October 3, 2020
Elevation determines life in the Intermountain West.
Thousands upon thousands of square miles of uplift of the earth’s crust over millions of years. 3, 4, 7, 13 thousand feet above sea level the land rose from the churning of magma below the primordial ground, and the squishing and squashing of the tectonic plates. The land rose – and still rises. And the snows fell and still fall. And the snows melted and still melt. Melted in the highlands, with overwhelming force, ripping and tearing the rocks, crushing one against the other, in massive erosive flows. Carving and carving the landscape.
When humans came, they needed water year-round. They needed plants and animals to eat. They needed wood for heat. They needed rocks and mud and wood for shelter. And for all that, they needed elevations. Not one elevation, for not one could supply all that they needed. They needed many elevations. Warm enough in the winter to survive. Wet enough in the summer to survive.
At Mesa Verde, for thousands of years, they found what they needed. They figured it out. Climb high enough to have access to trees. For the elevation between 7,000 and 9,000 feet grew ponderosa, limber and pinion pines, Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, and subalpine fir. Wonderful trees, that provided food and shelter and shade. Climb high enough and then dwell in the cliffs for protection from both the weather and other humans.
At Mesa Verde it was the very sheerness of the elevation changes that promoted civilization. That advanced civilization. That allowed permanent communities to form.
But throughout our travels to the Intermountain West, we have traversed immense stretches of relative sameness. West by southwest from Mesa Verde, we drove for hundreds of miles through the Navajo reservation to Flagstaff, Arizona. As elevation ranged between 6 and 4 thousand feet, the trees shrunk down to the “Pigmy forest” of pinions and junipers, and then disappeared completely. The rabbit and sage brush took over and then even they couldn’t abide the unrelenting dry scorching days and freezing nights of the desert, leaving nothing but rocks and sands at the lower elevations. Bleak, brown, bereft, barren, we drove through the “b’s.” Desolate, dark, dim, deserted, we drove through the “d’s.” Add two scoops of extreme poverty and the corona virus pandemic, and you get to the “g’s” of gloomy and grim.
The “Star Wars” city of Mos Eisley was a more welcoming place than the Navaho’s largest community, Tuba City, as we passed through at noon. Nothing was open, save a gas station. The unincorporated town of about 8,000 was on a nearly complete Covid lockdown. The only restaurants we saw were national fast-food chains, McDonalds, KFC, etc., and they were all closed. 100 miles down the road was another Navaho community called Cameron. Everything there was closed, as was the road from there to the Grand Canyon’s eastern entrance. We needed to drive all the way to Flagstaff, another 100 miles or so, just to relieve ourselves. Safeway had never seemed such an oasis of civilization as its pot to pee in.
But then Flagstaff was again over 7,000 feet and the ponderosa’s proved it. The much more verdant drive north from there to the South Rim was less grim, but still a measured drama-less sameness. There is no hint to what lies in store when one reaches the Grand Canyon. No peekaboo views of the giant hole. No smaller side canyons or cuts to the earth. Just miles upon miles of ponderosas when the elevation rises, and junipers, pinions and rabbit brush when it dips.
Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim is a settlement. Again, like Mesa Verde, it is the steep elevation change that draws humans. But this time, civilizational settlement is not based on survival, but on the international attraction of wondrous aesthetics that rapid elevation change creates. The Village has a train station, commercial center, hotels and residences. It has trails for horses, bikers and pedestrians above the rim. And it has, of course, the mighty Bright Angel and Kaibab trailheads, where thousands of people take off or arrive to test their fitness, trying to go “rim to rim” through 27 miles of canyon.
The Hopi House at the South Rim, focuses on selling the arts and crafts emanating from the Navajo reservation. That which I saw as the location of desperation and bleakness just the day before in Tuba City, was also a source of beauty and creativity. The economics of trade, however, can seem the opposite of justice. I couldn’t help but think of the relative wealth of the tourists purchasing crafts from the relative impoverishment of the artisans.
The Southwest national parks, national monuments, and other public places preserved for all to enjoy and appreciate, all seemed to have major elevation relief as a core to their value and draw. Chasms, gaps, voids, ravines, crevasses, and arches. The Grand Canyon is, of course, the largest, deepest Canyon in the area. But its structures are somehow understandable. Its cliff faces vertical and largely flat.
