by Melanie Webb
“Be grateful for whoever comes, because each guest has been sent as a guide from beyond.” - Rumi
Eiji and I ascended higher into the silence of a still autumn afternoon on the Colorado Plateau. The Wave, iconic redrock remnant of petrified sand dunes, disappeared below us. Twice already we’d cliffed-out, reached dead-ends where our path fell away into the abyss below and forced us to backtrack and work another angle.
“Are you sure you can get back down?” I spoke slowly to my Japanese guest and gestured to the steep slope we had just hiked.
I remained still until I had his buy-in on the route I’d chosen. This had to be a team effort or we wouldn’t succeed. We were several hours into the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, a 280,000 acre geologic treasure on the Utah/Arizona border. There was no room for error and there would be no alternate escape route should Eiji suddenly trigger a forgotten fear of heights.
Eiji took a deliberate look behind him and nodded his head. “Yes. We go on,” he said in his quiet broken English, breathing hard.
Eiji had worked hard to be with me on the rock, and he wouldn’t give up that easily. He made the trip to Colorado last year, only to be rained out by summer monsoons and flashfloods. Back home in Japan, he diligently entered his name in the online government lottery every week for 10 months, each time paying a non-refundable fee to take his chance at being one of the lucky 20 people per day issued a permit to visit this fragile spectacle of rock. His prized permit in hand at last, Eiji traveled nearly 24 hours to spend two days with me photographing hidden rock formations few travelers have seen: Melody Arch, The Alcove, and Top Rock Arch.
It wasn’t only Eiji I was worried about – it was myself. Though I’d guided The Vermilion Cliffs many times, I’d never been to the specific arches Eiji was determined to reach. Land use restrictions applied even to us local guides, and I wasn’t allowed in The Wave without a client. My pre-game ritual of scouting the route to feel connected to the land, know current conditions, and anticipate the challenges of my clients was prohibited. There wasn’t even a topo map of the area, for goodness sake! I felt uncharacteristically dubious about my success.