At present, I am out travelling. Two weeks in which the general idea is that I should take some time off everything (including writing) and instead immerse myself in the here and now. The here and now being our trip through various stunning locations in the US.
Leaving aside the fact that I cannot ever turn off the writing brain—no matter how I try—overall it is impossible not to become immersed when coming face to face with the ruggedly gorgeous landscape of Nevada and Utah. God must have been in a very generous mood when he brought forth cliffs that shimmer in everything from lavender to orange, further highlighted by the hardy greenery that surrounds the silent, towering rocks.
We started our trip in Valley of Fire. Gorgeous. Hot—very hot—which did not dissuade us from a short little hike in the midday heat. Rocks the colour of Sienna red shimmered in the sunlight, offset by cliffs in purest white. In some cases, the sediments had been lain down to cause a striped effect—lilac, white, grey, mild orange, burning red, black, more white.
In others, the cliffs rose in mono-chromatic splendour around us. Did I mention it was hot? I did, didn’t I? In truth, this is not a welcoming landscape. Water is scarce, the ground looks reluctant to succumb to any sort of taming, and what grows is mostly of the spiny green variety. And yet, in one part of this park we stare at the remains of cabins left behind by early pioneers.
I wondered about those long-gone people. Did they come here expecting a Garden of Eden only to come face-to-face with a potential death-trap? Did she nag and nag at him for being fool enough to believe that rat of a land agent and thereby invest what little money they had on a couple of worthless acres in this semi-desert? Or was she the type who silently supported, who swallowed back her complaints at the devastation etched deeper and deeper grooves in his face? Whatever the case, I bet they did not stay long. Beautiful the landscape may be, but fertile and welcoming it is not.
After our visit to the Valley of Fire we made for Zion’s Park. It is strange, how I have heard so many times over the years just how beautiful it is, but it wasn’t until I actually got there that I realised beautiful didn’t cover it. This is a masterpiece, a combination of colours, vegetation, water, sheer cliffs that strive towards the heavens that just leave me feeling small and insignificant and eternally grateful for having the opportunity to see this.
This is a gentler landscape than Valley of Fire—the Virgin River ensures there is water all year round. Sometimes, there is too much water. Flash floods can convert the bucolic, burbling river into a frothing nightmare of rushing water so powerful boulders are dislodged, trees are uprooted. When we visit, the river is a lovely green colour that dances its way down the canyon. But here and there one can see remains of ancient irrigation systems, of attempted dams that have been brutally dislodged by the river—a reminder of just how powerful the forces of nature are.
The first Europeans to lay eyes on Zion were Spanish priests who made it all the way to the canyon in the late 18th century. A few decades later, an American explorer passed by. Yet another decade or so and an officer in the US army came upon the Virgin River down in Nevada and was anything but impressed by this sad excuse for a river. The secrets of the canyon remained hidden to white man until the 1860s when the first Mormon settlers began moving upstream from settlements such as Granton and Rockville to found Springdale. What on earth were the Mormons doing so far from Salt Lake City, you may ask, and the answer is Brigham Young.
Now, Brigham Young is a man most modern people have problems relating to. We cannot get by all those wives of his (he had fifty plus wives. But many of these were non-conjugal, and so as not to get totally distracted I think I’ll leave this fascinating subject for another post) and have a tendency to write him off as a chauvinistic polygamist. But Brigham Young was much, much more than this. He was a visionary, he was a man with an extremely well-developed head for business, but first and foremost he was the shepherd to the flock of Latter Day Saints (as the Mormons prefer to be called) who were left rudderless and struck down by grief when their prophet, Joseph Smith, was murdered in 1844.
By then, the leaders of the Latter Day Saints Church had already concluded that something had to be done to safeguard their members. Their beliefs were vilified, they were resolutely driven from one place to the other, and it was but a matter of time before they would once again be driven off from Nauvoo. Young pointed west. “There lies our future,” he said. “There we cam build a society according to our beliefs, far away from those who persecute us.”
“Umm..how far west?” one of the other leaders asked.
“As far as we can get,” Brigham Young replied. Over the coming years, he oversaw and led the expeditions that would lead all the way to Salt Lake City—well, the future site of the city as when Young and his followers arrived in 1847 the salt lake and the surrounding plain was an arid, inhospitable.
