by Paul W. Rea
Kolob Backcountry: Paradise Found
Canyons, through which great rivers roll onward to the
ocean, and whose walls rise up so high as to shut out the
glare of day . .. all pale before . .. the Mu-kun-tu-weap
valley of the Virgin River in southern Utah . .. whose
brows confront the sky . .. dazzling in their barbaric
splendor of color, their scenes of magnificent disorder.
—H. L. A. Culmer, The Scenic Glories of Utah
[p.169]Among the spectacles of the Colorado Plateau, few surpass the high plateaus of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Here in addition to the usual beauties offered by the red-rock country, one finds a crowning glory: large trees. The luxuriant foliage that drapes the rocks here at Kolob Terrace rivals [p.170] that of Zion Canyon, itself a plant lover’s nirvana. Like Mayan pyramids overgrown with greenery, the burnt-orange sandstone bluffs round into the domes so characteristic of Zion. In most of the park, cliff tops appear blond where water has dissolved much of the lime and iron that cement the quartz crystals, but here the Navajo sandstone bluffs retain more of their red pigments. Our route toward Kolob Arch skirts this balcony of red and green. From all we’ve heard, this should be one of the great hikes in the Southwest.
Major geologic factors explain these spectacular walls and domes. In essence, winds piled up vast dunes that were flooded, covered, lifted up, and eroded down to become the Colorado Plateau. When the sands accumulated, this area lay even with present-day Central America. Since that time, tectonic plate movement caused the continent to drift two thousand miles northward. Despite its origin in the Age of Dinosaurs, the Navajo sandstone contains few fossils because few plants and animals lived in the hot desert sands.
The “Great Sand Pile” reached its highest point here in southwest Utah” and the resulting Navajo sandstone stands fully two thousand feet thick in Zion Canyon. But upheavals that began about thirteen million years ago lifted this rock several thousand feet higher yet in the Kolob section. The upthrust of this colossal block exposed it to the elements that carve the domes, towers, slots, and ruddy walls along this trail.
We’re skirting the Hurricane Fault, the west-facing escarpment that runs for almost three hundred miles from the Wasatch Mountains to Grand Canyon. Viewed from the air, this long cliff marks the west side of the Grand Staircase. Perched behind these sandstone bluffs, the swaled, corrugated Kolob Terrace represents a middle step on the stairs. Above this shelf, the Gray Cliffs of Cedar Canyon and Pink Cliffs of [p.171] Bryce Canyon reach the top landings. Downstairs from Kolob Terrace lie the White Cliffs of Zion, the Vermilion Cliffs of Kanab, the Belted Cliffs of Colorado City, and finally the Kaibab Limestone bluffs of the Grand Canyon. As it scales the six thousand feet from the Colorado River to Bryce Canyon, the Grand Staircase reveals nearly two billion years of the earth’s history.
Runoff from Kolob Terrace not only carves the canyons we’ll explore but nourishes a unique blend of plants from the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Arizona desert. Considering the fact that much of the park is bare rock, this variety is amazing. Zion is a place of specialized adaptations to micro niches; standard zones often don’t apply because micro climates vary widely in a short space. A cactus may thrive on a sunny ledge a few feet from the lush hanging gardens of ferns and monkey flowers, the special habitat required by the Zion snail, a species found nowhere else.
We parked at Lee’s Pass, named for John D. Lee, a complex and controversial figure who secretly used this route on his way to Hop Valley and beyond. Since the Mormon church commissioned him to explore it, Lee knew southwest Utah as well as any white man. His well-known troubles began in 1857 when Paiute Indians harassed over a hundred non-Mormon emigrants camped at Mountain Meadows, thirty miles west of here. When the immigrant party circled its wagons and repulsed the Paiutes, inflicting casualties, Mormon leaders became fearful. Would the attack activate the U.S. Army, which was already poised to invade Utah? Would the Indians turn on the Mormon settlers?
Following instructions, Lee and others first offered to help the emigrants, then led them into a trap: the Mountain [p.172] Meadows Massacre. The Mormons fell on the men as the Indians attacked the women and children. Weeks later wolves still chewed on the bodies. The distinguished Western writer Wallace Steguer rightly described the tragedy as an outburst of “hatred and misunderstanding that had been building for a long time.”
