The Colorado Plateau specializes in blending the sublime and the ridiculous, the tranquil and the absurd. The rules one finds elsewhere in nature generally apply, but in the high desert are often bent, to the point of breaking. Canyons get narrower as they get bigger, seemingly dry sand eats your shoes and knees with no warning, spring river levels go down as it gets warmer (my particular vexation of the moment), and the desiccated, still land holds gravity and biology at just the edge of possibility.
My favorite example, of the former, are the Moenkopi cliffs we found for ourselves on a weekend adventure with LB and the grandparents. Moenkopi might not be ubiquitous around the canyons of Utah, but it is common. These ones though, are the most colorful I’ve seen. The porous, heterogeneous nature of the Moenkopi made it a popular place to seek out uranium during the Cold War-funded boom of the 1950s, as ore would collect along sills in the strata just below.
This cabin had one room, and was built from thin boards and a layer of tar paper, entirely with roofing nails. It was built by uranium prospectors, as was the quite decent dirt road we drove for a couple hours to reach our camp, under a cottonwood and next to a thin creek, loud with sediment. Evidently the height of the boom saw 450 people living in the same bottoms, enough to fund a school of sorts for at least a couple years. The contrast with the present is immense, it’s hard to imagine finding flat ground for that many trailers and shacks.
In any case, get close to those Moenkopi cliffs and realize that not only are the mudstone cobbles and gypsum veins held together by little other than inertia and gravity, the faces of some pillars overhang a few degrees. One could with a pickaxe and five minutes hollow out a closet-sized room, the only other requisites goggles and a serious disregard for personal safety.
The next silly thing we found was heavy, recent beaver traffic. Along a stream that is rarely more than knee deep, often far shallower, and almost always dense to the point of audibility with silt. With the ideal food (cottonwoods) often a healthy ways back from the water. I suppose the coyote population is sufficiently sparse that the odds of the two meeting during nocturnal lumberjack outings is modest.
And then we found some wild horses. Introduced, though some tribes claimed cultural memory of the Pleistocene horses extirpated by their ancestors, horses have in the modern West become objects of nostalgia. Ms. Smith didn’t name an album after the noble castor canadensis, after all. They’re also a damn nuisance, as the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act limits the extent to which they can be managed (read: shot), and only circumstance and the occasional attempted wrangle limits their numbers. This herd of six had obviously spent the winter in a small serious of meanders, sheltered from the worst of the wind and snow accumulation, with just enough sage to manage the desperate times. I don’t begrudge them this living as individuals, but I do hold the hammering and denuding they had inflicted against the mugwumps who passed that damn law. This in one of the few areas within a hundred mile radius where cattle grazing was not grandfathered in to modern management.
When you can buy a horse hunting license I’ll be at the front of the line, and when my current careers grow old I’ll shoot the moon on student debt, get a PhD, and write a thesis on beaver population dynamics in marginal habitats.
LB was unmoved, so long as he had oranges and cookies to eat, and a trekking pole to take on extended loan.
He’s even begun to go hours between hat protests, for which the Scottish complexion he inherited from his mother thanks him. The many no-assist hikes we’ve gone on over the winter have payed us back in his rock clambering abilities, and his newfound and occasionally startling speed on the strider bike, but that comes at a cost of longer wander breaks while on hikes. The demise of our ability to backpack point-to-point with anything approaching adult range is still far away, but is visible on the horizon.
What’s also visible is spring. Even at 6000 feet cottonwood buds are small, but firmly established, and grass shards are visible in cracks amongst the mudflats. It’s a precious time of year, when the evening gusts die out and you’re far enough to mute the hiss of the creek, the hurried potentiality of green is almost hearable.
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