Story written by Kelly Potts
Photos courtesy of Ben Horton Photography
Arriving in Moab left me dreaming and speechless. Jaw dropped, head craning left to right, to the sky and below the banks of the Colorado River winding chocolaty through endless canyons, taking in a sheet of every color red in the spectrum, curves and cubes, cracks and cliff walls stretching to infinity, chimney plateaus and deceiving boulders laying archaically at their feet; it was too much for my poor neck to handle.
My partner in crime, a renowned National Geographic photographer, Ben Horton chuckled next to me in the driver seat as we wound our way through the never-ending desert terrain. “But – I – what – this – oh my – wow…” Only stuttered words and broken sentences jutted from my gaping mouth. “I’m sorry, I’ve just never seen anything like this.”
Having lived on Maui most of my life, and getting the chance to travel with my clothing sponsor prAna to far-flung surfing destinations once a year, seeing a place like Moab, Utah was a dramatic change of view: from ocean to desert, from mermaid to fish out of water.
We crawled our way down a washed out canyon road, hugging the wall with Ben’s Tacoma four-wheeling and camouflaged in the red landscape. Navigating with ease, as if he’d driven this route a million times, he parked on a gravel outcrop along the cliff side, a well-thought-out fire pit sat welcomingly, the faint gurgling of gently flowing river whispered up to us.
“This is where we’re camping?” I stepped out of the car, took a look around, and with a few deep breaths I started to cry. Staring at a panorama of weathered rock and layered stories, regal and omnipotent, in the middle of nowhere, camping in a dream.
Being so far from my warm Maui home, I sang praises daily that prAna outfitted me with the appropriate layers the extreme temperature change demanded in early spring desert country. I’m quite certain my trip would have been most uncomfortable had I relied on my typical layers: bikini and hoodie, minus the pants.
Ben and I spent the next few days adventuring around Moab, a stack of Surftech boards strapped atop his rig, waiting for their turn to hydrate in the strange, arid climate, stopping to take photos, trying to capture what couldn’t be through a lens.
A particular day the sun lingered long enough for us to get into our swimsuits and take the standup paddleboards for a cruise on a calm section of the Colorado. Stark blue skies blasted contrast against maroon canvas walls and human curves against rugged cliff faces, offering a pleasing portrait I knew would satiate the photographer in Ben. My body tingled delightfully under the desert sun, finding reprieve from the cold and comfort with water underneath me, as I explored untouched banks, breathing in the grandeur of the earth engulfing me.
The big day came that we were all waiting for; our downriver standup paddle exploration with Ken Hoeve, and Ben’s brother Jesse Horton, both experts in river adventuring on any accessible water vehicle – and we woke up to a snowstorm.
By mid-day, we huddled near the open tailgate of Ben’s truck, and heated up a big pot of coffee, passing around a fifth of tequila to mean-neck instant heat through our bundled bodies, half-dressed in dry suits, boards sitting at the ready for the first signs of sun to break the thick blanket of weather hovering above us.
It didn’t take long before burnout beamed warmth into our spirits, the skies cleared, and our group buzzed to life, making the final preparations for our standup adventure down a remote waterway in Utah.
Currents swirled in foreign patterns. The river, playing with my reliable ocean senses, scoffed at my attempts to navigate its incalculable methods, leaving me feeling disoriented, bordering vertiginous.
Studying Ken and Jesse moving through eddies and rapids with ease, I learned quickly the way of the river, and before long I was riding my first river wave. Slapping softly against my ankles, and keeping barely in place with the smallest current, I admit it was but a bunny slope to the real action these guys were accustomed to. Yet, I still felt the euphoria of that familiar sensation of riding ocean waves -- except in the middle of the desert. A comforting feeling of home enveloped me, and suddenly I was at ease.
We drifted further down the river, visiting other small wave rapids along the way. I noticed the guys wiping out on multiple occasions in attempts to figure out each particular wave. This gave me confidence, knowing that even the most experienced wipe out, and that is simply a part of the sport. They’d retrieve their board, take the eddy moving upstream back to the wave, and try again until they mastered it. So I had at it, growing more comfortable and confident with each turn, wiping out, recovering, and having at it again.
Being in a dry suit gave me the confidence I needed in the frigid snowmelt waters of the La Sal mountains that sat mystically in the backdrop of Moab. With no way for water to flood in I could commit to each daring movement without the cold consequence. My Olukai shoes allowed water to flow in and out, leaving me light for the swim back to my board, and offered security against hidden rocks. Having these crucial articles enabled me to experience each beautiful second of the journey -- with no distraction.
Moments along the river were flat and scenic where we’d drift together and talk story. I would hang behind the boys every once in a while to look around and give thanks to that special place, knowing eons of particular events carved the indescribable sculpture of landscape before me, and years of coincidental events took place that painted me into that unforgettable masterpiece. Gratitude poured through my veins and my heart bulged through my chest. “What a world,” I thought. “What a world…”