“Wilderness isn’t redeemed by man, man is redeemed by wilderness” –John Muir
Ben and I have obviously fallen in love with the mythic “Wild West”: cowboys, pioneers, indians, deserts, boots, independence, freedom, nature… But we’re also aware of this “wilderness’s” darker side: drought, storms, mountain lions, lawlessness, isolation, hunger, cold…
This section of our trip brought us face to face with “wilderness” through national parks in Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Though we knew exposing us to wilderness was a primary goal of these parks, we still didn’t know what it meant to leave the comfort of home and venture into nature. What exactly were we searching for? Does “wilderness” (still) exist? And even if it does, did we really want to find it?
Grand Canyon: Squirrel Petting Zoo
Ben talked and talked about his “majestic, life-changing” week rafting through Grand Canyon the entire roadtrip. Though we didn’t have much time, I expected to have some spiritually moving experience too.
Nope. Not only could we barely see the canyon, most people didn’t seem interested in trying.
“This being the case, why is the Park Service generally so anxious to accommodate that other crowd, the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner of the national parks?” – Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire
Squirrels seemed the main attraction, beating out 2 billion year-old rocks in the one of the deepest and longest canyons in the world. Admittedly, they were unusually fat squirrels. But Ben and I figured that even if Grand Canyon couldn’t attract attention, “plague” would deter feeding and cuddling.
We clearly had a lot to learn about what people were looking for in these parks.
Vermillion Cliffs: Night of Terror
Of course, the danger of the wild is real, and sometimes you can’t avoid it even when you try. While roadtrips are full of potential dangers, thus far, our trip had run pretty smoothly, especially because I’m a fabulous planner. But there are certain things you can’t plan.
The further we drove into the remote desert, the more beautiful our surroundings became. It wasn’t until nightfall, however, that this remote beauty (and lack of cell service) morphed into… terror!!!
Our search for our Vermillion Cliffs campsite went on and on and on, so here are the highlights:
- Wrong turn over one-lane, deer-lined mountain road. 30 minutes in, turn back.
- Find correct dirt road. A sign reads “Vermillion.” No further directions.
- Spot pickup truck on side of road. Ask for help. Told it’s no more than 10 miles ahead.
- Pass enormous family of monster cows (mom, dad, baby) ON the road.
- Cross endless, huge, puddles like black holes. Car inexplicably survives.
- Drive 15mph more than 10 miles. Still no paths or signs. Plenty of potholes.
- A SIGN!… Ben falls in cacti to read it. It has nothing to do with our campsite.
- Headlights behind us. Relieved, at first. Realize no one knows where we are except the pickup truck person who gave us totally wrong advice.
- A red-eyed hare blocks our car by hopping straight down the middle of the road. The pickup truck closes in.
- Let truck pass. Can’t keep up and find ourselves alone again.
- More bumpy miles. Spot unreadable sign, and CAR BEHIND IT–IT’S A CAMPSITE!!!
Zion National Park: Refuge for Every Soul
It was worth braving Vermillion to reach Zion: everything good about national parks. Trails were challenging but well-marked and maintained. And once we arrived, we left the car behind for an advanced shuttle system.
Our first day hiking “Angel’s Landing” was just plain fun. Not only were we out of the car, we were pulling ourselves along cliff ledges with chains, climbing on our hands and knees, and Ben was jumping in the most dangerous spots he could find–as usual.
At the summit, Ben and I sat down next to a fellow counselor from Laity Lodge Youth Camp, the Christian summer camp he was part of for 9 years. What are the odds?! There must have been angels with us on the landing.
I’m pretty new to the National Parks thing though and still didn’t feel like I’d found the profound, transformative, “spiritual” experience I assumed a place named “Zion” implied.
“These are the temples of God. One can worship here as well as in any man-made temple.” – Isaac Behunin, 19th century Mormon pioneer
In 1865, Behunin named this canyon “Zion,” meaning fortification, place of refuge, or city of god. Hiking the sublime, mountain-sheltered “Narrows”–with heights as tall as 1000ft and widths as narrow as 20ft–we found all these monikers appropriate.
However, while sheltered and beautiful, the Narrows didn’t exactly feel like a refuge. Most of the 5+hr walk was through ice-cold, fast moving water, and we were constantly nervous about falling.
