When I was eight, I got lost in the Fiery Furnace while hunting lizards. Caught in the maze of fins, spires, hoodoos, and other weird sandstone formations in Arches National Park, I realized I’d taken a wrong turn and backtracked, only to come upon a gorge scoured in the slickrock that I hadn’t crossed. I followed a set of footprints in the sand, which vanished, and then scrambled up a sandstone fin, hoping to catch a glimpse of the edge of the maze. It didn’t work. Everything I tried seemed to take me deeper into the labyrinth. The search party found me three hours later, thirsty and dehydrated. I don’t remember being particularly frightened.
That incident in the Fiery Furnace lingered in my memory and emerged twenty-five years later when I started to write The Righteous, the first book in my series set in the polygamist enclave of Blister Creek, Utah. There is a sandstone labyrinth called Witch’s Warts in Blister Creek that serves as a secret entry in and out of the valley, as well as a focal point of violence and other weirdness. It is a strange, otherworldly landscape, and I’ve had readers write to ask me if such a place could be real.
The wilderness of southern Utah may be an alien place to most of my readers, but to me, it sends me to my childhood and makes me think about my father. He would take me into the desert armed with a guidebook of roadside geology to dig up trilobites and fossilized shark teeth or to look for geodes—hollow, spherical stones packed with crystals. We went to a ghost town in a dry canyon once and returned with 19th century medicine bottles turned lavender in the sun. On another occasion, we camped on the desolate edge of a sand dune wasteland and listened to a murder mystery that came in and out of focus from a distant AM station. The stars were so bright under the thin desert atmosphere that it felt like I was clinging to the skin of the earth as it hurtled through the universe.
The desert was a cornucopia of cool stuff to discover: arrowheads and potsherds, topaz and other valuable crystals, and of course snakes and lizards. My brother and I once cornered a Gila monster that hissed and lunged as we tried to figure out how to get the venomous lizard into a can. It disappeared when we ran back to camp to get our father. Mom was relieved; we already kept a rattlesnake in a locked cage in the shed.
I’ve seen zillions of rattlesnakes and scorpions—have you ever watched a death match between a scorpion and a dozen angry soldier ants?—and that stuff doesn’t frighten me. Sandstone cliffs with thousand foot drops like Angel’s Landing or Dead Horse Point? Yes, that’s scary stuff. Of course, I don’t take foolish risks like I did as a boy, but whenever I’m back in the desert I find myself thinking about how I’d get food, water, and shelter if I were lost.
The same thoughts come to my mind whenever I revisit the polygamist community of Blister Creek. The desert wilderness is a good place to drag characters if you want their struggles to play out against a beautiful, deadly canvas, where civilization remains distant and weak. And it’s a good place to dig up memories of my own childhood, stir them up with pure imagination, and set them loose on the world.
Michael is the author of the top five Wall Street Journal bestseller The Righteous. The latest installment, Destroying Angel, will be released by Thomas & Mercer in March, 2013.
note: this essay originally appeared on Martha's Bookshelf book blog.