Sunday, May 9, 2010

"Visit Goblin Valley State Park". This is what I was told by another hiker I met on a cliff behind the south window arch at 4am. He was dragging his wife who had just had foot surgery up a rocky trail so that they could watch the rising sun impart a glowing red hue to the arch. He told me that he had gone there about 10 years ago on the recommendation of a guy he had just happened to meet as well. He hadn't arrived until after dark and so he grabbed his sleeping bag and walked down into the valley without any notion of the sandstone mushrooms surrounding him. Apparently the experience of seeing these "goblins" for the first time when you open your eyes after a short night's sleep could be described as surreal. Actually he said he was unsure of whether or not he was actually back in his dorm room in Salt Lake City sleeping off some variety of intoxication.

For me, the experience was surreal in a different way. I had been in Arches for a few days which, while beautiful throughout, is focused on certain points of interest. In goblin valley there really is no destination when you begin your hike, nor is there really any trail. You merely drop down a short incline into the valley and choose a direction in which to wander. The "goblins" (I prefer their original name "mushrooms") look mostly identical with some standing alone or in pairs and others clustered together. At the far side of the valley the wall stands roughly 50 feet above the valley floor and is riddled with short tunnels and bubbly protrusions that made me feel like I was in an anthill. If you follow this wall, you can eventually find your way into a "side valley" where the mushrooms get taller and more irregular in shape.

The mushrooms are apparently formed of eroded sandstone but after the previous day's rain everything felt soft. To me it seemed like I could have smashed the formations with the swing of a shovel or something. I also left deep footprints in the spongy ground as I walked around. Unfortunately I entered the park with my water bottle half full and ran out pretty quickly while walking and had to turn back before I had explored the rest of the area.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The trail, part three. This is from a different part of arches, "The Fiery Furnace" a maze of narrow paths and dark pits. It can be so disorienting that the visitors center recommends that you enter with a ranger if you've never been before. I gladly took them up on the offer. Our ranger-guide must have been pushing 70 but it was a delight to see him climbing over boulders and sliding through narrow cracks while the rest of up were fighting to keep up. He also provided interesting explanations of the surrounding environment.

One detail that would prove crucial to me at a later time was his explanation of the effect of rain on exposed sandstone. The cement that holds the sandstone in Arches together is calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate can be dissolved when it reacts with water and carbon dioxide. It just so happens that rain water accumulates enough carbon dioxide on its descent to earth that it creates just such a reaction. The result is that after a rain storm, the surfaces of sandstone boulders are covered in a thin layer of the sand left behind when its CaCO3 matrix dissolved.

The reason that this was so important to me is because I prefer to wear tennis shoes while hiking. I think that they are much more comfortable, and their shallow treads provide a great amount of friction on dry, rough sandstone. Once the rain storm happened, the sandstone began to act as a course grade sandpaper on the soles of my shoes, reducing my shallow treads to a smooth rubber in less than a day of hiking. Once this had happened, wet sand began to cling to the bottoms of my shoes. These sand grains acted as little ball bearings making it impossible for me to stand on more than a 10 degree incline before I would start to slowly slide away.

This was merely a source of annoyance and mild peril until I approached the flooded wash which I described in an earlier post. As I said, there were two options, find another route or wade waist-deep through the puddle which was about 30 feet across. Other hikers were arriving often enough that I decided not to risk taking off my pants to wade through and decided to find another route. I eventually determined that this was the only passage though an otherwise immense fin of sandstone that stretched as far as I could see in either direction. There was however a large and lumpy boulder sitting on one side of the puddle that would allow for dry passage provided that one could get on top of it. I tried every approach to climbing the boulder but just as I would reach for a handhold to pull myself up the last step, my useless shoes would invariably slip and send me bouncing down the side of the boulder. The humiliating thing was that the boulder really wasn't that steep. As some snooty kid would gleefully demonstrate to me, with a good pair of shoes you could run right up the side of it.

Eventually I decided to go back and find the biggest fallen tree branch that I could and try to plant it in the water as a step to where I could grab an easy handhold on the side of the boulder. The branch I found was roughly T shaped and quite flexible. As I edged myself towards the water, branch in hand, I started to slide towards the puddle and threw my hands out to stop myself. When I slammed the T shaped branch down in my hand, the three prongs stuck to the stone and stopped me instantly. What a wonderful invention! The wooden climbing claw was what I decided to call it as it allowed me to easily hoist myself up the side of the boulder to safety.

