There may be some among the readers of this book, like the earnest engineer, who believe without question that any and all forms of construction and development are intrinsic goods, in the national parks as well as anywhere else, who virtually identify quantity with quality and therefore assume that the greater the quantity of traffic, the higher the value received. There are some who frankly and boldly advocate the eradication of the last remnants of wilderness and the complete subjugation of nature to the requirements of – not man – but industry. This is a courageous view, admirable in its simplicity and power, and with the weight of all modern history behind it. It is also quite insane. I cannot attempt to deal with it here.
-Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Beyond the electric confines of the Las Vegas strip, beyond the suburban grid which surrounds that festering, star-crossed city, lie the purple plateaus and crimson deserts of the American Southwest. Follow the highways and power lines extending north-east through sleepy, podunk, one-horse methtowns in the humdrum state of Nevada, past rock-strewn valleys, beneath buzzards wheeling over the crumbling ridges of ancient canyon walls which tower above the meandering interstates of western Arizona, through the static of the desert air humming with charged particles in anticipation of the monsoon reckoning brewing on the distant horizon, where bolts of lightning whip across dark clouds emitting tendrils of rain, and then head due north in a gradual incline toward the colorful landscapes of Southern Utah.
Before exploring the wonders of Zion and Bryce, let us first examine one of the many places where the desert has been severely molested and disfigured by men and machines. An hour east of Kanab lies Lake Powell, an unnatural reservoir which emerged from the construction of the loathsome Glen Canyon Dam. The dam cut off the flow of the Colorado River and inundated a portion of desert, thus creating the artificial lake and transforming a formerly pristine area of land into a giant water park and sand box for those inclined to ride around on ATVs, jet skis, or float about lethargically on obscene houseboats that sink lower each year as the water level drops. Despite the dark history of the anomalous lake and the ambient drone of motor boats and recreational vehicles, the place is a vast and surreal dreamscape of undeniable beauty, where billowing clouds drift through blue oasis skies and solitaire sandstone buttes rise up from the peripheral mesa like castles or Mesopotamian ziggurats. Lake Powell may be accepted into one’s life similarly to how a parent would accept a mentally-disabled step-child into theirs: with sympathetic love and the knowledge that they have inherited a mutilation spawned by no fault of their own, but alas the imbecile child has nevertheless become and shall remain their responsibility. Yet there can be no forgiveness for the abominable dam, the progenitor of maladies, for it has sown needless death and serves to perpetuate centrally-controlled systems of institutionalization and modern serfdom. There may indeed come a time when it becomes necessary and right to restore the balance of nature and dismantle the Glen Canyon Dam – an action which may be akin to pulling the plug on a vegetated relative, or when a person suffering from terminal brain cancer exercises their right to die and commits suicide – thus putting Lake Powell out of its misery and allowing for life on the river to return and once again flourish in peace. Edward Abbey’s superb novel The Monkey Wrench Gang revolves around the efforts of four intrepid protagonists to defend the Southwest against the hellish forces of industrialism, including the environmental afflictions associated with the Glen Canyon Dam. In the book there’s a scene where one of the main characters, a Mormon nicknamed Seldom Seen Smith, kneels down on the bridge above the dam and prays to God, saying:
Dear old God, you know and I know what it was like here, before them bastards from Washington moved in and ruined it all. You remember the river, how fat and golden it was in June, when the big runoff come down from the Rockies? Remember the deer on the sandbars and the blue herons in the willows and the catfish so big and tasty and how they’d bite on spoiled salami? Remember that crick that come down through Bridge Canyon and Forbidden Canyon, how green and cool and clear it was? God, it’s enough to make a man sick. Remember the cataracts in Forty-Mile Canyon? Well, they flooded out about half of them. And part of the Escalante's gone now – Davis Gulch, Willow Canyon, Gregory Natural Bridge, Ten-Mile. Listen, are you listenin’ to me? There's something you can do for me, God. How about a little old pre-cision-type earthquake right under this dam? Okay? Any time. Right now for instance would suit me fine.
Heading back toward Kanab, one passes the vermillion cliffs of the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. Along the desert road the cliffs provide an animated backdrop in which a zealous and wild-eyed coyote has hardly finished painting a tunnel on to the rock wall before a giant blue roadrunner zoomed through with such incredible speed that the pavement curled and folded in its wake, and the coyote, having put on roller skates, lit the fuse of a large rocket that he had strapped to his back and then blasted off in attempt to pursue the roadrunner through the tunnel, but he exploded upon hitting the painted wall of solid rock. In Bryce Canyon National Park, a similarly fantastical landscape exists and contains an array of gravity-defying rock formations (bridges, arches, and hoodoos) studding the canyons of the Paunsaugunt Plateau like Cappadocian fairy chimneys, gargantuan termite mounds, or terracotta stalagmites taller than the moai sentinels of Easter Island. In this wild limestone labyrinth, your spirit animal may appear (mine was a chipmunk) to explain that upon closer inspection the microcosmic features of the rocks contain miniature arches and caverns and hoodoos, worlds unto themselves; fractals which seemingly manifest the exact physical characteristics of the greater structure they comprise.
Zion National Park is a geological wonderland; an epic realm of domes and basins, crevasses and arches, (composed of sandstone, mudstone, shale, rubble, and fossils), rivers and streams and grottos. Swallows soar through the sunlit chasms of the immense canyons and dark pine trees grow from the cracks of stratified red cliffs that mountain goats pick their way across. Keep venturing up the staircase, out of Zion proper and toward Kolob Canyons where prairies flourish and huge mounds of earthen rock bedeck the isolated frontier like giant versions of the Flintstones house. In the lofty Kolob Canyons, where stands of trembling aspens grow, the elevation is 8,000 feet. After dusk a purple twilight falls across the sprawling panorama of ancient canyons and Jurassic plateaus (part of a system of prehistoric lakes which existed 90 million years ago), and the ghostly skeletons of dinosaurs rise from the earth, shake the dust off their bones, and roam through the moonscape of their past.
That places like these exists is a marvelous thing; that myriad natural wonders of tantamount beauty exist on Earth is another marvelous phenomenon; that you and I are alive and are able see and experience these gorgeous places under the sun, beneath the seas, and surrounded by stars is an absolute and miraculous gift that we should constantly seize upon every chance we get. We should be thanking our lucky stars that we are alive and free to explore. Yet it is not enough to simply enjoy these wonders; we must fight for them and for the freedom of those who cannot themselves fight. And that remains the subject of a different journal entry. Until then, here’s a closing quote from Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire:
My God! I am thinking, what incredible shit we put up with most of our lives – the domestic routine (same old wife every night), the stupid and useless degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of the business men, the tedious wars in which we kill our buddies instead of our real enemies back in the capital, the foul diseased and hideous cities and towns we live in, the constant petty tyranny of automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephone!