Monday, January 21, 2013

Leaving the Abandoned Lands for Greener Pastures: Wrapping up a Tour of the Colorado Plateau

We'd been on the road for a while, back in June of 2012. Our tour of the Abandoned Lands had taken us on a grand loop that included Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, the pueblos of New Mexico, the Jemez Caldera, Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, Arches, Canyonlands, and Bryce Canyon National Park. 35 of us had been living as a slightly dysfunctional family for the last 15 days, with all the excitement and frustration that such expeditions entail. We were now leaving the Colorado Plateau and making a three day journey home through a part of the country that has been, if anything, even more abandoned than the Plateau: the Basin and Range Province.

After our day of exploring Bryce Canyon, we moved down the highway to Zion National Park for our last evening in Utah. In the morning, we learned about some of the spectacular geology of the wonderful park, and our students were given several hours of free time to hike in the upper canyon. I'd like to show you an entire album of beautiful pictures of one of our most beautiful national parks, but to tell the unvarnished truth...I was tired and worn out! I had explored Zion four weeks earlier, and on this particular morning, I really wanted a...normal breakfast. Mrs. Geotripper and I went down to Springdale, and while the others were struggling up Angel's Landing, or slogging up the river in the Virgin Narrows, we sat sipping mocha and luxuriating our way through a couple of delicious breaksfast burritos at the Cafe Soleil. We were also doing something that had been well nigh impossible for most of the last two weeks: we went online. I even managed a short post that day.
Things were going well enough, and we were just a bit behind schedule after visiting the very cool Dinosaur Trackway museum in St. George. Then things kind of fell apart...

2012 had been a horrific drought year, and for much of our trip, brushfires had been a companion, either in plain sight on the distant hills, or far beyond the horizon. On this day, the fires were a lot closer. It was burning next to I-15 between St. George and Cedar City. And it brought traffic to a dead standstill in the 105 degree heat. Ultimately one of our vans stalled (the food van!), and one of our party ended up in the emergency room with smoke inhalation problems. We were three hours away from our destination and the sun was setting. Ultimately, we left the van and several of our party in Cedar City for the night, and the rest of us headed to Great Basin National Park, arriving at our campsite around midnight.
A new sunrise is a wonderful thing, bringing as it does the promise of a different day. We were in Great Basin National Park, a park with no basin, but with lots of other neat things. The park was established in 1986 to preserve a representative part of the Basin and Range province. It includes Nevada's highest entire mountain (sure, Boundary Peak is a bit higher, but it's mostly in California), a forest that included the oldest living thing on the planet (a bristlecone pine), Nevada's only glacier, and a marvelous limestone cavern: Lehman Cave.
We took the tour of the cavern, which is in good shape for a cave that has been known and explored for more than a century. Some areas were damaged by the early visitors, but most rooms are decorated with a fine variety of speleothems (an overall term for stalactites, stalagmites, columns and all the other features found in caverns).
Those who vandalize caverns usually concentrate on stalactites and soda straws, the speleothems which hang from the ceiling of the cave. Stalagmites, which grow from the floor upwards are sometimes passed over in the less visited caves by souvenir hunters. There are some fine ones in the depths of Lehman (below).
Columns are harder to break apart, and don't look as "cool" in a cave vandal's collection. Some fantastic columns remain in pristine condition at Lehman Cave. Don't get me wrong...people who vandalize and steal from caves are criminals, plain and simple. It's just that in the earlier days, tourists were encouraged to collect a souvenir of their trip. There were so many stalactites in newly discovered caves that it hardly seemed to hurt anything to break off a few. Until they were gone, that is, and a great many holes exist today that were once beautiful caverns in the past.
Lehman Cave is especially noted for the number (300+) of shields. The origin of these disc-shaped speleothems is somewhat enigmatic, and they are not present in most caves. Shields actually usually include two shields with a flat open surface between them (kind of like cymbals).
After our tour, we set out across the Great Basin, on America's so-called "Loneliest Highway". We detoured briefly to look for garnets at the imaginatively named Garnet Hill near Ely, Nevada. We spent a night at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park outside of Gabbs, Nevada, and the next day we were home, via Mono Lake and Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park (see here for a description of the sights along that highway; we passed this way in 2011 and I wrote all about it).
And so it was that we too abandoned the Abandoned Lands, but not without developing an understanding of the why the land drew people, and why they left it. There are plenty of lessons for us today in this country, both in the 2 billion year geological history, and in the 12,000 year human history. People inhabit this landscape today, but most can only do so because of the importation of food and energy from elsewhere. What happens when the fuel runs short?  What happens when the years-long drought becomes a decades-long drought? What happens when the water, especially in the Colorado River, is down to a relative trickle? It's beyond ironic that the most precious resource in this arid land is the most important export, slaking the thirst of cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles and the farms of the Imperial Valley of California. So many questions...

I hope you've enjoyed this blog series! I'll be trying to get all the posts compiled in one place if you are at all interested in catching the flow of the journey.
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