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On The Colorado Plateau

Photo credit: National Education Association


In our 36 years together so far, my wife Barbara and I spent many of them hiking our beloved canyonlands, braving precipitous trails and sleeping under the stars of a sky as vast as the universe. Now I am 85 and she is 70, although an unnamed but degenerative condition has her feeling older. To celebrate her birthday and the fact that a more than two-year pandemic has waned enough so that folks are venturing out once more, we decide to take a road trip from our home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, north onto the Colorado Plateau. We adjust the trip to our current abilities: driving only a few hours each day, staying in comfortable lodging rather than a tent, taking it slow and respecting our diminished energies. As our friend V. B. Price says, one must learn to grow old. 

We start out on a brilliant spring day in late May; the blue of the sky only dulled somewhat by the haze from the terrible fires burning in different parts of the state and the dust churned up by rapacious winds. Climate change is upon us, with these so-called natural disasters coming fast and furious. And other sorts of disasters are upon us as well, such as the mass shooting of children. Then there is the imminent loss of legal abortion as a conservative Supreme Court threatens that freedom we’ve had since 1973. Just as they have steadily eroded women’s rights, we know that the Republicans will succeed, as they have for so long, in refusing to pass legislation to curb ownership of automatic weapons. Neither will it be possible for a country like ours to reduce global warming. We are much too far down the egregious path of predatory capitalism for these changes—or others—to be possible. In so many places, the pendulum swings towards neo-fascism as inequality and prejudice push people to dangerous polarization.

Against the backdrop of such multifaceted terror, Barbara and I drive across the vast open spaces of the American Southwest, past rock formations of majestic beauty. A world where traditions much older and more solid than the slippery ones that plague us today continue to be present. New Mexico, Arizona, a corner of Colorado, and into Utah. Our first night out we arrive tired but energized at the Recapture Lodge in the tiny southern Utah village of Bluff.

It is hard to fully enjoy the beauty of this land with the above-mentioned crises as a constant. And yet we know that it is more than ever important to enjoy the former—in some strange way to provide ourselves continued fuel for fighting the latter. Or perhaps they are simply separate facts of life: the wonders of nature eternally threatened by the ignorance and avarice of human greed.

This is the first road trip I’ve made without a camera to record the sights. Years ago, after giving my professional equipment to one of my grandchildren, I began carrying a small point-and-shoot. Now that too is a thing of the past; the tremor in my hand would render it useless. As we pass landscapes I would once have been eager to photograph, I find myself thinking about how to describe this land in words, taking care to be as detailed as possible, replacing images with their verbal counterpart.

The culture of this vast land changes depending on its inhabitants. Where they are indigenous, some of the old ways persist: the small widely spaced houses and hogans, a few sheep, the chapter houses, and historic trading posts with their interesting combination of foodstuffs, tools, skeins colored wool, hand-woven rugs and silver and turquoise jewelry. Where white settlers are in the majority, the atmosphere is either fundamentalist Christian (usually Mormon or Baptist), doggedly libertarian, or some uneasy mix of both. 

As we drive, I find myself thinking a great deal about culture. Overhearing a courteous farewell from an elderly Indian man to the cashier at a Blake’s Lotta Burger where we stop for lunch our first day out, I wonder if there are languages without words for “please” or “thankyou”. A quick internet search tells me that Icelandic has no word for “please” but 45 for “green.” I find other internet references along these lines, but intend to ask my friend Bob Holman, the person I know who is most familiar with the world’s languages, to give me a more in-depth explanation. A language that does not have a word for “thank you” must not need it; there being some other way for people to indicate gratitude. The same with “please.” I am interested in when language is needed and how—and when it is not.

Bluff, Utah, a sleepy community on the San Juan River, is surrounded by immense cream and brown bluffs rising into a blue sky. The bluffs aren’t just to one side of the town but seem to embrace it from all sides. This is where, a dozen or more years ago, we stopped at the Cow Canyon Trading post and fell in love with a large Navajo rug. We spent some time talking to Liza, the trading post’s owner, and her severely disabled teenage son. She showed us a photograph of the woman who had woven the rug, told us it might be one of her last. Although she was still young, the strain of bending over a loom had taken its toll. We were headed north to do a dory run on the Green River at the time. On our way home, we purchased that rug. Now we stop once more at Cow Canyon, hoping to see Liza and her son. But the doors are locked. We later learn that Liza does indeed still own the trading post, and that her son—surprisingly—is still alive. We are sorry not to have a visit. 

