Falling in Love with the Land
Remarks by 2010 Ward Roylance Award winner Stephen Trimble was presented at the Entrada Institute annual meeting, Salt Lake City, 23 October 2010
I am immensely gratified to receive this award from Entrada—precious acknowledgement from my friends and neighbors. I have taken a stand in the world on a piece of ground that I love and that I will ferociously protect.
I’m honored that you all have seen fit to verify that this is a worthy choice. And I’m especially humbled to be in the company of the other Roylance winners, especially our wise elders of the Canyon Country, Katie Lee, Ken Sleight, and Doug Snow.
I’m old now, too, but I am just a tad too young to have intersected the Canyon Country as these elders saw the place. My first visit to Capitol Reef for a road trip with my parents brought us from Denver in 1963 when I was in junior high, just one year after the highway was paved down the Fremont River. I barely missed driving through Capitol Gorge when it was the main state highway across south-central Utah. I missed seeing Fruita before the Park made that controversial decision to tear down most of the old village.
I went off to college in 1968 and started reading the Sierra Club Bulletin and looking at Eliot Porter’s books of photographs. I learned about the loss of Glen Canyon for the first time, again a little late—five years too late to drop everything and go float Glen Canyon with my buddies before the reservoir drowned Eden. We took a lot of trips to the canyons, my friends and I, but the rising waters of Lake Powell had already limited the number of canyons we could visit. I read Desert Solitaire when I was a senior in college, just three years after its publication. Within another two years, I was a park ranger at Arches myself. In my several years as a seasonal ranger, I tried and tried to get a job in Alaska or in the North Cascades. I loved the canyons, but I was a mountaineer, and living close to those big mountains was my dream.
In 1975, my last year as a seasonal, I had two job offers, one as a fee-collecting campground ranger at Denali, a tedious job I seriously considered as a way to get my foot in the door in Alaska. The other offer came from Capitol Reef, a naturalist job combined with backcountry photography and the assignment to write a trail guide for Hickman Bridge. I took the job at Capitol Reef; I still haven’t been to Alaska. Clearly a fateful decision.
When I drove my 1962 Dodge Dart along Highway 24 thirty-five years ago to begin my Capitol Reef ranger job, I had never hiked in the park. I’d only driven through a couple of times. I remember looking out the window at the Morrison badlands on the east flank of the Waterpocket Fold and saying out loud—“Purple rocks! Look at those purple rocks!”
I was still pretty naïve. The first time I camped at Cedar Mesa campground, I slept on a picnic table because I was afraid of scorpions. But I quickly learned to love this remarkable country, not to fear it.
And here I am today, with a home in Wayne County and an absolute certainty that the inner Canyonlands—the Colorado River basin between Torrey and Grand Junction, between Green River and Lees Ferry—is my spiritual homeland. When Ed Abbey and Philip Hyde pondered a name for their book about this country in 1971, they knew that title had to be Slickrock. That’s the word for this home of ours. Sensual, sculptural, spiritual slickrock. Each week when my days off from my park ranger job came around, I made a pilgrimage over the mountain. Larry Davis, the ranger at Anasazi State Park in Boulder, who won the Roylance Award ten years ago, told me about Upper Calf Creek Falls—and he made me swear to tell no one about the place. I didn’t. But we couldn’t keep the secret, as you’ll see when you go there today or when you check out the shelf of guidebooks at Robbers Roost.
I would drive the dirt road over Boulder Mountain, hike down into Upper Calf Creek, set up camp on the banks of the stream, alone—always alone—and wander up and down Calf Creek with my camera. I grew up in that canyon, as a naturalist and as a photographer. At the end of my weekend, I’d drive home over the Burr Trail and Notom Road—also dirt but perfectly passable to my old family sedan—completing my weekly loop. The pictures I took along the way turned up in my slide shows at the park campground, and, later, in my books, in guidebooks—and, for one cluster of yellow sego lilies I photographed at Bitter Creek Divide, on a U.S. postage stamp.