But in pushing me to recognize and question my physical and mental limits, The Narrows’ difficulty and discomfort ended up making this a far more personally revelatory experience than I’d had at any earlier park.
But Zion offered every type of experience, and we finally found our spiritual experience in our first “shower” in days.
Just kidding (we didn’t shower for another couple days). The “spiritual” experience actually happened when we found the secluded Upper Emerald Pool at the top of this mountain and sat for hours in rapturous contemplation.
“His sight is turned inside himself, to try and understand / the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake.” – John Denver “Rocky Mountain High”
Every night camping in Zion was equally wondrous. Since we couldn’t go out to dinner or concerts, we read about the nature of space-time in Stephen Hawking’s “A Briefer History of Time.” And sometimes we just stared up at the stars.
“O these vast, calm measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest. Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever!” – John Muir
Bryce Canyon: Who Are The Hoodoos??
“Beyond the roads, beyond the viewpoints, Bryce Canyon remains a ‘wild place.’” –NPS visitor center
In the internet age, Ben and I assumed it would be easy to learn about national parks before we got there, but over and over, even extensive reviews, park service websites, and personal recommendations failed to prepare us.
In this case, we expected striking wilderness and adventure, but found roads, scenic overlooks, and frustratingly little information.
We were particularly annoyed about repeated references to the Paiute Indian myth explaining Bryce’s iconic “hoodoos”–rock pillars formed when ice or rainwater wear away weak sedimentary stone. Apparently, the NPS doesn’t explain the myth “out of respect” for Paiute custom to only tell it in winter (NPR explains it here).
We had mixed feelings, but this reticence seemed silly in an age when this info is so available, and the park service couldn’t come up with anything else to talk about. What do you think about not sharing basic information out of respect? [Please comment!].
At least we could rely on the CCC to get things right. We could always spot an accessible, harmonious CCC-built trail, even if we couldn’t rely on the current NPS to make an informative sign.
Regardless of our criticism, the park was beautiful, and Ben and I loved making up our own explanatory stories to fill the vacuum. But we think national parks have an obligation to provide more than beautiful views and wish we’d had the opportunity to learn about what we were seeing.
Antelope Canyon: It’s All About the Photo
Choosing beauty over sleep is never easy, but sunrise at Lake Powell made the sacrifice easy.
But we were again reminded that beauty isn’t everything at Antelope Canyon. The tour was designed entirely around taking beautiful photos, and we didn’t learn anything about the site’s geological, historical, or cultural significance.
The tour also encouraged us to find familiar forms in the rocks, particularly characters from popular movies like Nemo and Captain Jack Sparrow. While we’d enjoyed doing this at Carlsbad, we were frustrated that our American Indian guides assumed we’d only appreciate this “slot canyon” by equating it with pop culture references.
However, as at many national parks, Ben and I were determined to have a more substantive experience, so we stayed after the tour to talk with our guide. We particularly liked hearing about his solitary quest to better understand his tribal heritage by learning Navajo language, history, and traditions.
Yet we also felt our guide, like many Native Americans, expatriates, and young people we met out West, was a bit unfair in his simplistic characterizations of “mainstream” American culture–reflected in our superficial, picture-oriented tour. Ben and I thought our entire tour group would have been receptive to hearing his story and his culture’s beliefs, if he’d been more open to sharing.
“Statistics show that many Navajo families live in poverty. Yet our lives are enriched by living on the beautiful land where our ancestors lived, by speaking our language, and by continuing our traditions of stockraising, farming, craft work, and ceremonies. We work hard today to keep our language and traditions strong in the midst of the modern world.” Monument Valley Museum
Historic Shonto Trading post reminded us of poverty back in Appalachia, where natives preserved traditional crafts to preserve old ways of life, simultaneously perpetuating their own poverty.
“If people aren’t integrated into American society, then it’s very difficult to reach them and create the basis for economic opportunity and affluence.” Ron Haskins, Brookings Institution
But we understand why people like our tour guide resist “integration.” And at 27,425 square miles, the semi-autonomous, self-governed Navajo Nation was only one of the many Americas within America we encountered.
Horseshoe Bend: Neat!