Excommunicated and forced into exile, Lee often took remote routes such as the trail we’re hiking. After he’d sequestered himself for years at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River, he was eventually tried and brought before a firing squad. To his dying breath Lee contended that Brigham Young “sacrificed me through his lust for power.” Though Lee, a multiple murderer, never denied his involvement in the massacre, he also bore the guilt of a tribe that had disowned its shadow.
A thousand feet above us, the last of the rounded Five Fingers marks the western reach of the red rock plateau. Like most drainages that incise Kolob Terrace along cracks in the rock, those between the fingers run east and west. The trail continues south, first along cottonwood-lined Timber Creek, then heads through pinyon and juniper country.
Butterflies probe the brilliant orange blossoms clustered on a handsome bush, its dark-green leaves set against a background of gray sage and red rock. Anchored to deep, drought-resistant tubers, butterfly weed (or orange milkweed) blooms in warm colors that make it attractive for landscaping. These butterflies face a risk, however, for pollination in the milkweed family can prove fatal. Rather than floating freely for grain-by-grain transfer, this pollen sticks together in a wax-like mass. With great strength relative to their weight, visiting insects must free the waxy platelets of pollen or become trapped in the flower. When things work well, their [p.173] pollen-laden feet inadvertently grasp the protruding pistol of the flower. Mass fertilization ensues.
With its diversified flora offering nectar throughout warmer months, Zion attracts several varieties of butterflies. Buckeyes, small but strikingly colored butterflies with blue eyespots, often dash after others of their kind and then ascend in a whirlwind. California sisters resemble white-striped admirals except for the pumpkin-orange dots that glow like tail lights. Azures, painted ladies, tiger swallowtails, and common sulphurs (whose color probably suggested the term “butter fly”) all add to the already diverse palette.
As La Verkin Creek enters from the east, we look around the historic Corrales, where for decades ranchers paused with their herds. Feet and hooves have compacted the soil, leading the Zion Natural History Association to advise against camping on such trampled areas. From here the trail heads into the complex of verdant buff-and-salmon canyons that we’ll explore.
Like a painted bird on a Christmas tree, a Western tanager swoops from a treetop, flashing its red head, yellow-orange body, and black tail. Tanagers are birds of the tropics, reaching their zenith on the lower slopes of the Andes where several species may feed from the same tree at the same time. In the summer males flaunt their colors for breeding, but in the fall, for protection during migration, they molt into the dull greenish-yellow of their mates. With their bursts of flamboyance, tanagers bring the tropics to temperate North America. Bird lovers now recognize the crucial importance of preserving winter habitat for” our” summer songbirds.
Skies darken as clouds engulf Timber Top Mountain. When the trail climbs into conifers, drops begin to tingle my scalp. While we munch carrots under a spreading ponderosa, [p.174] the drizzle wanes into mist. A cloud bums off as Gregory Peak, named for pioneer geologist Herbert E. Gregory, blazes in the late-afternoon light.
Campsites nestle in shady groves. No sooner do we put down our burdens than a rock squirrel tears into my pack. We yell, make coarse gestures, and even charge the marauder, but it doesn’t scurry far. To prevent further problems, Barbara guards the packs while I drift down to the stream. Its banks lined with bright green horsetails, it rushes brick red after the rain. A Say’s Phoebe, gray with a sharp beak, shoots out to snap a mosquito. On the banks grow plants commonly found in the East, such as Solomon’s seal and black raspberries. Just downstream a buck kinks his neck to scratch his steaming back with the tip of his antler.
This area is well known for wildlife. When trapper-traders William Wolfkill and George C. Yount traipsed through southwest Utah in the winter of 1831-32, Yount marveled at what they saw in the Virgin River valley: “The elk, deer, and antelope, driven from the mountains by the snow and piercing cold, were basking, with their frolicsome fawns, unaware and unintimidated by the sight of man. They would flock around like domestic sheep Or goats, and would almost feed from the hand.”
Where there was plentiful prey, there were also predators. Unfortunately, however, hunters, trappers, and ranchers had exterminated the Mexican gray wolves well before establishment of the park. Mountain lions, on the other hand, proved more difficult to kill. Their preference for fresh meat made them difficult to poison, and they hid on ledges where they could evade a pack of howling hounds. Much as a house cat can reach a counter, cougars can spring up cliffs several times their height.
