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Editor’s note: Between 1988 and 2005 longtime WorldNetDaily contributor Anthony C. LoBaido made eight trips to the Canyonlands and Arches National Parks located in Southeastern Utah.
MOAB, Utah – You’ve seen this wildly beautiful and rugged place on the big screen time and time again. Tom Cruise hanging off a cliff in “Mission Impossible II.” Susan Sarandon and Gina Davis driving off a cliff in “Thelma and Louise.” River Phoenix crusading as a young Boy Scout in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Samantha Mathis and Christian Slater chasing down stolen nuclear weapons in “Broken Arrow.”
Moving from reel life to real life, the uranium boom of the 1950s, led by the mercurial Charlie Steen, opened up Moab to the American consciousness as a major boom town. Steen was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1964. His rags to riches story is true Americana worthy of Hollywood films like “The Aviator” and “Pirates of Silicon Valley.”
As World War II was winding down and the Cold War just starting up, U.S. national security vis-?-vis the Soviet Union and mainland China revolved to a large extent around mining the uranium of this region to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons. As a byproduct, work camps, cartography, airstrips and new roads all served to lay the framework for making the area more accessible to the general public.
Today, India and China are hungry for American uranium that’s needed (so they say) for their growing nuclear ambitions. Not surprisingly, new uranium mining claims continue to multiply in this still-wild region. However, while President Bush recently may have signed a de facto uranium agreement with India, local and national feelings of patriotism will probably prevent Utah-mined uranium from heading to the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing.
There are more than 430 nuclear reactors in the world. They will need 180 million pounds of uranium each year, meaning the 100 million pounds of uranium being mined annually won’t be nearly enough. Thus, 13,600 acres of uranium-laden land will open up for bidding next year in western Colorado – the first such bids since the end of Richard Nixon’s aborted second term in office.
Meanwhile, potash is still being mined in Moab, though that supply, which is used in fertilizer, will only last about 10 more years. This fact can only add to the new uranium craze in this town of under 10,000 residents. It is a town best known through the years for marching to the beat of its own drummer.
Moab has always been considered an “outlaw” outpost somehow tantalizingly beyond the moral and political control of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City. Boasting gorgeous weather, spectacular natural resources, a steady stream of tourists, 5 percent immigrants and only one knife incident at the local high school during the past year, it would seem that Moab is poised to write its own ticket in the coming century.
A hidden jewel
To the average American, Utah may be best known for it’s Mormon roots and mega- sports stars like Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics and Bruce Hurst of Boston Red Sox World Series fame. (Remember the “Buckner Game” in which Hurst was slated to receive the MVP award, only to have it taken away?) Yet it is the natural beauty of the Beehive State that makes it a world-class tourist destination. The Arches and Canyonlands are an ever-changing world, sans inertia – a private universe all its own constantly being reshaped by the forces of rain, snow, cold, sun and wind.
Summer temperatures may reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. Recall that memorable Seinfeld episode in which Kramer remarks, “Man, it’s like a sauna in here,” while actually sitting in a sauna. To refer to the Utah Badlands as an oven would be more than accurate. You know the saying, “You could fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Well, out here you could fry some bacon, as well.
Park Avenue of the West. Photo: Anthony LoBaido.
The winters bring bone-chilling cold and snow that will challenge even the most ardent hiker. (It’s actually colder than the DMZ at the North Korean border in January, at least that’s been this writer’s experience!) The best times to visit Moab are in April-May and September-October, although various microclimates may alter the weather conditions significantly. When this writer visited the area late last month, it rained on and off for four straight days. Annual rainfall stands around eight inches.
The question begs: Did God spend extra time on this indescribably beautiful region, or did He simply leave it unto itself?
Thomas Jefferson believed it would take 500 years for the United States to reach her Manifest Destiny, yet that lofty goal was achieved in less than 50 years. After the Civil War, the only remaining blank spot on the map was the center of Utah, where the Green and Colorado Rivers formed their confluence. The more than 500 square miles of the Canyonlands Park – and an expanse of land all the way south to Lake Powell and beyond – were still uncharted, virgin territory. Thus, John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, was tasked to fill in that great blank spot.
