Arches

It’s a little over 150 miles to Moab from Torrey where we had camped while exploring Capitol Reef NP and environs: east on UT-24 to Hanksville; continue on UT-24 northeast to I-70; east on I-70 to US-191; then south on US-191 to Moab. With the exception of I-70, the entire drive is 2-lane roads, many miles of which have minimal swales.

We had reservations in Moab at Moab Valley RV Resort for Sunday, September 29, but all day Saturday the wind dramatically increased as a huge low pressure system approached form the northwest. The forecast for Sunday was 20-25 mph steady wind out of the south with gusts up to 45 mph. We considered delaying our departure, but ultimately decided to “cast off” as planned. It was not a fun drive, but we made it without incident.

Moab, where we will be staying for a week, is our final destination before our return to Washington. Kelly and Dakota will be driving over from Fort Collins to join us for the last two days of the trip, a nice way to finish.

We have visited Moab before: in 1998 with all of our kids following a rafting trip on the Green River; and, in 2008 with Kelly and our dog, Goldie, in the RV we had before the one we’re traveling in now. It’s always been one of our favorite places.

There are several National (and State) Parks and Monuments that can be easily accessed from Moab, but the most famous has to be Arches, originally established as a National Monument in 1929.

The red rock desert region of eastern Utah, set aside as Arches National Park in 1971, contains the highest concentration of natural arches in the country, among which is the world famous Delicate Arch. Over 2,000 rock spans ranging from three to 306 feet in length adorn the 76,359-acre park. Geology Unfolded, p. 8

Every bookstore and visitor center in southern Utah prominently displays Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968). Abbey (1927-1989) is a hero of the environmentally-conscious; the book is a modern-era Walden. It’s a partial autobiography and polemic covering Abbey’s season as a park ranger in Arches NM in 1956, the year I was born.

Abbey’s writing strikes a chord in me, and it appears we walked in harmony on many of the same paths here in Arches. So I’ll let him lead us on the hike to Delicate Arch, our first outing after arriving in Moab.

From Desert Solitaire (photo, below, taken from the start of the hike, Delicate Arch is over and beyond the mesa in the foreground):

Many have made the climb to Delicate Arch,…

…so many that the erosion of human feet is visible on the soft sandstone, a dim meandering path leading upward for a mile and a half…

… into a queer region of knobs, domes, turrets and coves, all sculptured from a single solid mass of rock. What do the pilgrims see? The trail climbs and winds past isolate pinyons and solitary junipers to a vale of stone where nothing has happened for a thousand years, to judge from the quietude of the place, the sense of waiting that seems to hover in the air. From this vale you climb a second ledge blasted across the face of a cliff,…

round a corner at the end of the trail and Delicate Arch stands before you, a fragile ring of stone on the far side of a natural amphitheatre, set on its edge at the brink of a five hundred foot drop-off. Looking through the ring you see the rim of Dry Mesa and far beyond that the peaks of the La Sal Mountains.

It’s still exactly as Abbey experienced it 63 years ago, except now it’s crowded.

There are few places in the world where all of the necessary ingredients have combined to form arches like Delicate Arch.

The first thing that has to happen is the fracturing of the earth to form fins. Here in Arches, an enormous deposit of salt was laid down by the continual flooding and evaporation of seawater over millions of years, followed by sediments being deposited atop the salt, eventually becoming rock. Tectonic forces then lifted the salt into a dome, cracking the sedimentary sandstone above. As water made its way across the surface, it widened and deepened those cracks in the sandstone rock, creating “fins” (see diagram, below, top left).

Once fins had formed, a new process began to erode the sandstone below the surface, but for that to happen, there had to be a certain combination of sedimentary strata (see diagram, below, right).