[p.175]These magnificent cats now prowl Kolob Terrace, but, because their territories are so large, they often stray from the park. When cougars prey on livestock and a rancher reports the loss, the Utah Division of Wildlife traps the cougar for release in areas needing predators. But other ranchers prefer to “bag their lion” like a Teddy Roosevelt—or find it profitable to guide outstate trophy hunters whose challenge amounts to hitting a large target crouched in a small tree. Cougars are defiantly wild, and there are people who need to destroy any creature that defies human domination. Perhaps Captain Ahab, who hated the whale he couldn’t kill, didn’t go down with the Pequod.
Mountain lions have also faced accusations of killing off the bighorn sheep here in Zion. Actually, though, there were additional causes. When the deer population expanded, bighorns were less able to compete, so their numbers dwindled. In addition, reintroduced bighorns have multiplied slowly in Zion because of diseases contracted from domestic sheep. Small parks such as Zion and Bryce Canyon present special challenges. Both have lost about a third of their original species, and the reintroduction of mobile species such as wolves alarms the locals. It’s extremely difficult to restore full diversity in a complex ecosystem that’s been evolving for thousands of years.
In the morning we face the rock squirrels again, so we stuff our food into a sack and suspend it from the end of a bough. But the sack’s weight bows it down and squirrels jump that high to reach bird feeders. I know—I’ve been outsmarted by them before. Finally we select a stronger branch, clean any crumbs from around our site, and set off to play.
Our first stop is Kolob Arch, at 310 feet possibly the largest in the world. Despite its size, the arch itself is not [p.176] overwhelming because it sits so high up the cliff. Unlike many arches on the Colorado Plateau, Kolob is not essentially the work of percolating water. Instead, it is a free-standing arch, one formed through exfoliation. Where the weight of the rock creates bulges along stress planes, cracking and peeling loosen surface slabs that slough off during freezes. As time goes on, expansion and contraction accelerate this process. Much like Great Arch near the Zion Tunnel, Kolob has exfoliated itself deeply into the cliff, finally causing its ceiling to fall in. Because Kolob is open at the top, it does not protect the cliff beneath it from eroding still more rapidly than before.
Few hikers continue past Kolob Arch. Although the lovely trail to the Arch is graced with pink phlox, scarlet penstemons, lavender shooting stars, and other wildflowers, it scarcely hints at the marvels just beyond. We follow the stream that has, for only a few million years, abraded this soft sandstone like a continuously grinding belt sander. Yesterday’s shower speeded up the belt and added new abrasives.
For another mile past the arch, these exquisite narrows remain pristine, free from bootprints. Far above, cross-bedded planes sweep through long arcs on the canyon walls. Fresh fractures appear clean and buff against the older, darker surfaces. Seeps spot these cliffs to reveal where moisture percolates through the porous sandstone, making them resemble the Redwall limestone bluffs in the Grand Canyon. However, these sheer walls rise over a thousand feet in two stages, separated by a distinct seep line where water reaches a harder layer which it follows until it oozes out. Strong enough to support itself on a cliff face but soft enough for streams to chisel, Navajo sandstone forms absolutely magnificent cliffs.
Well up the sheer face, a narrow shelf supports a band of trees. Tall conifers too high up for even a tree hugger to [p.177] identify look like props in a museum showcase. The upper wall frames lovely water streaks, long stripes that accentuate the curvature. This second face, too, is crowned with twisted trees standing defiantly against a blue slice of sky.
These glorious walls glow like a pumpkin in the midmorning sunlight. In such narrow canyons the reflected overtones can render the colors richer. Flavored by this tangerine light, mist drifts from beneath an overhang where lacy maidenhair ferns decorate the walls. Like Weeping Rock in Zion Canyon, this shallow cave drips tears that wobble in the air like soap bubbles.
The air seems slightly tinted by iron, full of grains from the sandstone cliffs. This is broad daylight turned palpable, not photons simply striking and bouncing off a surface, not rock merely absorbing some wavelengths of light to impart color, but sublime luminescence imbued with the spirit of matter. This beauty animates me, dissolving any feelings of estrangement into the sands toned air. I react to illusory appearances, momentarily disregarding the hard-rock realities that lie beneath the gorgeous surfaces.
