Frederick H. Swanson: Writers on the Range
October 8, 2010
My wife and I have had the good fortune to visit some of the iconic landscapes of the Colorado Plateau in the years BG – before guidebooks. Back in those days, you could enjoy an hour’s solitude anywhere in the Escalante River’s side canyons.
We recently returned to an old favorite in Utah, a colorful Wingate-walled gorge that ends in a dry waterfall. As we rested by the plunge pool at its base, the voices of other pilgrims echoed up the canyon, murmuring like monks chanting in a great cathedral.
A young couple rounded the last bend, their voices resolving into German. They stood and gazed up at the remarkable pothole opening that had been carved by countless floods roaring down this canyon, yet we heard none of the usual exclamations of wonder. I greeted them in English and asked what they thought of the place.
“It’s nice,” the man said, “but we hoped it would look like this” – handing over a photo he had printed from a website. It showed that rare moment when the high summer sun sends a stream of incandescent light through the opening, illuminating the pool in cover-photo glory. It was now October, and with the sun low in the sky, the couple felt let down.
We felt sorry for them since they’d flown across an ocean only to meet with disappointment. It’s a poor climax to a trip when you hold a template up to an extraordinary geologic marvel and find it wanting. Yet that’s the danger with guidebooks, travel websites, and “Top Ten” lists: When you try to pursue their promises of ever more wondrous destinations, it’s easy to fall prey to scenic fatigue, like a jaded, 19th century aesthete on the Grand Tour of Europe.
A Colorado friend gave me some advice on how to avoid this treadmill-like pursuit of spectacular places. He favors what he calls “second-best” country – the background landscape that most guidebook writers ignore. Eschewing his state’s famous but crowded “fourteeners” in favor of 11- and 12-thousand-foot-high mountains, he meets few others on his hikes, yet enjoys alpine tarns and streamlets as lovely as any in the Maroon Bells.
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His approach transplants well to Utah. Many of our second-best landscapes belong to the Bureau of Land Management’s shrinking inventory of wild places, which contain a great deal of dramatic desert terrain that will amply repay a visit. Conservation groups sometimes try to defend these areas by comparing them to our national parks, but they’re often not that spectacular. Some offer only minor outcrops of Carmel mudstone that sprout a few scraggly junipers.
All that is required to enjoy such places, though, is a little attitude adjustment: a willingness to savor the less superlative, the somewhat unpopular, the non-world-class. In these places, the earth’s everyday wonders take center stage – the patterns of lichen on a boulder, the raven feeding its young in a high-up crevice, the light glimmering on cottonwood leaves.
To find such places, just study the guidebooks, and then wander off somewhere else.
Wildness is on the run in the Colorado Plateau, and we will never again feel the enchanting mystery it held as recently as 1960, when Edson Alvey of Escalante could claim to be the first person to squeeze through Spooky Gulch. My wife and I missed that chance, but perhaps there’s an advantage here. By putting the spectacular on the shelf for a while, we not only can give some heavily used places a rest, we might also learn to value the ordinary workings of nature – whose vital processes we had better understand soon. Scenic museum pieces, however grand, are not enough if they stand alone in a razed landscape.
That being said, there’s still much to appreciate out in second-best or even third-best country. Taking my friend’s advice, we’re giving the Escalante a break and heading back to an unimportant little rimrock overlooking a nameless side drainage out east of Hanksville. It’s a great place to watch the sunrise, even though it doesn’t silhouette Delicate Arch.
Our spot won’t be on anyone’s wall calendar this year, so we’ll get to appreciate it all by ourselves.