Chaco Culture and Mesa Verde were places to remember. However, solitary travel wore on me. Packing and repacking the car was always up to me, and so was driving. There was no opportunity for 'I'll plan the course while you fill the tank with gas and thermos with tea'; every small step had to be taken by me, and me alone. Nonetheless, I anticipated gladly arrival in Moab,Utah. My first visit to this place occurred twelve years ago, when I was a freshman at Denison University. The then-president of the Denison Outing Club, a fellow named Andrew, described Moab as a “Mecca” for outdoor recreationists. With Arches National Park right at the doorstep, Canyonlands National Park not far away, and thousands more acres of remarkable public lands in all directions and inviting adventure, Moab is well-situated. I was glad to see that Poison Spider Bicycles was still there, and still had the same ominous mural on the side of the building. The post card of that mural, which I sent to my parents after I rode Slickrock Trail on my last venture to Moab, is still up on the bulletin board, back home in West Virginia.
I discovered the Lazy Lizard International Hostel by a search on the internet. I arrived at night, with an approximate location given by GPS, but the lights were dim. After circling my blue Subaru Outback a few times around the gravel parking lot of a host of storage sheds, I found the hostel on the other side of the fence. I nervously entered the old refurbished house and payed the uniquely low price of $11 for the first night, for a bed and locker in the dorm, and access to shared bathrooms with hot showers, and the kitchen and common room. In the common room, American and Australian guys gathered on the couches and chairs, and watched and discussed Monday Night Football. Uninterested in the game, I sat at a table near the back by the kitchen, plotted my trip to Canyonlands, and interjected a few off-hand comments about America's most corporate sport. And then something piqued my interest. Three young women, fair-skinned and dark-haired, gathered at a table near to mine, ate spaghetti and conversed in French. After gathering my nerve I approached, and struck up a conversation about the archeological wonders I had seen in New Mexico. As I suspected, they spoke english too. They had come from Switzerland and France, on vacation from their varied vocations and schools, and were on a trek across the western U.S., to experience its marvels. (In addition to universal health care, Europeans get longer vacations, making all of this possible.)
The next day, I toured Arches National Park, alongside my new friends—Laure, Celine, and Flavia (left to right in the full group photo at Arches.) We rode in their red rental sedan, with American hits like Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire” and Lynyrd Skynyrd's “Sweet Home Alabama” sounding through the speakers. We went from one of the famous Arches and its associated short trail to the next. I was relieved to no longer be traveling alone, and happy to have more than one form of natural beauty to observe in the southwestern deserts.
Arches National Park is a landscape that inspires. On my previous visit, I did some of my best photography (still to date), with a small 35-mm film camera. Now, I was awed again. The red and pink and orange sandstone, in impossible loops and spires and bridges, towers above and around us, invites climbing, and walking through. The blue sky extends for vast distances in all directions, and errant clouds paint streaks above the arches. In the far distance are snow-capped mountains, after long stretches of desert and layers of shrubs and sandstone. I felt small among the arches, not much bigger than the dark-colored crustose lichens which grew on the rocks. And I felt that I was looking through windows into near and distant worlds, disbelieving that I was still on earth.
Arches gave inspiration to Edward Abbey (1927-1989), where he worked as a backcountry ranger. The cantankerous outdoorsman authored many books, and became an icon to an impressively broad range of earthly people, including outdoor recreationists, park rangers, nature writers, wilderness advocates, and radical environmental activists. Abbey's novel The Monkey Wrench Gang became a sort of blue print for some forms of environmental direct action. Abbey's memoir Desert Solitaire left its mark on me; and I still quote its passages on vultures, and on the many ways to view Delicate Arch....
We posed before Turret Arch, and Double Arch. We looked through Landscape Arch, where the landslide had occurred in 1991. Along the way I chatted with Flavia about skiing the alps, the superior cheeses found in Switzerland, the wonders of Crater Lake, and my sysphian labor efforts when I worked at a nursery with a despotic manager. In the mid-afternoon, we set out on the trail to Delicate Arch, one-and-a-half miles each way. And I fell silent. I caught the mood of the others who walked this path. Like in a church, they spoke only in hushed tones. And so did I, and kept my camera engaged, photographing the red sandstone hills of reverence.
