Pre-dawn in canyon country is splashed with stillness. It’s deep. You have to wade through it. It’s so thick out there, you need hip boots water wings wouldn’t hurt either. We be talkin’ solitude! Although a very crowded solitude.
This isn’t about a "Zen of quiet." It’s more like Jackson Pollock stalking a 360-degree canvas while tossing-off splotches of serenity in wide, seemingly random arcs. It splats against redrock and sky — yet it is noiseless. The hush is deafening the darkness brilliant.
Between eventide and first blush, when the moon is new and in a non-reflective mood, Capitol Reef National Park flaunts a night sky you can hang your hat on. Starlight dazzles. Night-sky pilgrims squint. The center of our galaxy radiates from horizon to horizon – the way is milky, so to speak.
To be awash in such splendor takes only a brief mosey out from under canopies of Fremont cottonwood or Russian olive or single-leaf ash or, depending on your elevation, ponderosa pine. It’s rather simple, actually. It’s not rocket science. It is, however, space travel.
Night skies such as these, however, can be geographically challenging. Stars and globular clusters and distant galaxies appear arranged in patterns not unlike the molecular structure of lead. It’s about the appearance of density upon a two-dimensional plane. Seemingly, there are no vacancies. There is no room at the Inn.
Attempting to identify constellations within such star-rich environments requires self-induced filtering mechanisms like, say, mashing down your eyelids until only the most luminous celestial bodies gain entry to the optic nerve. It’s kind of cool, actually abstractly expressionistic and all.
If you get your head tilted back checking out the night sky up around Heber or Park City, well, stars of secondary magnitudes aren’t all that visible. This, of course is due to light pollution, or as it’s referred to down at the Chamber of Commerce, "ambient light."
This makes it much easier to locate constellations geographically. When only first-magnitude stars are visible, you don’t have unnecessary celestial objects getting in the way and confusing matters. It’s like connecting the dots.
The northern circumpolar sky jumps right out at you — or at least those stars with which we have come to identify our childhood constellations. Cassiopeia, Ciphers, Draco, Urea Major (Big Dipper), and Urea Minor (Little Dipper) may dip below the horizon now and then as they rotate around Polaris, but they are always out there doing that thing they do.
During autumn and early winter hereabouts you also get Andromeda, Aquarius, Pegasus and that grand old Orion. Is that his nebula or is he just glad to see you?
"The Seven Sisters," known as "Pleiades" in some circles, is one beautiful yet difficult-to-fathom object. For some reason, when you attempt to look deep within — to capture its essence — you come away none the wiser. So it goes. They say that to "know and define" is the true forbidden fruit.
But back in Capitol Reef country, the night sky is chock-full. Ambient luminescence generated by man is a rare commodity in these parts. It’s about naked-eye marveling at a much more visible universe. The smallest pinpoints of light become manifest. An overwhelming display of organic process slowly plays out across the timeless void — and in its wake a complete disarming of the preconceived notion.
There is no "daybreak" in this space-time continuum. Dawn arrives very gently with the golden glow of autumn leaves and the long shadows of the early morning sun. There is no hurry. It missed its train. It didn’t get the memo. Even the light is kicked-back, going about its morning puttering at its own pace while splashing off the western flank of the Waterpocket Fold.
When you have the entire campground loop to yourself, it is easy to notice when a couple of dozen mule deer begin their morning mosey toward their staging area a few campsites down. You wouldn’t want to nap where you slept away the night, now would you? The resident flock of chukars, with their distinctive red beak and striped wings and loud-throaty-clucking-calls won’t show for a spell. They are most likely busy practicing that blend-into-the-background quail thing they do.
The "whoosh-whoosh" of raven’s wings echoing off canyon walls softly nudges its way into the somewhat-blurred morning soundscape. Most birdcalls don’t come with subtitles along the reef but the mourning dove and the pinion jay and chickadee and magpie have a way of rehearsing you until you’re ready for a pop-quiz.
But cupping up and slipping out for a hike is the beckoning variable most often associated with Capitol Reef. And having the good fortune to partake of the many golds and yellows of autumn along the canyon bottoms and creek beds makes the relatively low numbers showing up on the Fahrenheit scale seem like a well-worth-it tradeoff.
When you get right down to it, however, it’s mostly about the exposed rock strata and the geologic wonderland created by deposition, uplift and erosion. Much of this area hung out somewhere near the equator back in the day, but then, with the advent of plate tectonics and cheap flights, it found itself way out west where the states are square.
The particular strata segment that most resonates with seekers wandering Capitol Reef is the classic Wingate, Chinle, Shinarump, Moenkopi cross-sections exposed near the visitors center and what they call the "scenic drive." Actually, one would find himself hard pressed to locate an unscenic drive anywhere around the reef.
That is not to say that meandering through the Navajo sandstone layer into the heart of the Waterpocket Fold, as is the case in Capitol Gorge, isn’t just about as cool as it gets. And even when the Apache Plume isn’t in bloom and the Indian paintbrush nears the end of its color cycle, the Grand Wash trail with its moderate narrows and a great view of Cassidy Arch is well worth the stroll.
We’re still talkin’ solitude and it’s various manifestations. Admittedly, there is a certain "aloofness" that goes with tramping about this highly unique natural environment, as well there should be. It relates to remoteness and seclusion within one’s interior landscape. As red-rock icon Ed Abbey once inferred to Doug Peacock, solitude is the deepest canyon.
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