Friday, January 13, 2012

Vagabonding Across the 39th Parallel: A Bit of Mukuntuweap in the Morning (it was one in a trillion)

"If I could I'd tell you now
there are no roads that do not bend
the days like flowers bloom and fade
and they do not come again.

We've only got these times we're living in...."

Words and music by Kate Wolf (1981)

Kate Wolf was a wonderful songwriter who died far too early. She wrote some beautifully evocative songs, many of which were set in Central California where I live. My list of road songs includes quite a few of her works, including "Across the Great Divide" (here is a YouTube version with Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris), and Redtail Hawk (here is Kate singing the song).

"These Times We're Living In" is a song about a long-term loving relationship, but the lines spoke to me in a geological sense while I was sifting through the images I shot in Zion National Park last July (the canyon was originally called Mukuntuweap). We were on our vagabonding journey across the geology of Nevada, Utah and Colorado, and we were rapidly approaching the end of our trip. The words remind me not so much of how little time we have, but more the luck of living in the times that we do.

In the geologic sense...
What am I talking about? In a geological sense, an incredible place like Zion exists for only an brief moment. The Colorado Plateau, the vast province that includes Zion National Park, has been a relatively stable region that existed mostly at or below sea level for more than a half-billion years. Several tens of millions of years ago, the province began to rise, and erosion began to eat away at some of the thick sedimentary layers that had covered the crustal rocks. But the canyon that we call Zion did not come into being until the last few million years when the Colorado River established a connection to the Gulf of California.
As the Colorado River cut deeper into the plateau country, headward erosion along the tributary streams like the Virgin River formed the Narrows and steep gorge at Zion that we see today. In a few more million years, the park that we see today will be gone, replaced by a landscape that will be very different. Eventually most of the rocks of the Colorado Plateau and their 700 million year story will be eroded away, all the way down to the Proterozoic bedrock. A fascinating story will be gone, as if it had never happened.
When Zion is gone, there will undoubtedly be other beautiful canyons and gorges elsewhere to be enjoyed by whatever intelligent life form is inhabiting our planet. But there will never be another place quite like Zion. I've been lucky enough in my life to see it several times. It will be many human generations before it looks substantially different. But the changes are occurring in our time, too.

Can you see the white scar crossing the forest in the center of the picture above? It's also in the top photo on the left side. It is the debris from a very recent rockfall. I don't know if it is the same rockfall, but not long ago we were camped in the lower valley we heard rumbling and crashing sounds in the distance, and a few moments later a huge dust cloud rolled down the valley. Zion had just become a slightly larger valley.
We got up and packed our gear first thing in the morning, and started wandering about the park. We were ahead of the crowds, and were in no rush to leave quickly, since our day involved a long drive across the hot desert. We drove up to the Zion Tunnel and stopped to snap photos whenever anything caught our eyes. It was a beautiful morning, one of close to 2 trillion that have taken place at this latitude and longitude since the Earth first formed out of the void of space. It wasn't the best ever, but it was most certainly not the worst. But I can't be the best judge; I only get about 30,000 chances to compare sunrises (if I am fortunate), and I've only seen about a dozen at Zion. That is a rather vanishingly small sample in the big picture.
We've only got the times we're living in. And there is a lot to try and see in our brief time...
By mid-morning the park was getting crowded again, so we headed out towards Cedar City.


bogoizbrania said...

Amazing pictures !

Gaelyn said...

It's hard to imagine the canyons gone, but I see evidence of its erosional demise almost daily when at the Grand Canyon.

Nina F said...

Zion is totally unique and incredibly beautiful, no matter when you are lucky enough to be there.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to live with it on my daily horizon. Every day is a gift.