Powell, who was homeschooled, had been one of three major Washington, D.C., power brokers, along with Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln, around the time of the Civil War. Powell’s attempt to tame this mysterious region completed a circle begun by Spanish Conquistadors, mercenaries and Holy Friars in the 16th century (a friar named Escalante being the most notable amongst them). Their initial reconnoiter of the American Southwest in a quest to advance the Gospel and the Cross added a great deal of knowledge about a previously unknown area of the New World.
Powell’s two cartography missions through the Canyonlands, while not quite at the level of the Lewis and Clark and Burke and Wills expeditions, were certainly the stuff of legend. Men died while charting this forbidden jewel of North America. (The first of Powell’s missions had, to be perfectly frank, decayed into a mere quest for survival).
The Arches National Park was made a national monument in 1929. Back then, few visitors graced its confines due to its remoteness. Through the 1950s, aerial reconnaissance was carried out in the Needles District of the Canyonlands in conjunction with ground-based cartography. This was strictly a “no man’s land.”
Yet, after a spectacular National Geographic article on the area was published in 1971, the official boundary of the park was expanded. The Canyonlands is divided into three major sections, including the Needles, Dead Horse Point/Islands in the Sky and the Maze. The publicized story of Aron Ralston, a hiker who cut off his own arm to safe his life, actually transpired in the Maze.
Search and Rescue teams are “always busy” in the Maze section, according to local guides. Anyone with a four-by-four can attack the Maze if they dare. Jet boats and white-water rafting through Cataract Canyon are popular excursions taken in conjunction with a hike through the Doll House and other hotspots in the Maze.
For the less intrepid, Moab is known as a Mecca of hiking and biking as so-called “Extreme Sports” take the lead.
The jewel of the region is the Delicate Arch, through which the snow-capped La Sal Mountains (and sometimes even the moon) can be viewed. The Delicate Arch has inspired photographers from all around the world who have sought to capture its majestic aura. The Arch changes color at various times during the day – sunrise and sunset being the most notable.
The Delicate Arch at the Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. Photo: Anthony LoBaido
The trek to the Delicate Arch begins at the well-preserved Wolf Ranch and a picturesque wooden bridge spanning a small stream. The walk is a moderate three-mile hike, which includes a 200-yard (or so) jaunt over a high moonscape-like section. Children as young as 4 years of age have completed the trek with relative ease.
It is hard to believe that back in the 1920s U.S. Secretary of the Interior Herbert Work didn’t want to include the Moab area as a national monument or park. In fact, Work was even thinking of scaling back on already established monuments. But that didn’t deter Frank Beckwith, a small-town newspaper editor from Utah, from trying to popularize and scientifically study the Arches. In 1934, an official U.S. archeological expedition led by Beckwith came up with the name “Delicate Arch.” Previously, and perhaps frighteningly, it had been known as the “Old Maid’s Bloomers.”
During the Cold War years, the Delicate Arch was usually brought into American living rooms during the playing of the National Anthem when the major TV stations signed off at night. This was an era when people believed a mouse pad was a hole in the wall and Norton was a character on “The Honeymooners” who worked in a sewer, not a debugging countermeasure. Of course, in our post-modern era of 500 satellite channels, TV stations never sign off anymore. And it would be fair to say that the Delicate Arch is now seen as the consummate symbol of America’s natural beauty in Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia due to its inclusion as the star attraction in various U.S.-destined vacation packages.
Masterpiece of nature
How did this geologic marvel come about? The answers, say geologists, are simply recorded in the layers of rock comprising the Canyonlands. These layers mark geologic time like so many Funk & Wagnel encyclopedias. Long ago, across the Paradox Basin, lakes, streams, rivers, marshes, floodplains and sand dunes that would rival the Namib or the Sahara in their grandeur gave way to canyons, arches, domes, mesas, fins, buttes, spires and pinnacles. Salt flowed through like a glacier as the afterbirth of a great ocean.
The Needles. Photo: Anthony LoBaido.
Some changes in the landscape happened through cataclysm. For example, the Upheaval Dome was formed by a meteor collision. Moab Fault, which can be readily seen from the entrance to Arches National Park, is a reminder that the town sits upon the site of an ancient and massive earthquake fault. A dome once encapsulated what is now the town of Moab. That dome collapsed, helping to create the Moab Valley. That must have been a sight to see. Other changes took millennia. Consider that 10 million years ago the cliffs and rocks in the Canyonlands were 1 mile higher.
