Friday 22 November 2013


A Divine Vision?

In early August 1980, my wife Alice and I were driving across wide sagebrush plains and river canyons from Bryce Canyon Eastward all the way to the Colorado River valley.

Towards late afternoon, a thunderstorm was developing over the plains and lasted until our arrival in Moab (the gateway to Arches National Park). Since it was raining heavily, we decided to take in at a motel in down (the Apache Motel), instead of camping in the Park, as originally foreseen.

We were both tired from the long trip along curvy and sometimes unpaved side roads. Still, the rain abated towards evening and I got my spirits back soon enough. So, on the spur of the moment, I jumped into the car and rushed over to Arches National Park, my wife being quite content with resting on her bed. How lucky I was to have taken this decision. I was all alone on the Park's high ranges. Clouds were still hanging heavily over the red wonders of that park, but here and there the sun broke through and painted the rocks like a spotlight.

Suddenly, I just HAD to put on the breaks and hasten out of the car. It was like a vision had materialized before my eyes. "This surely must be God's fingers, showing me the way to Promised Land!", I almost convinced myself. But after a quick "Clicketyclick" by the camera I was sobering up soon enough and regaining my agnostic view of the world.

Arches view in 2013
Still, this experience, and the picture I had taken at that moment and cherished since then, kept my interest in the Four-courner region alive through all these years, and greatly contributed to my decision to dare fate and undertake the present trip to Utah despite my advanced age.

Between us "connoisseurs" of the slick rock country, Arches National Park is commonly held to be the most beautiful to behold, with a manifold of interesting and intriguing stone formations. I would not like to spoil this post with geologic explanations. Let's leave those to the chapter that will follow soon enough. Why not focus today on the iconic wonders of that red wonderland. After all, nature has worked hard at creating them, over the eons, by letting the land rise and thereafter being eroded by the joint forces of wind, ice and water.

Even if you were to spend a year in the park, rambling all over the place, you would never cease to discover new formations to tickle your aesthetic senses. But space is limited even here on internet, so let's just get to a few examples: Balanced Rock; The Window Section with Double Arch; Delicate Arch; and Devil's Playground (with Landscape and Double-O Arch). We will look at them in the order in which they were visited by me, driving a rented car, whilst the rest of the Group of Eight were enjoying a challenging river boating trip).

"Park Avenue", Arches       Courtesy National Park Service
The entrance to Arches National Park is just five minutes' drive away from the town of Moab. Once inside, you take a winding road upwards a steep rampart of fiery red stone until you arrive at a high plateau with views as wide as the eye can focus. You feel transported to a different planet, profusely red as if given light by a dying sun. Driving there feels like journeying on the Mars of our imagination, back when we were reading with eager young eyes about adventures of superhuman heroes on that reddest of planets, composed by our most creative writers.

But let's not get carried away. We are still on Earth, even if on one of its places of utmost and outer-worldly beauty. This high plateau is delightful to behold for us tourists sweeping along on paved roads, but we should not forget that it is mostly a barren desert, with only scant access to water. Granted there are a few washes that save water from sparse raining and provide sustenance for lovely cottonwood; but overall, this is sagebrush country, which leaves the beautiful colors of earth and stone uncovered and observable to our admiring eyes.

Cottonwoods at Courthouse Wash, Arches
Now on to our iconic views: the first you see – after driving along the road glanced in the above picture, and rounding that promontory in the far distance – is Balanced Rock. This impressive Hoodoo is among the most photographed features of National Parks of all times. One reason being, of course, that it does not take many steps from the car to approach and circumvent it.

It is difficult for me to provide you with an original view of this balancing act, it has been portraited from all possible angles and at all possible seasons and hours of the day. But just to show you that I have been there and taken the short hike all around this monument, here are two pictures taken at opposite angles.

Balanced Rock, Arches
How to judge the scale of this monument, lacking some human sized objects to compare with? We should not under-estimate the rock's stature. Its boulder, balancing on top of the column, is of the size of THREE SCHOOLBUSES. The whole structure looks considerably more portly nowadays than it did back in 1980. Apparently, the top is gradually grinding down its support, without toppling over however. Nature's most balanced road towards entropy, if there ever was one!

To illustrate how difficult it is to maintain that balance, there was a much smaller balancing rock standing just aside the big one, but that one toppled down in 1976, despite the fact that it didn't weigh more than maybe a tenth of the larger. It was called "Chip of the Old Block"; to our regret, we never had a chance to admire it.

Now on to the next wonder view in Arches, the Double Arch. This most impressive of all stone structures in the Park lies in a section called Windows. Actually, there are at least five arches in that part of the Park, along with other interesting structures, but no need for arches overload in this short post. Let's just stay with this the most imposing one. The more so since it figured in a famous movie with Harrison Ford (in a scene where his younger self is played by River Phoenix), called Indiana Jones: The Last Cruisade. There is a small video showing young River on site, but it is not very spectacular. But if you are curious, why not have a go at the video, scrolling 32 seconds into the action?

