Published: September 8th 2009September 8th 2009
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Arches National Park: In Which the Author Considers Edward Abbey
Note: This blog entry was composed in Chicago 2 weeks after visiting Arches.
After a good Moab breakfast, I drove the 6 miles north to the Arches National Park entrance. There was an excellent backdrop, with Hwy 191 continuing on in a series of switchbacks cut into 1000-foot red, stone walls (think: Albert Brook’s movie Lost in America
. I blew past the entrance gate, and since it was only about 10:45 a.m., inquired about the camping situation, more specifically, “Will I be happy?” The Ranger replied, “Well, I’m sure that the 17 people in line at 7:30 this morning are happy. But there’s plenty of camping just outside the park as well.”
A stop into the Visitors Center to recycle and pick up some postcards and water allowed me to think about a plan of attack for the day. I had seen a sign outside of the Visitors Center that stated that the “Fiery Furnace” section of the park required either signing up for one of 2 Ranger-led tours, or by requesting a Back Country Pass. Hmm…this notion intrigued me,
and I chatted with a young Ranger (one of 2) behind the counter. Using scare tactics, the Ranger first whips out an over-head view photo of a complex rock mass and says, “There’s no maps, trails or signs in the Fiery Furnace. If you’ve never been here before, I recommend that you not request
Hmm…now I’m intrigued even more. After the forced-viewing of a video, it turns out that the main concern of the Park is to preserve and maintain the natural soils as much as possible. I did learn that the soil contains organisms that grow, only about a millimeter a year, to produce “moon-like” soil conditions ripe with life. I stated (truthfully) that I’m a “low-impact” camper and hiker and would follow the rules, such as “walk whenever possible on rock surfaces, walk on established social trails, (obviously) pack it in and out, and to preserve others’, including the Ranger-led tours’ natural experience (no yelling, joining their group, etc.). I initialed all the rules, even after I’d orally agreed to them, and took my pass ($4.00). I was excited to do another backcountry hike, especially one that would allow me to truly access the rocks,
as opposed to viewing them from a large distance away. I dropped a few postcards, including one to my friend J.T. Berg (who mentions, “Friends love to be referenced by name in the blog.”
Arches, much like Bryce, is a very “small” park, with “one road in; one road out.” I set off immediately to view the park; the sun was already out and baking, and we were again (with no air conditioner, by the by) moving in the truck, hot desert wind blowing in the always-open windows.
Arches National Park, a “high desert with the greatest density of natural arches, is 4,100 to 5,600 feet in elevation, much higher in the “Colorado Basin” than the previous areas, lower in the basin. Over millions of years, or by the Hands of God only 4,000 years ago—whichever you prefer, water and wind have conspired to produce wonderfully entertaining large (100s of feet tall) red rock structures. Highlights include Park Avenue, the Parade of Elephants, the series of Delicate Arches (upper and lower), Wall Arch (which collapsed one year ago, in Aug. 2008), and the famous Balanced Rock. As the parks road rolls through the middle of the
canyon floor, spectacular, unobstructed views offer visitors extreme satisfaction without all the hard work (i.e. hiking) often associated with access. It’s a “car park,” and within 4 hours, Sophie and I had visited most of the high points (obviously, the 2+ mile hikes were out, as even with the windows open and the shade providing 15-degree relief, it was still too hot to stray too far).
Luckily, most of the great (and naturally-constructed) viewpoints were usually a couple hundred yards, or a short, 10-15 minute walk. I covered them all, snapping pictures constantly. Although there had to be 1000s of people in the Park, traffic was very light, and most stops had only a relatively few numbers of cars. I met two older (very older) women from Ashville, N.C., who stated that they’ve not been this moved since visiting the “Holy Land.” This reference might have meant Israel, but I didn’t inquire further, as religion and nature don’t mix well for me (well…religion and MOST subjects…). I also traveled through the campground, with its 17 burning-hot spaces, all set out right on the hot desert ground. I saw 2 young ladies, one with a Chicago White Sox cap,
and ended up chatting with them for 20 minutes. Although I took notes on our exchange, I currently cannot recall their names. One young woman was from California, and had flown to Chicago to drive cross-country from Lewis University outside of Chicago back to California. The women had “had trouble with their tent” the night before, forcing them to sleep in the car and “out under the stars.” Tent troubles? Ya’ either got it, or ya’ don’t (the tent that is), and besides being flooded out from camping in a low-lying area, there are few other issues that I’m aware of that might occur. In any case, both we’re pleasant, and I realized that I’m glad that Sophie and I weren’t planning on staying here, as the heat, I was sure, would extend long into the night.
