For as long as I can remember, the desktop picture on my home computer has been a weathered, eroded arch of red stone. It’s a feature of the landscape in southern Utah, where wind and water have sculpted stone over millions of years into an alien and unrecognizable landscape.
Every time I’ve reinstalled Windows or modified the PC, that picture has found its way back onto the desktop faithfully. Last week I got a chance to see those rock formations for myself. I climbed up them, and hiked around them. I camped in the desert and watched the sun and wind and rain play across them, shaping the land.
The first leg of my journey saw my two companions, Sam and Adrien, who I met through couchsurfing drive our Chevy Cruze down from Salt Lake City down into the town of Moab and further into Canyonlands National Park. The park itself is 45 miles outside the town and as we drove down the highway into the park we were treated to stranger and stranger landscapes. The sun was setting in the wild and rugged clouds that dominate the Utah sky and the light show was spectacular. We quickly set up our camp at a designated campground and after a quick dinner of Thai curry and rice cooked over firewood on a small firepit, it was time to hit the hay.
The next day we had decided to go on an 11-mile hike through the canyons. The sun was up and hard as ever, beating down on us as we filled our camelbaks, applied sunscreen, donned our hats and scarves and dust goggles, plotted our route and set off. The first part of the hike was through some easy terrain. We were basically going to hike the Needles, a section of canyonlands that had rock formations that were twisted into spires by the wind. The trailhead that we followed started in a fairly normal looking canyon but as soon as we had ascended its height, we found ourselves staring into the maw of what looked like some red desert transplanted from Mars.
There was no way it could actually exist on Mars, of course. This region of the world used to be the largest sand desert in history, a few million years ago. There was so much sand, in fact, that over time the weight of the sand on top started to compress and fuse the sand at the bottom until, at some point, the pressure caused it to transform into stone. As continents moved and time passed the layers of sandstone grew and eventually all the sand on top blew away revealing the rock below, ready to be shaped into canyons by the water that was now coursing across the surface of the earth. The only way such a landscape could happen is through the brutal unrelenting force of water on stone. We could see the marks and scoring that the rivers and the streams made upon the rock. Add another few million years and the canyons as they are today evolved out of the ruin of the desert. I wish I could see it all in front of me, a timelapse on a galactic scale.
The hike took us across and over the rock formations and into a shallow sand-filled valley surrounded by the hills and canyons. The sand, which had become stone, was now sand again, in a geological game of shifting phases. The trail wound around the valley until we crossed over and looped back the way we had come. By the time we returned, weary, thirsty, sore and elated, our minds were no longer the same. Mine wasn’t, at least. Seeing the power of time and pressure up close and in such a dramatic fashion tends to make you a very humble person. It’s an expansion of your world-view, a realization that your entire lifetime is as nothing – a speck on a speck – compared to the time it took to craft this valley. And that too is nothing compared to the age of the world itself and the universe around it. No wonder, then, that the ancient peoples who lived here before us thought that things had ever been so. Even surrounded by change they thought change was non-existent and that the canyons and valleys had always stayed the same.