I had a precious half hour to myself one sunny afternoon in Utah, spent strolling through a little valley in Arches National Park called Park Avenue, named so by early Western visitors because it resembled the main street of a large city. The multilayered sandstone walls towered overhead, concealing the dry creek wash within their protected enclosure. There was a a narrow cairned path that winds down from the hill which conceals the valley from the road. It meanders through scrubby desert oak and juniper, and islands of knee-high plants sporting blue flowers blooming atop beds of stubby round leaves. I don’t know the names of the smaller plants, though they account for as much of if not more of the greenery defying the surrounding moonscape as do the scrubby trees. Typical. I don’t often take enough time to look below eye level and discover whats in the sprawling underbrush; what’s the less obvious lesson; what’s just beneath the skin.
The path led shortly to an exposed rock wash, bare solid sandstone cut deep through the valley, punctuated by water-logged potholes and fascinatingly textured deposits of dark brown sand. Much of the rock that formed Arches National Park began as ancient sand dunes compressed by siltation, repetitive ocean flooding and evaporation, the erosion of other more elevated strata or other geological phenomena. I’ve developed an amateur’s interest in the relationship between biology and historical geology on this trip, since much of the wonder of the American West – its strange animals, unique plant life, and varied climates – can be traced back to the geology that formed and influenced and was influenced by the climate, waters, and life cycles of any given place.
I wanted to know the history and significance of every place I would visit this summer so I could appreciate the many lives and eons and immesurable amounts of energy that participated in the shaping of each place and culture enough to feel connected to it and become a part of its story myself. However, the geological, biological and anthropological history of a continent is not so easily digested whole, no matter how eager the student. I think its fair to say I researched enough about each place so as to have the context within which to continue learning in person. The end result is almost no knowledge at all, relatively speaking, but enough to wonder at the complexity and beauty of a country no one mind will ever understand in its entirety.
For my part, I understand that sand, compressed over millions of years by more sand, or volcano juice, or lots and lots of dead things, becomes sandstone, until such time as wind and water return it to its previous state. I’ve seen spectacular sandstone arches before while working in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge with AmeriCorps. What I don’t understand and what I haven’t before seen is how sand dunes – ephemeral, airy, every-changing – can be captured and frozen whole and sound in rock. Inside that canyon, the bare rock floor was adorned with swirls and eddies, beautifully flowing, graceful patterns. Some spanned thirty feet and presumably continued under the cover of the thin topsoil, perpetuating their undulating gradient to the base of the canyon walls. Others were miniscule, less than a foot across, so that I could imagine both violent sand storms consuming the sky over vast red dunes coexisting with tiny little twisters kicking up fallen leaves and dust, like the ones I used to chase in the barnyard as a kid. I could swear I found a snake track, a tight little curl left from the impression of its body and frozen in time, transported across millennia to find itself unperturbed beneath my dusty leather boots. I wonder what happened to the snake.
After a while I climbed a boulder in a sunny spot and lay down, which once the scorching surface finished cooking my bare back, was quite comfortable. For a while I was aware of nothing but the voluminous flat bottomed clouds billowing out into the vault of the sky. You can see so far out here that the clouds, always so unruly and free to my mind, obey the laws of linear perspective. They shrank and converged toward a point whose secret celestial location they refused to give up, and so hid behind a fluffy white mountain range sculpted of the mass of their boldest and biggest citizens; a brave few willing to descend from the heavens and meld with the earth in order to protect the secret of their nation’s origin. High above them in their motherland the clouds danced their ever shifting dance, striving to be worthy of of their brethren’s sacrifice. For an instant a gargantuan spaceship loomed above the La Sal mountains, headed straight for a fluffy roadrunner launching itself off a nimbus with such force as to blow itself away. I closed my eyes for a moment, lids growing heavy and drowsy in the afternoon sun, and when I reopened them the road runner had run off and the spaceship had been swallowed up by a dragon of incredible scale, swooping out of the North with a grin toward some urgently joyous cause which I will never know. It was a silent scene, surreal, and serene.
As I began the short, pleasant hike back to the road at the conclusion of my siesta, I saw a little brush jay perched atop a juniper tree on the banks of our sandy wash. We watched each other for a moment, until he cocked his head and said with certainty, “Peep!”
He sounded so sure that he was right, what about I didn’t know. But this tiny bird perched on his twig, and the clouds ephemerally floating by, and the mountains stoically living out their eons, are all so sure of their place in the cosmic symphony, and secure in their surety they sing loud and bold and long, perfectly in tune with the hymn of creation. Why must so very many of mankind search so far and wide, for so many long years, to find the certainty of the clouds, the mountains, and the scrub jay?
“Peep!” My feathered companion offered, as though he’d heard my musings.
You’re right my friend, I thought back to him with a smile. If we always knew just why we were right where we are and why to do just what we’re doing – then there’d be no fun at all in the journey, would there?