Wandering the West
April 21, 2009
You’ve heard it all around town. It’s an expression that probably dates to the Park City in the late ’60s. "I came for the winters, but I stayed for the summers." I have a variation on that. "I came for the skiing but stayed for everything else."
How many of you faced incredulous friends and relatives from wherever you came from who recoiled in horror at the thought of you spending your life in, of all places, Utah? It has never sounded as cool as, say, California or Colorado. But pick up any outdoor magazine and pay attention to the articles and ads. Chances are there will be more references to Utah than just about anywhere else.
In the ski mags the mentions are all of skiing, but the Outsides and National Geographics and their genre are more in love with everything else. And just about everything else lies within the Colorado Plateau. The plateau covers 130,000 square miles of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, with the lion’s share of it lying in Utah. It drains into the Colorado River, and gets as little as six inches of rain a year.
That desert is predominately red sandstone, carved by wind and water into wildly rugged canyons, arches, hoodoos, and all other kinds of images that speak to wilderness and adventure. Fins, domes, bridges and slot canyons are all part of the vocabulary of the plateau.
This month’s National Geographic Adventure magazine is a good example. It’s the 10th anniversary issue, and on the cover promises stories about Everett Ruess, Aron Ralston and rafting on the Colorado River, all Utah stories. Turn to the editor’s note and he shows you the magazine’s first cover, "Utah’s iconic Comb Ridge," which is used with the tagline "The wild edge." Editor John Rasmus writes of that Utah image that it "seemed to symbolize the mission of Adventure and the rewards of curiosity, risk-taking, and searching for beauty and meaning anywhere on the planet."
A few more pages brings you to the latest Utah Office of Tourism ad, an old Jeep Wagoneer driving through Monument Valley, Utah, with a roof load of kayaks, inner tubes, canoes, mountain bikes, and inflatable whales piled nearly as high as one of the monuments in the background. Keep going and you’ll hit the full-page Moab ad with those red rock arches. A few pages later there’s one-armed Aron Ralston, who wouldn’t be famous except for the fact that he whacked his own arm off after getting pinned in Blue John Canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.
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Then you hit the main article of the issue, about Everett Ruess, the 20-year-old Californian who took off into the Colorado Plateau from Escalante and disappeared into legend. Everett is the subject of books, a film, magazine pieces and intense curiosity. He discovered the plateau’s charms in the 1930s when it was pretty much considered desolate, worthless land. (And by the way, he was an artist as well, and his restored woodcuts are on display this month at the Wasatch County Library in Heber.)
When you move on to the story on "50 Best American Adventures," four of them are in Utah biking Moab, rafting the Green, hiking Buckskin Gulch, and climbing red-rock towers in Castle Valley near Moab.
Some who came to Utah came here for Park City winters and stayed for Park City summers and think this is the be-all and end-all of Utah. They have Park City vanity plates and bumper stickers and a certain smugness about living here. But as dearly as I love Park City (and I’ve been here 29 full-time years and parts of others), it was only after being here that I found out that the rest of Utah is just as spectacular as our little village on the Wasatch Back. I don’t think I’d heard of the Colorado Plateau when I got here. All I knew was there were some national parks farther south. It turns out the largest concentration of national parks and monuments in the country are on the plateau.
There is so much to see in Utah alone that I’m beginning to face the reality that I won’t get everywhere in one lifetime. And I haven’t even received the next copy of Outside!
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.