For one of my rangerly duties, once a week I led a car caravan into the South District, down Notom Road and up the Burr Trail to the western park boundary, where I ate lunch with my group of adventurous visitors, looked out over the Henry Mountains, and where I turned people loose on their own. Travelers easily accompanied me in sedans, station wagons, compacts—some even pulling small trailers. The families who went along on this interpretive experience took obvious delight in this risky back road trip on the fringes of the largest swath of wild country left in southern Utah, a surviving fragment of the huge 7,000-square-mile Escalante National Park proposed and nearly established in the 1930s. I vividly remember their joy, the sparkle in their eyes, as they discovered just how easy and exhilarating a trip into “blue highway” country could be. Now, that same spot at the top of the Burr Trail is the entryway into the vast Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. What a remarkable act of conservation!
I kept going back to Capitol Reef, to Wayne County. Over and over, year after year. When I went to grad school in Tucson, I drove hundreds of miles out of my way when I visited my family in Denver so that I could stop at the Caineville Trading Post and order a machaca burrito. When I got married and moved to Salt Lake City, I continued to visit, with my wife, Joanne Slotnik, and then with our kids, Dory and Jake. We camped and we stayed at the Teasdale home of our friends, Chuck and Judy Smith.
Ten years ago, we bought our own land and built a home in Wayne County, a journey that took me completely by surprise and that I describe inBargaining for Eden. The change from seeing a rock ledge where we camp and dream of a house to standing in the house—looking out the windows, walking out the French doors to the plaza with my morning cup of coffee, standing on the rim and looking back at the house, our house—astonishes me. From our bed alcove at dawn we see flares of orange light on beam and earthy stucco, with the snow-spackled forest of Boulder Mountain deep and dark behind. Watching the play of light move across the house matches the pleasures of contemplating a sculpture or an earthwork. The angles and framing lines interact with rock and horizon—respond to the landscape—and prompt us to think about our placement within that landscape as individuals, as a family, as members of a community. This landscape is the place I know best. When I imagined the setting for a novel to which I devoted several years (and which I have yet to finish), my characters lived in a slightly fictionalized version of Fruita. When I write about wilderness, my images come from Wayne County and its surrounding country. This place is my home. I’ve met three generations of local residents. I don’t feel like a newcomer, because I’ve loved this country for so long. But newcomer I am. For this is a complicated home. The West that Wallace Stegner described as the Geography of Hope seems to be evolving into a Geography of Hostility. Wayne County is doing better at building bridges than most places in the rural West, but even here we’ve got up-county and down-county. We’ve got newcomers and old-timers. We’ve got LDS and non-LDS, the Feds and the Tea Party, Paiutes and Anglos, the Cattleman’s Association and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Climate change has the Colorado Plateau in its crosshairs, and sooner or later we will run out of water. Intact wilderness is under constant attack from those who insist on unlimited access for motorized vehicles to every nook and cranny. ATVs and dirt bikes may be fun to ride, but their tires slice through the biological soil crust that holds the world together.
A few irresponsible riders begin to unravel the skin of this fragile ecological world, and I’m terrified of the consequences. The Entrada Institute stands at the crossroads of all of these constituencies, and I know that the future will bring more evenings in the Robbers Roost lecture series like Dwight Williams telling stories as he describes what goes into a set of panniers or Cathy Bagley recounting the history of the Torrey Ditch, more mixed crowds happily listening to great music together. Entrada can build bridges, break down barriers, and shatter stereotypes. Let’s do all of this together. I’d like to close with a few paragraphs from the booklet I wrote for the park back in 1977. I called it Rock Glow Sky Shine: the spirit of Capitol Reef. We wanted to offer visitors the story of the backcountry—a story that didn’t exist in any existing publication back then. We wanted to lure them beyond the Scenic Drive into that backcountry. The book is long out-of-print, but I still like these words that I wrote to end the text, words that still capture for me the magic of this place we all love.
Capitol Reef exists in grand terms—the hundred miles of the Fold, wide panoramas in Cathedral Valley, millions of years of time. But it also leads a day-by-day, nook-and-cranny life. This land shares its intimacies most generously when you walk, gazing up at canyon walls, or simply watching what passes under your feet. The images that flow by—rock, flower, lizard, tracks in the sand—all tell tales full of the land’s character.
Canyons may be the best part of Capitol Reef: side canyons that twist their way out of the Fold, channeling floodwaters toward the rivers. Their flood-cleared passageways make walking easy, and you will find them everywhere—from the Visitor Center, where Sulphur Creek emerges after carving its Goosenecks, to the most isolated tributaries of Hall’s Creek in the south end of the park.
