November 26, 2015

A Journey

I Hiked the Murphy Loop Trail on my day off—my first “long” hike below the canyon rim. 10.5 miles. 1400 ft. down to the White Rim Road, & 1400 ft. back up to the mesa top. Here are some thoughts.

How do you climb down from an Island in the Sky?
Very carefully.
You have to find the right break in the perimeter.

One that’s not so sheer, but falls away a bit more gently, and allows for nimble feet to trace a path through the buttressed wreckage of an ancient stone cascade.

One boulder at a time.

One cairn to another.

Altitude is lost.

And soon the Island looms above—a shadowy fortress so solid and hulking that you wonder how it made its way up into the Sky to begin with.

Once settled onto the firm flat ground below, you might assume that there will be no way back. The only place to go, then, is Forward.

All around you are monuments to other fallen travelers.
Some still reach toward their Skyward origins.

Others settle in to the Earth beneath—bowing down before clouds within which they once stood, and breathed, and danced.

The distance between Sky and Earth continues to grow.

Curious meanders dig ever deeper and reveal new Islands below.

Rooted worlds that yawn and stretch as sunlight reaches further and further into their slumbering depths.

They remember this sun.
In untold ages past it shone down as sand rippled under flowing water.

As it blew into dunes cut through by the ancestral courses of today’s mighty Green and Colorado.

The birth of new worlds buries the memory of what came before. But the young are restless. Eventually they run away to far off shores, leaving their forbearers alone to observe and recollect their previous lives.

To remember.

And sometimes to build…

…and reach again toward the Sky that called to them in their youth.

There are ways back into that Sky, though the route is often more winding.

The fortress walls stand impenetrable and guard well the secrets of their ascent. 

Still you climb.
Bending toward sheer rock as Sun and Wind and blowing Earth conspire to throw you from the path.

Step by step.
Boulder by boulder.
From one cairn to the next.

The distance between Earth and Sky grows shorter.

When again you rest on the lip of this Island in the Sky…

…looking down over distant roads that now bear impressions of your passing…

…consider the journey.

A passage through many transient worlds.









Linger on this, last.

And welcome home.

November 23, 2015

Sunrise at Mesa Arch

Monday, November 23,

Here’s how my day began…
Grumpy, tired, visual migraine obstructing my vision.
No apples left (gotta go to the store tonight).
Maybe watching sunrise will help.
6 miles of driving and ¼ mile of walking and I arrive at Mesa Arch.
Oh great…there’s a crowd.

Screw the arch. Everyone’s got a picture of that. I’m gonna find my own spot.

One drop of sunlight.
The world awakes.

I’m taken back to sunrises on the shores of Lake Michigan... sunrises at Bryce Canyon...

...and know from now on I’ll remember this sunrise in particular.

The crowds disperse, and I find my way to a vantage under the arch. 

When they said this may be the most perfect photo op in the desert southwest, they weren’t kidding. The way lit sandstone frames Washerwoman Arch and Monster it was planned that way. 

Potholes on the White Rim sparkle.

Sandstone layers recall ice layers I’ve seen coat rocks on the shores of Lake Michigan. 


I only remember to look back in the other direction when I walk back to my car...

...but vow afterward to watch sunrise from many different vantage points. On the other side of sunrise I see new shapes and colors that are hidden in the shadows of afternoon and evening.

Morning shadows shrink away and reveal other treasures...

And I drive home through fields of jeweled grass.

In a place like this, big space, great distance, and deep time are on full display.
It’s sometimes easy to forget the small, the close, and the fleeting.

Somewhere along the way I also forgot that I was grumpy.

Thank you.

November 18, 2015

Canyonlands: Training Week

This week I finished up training for my new volunteer position at Canyonlands National Park (CANY), "Island in the Sky" district (ISKY). Now I come to work in uniform, greet and provide orientation for guests, cashier at the bookstore, rove trails, and prepare for the astronomy training I'm going to give over the next few weeks. The winter staff at CANY is a small, but very friendly bunch, and I feel I fit in pretty well so far. I've been keeping an occasional journal since I've been here and have posted some entries below along with a few pictures. Before I go any further let me just say that it feels almost impossible to photograph this landscape with the basic point-n'-shoot I've used for the past decade. The panoramic views are too immense, the distances too great, and the light contrast between the sky and the rock too pronounced. NONE of these photos come close to representing the reality of this really have to come here yourself.

