Searching For Stillness By The Light Of Environmental Rage
Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado and Utah, October 1998
I’m utterly alone. The nearest person is probably miles away. On a high point, looking around at rocks, river, sagebrush, and cottonwoods, I realize how empty this place is. It’s my second day here, my tent is pitched about 2 miles away, next to my car, where the dirt road dead-ends at the Green River. Rainbow Park, part of Dinosaur National Monument. An apt name, given the variety of colors in the layered rocks. Even in such an obvious place, I have seen no one since yesterday morning, after I stopped at the visitor center.
It is October, and the cottonwoods are in full fall colors, the bright yellow leaves a marvelous contrast to the red rocks, silver-green sagebrush, and blue sky.
There is no sound save a quiet breeze, making its way through the sagebrush. Sound studies over the years have reported that this place is one of the quietest spots in the continental United States, a happy confluence of minimal visitation, no permanent residents, and a location blissfully away from the routes of commercial aircraft.
Where I stand, the river is contained by a gentle bank of grasses. But just a few hundred yards away, the river slides into and is trapped between canyon walls abruptly rising several hundred feet. I walk up to the river, and make my way as far into the canyon as I can. That is, not very far. The river stretches from canyon wall to canyon wall. On one side, the rock layers are unusually and distinctly curved in an arc.
There is something about this place that grabs me. Years later, it is the defining image in my mind of Dinosaur National Monument, despite other spots being more obvious or famous. Eight years after standing in this spot, my favorite band releases a haunting song with a line about drifting in water. Immediately, this is the image that came to mind when I first heard the song. Ten years later, it is still the image in my mind every time I hear it.
Yesterday, while driving here, I searched for the McKee Springs petroglyphs, not an easy task when driving alone. The petroglyphs are unmarked from the road, though that has probably changed by now. I hope not – part of the joy is exploration and discovery. Several times I am convinced I see them, but realize that it is just a shadow, or a natural variation in the rock.
When I do manage to spot them, they are unmistakeable. They are large, much larger than I expected. These Fremont style carvings are fascinating. Beautiful. Mysterious. Weird. Confusing. The 800 year old carvings leave me speechless. Eighteen years later, I’m still in awe when I look at my photos.
Night. Not only is the park quiet, it is also extremely dark. Surrounded for 100 miles in all directions with nothing but national park and BLM land, empty ranches (well not quite empty, as they are full of cows, but cows create poop and methane, not light), and a few small towns, light pollution is almost non-existent. The stars are magnificent.
In the morning, I shoot more photos. In a time of film shooting, when every frame is precious, I shoot multiple panoramas. Later, I will tape together 4-7 prints to recreate 270 degree panoramas.
My explorations limited and bounded by the river, I pack up and drive several hours through varied scenery, leaving the monument and then entering it again. A rancher has parked his tractor illegally on federal land, staking his claim on what belongs to everyone, purposefully scouring a track into the landscape. It is best to not say what I did in response.
Once upon a time, my actions were a bit more extreme. I no longer have such a strong bite.
I arrive at Jones Hole, park, and hike a short distance to the river, then return to set up camp.
Pulling my month-old tent from the stuff sack, I find myself frantically searching my car for the rain fly. Eventually, I come to terms with the fact that I must have left it at my campsite that morning. I clearly remember rolling it up, but come up blank past that.
Reluctantly I reverse course, and arrive back at my site hours after leaving. The rain fly is nowhere to be found. Where it went remains a mystery. No people, no wind, nowhere for it to go.
Thoroughly chastened, and recognizing the irony of my own environment abuse through pointless driving, I drive a shorter distance to Island Park, another spot on the Green River. With no rainfly, I am grateful for the good weather. I hike that afternoon and the next morning, before hopping in my car for another long drive to a different section of the park.
(these panoramas are best viewed large. Click on them to scale up)
Dinosaur National Monument is not large, but these winding, bumpy dirt roads are certainly not built for the convenience of tourists. In other words, they are just about perfect.
I drive out to Harper’s Corner and enjoy a short hike with more dazzling scenery, then continue on to my goal, Echo Park. Recent rains have made some clay sections slick as snot, driving the road could perhaps be described as occasionally stimulating. Signs announcing “Impassable when wet” are not hyperbole.
I make my way to the river and a remarkable scene. Here is the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers. Here is the terminus of the only undammed river in the entire Colorado River watershed. Here is the place that in one sense is responsible for the environmental travesty that is Glen Canyon.
In the early 1950’s, conservationists successfully fought dam building in Dinosaur. They won the battle but perhaps lost the war, as a compromise agreement required blessing the creation of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, one of our country’s greatest environmental failures.
My trip to this spot was purposeful. I have read of this fight that occurred when my parents were still young, of the thousands of years of history we lost when Lake Powell began to fill, of the magnificent canyons and rock formations gone forever. I have read about how we lost all that so that boaters could recreate on an obscenely unnatural massive lake in the middle of a desert.
My trip here was to see what sparked that fight. To ask whether it was worth what we lost.
Now though, its just me. Nothing more than the quiet river floating past, under the massive Steamboat Rock. I wander aimlessly, content.
In this silent place, despite my anger at our environmental choices, I achieve for a short time the inner stillness I wish for but rarely find.