Today is one of panoramas, each more dramatic than the last. This is canyon country like nowhere else on earth. Or at least nowhere I’ve seen. Immense red, gold, mauve, brown, beige, and yellow rocks rise in intricate formations to each side of the narrow highway, their colors produced by the minerals they contain. Long shadows expand and contract, moving across them as the sun travels the sky. We drive, exclaiming every now and then at the extraordinary sights, and remembering our many visits to this country when we were fit enough to hike its slot canyons, search for its ruins, explore its rock art, spend weeks at a time camping in its secret places and making discoveries we will never forget. Those connections that go back centuries or more have long been a source of energy for me. They feed my own creativity.

We reach the tiny crossroads community of Hanksville and remember hiking the detached area of Canyonlands to see “The Great Gallery.” The difficult descent to the canyon floor, miles of trudging through deep sand in 90-degree heat, the two Chukars that surprise us on the trail the second time in, and our astonishment when we finally reach that extraordinary 200-foot-long panel of rock art now thought to be 10,000 years old. Larger-than-life figures span the shallow alcove wall, some containing smaller beings within them. Because those who name things too often do so through a limited prism, the largest of these has come to be called “the Holy Ghost.” No evidence of permanent settlement near the site leads anthropologists to conclude these paintings were made by passersby. Their natural red, cream, and black pigments remain vibrant.

We have lunch in Hanksville, continue to Torrey, and then along a road that traverses Capitol Reef in an area of the park we’ve never seen. This particular route changes almost with the speed of light: huge humping badlands for a mile or so and then stately cliffs of multicolored sandstone. Along the road, the leaves on the trees of a riparian environment look like pale green lace. I wonder if there is any other place on earth like this one; it is almost painful to absorb its beauty and at the same time remain sensitive to recent tragedies, or perhaps the former somehow illuminates and brings the latter into clearer focus. 

About 40 miles before Boulder, the road ascends the Aquarius Plateau, climbing higher and higher to its summit at 9,600 feet, then descends just as steeply into the small community where we spend the next two nights. Boulder has a population of 250. It is impossible not to imagine the people who first lived upon this land, or the Mormon settlers with their wagons and fierce determination who colonized it later. 

We treat ourselves to two nights at The Boulder Mountain Lodge, our room overlooking the private bird refuge and out to the countryside beyond. We look forward to feasting at Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm, the restaurant on the premises that was begun two decades ago by a couple of brave women who came up from Arizona and endeared themselves to the locals. Their Buddhist beliefs steered them towards growing organic produce and using locally sourced meat. Despite the Mormon ban on alcohol, after a single season they managed to secure a liquor license with the backing of the town. The villagers understood their need to cater to travelers passing through.

The people who live in these parts—generations of Mormon settlers, farmers, mountain-bikers, conservationists, and others—all value the land they inhabit and are wary of outsider impact. In the past quarter century, they have fiercely defended it, first against Grand Staircase’s designation as a National Monument (fearing tourism would destroy this place they love) and then in favor of the designation (once they realized that it did in fact bring more protection than destruction). It’s always a balance. Both Grand Staircase and Bears Ears have been the focus of federal guardianship and resistance. Trump was eager to hand the land over to oil and gas leases. Biden has put a stop to much of the devastation.

It’s amazing how tiring sitting in a car all day can be when one is 85. Or 70 and disabled. And to think that not that many years ago we hiked these canyons, eagerly navigating rocky debris fields and precipitous trails. I think it’s been around 25 years since we made two week-long hiking trips into the depths of the Escalante system, both adventures in a single summer. How fortunate we are that we get to see these places again, even with diminished abilities. We awake to a gentle breeze rippling the surface of the large pond below our balcony and a family of Canada Geese just beginning to stir, their raucous squawking filling the air. The pond has clumps of reeds here and there. An occasional willow bows low, its branches grazing the water. The sun rises in the east to the right of our room. 

With no breakfast possibilities in Boulder, we decide to drive Route #12 to Escalante, the next town west. The highway connecting the two communities rises and falls dramatically. It clings to the earth, twisting into tight spirals at times, running along a narrow razor edge looking 6,000 feet down and out at dual expanses of rugged multicolored canyonlands. In settler times it took three days for an ox-drawn covered wagon to go from Boulder to Escalante. Often those early travelers would have to lower the wagon by rope down the steepest descents. One can only imagine how the original indigenous inhabitants of this land made their way from place to place on foot. 

