Last week I was talking to a friend and realized I had never put up a post showing photographs of Arches National Park. I am ashamed and have decided to rectify the problem.
Stone arches are certainly not unique to Utah or the Intermountain West, but what makes Arches National Park so noteworthy is the concentration of arches. The park has over 2,000 individual arches interspersed with other fantastically weathered formations.
A quick note about arches versus bridges. Both of them are open spans created by erosion, but arches are created by intermittent water and a natural bridge is formed by continuous water flow like a river or stream. Below is a natural bridge for comparison (specifically Sipapu at Natural Bridges National Monument).
The arches at Arches, are all actually of a newer stone layer than the bridge above. They’re from the layers called Entrada and Navajo sandstone and date to the Jurassic Period (Natural Bridges shown is from the Permian). And much of the exposed sandstone in Arches shows desert varnish, a mixture of elemental, clay and organic material that makes the normally red stone look deep brown.
Early European explorers, passers-through and pioneers had no great love for the young & tall mountains in the West. Mountains, sandstone canyons and mesas were barriers and impediments through unfamiliar landscape. A hard and sometimes cruel land that looked grey and barren to their eyes. The names they gave on maps reflect this, bearing innumerable hellish descriptors or names like “starvation.”
Mountains in their old homelands carried strange stories or were home to vengeful gods and spirits. Even some of those who recognized the great beauty of these vistas emphasized their danger and separation from people.
For us, our mountains are incredibly important. My great aunt once told us that the end of a flight home when the well-known peaks came into view, it felt like being wrapped up in a warm blanket. These mountains are home itself in a very powerful way.
And it isn’t that they’re loved because the ranges are beautiful and majestic. It’s not their draw for skiing tourism or an easy connection to nature & recreation. It’s not because it makes navigation easier because you never lose your sense of direction. All this is true, but there is a more powerful force at work.
Without these mountains, we could not live. This place would be more open space, sparsely populated by unfortunate tribes confined to too little land on reservations while the rest would most likely be more land on which the military drops weapons. Our Western sagebrush ocean has always been seen as useless but for its financial utility by the federal government that owns the majority of our state.
It is our mountains that let people thrive in this wild and arid place; we rely on mountains for water. Every drop of rain and (especially) flake of snow that falls in our mountains near reservoirs becomes part of the next year’s water supply. Because we need them, mountains become precious not just for beauty and wilderness. They mean home.
Family outings and picnics up the many canyons are a childhood staple. When I’m tired or stressed, a short trip up the canyons provides incredible refreshment and joy. The landscape with rushing water and the reminder of life with greenery and the animal sounds all around me are euphoric and transcendental.
The dogs seem to have a good time too. Although I think in the future, I’ll avoid trying to shoot video while tethered to exploring, happy canines.
I like wilderness. I like camping and hiking and fishing and transcending myself through nature. I like preservation through creation of parklands, monuments, national forests and support regulation of activities that are permissible on public lands.
I’m generally in favor of preserving these beautiful natural spaces so they may be enjoyed by future generations. That is, unless you think preservation means that we have to remove historic and existing access in service of achieving pre-settlement “wilderness.” I will fight tooth and nail against that.
Because every time you do that, you cut off many elderly, those with physical disabilities and anyone else who can’t pack in camping gear over miles of trail from large sections of lands that are being preserved in their name. I don’t understand how there have not yet been lawsuits and legal precedents that establish protection of existing access to outdoor areas held in public trust.
When I was a child, we camped and hiked and fished in Utah’s wild areas for what seemed like the whole summer. There are countless little lakes in the Uinta Mountains (glaciation does cool stuff with drainage patterns) that make for wonderful isolated retreats. While some areas are accessible by regularly maintained paved and gravel/dirt roads, there is a much greater wilderness that you can reach using much older roads made by loggers before these areas were protected. When I was a kid, you could meander your way right up to a myriad of tiny hollows and camp rough, far away from the noise and aggravation of the trailer/camper set at established campgrounds. What’s more, we were able to go there with my grandfather, who was definitely not able to hike several miles toting gear.
Now when you try to visit these same places, the roads are blocked miles away with boulders and marked as trail-heads, ostensibly to keep motorists of all types from using existing pathways and “preserve” wilderness areas. What that means in practice is that trucks, jeeps and SUVs are blocked from access, while anyone who can afford an ATV just swerves around the barrier, trampling down the areas outside the historic road. I see it all over the place; it doesn’t stop all motorists and especially doesn’t stop the inconsiderate assholes that I see driving their ATVs wherever they want, usually too fast on roads (kicking up mountains of dust and exacerbating washboarding).
Basically the conservation strategy of closing off wilderness by destroying historical access reeks of privilege. It doesn’t affect those that can afford recreational vehicles or horses or those who are physically able to pack in. It does, however, effectively cut my mother off from beautiful solitude because her multiple knee surgeries render her unable to get there anymore. This is wrong. It’s wrong legally (since these are public property) and it’s wrong ethically because what is the purpose of preserving spaces for us if only the very privileged can get there any more?
I’m not asking for these roads to be maintained nor am I asking for their expansion. I would however, like to think that any family with a beat up old pickup truck can enjoy the same joy at being on top of the world as the family that can afford means of transportation that can bypass barriers. These places belong to all of us. I want to see a handicapped person sue for equal access, because I fear without it, we will never get back what we are losing.
There is a little visited national monument at the corner of Utah’s boundaries that lies more or less due East from Mesa Verde called Hovenweep. Unlike when you visit more accessible places like Natural Bridges, you are granted much greater quiet and solitude. When we walked the rim of the Little Ruin Canyon (the most accessible of the five village ruins), we didn’t see another soul.
The ancient stone masons’ work, though no longer maintained and ruined, shows great skill, matching pitch and curve to fit the stones around them, and in the case of Boulder House, inside a giant eroded stone.
One of my favorite roads as a kid was the old road between Boulder and Escalante, whose narrow bridge on the top of the world is called “Hell’s Backbone.” The twisted firs here have extra spiky cones that look purple when closed. It’s perched on the edge of a plateau so high it can get bitterly cold and freeze overnight, even in summer. The snow flurries when Thrack and I drove the road in the fall made my hands numb in minutes while trying to snap a few photographs.
It amazes me that this was once the only option to travel into Boulder. It’s a beautiful but largely impassable region; one marked by notable lasts, rather than firsts. The nearby Escalante River was the last major river discovered (by white dudes, obviously) in the lower 48, and the town of Boulder was the last place to receive its mail by mule train.
Maps here are littered with evil or inhospitable names, because early explorers or settlers died. To us now the wildness is something to regard with wonder, rather than fear. I have always loved the hellishly named places.
Sandstone seems infinitely malleable. Depending on the layer of stone and the weathering it receives, the stone while seeming tough and ancient, is shaped, twisted and carved in magical ways. Here we have a wealth of bluffs, buttes and mesas.
Stony ridges that you build into, rather than on top of.
Dimpled stone walls that look like giant hands shaped the rock like clay.
And sometimes, amid eroded pillars and mesas, you get something spectacular, like the triple arch here just past Kodachrome Basin State Park.