Far overhead, their wings backlit by the sun, hundreds of swallows twitter and cavort. Cliff swallows winter in Paraguay and Brazil, flying thousands of miles each way and nesting in huge colonies. These colonies serve as communication centers where unsuccessful hunters watch successful ones feeding their nestlings, then follow them to the best places to grab bugs. However, parasitism also characterizes swallow colonies. Laying eggs in neighboring nests is common, even rampant. Nor is this the result of confusion among similar nests, for some females wait until the owner is distracted, then pop out an egg in as little as fifteen seconds. Exuberant fliers that they are, swallows understandably prefer soaring to [p.178] brooding eggs.
In the creek a slate-gray water ouzel, or dipper, bobs on rocks to remind me of how I first beheld ouzels under a bridge in Yosemite. In his The Mountains of California, John Muir sang paeans to his favorite bird:
He is a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow, about
the size of a robin, clad in a plain waterproof suit of bluish
gray …. In both winter and summer he sings, sweetly,
cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring
no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells.
Water ouzels dive into pools where they hunt insect larvae. And they aren’t fooled by caddis fly grubs that cover themselves with sticks and stones, either.
Where huge slabs of sandstone clog the slot, we pull ourselves up and over, each time marking the best route to climb back down. After running nearly straight, apparently along a north/south joint, this slot opens into a spectacular amphitheater. Black-and-white streaks decorate an enormous stone knob. Tufts of grass and moss—plus a limber pine seedling, its boughs like bottle brushes—all cling to the peeling rock.
How appropriate that, as far as we can tell, this magical alcove doesn’t have a name. Sequestered behind those slab barriers, this is a magical place that few people see. Perhaps it’s better off unnamed, for blank places on the map are less likely to risk the overuse experienced by some of Zion’s backcountry, such as The Subway.
On the way back I freeze. Just a yard ahead, its head buried under loose rock, lies a colorful serpent. Its strikingly colored body, larger than my thumb, looks almost enameled. Barbara cautions me to stand back, which I do, though I’d [p.179] prefer to see as much as possible. Yes, I definitely do have a way of letting beauty blind me to danger. Then I recall that “Red and yellow, kill a fellow. Red and black, venom lack.” Rings encircle the body, but the red ones do not meet the yellow. Red rings are bordered on either side by black. This is a harmless Arizona mountain kingsnake, a constrictor of lizards and other snakes. I linger for a closer look.
My skin feels sticky as I recline on a flagstone, legs in a pool, snacking on limp carrots and stale peanuts. Mmmm, good. Gauzy-winged damselflies dance with Tinkerbell wings in the dappled light. Their bowed bodies glowing a phosphorescent blue, they often perch near sunny spots so that small flying insects wandering into the sunshine are easier to see. Several damselflies light softly on stream grasses beside my canteen. After a mating display of arched abdomens, a male fastens his tail behind a female’s head. Later she will curl her abdomen around to meet with his, suggesting a most holistic union of mind and body.
A small black water snake two feet long wriggles into the pool. Head held high, it glides up and rests on a rock ledge. It remains calm, perhaps more so than we do, ignoring both us and the damselflies. It then swims downstream, much at home in the gentle current.
Buzz. Leaflitter flies as two antagonists fight to the death. A yellow jacket is assaulting a large digger bee, its wings a blur in the dust. Gradually the yellow jacket pins the bee, going at it with chewing mouth and stinging tail. While its jaws bite the bee’s head off, its stinger repeatedly stabs the bee’s abdomen. The decapitated bee’s wings buzz intermittently. What’s the conflict here? This yellow jacket may want the bee’s burrow, since both nest in the soil. It’s more likely, though, that this yellow jacket is a sterile female worker seeking [p.180] protein to feed larvae. After an episode like this, it’s difficult to understand why most bees live alone. There’s greater safety in numbers, but bees that live in hives must pay a price for their greater security.
As I stare at this savage scene, I’m both shocked and fascinated. When nature seems as beautiful or as suited to human needs as it does right now, I forget that it can also be so “red in tooth and claw.”
