August 27-September 28 2002 / Seen in America: Cross-Country to the Southwest Parks
A Patriotic Journey
Written at Zion National Park, Utah
Last night we hurried to a precipitous outlook behind the lodge, to watch the sun setting. Others were up on the lodge terrace, drinking and talking while the sun set thunderously around them! The sun sank slowly on the great rock stage, and the clouds above showed royal purple, quite fittingly. Quietly we sang America the Beautiful, in tribute. Some people on the next outlook over took flash pictures, also in tribute.
And this morning we took our leave, having a snack at a place set aside for weddings, on Point Royal, looking down upon a delta of the Colorado River where the prehistoric Indians spent the winters, which were too wild upon the plateau. Every day they lived they looked upon the mightiest wonder the earth has to show. Imagine their dreams! But they spoke of the things we speak of: the children, the family, the weather, cooking, hunting, weaving, making things, of illness, birth, tomorrow’s plans, yesterday’s events.
And now we’ve come to a totally different kind of place. It was hard to imagine that there could be a new landscape, something I had not seen before, nor imagined before. But here it is: the red land, the red rock land. Red towers, red mounds, red walls, red cliffs, red sand, red roads, red trails. The red rock comes right exactly down to the edge of the road, in a faintly horrible way, and to either side and above are curious checkboarded white rock mounds. Everything here seems massive. It’s not the same as the vastness of the Canyon, but instead a kind of colossal mass that overwhelms. It goes UP instead of DOWN.
Our little cabin this time is quite luxurious, with two big beds, a high wood ceiling, four windows, and a little fake fireplace, and air conditioning even! We have a nice routine now, when we come to each new place. John brings in the bags, I arrange everything, put out our pillows on our beds, set up our electric toothbrush, stow everything away, including our food boxes, which have all of our breakfast and lunch stuff and our happy hour things. We feel quite self-sufficient.
At five o’clock we set off on a brief hike of three miles, up to some pools. The limestone and sandstone of which this canyon is made are porous, and any water falling on the ground above eventually flows through the rock and out its other side, if the other side happens to hang out in thin air, as so much does here. As we approached the pools on the red trail we heard water dripping, and there was the magical sound of flowing water. We went up to the highest pool, which lies under an amphitheatre of gigantic proportions, hanging over me as I lay on my back in the wet sand. Large cottonwoods grow here, in this secret place of water. The towering rock walls surround the water, the cottonwoods, the sand, and me. Many women must have come here in ancient times to collect water and things that grow around water. The men might have come to hunt the animals that would come to drink the water. I, and my fellow tourists, come only to admire, a very insignificant thing.
Written at Zion National Park
This morning before the sun came over the edge of the canyon we were on the trail. The trail was built in 1926, and it is an amazing piece of work, a combination of engineering, imagination, and just plain guts and sweat. Runs right up a sheer cliff, or what was a sheer cliff, till the trail went in, so long ago. It’s a strange kind for us, all paved, or “hardened,” as they call it here, with a roughly-textured sort of concrete, but red of course, since it is made of the rock around here. It was great hiking, with the red cliff to one side and big drops on the other, trudging up on steep switchbacks. At the top is another trail, which we looked at through binoculars and roundly rejected: you gotta use chains to haul yourself straight up a knife-edge. We didn’t think so.
But there were plenty of people who were all for it. Charging up the trail past us were all sorts: delicate-looking Asians up for anything if it’s supposed to be done, half-naked tanned and muscular young men, grim skinny guys looking neither to the right nor to the left, bosomy young women and pairs of hard-body types, an entire large contingent with ropes and helmets, who turned out to be back-country people practicing search and rescue techniques, several of the pudgy, red-faced men we keep seeing and whose fitness we question, some Brits and some Germans, equally determined. A couple of couples, he carrying a baby in a backpack. Quite a few people panting heavily as they made their way up. We go up VERY slowly, so as not to pant.
We stop to talk with one man, very early on, who is cheerful and pleased with himself: last year he got up to Scouts Point (where we are going to stop), and, being as he put it twenty pounds overweight and out of shape, couldn’t go on to do the Angels’ Landing part. This year, he said, now that he was in shape, he was gonna do it as God is his witness! He looked in great shape and was probably about the third one on the Point this morning. Good for him!
The trail passed through a narrow, green canyon, filled with tall trees which must get the sun only briefly each day, but there is water there, and so they survive. The layered walls press close, and we can examine and touch the cross-bedded ancient sand dune layers, now rendered in red stone.
