Part of our humble weather station at Island in the Sky District
Every morning as I reach work, I peek into the eight-inch canister behind the visitor center. If any precipitation has fallen in the preceding 24 hours, it is measured exactly. Multiple measurements are taken in winter: new snow depth (measured on a white board swept clean daily), standing depth (measured on a stick secured in the ground), and new snow in the canister melted and measured to the nearest hundredth of an inch. Our digital temperature recording device marks highs and lows of the previous day. We note the hours during which weather events happened, any related observations (e.g., “snow squall with thunder clap,” or “wind blew tents down”), and oddities like hail or fog. Part of our morning procedures includes logging on to the National Weather Service data collection site and putting all our numbers safely into their system. I hope that gives meteorologists something interesting to study when storms are utterly absent.
This post was unnervingly monochromatic, requiring the addition of a recent sunset photo from my front door.
I must say that my favorite hand-written observation in the weather book last year was on October 25: “screaming double rainbow 4:37 pm.” Take that, National Weather Service!
Looking north up the lonely Salt Wash
I stepped onto the frozen surface tentatively, aware that the last creek crossing had four solid inches of ice to support me. Even though the water flowing underneath wasn’t deep, I sure didn’t want to break through and have miles to walk with cold wet feet. On my second step, the rather terrifying sound of loud cracks under my feet sent me lunging back to terra firma as fast as I could, to peals of laughter from my hiking buddy who had refused to go onto the ice until I did. Sometimes there’s a fine line between courageous and foolish.
Salt Wash lured me on my day off. It is part of Arches National Park’s backcountry, lacking a defined trail of any type, but able to be hiked by those undeterred by the need to bushwhack through plants and around obstacles. I was hoping to spy some mountain lion tracks, as it’s a location with running water and mule deer (the lions’ preferred meal). Alas, the only tracks we found were coyote and rodent. One common raven, one golden eagle soaring — and lots of tafoni, the honeycombed sandstone created by chemical weathering.
Still, a day in the wilderness is better than most days elsewhere.
tafoni: broken bits are fun to play with
Pinyon atop Shafer Canyon
The local landscape was transformed from desert red to crystalline white while I dreamed. Several hours of snow the preceding evening blanketed the junipers, the sandstone, the pricklypear; alabaster paths beckoned me, trackless, unmarred, as I walked to work. Clouds — a novelty in our annual 300 days of sun — hung low, scraping the buttes, dangling wispy hems into the canyons. Casting a magical spell on visitors and staff alike, light played on opposing cliffs as the sun’s shafts punched openings in the glowering sky. What a day; what a glorious day.
Location unknown, but it's where humans and moose intersect. (Photo shared with public on "Love Mountains" Facebook page.)
Sometimes a picture says it all.
A friend in the far north recently posted this on Facebook, making me realize that I am grateful for the absence of near-sighted ungulates here in Canyonlands National Park. Our dangerous beasts can be described by the adjective “elusive,” a good thing for humans sharing the territory.
Clearly the photo raises the questions of which critter was there first, and which has the right to live unmolested by the other.
Druid Arch, one of Canyonlands' largest. Its main opening measures 85' x 20'.
Something is amiss. All the leafless plants tell me it’s winter; the sunlight is pale and wan, telling me it’s winter; I’m on the calendar’s first page, which tells me it’s winter. But — hiking in shorts? 55 degrees? Maybe we’ll call this “the winter that wasn’t.”
Only one set of new prints disturbs the sandy wash; I’m almost alone on this 10.8-mile backcountry trail in the Needles District of Canyonlands NP. Just the way I like it. Heading south from the Elephant Hill trailhead, lots of coyote scat, two dark-eyed juncos, one spider, two ravens and nine mule deer complement six hours of silent refreshment. The prize: my first-ever look at a massive eroded fin of Cedar Mesa sandstone that guards the head of Elephant Canyon.
I have no words for Druid Arch; it’s a good thing a Utah author does. In her book, Desert Quartet, Terry Tempest Williams describes her initial impression of it:
Red Rock. Blue sky. This arch is structured metamorphosis. Once a finlike tower, it has been perforated by a massive cave-in, responsible now for the keyholes where wind enters and turns. What has been opened, removed, eroded away, is as compelling to me as what remains. Druid Arch — inorganic matter — rock rising from the desert floor as a creation of time, weathered, broken, and beautiful.
Having gone as far as I could up-canyon, I lounge only somewhat uncomfortably on cold rock to eat an energy bar and chug a half liter of water. Above me the towering arch is chiseled, alluring, indomitable.
Some call this formation “Utah’s Stonehenge,” but we all know which one existed first.
Which is why it is called the "Needles District." One hikes past these spires to reach Druid.
[WARNING TO ARACHNOPHOBIC FRIENDS: SKIP THIS POST.]
You know, if you make a New Year’s resolution that states “Go into the wilderness at every opportunity,” and you find instead that wilderness is coming to you, doesn’t that count? At least a little?
