I was in the area, so I went to visit Zion National Park yesterday. It seemed that everybody else west of the Mississippi River was there. The roads were busy, parking was at a premium, and both campgrounds were full. Driving in from the east entrance, I got stuck for a few minutes in an Animal Jam: not one but 2 vehicles had stopped in the roadway – on a blind curve, no less – in order to gaze at and photograph a family of bighorn sheep on a rocky shelf a short distance uphill.
I resorted to my usual remedy for crowded conditions: ignoring my natural tendency to scream irrationally, I found a good (legal) place to park, ate my sandwich, and then moseyed off into the backcountry for photo ops and solitude.
It was a typical desert tree, it seemed to me. Maybe nothing special about it at first glance. A stout and sturdy little juniper, aged an indeterminate number of years; slightly shredded bark, steadfast needles, stubborn branches. I am tree, it seemed to say. Perhaps I will still be here, long after you yourself have crumbled into dry dust. Or perhaps I will die first, and you will utilize my wood for your evening campfire. Who can say? My name is not Ozymandias.
I considered the tree for a minute as I stood in its shadow. It was early May, but a warm day in Canyonlands National Park; a day to be cherished, savored, remembered. I swallowed some water, took a few deep breaths. The soil in which its roots were set was shallow, probably no more than an inch deep, with naught but solid rock below. Our fates were not linked in any mystical way. But I could not help but wonder how deep my own roots had penetrated, and how my bark compared with my bite.
From my archives: this is a photo I took of Soda Lake a few years back, on a trip to explore the Mojave Preserve and vicinity. The lake is adjacent to the community of Zzyzx (intentionally last, alphabetically). I enjoyed the solitude and the other gifts of the desert for a couple of days, camped out, and had a benevolent encounter with a tarantula.
I just got back from a brief camping trip to Margie’s Cove. It’s a nice little place, just far enough out in the desert to be comfortable. It took me less than 2 hours to get there, via a roundabout route. And I had the spot virtually all to myself. I took 1 of the 3 campsites (the others were empty). The toilet paper roll in the simple restroom was also empty, but luckily I had some with me.
Margie’s Cove is in the Sonoran Desert National Monument, less than 35 miles from downtown Phoenix (although most Phoenicians may not be aware of its existence). There is sky-glow at night, and airplanes going to and fro overhead – but there are no barking dogs, screaming children, and constant traffic. I saw birds and lizards and rodents, and spied the tracks of deer and coyotes in the dry sandy washes.
I had finished taking my daily walk around the park, and had paused to watch the waterfowl exert their ownership of the lake. I enjoy seeing the territorial dances of the various ducks and geese. Surely the lake – at least 5 acres in size – was big enough for all of them. But at times one group or another seemed to decide that there wasn’t enough to go around, and tried to force interlopers away, subtly or otherwise.
Today, however, an element had been added to the mix. I spied a couple of small triangular heads poking above the surface here and there, with the remainder of the platter-shaped torsos and the legs beneath. Of course there should be turtles here: it seemed such a natural thing. Temperatures had been gradually increasing over the previous several days, and I suspected that until now these reptiles had been hibernating down in the mud. Indeed a little while later I saw one turtle, smeared with dried mud, sunning itself atop a rock near water’s edge.
The ducks and geese didn’t seem to mind much, although some of them may not have known what to make of the situation. This is new, they seemed to be thinking. They probably viewed the turtles more as obstacles rather than competition: some weird kind of lily pad. I observed one turtle in particular, who seemed to have found a spot in the lake that it liked. A duck came over towards it, perhaps intending to peck at some unseen crumb. Without appearing to move a muscle, the turtle submerged out of sight, not coming back into view until the duck had moved on. This scene was repeated, almost exactly, two minutes later. And then again just a minute after that. And so on, in each case the turtle – calm as could be – disappearing under the surface just before the duck arrived, as if on a freight elevator. Neither the duck nor the turtle made any attempt to find another spot, perhaps inclined to share. The pas de deux continued, even as I headed for my car.
The image seen at the top of this page is from a hike I took down Arches National Park’s “Park Avenue” two years ago. It immediately became one of my favorite pictures, not so much for the content and composition but because there are no people in it. And believe me, there were plenty of them out and about on that spring day. I had to wait a few minutes for a certain amount of foot traffic to pass out of the frame in either direction. As many of our best parks continue to be “loved to death,” peace and quiet are becoming more difficult to achieve. If they were all talking about the natural wonders around them, that would be one thing. But instead you get to overhear every detail of Aunt Edna’s most recent mole excision, accompanied perhaps by a blow-by-blow description of this morning’s breakfast.
And this is only in those rapidly-shrinking areas with inadequate cellphone. There are plans afoot to “wire” every national park unit (despite the fact that – as others have so eloquently pointed out – all those funds could be better spend taking a chunk out of the NPS’ maintenance backlog). All I can say is: yes, make some sections of each park electronically accessible, but leave broad swaths free of this sort of noise pollution, please!
It had been raining all week, off and on. I headed out into the wilderness east of the Phoenix metro area, hoping that the clouds would break a bit, perhaps affording me a view of some-snow-capped peaks in the distance. Alas, the weather had not cleared enough for this. I drove out to Canyon Lake, restless, just poking around. Near the lake, I stopped at an overlook. I spotted a dirt path following a utility right-of-way; I headed for it, so that I could stretch my legs.
This was nearly my undoing. Partway down the incline, I tried to cross a patch of rocks, but suddenly friction disappeared, and I shot down the stone like it was so much ice. But somehow I managed to remain upright until I reached the relative safety of dirt again. And yet I was still going too fast to be able to stop safely, so I let my momentum carry me forward into a run.
It was one of those instances when time appears to stand still. I slowed to a stop, grateful for my good fortune. I paused to catch my breath. Then I heard the sound of running water. I was puzzled at first, because there were no creeks here. Of course, I quickly realized that the recent rainfall was undoubtedly responsible, and I sought out the source of the noise. I poked through some weeds and grass, walked around an ocotillo, and found a little paradise: a series of small rocky pools, each gurgling and gushing its contents into the care of the next one down. It would have been a nice place to visit in better weather. I’ll have to pay some more visits to this spot from now on.
I got a lot of work done on the computer this morning. Just as well: it’s not a day to spend a lot of time outside – cold and drizzly – although I did take a walk earlier. This sort of weather is unusual enough here in the desert southwest, and the change is refreshing. Everything smells nice and clean. I’ve been trying to figure out which National Park or other natural area I want to work in this year, and I have several applications out; wherever I end, it will be a base-camp for exploration of the vicinity. Decisions, decisions . . .