We pass by the entrance to the scary Angels’ Landing and went on a bit, to find a saddle-shaped col, between peaks, floored with white sand and red rocks. We found a private place to sit and have our morning snack and watch the folks climbing up the knife-edge (and down, even worse) one peak over, while congratulating ourselves on not having spent an hour in pure terror.
Everywhere you look here are blank arches on the rock walls, where great curved slabs of rock have fallen away. I think there is so much water in these rocks that they are not as well held together as others. I mean, everywhere you look there have been huge rock falls! All because of little water drops. The driver on the shuttle this afternoon said that supposedly there is a rock fall somewhere in the park every day, and I believe it.
Later in the day we went to see Weeping Rock, a great overhang that leaks and rains water so profusely that there is what they call a hanging garden on its face: elegant maidenhair ferns, columbines, moss, grasses, all watered by rain that has passed through the rock and now is released into the air. It is a lush, moist place, with tiny pockets of miniature plants here and there in the rock face, as well as the big gardens.
It was a great effort to build these trails, the lodge and cabins, the road, the mile-long tunnel through rock by which you get here. People have been coming here for hundreds of years to admire it. Perhaps coming to admire is not so insignificant, after all.
Written at Bryce Canyon National Park
Last night at dinner we ate on the second-floor terrace, and as we ate watched the resident herd of deer grazing on the bright grass underneath an enormous cottonwood, just in front of the lodge. There are a male deer, several females, and a couple of young ones. The male is disabled, and gets about on one good front leg and one that seems permanently bent at the knee (or is that an ankle?). I think maybe he can survive and have his herd because the eating is so good in front of the lodge, and no mountain lions would come near it.
As we drove off this morning just before sunrise, the tops of the great massive white peaks gleamed in the pearly light. Towering ghosts.
We spent a little time in the northern section of Zion, called Kolob Canyon, where we hiked a small trail to an overlook and then had a nice morning snack, sitting on a bench in the warm clean sunlight. At the modest Visitors Center a cheery ranger explained to me why the blank arches (that means the ones that are only starting to form and aren’t yet clear beneath) form in a curve instead of straight across—which I would expect since the rock is in horizontal layers. She said she had learned that it’s because this form breaks the fewest bonds, is the easiest, the path of least resistance. I think I understand—but maybe not, after all.
I mean, it’s all well and good to have these explanations for all this stuff—but what do we really know, and how do we know it, in geology? The time frame is so terribly slow, and except for catastrophic events we never see any of it happening.
On the way to Bryce we stopped at Cedar Breaks National Monument, too, which we had learned is composed of layers which are those which were laid down on top of those at the Grand Canyon! And here at Bryce, the layers lay on top of those.
At Cedar Breaks is a wondrous amphitheater, a great semi-circle of white and pink and rose and lavender and ochre rock, fabulously sculpted. We listened to a short talk by a ranger who was explaining the colors and all. When he finished his talk, which was very good, he told us that in twenty days he was retiring, after ten years there, and he was supposed to give the talk again at 11:00, but maybe he’d just have his coffee again, and maybe one of us could give the talk—even wear his hat, he said.
Well, of course, I’d’ve loved to have done that!!
We drove up into high country, beautiful meadows on either side of the road, aspen turning golden, spruces and pines. Many spruces dead of bark beetle attacks, but still standing.
Then we took a little walk, led by a trail guide, through a lush spruce and pine and wildflower forest, just on the edge of the amphitheater. Oh, this turned out to be wonderful! The woman who wrote this trail guide led us purposefully from concept to concept, each illustrated by something beautiful in the forest. We sat and looked for marmots in a rock fall—and then later saw one on the trail and up in his hideout, sunning himself. We listened for the sounds of the woods. We saw how lichen works rocks to make soil, and how tiny things and then bigger things grow on the rocks, in the new soil. We pondered how things might have looked six months ago—in March, and how they might have looked six hundred years ago, and what the future might bring.
We looked deer in the eye and they looked into ours. We learned how pocket gophers leave soil ridges under the snow, and now we can see where they were. We learned how to tell a pine from a spruce, and we looked respectfully at a bristlecone pine which may be one thousand six hundred years old.
All of these treasures lie open to view, hidden in plain sight, amid the perfume of the trees in sun.
At our lunch stop we whooshed off Least Chipmunks and Clark’s Nutcrackers, nice opportunistic animals which zipped and flew in as soon as we got to the picnic table.
