Monday, October 5, 2009

Into Thin Air

I have loved the outdoors all of my life, and have done my share of hiking. As much as I enjoy the beauty of desert landscapes, I've never really felt the need to spend a lot of time walking in the red and brown country. For me, hiking has always been synonymous with woods and water, and my favorite trails look something like this:

But last week I spent a day in Arches National Park in Utah, and it may be the single most beautiful place I have ever been. Around every corner there was something else spectacular, impossible and breathtaking that managed to be different from everything else we had seen. I was reminded more than once of the landscapes described in Lord of the Rings.*

The highlight of the park is definitely the Delicate Arch, a precarious rock formation perched on the edge of a sort of large stone bowl at the crest of an inaccessible and formidable hill. The image of this formation is featured in virtually all of the park's literature, and adorns many of Utah's license plates.

I'm not sure how much the difficulty of getting to the base of the arch contributes to its popularity and mystique, but I'm sure it does. Granted, most of my hiking days were when I was less than half my current age -- and a somewhat larger fraction of my current weight -- but I still manage to get out every so often, and I can generally hold my own trudging up and down the hills. The hike to Delicate Arch was the hardest mile and a half I think I have ever covered.

In my defense, my house is somewhere around fifty feet above sea level, and this was about a mile above that. I discovered that we really take air for granted. It was also ninety-four degrees and we didn't have as much water with us as we should have. But the water thing was our own fault.

After a few hundred yards meandering through the sand and scrub, and a couple of modest hills, visitors are confronted with what appears to be a single slab of rock, sloping up at a moderate angle. Definitely uphill, but doesn't seem particularly steep.

Doesn't really look like much of an obstacle, does it? What isn't immediately apparent is that this rock slab covers the better part of a mile. Think of the tiny bumps at the top of the photo as three or four story office buildings and you will get some idea of the scale. Everyone we passed who was coming down gave us a knowing and sympathetic greeting. More than once I was reminded of Jon Krakauer's description of climbing Everest**. Of course, just as I was feeling courageous and intrepid for persevering, a Bavarian family cruised by laughing and joking, small children, grandparents and all. I'm sure they were laughing at us.

The trip got a little easier once we cleared what I came to think of as the south face, and the terrain became more reminiscent of Land of the Lost. I really would not have been surprised to see a T. Rex at any moment.

The area around the arch itself is very difficult to describe, and pictures don't even begin to do it justice. You will just have to go see it. There were twenty people or so scattered around when we arrived, and no one was speaking above a whisper. It felt like we were in a cathedral. We wondered whether this was a universal reaction, or whether it was just the people who visited that day. Perhaps on other days there is more of a party atmosphere, though I doubt it.

This is my proof that I made it. That tiny speck under the arch is me.

The trip down was much, much easier, and we truly came to understood the grins and waves that had been directed at us during our ascent. As we made our own descent past the small groups of miserable men, women and children struggling up the rock face, we wanted to encourage them, but knew that all that lay ahead was more hardship and less oxygen, at least until they cleared the slope.

I stopped to snap a picture at the crest of the hill. This is about a third of the way back from the arch. You can just make out the parking lot far below.

I know it probably doesn't sound like it from my description, but we had a great time at the park, and in Moab, the neigboring town. In its own way, Arches National Park is every bit as spectacular as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, and considerably less crowded. Don't miss it if you ever get the chance to visit.
* Nerd alert!
** If you haven't read Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air, I highly recommend it. It is one of the most compelling stories I have ever read.


  1. Moab is mecca for 4wd rock climbers - which i aspire to attempt some day. have seen the pics, heard the descriptions - and always expected that when i get there, i'll be sucking red dust on the rocks as the 'manly men' and 'rugged women' clamber about knowing whazzup...

    your adventure inspires me. soft and squishy though i am? i think i could attempt this. maybe. with a little training and a bit of prep... will be in utah this winter for a ski trip and might give this a visit...

    thanks for the inspiration!

  2. You just made me homesick for UT, which I haven't been in ages. I know about acclamation -- thought my heart would burst when we were at Indian Market the day after arriving in SFe, and that was walking on steady ground!

  3. daisyfae: You have inspired me several times, so I'm happy if I can return the favor.
    Wonder: We made a side trip to Santa Fe for lunch on the way back to Albuquerque. Couldn't believe how much it's grown. Reminded us both of the French Quarter without the humidity.