Our visit to the eastern red sandstone desert of Utah was one of contrasts and extremes – incredible beauty, fragile lands, the positive and the sometimes disturbing qualities of human relationship to nature. We camped for 7 nights at Dead Horse State Park on a mesa that towers about 2000 feet over the sinuous Colorado River.The layer-cake of rock here in the Park reveals 300 million years of the Earth’s geologic history.
The combination of water, wind, isolated volcanic events and earthquakes has created this landscape of astonishing beauty. It continues to unfold and evolve with every downpour, lighting storm, hailstorm, and windstorm (all of which we experienced while here). This is a graphic reminder that nature, and we, are in a constant state of change, flux and creation. There really is no such thing as the “status quo” when one lives in this awareness.
We started our time here with a visit to Canyonlands National Park comprised of 337,000 acres and with four distinct areas. We visited the area called Island in the Sky, a landscape of deep canyons and incredible vistas. We hiked to Grand View Point which follows the rim of the Colorado River canyon just above the point where it meets the Green River. I was struck by the immensity of the canyons here, and the shear spectacle of the views. Edward Abbey, the author, lived here and served as a park ranger in the 1960s, and wrote of this place as one where the visitor can look down from the rim and see the backs of the birds in flight.
At this time of year, there is a proliferation of wildflowers – Indian paintbrush in raucous shades of red and orange; Sego lilies, the state flower of Utah; the delicate Scarlet Gilia showing their little trumpets with yellow flutes – all blooming along the rock, ledge, and bony cypress trail, nature’s floral bouquet.
It was Arches National Park that captivated Peter, with its sculpted rock scenery that defies words. The park lies atop an underground salt bed that was deposited across the Colorado Plateau 300 million years ago when a salt water sea filled the plateau and eventually evaporated. The unstable salt bed shifted and buckled under the surface weight and with the effects of the remarkable Moab fault which resulted in a 2,500 foot displacement of earth, cracks in the rocks contributed to the formation of the arches formed by wind, water, ice and chemical weathering.
We hiked to an overlook of the famous Delicate Arch; the Skyline Arch which became twice as large when a chunk of rock broke loose in November of 1940; Broken Arch tucked at the end of a trail made of red sand, as fine as talcum powder; and Double Arch and Windows. There are over 2,000 catalogued arches in the Park and no doubt as I write this, last night’s heavy rainstorm is at work creating some change to the formations. We were just able to secure two hard-to-get camping spots in the park at the end of September just because there is so much more to see.
And then there is the town of Moab, tucked along the Colorado River and in the shadow of the 12,000 foot La Sal Mountains and now known as the mountain bike capitol of the country. In our time here, we estimated that 3 out of 10 cars were carrying at least one bike – off road, skinny tires, or road bikes. Moab has built a beautiful paved trail that hugs the shore of the Colorado and each day we rode we experienced the changes in the river, always full of the red silt but some days more churlish than others.
The town itself is a contrast in ways that reminded us of Jackson, Wyoming 25 years ago. The town of 4,000 is a blend of young, hip, and vigorous outdoorsy types as reflected in the number of bicycle shops (6 or 8 with the first one celebrating its 35-year anniversary). The small restaurants and breakfast places specialize in organic and locally grown foods. There were at least a half a dozen of those and each one we visited offered great coffee and some little treasure – wild blueberry scones, parmesan sourdough bagel, or cranberry bran muffins with organic bran. It’s the kind of place that still has affordable rents and enough dreamers and visionaries and youthful energy to keep it flourishing.
At least one other contingent of businesses offer rentals of every possible motorized vehicle imaginable – from dirt bikes, to ATVs, to souped-up Hummers – all for enthusiasts who are about riding fast and rough, conquering the wildness of the millions of acres of BLM land that fill the Plateau.
I admit to a sense of uneasiness about some of what I saw and I attribute it to the sense of extremes that I mentioned at the outset here. There is a bravado, a gutsiness, and sense of fearlessness in the face of this raw power of earth and rock and the elements that walks the line between living in and conquering the natural world. We found oil wells along these incredible plateaus; watched people dirt-sledding, and dirt-skiing down a steep red sand cliff right across from the entrance to Arches. We watched dirt bikes tear along designated BLM trails, and saw people climbing up the rocky ledges of Arches exquisite formations to make cell phone calls for all below to hear. In a terrifying hail storm that came on shockingly fast, we watched a small truck pass several cars and cut back in front of us, fishtailing dangerously in the 2 inches of hail that covered the road, nearly hitting a car that had pulled off to one side. Is this human courage or lunacy, or some of both?
This past week was marked by Earth Day and I am reminded of the pioneering work of Rachel Carson who wrote, “The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research”.
We have come a long way, thanks to the work of scientists/activists like Rachel Carson, toward preserving these natural wonders for the future, and yet I wonder if it is enough as I reflect on our time in this expansive and wild and raw landscape. Off to the ancient world now of Mesa Verde…