My trip across Utah this weekend took me over a lot of new road. Of particular interest was the stretch of I-70 between Green River and Salina, Utah known as the San Rafael Swell. Geologic processes pushed the mantle of th Earth up into the crust, breaking the brittle sandstone and creating a huge rock dome in the middle of the desert. Over the millenia, wind and water has whittled the rock away one grain of quartz at a time, leaving behind stark monoliths and deep canyons.
Approaching from the east, the swell is a dramatic site, with huge slabs of rock turned on end, pointing at the sky. This area, known as the San Rafael Reef has been nicknamed "The Silent City" because of its city-scape-like view against the horizon. Trucks coming out of the pass are dwarfed by the massive layers of vertical rock.
There was a rest area on the eastern edge of the swell before the highway begins to ascend the mound of rock. I stopped and walked atop a dirt hill for some nice scenic photo ops.
I hopped back in the truck and, not having had anything to eat yet this morning, grabbed a package of pop tarts and soda. I settled into my seat and prepared for the slow but scenic drive ahead of me. I creeped out of the rest area and up the hill. With its load, the truck protested but solidiered-on in low gear up through the sandstone chasm. I was so busy clicking the shutter button on my camera that the pop tarts lay unopened on the dash as I began my ascent.
Not five minutes later I was approaching another wayside called "The Black Dragon viewing area". As beautiful as everythnig was around me, I decided to pull the truck over yet again, Carson City be damned. My unopened breakfast still on the dash, I hopped out of the truck with camera in hand. The scenery was spectacular: a rock strewn canyon lie to the north and all around, red mesas towered in the background shrouded in mist.
A small arch had been carved in the rock, just below the lip of the canyon. I imagine water run-off from the rest area probably had etched this litte stone bridge.
Naturally, it had to be conquered.
From my vantage point atop the arch, it was easy to peak downward into the canyon The canyon was maybe 150-200 feet deep and relatively steep and rocky. The canyon ran north-south (left-right) while a second canyon branched off just below me and ran westward (up in this picture). The opening of this second canyon was no bigger than a common hallway with a lone bush growing in the middle of it. A person could easily stand inside it with their arms outstretched and touch either side
That tiny hallway below opened up as it moved westward away from me.
I considered the landscape and how bad I really wanted to get down there. The side of the canyon was formidable, full of sharp sandstone rocks, uneven terrain and a nearly vertical face.
A voice entered my head, actually several voices. One was the voice of reason, the voice of a mother. "If you fall and break your legs you could lie in this canyon for days before someone discovered you. No one knows you're here, you could die mangled and bloody at the bottom of a canyon." Then there was the other voice, the proverbial devil on the shoulder, "Go ahead. Think of the stories, the pictures, think of your Livejournal entry. People stop at this wayside all day long, you can always yell for help. The truck has a GPS system, they'll find you should worse come to worse, but what's the chances of that happening?"
When I woke up in the hospital three days later... I keed, I keed.
So, I began to make my way down into the canyon. I had to give up on trying to hold the camera and shoved it into my coat pocket. The larger rocks near the bottom were smooth and very slick with water and ice. As I passed the point of no return that rational voice began to think of other things it failed to mention to me earlier, in a last ditch effort to convince me back to the top. But I dismissed the notion of rattlesnakes since it was winter, and I decided that the evidence of droppings and hoof prints not withstanding, that the prospect of being cornered by a crazed deer were unlikely. I was getting hungry though, and I briefly thought of those unopened pop tarts sitting on my dash. Should I get stuck down here, I was going to wish I had eaten those.
I finally found a small pass in the rocks where I could lower myself down into the floor of the canyon. The ground was soft and muddy where deposits of silt had collected around the rock formations. It was strewn with trash and garbage people had flung over the edge of the rest area over the years: soda bottles, clothing, tires, even two or three 55 gallon drums. In all this mess, I managed to find an arrowhead!
The walls of the canyon now towered over me and I looked back up at the way I had just come down.
It was going to be a lot harder getting back up than it was coming down. With a little luck, maybe the canyon I was getting ready to explore would empty near the highway with a more hospitable way out than that cliff face above me.
But I didn't care. There's a certain satisfaction that comes from doing something not many people have ever done, or quite possibly, no one has ever done. To feel like you have discovered something for the very first time is a sense of wonderment we lose in childhood. As children, the world is a constant place of amazement as we discover things for the first time and it doesn't occur to us that someone else may have done it before. As we grow older, those sorts of experiences become less and less frequent as we become more cynical and experienced. We begin to realize that we're not the first person and most likely, we're one of the billions upon billions of people living and dead who have prattled around on this planet and done that exact same thing.
I think it's more magnified in my generation than any in recent history. My generation has not defeated its imperial, colonial master and founded a new nation. My generation has not fought a bloody brother-against-brother war to abolish slavery and preserve the republic. My generation did not settle the western frontier, or shrink the world with automobiles, airplanes, and ocean liners. We didn't explore the depths of the seas with submarines and open the frontier of space with rockets. We didn't fight another bloody war to remove the most evil and tyrannical dictator mankind has ever produced. We didn't string the world with telephone and electrical cables or encase the globe in communication satellites.