We arrived at Delicate Arch. The most famous of the arches, whose image adorns countless post cards and book covers. The symbol of Arches, and Moab, and the wild southwest. A sandstone landscape in red pink and orange, reminiscent of Mars. Plateaus and ridges beyond, snowy mountains beyond that. Delicate Arch like a looming gateway, with the blue sky shining through its 'doughnut hole,' and the moon above. As the sun dropped lower in the sky, the arch's shadow grew more exaggerated. If National Parks are secular sacred sites, then Delicate Arch is this temple's most holy place.
On the sandstone surrounding the arch, a dozen or so tourists found places to sit or crouch or stand or lie down, or walked about, as I did, to see the arch from multiple viewpoints. I followed a man with a fancier camera, and photographed the arch from a deep 'worm's eye' angle, after he did. More tourists arrived. Perhaps 25 persons were on the sandstone when the sun set, and turned the pinkish terrain to brilliant orange. Seated next to Flavia and Laure, I let my camera rest, and experienced Delicate Arch with my bare eyes, in its final sunset glory. The same “movie” of sunset by Delicate Arch will happen tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And the panorama of landscape is grander than anything even CGI can produce. Even in the age of the smart phone, these old entertainments endure. (The nightly mass exodus of bats from Carlsbad Caverns is another example.) As we walked back down the trail, I overheard the young man behind me talk to his friend about how it was good to be reminded of the big grand things of nature which exist beyond ourselves, and represent a scale of time grander than we can imagine.
Apparently, the Delicate Arch ritual has changed little since 1968, when Edward Abbey published Desert Solitaire. The old maverick's words ring true as ever....
“There are several ways of looking at Delicate Arch. Depending on your preconceptions you may see the eroded remnant of a sand-stone fin, a giant engagement ring cemented in rock, a bow-legged pair of petrified cowboy chaps, a triumphal arch for a procession of angels, an illogical geologic freak, a happening—a something that happened and will never happen quite that way again, a frame more significant than its picture, a simple monolith eaten away by weather and time and soon to disintegrate into a chaos of falling rock (not surprisingly there have been some, even in the Park Service, who advocate spraying Delicate Arch with a fixative of some sort—Elmer’s glue perhaps or Lady Clairol's Spray-Net). There are inevitable pious Midwesternes who climb a mile and a half under the desert sun to view Delicate Arch and find only God (“Gol-dangit Katherine where's my light meter, this glare is terrible”), and the equally inevitable students of geology who look at the arch and see only Hyell and the uniformity of nature. You may therefore find proof for or against His existence. Suit yourself. You may see a symbol, a sign, a fact, a thing without meaning or a meaning which includes all things.”
The next day, my friends and I explored the canyons. Our first stop was Dead Horse Point State Park. I was stunned to see what looked very much like another Grand Canyon. We went on to Island in the Sky at Canyonlands National Park, which seemed to contain MULTIPLE Grand Canyons. The environments surrounding Moab are truly wondrous.
I spied an article in the Moab Sun News, that the local Helen M. Knight elementary had undertaken a special project called “Look Where We Live”, to introduce young folks to the landscape of Canyonlands—by painting outside. The project was launched in part because a survey found that only 30 per cent of local children had ever visited Canyonlands. A colloboration with the Bates Wilson Legacy Fund and the National Park Service, the project will culminate in an exhibition of student art to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Canyonlands National Park. With or without me, more people are discovering the power of art to connect people and nature. (Or maybe I should say re-discovering: the first person to suggest the idea of National Parks, George Catlin, was an artist, and Yellowstone became the first National Park after congress saw Thomas Moran's watercolor paintings of its shooting geysers and boiling hot springs.)
I hope to return to Canyonlands, and undertake drawing and painting of my own. But for this time, the road beckoned. This adventure was coming to an end. Late in the day as we drove through dusk, Flavia learned of my fondness for heavy metal and Iron Maiden. She had seen the band in concert! Soon “Fear of the Dark” resounded from the speakers, followed by “Aces High.” Then the classic metal riff of Deep Purple's “Smoke on the Water” made a fine compliment to a landscape cast in azure and violet, as we returned to Moab.
The next morning at the Lazy Lizard, I bade farewell to my new friends with hugs and chocolate-covered espresso beans and promises to exchange photos by email. Their red sedan rolled south, bound for Mesa Verde, and eventually California. My blue Subaru Outback went north and east, to go across Colorado and the rocky mountains, through Wyoming, and finally to South Dakota, where work at Wind Cave National Park would soon begin. The prairies awaited, and the great American buffalo.
Photo of Ross at Canyonlands by Celine Vidonne