Diameter with legs: about size of a quarter
After I reached for the phone and found an arachnid (species unknown) guarding its buttons, I went outside to our porch benches and looked underneath them. Black Widows hang around buildings and structures, and their webs are blowing in the breeze beneath the seats. Oh, the things it’s better NOT to tell visitors…
Nobody has ever been bitten, by the way. It’s not a safety hazard. I see it as a teachable moment — like the telephone spider who sidled away after my camera lens got too close. Learning to co-exist peacefully with other species that share your space is a useful and compassionate skill.
January sunset, Sand Flats Recreation Area, Moab, UT
“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but what we refuse to destroy.” — John Sawhill
I’ve been thinking about this quote for a couple of days. Every time we cut down forest for development, drain marshland for a new neighborhood, or pave a parking lot instead of leaving green space, we are destroying something that is difficult or impossible to reclaim. When I found Canyonlands National Park on Lonely Planet’s list, “The World’s Most Surreal Landscapes,” my heart jumped for joy. Others realize what a unique and stunning location this is. By managing wilderness as responsibly as we can, we are preserving it unimpaired for generations to come. Thank you for lifting your voice, or your pen, or your checkbook, in support of wilderness. It is my hope that you will visit a wild place at the soonest opportunity. Your soul will benefit.
It’s been so very quiet up here of late that this internal news bulletin from a park in New Mexico is much more entertaining than anything I could write. It’s okay to scratch and shake your head as you read.
White Sands National Monument:
Newly Engaged Couple Found By Interagency Searchers
On the afternoon of Monday, January 9th, the park learned that two visitors who had been hiking within the dunes since noon were lost and unable to find their way out. Russell Vandameer and Karen Renshaw, both of Oklahoma, left to go hiking with their three dogs, Stitch, Suzy, and Griswald. After finding a suitably beautiful spot within the dunes, Vandemeer proposed to Renshaw. The newly engaged couple than attempted to hike back to their car, but were unable to find their way back. Rather than continue to wander becoming more lost, they contacted a cousin via cell phone and requested that help be sent. An interagency effort was begun that involved the NPS, the Alamo West Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army. While two Army Rescue Blackhawk helicopters were en route from Fort Bliss, approximately an hour away, Holloman Air Force base diverted an F-22 Raptor from a training mission to the search effort. The pilot of the Raptor was able to positively identify the couple with their three dogs. Two Air Force drones were also tasked, which were able to relay specific coordinates and monitor the lost hiker’s location and movement from the air while the Army helicopters were en route. The hikers and their dogs were transported by the Army Blackhawks out of the dunes to the command post, where they were examined by NPS and Alamo West EMS for exposure to the below freezing nighttime temperatures. Renshaw accepted Vandemeer’s marriage proposal. The newly engaged couple invited the Blackhawk crew to the wedding. The search effort was greatly aided by the assistance of the military aircraft, which utilized night vision and infrared equipment to safely locate the hikers after nightfall.
This stirs a lot of questions in me which I’ll never get answered. Feel free to comment.
Rainstorm, Needles District, Canyonlands NP, Utah. May 20, 2011. "Worthless and impracticable region."
It was 1859 — two years before the Civil War. The official maps of the United States were utterly blank in much of Utah, with the word ‘UNKNOWN’ penned largely across these latitudes. An expedition led by Captain John Macomb was scouting the region for a wagon route from New Mexico, looking earnestly for the supposed confluence of two great rivers. “I cannot conceive of a more worthless and impracticable region than the one we now found ourselves in,” he noted, thwarted in his attempt to find that critical map point.
This “worthless and impracticable region” is now Canyonlands National Park. It holds me prisoner with its myriad delights.
I suspect Captain Macomb was discouraged, and morale among his men at a new low. Trying to imagine the 19th-century challenges of exploring this unforgiving land is difficult for me. In the 21st century, we have everything to make such journeys safer and easier: accurate maps, down sleeping bags, coolers, Vibram-soled boots, 4WD vehicles, satellite radios, freeze-dried foods, synthetic fibers, sunscreen, GPS, water filtration, helicopters for rescues.
I bet that expedition 153 years ago would have given anything for cold beer at the end of the day. The desert has a way of sucking the life out of everything that breathes; it is merciless and pitiless in its opposition to comfort and complacency. My highest respect and admiration go to its early explorers.
Relishing being at an ancestral Puebloan archeological site
It’s as if you’re there, or they’re here — whoever ‘they’ are. You see their finger smears and prints in the construction mortar. You can superimpose your hand over their painted handprints, invoking wonder. You find things they left behind that were important to them — tools, foodstuffs, art, clothing, structures. Last year: a molar on an alcove floor, a scrap of yucca sandal, a black human hair in the ancient doorway mud, a dessicated squash stem, a metate (grinding stone), a stone tool found in the wash. These were the people, the families, the predecessors, who walked the Colorado Plateau eight or ten centuries ago. How can I help but feel that their lives are inextricably entwined with mine? Archeological sites are my favorite places.