These and other scenic rock formations have been carved principally from four Jurassic-ages strata: the Navajo Sandstone, the Dewey Bridge Member of the Carmel Formation, the Slick Rock Member of the Entrada Sandstone and the Moab Member of the Curtis Formation. Geology Unfolded, p. 8

As explained on page 7 of the Park Service brochure for Arches NP:

Sandstone is made of grains of sand cemented together by minerals, but not all sandstone is the same. The Entrada Sandstone was once a massive desert, full of shifting dunes of fine-grained sand. The grains are nearly spherical so, when packed together, they formed a rock that is very porous (full of tiny spaces). In contrast, the Carmel layer just beneath the Entrada contains a mix of sand and clay. Clay particles are much smaller than sand grains; a lot of them can pack together and fill in gaps between the sand grains, making the rock denser and less porous than a purer sandstone. *** Drops of rainwater soak into the porous Entrada sandstone easily and then slowly dissolve the calcite bonding the sand together – in other words, rotting the rock from the inside out. Water puddles just above the denser Carmel layer where it erodes a cavity, like food trapped between your teeth. In winter, water trapped between the two layers expands when it freezes and pries the rock apart. (See diagram, below, bottom left)

Gravity does the rest.

According to the Park Service, Delicate Arch is 45 feet high and 33 feet wide. I’m not sure if those are inner or outer dimensions, but either would be impressive.

Abbey sums up the experience of visiting Delicate Arch this way:

A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us – like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness – that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels.

We hiked back toward the trailhead:

Near the parking area is a paddock and cabin known as Wolfe Ranch. Seeking a drier climate in hopes that it would lessen the pain of a leg injury, John Wesley Wolfe left his wife and most of his children in Ohio and went west in 1898 with one son to take up ranching here near Delicate Arch. His daughter visited him in 1906 and, disgusted by the condition of Wolfe’s abode, convinced him to build a new cabin, the one that now stands here. If this is the “new and improved” cabin, I can’t imagine what the old one looked like.

Just behind the cabin, carved into the sandstone, are petroglyphs depicting big horn sheep and horses with riders. Since horses were not introduced to this area until the mid-1600s, these petroglyphs were most likely carved by members of the Ute tribe, not by the earlier Anasazi or Fremont Indians.

Abbey says that:

After Delicate Arch the others are anticlimactic….

Could be. I’ll reserve judgment until we’ve seen the others. At any rate, after Delicate Arch, we drove around the Park to see some of the other sights, most of which are visible from the road. On the Park map, below, I’ve circled the areas we will hike; the rectangles are areas that we saw from the road:

First, we drove north to Fiery Furnace, a heavily fractured area of sandstone fins. We’ll be hiking here in a couple days.

We then drove south to the Windows Section (“windows” is another way of saying “arches”).

This is Double Arch:

Just south of the side road into the Windows Section is Balanced Rock. Abbey lived in a trailer nearby when he was a park ranger here.

Further south, we approached the Courthouse Towers. I’m pretty sure this one is called the Tower of Babel:

And these would be the Organ (left) and the Three Gossips (right):

Earlier in this post, I called Abbey’s book, Desert Solitaire, a polemic. He wrote it in the tumultuous year of 1968 from journals he kept as a 29-year-old ranger at Arches, so I can forgive him for the rants making up about a third of the book. He had unkind words for many: tourists, ranchers, engineers, politicians, etc. Of course, he is not alone in that regard. But he goes beyond the pale – and this is the problem with many activists in today’s environmental movement – when he claims that everyone else is a despoiler of the natural world, except him. I call this the Ivory Tower View of Wilderness; others simply call it hypocrisy.

But don’t let that keep you from reading Desert Solitaire. Abbey had a way with words, an intimate knowledge of his subject, and he was a great story-teller. Read it. Better yet, experience it. Visit Arches.

A final quote from Edward Abbey, harmonizing in the key of sea:

The restless sea, the towering mountains, the silent desert—what do they have in common? and what are the essential differences? Grandeur, color, spaciousness, the power of the ancient and elemental, that which lies beyond the ability of man to wholly grasp or utilize, these qualities all three share. In each there is the sense of something ultimate, with mountains exemplifying the brute force of natural processes, the sea concealing the richness, complexity and fecundity of life beneath a surface of huge monotony, and the desert—what does the desert say? The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.

4 thoughts on “Arches

  1. Agree with your observation “Ivory Tower of Wilderness”…I support the environmental efforts and climate change awareness but extreme approaches really don’t help the cause. Thanks again for your blog. It’s truly educational and enlightening.

    • Same here. I call myself a conservationist, rather than an environmentalist, the difference being that environmentalists focus on pointing out the problems, conservationists look for ways to solve them.

  2. Pingback: Feeling Finnish | The Road Less Traveled

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