Stonework of eons

A May morning in the Arizona desert. Except for cactus and juniper trees, there is nothing breaking through the sea of sand. I have been walking down a shallow gully that presses gently into the earth. This was the key, a friend had said: follow the gully and you would find yourself at the portals of a hidden canyon, one so narrow it could only be entered by turning sideways.

He had said more, telling of a passageway in the desert - a sinuous corridor chiseled in pink sandstone. Go at noon, he had advised, when the sunlight falls directly into the cleft; the canyon turns luminous, the pink sandstonE sKems translucent. It is, he said, like passing through the interior of a conch shell.

I recall his words as the gully suddenly plunges into the sand, funneling into a rock crack two feet in width. Cool air comes up at me out of the threadlike fissure.

For a moment I hesitate; passage seems impossible. But then I turn to one side and begin to shuffle, arms above my head, down into the opening. Gracelessly, pitched at an angle, following the canyon's steep descent. In a matter of minutes, the desert floor is high above me and the vaulting walls have pinched the broad Arizona sky to a filament of blue.

The canyon twists every few yards in serpentine curls, giving each sudden bend the illusion of finality; I have no idea of what lies ten feet ahead. A rattlesnake, my friend told me, had been lying around one corner when he was here last. The snake, apparently carried down during a rainstorm, was unharmed and very much alive. One of them, my friend recalled, had retreated.

But that was years ago, I tell myself, stepping gingerly ahead. Today there is nothing on the floor of the canyon but sand, and more of it patters down as I scrape my way along, brushing against the fine-grained walls.

After some time, the canyon relents. It widens first to a yard, then seems to become cavernous, though I can still reach out and touch both sides at the same time. Far overhead, sunlight slides into the crack; the desert glare, reflected from side to side as it falls, changes to a soft amber half-light by the time it reaches me. In the dusk the rock would turn monochrome, but now at noon, the sunlight plays with the pigment of the stone, and the walls are a prism of color: luminous yellows up near the rim, peach and salmon shades partway down the cliff, then, here at the bottom, a rich deep plum.

No sounds are in the canyon. The wind scouring the desert cannot penetrate this deep crack, and so it is a sanctuary of stillness, as silent as the cells of the ancient Desert Fathers.

At one point the canyon flares enough to let sunlight fall unbroken. For just a moment, standing in the shafts of light, surrounded by the silence and soaring stone columns, I feel as though I wandered into a cathedral - a Sunken Cathedral , as in the title of the Debussy prelude, this one engulfed by sand rather than sea.

Thoreau once wrote that ''the finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of wind and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time.'' This canyon is Thoreau's witness, for the rock has not been sheared but caressed. I move slowly through the passage during the course of the afternoon, as an art lover might Sunday-stroll through a gallery. My friend had prepared me for the canyon's intimacy but not for its sculpture: there are scooped-out grottoes and fluted columns and long lengths of wavelike rock, replete with crests and troughs, teasing the eye in frozen undulation.

Floods from desert storms have squeezed through here for a million years, scalloping, polishing, honing, and no bend has been left untouched. One stretch will have been whittled into a rhythmic pattern of niches; the next will harbor surreal stonework - whale fins, eagle beaks, giants' fists - jutting from the wall.

I spend an hour crawling around these gargoyles and up into the grottoes, awed by what wind and water have wrought in secret below the desert.

The canyon continues curving ever deeper into the red rock, but when the light dims toward evening I take my leave, climbing out by ledges in a side crevice.

The desert has begun to cool when I begin my long trek back to camp. I walk for a few minutes, then turn around for a final glimpse of the fissure. Behind me, for a distance of a hundred miles, there is nothing but sand, cactus, and wind-blasted juniper trees. The canyon is gone.

Suddenly I realize that there are surely others out there, similarly concealed. Scores of finespun passages whispering through the desert. Unnumbered , unnamed, invisible until a traveler stands on their rim. Veins rare as gold offering their wealth of solitude, silence, and sculpted grace. And, as buried treasure should be, eternally waiting to be found.

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