Again, we didn’t learn anything, but it was a cool view!
Monument Valley: Making the Myth
Of course, there are ways to make the beauty of the West profitable, e.g., the movies!
In our best campsite of the trip, Ben and I slept in the exact spot John Ford’s Stagecoach traversed in his famous 1939 movie (note: “The Ringo Kid” was John Wayne’s breakout role).
“[Stagecoach] presents the West… as a savage wilderness whose outposts of civilization are held together tenuously by telegraph lines, military patrols, and we soon learn, stagecoach lines… once it enters the vast expanse and genre dreamscape of Monument Valley, the terms of the narrative become completely clear… the stark contrast between town and desert, between bustling civilization and primal wasteland, and… the claustrophobic microcosm of frontier society versus the spectacular and vaguely prehistoric landscape…” (37). Thomas Schatz, Stagecoach and Hollywood’s A-Western Romance
Ironically, we think this landscape is partly “profitable” because it seems so distant from anything related to profit–or mankind altogether. We couldn’t reduce this “wild” landscape into human meaning or value, but that irreducibility made it useful by encouraging us to sense our own insignificance.
“Despite the great variety of living things to be found here, most of the surface of the land, at least three-quarters of it, is sand or sandstone, naked, monolithic, austere and unadorned as the sculpture of the moon. It is undoubtedly a desert place, clean, pure, totally useless, quite unprofitable.” – Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire
Bluff Fort Museum: Mormon Pioneers
“Is it possible in any fertile spot in Utah, no matter how remote from civilization, not to find a prosperous band of Mormons? It might have been so before ’79, but now we find many interesting settlements. One…called Bluff City. I cannot imagine a finer example of Mormon enterprise than these two hundred people, with their wealth of cattle and horses, leaving good homes, and facing the dangers and hardships of an unknown country.” Remington W. Lane, Harpers Magazine, December, 9, 1893
But much of the “wild” west was long ago made useful to humans–as far back as 19th century Mormons. We got a taste of “frontier” society at the free Bluff Fort Historic Site–our second encounter with these brave, religious pioneers.
This was a determinedly “local” museum–created by and about recent residents–and it reminded us that out West people are still connected to the earliest pioneers through living memories.
“As her descendants, we pay tribute to the legendary sacrifice and service Josephine Wood offered to her community and to our God. May we emulate her courage, compassion, selfless service, and stalwart faith.” –label honoring “Aunt Jody,” Midwife/Nurse/Doctor (1853-1909)
Mesa Verde: Let’s Never Change
By the time we got to Mesa Verde National Park, I’d finally learned to set up camp all by myself (thanks Ben!)
I made our campsite so nice, some friends visited while we were sleeping.
Actually, it wasn’t the nicest campsite. But then, Mesa Verde isn’t the prettiest place.
70% of the park has burned since it opened in 1906 (95% of the fires were started by lightning).
For this and many other reasons, we couldn’t figure out why Mesa Verdeans called this land home for so long (750-1300AD). They were so desperate to stay, they spent their last 100 years here in 600 inhospitable cliff dwellings, only to inexplicably disappear.
In my opinion, Mesa Verde is the story of people so attached to tradition and afraid of change, they lived in the stone age through the 1200s.
Above, you can see how residents had to crawl just to enter their homes (after scaling cliffs–we never figured out how they’d go to the bathroom at night).
And cliffs were only the last of hundreds of years of decisions to live in impractical, dangerous locations to avoid change.
“Tradition and family ties may have proved stronger than logic or landscape” –Village Upon Village NPS label
For example, kivas began as underground homes, and only after generations of fires did they become communal and then symbolic, religious structures instead.
However, Mesa Verde is also the story of why people might choose not to change, or “progress.” For example, the museum talked about how hunter gatherer societies have more leisure time, so there’s no reason to develop wheels, metal, written language, etc., without compulsion–like sustaining large populations or defending against enemies.
Mesa Verde thus encouraged us to think about the causes and costs of change–a relevant theme while on a roadtrip to discover our often forgotten American past.
“We have songs, we have customs that are handed down… because of that we have maintained a way of life…. We’re reminded of (our) past because we live it everyday.” Armand Minthorn at the Omaha NPS Lewis and Clark
As a side note, the CCC again shone in Mesa Verde. Not only did they work on administrative buildings, lodges, campgrounds, roads, and trails, but even beautifully crafted, humorous miniature dioramas!