Written at Bryce Canyon National Park.
The Grand Canyon is, as Ranger Jim told us so passionately, truly grand because it is big and it is pretty. Funny how so simple, so bald, a description can be so right. Its stupendous architectural majesty cannot be compared to any other kind of thing or place.
Zion’s landscape will be remembered for the massive, daunting cliffs, the hair-raising trails that cling to their sides, and the physics made visible in its blank arches and checkered patterns.
Bryce Canyon is another matter entirely. Here the beauty is fanciful, like fine crochet work made of stone. Or a marvelous ballet in color. Or a fairy city, all minarets and ramparts and lacy towers. There are red towers and orange ones, purple and lavender minarets, jaunty ranks of pink and white and grey ramparts, crenellated walls of ochre and rose. There are richly saturated colors and delicate pastels.
Yesterday the late afternoon light played among these as we hiked through them. It looks maybe like wet colored sand that a giant has idly dribbled into pretty towers on the beach. We decided that if Disney put up a sign at the entrance people would walk among these playful forms and think they were made of some kind of hi-tech material. How could anything that looks like this be made in Nature? Surely this marvelous and subtle light is controlled by a Disney Imagineer somewhere behind one of the minarets.
We finished our afternoon hike by creeping through a deep red slot canyon, no wider than perhaps eight feet at the bottom. A fine end to the day. The sky was that incomparable Western Blue which I have never seen anywhere else in the world. The blue against the colored rocks made everything shimmer excitedly.
Early this morning we set out on the longest hike we’ve done on this trip—eight miles. We were nearly alone on the trail for most of it. We passed among the streets of the fairy city for a time, with reflected morning light glowing everywhere, over our faces and clothes, all over the rocks, the trail. Down to the floor of the canyon, where the pines and spruces are, and the bristlecone pines, and you look up and OH! There’s that fairy city again. We decided it was kind of like the holodeck on the Enterprise. See, the forested part is the normal part, the nice benign recreational image created by the computer for the space travelers to walk in when they miss home. But something must be wearing out in the mechanism, because just beyond the nice normal forest is this obvious non-Earth planet, with these astonishing bizarre colored rocks and doubtless aliens living among them.
It’s a place of light and color, of form and fantasy, a place to delight and amaze.
We saw some animals that fit right in: pronghorn antelope, with jaunty white decorations on their rich brown coats. And at the end of the day, a thunderstorm moved across the fantasy landscape, and the colors deepened and darkened, and here and there a pool of sunlight amid the dark. It’s hopeless to try to describe, and better writers and artists than I have tried. I will leave it alone, just a few hints to remind us later on, when we are back in a human city…
Written at Capitol Reef National Park
Yesterday a fine drive across high country, with free-range cattle grazing here and there by the side of the road, huge skies, grand vistas of tidy Mormon communities amid the generous expanse. The tiny towns are very neat, full of trees and small 19th century brick or sometimes stone houses. Everything looks very prosperous and successful, even in this quite desolate place.
This is the Colorado Plateau, a high, dry land with bold geology and startling color. In-your-face geology, a ranger called it.
There was Grand Canyon, in a group of one, with its elegant and ordered but disturbing immensity, its vastness a stage for all the air and water above it.
And Zion, monolithic walls and hanging gardens and slickrock sandstone and limey checkerboards.
Bryce, a scintillating fairyland of light and color and fantastical form.
And now Capitol Reef, with massive tumbled piles of red rubble lying at the base of monster cliffs banded in reds, oranges, violet, pale yellow, and white. The landscape here is forbidding, confused, jumbled. There are many great rockfalls everywhere amid the strange pale domes and sheer rock faces.
And yet paradoxically, also within this foreboding embrace lie the remains of a tender little Mormon pioneer community, Fruita, with bright green fields and a profusion of fruit orchards, all fed by the Fremont River. Indians lived here too, hundreds of years before the Mormons, and made a living in this uneasy place.
Both communities must have been threatened countless times by the flash floods which pour out of the sinisterly narrow canyons that are a part of this place.
We made a fine hike amid the scrubby, rocky landscape to a view of the startling huge yellow dome called the Golden Throne. As always, it is a thrill to begin each new hike. To have that capable feeling of going on your own two legs and carrying all that you need with you, to venture into the landscape to see what you can see. The trail led across some of the slickrock and was neatly marked with rows of stones on the drop-off side. Very easy and fun to follow. There were other hikers, lots of Germans, who seem to flock to outdoor places in America in great numbers. And Brits. At the top of the hike was a British couple, from Liverpool, who’ve been here three times. I am proud that America has so much to offer. You aren’t going to see this in Liverpool, or Berlin—or anywhere else in the whole world.
