The arrival of spring was so lovely in California after the long rains, with wildflowers carpeting the hills and lining the road along the coast, that I became restless. I had long had an ambition to visit the national parks and monuments our president has shrunk and degraded, so I decided now was the time for a road trip.
Our reporters wrote individual news stories on the parks and monuments He Who We Are Tired of Naming violated, but the one that seemed most brutal was to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.
It looked to be a place of natural majesty where you could see the hand of whichever creator you believe in at work. So I set out for the monument in a new Audi that was just too nice and needed some primeval dust and a couple dents to be more comfortable.
North from Flagstaff along the Interstate 89, with snowcapped Humphrey’s Peak dominating the view ahead, we see a sign for the Wupatki National Monument which is just the kind of random thing that I like to check out. Rolling on an empty road over a volcanic landscape with light green bushes spread on a terrain of white sand and black rocks, we arrive at 1,000-year-old Hopi ruins.
The visitor center sets two interpretive texts side by side. One is the Hopi version, “It was the destiny of the Hopi to value spiritual life over material possessions, to survive as farmers in a harsh land, and travel to the four corners of the earth.”
The second is the government version, “Climate and population conditions were major agents of change. But there are no easy answers as to why people behaved as they did.”
Back on the 89, we split off onto the 89A which follows the old wagon route past the first of the staircases, the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, a rising wall of red earth on the west side of the Colorado River. Arrived in Kanab, Utah, as the light was fading, the only place to eat on a Monday night is an old-school Mexican restaurant called Nedra’s with a passable plate of carnitas and a beautiful cold mug of Bud Light.
I notice signed cowboy star photos filling the walls above the red booths, and ask the waitress who explains that Kanab was basically Hollywood’s western movie location. The next morning, under rainy skies, we head north through the rose-pink castles of the Dixie National Forest and a couple hours later arrive in the small town of Escalante.
The green-uniformed ranger at the visitor center is hurried but she quickly circles a couple hikes on a map of the grand staircase monument. “Where can I see dinosaur bones,” I ask like a kid.
She circles a big section called the Kaiparowits Plateau and says straight-forward, “That’s where most of the digging is going on. But there aren’t any roads.”
So we work in a hike along Calf Creek, a few miles away, which runs through a wide, tall canyon sculpted over the eons. The canyon is a kind of palette on which are squeezed the creator’s vast array of hues and textures. Bright green, gray, light green, yellow, sage blue distributed in strokes and dabs on an underlying canvas of iron-red earth, all framed by the canyon walls layered in pink, white and brown strata.
At the top of the canyon is long, elegant stream of water dropping 214 feet into a large pond fronted by a small sand beach. The falling water creates a rush of wind as we look up from the beach. Against a dark-gray sky, a hawk soars through the v-shaped crack in the cliff where the water starts its fall.
The hike is only three miles in and three miles out but it takes more than three hours. It is nearing dark when we get back to the car, in the trunk of which I have kept a six-pack of long-neck Buds. I find an old coffee cup in the car, into which I pour the well-warm beer. So as not to be conspicuous. Best beer in an awful long time.
That was the first day at the monument. A long time ago, on family camping trips, there was a common exclamation when we saw or did something cool or great – “Worth the trip!”
The grand staircase was worth the trip, and it was just the first afternoon.