southern steppe canyon [june7 21]

south of the steppe valley where i went to college are the winding canyon roads that bend and bow like narrow rivers. carved into the canyon walls they flow southward and upward, eventually spitting out in the high hills of the plateau windlands. they branch into old tunnels or trail off to ancient mining shafts that are crumbled or collapsed. like all rivers, dead things wash up on their banks.

the first time we rode out to the canyons was to escape the yearly summer fires that creep over the eastern hills, pouring smoke down into the valley. the smoke lays in a thick haze and covers the valley floor for weeks until the dog winds pick up and carry it all out to the mountains.

when the valley was submerged in smoke we had two options for how to spend our days. we could either lay blankets to cover the gaps under the doors and shutter the windows, drinking the day away and breathing silted air piped in through the whining external cleaners, or we could drive somewhere-- anywhere-- outside the valley. upperclassmen told us about the regular places they escaped to, the waterfalls along the creek further west or the limestone caves in the pine forests directly north passed the turbines.

we wanted to find something for ourselves, though. we packed in my little green car and pointed it south.

we followed Main street out of town and crossed the railroad tracks. Main became the old cross border highway. we rose with it up on to the foothills of the valley's southern ridge where the smoke could not reach. we looked back to the bracken tide of grey brown fog before dipping away, down into the canyon.

the canyon was a rugged beauty. the rock walls were streaked pale yellow and rose. the air was hot and clear and bony shrubs grew out of the gravel banks beside the road. we drove slowly, admiring the colors and patterns of the rock, coasting along serpentine bends of the canyon floor. the walls curved east and the road with it, and the floor became shaded and cool. we pulled over to lay on boulders and smoke and drink. we parked and gathered our things and walked along the gravel bank and found two black garbage bags.

the bags were both similarly filled and sat neatly next to each other. they were knotted on the top and laid wide and flattish on the ground. they shone darkly like ground beetles. we turned and walked back a ways toward the car to lay ourselves out.

for hours we drank beers the same color as the blonde canyon walls and smoked all the tobacco we had. the sky greyed to twilight as we sobered and i stepped away to piss before we crowded into the car again to return to the valley. i found the bags again. i relieved myself and watched the black knots twitch in the evening wind. i wondered what people in the canyon dumped on the roadside.

i stepped over to the near one and crouched next to it. i laid my hand on its surface and felt fur against the plastic. i quickly stood and stepped back. a hideous smell followed me. it was rotten meat, sulfuric and touched with sweetness. it blossomed in my sinuses and into my mouth. i stumbled away and quickly rejoined the group. the evening sun painted the canyon red.

we returned many months later in spring. i drove us deeper into the canyon where it split, the right branch becoming a small network of gravel paths leading to the ancient mining stations. we continued left along the paved highway and came upon a bloated horse laying dead on the roadside. we were strangely shaken and i felt soft between the hot canyon walls streaked with red. we looked away when we rode passed it quietly on the way back home.

the last time we were there was to explore the old tunnels. they were for the old rail system that ferried material to and from the mines. the rails ran vaguely parallel to the highway, boring through the rock to maintain an even and gentle path where the canyon jutted and and angled harshly.

the tunnels that still stood open had high ceilings with floors covered in layers of rubble. some of them had skylights where the earth above had fallen through. graffiti covered the rough walls, "The Wandering Vauxhall of the Folklore Brothers" was scrawled in white chalk in most all that we visited.

one of the larger tunnels had one enormous skylight in the center of its ceiling. directly under it on the rocky floor was a mound of dead birds. it was a pile of pheasants and crows and brushbirds chest high. rock crumbled somewhere deep within the tunnel. we ran.

when i think of that canyon i feel the softness again. softness of my body and my mind, vulnerable between the jagged rock walls of the canyon. i felt naive, being scared and darkly curious about the patterns of life there that i didn't understand. it was so quiet and bright and clear and peaceful. and all the animals we ever found there were dead.