In Escalante it is Sunday morning in Mormon country, but we manage to find a single establishment selling $12 buffet breakfasts. The food is pretty plasticky but satisfies our immediate hunger. A sweet elderly woman in Mormon garb clears the tables, and we notice more than one young man with the hem of his telltale sacred white garment falling an inch or so below his shorts. Then back along Route #12 to Boulder, where we relax for a while. We will be retracing our way back to Escalante once more tomorrow when we head towards the area around Bryce and finally to our necessary overnight in Page. 

After resting and eating the takeout lunch we bought last night from delicious Hell’s Backbone Grill, we decide to head out along the Burr Trail to the east, the magnificent back road we remember from previous visits to this area. We drive slowly about 50 miles in and back, stopping often for Barbara to take pictures with her I-Phone as notes for drawings. This is a landscape of immense sandstone uplifts that rose out of an ancient sea and then went through eons of erosion from wind, rain, and dramatic temperature changes. This side of Boulder merges with Capitol Reef. It is related to, but quite different from the vistas towards Escalante to the west. There the road runs high, along a narrow ridge that enables one to look over miles of canyonlands below. Here the road is at a low point, dramatic cliffs towering above. 

On both landscapes the rock speaks its own language: visibly, powerfully. It rumbles and shouts, whispers, and sighs. It is not a language we can learn to speak. But we can learn to read it, see it, even hear it. One notices how erosion produced all this, as if some giant chisel was working in stone or clay. The great uplifts formed in sedimentary layers, then the elements split them vertically, creating cross-bedding and other quilted or thatched patterns. One stone mass looks like a great pile of pulled taffy. Winter ice pushed cracks apart, the lines became more defined, and from time to time the cliffs broke apart and spit pieces of themselves onto debris fields below. 

The noise at such moments must be tremendous. And for a deer, coyote, or mountain lion who happens to be in the path of the falling rock, it means instant death. Occasional road signs warning “Beware of Falling Rocks” is scant comfort to the traveler passing through. Should we speed up or slow down? Or is our fate simply up to chance? Occasionally one can make out a fallen piece that sheared from the cliff, leaving its mirror image on the descending field. Wind also deposits soil in some of the cracks and eventually bushes and even large trees grow in them. There is a sense of negative space, but in nature rather than on a canvass painted by a human hand. 

There is something absolutely thrilling about this landscape. It doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some prefer mountain vistas, thick forests, or the sea. Barbara and I are fortunate that this is the sort of place that excites us both. I never tire of this Colorado Plateau country, its vast spaces, multicolored rock faces, desert vegetation in a hundred shades of green against earth that changes from gray to black to cream to pink to orange to deep purple and red. I love every streak of desert varnish sweeping down the rock face. 

I first saw pictures of this land and its original inhabitants in a children’s picture book my father gave me when I was five or six. My engagement with it would prove prophetic. Dad bought me several titles in the series. I no longer remember their names. They were almost square, hardbacked with orange covers, and he would come home on the commuter train from New York City and hug me as he put that night’s gift in my eager hands. I remember one about the Pennsylvania Dutch, another about the Amish. Each book was about a different people, and who knows how culturally sensitive or even realistic they were. I loved them all. 

But the one about the US American Southwest grabbed me in a way the others didn’t. I still recall how my breath quickened at images of bright green Rabbit Brush and gray-green sage against red earth, how pictures of Pueblo Indian dancers with soft deerskin wraparound moccasins and little bells at their ankles made me want to see those ceremonies for myself one day. Little did I know then that I would eventually live close to those people and that landscape. That several Pueblo and Diné people would become friends. That I might come to know more real aspects of their lives. Today, as we drive along the Burr Trail, I think of that book again and give silent thanks to my father for his gift.

Geological scale is strangely comforting. It reaches back so far before humans existed and will be there long after we’re gone. But all geology is fascinating. Learning to read the land makes me feel simultaneously like the tiniest speck in the universe and hugely central to it, the latter because I am endowed with the consciousness that enables me to attempt to learn its language. I remember how, as an adolescent, I loved the Geological Survey maps I purchased mail-order for a dollar. While my friends attended sports events and school parties, I delighted in walking their rises and hollows across the land we drive today.

And today is one of driving and driving. Not that great a distance, but it seems twice what it is. We have what we’d hoped would be an edible breakfast at Ruby’s, the ginormous commercial sprawl at the entrance to Bryce Canyon. This complex, which combines a large motel, several restaurants, a Disney-like playground, a gas station with mechanics, and more, stands in grotesque contrast to the natural beauty of the peach-colored canyon landscape. One of its notable features is offering the Book of Mormon in 17 different languages. Yet I remember years ago, when we limped into its service station with a shredded tire, grateful it was there. This time all we need is breakfast.