Each canyon shelters unique secrets. But to share them you often must start walking in desert flats where only a few hardy shrubs grow. An arroyo leads you on toward the Fold, the dry streambed winding through hills baking under blinding sunlight. The desert molds the personalities of all that grow here, where aridity rules life.
For shade you must retreat to low hills, where soil holds a fraction more moisture. Here, a few scattered and struggling juniper and piñon pine make up the evergreen “forest” of the canyons.
Suddenly you leave the flats behind and enter the Fold. Sandstone walls rise on either side to funnel you into a canyon. Amble on and you may find water: a trickle, a pool, a spring—tucked back under an overhang or nudged up against a shady cliff. Sheltered in an alcove, nourished by a seep, a hanging garden—the most distinctive canyon country place—shimmers with the brilliance of blossoming monkeyflowers and columbines. Green bounces off canyon walls—the transcendent lime-green of maidenhair fern growing like a natural billboard to announce the seep.
And somehow, this tiny, algae-scummed spring has all the mystery of the sea. The slow plop of one droplet at a time, falling from seep to ledge to pool, has the same resonance as waves crashing along the Oregon Coast. For that gentle drip means life. It means cottonwood and box elder and shade, and tracks at the pool’s muddy edge. Night visitors—cougar, mule deer, canyon mouse—tramp over daytime tracks of dove, raven, antelope ground squirrel.
The slow dripping of a canyon seep rings deep, whispers “Paradise!” more than the lushest mountain meadow. Contrast with the surrounding land makes the smallest patch of green seem positively exotic, for it is hemmed in on all sides by unadorned canyon walls, by old, overwhelming rock.
So much rock, in fact, that canyons can make you a bit uneasy. Past the spring the canyon enters its narrows. Slickrock cliffs soaring a thousand feet on either side make you feel very small. Shadows cool your skin—wet with sweat from the open hotbox of the canyon behind you. The narrows close to a slot barely wide enough to inch through sideways, where full sunlight never reaches. You shinny over a boulder, warily looking thirty feet above you to a logjam left by the last flood. Such places make useless your complacent reactions to the everyday world. You find yourself nervously seeking kindred souls—a juniper, a lizard—anything other than the ancient rock, anything alive. The power of the rocks noticeably humbles the living things scattered among them. Yet suddenly you sense life flowing through a rigid claw of juniper. A lizard’s flash from under a barberry bush startles the cliffs with movement, sends an irrepressible cry echoing down the canyon: “I’m ALIVE. If only for a moment, I race across cliffs, my claws scratch rock, I mate and reproduce my kind. I give this land its reality, not rock.” Life goes on, if only to spite the watching cliffs.
You hear the lizard’s scuttle and can’t help but breathe easier, reminded that you are not alone with the rock. You move along the canyon floor once more, after a sheepish look over your shoulder at impassive canyon walls.
Along your walk, you look the Reef in the eye, and find there a world of images. Canyon walls provide both frame and picture, tapestried by dark mineral stains of desert varnish, accented at their bases by twisted juniper gnarls and murky plunge pools. Claret-cup cactus blooms against all odds from a crack in a twenty-ton boulder. Leopard frogs shine velvet-gold in the morning sun. And canyon wrens sing—the lilting trill of a musical waterfall, the theme song of the canyon country.
Past the narrows a trickle of water leads you on. Here and there a single fallen cottonwood leaf gleams through golden riffles of the stream. Another small narrows opens up into an amphitheater—a cool grotto of stone in the secret center of the Fold.
Soak your feet here in the still water of a plunge pool, tiny water insects brushing your legs. The canyon continues on above the amphitheater, but a thirty-foot dryfall blocks the way. There is a chance no one has explored the upper reaches of this canyon.
The essence of Capitol Reef waits above that amphitheater, where perhaps no person has walked. For the spirit of this place is wildness, always waiting around an unexplored bend.
When you return to Capitol Reef, walk any canyon and soothe yourself with the bright music of canyon wrens. Squeeze through a narrows, sit yourself down in a plunge pool. But leave one rimfall unclimbed, one bend unexplored. Just once, stand and glory in the magic luring you around a corner, and then turn back the way you came. Leave one canyon to wind its way around a cliff and disappear unseen into the unknown, wild heart of the Fold.
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Trimble, www.stephentrimble.net