Utah Blog: Dynamic Landscapes; Richness in Land and Resources; Vanishing Native Languages and Cultures; Solar Potential (Dallas Smith)

[Ed. Note: The following is Dallas’ last belatedly posted travel blog. This, I hope, brings me up to date. Thanks, Dallas, for continuing to send these to me in spite of my dawdling]

April 25, 2008

Overview: Written on the road back to Reno after having visited Death Valley, Las Vegas, Zion National Park, Lake Powell, the Slot Canyon, Monument Valley, Arches National Park, Castle Valley, Capitol Reef National Park, & Bryce Canyon National Park.

Looking at the list above, I have vivid mental images of all the locations. The landscapes and communities in between were interesting as well. This trip, which had been in the planning stages for at least two years, had the purpose of allowing me to shoot new video for the CARE Channel. Traveling with my oldest friend, Bill Storey, the trip had originally included our wives. But Bill and I both married high-achievers, who are too engaged in their work to take a week off for this trip. Bill and I share a love for the exotic landscapes and being outside in glorious nature. We’ve had such a great time, that we are already making plans to do the trip again next year, but with our wives next time.

As everyone knows, I love to travel. I like to find the best aspects of any place that I visit. It’s hard to choose a favorite state. I love the countryside where I grew up in Alabama. I like Georgia’s mountains, Florida’s beaches, California’s coastline and Yosemite Park, Lake Tahoe (shared between California and Nevada), the Rocky Mountains of Colorado…But for today, my favorite state from a nature point of view, is Utah.

The dynamic landscapes of Utah are more varied, in my experience, than any other state. The high deserts expose a geologic history that encompasses (over millions of years) oceans, forests, grasslands, sand dunes, continental drift, plate tectonics, volcanoes, and finally, the ravages of time as created by wind and water, extreme heat and cold. Geologic history is on display more clearly here than anywhere else. Layers of strata, representing as many as seventeen distinct geological epochs, can be mapped and observed over almost the whole state. Similar strata can be located in Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, but not in such concentration and close proximity as in Utah.

Millions of years of geological evolution trace the history of volcanic eruptions, floods, windstorms, extreme erosion, ice ages, fires, and snowstorms. It is all very dramatic. Utah has the most incredible rock formations I’ve ever seen…arches, natural bridges, uplifted sedimentary river beds, red rocks, sheer valleys, sculptures in stone and sand. I’m aware that there are many Christians that believe that the world was created by god just a little over six thousand years ago. (This figure was reached by their having adding up all the dates listed in the bible.) Such people will need to close their eyes, ears, and minds, even more when they travel through Utah. The process of evolution in stone and sand is visible at every stage, showing the cumulative effects of time on a scale in which six thousand years is a mere blink of the eyes.

We all think of the US as being a rich country. This is usually just a cliché. But having driven two thousand miles in the last week, I’ve been reminded every day how rich our country is in land and resources. We drove miles and miles, sometimes hours on end, without seeing any development at all, no sign of anyone living there, indeed, meeting very few cars. Perhaps summer’s tourist traffic will change that impression. Most of the tourists we met in the parks were Europeans. (The low dollar makes a US vacation a great bargain.) In thinking of the densely populated countries of Europe and Asia, it would seem that the US could accommodate many times our current population and still not be as crowded as many of these countries are today. Intellectually, I knew the preceding to be true, but driving through Utah’s countryside grounds this belief in objective observed reality.

Observations from the trip (in no particular order):

1. Visiting the Southwest makes one more mindful of our Native American history and heritage. The Navahos have the largest tribal territory. Their language is more likely to survive than most others, due to the relatively large number of people who continue to speak it. I heard a radio report stating that of the twenty or so surviving native American languages still spoken today, only three are expected to survive into the next century. As these languages die, we lose whole cultures and the collected wisdom as embodied in the obscure languages.

2. I mentioned our meeting many European travelers. This gave me several opportunities to speak German. It was interesting and exotic to hear the Navaho radio stations…yet they still played the some old County & Western music. I didn’t meet any Swedes. Sweden is much smaller than Germany population-wise. There’s a word in German than describes the German peoples’ love of travel…”reiselustig”, which translates roughly as “travel-happy”. But the English expression doesn’t really hold as deep a meaning.

3. My friend Bill had mentioned for years his desire to travel on “the loneliest road in America”, which is Highway 50 through the middle of Nevada. His desire will finally be fulfilled tomorrow. We hope to take a photo of the sign that says, “No Services Next 189 Miles” (approx. 260km). As I write this blog today in Western Utah, on the way to Ely, Nevada, we are traveling on a lonely stretch that is around 100 miles with no services at all. However, here in the grassy plains, we just passed through the largest sheep herd I’ve ever seen in one place, perhaps several thousand sheep. They were being herded along the roadway by cowboys on horseback with the aid of many sheep dogs. I videoed the herds as we carefully drove through the midst of them.

4. Thoughts at large:

a. It is interesting to observe the differences in stone erosion, depending on the placement of the formation, i.e. which side of the valley, how close to the river, whether there were rivulets of water flowing from above, etc.

b. It is easy to imagine faces or other manmade objects in the forms of the stone figures. For example, one large rock wall in Capital Reef Park, perhaps 1000 feet high, was named Egyptian Temple. Some rock patterns look like a checkerboard, others like cement-capped brick walls.

c. Capital Reef Park was so named because among the early settlers were sailors. The “reef” is an upraised fault line over a hundred miles long and several thousand feet high. The sailor/settlers had to “sail”, i.e. trek around this reef in their way. Some of the stone formations look like large buildings. Thus…Capitol Reef National Park.

d. Utah was settled mostly by Mormons, “Latter Day Saints” (LDS), a heritage that still prevails. Original farm buildings are often seen in isolated valleys. It is daunting to consider the hard work that was required by these hardy settlers to eke a living from this rugged, often inhospitable land. I can only marvel at the strength of their resolve, based on their desire to freely practice their Mormon religion. There are communities in southern Utah and northern Arizona which are home to a primitive Morman sect, disavowed by the mainstream Mormon church, who still practice polygamy. Their numbers are estimated to be more than 10,000. The recent police raid on the Mormon ranch in Texas was targeting a similar population. The men like to marry very young girls, sometimes in plural marriages.

e. Whoever can develop solar power stations to capitalize on the mostly harsh year-round sunlight will get very rich. I recently read in Scientific American magazine of a proposal for a power plant design that would use mirrors spread over several square miles, and is projected to be able to provide for the electricity needs of the entire country! In the meantime, gasoline approaches $4/gallon. I console myself with the knowledge that the price is more than double in Sweden.

f. Susan and I had traveled to Lake Powell several years ago when we worked at the hospital in nearby Page, Arizona. I was shocked to see how much lower the lake is than it was on our previous trip. I had heard about the low levels in Lake Mead as well, as Las Vegas competes with neighboring states for the Colorado River’s limited water resources. But seeing the levels first hand was sobering. Lake Powell and Lake Mead may never recover to their previous levels, until either many back-to-back wet winters, or until conservation measures are seriously instituted. But remember, for now, there’s no shortage of anything in Las Vegas, including water.

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