Life-threatening flash floods are not uncommon in the region, and the most peculiar of all geological features can be found. Consider the huge “balanced rocks” in which large boulders sit atop comparatively tiny rocks beneath them. Because of the aforementioned mile-deep layer of salt, earthquake shocks are absorbed with relative ease, and the fragile nature of the stone features in the parks exist free from the effects of major shocks and tremors.
A view of the La Sal Mountains, Arches National Park. Photographer LoBaido’s shadow at lower left.
Cryptogamic soil, referred to as “endangered dirt” in Broken Arrow, can take centuries to repair itself once an interloper steps upon it. If you’re into dinosaurs, there are bones and fossils galore just waiting for your inspection. The area was recently given a poor rating by National Geographic Traveler because there were too many tourists impacting the environment at any given time. The dinosaurs would no doubt find that notion ironic.
How do arches form? Mainly through freezing, expansion and erosion. Wind is not a factor except to remove debris. It is mainly water that forms the arches, even in this relatively dry, high-desert climate. Calcium carbonate is the glue that holds these rock formations together. To be considered a true arch, a structure must have a hole three feet in any direction. There are about 2,000 arches in the Arches National Park. Others, like Wilson Arch (named after former Park Superintendent Bates Wilson), are found outside the park. Needless to say, this is the largest collection of natural arches to be found anywhere on planet Earth.
Beyond the arches themselves, there are a plethora of interesting features inside the Arches National Park. There’s Park Avenue, so named because its towering structures resemble the Manhattan skyline. Elephant Butte, the Courthouse, Three Gossips and Sheep Rock, along with the out of the way Klondike Bluffs (home to an inscription left by a French trapper almost two centuries ago) never fail to stoke the imagination.
The Anasazi Indians once roamed these lands. On the road to the “town” of Potash (which is really only a plant that processes the potash), the visitor can see some of the pictographs and petroglyphs they left behind. These drawings and paintings seem to be high up from the road. However, the truth is that sand dunes were removed from the road that leads to the potash factory. Also, the Anasazi used ladders while inscribing these unique creations on the rock walls. The drawings were made upon red rocks, which turned blackish in color. This is a natural phenomena is known as “desert varnish” and is caused by the oxidation of manganese and other minerals.
No one knows what happened to the Anasazi. They simply vanished. (An episode of “The X-Files” entitled “The Blessing Way” fictionally deals with this disappearance as an alleged UFO abduction.) That said, the nearby Anasazi-dominated Mesa Verde Ruins nestled in the Four Corners region on the New Mexico border are also worth inspecting.
Creatures great and small dot the landscape in the Arches and Canyonlands. Nature beckons, as it did to the Ute Indians (who used uranium as body paint), Mormon pioneers and Colorado interlopers. (Moab was first settled by Colorado residents). Indeed, while visiting the area in the 21st century you’ll still be both at odds and at one with nature, just as though you came before in previous centuries.
You’ll come to terms with the never-ending marvels of creation. That pound for pound the spider’s web is stronger than steel. (Spider webs are now being studied in high tech labs with the hopes of producing stronger steel.) How wasps set their nests with laser-type accuracy, bats have their own GPS navigational system and how if you could jump like a flea, you’d soar over the 555-foot high Washington Monument in D.C.
Then there’s the mule deer, chipmunks, lizards, mountain lions and bunnies galore. The Colorado River in this part of Utah boasts a rare offshoot of minnow over 100 pounds in weight and as long as a man. Juniper trees hundreds of years old tell their own twisted tales. Billions of stars sing their siren song at night in a tune that rivals the Australian Outback.
In his book “Desert Solitaire,” famed author Edward Abbey referred to this region as “the most beautiful place on Earth.” (Abbey worked as a park ranger at the Arches in the late 1950s.) His words are an understatement, if that were possible. This writer has seen Petra, Baalbeck, Luang Prabang, Ko Pha Ngan, Angkor Wat, Tikal, Chobe, Victoria Falls and Mount Everest during my many adventures around the globe. But nothing captures the interaction of the divine and the terrestrial quite like the Arches and Canyonlands.
To see the Arches and Canyonlands is to have a glimpse beyond the stars and into the world to come.