It was now about 2:30, and the sun was blasting down. I was tired of the driving, picture taking, turning the truck off and walking, etc. I knew that it was time to “heed the desert’s call” and find some good place to lay low during the hottest part of the day.
At Balanced Rock, we did what few tourists
in the park do—we drove down a dirt National Park road, one of the only unpaved roads that remain in the park. It was also strategically picked for the Edward Abbey connection—it was further down this road that Abbey resided as an Arches National Park Ranger (or watchdog) in a now-gone trailer. Several locations, as well as many areas throughout the park, are directly referenced in the book. We drove 2 miles in, and had, for the next 3.5 hours, a private, cool desert oasis. I pulled Sophie’s sleeping bag out of the back of the truck, which was parked in the shadow of a 15-foot woody shrub, and had a beer, some nuts and several large glasses of water. I even lay back, comfortably and contently closing my eyes and drifting off to sleep in the desert. Sophie was totally relaxed and comfortable in the shade, thoroughly sleeping soundly while I finished Abbey’s book.
Regarding the book, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
, Abbey surely deserves “props” for advocating the preservation of and spirit found within America's National Parks. He actually takes a very conservative view, complaining that the convenience of cars, visitors, paved roads, and
technology, in general, have no place at la Table au Natural
. Perceived as a rebel, and hero, at the time, Abbey proposes an automobile ban in all National Parks, with bicycles replacing cars. If the American people truly appreciate nature, they must work for it.
In carefully and impressively constructed arguments, peppered with examples and history, Abbey, in addition to a true appreciation and standing in awe of nature, is certainly right to promote nature as he does. Certainly, through the 1970s, when many companies operated immorally in regards to natural spaces and even the common man, and even more so in the 1980s, when companies and individuals were actually rewarded to think in this manner, nature/environment, thanks in part to the publicizing of global warming (a phrase that I don’t even feel needs “quotes” anymore), is making a strong resurgence. Many of Abbey’s ideals, 40 years later, seemed, to me at least, have been somewhat maintained/employed by the National Park Service, our nation’s coolest department. On this 32-day trip, I’ve experienced minimal plumbing facilities, minimal development (road and otherwise), low-impact campsites (many 60+ years old), and little trash, etc. Even the comfortable brown and white font employed
by the NPS reflects the warmth of my youth and experiences in traveling. Surely, people have had an impact on the environment, but especially coming from Chicago, where 8-9 million people visited our touristy Navy Pier last year alone, the solitude and remoteness, combined with absolute beauty and peace are available with as much/or little, as the case may be, effort as needed. In today’s world, for a long time, it was the desire that was missing. Record numbers of visitors in Yellowstone, Tetons, and even this park prove that Americans are again ready to “rediscover” America.
And, as mentioned, Moab has fewer people then when Abbey used to relish his weekly trips into the ‘big city’ for drinking, socializing, and restocking supplies. Abbey’s in love with the “emotional connection of nature,” and chides mankind for lacking his own interest and experience in the manner.
In addition, Abbey wasn’t walking around Arches on foot alone, nor even peddling a bicycle for that matter, on his travels around the area.
I enjoyed his stories of a lost hiker body recovery, the fact that all the sunflowers along the roadsides that I’ve seen for the
Arches National Park
Balanced (luckily) Rock
past two weeks are a direct result from rain runoff, and the importance of water in the desert. Quite a good read, especially at the point of origin…
Of course, I was really killing time to be able to make my foray into the “Fiery Furnace,” and after 6:00 p.m., I determined that safety was no longer an issue for Sophie, so we bid Abbey farewell and turned north on the park road and drove 4 miles to our destination, the Fiery Furnace parking lot (that in and of itself sounds scary!).
