Friday, June 4, 2010

utah - we need this wilderness

Utah - for some a land of promise. For me, this is the landscape of Ed Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams. I'm northeast of the Aquarius Plateau, the territory Wallace Stegner referred to in his 1960 Wilderness Letter as a lively and terrible wilderness. I'm here to visit my own park ranger mom and my dad now living in Capitol Reef. They're living in an eden called Fruita, in orchards established by settlers in the 1880s and watered by the Fremont River and Sulfur Creek. This community has its own history - you may learn more here.

Capitol Reef became a national monument in 1937, but the geography we see as a part of the monument has been desert, then sea, then desert, and sea again - each era a layer, each strata a story of an older earth. The newer and intrusive layers mark volcanic eruptions or coagulated magma - cooled then exposed, like caps atop the red sandstone. The layers have character. The Dakota sandstone is full of mussel shells.

The Chinle formation is the most colorful. It's green, gray, and burgundy composition, ready for O'Keeffe, was a swampland that decayed into bright and curdled hills. 275 million years of the earth's history is exposed in uplift and canyon drainage.

For its grandeur we've made it a national park. Set it aside - a protected space that we keep safe even from ourselves. And it contributes to the health of our psyches. We need to see that we have foresight as evidenced by safely kept wild lands. We need to see that we today, and our predecessors too - carefully conceived of, and continue to understand, the fact that we are nature and we need nature. We need a place like this terrible wilderness especially now, while oil floods out into the Gulf of Mexico - as it has for more than 50 days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig.
Wallace Stegner's Wilderness Letter made me understand that even if I come only to its edge - I need wilderness to exist. Not only I, but all of us. He said we are a wild species - and something will go out of us should we lose our wild places. He wrote in that letter a paragraph about the very place I am now exploring.

". . . let me suggest the Robbers' Roost country in Wayne County, Utah, near the Capitol Reef National Monument. In that desert climate the dozer and jeep tracks will not soon melt back into the earth, but the country has a way of making the scars insignificant. It is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such as wilderness as Christ and the prophets went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven't the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply sit and look. They can look two hundred miles, clear into Colorado: and looking down over the cliffs and canyons of the San Rafael Swell and the Robbers' Roost they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know. And if they can't even get to the places on the Aquarius Plateau where the present roads will carry them, they can simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there. "

(This excerpt of Stegner's letter was posted by The Wilderness Society).

But on this trip we did more than come to the edge of the wild - we went in. We walked through skinny canyons, soaked our feet, suffered fierce wind and even stubbed our toes in a manner that would make Ed Abbey proud. He was a park ranger too - and was faced with a predicament still a challenge in even the most beautiful places. That is - to make people get out and see them, not only drive through them.
"What can I tell them? Sealed in their metallic shells like mollusks on wheels, how can I pry the people free? The auto as tin can, the park ranger as opener. Look here, I want to say, for godsake folks get out of them there machines, take off those fucking sunglasses and unpeel both eyeballs, look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras! For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not? Jesus Christ, lady, roll that window down! You can't see the desert if you can't smell it! Dusty! Of course it's dusty - this is Utah! But it's good dust, good red Utahn dust, rich in iron, rich in irony."

Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey

You must come here - however you visit - just do. Come to its edge, watch a sunset, and maybe leave your metal mollusk shell. I think you will be compelled. The night sky is protected from the haze our cities shoot out toward space. You will see stars, planets, and maybe skipping meteors.

I leave you with Stegner's closing words. These are the words that make me sure we can keep sane if only we un-hunch ourselves from our machines, our devices . . lean back on solid rock and gaze out.
"We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."
Very sincerely yours,
Wallace Stegner
And very sincerely yours,
Gaea McGahee
Now I must go out - to a summer full of the backcountry - on the Mountain Desert Trek. So long.


  1. Well written Gaea! You make me want to explore; can I wait until October when the hot heat isn't too intense? Surely it will cool off a bit by then. I'm leaving for Las Cruces in a few days to prepare for Ayla's arrival. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers that everything will be ok. I really miss seeing you!

    Love, Deb

  2. Hi Deb, I've just got back down into NM - near Gallup. I think October will be a nice time to visit my folks and their surrounds. Probably perfect . . Give Jianna a big squeeze for me - I miss you all! Can't wait to meet Ayla the adventurer - already such a journey!