Once I had reached the other side another group of hikers came into view. I called over to them and explained what I had done to get by and told them that I'd toss them the stick that I had used. I hurled the stick with amazing inaccuracy, bouncing it off the wall and depositing it in the middle of the puddle. Without saying another word I just turned around and continued with my hike. Figuring out how to get over that puddle was the most fun part of my day and I realized I shouldn't deny them of the same pleasure.

Don't be lazy! Turret Arch, Double Arch, the North and South Widows are all visible from a paved parking lot in Arches National Park. Many visitors take advantage of this, taking their pictures only a few yards from the start of the trail, just enough to hide the fact that they're standing next to the sign-post announcing the beginning of the trail. People generally don't enjoy long car rides but wide open national parks seem to make them crave the confines of an automobile, I even saw one family photograph this entire area drive-by style except they didn't roll down their windows to shoot.

What that family did miss was this little tree, half dead, growing in a mud pit below the grand turret arch, but somehow even more impressive than the arch itself. It seems like such a perfect place for a little tree to grow that I can only imagine that this spot has been occupied by a long line of trees for as long as this arch has been in existence. So while the family on wheels was probably already rolling past balanced rock I was slipping down rocky slopes and landing in muddy potholes, climbing up to get a better view and running across narrow passes trying not to fall 30 feet to the ground below.

In the book Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey laments the attempts by the Government to make Arches more accessible with paved roads to every attraction. Well, even those roads failed, they'll have to pave the trails and rent out ATVs if they really want to force those ungrateful to see the outdoors.

The Trail, part two. Like a giant head stone this fin marks the entrance to the Devil's Garden in Arches National Park. The name Devil's Garden seems contradictory to me, with "devil" implying a hot and arid environment and "garden" implying some sanctuary of green in an area otherwise covered in tumbleweed. I can't speak for the heat, as I always come here just at the tail end of winter when snow still falls, but the plant life really is unlike what you'll see anywhere else in the park. Junipers and Pinyon Pines are in relative abundance here enjoying the way that water lingers in the convoluted washes that form between the fins.

Parts of these washes can remain flooded for days after a heavy rain or even on a sunny day in my case when snow begins to melt rapidly. This renders some portions of trails impassable due to flooding, leaving you a choice to double back and try to find another route around a wide and deep puddle or accept a cold and squishy hike of the remaining miles after wading through. I was faced with this choice on one occasion and I chose to climb around the puddle. This course of action was complicated by conditions that I will detail in subsequent posts.

Sometimes you've got to be a little bit selfish. This is Delicate Arch, which almost anyone who has seen its likeness on a Utah license plate would know is located in Arches National Park in Utah. On websites like flickr you can find hundreds of pictures of Delicate Arch that look exactly like the one on Utah's license plate. The reason for this is that not only is Delicate Arch a dramatic example of the beauty of collapsing sand stone but it is oriented in such a way that the setting sun lights up the inside of the arch with red light on a clear day. On any given day you will find at least 20 photographers setting up tripods to catch this event, praying that clouds on the western horizon don't ruin their shot. They will wait for hours for the light sun to move into just the right position. They will fiddle with their composition trying to frame the La Sal mountains in the distance with the arch. They will pass around business cards for their respective wedding photography businesses. They will also wish death on any ignorant soul who dares to actually walk up to Delicate Arch as the sun is setting to get a unique view of the awesome and surprisingly large structure.

The first time that I visited Delicate Arch I joined them and set up shop on the side of the amphitheater opposite the arch. I waited there for 2 hours as the sun set, only for it to duck behind some low clouds just as it was beginning to burn red. Some of the photographers looked like they were going to cry! I kicked myself for wasting two hours trying to get a picture that I could have bought a poster of in the gift shop.

When I came back a year later I was determined not to make the same mistake. Once I had made the climb up to Delicate Arch, I got up close from every possible angle. There are steep drop-offs "behind" Delicate Arch making the task of photographing the lesser seen side into a small adventure even requiring an alternate approach along an unmarked trail to safely reach one side (unless you have some really grippy shoes). Once I had reached the back of the arch, I tried my best to stay out of the way of the audience on the other side of the amphitheater but the place has great acoustics and I could hear much grumbling from those on the other side.

The lesson here is to never be afraid of moving away from the crowd to get a different shot of something well known. The people who insist that the only way to photograph landmarks like Delicate Arch is from the "kodak spot" are killing creativity and ruining your vacation! Let people walk into your pictures, they give them a sense of scale. If you're trying to portray desolation at Delicate Arch, you're not fooling anyone who's ever been there. If you're really intent on joining the horde of people selling the same post card, invest in photoshop and clone the people out.