Over the coming years, Young and his followers would populate most of the territory corresponding t present day Utah and then some. It was as part of this endeavour that Brigham Young sent settlers south, to present day St George or thereabouts, there to cultivate cotton and bring in some much needed money to Deseret. Over time, those early Mormon settlers moved north, flowing the Virgin River right into the canyon that now bears the name of Zion.
It wasn’t easy. Okay, compared to attempting to settle in the Valley of Fire it was a walk in the park, but for the men and women who made their home in proximity to what we now consider a testament to the beauty of nature, life was full of challenges. Like the heat and the floods—or the droughts. And yet, they persevered. Their houses were swept away and they rebuilt. They lined the irrigation channels with stone to make them more robust. They struggled to dam and control a river that was not so easily tamed. They ploughed and planted, they logged and built. They did not give up. This was a divine mission, this was them doing God’s work, and those determined pioneers were not about to fail their faith. Which doesn’t mean they didn’t have days when the women hid away and cried their eyes out, tired to the bone of all the work, of day after day of gruelling labour. The men likely did the same, but being men they probably threw rocks into the water or something.
From Zion’s Park, we went to Bryce Canyon. Very impressive, an almost alien landscape with towering hoodoos like elongated fingers pointing at the sky. Bryce Canyon sits at around 2 000 – 2 200 metres over sea level (around 7 600 feet or so) and where Zion has plenty of water, Bryce Canyon does not—beyond that deposited by heavy snowfalls. It is yet another arid spot and we spent hours walking up and down trails that led us through this surreal landscape of mostly red sandstone.
Bryce Canyon is named after a serial homesteader. (And I just love that label: “What do you do?” “Oh, I’m a serial homesteader. And you?”)
Ebenezer Bryce was born in Scotland, trained as a shipwright, and at the age of eighteen or so he converted to Mormonism. In 1850 he moved to Salt Lake City—a veritable construction site at the time where a man with his skills was received with open arms. He met a girl, Mary, and married her. And then he was sent out into the world—well, in this case mainly southern Utah and Arizona—by Brigham Young to help set up various settlements. Ebenezer and his wife were to build fourteen new homes for themselves and their growing family. Fourteen times, they uprooted themselves and started anew in a new isolated location, in a new harsh environment—hence the serial homesteader label.
One of their homesteads was in present day Tropic, Utah. Ebenezer was the sort of man who let others worry about God and stuff while he concentrated on practicalities such as getting roads opened, timber felled, houses built. The story goes that one day he was out looking for his cattle and stumbled into the impressive natural amphitheatre filled with canyons and hoodoos which has us tourists going “oooh” and “aaah”. He concluded it was an excellent source of timber. Other than that, he does not seem to have been overly impressed by the astounding beauty of the place, laconically stating that it was “a hell of a place to lose a cow” (This according to the information about Ebenezer Bryce I found in Tropic)
Despite only having lived in the area for five years or so, Bryce’s road into the canyon and his tree-felling operations there led to the locals calling it Bryce’s Canyon even after he moved away. Which is how the name of a Scottish shipwright is now the name of an American National Park!
I come away from my days in southern Utah with a deep sense of respect for the pioneers who braved the wilds to build themselves a new home. Many of those pioneers were, in fact, looking for a new Zion, a place where they could live without fear of persecution.
I am also struck by just how unforgiving and daunting nature at its most magnificent can be. Whether we put it down to Mother Nature or God, places like Valley of Fire, Zion’s Park and Bryce Canyon reminds us of just how insignificant we are in the overall context of things. That, I think, is my main takeaway after my days marvelling at canyons and multihued cliffs: we may be impermanent, but they are not. Long after we are gone, these silent rocks will stand sentinel over the landscape that surrounds them. The sun will still rise, it will still bathe the sheer cliff faces with light, thereby setting them ablaze with colour. Water will cascade downwards, trees will grow upwards and when the wind soughs through the branches of the cottonwood trees it will whisper the stories of all those that went before, those that lived and died so long ago. We may not be around to hear it, but I take comfort in the fact that life, in some form or other, will still go on.
P.S. My admiration for the hardy pioneers of the 19th century does not mean I am unaware of just how high the human cost of those pioneering expeditions was for the people who already called these places “home”. It is horribly ironic that, in their search for a safe-haven for themselves, many of the pioneers effectively pushed others out of their homes.