When we finished this hike we decided to go on into the slot canyon, just a couple of miles round trip, the trail to which also led from the same parking lot at the end of a dirt road.
The canyon walls nearly met above our heads, and the people’s voices were hushed and dampened, just as in Carlsbad Cavern.
Oh argh!! When we got back to the parking lot we realized we had locked ourselves out of our car. Now what? We tried breaking the rear window with a rock, nothing doing. But then we flagged down a van with a bunch of folks from an outfitter based in Torrey where we are staying. They were very sympathetic and said they would tell the rangers up at the Visitors’ Center (about a 35-minute drive). They assured us that it happens all the time and that the ranger had some tools to get into our car.
So we sat down to wait. Could have been worse; we had a beautiful place to wait, enough to drink, and a place to sit in the shade. It was pleasant, just waiting.
Finally came Ranger Peter with his bag of tools. Cheerfully he tried to open our car, for 45 minutes—never have much luck with Toyotas, he said, but those Cadillacs and SUV’s, no problem. So in the end we had to break the window with a hammer Ranger Peter gave us, and follow him back to the VC so he could tape up our window.
We treated ourselves to a very fancy and very good dinner at a restaurant down the road; it seems this town has been infiltrated by new-age types. It has a massage therapy place, this very elegant restaurant, a bunch of galleries, a book store, an organic farm market and so forth. The woman who told the ranger about our predicament turned out to have been born in Wellesley. I think this is kind of like Vermont is for New Yorkers. I can’t think what the real locals make of it, most of whom are surely Mormons and very very straight arrow.
So this morning we got settled about getting a new window for the car (down the road in Moab), got groceries (a largish market where a wedding reception invitation to all comers was taped to the checkout counter), and set out for some more hiking.
We got to hike amid the piles of red and black and violet and white rubble, on excitingly-constructed trails that led us to a huge arch that looked like a tunnel deep into the rock; up another canyon where the great cross-bedded walls of rock plunge rather horribly into the ground by your feet—and who knows how many hundreds or even thousands of feet further down they go--; up and down confused hillsides to stand right under an enormous massive archway. We saw waterpockets, rock basins which catch and hold snowmelt and rainwater, precious to all creatures who live in this place. Our eyes were assaulted by so much color—searing white, deep violet, blood-red. Black volcanic rocks held the heat, as if they had only recently emerged from below. Lizards scuttled away from our feet. Lizards that run on red rocks are pink, and the ones on yellow rocks are yellow.
At dusk, we ate pears from the orchard, and a herd of black deer browsed there too.
It will be strange to pull our eyes in from these great landscapes, to our small Eastern scenes.
Written at Moab, Utah, Arches National Park
Yesterday morning, early, we went and got coffee and sweet rolls in the little bakery under the trees, and leaving our small cottonwood oasis in Torrey, we drove past the orchards shining in the golden morning light and on the road again. Past somber, barren mounds of volcanic stuff, black or gray. Out of the red country, the rainbow country, out past small groups of cattle grazing at dawn by the sides of the road. Once in a while, a dirt road leads off to one side or the other, to some place that is a place to someone but not to us.
Far ahead, we see high mountains, the real high mountains, not the modest mountains of the East, but the real thing. A dusting of snow on the highest ones. I’m filled with joy to see my mountains, the ones that seem right to me, from my childhood in Colorado. They are a day’s drive from here, and we won’t spend much time in them. But they are my home place and I’ll return to them someday.
At our morning rest stop, on a small bluff where we can see in all directions, there is a woman with a white cockatoo riding on her shoulder. She walks around and the cockatoo comes with her. We make jokes about Trotley coming along with us, in a cat crate. He could exercise in the pet exercise areas at each rest stop. We notice that most people who have dogs have tiny ones; the motels, if they permit animals, say “small pets only.”
Around eleven o’clock we pull into Moab here, and head straight for the auto glass place, where we have ordered a replacement for our broken window. While it is being installed we stroll through a small Wal-Mart-type place, and I find a good children’s book about bird songs. I’ve gotten a few books on this trip to use at work.
Work, and so forth, seems very, very distant.
Then to our motel, where I fix our lunch, and then off to Arches National Park, a few miles down, and up, the road.