“Here in the park, far from the harsh realities of the time, the workers designed and built their own idealized world—a world in which people were happy, everyone had enough to eat, and no one worried about money.” –Mesa Verde NPS museum
After this trip, Ben and I plan to move into these dioramas.
Telluride: Dream Bubble
My last semester of grad school, I worked with my solo performance partner Charlotta Hacke on her play called “Dream Bubble,” about her beloved hometown Telluride. Her love for this place was so tangible (and musical!), I had to experience it for myself (and Charlotta’s mother graciously hosted us).
“So high up on that mountain
I thought we’d never come down
It was a dream we were livin’ in
And I was the happiest I’d ever been”–“Telluride” by Tim McGraw
Telluride’s tourist attractions were closed for the season, so Ben and I entertained ourselves in the town library, where Ben read to me about Telluride’s mining history. In 1875, prospectors found iron, silver, lead, copper, zinc, and gold in the ancient mountains and carved 350 miles of tunnels to squeeze out the land’s wealth. This eventually attracted the infamous Butch Cassidy, who robbed his first bank in downtown Telluride.
While the mining industry’s legacy remains, Telluride has continued getting full human use out of its natural beauty as a high-end resort for skiers and festival-goers.
“Where the danger is doubled / and the pleasures are so few
Where the rain never falls / and the sun never shines
Lord, it’s dark as a dungeon / way down in the mines” – “Dark As A Dungeon” by John Cowan
Ben, the poet, described the town thus: “Like a gem nestled in the palm of the mountains, Telluride seemed to be waiting for us to pick it up and discover its splendors for ourselves.” Admittedly, I encouraged Ben’s sentimentality by reading him Wordsworth on our hike up “Bear Creek Falls.”
But Telluride was also a good reminder of the fragility of nature’s beauty, and the temptation to exploit and destroy it for immediate profit.
“…with my cheek on one of those green stones
That, fleeced with moss, under the shady trees,
Lay round me, scattered like a flock of sheep—
… In that sweet mood when pleasure loves to pay
Tribute to ease; and, of its joy secure,
The heart luxuriates with indifferent things,
Wasting its kindliness on stocks and stones,
And on the vacant air. Then up I rose,
And dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash
And merciless ravage: and the shady nook
Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower,
Deformed and sullied, patiently gave up
Their quiet being” –“Nutting” by William Wordsworth
We’re grateful that, like the national parks, Telluride’s current residents have worked so hard to preserve the “Dream Bubble” they love so much.
Ouray and Montrose: Small Town Surprises
While lounging at a “clothing optional,” historic hot springs, we enjoyed Colorado’s majestic rocks in a new form: dissolved lithium, which supposedly enhances “a mood of tranquility” (sitting in an outdoor, naturally-fed pool for 3 hours probably helped too). We then forgot our health and ate greasy patty melts at this local burger joint:
Ben became the talk of the town when the waitress told Ben (and all the young girls around) he was a spitting image of Jackson Rathbone (“Jasper” in the Twilight series)!
I quickly rescued Ben’s inflated ego with music, but Ben got to practice blushing in response to adoring fans if he ever moves to one of these movie star-filled small towns.
Ben and I also became adoring fans to one such movie star–John Wayne–who we’d now followed from the Alamo to Montrose’s “Museum of the Mountain West.”
While we’d seen the same “everyday life” objects at similar living history museums (e.g., small town dentist offices), we’d never had so much fun learning about them–especially because of our theatrical, private tour guide. We also loved meeting the collector/director, who’d been building this enormous collection since age 4!
We drove a few minutes down the road to see the jagged Black Canyon of the Gunnison (self-described as the steepest-deepest-narrowest canyon in North America) but it was obscured by fog. We entertained ourselves identifying the poop of various animals instead.
Moab: Arches, Canyons, and Dead Horses
Since starting Edward Abbey’s national park classic Desert Solitaire in Zion, Ben and I couldn’t wait to finally meet the famed Arches.
