Saturday, June 23, 2018

Home From Back of Beyond: Images of a Harsh Country, Part One


Sunset through wildfire smoke at Arches National Park, Utah
If you are familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia, you will remember the novel where the children go through the wardrobe into a magical world and live out their lives to adulthood. At the end of the story they step through the wardrobe back into our world where they are once again children. Little actual time had passed. A journey through alien lands like those of the Colorado Plateau is much the same. One can work and sleep and study and weeks will pass and little will change in one's life. Then, you are ripped away from everyday life and spend two weeks exploring corners of the world that you barely believed existed and each day, each hour is a life-changing experience. More happens in just two weeks than will happen in months or years of an everyday life.
The Rings Trail through Banshee Canyon in the Mojave National Preserve
I've been doing trips like this across the Colorado Plateau for 34 years now, and each one has been unique. There have been new insights and new discoveries every time. Sometimes there have been scary moments, and there have been moments of inspiration and beauty that border on the sacred. Our journey this year was no exception. I got to know twenty unique people, and we shared some interesting times together. I will no doubt have much to say about the geology and natural history of the places we visited in future blogs, but for the moment, I've gone through my 2,300 pictures and selected some of my favorites. It will take several posts!

The Mojave National Preserve is not actually part of the Colorado Plateau, but we needed a place to stay on the way there, and I can't think of a more interesting spot than Hole-in-the-Wall and Banshee Canyon (above). There's a trail that winds through the bizarre canyon with rings placed in strategic spots to allow access. It's not the plateau, but there is a connection: 18.5 million years ago a colossal rhyolite caldera eruption sent ash drifting across a vast region. The same ash exposed on the Rings Trail is also found on parts of the rim of the Grand Canyon near Peach Springs, Arizona.
The walls of Zion Canyon from Watchman Campground
We spent a night at Zion National Park which is crowded beyond all reason these days. Too many people want to share a very small space, and the experience of seeing the park is diminished by the crowds. The obvious answer is to make more parklands available, but our government is going the opposite direction, unfortunately. Still there are moments of peace and beauty. The red rock country is always more astounding at the beginning and the ending of each day when the canyon walls are lit by the horizon-level sun. I woke up at 5:45AM to see the sunlight on the canyon wall opposite our camp, and all was quiet. I could have been the only person there at that moment for all I could hear.
 The Transcept Trail follows the rim over the Transcept, a deep tributary to Bright Angel Creek which is itself a tributary tot he Colorado River. In any other place a canyon like this would be its own national park.
Grand Canyon National Park is another place where crowding is rampant and the atmosphere is much like Disneyland. But Grand Canyon is a much larger park, and there are many places where one can find peace. For one thing, a person can visit the North Rim, which gets a mere 10% of park visitation. And once there, walk a little bit. I spent an hour one afternoon walking the Transcept Trail, and saw only three or four people. I snapped the shot above from one of the many overlooks along the way.
The view upstream of Navajo Bridge over the Colorado River
The canyons of the Colorado River are rugged, to say the least (the Grand is just one of them). For decades Lee's Ferry was the only crossing for more than two hundred and fifty miles downstream (and almost as much upstream). In 1928 the Navajo Bridge was completed, allowing auto traffic to make the crossing unimpeded. The bridge was not designed for modern trucks and was augmented in the 1990s with a twin bridge of greater strength. The old bridge is now a walkway, and one can stand 700 feet above the Colorado River just a few miles downstream of the old ferry. California Condors soared overhead while we were there. I chose this picture because of the memories it stirred of my incredible journey down the Colorado in 2013 with my brother's family. The bridge was the last recent piece of human architecture we would see for nine or ten days. I was a tiny bit jealous of the rafters passing below, but I was on an epic journey of my own with a bunch of special people.
Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River near Page, Arizona
A short distance up the road was another imposing sight, the Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River. It's just a few miles downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, and was a local secret for a long time. Word is out now and the small dirt parking lot is often overrun with buses and tourists hiking in inappropriate shoes and without hats in the stifling (and dehydration-producing) heat. It is in the process of falling victim to "industrial tourism" as authorities are constructing a parking lot, a concrete pathway, and some fencing at the cliff edge. I guess the "improvements" are necessary, given the stupid chances I saw people taking to get their selfies on the cliff edge.
House on Fire Ruin in Mule Canyon. I photographed the ruin years ago without realizing the presence of the "flames" formed from differential weathering of crossbeds in the sandstone.

My most treasured moment came the next day. We were headed to one of the important cultural sites on the entire Colorado Plateau. A thousand years ago, Cedar Mesa was one of the most critical agricultural landscapes in the entire region, being a thousand feet above the barren deserts of Monument Valley and Mexican Hat, and thousands of feet below the mountains that were coated in snow for much of the winter. It was the sweet spot for growing large yields of beans, squash and maize. For centuries thousands of the Ancestral Pueblo people made the mesa their home, building villages on the mesa top, and cliff dwellings and pithouses in the alcoves just below the rim. They left the region totally in the late 1200s leaving behind thousands of cultural sites that are still only beginning to be assessed and excavated. Five regional tribes consider the lands to be sacred.
Pictographs on sandstone near House on Fire Ruin
The region is public land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, a chronically underfunded part of the federal government. The archaeological sites have been ravaged by the resident pothunters and grave robbers who live in the region and think that these resources are their own personal cash cow. I read somewhere that around 90% of the known sites have been attacked by pothunters, sometimes using picks and shovels, sometimes with bulldozers. They'll even charter helicopters to fly them into remote sites. With this vandalism in mind, politicians and stakeholders worked for years to propose a national monument, and when Congress failed to act, President Obama made the monument a reality. Bear's Ears National Monument was established in 2016. In an egregious betrayal of the law, the present administration shrunk the monument by 90%. The act is being challenged in court, but mining companies are already staking claims. It's a hideous shame.
Ruins in Mule Canyon
We walked up Mule Canyon listening for the ghosts of those who came before. We found House on Fire ruin, some eerie hand prints on an overhanging rock, and several other incredible ruins (a long way) up the canyon. I walked six miles in the hot sun with not enough water (I don't recommend walking with insufficient amounts of water). It had been around fifteen years since I last traveled up the canyon.
One of my special moments happened as I was waiting for two new tires to be installed after we got a series of flats. Right there in the city limits of Cortez, Colorado there was a little prairie dog town. They ducked every time a car went by.

The picture above needs explanation. That's a cloud, yes, but an unusual one. It's a pyrocumulus cloud, generated by the disastrous La Plata (416) Fire that was burning north of Durango, Colorado. Huge plumes of superheated air rise and cool in the upper atmosphere, condensing to form the gigantic clouds. Unfortunately they don't produce any significant precipitation (wouldn't it be nice if wildfires came with their own extinguishers?). But looking at the drought-induced fire burning beyond the ruins of Mesa Verde caused me to consider the "cycle of life", or more correctly the cycle of human habitation. Many hypotheses concerning the abandonment of the region by the Ancestral Puebloans involve extended droughts and overuse of the available resources. The drought in 1285 AD had lasted around 25 years.

We are currently in another drought that has now lingered for two decades. The Colorado River supplies water for cities and farms across the entire southwest, but the two giant reservoirs that store most of the water are barely half full, and if the drought continues (as predicted by some global warming scenarios), the lakes will become useless pools and cities throughout the region will be in serious trouble as a result. The Ancestral Pueblo people left for wetter climates 700 years ago. What alternatives will the current residents have?

These are my favorite pictures from the first six days of our journey. More will be coming!
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