Tues, November 10, 2015

I drove up to the Island in the Sky under a chilly gray drizzle. Flat ranges of brush surrounded bulky red-rock tables and stretched toward curtains of cloud that hid the horizon on all sides. Somewhere beyond those clouds is a view I’m about to fall in love with, but until the weather breaks, it’s going to remain a mystery.

I checked in at the visitor center (VC), got keys to my house, and drove back up the road toward the little duplex that’ll be my home for the next few weeks. Turns out, it’s brand new, spacious, and beautifully appointed. Large windows look out over the mesa top, and I can’t wait for the clouds to clear so I can see what I’ll be waking up to every morning! Slushy snow fell as I unloaded my car, and about an inch had accumulated by the time I drove back down into Moab on my first grocery run.

Snow-flocked sage boughs, deep brick reds in the rock and soil, heavy clouds looming like a bruise on the sky—the land around me was heavy, intensely colored, and obscured by banks of drifting fog. On the way back up a couple hours later, the starless night was as black as a raven's wing, and driving snow, dazzling in my headlights, forced me to slow to a crawl. I’m anxious to see how morning will break.

Wed, November 11

I woke up to four inches of snow and a sky as clear as any I’d ever seen. I looked out as the sun was just peeking over the horizon—the last pinkish band of night sliding away in the west.

After checking in with Michael, my boss for the next couple months, I started my exploration. And how lucky that my first views of the park would be enhanced by a fresh snow!

Snow covers some things up, but reveals many others. As it clings to slopes between trickles of meltwater and hides away in shaded nooks, textures and shapes that might otherwise have eluded attention appear in high contrast.

The picture to the left was taken from the Schafer Trail overlook, near that popular road's precipitous (and now snowy) initial switchbacks. Later in the week, melting and refreezing turned the road into a mess of ice and mud that stranded one driver and necessitated a route closing. 

My first “famous” stop was Mesa Arch. The walk to this iconic feature was an easy 1/4 mile through slickrock and fanciful yucca gardens. An interpretive sign nearby says something to the effect of: “many people come to watch sunrise here, so be courteous and step out of the way so that everyone may have the opportunity to see and photograph this spectacular event.” I laughed to myself and wondered how often those instructions were actually followed, but then remembered a study I read earlier this summer that shows that most people, while basking in an area of natural grandeur, are actually more pleasant and courteous than normal. Maybe the suggestion works after all. I'll have to go early sometime and conduct my own observations. Even though it was later in the day, and we'd missed seeing the golden light of sunrise, those of us who arrived at Mesa together this morning still took turns capturing the view through the span. Sometimes it’s just as fun to watch other people observing as it is to observe the view myself.


Grand View Point. What can I say about this overlook that won’t degrade into a litany of superlatives?

What can anyone say about an unguarded 1400-foot drop straight down from where they stand? Or about vertical red cliffs lording over endless miles of table-top sandstone that then drop another 1000 feet into a canyon of spires, and monuments and, somewhere, a river still carving it all away? You can imagine being at eye level with the Empire State Building—if they’d built it flat on the sandstone shelf below. You can imagine individual grains of sand being gently washed away by the drips and trickles of melting snow you hear all around you...

...just single grains, now and then...

...that over a span of time greater than can be humanly comprehended, eventually add up to the shapes carved into the landscape below. You can feel your feet tingle slightly with an itch to fly…and then step back from the edge a few more paces. But mostly, your brain, or my brain maybe, just gasps, “Whoa…” and then stops thinking.


Upheval Dome: eroded salt dome? …or METEOR CRATER!? You can’t really tell from these photos, but this enigmatic feature is actually a circular bowl cut into the terrain. As a skeptic that would REALLY love it to be the site of an ancient impact, I somehow feel inclined to dismiss that option as the least plausible—just because it’s the explanation I want. Does anyone else do that too?