Double Arch, Arches
You can reach this arch by taking just a few steps from the car, but it is impressive enough even from there. For the more enterprising of us (me too, 33 years ago), there is always the possibility of climbing up and through the structure, a far more advanced hike. You are not impressed by the size of this cathedral-sized monument from the above picture? Not to worry, I risked my life climbing up there halfways, in order to clarify to you its impressiveness;-)

Double Arch, Upper Bows, Arches
So there: impressive enough, isn't it? It does not quite reach the height of the Cathedral Dome in Florence, but still comes close to 2/3 of that Dome's rise above the Cathedral.

But size is not all, any aestheticist can tell you that. Furthermore, the Park is giving you the choice between impressive and delicate/beautiful. This leads us to the last monument to investigate in this post, the Delicate Arch.

This beautifully crafted act of nature is not as easily accessible as the earlier monuments, but this is to its advantage. The more effort you have to spend to experience beauty, the more you appreciate it of course. In the present age of Internet, we are only too spoiled by having effortless access to pictures of all places on Earth with a click of our pinkie. But a picture on the screen is nothing compared to the real thing, especially if you have to take an arduous hike to experience it.

The path towards Delicate Arch is starting out pleasantly enough. You pass by an ancient cottage, more than 110 years old, which gives you a good impression of life as small farmer in the Southwest in those days. It was built by John Wolfe, a civil war veteran who moved out here in 1898, at age 69 – almost my age, imagine! – and established his ranch in those barren fields.

Wolfe Cabin, Arches
The cottage was built out of cottonwood logs, that he had to move here from Cottonwood Wash no doubt (se earlier picture), which lies at a distance of about 10 kilometers from his ranch. Where did the water necessary for him and his cattle come from? Actually, there is a wash just five minutes from the cottage – called Salt Wash, I believe –, but it did not seem to have drinkable water in it when I took the picture below. But maybe he had a barrel that he filled from the wash immediately, whenever it rained, to have clean drinking water for himself and his family. Furthermore, he had built a primitive earth dam across the wash, which certainly kept more water in there than I saw. The dam is long gone, of course.

Salt Wash behind Wolfe Cottage, Arches
After this brief interlude, it iwas mainly a question of laborious trudging uphill, for an hour or so, depending on your stamina. You first have to climb a steep cliff on a serpentine path, but this path is well maintained. Thereafter, you soon come to a large slate of pure slick rock, slanting rashly uphill, and taking your breath away for a kilometer or so. You can see the beginning of this large slate in the far distance on the picture here.

The laborious path to Delicate Arch, Arches
You don't think that this looks very arduous? Well, if you take a picture with your camera slanting upwards, the slope appears mightily diminished. Let's give it another try to show you what you are climbing there: pure slick rock angling sharply upwards and doing this at great length.

Entrada Sandstone slick rock on the path to Delicate Arch, Arches
You may be surprised by the number of people who marched alongside myself on that path. But you would be even more surprised, had you seen the marked number of grey haired veterans, older than even myself, some of them almost creeping uphill on crutches, all striving to reach the ultimate in aesthetics. For many of them, this uphill struggle must have likened a pilgrimage to a holy place, so intent were they to keep going, whatever the price in sweat, tears, torn limbs or heart ache. Was it worth it, you may ask? Well, let me continue the story and you will soon get the answer.

After this steep incline, it is only a question of navigating a narrow path of some 100 meters, hoed into a cliff with an almost vertical facade. Now we come to the interesting part of our story. Back in 1980, I had of course no difficulties in ascending this path. Clad in sandals, I was almost running uphill, having left my wife Alice in the camping ground, since she did not feel like hiking that day.  Once arrived at the narrow path hoed into the cliff, I started to relax, feeling that the goal was close.

As an aside, you can see me, in the picture below, laboring behind my colleagues from the Group of Eight on that same path three weeks ago. But didn't I say before that I was in Arches on my own, with a rented car? Sure enough, but I took this hike TWICE, once within the Group of Eight, but without a camera, and, the day after, on my own, and WITH the camera.

But back to 1980: As I was ambling along that path, just some 10 meters back of where the picture above puts me, I suddenly seemed to notice a bit of sky and the odd ray of light shining through the cliff above me. Still young and curious then, I felt the urge to investigate. But how to get up to that opening in the cliff, however small it might be?

Delicate Arch ahead, just around the corner       Courtesy Gert-Inge Persson     
Fortunately, at that section of the path, the wall had a mild backward slant, starting about 1.5 meters above the path, and it seemed plausible that I could climb up from there. But how to get up the first vertical section? Well – remember that I had sandals at my feet then – I went backwards as many steps as the path permitted and, starting from there, RAN UP this vertical section with schwung, just barely getting hold of the stones above it. From then on, it was quite easy to continue the climb.