I sometimes wonder that the general listlessness of my generation and the degree to which we pride ourselves on our slacker mentality and lifestyles isn't due, at least in part, to the fact that we have nowhere to go and nothing to do. We cannot possibly live down our grandparents' generation who were born in the depression and fought in the great war. We've spent our whole lives in the shadow of baby-boomers who marched for civil rights and against an unjust war, ousted a corrupt president, and walked on the moon. I think in some respects, we're suffering from generational performance anxiety. On the other hand, however, I think we feel cheated and are cynical about it. Sure the baby-boomers did a lot of great things, but what happened to the promise of peace, love and a more progressive society? We're on our second boomer president and we live in a culture where Will and Grace and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy are top rated television programs but a gay couple can't get married without it being a federal case (literally). Despite the fact that both of these presidents have dabbled in controlled substances in the past (as a good deal of all Americans have at one point or another in their lives) we still have harsh "zero tolerance" drug policies. With the number of baby-boomer lawmakers who came of age in the 60s and 70s, you would think that while their lives are probably much better without the haze of drugs, they would understand how much their lives would've been much worse had they ever been arrested and convicted of felony possession. When you think about it, there really is little difference between our President and the guy doing 10 years for possession in the federal pen except one got busted and the other one didn't.
Many of us work in the drab cubicles and confines of the 9-5 life but just as many of us can't stomach the the thought of a job in the straight-world, and all of us, regardless of our career paths seem to have a general distaste for and distrust of authority and power. For many of us, I think we've become jaded at the prospect of becoming our parents more than any other generation. We've accepted that we will never out-perform the previous generation and regressed into an age demographic of video gamers and internet addicts. Appropriately enough, since we have no new places to go or things to do, we create virtual worlds to explore. The truly hardcore gamers race to finish games "first"; to be the first on their block or their circle of friends. The truly l33t beat the world and post their walk-thrus on websites for all the losers who need help making their way through a game.
But I take some comfort in doing some things that, while I may not be the first and I may not be the last, I may be one of a few, or only a few thousand. Like eating a 72oz. steak or climbing an old fire escape. Since this canyon was on the side of a major interstate highway, I'm sure I'm not only person in the world brave enough to lower myself down its rocky face, but maybe one out of a thousand? Ten Thousand? A million? Maybe if I walked back into the canyon a half mile or so ,what then? One in ten million? What if I scaled a mesa back in that canyon, or found a cave? One in a hundred million?
Or maybe the first ever.
I made my way along the canyon to the entrance of the westward bound hallway. It was so narrow and tight, this was gonna be fun.
The amazing thing about canyons are that they are created by something as benign as water. Rainfall on the swell would seek lower ground and run down through the rocks thrust up by the geologic intrusion. Over the eons, the water slowly ate away at the sandstone, digging ever deeper trenches in the rock. In an arid environment such as this, water couldn't do this alone, though. Once the trenches began to form the wind did the rest, tearing at the rocks, creating the chasms that exist today. Someday, millions of years from now that swell will be completely gone, washed away by the water and winds of time. The smoothing of the rocks by water processes give it a marbled look that is quite beautiful.
All along this narrow part of the canyon were collecting pools of varying shapes and sizes dug out of the rock.
The canyon finally opened up though, the rock floor giving way to dirt from years of sediment being deposited in this wider, flatter area. So much so that trees were able to take root. Ahead, the canyon split around either side of a small mesa. This, I decided was my goal; to climb that mesa and claim it as mine.
It would prove to be an arduous task, a journey frought with a maze of choices...
But I toiled onward and soon reached my zenith, my personal nadir. It would prove to be both interesting, breath taking, and disappointing. Upon setting foot on the level rock of my summit, ready to pronounce it Soopageek Peak I was greeted by a stick. Not just any stick, but a man made stick. A small, indescript piece of lumber. Not only was this piece of lumber here, but it was propped up rather nicely in some rocks.
I tried to dismiss this as a fluke of nature. Some piece of lumber had been blown up here and stuck in these rocks. If tornadoes can stick pieces of straw in telephone poles like whiskers on a kitten, this was certainly conceivable. As I began to take in my surroundings, the most interesting thing about Soopageek Peak were the rocks. The top sandstone layer was in the process of flaking away and exposing the next layer beneath it from years of cracking in the summer heat and freezing water expanding in the cracks during the winter.
Soopageek Peak turned out to be an island of rock in the middle of the canyon. Rather than two canyons meeting as I had thought seeing it from one side, once atop it, I could see that the one canyon merely went around it on both sides and came back together. Soopageek Peak was actually taller than than canyon it was was in. From my vantage point I could see across the top of the canyon walls.
I could even see my truck from here, just a faint strip of blue in the distance almost obscured by some brush on the right side of the following picture.
But the next thing I found I couldn't explain away. I present Exhibit B:
A neatly stacked wall of sandstone on the very edge of the cliff. No anomaly of nature could explain this. It was obviously the work of man. At first it bothered me, this meant I wasn't the first. I wanted to kick over that wall and yank up that stick, but in the end, I realized that wouldn't be fair. Someone else had conquered Soopageek Peak and had left a monument of their accomplishment should anyone else venture there. To devalue and deface that would be petty. Instead, I decided to make my own monument, one that was bigger, better, and unique to me. I began moving around bits of sandstone and building them into a small pyramid about two feet high. I topped it off with a triangular piece of stone and pointed it east toward Kentucky.
It wasn't much, but it was mine; my own anonymous monument to be found along with the wall and the stick by the next adventurer to wander up there. Maybe in a year or two I'll come back to Soopageek Peak and see if my monument is still standing or if something, man or nature, has removed it.
I sat down on a piece of sandstone and enjoyed the tranquility atop Soopageek Peak for a while longer. Cars on the highway moved silently in the distance and the mists continued to roll in promising rain. I knew had to get going soon and the trek back up the face of that canyon wasn't going to be easy, but it was worth it, even if I wasn't the first.
But maybe I was second.
Complete Gallery photo album
Panoramic video (WMV, 3.6MB) of Soopageek Peak