Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 11, 2011

This penurious land

I just finished reading the riveting book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer. If you have any interest in polygamy’s or Mormonism’s history in America, and the very unique personalities that were the driving force for bringing plural marriage to the forefront, I adjure you to get a copy from your library. I won’t tell you how many wives Joseph Smith and Brigham Young took, but it’s w-a-a-a-y more than you think.

The quote he chose to open his final chapter gives eloquent voice to why I find Utah stunningly irresistible. I’m always on the lookout for descriptions that create for my readers both an intellectual and an emotional connection with this place, as many of you have not been here. The following passage — pregnant with detail and nuance — is best read slowly and at least twice in order to glean all of Wallace Stegner’s intended meaning:

“In the Plateau Country the eye is not merely invited but compelled to notice the large things. From any point of vantage the view is likely to be open not with the twelve- or fifteen-mile radius of the plains, but with a radius that is often fifty and sometimes even seventy-five miles — and that is a long way to look, especially if there is nothing human in sight. The villages are hidden in the canyons and under the cliffs; there is nothing visible but the torn and slashed and windworn beauty of the absolute wasteland. And the beauty is death. Where the grass and trees and bushes are stripped off and the world laid naked you can see the globe being torn down and rebuilt. You can see the death and prognosticate the birth of epochs. You can see the tiny clinging bits of debris that historical time has left. If you are a Mormon waiting for the trump of the Last Days while you labor in building the Kingdom, you can be excused for expecting that those Last Days will come any time now. The world is dead and disintegrating before your eyes.”

(from Wallace Stegner’s book, Mormon Country)

Kathryn prognosticating birth of epochs. Green River doing all the work.

My head nods in agreement; his words could not be more true. And then… and then… one begins to notice the small things. This week I saw my first Sego Lily of the season — Utah’s state flower, a masterpiece of gorgeous simplicity. And one recognizes that the world is NOT dead and disintegrating, but bursting with new life — albeit in a penuriously frugal way in this desert land. There is no abundance, nor even adequacy. Utah is a land of Just Barely. It does so much with so little.

Which is precisely why I am smitten by it.

October 8, 2010

Badlands National Park — a geography of hope


The Badlands are made of congealed ash heaps.


The silly critter had dug his burrow entrance in the middle of the dirt road, but fortunately the sun’s low rays illuminated the prairie dog just before I almost ran over him. As I continued to the next pull-out to walk closer to the prairie dog town for photographs, a herd of bison blocked the road. Most stared hard at me (the horns seem to grow larger when they’re staring, you know?) and then ambled genially off to the side as I inched closer, but a couple of them stood their ground and would not let me pass. Far be it from me to honk at an animal that could probably destroy Olive, and maim me, with one angry charge. I would let them take whatever time they needed. Only a matador should be that close to a large ungulate.


Wish I knew what he was thinking when he was eyeing me.


As I arrived at the dog town and grabbed my camera, I looked down the road a little to see a massive bull ambling toward me. I quickly calculated the distance to the overlook, my top running speed, the lack of any protective cover, and the mph of a charging bison; I’m a risk-taker, but… no photos today. Today I planned to get home. Intact.

Utter desolation surrounded me. It made me happy that it was wilderness, but it was the kind of wilderness that did not feel very welcoming. Gray volcanic ash heaps lithified into the stony hills millions of years ago; their surfaces crumbled under foot. Erosion proceeds rapidly here, perhaps an inch a year — and every drop of rain that falls carries pieces away. Cairns aren’t useful when they weather so quickly, so iron stakes marked trails. Signs warning BEWARE RATTLESNAKES! were pounded in the ground at every overlook and trailhead, prompting me to wonder how many visitor/snake interactions happen yearly. The harsh beauty that is Badlands felt rather inhospitable to me.

A handsome non-venomous snake called a ‘racer,’ sub-species unknown, lay across my path on the hike to the Notch. Up close and personal — exciting! I got close enough to see the yellow under his throat and then gave him his space. Bighorn sheep (re-introduced after extirpation) clogged the road further ahead, and prairie dogs seemed too numerous to count. On the Fossil Trail are casts of some of the interesting remains found in the park of ancient Oligocene mammals, which were plentiful here.


Tell me how 'hope' fits in here.


The early explorers of this barren wilderness predicted it would never be good for anything at all; the same things were said about southern Utah’s barrenness. I beg to differ with this opinion! Wallace Stegner, environmentalist and writer, summed it up poignantly when he said:

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

I thought about that odd juxtaposition, “a geography of hope,” for the rest of the day. How can landforms supply hope? How can what is on a map rekindle a sense of promise, of expectation? I have my ideas; I’d like to hear yours.

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