We had just finished lunch, my son and I. Being with Tim was more than enough to make my day, but he had just made us an oh-so-tasty vegan lunch, much to my surprise. This was more than 15 years ago, long before I became a vegetarian, in the days when meat was my A-list food for every meal. How could a vegan sandwich taste so good? Maybe it also had something to do with the place, in addition to the preparer. We were just getting ready to hike into the Canyonlands from the Elephant Hill parking lot.
I have to admit that my attachment to the desert red rock country was not love at first sight. My first trip to Canyonlands after a long winter in Alta left me wondering. I had spent all my hiking, camping and backpacking time in the Wasatch and Unita mountains among alpine lakes, towering peaks, stunning fields of wildflowers, and running creeks. Canyonlands was barren. The break from the snow and the cold was a welcome change, but the landscape didn’t take hold immediately. But then it did.
It happened in the late afternoon when I found myself skipping down Park Avenue in Arches National Park. Alone, small beneath the towering walls, the sheer immensity of the landscape coupled with the amazing detail of water sculpture beneath my feet, and the absolute quiet drew me in, made me fall in love.
Now, back in the red rock country, after too long an absence, Tim was taking me to see more of the magic. Under a cloudless sky in early spring, the sun’s heat was just enough. This was one of those days that creates indelible memories. The sand on the trail, warm, soft, amazingly fine, glittered pink in the sun. The junipers, sticky, pokey, flatly dark green created cool shade reminding me of the stark contrasts the desert confronts you with. The barren landscape, the fierce wind, the astonishing heat all in the same place where the fragile beauty of a perfect flower looks as though it needed nursing along in a controlled, perfectly regulated environment. But there it is.
We started hiking. The walls of red canyon loomed to our right, while sheer cliffs dropped off to the left, narrow passages waited around corners, and arenas of enormous silly sand castles greeted us over ridges. The subtle – thin lizards skittering across the trail, purple-blue juniper berries decorating the greenery, microscopic grains of sand working their way into our shoes – contrasted with the obvious – the enormous walls and columns, boulders the size of office buildings, the vast landscape, and a view of snow-covered mountains in the distance.
The fragility of these lands, in the small things, begs for a light touch and a quiet awe. But this is ignored by knobby wheels mashing the landscapes leaving deep scars on the sandstone. These contrasts teach us the difference between humility and defeat, between confidence and arrogance, between love and adrenaline. When we fall in love with the landscape we realize that humble confidence, a quiet but persistent voice is the way to plead for protection, to ask for space to be left alone, to be spared from the drilling craze fed by greed and the wheels fed by excitement. If we continue to subject ever more red rock country to the scars of machines and extraction, we will lose the magic of losing ourselves in an astonishing natural world filled with the minute and the magnificent miracles of life and habitat.