A few days after I wrote this, a friend sent me links to research that definitively identifies Upheval Dome as an impact site. Now I have to find out why we're still asked to focus on two competing theories, rather than highlighting the AWESOMENESS of the true conclusion!

The desert view can only get better when seen from the back of a whale—Whale Rock, that is.

I originally thought this would be my vantage for sunset, and played around with shadows and reflections for a while as I waited for the sun to fall behind the far western mountains.

But a nagging curiosity about the Green River Overlook eventually lured me down and back to my car. I’m glad it did.

There’s no possible way my camera could’ve captured the colors and dimension that actually existed in this scene. The sky was a bright translucent rainbow from orange to yellow to blue. The canyon’s first step, 1400 feet below, was a rich chocolate brown that gave way to frosted tan along the eroded lip of its second step: White Rim—an apt name. The first time I saw photos of it I incorrectly judged the bare rock to be snow covered. Even after the sun winked out behind the Henry Mountains, the White Rim sparkled with pools of melted snow still reflecting the pale blue sky above. On the opposite horizon, the Earth’s shadow appeared in intense rose, and then navy—the belt of Venus. And then I knew I’d be going out for stars later.

Thursday, November 12

Training week.

A chorus of coyotes is my alarm clock.

 My walk into work.


The view from my office (well...just a quick jog across the street from the VC).

I read, and read, and READ, and observe, and rove a new trail—learn how to follow cairns up steep slickrock a little bit better than I did the day before—and end up looking toward the La Sals at the top of Aztec Butte. There are Ancestral Puebloan granaries up there—hidden by ledges too low to kneel under.

My walk home from work.

Friday, November 13

Training week.

My good-morning coyote chorus begins around 5:30 am...yawn...

Read, tour the maintenance yard, read, do Jr. Ranger books and Explore Packs, READ, review passes and fee procedures—not that I can take them myself, but just so I know—and then READ som'more. What I got from my reading: the sequence of rock layers exposed in the park (let’s see if I can get this without cheating). Navajo Sandstone and the Kayenta Formation make up ISKY’s mesa caprock, Wingate Sandstone takes you down the first dramatic step, moderated by the sloping Chinle Formation, and then the Moenkopi—Chocolate cliffs!—then we hit the White Rim Sandstone Formation that caps the second major step down over the cliffs of Organ Rock—same stuff that supports the “Mittens” in Monument Valley. Below that, well, I’m a little fuzzy, but way at the bottom is the Paradox Formation—I love the name, it’s why I remember it. Ok. Checking my answers. Yup, got most of them. Below the Organ Rock Shale is Cedar Mesa Sandstone (best seen in the colorful spires of the Needle’s District…they don’t call them hoodoos…I wonder why?), then the Elephant Canyon Formation, Honaker Trail Formation, and THEN Paradox.

What’s more important than the names, though, is what they are and how they were formed: each layer a record of a particular environment that existed in this area hundreds of millions of years ago. Seashores, lakebeds, stream courses, sand dunes—the future Canyonlands grew up out of an extremely varied succession of landscapes. All of them cemented to rock, uplifted thousands of feet, and then scoured into a vast system of canyons by today’s rivers, the Green and Colorado.

Colorful lichens on sandstone: Murphy Point Trail
After lunch I got another exploration rove. Today’s destinations: Buck Canyon Overlook and the Murphy Point Overlook Trail. So far all the trails I’ve taken have stayed on the mesa top. To descend 1400 feet to the canyon below would take more than a couple hours of roving time. I’ll have to wait till I have a full day free to venture down. Till then, my bird’s eye view is magnificently satisfying. This park is stunning—in the literal sense of the word. Stunning—and restful—for the eye and the ear and the mind. There is so much space and so much silence. It allows room to think and feel and breathe—spontaneous meditation. It seems that every park I work in becomes my very favorite. And I think I’m only beginning to discover how much I’ll fall in love with this place.

Green River from the Murphy Point Trail
Crescent Moon above Lathrop Trail
Glow opposite sunset from the White Rim Overlook Trail
An especially INTENSE Belt of Venus seen from my front yard