At our next stop, the relief gets weird. Comically, stunningly, beautifully weird. Bryce Canyon National Park, land of the hoodoos. https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&sxsrf=ALeKk02BDu0L6kXWt_UDDRbGXVZh_Xq5qA%3A1601747958329&source=hp&ei=9rt4X6v6D9bq-gTe8KHIBA&q=hoodoos&oq=hoodoos&gs_lcp=CgZwc3ktYWIQAzIFCAAQsQMyAggAMgIIADICCAAyAggAMgIIADICCAAyCgguEMcBEK8BEAoyAggAMgIIADoOCC4QsQMQxwEQowIQkwI6CAgAELEDEIMBOgsILhCxAxDHARCjAjoICC4QsQMQgwE6AgguOgsILhDHARCvARCTAjoOCC4QsQMQgwEQxwEQowI6CAguEMcBEK8BOgUILhCxAzoICC4QxwEQowI6CwguELEDEMcBEK8BSgUIIBIBMEoFCCgSATBQqR1Y5UVg7EdoAXAAeACAAXGIAaYEkgEDNi4xmAEAoAEBqgEHZ3dzLXdperABAA&sclient=psy-ab&ved=0ahUKEwirzcmQgJnsAhVWtZ4KHV54CEkQ4dUDCAk&uact=5
Here, the forces of water, wind, tectonic plates, and time just decided to have lots of fun. Those natural architects created “look at me” shapes, that will not endure for more than a few more millions of years, but we, the lucky, happen to arrive at the right time to take a few pictures.
We learned, at Bryce, that there is an order to all this altitude madness. Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon National Parks, as well as the Vermillion Cliffs and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments are part of a larger story of elevation and relief. That tale is of the rising of the earth’s crust and then the subsequent erosion, sediment loading, pressure and time that created layers upon layers of differential sedimentary and metamorphic rocks with differential erosion rates. At different elevations, these differences play out in different rock faces and forms.
Bryce, it turns out, is the highest part of the story. We drove to its southern rim, more than 9,000 ft above sea level. Grand Canyon’s bottom is the lowest part of the story. In between is Zion National Park. It was to Zion that we went next on our trip.
Ah… Zion. Zion is heaven, of course, speaking biblically. It is Jerusalem, or rather the mountain upon which Jerusalem sits, or rather the concept of a central place upon which G-d directed David to create his holy city or rather the overall concept of a central holy place. Or it is a bit of all those things without a singular specific meaning. When I lived last year for three months in Jerusalem, I just knew, I just felt, the city’s holy might. It was Jerusalem that drew me to Israel. It was a tug at my soul.
Thirty-five years ago, I went to Zion National Park with my then girlfriend, and future wife, Karen. I remembered it as the most beautiful place I had ever seen. Thirty-five years later, as we were about to enter Zion, I still FELT it as the most beautiful place I had ever seen. The reality proved my memory right.
What is beauty? What is the holy might of beauty?
Zion’s sheer cliffs, its soft mountains, its river valley floor are all stunning contrasts to almost everything we have seen the last two weeks. Zion is verdant! Even at the end of September. Its seeps and streams and rushing waters, its fine mists, provide habitat for ferns, mosses, bullrushes, and massive cottonwoods. It has emerald pools. I repeat. It has emerald pools! It is lush, luxurious, and leafy.
After Zion we were ready to return home. We had two long drives ahead. The first across southern Utah all the way to northern Nevada. This was plumb down the center of “The loneliest road in America.” The broad, flat valleys were at 5 to 6 thousand feet high and the mountain ranges we would cross periodically brought us up to 7 thousand feet and a tad more. Rabbit brush yielding occasionally to junipers of various heights. The only reason it was less bleak than Navajo lands was that there was little pretense that people could actually live in such a place. Over 80% of Nevada is owned by the federal government, most of that by the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Defense.
Our overnight destination was Elko. Back to Mos Eisley, this is probably a much closer analogy to that town. Elko is built on avarice and a goodly number of the remaining seven deadly sins. It is a mining town. Copper, silver, gold, lead, zinc, mercury, tungsten, manganese, iron, uranium, and antimony have all been harvested in the hills around Elko. It is a boom and bust city now very much in the latter stage. The biggest city of the 4th largest county in the continental US, Elko now looks like a depressing mess. Boarded up casinos. Brothels out of business due to Covid.
I looked up the town on Wikipedia. It’s a self-proclaimed “conservative” town politically. Voted for Trump 75%-25% in 2016. Trump signs are everywhere. Elko has a Basque heritage and we are recommended by a friend to go to a certain Basque restaurant. We order takeout and I go to pick it up. Walking through the bar to get to the takeout counter is like a Covid concourse. Tattooed ladies in low-cut tight shirts. Tattooed young men, laughing – and coughing – as they guzzle their beers. I come up to a young staff person, who is not wearing a mask, and ask her if this is the takeout counter. She says yes and asks me for my order. I say I already provided it and am here to pick up the food. She goes back to the kitchen. I peer in as she talks with unmasked cooks. Turns out, they mistakenly sent our food out with a delivery woman. Oh my. I return to the hotel room where we are staying only to find that the delivery person never came because she forgot part of the order. We cancel the order.
But here’s where it gets fun. Instead of Basque, we get food from a Palestinian-run Mediterranean restaurant. I pick it up and have a great conversation with a middle-aged couple from Bethlehem. I tell them that I was there last year, and we chat amiably for a while. “How’d you end up in Elko?” I ask. It is anyone’s most obvious question. Turns out their parents were there and that they didn’t want to live in a big city. So, even if Elko, at the moment, is a certifiably hellhole, it’s got great hummus and falafel.
Boom and bust. Boom and bust. Elko will elevate again!