And what did I see up there? A huge window in the wall, with the most wondrous vista of the valley beyond. At the far distance, huge mountains beckoned in light blue, dominating the horizon. In the medium distance, a large cliff divided up the plain into two great scenes, as made for performing an imposing theater play. And, now comes the clue, to the very left of the foreground scene an object of sheer beauty was grasping my attention. A bow of glowing red – as if Hepahistos himself had forged it as a wedding ring for Aphrodite, his betrothed – was standing, delicately poised, on an amphitheater formed of bold orange sandstone.

With this glorious memory still lodging firmly in my brain, I felt the strong urge to get up there again this year, as soon as passing by the very same spot on the path. But, to my great regret and however I tried, it appeared simply impossible to heave myself up over the first vertical section. This is what it means to get old; your options dwindle as you approach the inevitable end.

Should I give up? Not so fast! Along came a youngster, much bigger and muscular than myself, even in younger years, and I hastened to ask him to give me a heave. And heave he did, almost throwing me up the cliff, with my 90 kilos and all! Thanks to him I was able to freshen up a dear memory and, furthermore, document this fabulous scene with all the verve that modern equipment can provide.

Delicate Arch seen through window in 2013, Arches
Didn't I have the good sense of documenting the view from that window already back in 1980? Sure I did and I had good reason to do so. For back in those days I had never read or heard about this special view before. And neither did I see it mentioned in any publications that I studied afterwards. I may well have been among the first Park visitors ever having climbed up there and seen this marvelous scenery. I felt like a mighty explorer, when documenting this view for posterity! Here is the picture I took in 1980:

Delicate Arch seen through window in 1980, Arches
Of course this is a well known – and photographed – view of Delicate Arch nowadays. There is no way this type of view could have remained undiscovered in our times of Internet, where people are eager to share their experiences with pictures. As soon as one person has put a picture into the Cloud, thousands will follow.

Should I show you a close-up version of the Delicate Arch, to really emphasize it in all its glory? I would feel uncomfortable doing so; for each picture I have taken, I can easily recall at least ten others, taken from the same position and time of day by far greater photographers, which outperform my own humble efforts. What I will do, instead, is show you the first picture ever made of this Arch. It was taken by the daughter of John Wolfe, of all persons. She had moved to her father's farm in 1906 and he spared no effort to make her feel comfortable in the desert, including buying her a camera to document it all; imagine!

First picture of Delicate Arch, taken in 1907     Photographer: Flora Stanley
You may notice that, already in those days, people longed to have their picture taken standing close to, or even under the Arch. We may presume that the two persons here are Flora Stanley's husband and brother. I don't believe her father would, at the age of 78, have bothered to take the walk up to Delicate Arch just to be portrayed under it.

Interestingly enough, when I was hiking up there in early August 1980, I did not meet or see a soul. I was all alone in this enticing landscape. If you look closely at the two views from the window, you will discover plenty of people in the Arch's vicinity in the 2013 picture. In the 1980 version, there are none! And neither were there many in the Park at large in those days! And most of those never ventured far from their cars. It appears, that people have discovered America's national parks since then and started to love them with abandon!

Let me just emphasize this point by taking a closer look at the Arch after all. When I took this picture, I was in good company. I could count more than a hundred people lingering around that arc, about half of them standing in line to have their picture taken standing smash under it.

Picture taking session under Delicate Arch, Arches
But I shouldn't complain. Am I not myself one of those eager beavers, going wherever I am still able to go, and taking pictures of the icons of our day? Thinking those thoughts, whilst ambling around in that mellow amphitheater, I was, to my great surprise, constantly addressed by small groups of young and enticing girls, that absolutely wanted me to stand in their midst whilst they had their picture taken. This was kind of puzzling, since I really cannot see myself as very attractive to the youngest of the fairer sex. But maybe there is some superior wisdom residing in those fresh brains. Does not every object of beauty need a counterpoint, to emphasize its merits? Seen in that way, I probably did a lot of emphasizing that day, to the pleasure of many youngsters, as well as to mine.

With this encouraging thought, I think we should call it a day and deal with remaining Arches issues in the following blog post.


Eva said...

Dear Emil,
As you say yourself - you and we followers of your blog seem to have been transferred to another planet! You have told us a magnificent story with breathtaking pictures (as usual!)I wish I could see these wonders of nature myself one day, but since I am no hiker any longer, I will have to be contented with the impressions you have given me via this blog! Thank you very much for your fascinating story as well as your accompanying phographic scenes!

Best regards

Per Magnus Wijkman said...

Dear Emil.
Enough of this false modesty and feigned old age! Like agéd Ulysses of yore you retain your honour and your youth. And though you have not now that strenth which once moved heaven and earth, you are that which you are: strong will to push on ever forward past the bounds of knowledge and of fear. So travel on beyound the oceans and the setting sun and send us back your tidings!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Emile. It takes me back to the trip Harry and I made through here. Arches is my favorite of the Utah parks. We also did a lovely night time cruise down the river at Moab shining spotlights along the cliffs.