J O U R N A L / B L O G


Sunday, September 6, 2020

Canyonlands National Park... and Roads

 'Ad Infinitum' jokes abounded between my partner and I on our (my first, her second) excursion to Canyonlands National Park in Utah. 

From Island in the Sky, you get a good sense of the repetitions of erosion that have incised the uplifted terrain stretching as far as you can see. It turns out that wandering through this difficult to parse landscape is just as you might imagine from above: confusing, and overwhelming. 

The bloated crumbling differently eroded surfaces all wash over you in a haze that makes it difficult to pick out particular places to remember. Being surrounded by boundaries that block the sky means you have little to orient yourself. On our second day, we hiked from Elephant Hill to the Joint, passing through Chesler Park on the way and heading a different way on the way back.

Chesler Park and the Joint stand clear in my memory, but the rest of the rises and falls through gaps and onto more views of an endless grid twisted into cacophony blend together differently than I had yet experienced on a hike. The layers of rock themselves were distinctive in shape and color but the endless parade of their manifestations are impossible to keep track of, as you clamber up and down the slickrock, through gaps, onto flats, into slots, over and under and through. It's a sandstone overload, and at any given moment you are more secluded, or perhaps simply more occluded from the rest of the world than on most kinds of walks.

Just as systems full of similar repetitions knit the fabric of our skin and teeth, so our lives fit neatly in the grooves carved by erosion, between deposited mounds that resisted it, and into a chain of cycles...

The Canyonlands are a strange place because there is no clear way to survive there other than by bringing in water with your car-- we saw no large mammals, no petroglyphs, and yet it is a landscape created largely by water. In that way it is like a ghost landscape, one that makes sense only with an awareness of vast and distant change. I believe there are a few springs in the area somewhere, but only a few if any.

Newspaper Rock is a site situated many miles from there which lies in a landscape more alive, where the water continues today, and clearly is not new-- where the rock was marked in passing and celebration with images of the forms that pass through, or that live nearby, in countless repetitions.

It is a strange privilege to explore a place like the Needles District on foot, having driven there across huge distances in a short time-- and a stranger privilege still to know that deeper access to places like this across America are the purview of only those who own a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle. I don't think any of those roads should be paved, but I also don't know that they should exist in the first place. 

This infrastructure is inherently inequitable. It is impossible not to notice when you are on foot and have hiked all day in 100 degrees: the disposition and casual entitlement of people driving in with jeeps and marking their names on the rocks, declaring both that they were in this place and are proud of it. Names are written for others to see. Those with access are proud of it. Most people who come here do not write their names, and often I am sure they do respect the place they are in as something greater than them. And of course, what they do when they write their names we have categorized as illegal graffiti in this kind of place, a national park.

Regardless of a name etched pathetically onto the rocks, we cannot be at home in this land. It is a shallow cross-section of the deep time on which we float, and it will consume all of our marks with complete indifference. That is not vindictiveness, that is grace. It is worth treating some surfaces as sacred. Do you feel you are your best person behind the wheel?

Roads are marks like names, declaring our sense of ownership of the land. Did the people here before us think they owned the land in the same way? The petroglyphs imply to my layman white eye that they thought the forms around them that allowed them to survive were more important than their names to record on the rocks. You can see a bit of this same spirit twisted in the marks left by white settlers: they marked their own technology as what was important in allowing them to survive: the wagon wheel. It makes perfect sense then, that the perpetuation of respect for technology and not food or life would result in our culture of roads and vehicles. Our culture and laws of ownership over animals, water, and the land that makes our life possible. You have to be able to at least get around and look at something in order to feel like you own it.

America wants to say: "Build yourself a wagon and you can do anything, and go anywhere, and own anything". But the lands are already divided up and controlled by the hundreds of millions of us that have spread across them. There is no more vast sense of freedom to steal from the people that were there before us. That was already taken. What is left is lots, acres, units, and parcels. Our consolation prize is the vast network of public roads available to us if we participate in the culture. At least there are more options. I think access in a national park being tied to the ownership of something wholly unnecessary for life is against the supposed purpose and spirit of the national parks. What am I going to suggest next, public transportation to the parks from the cities, as well? Anyways, the way it is done in Denali feels much better-- at least there, there is a bus that takes you down that dirt road and lets you get off at any point.

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