Back at camp we’re in for another shock; the rodents have struck again—and I’ve been outsmarted once more. Familiar debris litters the ground near our stuff sack. The varmints have chewed through the cord to drop our sack of food. Though it’s humbling to be outwitted by rock squirrels, the loss is more serious. Without our dried dinners, peanuts, granola, and dried apples, we’re short on food. Barbara wants to hike out; I argue that the little beasties didn’t take our coffee, oranges, peanuts, or brandy. We should be able to get by on these and then hike out early. When I promise her a rib eye at Milt’s Stage Stop near Cedar City, she agrees to stay.
After the cleanup we set out for Hop Valley. A half mile down La Verkin Creek we come to a fork. Ringed by golden columbine, a sizable spring gushes from the hillside. The streamside trail follows La Verkin and Willis creeks past more springs into slot canyons, some of them classic narrows. Surrounded by Wilderness Study Areas, this is one of the wildest areas of the park, one where large pines and firs, rushing waters, waterfalls, pools for bathing, and solitude are the rule.
The Hop Valley trail is also spectacular. From the creek the trail climbs into a thick grove of maples and box elders. Domes and towering cliffs rise in nearly all directions. The cross-bedding characteristic of wind-deposited sandstones often guides erosional forces, determining by their tilt [p.181] whether the rock will become a dome or a cliff. Where the Navajo sandstone is exposed on these great rock faces, the curvatures of ancient dunes define the sweeping contours. The sandstone domes of Zion present the crests of petrified dunes, frozen in time. Except for Gregory Butte, which balds at 7,700 feet, these rounded cliffs are trimmed with green.
Hop Valley first presents wide, rolling terrain covered by scrub oaks and ponderosas, then it changes to broad meadows with blue lupines, or bluebonnets. Since lupines are poisonous
to cattle, their numbers have probably increased as decades of grazing have reduced more palatable plants. Other changes have resulted from protracted grazing. Sage, pinyon, and juniper often invade lands denuded of their natural grasses. Farther on, where slump-and-slide dams once backed up the stream to create a lake, the valley widens. Its floor resembles a golf course, complete with sand traps and fairways. An eagle sails into the valley, stirring the ravens.
Most of this long valley is an inholding owned by Bud Lee, a descendent of John D. For years Bud has run cattle in these verdant meadows from May through October, but the cattle also stray into the park, where they do damage. Private inholdings disrupt national parks when their owners insist on uses that conflict with park values. Why, one wonders, can the government condemn private land for highways, railroads, power lines, and pipelines but not for unified national parks? Here in Utah, at least, one answer is that the Park Service has felt intense hostility from locals, especially ranchers, and has tried to appease them.
On the final trail back, other campers tell tales of woe. They thought they’d be clever and hide food in their tent, but they too were outsmarted. Squirrels chewed into their tent, found their food and fought over it, smearing blood and [p.182] excrement. Normally rock squirrels eat acorns plus the seeds of currant, cactus, and yucca, all of them plentiful in this area. Did these rodents become dependent on human handouts? Or did they overpopulate, leading them to become excessively aggressive? When animals lose their fear of humans, could they turn their residual anger on us? Naturalists often remark that in areas frequented by humans the wildlife comes forward, whereas in truly wild areas it runs the other way. These squirrels parallel the fearless deer that one finds around many campgrounds. Contrary to “the Bambi syndrome,” such seemingly tame, cute animals are not as benign as their liquid eyes might suggest. On more than one occasion they’ve chewed off my bootlaces or carried off my hat, both of which cause problems when you’re camped in the backcountry.
The other campers decide to hike out, but I forget to make an offer for what remains of their food. Damn! To ignore the hunger pangs, I imagine spending time to select just the right twigs for a small, low-impact fire and whittling as I toss shavings on the fire. But no, this is a national park where no backcountry fires are allowed. Besides, freed from cooking we have more time to observe everything. If full vitality involves being totally present, nature delivers like little else.
But writing offers full involvement too—should I watch the woodpeckers or scribble in my journal? New England poet and essayist Donald Hall mused on contentment and “absorbedness”:
The hour of bliss is the lost hour. … I lose the hour—inhabiting contentment—in my lucky double absorption with work and with land. At the desk, writing and trying to [p.183] write, I do not even know that I will die. The whole of me enters the hand that holds the pen that digs at word-weeds, trying to set the garden straight.
For total absorbedness one watches, writes, reads, gardens, converses, makes love, or whatever.