I did take the hike, both in the “unknown” factor involved and the NPS-prescribed ethical rules that I was expected to follow, seriously, packing in my book bag a water bottle (replaced for $9 at Bryce National Park), camera, extra batteries, a waterproof rain jacket, the Arches National Park map provided at the gate, and a pen/paper to, if necessary, sketch my path of travel (In my head, I pictured the “cave diving” scenario of tight, dark sand-disturbed and cloudy underwater disasters). I used the thin, metal twist-tie to attached my backcountry permit, and proudly (for, if one discovered this restrictive warning time during the
course of routine exploration within the park, it would probably be too much hassle to make the 20-mile long drive back to the entrance to make the arrangements) ducked under the “Must Possess Backcountry Pass”—the ‘All-Access’ Backstage Pass of Nature to a trail 200 yards from a massive compilation of vertical rocks, sprawled out in all directions, a rock fortress. The trail quickly disappeared, and then I was on my own.
It was great pleasure to have a shapes and sizes of rocks for which to climb on, over, and around. Water had worn natural steps, allowing oneself to pull or jump up, perhaps a couple of feet in height, and thus being able to survey the path of least resistance into the Furnace. I followed a creek bed/natural waterway (another “okay” path in which to tread with the least environmental impact) to a trail, leading to a long hall, perhaps 200 feet wide, with 300 foot sandstone cliffs on each side. I was soon standing in a huge room, which I enjoyed all to myself.
My natural curiosity/a vague trail, as much was hidden on the rocks, led me off to the right, up a
stone staircase (after silently, with just a brief, “Hello,” letting a group of 9 hikers descend the staircase). It lead to a series of interesting rock “rooms,” complete with “roofs,” which possessed “windows,” thus allowing the natural sunlight to shine through. I like “loops,” and contemplated as to how to remove myself from the final room up a steep, round rock trail and back into the canyon of origin. However, after 5 minutes of contemplation, including testing the rocks’ smooth, sturdy and grip-friendly surface, I determined that alone, and especially without a climbing helmet, such a move might land me in the Moab Times-Independent as the “yet-another careless tourist” no doubtably injured each and every year inside the park.
Entering back into the long hall (not “haul,” as suggested by spell check, although after 45 minutes of bounding around, I was a bit sweaty and winded), I turned right, easily recognizing the direction of my entrance, and more importantly, my exit, and ran into a dipping curve, full of 30 people following a Ranger. She stopped, and the whole line stopped, and we briefly chatted. She asked to see my pass, which I quickly turned around, turning the
back pack towards her. She said, “I don’t see it,” and I briefly panicked, thinking that I had somehow lost it squeezing through the thin access areas of the rocks. I whipped off the book bag and was happy to see that the 2x6-inch pass had only fallen between the material and my shirt.
Satisfied, but not necessarily happy, the group carried on, as their 2-hour tour was near the end. I continued in the direction that they had came from, enjoying another series of long, sunny rooms. Back in the center, I hike about halfway up the ever-increasing, both in length and degree, thin pathways to the sun. I closed my eyes and stood for at least 2 minutes, silently realizing that this was the pinnacle of the hike, and that I was not about to turn and start back down the way that I had come. My Arches day was at a sweet and calm end.
With the setting sun, the trip out afforded new views, walls of rocks behind and in front of other walls of rocks; sometimes the sun would light up the closest wall, and sometimes it would light up the
furthest wall. The light soon drifted, and highlighted jagged and sultry round points in bright oranges and reds. There was no one else in the Fiery Furnace now, just me and my camera. After side-trekking near the point of entry and viewing yet another huge, natural arena (think Colorado’s Red Rocks, but flat and surrounding one on all 4 sides, not just 2-3), I found myself in a former water-flowing area, and tiredly hike up it, finally making it back to flat ground 20 minutes later. Mine was the final vehicle in the parking lot; Sophie dutifully waiting for my return.
The slow and bittersweet drive through the long, slow sunset accompanied my back down to the entrance of the park. I slipped away, out the entrance, and traveled south for one mile. It was dark now, and as I’ve previously written, knew that I was to travel on the road that borders the eastern side, in distinct and grand natural fashion, of Arches National Park. I wanted to see Scenic Hwy 128 in the daytime, so I drove a few miles in, camping at, as I would find out the following morning in the light of day,
the “Negro Bill Camping Area.” This somewhat oddly-named (not only originally, but more interestingly, how did the name survive to present day? Too bad Abbey’s already dead) campground, with a cost of $12 and steep walls providing a currently-suitable Colorado River to swiftly pass, was warm and quiet. As previously mentioned, the morning swim was a highlight.
Off to Denver, Colorado (and, actually, to produce my final blog entries for the trip-- catching up on Jennifer's visit in Salt Lake City…
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