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Core Samples

Jay Meehan

You pull into the trailhead, lace up your boots, perform a quick water inventory, debate the bang-for-the-buck ratio of packing a snack, toss in the closest thing to a trail guide you can come up with and, just prior to heading out, inform each and every imported beverage in your cooler that it would behoove them to remain submerged in ice until your return.

Then you’re off into the "big red" of southeastern Utah. But when the light evolves through its dawn-to-dusk, long-shadow epiphanies, it becomes rather evident that the whole thing is in flux, that within the red are ever-pulsing browns and purples and maroons, and that, with each step, if you’re truly singing harmony, similar changes are happening to you.

The ground, of course, is always uneven, so every so often you take your eyes off the splendor of the moment and glance downward so as not to stub your pride or stumble over some metaphorical truth. But that’s all right because you’re not really processing in a linear left-brain fashion, anyway. On this trail it’s more about daydreaming and random images.

It matters not that geology books tell you that the particular spire section in the foreground is made up mostly of Cutler Formation topped off with a lower darker member of Moenkopi, or that the changing colors result from varying amounts of an iron oxide known as hematite. Data of this nature remains only to be recalled later, after the intuitive perceptions and insights into the essence of the rock have been allowed to play out their improvisational solos.

The trail drops off into a meandering arroyo before regaining altitude — as if to remind you that depressions are naturally formed and, without them, arriving at a higher plane would carry no significance. As you continue slowly downward into the earth, the walls close in and there is a comfort level, a message from the depths of allegory and breath.

Soon enough the protective shade of the subterranean microcosm is left behind and the time to exit the ancient watercourse is at hand. Stepping-up onto the plateau, you are greeted by old friends. They appear to have been waiting. Canyons, mesas, buttes, arches, bridges, hoodoos, spires, pedestals, and towers need love, too.

There is always profoundness upon the land in canyon country. It holds secrets. There is complexity aplenty. You wander from the intricate through the mysterious to the esoteric. And once you get there, the only thing that is obvious is that the vibe is overwhelming. It’s "heavy," man!

It’s not that you actually "space out" as you wander about the slickrock, pinion pine, and juniper within the postcard panorama that is southern Utah. It just looks that way. It’s more like your mind, under prodding from the surrounding splendor, goes into its eco-bliss mode. It’s a right-brain issue and it’s not like you’re going to walk off a cliff or anything. Reality, as it pertains to personal safety, always has entrée.

This redrock behavioral model is not new. Poet, artist and dreamer Everett Ruess put it this way while roaming about the southwest back in the early 1930s: "The whole dream has been filled with warm and cool but perfect colors and with aesthetic contemplation. A love for everyone and for everything has welled up, finding no outlet except for my art.

"Music has been in my heart all the time, and poetry in my thoughts. Alone on the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendental melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before. I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the slow sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight "

Well, actually, since Ruess turned up missing at the age of 20 in that sublime Escalante canyon called Davis Gulch back in 1934, maybe he proved the personal safety dictum incorrect and did walk off a cliff. Everett was known for being a vagabond for beauty and totally losing himself in the rapture of canyon country.

But now, it’s another desert trail underfoot — this one chock full of entrada sandstone fins that have eroded over time into oftentimes spectacular arches. Not that the fins themselves don’t speak a poetry of their own — grouped together as they are in their own special parallel universe. It’s as if they are challenging us to return in a million years or so if we want to see some "real" arches. The entire southwest is a work in progress.

The canvas upon which nature chose to paint southern Utah displays a quite evident and wonderfully strange texture, as you, utilizing the all-important "cairns" as a means of route finding, grope through, over, under and around these quite bizarre surface features. Between many of the fins are narrow slots where light enters and plays only with permission.

Along this particular trail, many of the cairns — small piles of rocks that normally descend in size as the pile rises have been quite creatively sculpted. One forms an arch, complete with "keystone," the center locking rock that distributes the forces necessary for an arch of this type to become freestanding.

The trail rounds a corner and a long, narrow, sweeping, curving, rock span over 300-feet in length and mentioned often as the world’s longest natural sandstone arch comes into view. Thin to the point of emaciation, the arch seems to stand in defiance of the laws of physics. A 73-foot slab fell off the underside on Sept. 1, 1991, making it even thinner. Hikers are no longer allowed to pass under it but, no worries, the rest of the trail is none the wiser.

This time of year, with colors everywhere, not just in the rock, ad-libbing is effortless. To the south of both hiking trails, the snowcapped profile of a locally famous "laccolithic" mountain range is brilliant with the colors of autumn as the vehicle makes its way through them and back to the banks of the big river and the rented cabin that serves as camp.

At a ranch in the foothills, just above streets called "Abbey Road" and "Seldom Seen Road," an alpha-male wild turkey prods his brood with his beak. There is lightness upon the horizon and within the big red of southern Utah’s autumn. Fall is in the air, with Indian summer in the wings. It only gets better.


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