We walk to a couple of arches, and they surely are remarkable, but there are so many people swarming around them that it is hard to really appreciate them. The park road passes many fine sights, great red ramparts (for we are back in red country, though this is a different red sandstone from that in Capitol Reef), red pillars, red bridges, red sand.
We decide to hike to Delicate Arch, which is free-standing. I don’t even try to understand how this can be, but it is. The trail is quite busy, and at least one of us has a concern about some “steep drop-offs” and “slickrock” mentioned in the write-ups of this trail.
But it turns out to be okay, if marginally for some. The last two hundred feet of the trail is a narrow ledge of red that sticks out from a huge red cliff. But the ledge banks inward toward the rock face, and this makes it doable. Besides, the great arch, standing alone freely, frames the snow-covered mountains in the distance, and is so perfect a sight that it seems unreal.
I keep hearing in my mind the first line of Wordsworth’s poem, Composed Upon Westminster Bridge. It begins, “Earth has not anything to show more fair.” He is talking about a view of London in the early morning, and I love that too, that scene, but what if he had seen the Grand Canyon? Or Bryce? Or this delicate arch of rock?
It seems this is where you come for the sunset, to photograph it, and as we leave, more and more people arrive with tripods and big cameras. There is an entire contingent of Germans apparently on some kind of geology semester abroad. There are people carrying babies in backpacks, and some free-running kids too, which petrifies us, because it’s not exactly flat up here, and it’s a long way down. A grandfather admonishes his two, And if you fall down there, you die. Exactly.
For dinner we go across the street to a diner and amuse ourselves speculating about a couple of about fifty carrying on with each other.
The parks seem to bring out a real cross-section of ages, cultures, modes of living. People are very determined about seeing their parks. They haul up and down slopes that are difficult for them, they arrive at dawn and stay till after dark, they search for parking places and viewpoints and they take many, many pictures, in hopeless homage to what they see and are awed by.
Written at Moab, Utah, Arches National Park
Early this morning we were on the trail again, this time to do the longest proper trail in the park. We see Landscape Arch, a very long and dainty span which suddenly enlarged eleven years ago in a big rockfall, threatening people sitting under it.
We push on to the so-called Primitive Trail. It’s lovely, early in the morning in this clear desert country, with these fabulous stones all around us, and the snow-covered mountains in the distance.
All goes well, with a bit of scrambling up and down some slickrock, figuring out how to get past a pool of water at the foot of a big rock, when the water turns out to be a foot and a half deep. We have fun with that one. But then here comes one we just can’t do. It’s a scramble up a practically sheer slickrock, with a big drop below, and just no handholds at all. With the help of a nearby log, and John, I manage to get up on the first level of it, but it’s just no good after that, as far as we can see.
So we bag the thing, and figure we’ll go back the way we came and come around the other side of this loop, visiting a couple more arches on the way. On the way out we meet a couple coming in, and warn them about what’s ahead. He has only one arm, but they seem pretty determined and thank us for our information.
This works very well, with some more challenging scrambling including a set of ladder-like stairs cut into the side of a quite round and large end of a fin. We negotiate that all right, and tromp onwards. And here come the couple again; they’ve been successful! We are no end impressed and told them so. They tell us that the really horrible part would be much easier coming down (which is what we would have to do if we go ahead).
But then it gets worse. Just about the time it gets really bad, we catch up with a pair of young German women. Together the four of us inspect a use trail that leads nowhere, and they help us both by encouraging and by physically helping, when we have to slide down a long bit on our rumps, to land on a pile of strategically-placed logs.
Then comes the REALLY bad part, the top of the part that turned us back earlier. But the young women are there, go ahead of us, and give us helpful hints about negotiating each part. I do my best to encourage John along this very scary part, because I know he is right at his limit and possibly a bit beyond.
We did it!
I make John rest and drink some Gatorade, and we talk about it a bit, and then we hike on out, past the deer tracks and the tiny rodent holes and the dark cryptobiotic crust, and the sage and pinyons and cactus, and the fin canyons in the distance, and the snowy mountains, and the Western Blue sky.
In just a few minutes now we are off to do a tourist thing, one of two I have arranged for on this trip. We’ll have a “Western Dutch Oven Dinner” and then go off on a boat on the Colorado River (which runs at the end of town) for a “Sound and Light Show”.
I can’t wait.
I can’t wait to be in my mountains. It makes me weepy to think of it.