This picture shows one of my favorite places in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. If you squint a bit, you can see Bob as a tiny figure in the lower left, sitting in front of a canyon wall. As I snapped the picture I thought of the long tradition in Chinese landscape painting of including a human figure in order to give a sense for the majesty of the surrounding scene. “You’re providing scale,” I told Bob. “Try to look small.”
But honestly, forget Bob and just look at that rock. I’m something of a connoisseur of rocks, having hiked over and around them in many places for decades. Utah is clearly where God-the-Artist went to practice. There’s red rock of course—that’s the defining color of the region—but there’s also umber, cream, terra cotta, sienna, and auburn, and even shades of green and jade. Some rocks are striated and layered. Some look like pulled taffy. There are steeply walled canyons, deep gorges, weathered mesas, and dramatic spires. A friend who has traveled widely says that Utah is the most beautiful of all the states, and after spending two weeks there, I agree with her.
One only has to spend a short time in this region to realize that this is a deeply spiritual landscape. It’s no accident that many of the world’s great mystics found inspiration in the desert, from Moses and Jesus to Mohammed. Part of what makes this landscape so powerful is not just its beauty, but its intensity and harshness. With little water and hot sun, this is not a place one can be unprepared for even a few hours. And the weather can turn brutal, as we learned during a two-day dust storm that happened when we were camping in a canyon near Arches National Park. Wind gusts up to 70 miles per hour sandblasted us and the landscape, grinding dust into every nook and cranny of our gear as well as into our ears, eyes, and noses. (Bob said that such experiences build character and strengthen marriages, but I think that’s just propaganda.)
But when this region is not being sandblasted, I don’t think there is a more beautiful place on earth. Throughout our days there I kept thinking of one of my favorite books, Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. In it Lane writes of the healing power of mountain silence and desert indifference:
“In desert and mountain wilderness,” Lane says, “people discover liminal places suggesting thresholds between where they have been and where they are going…Out on the edge–in the desert waste or suspended between earth and sky–they transgress the limits of culture, language, all the personal boundaries by which their lives are framed. In whatever form one may find it, ‘the desert loves to strip bare,’ as Saint Jerome insisted. The desert reduces one to a rawboned simplicity.”
After those two days of being sandblasted, we woke up to find that the wind had died down and that the day was so beautiful and bright that it seemed as if it had been burnished, as I guess it indeed was by all that sand. We spent an hour cleaning, taking out all our gear and spreading it across the ground as we washed every piece of it. (It took two shampoos to wash the grit out of my scalp.) And then we set off for a day of exploring Canyonlands National Park, each bend of the road bringing another gorgeous panorama. We stopped periodically to take short hikes at particularly beautiful spots, soaking up the sun and the rocks and the clear air.
At one point we came upon the Grand View Point Overlook (if you’ve been to Canyonlands, I’m sure you remember it). It’s the point where you get a sense for the wildness of the southern region of the park, which is so remote and rugged that one can’t even drive to it from the northern part. We walked to the overlook and simply stood there for the longest time, completely overwhelmed by its power. The silence seemed to emanate in waves from the land below, awesome and foreign and wild.
I went to bed that night and thought that if I never experience another day as perfect again, I will die content.
If you want to visit this gorgeous region of Utah, I can personally recommend these three parks:
Capitol Reef National Park is named after a huge fold in the earth that 65 million years ago created a giant reef, or rift. While its scenery is spectacular–massive domes, soaring spires, and serpentine canyons–its also the site of what may well be the best campground in the entire country, a desert oasis in the middle a landscape that is often desperately dry and hot. In the little valley where the campground sits there runs a perennial river, the Fremont, and the grass grows lush and green and the cottonwood trees tall. A herd of mule deer often ambles through the valley, completely fearless. Hundreds of fruit trees surround the camp, planted by Mormon pioneers many years ago, and we were told by the camp host that when the fruit ripens people can pick the bounty free of charge. And get this: at the little farmhouse in this valley they sell fresh, homemade scones, pies, and breads each day. I’m going to hazard a guess that heaven is a lot like the Capitol Reef campground.
Arches National Park draws its name from the more than 2,000 natural arches shaped by erosion and weathering over millions of years. The park sits atop an underground salt bed, which has been gradually eroded to reveal a dazzling array of delicate spires, balanced rocks, sandstone fins, and huge monoliths as well as the signature arches.
Canyonlands National Park is the wildest of the three parks, an expanse of 527 square miles that is so undeveloped and remote that there’s not even a road connecting its three units. Island in the Sky, the northern part, features spectacular views of the Green and Colorado Rivers and is the most accessible. The western portion, The Maze, is one of the nation’s most remote areas.
Moab is a charming small town located near Arches National Park and offers an array of restaurants, outfitting places, and lodging options (but really, if you come to this part of the country, you must camp in order to truly experience it).