Vox Clamantis in Deserto

Southwestern Utah. Canyon Country. Abbey’s Country. The Rimrock. The Desert Southwest. Drive down any one of the criss-crossing roads in southern Utah, northern Arizona, southwestern Colorado, or northwestern New Mexico, and you will be treated to an innumerable combinations of shape, shade, size, color, and texture. No single minute is the same as the one previous, especially in your automobile doing 75 down I-15.

But would you believe me that if you slowed down, perhaps even got out of your car and walked around, the scenery would change even MORE often? It’s paradoxical, but true. The sandstone and shale cliffs of this region are immense, but not the least bit uniform. The closer you look, the longer you look, the more you will see, and the more the rock will reveal itself to you.

This region is special to me because it taught me a great lesson in humility at the age of 25. After undergrad and grad school, then teaching for a few years, I had pretty much surmised that I knew everything that was worth knowing. In 2001 I agreed to chaperone a summer course at Westminster called “Field Geology.” It was a good fit since I considered myself a hiker and outdoorsman, and it paid me to travel. Offered to rising 9th graders, the course, through its many iterations covered geology, ecology, biology, botany, meteorology, astrology (etc.) in one form or another, but geology was the focus. The course consisted of a 3-4 week trip out west through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. In a caravan of passenger vans, armed with steno pads and walkie-talkies, students would conduct a “mobile classroom” including lecture, discussion, and field problems. To this day, this high school geology course, of which I was merely a spectator, comprises the greatest educational experience I have ever known. My everyday life, from the books that I read to the hikes that I take, is affected by my experiences with the students and teachers that were involved in this course. I wound up coordinating the trip the next year, then for the following two years I dabbled in teaching sections (the easy ones). It’s been four years since my last stint with Field Geology, and it’s good to be back in the “classroom.”

Anywho, we departed Ely, Nevada yesterday morning and had a delightful drive through the waning ranges of the Nevada desert, and quickly found ourselves in a decidedly different element! At first the vegetation thinned out. The only substantial vegetation left was that which clung to southwest-facing slopes (more moisture and sunlight). At varying points on our journey nothing remained but sage and needlegrass for miles around. And then shades of red began to appear in certain rock strata high up in the mountains. You wouldn’t notice it unless you were expecting it, and even then it might appear as shadow play. We crossed the Utah border, came out of the Needle Range that straddles the state line, and there at the bottom of this long, downward sloping grade rose a jumble of red, pink, yellow, brown and green rock that (feel free to corroborate or contradict me on this, cuz I’d really like to know) HAD to be the western border of the Colorado Plateau. THE COLORADO PLATEAU!! That massive expanse of uplifted earth that covers four sizeable states actually has a beginning and end, and this may be one of them!!! From then on, the scenery just got better, and better, and better.

The rock got redder, the angles more peculiar, the formations more curious. We missed our exit on I-15 for Springdale, and thank Heaven we did. It led us to Exit 16, Utah Rte. 9, which passes through Hurricane and Rockville before it reaches Springdale. As soon as we turned the corner off the exit we entered an anticline, a formation in which an uplifted rock erodes in the middle, leaving only the upward and opposite pointing remnants at the base. Another hand gesture activity. hold your hands out in front of you, facing each other, palms facing down. Now raise both hands as if they are pointing to an imaginary point above. Draw with your eye an imaginary curved line connecting both hands. All that imaginary stuff in the middle has eroded away, been picked up and moved toward the ocean. What remains (your hands and all the rock under your hands) is called an anticline. The strata of the rock is identical, yet nothing but thin air between (or in the case of Hurricane, UT, a Wal-Mart is there).

We checked in to our campground and were thrilled to discover that we were but feet from the Virgin River, one of the main rivers that flows through Zion NP upstream. The 102 degree heat did little to dampen our enthusiasm because our campsite, and basically everything within a few miles is surrounded by gorgeous redrock! See the pics in the slideshow below for a visual. While Earl and Barbara relaxed in the RV’s air-conditioning, I headed up to the laundromat for some household duties. How to kill 45 minutes while you’re waiting for your laundry? Strap on your Keens and head for the river. The Virgin River is about twenty feet wide and no more than 2-2.5 feet deep in any location. It burbles along at a decent pace losing a foot of elevation every few hundred feet. A few outfits rent innertubes so you can float down the river. But since I had my Keens, I just sat in the middle of the river and let the world float by me. It was the perfect relief from the heat. After a changing of the laundry, I returned to my spot on the river and chose to lay rather than sit. The river carried me some fifty yards or so until it dumped me on a rock that I found too comfortable to pass up. So I remained there, people watching and playing with the sand and silt that I dredged up with my hand. “Did you enjoy Zion National Park?” I asked this handful of goo. It didn’t reply. I can assume that it’s taken hundreds if not thousands of years for it to get this far, and therefore has no recollection of the parkso it opted for silence.

Tomorrow we will get to explore the park ourselves, and if so inclined, we will consult some silt that is better informed.

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One Response to Vox Clamantis in Deserto

  1. Clark Meyer says:

    That was a special summer, and I miss that teaching environment. hey, the more i think about it, the more I liked your metaphor explaining isostatic rebound. You may have poached it from somewhere else, but I’ll play dumb.

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