Out of sandstone and limestone are carved castles and minarets, domes and chimneys, arches and skyscrapers so gigantic, they mesmerize you. Egyptian pyramids, Turkish mosques, Hindu temples, you can see them all here. Visiting Utah recently, I recalled the first time I was in these parts, in the late 70s, driving across the country with a Jewish classmate. What struck me about America then was its raw landscape and untouched geology. Millennia of civilization had tamped down my native subcontinent of India, it seemed, but America’s deserts, cliffs, and mountains stood uninhabited, marking the very history of time.
When we arrived in Zion National Park back then, it was an isolated, pristine oasis of towering red rocks silhouetted against quaking aspens. In those days, you could drive through the place without encountering a soul.
The desert is still unpopulated, but not as forsaken as it was back then. Now there are visitors from all over the world. Still, it is possible to lose yourself in the ravines of Utah, as I did one sunny afternoon in April. Hiking into Bryce Canyon, I came upon an arch, and beyond, thousands and thousands of hoodoos, those natural totem poles that look like giant soldiers, standing guard upon the isolated hiker. I crossed the stream at the very bottom of the gorge and began my climb to the opposite rim of the canyon. Except for the sound of birds, the landscape was eerily silent. I had the entire canyon to myself. Since Bryce is over 9,000 feet in elevation, there was snow everywhere and at places I was unsure if I could cross the thin ledge without slipping. But what exhilaration I experienced when I reached the top! Each park in Utah has its own distinct color; Bryce Canyon, made by rainwater, frost, and expanding ice eating away at limestone, is bright orange. Zion Canyon, carved out of Navajo sandstone, is a lighter orange and red. Capitol Reef National Park, which consists of a waterpocket fold, a 100-mile warp in the earth’s crust, is multi-colored, with layers of Navajo sandstone superimposed upon gray Mancos shale. Arches National Park, sculpted out of the darker Entrada Sandstone, looks a vibrant red when bathed in the light of dusk.
The shapes of geologic formations in each park are different too.
Zion is a real canyon, which means it consists of cliffs through which a river has carved its course, winding around mud banks and natural dams, creating meadows. Bryce, on the other hand, is not etched by a river, and therefore, not a canyon. Water frozen to ice in the cracks of the rocks has expanded to create hoodoos; the stronger dolomite rock standing firmer and larger above the lighter layers below, creating colossal chess pieces. Capitol reef is a warp in the earth’s crust which the Fremont River has carved a deep cut into. Arches is located atop an ancient seabed on which rocks sit and erode over time, giving way to rainbow shapes as the salt underneath crumbles.
You hear the geologists’ explanations, and yet you wonder; is it all magic? Voodoo not hoodoo?
You can use your imagination and see your world reflected in this theater of nature. In Arches, there is an area called Park Avenue, where giant edifices tower over a path once carved by flowing water. Here you can see the Courthouse Tower, the Reserve Bank, and the Stock Exchange. The last two are products of my own vision, even though the powers-that-be have given their own names to every rock and cliff here.
There is a Fiery Furnace, for example, and a Devil’s Garden; both names derived from Christian theology. There is also a Tower of Babel, a Dark Angel, and the Three Gossips. But the truth is, you can be creative and see different shapes in these rock formations. For me and my friend, the giant figures at the end of Park Avenue seemed like an Egyptian male in a headdress and his consort, even though the official version alleged something entirely different.
In Capitol Reef, a hike along a canyon takes you to a wall of rock in which giant holes have eroded at regular intervals, like a slab of Swiss cheese. In Bryce, you can overlook the amphitheater, which resembles a monstrous chocolate cake with its inside carved out. In Zion, you see the narrows, where the river roars in springtime but by late summer is stone dry, leaving a path of gravel and sand called the wash. People die in flash floods here, caused by sudden rains which the dry rocky landscape cannot absorb.
From my previous visits, I had only remembered Utah’s parched, dusty landscape. But Utah has some 300 mountain peaks with elevations above 10,000 feet. We seemed to cross many of them. We would be driving along a dried up, moon-like landscape full of craters, when we would see a snow-covered mountain ahead of us. And before we knew it, we would be engulfed in a raging blizzard so vicious that an oncoming vehicle would almost hit us. That is the adventure of traveling in Utah in springtime.
The most miraculous experience of Utah was a ride into the water-pocket fold. We drove along the park road to the very end, past rocks that looked like draperies and thrones, until the fold narrowed. Canyon walls tilted at bizarre angles here. We were driving inside a folded sheet, I thought. This was geology in action. The earth’s crust had suddenly risen up here, pushed by an earthquake fault below, and the river running through the center had deepened the gap in the crust, until the canyon had literally folded over.
Since early childhood, I had heard of Sita being swallowed by earth. Standing in the waterpocket fold of Capitol Reef, I was Sita, being engulfed in the arms of Mother Earth. And I could not help musing about the marvel that is our planet.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com