for seven years before you realized you’d never really lived there, never really seen that location? If you’d asked me this question four weeks ago I would have told you that I already saw Utah just fine. But a few days in the desert landscape showed me a side of Utah I’d never seen.

I went with a group of MFA students from my program in creative writing. The department organized the trip to help us not just bond as a group but also learn how to write about location. Their theory was that if we really saw a place, we’d set aside our postcard imaginings of the place and write about the place in surprising and evocative ways. In essence, we were trying to move past the exotic amazement of tourists.

So we didn’t just watch these formations pass by from a distance. We hiked there, we ate there, we spent the night in a cabin with no cell phone reception. We watched (or fell asleep, as the case may be) an informational video on the rock formations of capitol reef in order to appreciate the millenia of history contained in inches of rock.

These trees squat close to the ground to withstand powerful winds.

And we touched and smelled everything we could. I felt the pine needles of trees. I felt the sides and edges of cliffs. I ran my hand along tree bark and sand. I even ran my finger along the edge of a cactus needle. And I was shocked by how dry everything felt. It was felt as if the plants and rocks were sucking moisture out of my skin.

Aubrey experiences the landscape and seeks shelter from the wind.

Mostly I was shocked and bewildered by the landscape around me. My friend Cherise used to live in California, and she marveled over the color of rock. Cat, another MFA student, continually exclaimed, “The ground is purple!” So I felt the red rock too, and again felt the moisture leave my hands.

At the top of an arch-like rock formation, we learned how distance warps perspective. We reached the top of the mountain and were slapped by winds so strong we worried only half-joking that Aubrey would blow away if she spread out her arms. When two girls stood on the arch and pretended to jump, one of our professors had to sit down and turn away, it was too upsetting to see the illusion of students plummeting to their deaths. But I walked around the chasm and found the arch ten times as wide as I anticipated.

And then at the end of our trip we saw the pictographs of pre-Pueblo Native Americans (also known as Anasazi Indians). Written across and even in the center of these illustrations we also found graffiti from nineteenth century pioneers. It was a sad but stirring reminder of American history.

You can see more photos of this trip on Scott Morris’s website.