“Ironically, while Desert Solitaire encourages its readers to protect the wilderness by leaving it alone, thousands of readers have flocked to Moab in a hope [of] finding their own piece of solitaire.” –Moab Museum
We’re not the only ones. Nowadays, over 1 million people visit Arches every year.
“It should be remembered that within any type of arch there will be enough variety of forms, shapes and forces that there will be no simple explanations that will totally solve the mystery of their origin.” –Dale Stevens and Ed McCarrick from the Introduction to The Arches of Arches National Park
We actually did learn about the mechanical and chemical processes behind arch formation at the Park Visitor Center–but maybe that’s because Ben finally stayed awake through an intro video! Sleeping wasn’t his fault though–most are 20-30 years old and aim merely to inspire/hypnotize–e.g., I recorded audio at Black Canyon National Park to help Ben sleep:
The sign in front of the arch Ben’s jumping in explicitly warned not to get too close because it could collapse any minute.
The city of Moab is (possibly) named after the sandy wilderness in which Moses roamed, and this type of wandering-lost-in-the-“wilderness” is still available throughout the national parks’ poorly marked trails.
Wandering can be fun for awhile.
“Old” Landscape Arch is a little longer than a football field, and twice as high as the Statue of Liberty.
We particularly enjoyed watching the sunset and the moon.
But if you fall under the desert’s spell, there’s no promise you’ll get out alive. After it got dark, we wandered many wrong trails/non-trails before finding the parking lot. When we eventually heard a choir singing, we weren’t sure if we’d died and gone to heaven or actually found living people singing church hymns (it was the latter).
There’s nothing quite like the desert to make you appreciate being alive.
We didn’t know much about what we were seeing at Canyonlands, but what we saw was pretty spectacular.
You can literally see the BIGNESS of time in the layers of a canyon, so Ben and I let these visuals inspire BIG conversations (about justice, music, communism, violence, history, change…).
To his infinite credit, Ben listened to me rant about Plato for hours, and we’re still friends!!!
Horses can symbolize wildness and freedom, but Dead Horse Point shows how easily man destroys them. This state park gets its name from a legend in which a band of “broomtails” were left gathered on the above “Point” and died of thirst 2,000 ft above the Colorado River.
Ben and I occupied ourselves hiking while waiting for my nephew Leander to be born!
We ended our Moab adventures watching a new HBO show being filmed right over Dead Horse Point. We can’t wait to see how this show adapts the myth of the West for our own generation.
Aspen: Wild Weather
We weren’t ready for winter, but it was more than ready for us. Driving up a snowy mountain to find our campsite, our car gave up and we turned around to spend the night in nearby Aspen.
I did make it up the playground mountain.
Maybe we’ll be able to afford backpacks like this on our next roadtrip.
What’s the point of going to Aspen if you can’t ski yet??
Maybe the point is getting a beautiful but cheap hotel room.
Luckily, our car (barely) managed Maroon Bells the next morning. It’s supposedly the most-photographed spot in Colorado.
But we didn’t get many photos because we were freezing!
Conclusion: Tree Museums
Ben and I know national parks aren’t really “wilderness”–which by the end of our trip, meant something like a world not built by humans to serve human needs. Parks have “wild” things in them, but they’re so contained, aestheticized, and comfortable, they don’t necessarily offer a “wild” experience.
Still, Ben felt the “wildness” they conserved was a priceless gift. From Zion’s slot canyons, Monument Valley’s sandstone buttes, to Arches’ arches–and the vast expanses between–he considered himself lucky to “spend a few moments of his comparatively short life with nature’s ancient and enigmatic architecture, to allow the sheer givenness of creation to fill his soul with wonder.”
But we also agreed the parks missed explanatory and educational opportunities, and after visiting so many, I found myself wishing our society put more money/value into teaching people how to live responsibly with nature that surrounds them everyday, rather than protecting spectacular monuments in the desert. I may have felt differently if the parks had better used these sites to teach visitors about a geological history and environmental dependence we all share.
Nevertheless, maybe the point of going into Wilderness is to just get out of your own head and get lost? Or, to paraphrase my opening Muir quote, it’s not what we can do for wilderness, but what it can do for us? If so, by not using signs, the parks did a great job forcing us to find our own paths and our own meanings. Man taught us little about nature, but nature taught us a lot about ourselves.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.