When we came to Arches we set up camp outside the park, alongside the Colorado River before Moab, and a little piece of the puzzle of our wanderings clicked into place and started to form a whole picture. We were back on the Colorado River! After some months away and staying in places so different to the southwest, it was like seeing an old friend. We shared stories of Alaska, the river bubbled with excitement back at us, eager to rush on its journey, it whispered dreams of reaching the coast, and we held a moment of silence for it, not wanting to break the news to these new young waters that they would never reach the coast as part of this river. And so we set up a home base to visit Arches from, but I don’t feel compelled to write about Arches National Park, so I write to try and understand why…
My first dreams of Arches came from pictures, and then secondarily from the first pages of a book, Desert Solitaire. It strikes me now as I write this that although I knew Arches was not going to be like Desert Solitaire – that being the point of the book – that fundamentally I was still disappointed by its ‘tameness’. Disappointed in the feeling, which consumed me there, that the wild had been loved right out of that place, replaced by roads and parking lots and paths that would both make it accessible to the millions of visitors, and safe from their impact.
Arches National Park felt small, enclosed, like there were very little space to go. We couldn’t easily lose ourselves in miles of backcountry. The National Park Service had banned overnight backcountry permits because of the potential effect they were having on the park, and though I agreed with this sentiment, it seemed to remove some of the mystery and spirit I suppose I had expected to feel there. It felt as if most everything that Arches National Park was, was packaged up and on display for us. More like a museum than a national wilderness.
Was it then just the overwhelm of this knowledge that lowered my mood? That the wild beauty of the natural world can be so impacted by human presence and use as to be reduced to a museum, even in the places where we are trying to preserve it? Is it right to protect something so carefully that its wild is loved right out of it? What happens when we lose the wild?
I expect now that with more time I would come to feel differently about Arches National Park. Maybe from my reading I was infected with the wild solitude that Edward Abbey felt when he came there to be a ranger in the 1950s, and I hoped still to feel that lingering on the air. Sense its history and its quiet solitary beauty on replay in the sandstone and juniper. But, I didn’t. Not immediately. With more time I’d have explored the 4WD roads. I’d have walked until I found the silent and immense moment I longed for in the national wilderness. I believe it must be out there.
We did hike. We followed a primitive trail and lost the trail on our first venture out onto it. Though the environment felt tame to me, it was still undeniably dangerous for the ill-prepared, and we were aware of this. I felt comfortable though, if not a little frustrated that we wouldn’t find the arches we read about. We turned frequently to view our hike from a different perspective, built cairns and memorised landscape when it was obvious that we were probably not on the trail anymore. But the braided patterns of paths of so many lost hikers were enticing and kept filling us with false hope. Maybe, maybe this is the way. And so we ventured on until we came to the centre of a small valley, and looked up and around at the sandstone fins surrounding us, alone, and clearly not on a path.
This moment was one of my most memorable from the park. It was beautiful. That beautiful solitude I craved, which was broken when we spotted numerous hikers trailing across the top of a fin high up above us, and we realised they must by on the trail we had lost. I held the moment anyway, spinning there slowly, taking in the grandness of that red and green environment, the shapes of the sandstone, indentations where arches might form over time, broken limbs of rock reaching out where arches may have collapsed. I absorbed every bit I could. And then the rain came down.
They call it a desert, but it didn’t look like one to me that day. The only hint that it might be deserted of water most of the year was that the earth didn’t want the water. It didn’t soak it up, didn’t welcome it and make space for it. On the contrary, the water rushed across the hard compacted ground and formed rapidly into pools and streams.
It came down heavy. Splattering red sandy mud against the bottoms of my outer shell, catching leaves and causing plants to dance under its constant drumming. The ground became sculpted by its falling, with dimples and pools and peaks forming in the sand, and still it came down heavier, until I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
As the rains eased, the sandstone glistened silver. The clouds rolled like you’d imagine underwater waves hitting deep reefs, immense and magnificent and intimidating. The plants glowed, waterfalls cascaded over saddles and down arroyos, the desert shook itself off and it came alive.
For a moment there, for just a moment, I was part of something bigger. Alone in the valley with my partner, alone amongst the deep sandstone, the rushing water, the juniper and the scrub, with my face to the sky and the rain falling against it, I felt a touch of the wild I craved. And this moment lingers in my memory. It is the moment that tells me that there is more out there in Arches National Park waiting for me.
The next morning we came back to Arches early, racing in to catch the sunrise, but the sun was captured by clouds and held back its rays while we waited. The light grew over the landscape slowly, and the clouds rolled into different shapes in the sky. Two other couples stood with cameras waiting, and eventually we joined to chat with two of them and we became four. Time passed and Arches brightened slowly. A tour bus filled with tourists pulled up and stopped, 30, 40, 50? people streaming off to share our lookout. We farewelled our photographer friends, climbed into the car, and drove away.
We left Arches on that immaculate pathed highway, winding through towering courtyards of sandstone judges watching time pass and passing their own time in eternal eroding judgment. It was comfortable and it was beautiful, so beautiful, full of all the colours of the desert that I had never known until then, and though I was filled with its beauty, I longed for more of that moment in the valley. I longed to be infected with the wild of Arches National Park. But we moved on.