Toward dusk, as clouds move in, we exchange massages to feel less like we’ve been sent to our rooms without supper. Rain infuses the woods with an immense throb of energy, pitter-pattering the tent with insistent rhythms. We snuggle into our bags, drifting slowly toward sleep, relaxed but excited. I sense along with Thomas Merton that rain “reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize.”
Once the last drips from the oak have ceased, droplets of light ooze through the nylon from a sky of pearls. Outside, the Summer Triangle is swimming beside the ghostly, gauzy Milky Way. As the skies clear fully, I hear the stars hum and listen to the music of the spheres.
Living in a city, where light pollution limits our view of the cosmos, I’d forgotten the splendor of the night sky. Here, thankfully, we’re a hundred and fifty miles from the gaudy glare of Las Vegas. Air pollution also clouds our capacity for wonder, our ability to commune with a universe that is so much more than “virtual” dots on a screen. Today most people settle for a surrogate sky in a planetarium where viewers gasp in astonishment as the dull city heavens burst into their former brilliance. Under an empty sky or one filled only with blinking lights from airplanes, our engagement with the stars that so fascinated our ancestors lapses into disconnection with realms beyond our own.
I awaken to thunks on our tent. These are just too [p.184] regular, so I suspect that a squirrel is dropping pine cones. Perhaps I’ve got rodents on my mind. We slug down coffee and tear into the one last orange, thinking we’ll need a double caffeine and fructose buzz to cover the seven miles. With no delay for washing dishes, we’re off by eight. Over a thousand feet above us Gregory Butte gleams in the early light, tiger-striped by last night’s rain. An evening primrose, a common night bloomer, looks shriveled after its night of glory.
Raindrops bead the knee-high golden buckwheat beside the trail. This is the local version of the wild buckwheat appearing as sulphur flowers and umbrella plants in the Rockies. Throughout the West, wherever differences in moisture, salinity, soil type, exposure, and animal foraging occur, different species of buckwheat adapt to specific eco-niches. Perhaps the most dramatic adaptation to aridity is Eriogonum inflatum, the bottle plant that stores water in its bloated stems.
Beside the buckwheat, sphinx moths mate in the moist shade. Their colors are muted but bold, their forewings dark brown with a beige band, their hind wings mostly pink. Named for their large caterpillars that rear up like a sphinx, these remarkable insects are sometimes called “hawkmoths” because of their swooping flight or, more appropriately, “hummingbird moths” because of their hovering movements and rapid wingbeats. Unlike most moths, their antennae aren’t feathery to locate food in the dark. Instead, their eyes are highly developed to spot bright-colored flowers during the day.
Sphinx moths lack hearing organs, possibly because they wouldn’t be able to hear above their whir in flight. Stout-bodied and strong-winged, these insects buzz from flower to flower, often at dusk. As they hang above a flower, their pink [p.185] color visible through the blur of their wings, they grasp the petal with two legs while their long proboscis uncoils to penetrate the flower as if in a passionate embrace. To fuel their high-energy metabolism, they require nectar with a lot of sugar. Burning all this fuel makes it necessary for them to release heat, which they do by perspiring from their wings and by circulating extra air through their respiratory system. Who could dismiss these marvels as mere bugs?
The sphinx moths don’t amuse Barbara, though: “You’re an interesting guy to hike with, Paul, but not on an empty stomach.” Like a horse galloping for the barn, she heads for her oats, non-stop. Pulling on blinders, I force myself to bypass the kingbird on the branch, the butterflies on the pleurisy-root bush, and the baby grouse, almost invisible among the rice grass and sage. A curious coyote probably gives us more time than we give it. Barbara remarks that she’d complain about her sore feet if they didn’t keep her mind off her belly. Hunger hits me too. I feel weak, and not just from the heat. After groaning up the last grade, we heave our packs somewhere near our van.
While I drive, she scavenges like a rodent for crackers, bits, pieces, crumbs. At Milt’s Stage Stop we wolf down rib-eye steaks like ravenous carnivores. But my conscience nags. How can we object to overgrazing and then eat beef? Sure, we human critters are omnivores so it’s natural for us to eat meat. Everything considered, though, I vow to consume even less red meat. Starting tomorrow. Over coffee, we rave about these glorious higher canyons of Zion. Their altitude and moisture keep them cooler, and the extra water supports more varied and prolific flora and fauna than in lower desert areas. When the Mormon pioneers named this Kolob area after the star nearest Heaven, they weren’t far wrong. This [p.186] might make a good place to live….
