UTAH September 14, 2011

     My notion of freedom is neither complicated nor political; just as a squirrel has claws to climb trees, and a fish fins to swim in the water, and a bird wings to fly through the air, man has two legs to walk across the uneven ground — and often over long distances.  The human being is naturally a migrating animal. 

     I have always enjoyed walking outside.  Some of my earliest memories were of my father and I taking a backwoods trail from our home in rural Maryland to the Potomac River.  It was about a mile long and mostly owned by the local Beagle club – but not much used – usually my Dad carried a stick to strike down the many cobwebs in our way.  As a six-year old I perceived this small forest land to be vast and mysterious, it’s pathways opening up the possibility of wandering among trees, streams, and hills seemingly forever before reaching the next house or town.  I may have been naive then but as I grew older my enchantment with the woods continued as my father took me on longer hikes in the nearby Appalachain mountains.

     Sometime later I was formally introduced to the American West by my Aunt and Uncle.   From their vacation photo album I learned about the national parks of southern Utah and the Colorado plateau.  Images of Bryce Canyon are what I remembered most: pine trees along the canyon rim, desolate mountains in the background, and it’s castle like spires — the hoodos — rising up at least a hundred feet from the desert floor forming a complex labyrinth of pinkish stone, like a prehistoric garden maze.   So different from the leafy scenery of my familiar surroundings, I wanted to go there one day and see it for myself.

     When I reached my thirties I was fortunate enough to have the both time available and the money saved for my first road trip out West.  My choice of transportation was minimalist: the Ford Transit, a European-style mini-van designed for fuel efficient work with just enough space in the back to lay out an air mattress.  After a couple of practice runs car-camping in nearby Shenandoah National Park I felt ready enough.  And so with the necessities, a mountain bike and camera packed inside I said goodbye to my parents and dog, pulled out of the driveway and headed west towards those particular places I’d never been before. 

     Interstate travel is boring, quite often a drive by ugly billboard signs, monotonous suburban housing, endless commercial strips, with road work and traffic gridlock ahead.  Even so my first cross country road trip felt exciting.  Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were states I’d never been to before and drove through quickly on the first day.  By late afternoon I had crossed the Mississippi River at St. Louis, stopped at the Gateway Arch, and then continued on until dark, resting overnight in a state park somewhere in the middle of Missouri.   

     The next day’s drive through Kansas was surprisingly interesting.  Much hillier than I’d expected, an ominous sky hung low over the increasingly treeless landscape.  At a rest stop, watching the swirling dark gray clouds pick up speed overhead, the thought occurred to me that, perhaps unfortunately, I might experience a tornado on my first visit on the Great Plains.  However, by the time I left the state the bad weather had cleared while the ground had turned flat as a pancake.  After a couple of uneventful hours crossing eastern Colorado the front range of the Rocky Mountains came into view on the distant horizon.  In just two days I had reached the West and would spend the next several weeks (and during the next year I would return for several months) exploring it’s National Parks and other places.  

     But what defines the West?  Where are it’s boundaries?  Is it simply all of the land on one side of the map?  Or is “The West” more of an idea, the romantic resting place of our collective American longing for the last days of the frontier?  Can there be a meaningful connection between places as diverse as the alpine regions of the Grand Tetons and the cactus forest of the Sonoran Desert? 

     In my experience there are two main features that gives the American West geographical unity and distinctive character, combining to create what must be one of the most compelling places in the world to see.  The first is the region’s overall dryness. The second is the wide range of elevations caused by recent and ongoing geological activity.  Since large elevation changes alter rainfall patterns (as well as temperature), and because even small differences in rainfall can greatly change the ecology of an arid environment, a vast area of dramatic variation has come into being. In contrast to the gradually changing topography of the land east of the Mississippi the landscape from the Rockies to the Pacific is highly fragmented.

     And so, as I was situated on a high plateau of Ponderosa Pine in Flagstaff, Arizona — with a ski resort nearby, a place that could easily be mistaken for a mountain town in Colorado — I was just sixteen scenic highway miles away from the red rock formations of Sedona; one of most enchanting desert locations in the entire Southwest. 

 ARIZONA September 5, 2011 ARIZONA September 4, 2011

     Likewise, at Glacier National Park in Montana, I traversed the continental divide on the Going-to-the-Sun Road beginning with the woodland plains and glacial lakes, passing through the open subalpine meadows, until I reached the icy tundra near Logan’s Pass, and then descended back again — all within fifty-three exceptionally steep and curvy miles.  Several other mountain passes I traveled across the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, and the eastern Cascades could be described in much the same way. 

     However the best place I remember for seeing the effect of elevation up close was at Big Bend National Park in Texas.  While most of the park is part of the Chihuahua Desert trees such as junipers, pines and even small oaks began to appear as I drove upwards on the Chisos Basin Road to the campground on the Chisos Mountains. On the next day’s hike I experienced desert and forest life alternating and mixing even more tightly together as I climbed further up in elevation.  Within a ravine I passed by a colorful cactus growing by a moss covered boulder.  When I looked down from the highest ridge, at the edge of the Chisos Mountains' South Rim, it became obvious that the isolated mountain I stood on was a relatively moist green island within a sea of heat and rock. 

