Desert Musings from Arches National Park
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, UTAH- When I think of a desert, I think of the Sahara: long rolling dunes of sand. No water in sight. No vegetation visible to the naked eye. No life, whatsoever. Deathly hot in the middle of the day, bone-chillingly cold when the sun sets over the horizon.
The desert in Moab is a different kind of desert. It’s a sandstone desert, Navajo sandstone to be precise, which is a deep brown-reddish color. There are structures made from this sandstone everywhere you look; sitting atop a salt-layer has caused the ground to become unstable and weather by millions and millions of years of wind and rain. The dust itself is more of a red-clay dirt than a sand. It crunches underneath your feet. You can tell it’s rained recently, but the top of the ground has been dried to a crisp by the searing heart of the sun.
Your steps leave footprints in the mud behind you. There is vegetation; it's actually fairly plentiful. Sure, there are cactuses, but they are small cactuses, no more than a foot high. The scenery is littered with shrubbery, small bushes that are close to the ground, presumably to soak up whatever moisture they can. There are few places that I’ve been where the age of the planet is as apparent as it is here in the desert. These sandstone structures, such as Balanced Rock, tower hundreds of feet high, the product of millions of years of erosion.
These formations hint at the different eras in geology. You'll see a single structure with three different kinds of rocks on top of each other, each formed during different periods in the earth’s history. It’s a place that you walk through and you think—you think about how long it’s taken for things to get this way. Mountains have the same effect on you, but they’re so pervasive that we really don’t think that they are the result of the earth’s crust colliding with each other and rising above our landscape—over a period of millions of years, but nevertheless, that’s how they’re formed.
In The Desert, however, you start thinking about just how long it’s taken for these things to take hold. You start realizing that these arches around you are there product of millions of years of evolution, and how we are here for just a small period of that time. The silence can be deafening, and more than any place I’ve ever been, it’s somewhere that you do feel a compulsive need to respect the environment around you, because it is fragile; it has taken so very long to evolve to the present moment. When you touch the red rock sandstone, it feels cool...it feels like a piece of rock. But when you run your fingers across it, you'll find a thin trace layer of red sand on your skin. You’re not supposed to do this, but people do, and it makes you realize what a beating its taken over the years—rain storms, windstorms, thunder storms, mother nature has made it the way it is today. If your fingers can rub away some of the majesty of these natural wonders, it makes you appreciate just how delicate the ecological balance here really is.