Three years later we moved to Cedar City, only eighteen miles away.
A Sentimental Homecoming
Located just off the interstate, the Taylor Creek Trail in Zion National Park attracts many casual visitors, but Ray Fife certainly wasn’t one of these. Under his white cowboy hat he gazed around as though in search of something he’d lost.
“I can’t believe how everything’s changed,” he mused. “The canyon’s grown up so much—it was much more bare back then, after the lumbering, with all the grazing going on.”
Now a retired physician, Ray recalled his often solitary adolescence in this canyon. His father Arthur, a professor at the Branch Agricultural College in Cedar City, loved these red rocks so much that he endured twenty miles of bad roads to live here, where he ran cows, pigs, sheep, and goats.
“Ranching was hard work. The flash floods were real frustrating’ cause they washed away the fencing you’d just put up. So I didn’t appreciate the beauty when I lived here as a teenager. Guess I wanted to be with my friends back in town. But we did have excitement out here at times, like when my dad brought some students into one of these box canyons and a mountain lion sprang just over their heads on a ledge, twenty feet away.”
Those who were lucky enough to live amid natural beauty while they were young may not have appreciated it, but such early immersion usually forges a bond that enhances [p.187] their relationship with nature later on. Ray and I sauntered so he could talk and stay within his breath. He gestured toward Ash Creek where John D. Lee, plus other early settlers, came to cut hardwood for tools. As a result, there still isn’t much ash growing along these creek bottoms. Ray reminisced about the ruins of a cabin reputedly built by Lee, then pointed out some twisted rock beds known as the Kanarra Fold.
“And don’t let me forget to show you the conglomerate—my dad really loved it.” Ray told how his cousin Louis Fife, an Iron County sheriff, tracked down the last of the Old Western outlaws, Jack Weston, only to get captured himself With the help of his partner, Weston handcuffed the sheriff to a juniper and left him for dead. Despite wounds and fatigue, however, Sheriff Fife managed to work his way up and over the nineteen-foot tree. Undaunted, he later single-handedly recaptured the outlaws.
As the gentle doctor pushed back his Stetson, he marveled at Tocupit Point, the lofty prow which divides the forks of Taylor Creek. Which of the Fingers of Kolob is it? I wondered.
“Behind the point is the Temple Cap, the brick-colored layer above the sandstone cliffs. Above it, the Carmel limestone is full of fossils,” Ray recalled. After all these years he still knew his rocks. As we arrived at the cabin he helped his father build in 1930, his voice quavered.
“We hated to lose all this when they made it a National Monument, but I guess it’s better off that way.” As he choked up, I reached for his wrinkled hand before Ray ambled toward the cabin he’d helped build, sixty-two years before.
Throat loosened, I slogged down the creek bed toward the huge rockfall, dam, and pond. I so wished Ray could see this. At times such falls have blocked streams to form lakes in [p.188] the canyons. Known for how it allows precipitation to percolate, Navajo sandstone can absorb moisture and add weight. Or when the lime that serves as glue dissolves, huge blocks can disintegrate in a fall. In just seconds, rock crumbles into sand. But it was neither heavy rains nor wedges of ice nor an earthquake that caused this cliff to rupture, dropping large chunks nearly a thousand feet; apparently it was expansion in the summer heat. For several days locals across the valley in New Harmony watched a cloud of orange dust that hung over the Five Fingers of Kolob.
The next year a flash flood carried vast amounts of this freshly freed sand, almost closing the interstate. The sand and water scoured the Middle Fork, filling in the pools that formerly hosted so much acquatic life. Fewer canyon frogs will be bleating along here for the next few years, but already yuccas and other plants that did not grow on the canyon floor are taking hold on the new dune. Nature may reach equilibrium, but it also reacts to disturbances, including lumbering, grazing, rock falls, and flash floods.
On my way back I wondered if Ray had ever read Everett Ruess, “the vagabond for beauty” who gave up everything, including his life, to inhabit the red rocks he loved. Ray would probably resonate with Everett, who was young when he was. Everett’s heartfelt letters might touch him deeply. But when I arrived back at the trailhead, Ray was gone.
There was so much we could have shared, much like father and son.