None of the hundreds of tourists in the cafeteria line is wearing a mask. It is Memorial Day and, after two-plus years of COVID, everywhere it seems folks are reveling in getting out and about again. The highly processed food is barely edible. No sooner do we depart Ruby’s heading south than we are stopped for an hour due to a horrible accident—motorcyclist vs trailer truck. An ambulance heading away from the scene with neither lights nor siren blaring tells us the cyclist(s) and perhaps others died at the scene. We inch along until we pass the grisly site, then are on our way again. 

Eventually we make it through Kanab, across the Arizona border, and into Page—that strange fictitious town that at mid past century rose from the desert to accompany the building of Glen Canyon Dam. This community is an anomaly on the land. It seems to have no visible culture at all, no local theater, no symphony, nothing resembling a museum. Establishments that pass themselves off as art galleries feature flashy Kodachrome photos of the surrounding canyonlands. Bars and churches predominate. I count 13 of the latter in a two-block stretch. Tourists steer speedboats around the diminishing lake, drinking beer and enjoying a place that is disappearing before their unconscious eyes. Perhaps this is in fact Page’s culture: speedboats and beer. The lake’s receding shore recently reveals ruins, rock art, even bodies—one of them in a barrel. And people keep building, building, building—ignoring climate change and its disastrously descending water levels.

We stop on the bridge above the dam to look down at the water. It is pitifully low. Construction continues as if there will be enough of that commodity forever, but I suspect that Phoenix, Las Vegas, and other cities dependent on water and electricity from this manmade lake and dam will run dry in the next decade.

After breakfast, we head south across further expanses of land, the occasional cluster of modest homes, hogans, ramshackle highway stands built to sell native crafts, most of them abandoned or just empty today. This land, barren and overgrazed as it is, still captivates. At Cameron we stop to look in the rug room and graze the shop. Prices have gone up many times since we were last here. We take the turnoff to the Little Colorado overlook and gaze down at the shear cut through the earth where that river runs. All the western rivers are dangerously low these days. And the great depth of that chasm prevents us from even seeing water.

We drive right through Flagstaff and past Sunset Crater National Monument, closed due to fire. Then on to the La Posada in Winslow, where we arrive too early to get into our room so hang out in its gracious lobby for a while. They do finally ready our accommodation. Happily, we are on the ground floor on the railway side of the building, where can hear the freight trains rumbling by in the night—105 in each twenty-four-hour period. The bedtables have earplugs for those who don’t want to listen to the trains; we love their sound. 

It is said that this was Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter’s favorite hotel, the one she liked best of all those she designed. And it’s the only one where she was the architect of both building and surrounding grounds. Those grounds continue to include a croquet pitch, a volleyball court, a strawbale maze, and variety of gardens. The mingled scents of desert blooms and local herbs fill the air. I don’t know how they’ve managed to maintain these gardens despite the terrible drought consuming much of the West. It’s a credit to La Posada that in this impoverished little town the hotel is almost always full. In the 1970s, when airplane travel replaced trains in popularity, many of Colter’s hotels—typically at railway stops—were demolished. La Posada was saved because it housed the northern Arizona offices of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. Later an enterprising couple purchased the property, brought back period furnishings and art, and restored it to an updated version of its former grandeur. 

The trains rumbling past our window all night create a lullaby that gives us both sound sleep. Visually, these trains are also beautiful. Most carry freight—AMTRAK only has two passenger trains in a 24-hour period, one going east to west and the other west to east. All the rest carry cargo. And they seem endless. Counting the cars on one, I note five engines and 115 platforms, most supporting two containers. The lower part of almost every container, as high as a tagger can reach with his or her spray can, is covered in bright graffiti. It’s the rebel artist’s message to the corporations that own the containers: “We’re here too!”

Perhaps La Posada’s lure in these harrowing times is the sense that life is slowed in such places, that in its charming public spaces and vintage rooms with their whispers of an era that was less frenetic, more manageable, one is not swept up by hostile politics, insoluble problems, or decisions that must invariably be the lesser of bad choices. The spirit of Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, a brilliant and rebellious woman, still inspires. One can stop, take a breath, and appreciate the past while thinking productively about the future. This may be true of the landscape we’ve journeyed through as well. Nature seduces us back into a reality we tend to forget, bombarded by ills over which we have no control. Pay attention to what is meaningful, the rocks seem to say.