We were camped beneath a slickrock overhang in Coyote Gulch, Southern Utah, just a hundred yards or so from towering Jacob Hamblin Arch. The lively whispering of flowing water echoed gently off the canyon walls, punctuated by the melodic song of canyon wrens with their six-note descending scale.
I was alone in this narrow oasis of cottonwoods, grasses, shrubs and cactus along a tributary of the Escalante River. Jeff and our young sons were off on an adventure to explore the canyon upstream while I stayed behind to enjoy some solitude in this unspoiled place. I sat listening to the soft rustle of canyon sounds, eyes closed, following my breath, trying to let my thoughts settle–a beginner at meditation. Thoughts flitted through my busy mind, answered by birdsong and water over stones.
Footsteps nearby opened my eyes, and I turned upstream to find a tall, bearded man approaching, staff in hand, pack comfortable on his back. We exchanged greetings and marveled in turn at the beauty of the landscape, and yes, he had encountered Jeff and the boys. Soon our conversation deepened and I invited him to have a seat on the nearby log. “Cup of tea?” I offered. “Sure.”
I lit the little backpacking stove, found cups, boiled water, made tea. We sat sipping and talking, sharing stories of our journeys, reflecting on how it was that we both found ourselves here in this wilderness, in this accident of time and place. “Right now, in my life, I feel compelled to wander with no clear agenda,” he said. Between jobs, between commitments to people, he hoped to clear his mind and find a sense of direction within the landscape.
“We have been here several times,” I shared. “Our boys love coming here and it provides such a valuable respite for all of us from school and jobs and the demands of everyday life.”
Our conversation wandered to the mechanics of backpacking, how freeing the process of winnowing down to the bare essentials could be. He agreed, and then sheepishly admitted that he had pared down just a little too far and had neglected to bring along a spoon. “So how are you managing?” I asked. “Not all that well,” he replied. “I’ve tried using small twigs as chopsticks. They don’t quite get the job done.”
What had inspired me to pack an extra camping spoon? I found it in our gear bag and handed it over. “Here you go,” I said. “I’m glad to be of service.” When I was finally able to convince him that it really was extra, he gladly accepted it and we shared a good laugh. We talked together for perhaps an hour before we hugged and he went on his way.
That was not my first visit to Coyote Gulch, nor my last. This place holds memories of meaningful conversations among family members and friends, and the comfort of walking through a pristine landscape as beauty unfolds. Our sons remember building dams in the river next to our campsite, and bonding with their uncle over scary stories and silly jokes. They remain close and in frequent touch with him to this day. On my first visit to this place, I carried our youngest son in a back carrier—a precious opportunity for closeness between a child and a soon-to-be stepmother.
On our most recent trip to Coyote Gulch, in Spring of 2023, we invited along Jeff’s minister brother and his widowed sister. Within the ease of walking through remarkable landscapes there were conversations about grief and loss, theology, and the challenges of relating authentically with our grown children. Each of us had time to unwind and live into our love and affection for each other. We could let go of burdens and gain fresh perspective.
We also talked about this: What is it that makes a place sacred? Is it something about the place itself and our memories of it, or are some places intrinsically more sacred that others? Could it be that all of creation was initially sacred, and through our neglect and abuse, much had been desecrated? Could it be that the sacredness of some places has been spoiled, and must be sanctified or consecrated anew? All of these words can be traced back to the Latin sanctus, meaning to set apart for special use or purpose, to make holy.
On this topic I have more questions than answers, but I do know this: I have spent time in some places where God’s presence in my life seems just a little easier to access. Coyote Gulch certainly makes this list. Also the island of Iona in Scotland, the lands of the Whidbey Institute, and our own sanctuary here in Seattle. Some people call these “thin places,” believing that the separation between God and humans is thinner there. I am not sure about that, but I do believe this: at the intersection of beauty, good will, humility—and in relationship with others—God works through us to ease our journeys and make us whole. Where are your sacred places?