     I also recall the land appearing to resemble a parched sea, this time from below, while driving through the Great Basin of western Utah and Nevada; the desert’s many, shallow mountain ranges rolling by in shades of pale blue, covered with deep pines and often granite peaks, swelling up like waves from the otherwise empty sagebrush plain.  This was along the so called Loneliest Highway, and not a single building did I encounter for nearly one hundred miles, only pronghorn antelope and a stray cow.  Perhaps twice did someone drive by going the opposite direction.  It occurred to me then that the sweet sentiments of solitude and loveliness are insufficient conditions for human habitation — a source of water is necessary.

     Concentration of scarce precipitation, usually by distributing melted snowfall from the highlands, across a wide network of reservoirs, canals, and pipelines, is essential for the western states.  And so after leaving that lonely highway, traveling south into a seemingly far less hospitable climate of scorching sun and barren earth, I still was able to find a far more social place in Las Vegas.   With it’s water provided by Lake Mead and it’s energy generated through the turbines of the Hoover Dam the city is probably the most conspicuous beneficiary of the American West’s artificial hydrology, but is not exceptional; all the Sunbelt mega-cities depend on this system for what we call civilized life.  And agriculture in the region is dependent as well, consuming several times the water than all of the urban population centers combined.  The big farms that I drove by in the West had such long, precise rows of identical plants or trees on otherwise lifeless soil with such large-scale sprinkler systems supporting them that they looked more like a factory assembly line than anything organic.  


     The majority of America’s fruits and vegetables now come from extensively irrigated areas.  This has lead to a thirst for diverted water that has proven so insatiable that the Colorado and many other rivers are now drained to the point that they no longer reach the ocean.  In this way the land out West seems much less free than back East.  But in another way the land seems more free; in the fourteen western-most states about half the land is publicly owned and is therefore accessible.  

     The responsibility for almost all of this federally controlled land is divided between three agencies: the National Park Service, caretaker of world famous landmarks like the Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone; the US Forest Service, notorious for fighting summer wildfires; and the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, the largest landlord in the country.



     Before going out West I had never heard of the BLM, and learned about them only after traveling through their territory for some time; rarely do they post signs at the bounderies.  Most of their land remains unnamed, often empty and unloved, or used, or used up.  The main activity of the BLM is permitting livestock grazing above ground and mineral, oil and gas extraction below it.  I have no doubt the agency is a den of the worst sort of politics — but bless them, they allow free camping!  

     While in New Mexico I intentionally visited some better known BLM sites (Bristi Badlands, Valley of Fire, Tent Rocks) as well as a recreation area named Angel Peak, for no other reason than it was the closest camping area shown on my Rand McNally while I was traveling short on daylight.  Pulling up to a designated overlook, past an array of natural gas wells and some heavy equipment, I discovered below me a fantastic badlands canyon of blue-gray mudstone, topped at spots by sandstone formations — an unexpected secret in the fading twilight.  However, after camping on the rim overnight I learned of the area’s true purpose in the morning: not only were natural gas wells surrounding the canyon, they were within it as well, the pipelines and roads below now visible in the early light. 


     Unlike the BLM, the National Park Service does not serve the interest of the extractive industries and is, instead, part of the friendlier business of tourism.  And they have been successful enough at attracting visitors that it’s become a cliche, “we are loving the National Parks to death.”  But in my experience that seems to be an overstatement; most of the time during my stays I’ve been completely alone.  

     To beat the crowds I’ve learned that it helps to start early.

     On one of my all-time favorite hikes at Arches National Park, I woke up an hour before dawn to catch the magic light of sunrise on Landscape Arch.  Only one other vehicle was parked at the Devil’s Garden trailhead.  After walking for a mile to the end of a paved path I talked with the car’s owner while taking my photograph; he was the last person I would see for the next few hours as I ventured further on the primitive loop.  Living up to it’s name, the route climbed up the narrow fins of salmon colored sandstone and into crevices a hundred feet below, where it was imaginable that a Triceratops could be lurking around the Jurassic stone walls.  After reaching Double-O Arch and the monolith Dark Angle by mid-morning I began to pass a few other hikers on the return trip.  When I made it back to Landscape Arch at mid-day I joined a crowd large enough to fill a mall during the Holidays.  The lot was now full and cars were parked along the road up to a quarter mile away. 


     So the average person, spending most of their time at the most crowded places in the most crowded parks during the most crowded seasons, being unloaded off tour buses or checking off the highlights on a whirlwind tour in a rental car, gets a false impression: there are not necessarily too many people in the national parks, just too many like themselves.

     The next day I found myself at an opposite extreme in the nearby Canyonlands.  On a trail called the Syncline Loop I was by myself with the exception of one other hiker I found briefly who was lost — and who  also happened to be from Maryland.  That was a day I spent carefully route hunting, looking for cairns (piles of rocks that serve as markers) over very steep terrain, believing that there was a real risk I might stumble off trail, dehydrate, and expire unfound.  But as I walked through a canyon full of bright green cottonwoods and songbirds, with a warm breeze on my face, following footprints in a gulch of soft sand, only vaguely aware of where I was at — I felt that vivid sense of freedom that only comes from embracing the unknown. 


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