Edward Abbey (1927-1989) author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, was one of the most passionate and outspoken environmentalists of the 20th century. He spent one year as a park ranger in what would become Arches National Park, which is just outside of the town of Moab, Utah. Last spring, I had the privilege of visiting Moab with my Mom while en route to a three day canoeing expedition on the Green River.
Our first stop was Arches National Park. Like the name suggests, this park is known for its arches, of which there are several. We ambled slowly along the path between each arch, where I would stop frequently to smell the junipers and feel the bark of wind-worn Pinyon pines. The trunks and branches of the pines are as smooth as marble and each one contorts into its own unique shape. I lay down on the flat sandstone rocks, which look like a giant hand painted each one with a whole spectrum of oranges, reds, and browns.
I remember the journey to the “Double O” arch in particular. Double O is named because of the two arches that, over millions of years of geologic forces, were carved into the cliff face. The trail to Double O presented several challenges. The first challenge was to scramble up large sandstone boulders. We climbed the boulders using our hands and feet, like mountain goats, and were then rewarded with a panoramic view of the park and the town of Moab far below us. The trail then followed the contours of the cliff on a “fin” of smooth rock called “slickrock.”
Being on the fin was exhilarating. It was so narrow that we had to walk single-file, and there was a life-threatening drop off on both sides. The wind kissed my hair as I walked, the azure sky stretching out in all directions. There were no handholds, ropes, or guardrails on the fin. We just had to trust ourselves that we would not fall.
Finally, we made it to Double O. It was not as pretty as the Landscape Arch or the Windows Arches, but we felt accomplished just for having made it there. We rested, drank from our water bottles, and then returned the way we came.
Another jewel of Moab is Canyonlands National Park. While Edward Abbey never was a ranger there, the park is still featured in his work. It is the place where one of Abbey’s most iconic characters, George Hayduke, makes his last stand against the government in The Monkey Wrench Gang. Unlike Arches, this park is still nearly as remote as it was when Abbey lived nearby. Signs mark the entrance warning all visitors that none of the park facilities have potable water.
We were not able to visit the whole park, but we did get to hike around Island in the Sky, which is a plateau surrounded by canyons on nearly all sides. There is only one connection between the “island” and the rest of the park, and it is so narrow that the road leading to the island takes up nearly all of it.
Island in the Sky presents a sight that I had never thought possible: canyons as far as the eye can see in every direction. Each canyon is vast and appears bottomless.
Yesterday, Utah made headlines when the state decided to fund its national parks, including Arches and Canyonlands, during the government shutdown. The state is going to pay the $1.67 million over the next ten days that is required to keep the parks open. While it is undeniable that the region has changed in the 55 years since Abbey was a ranger there, the same force that inspired Abbey to write page after page, novel after novel, about his life in Moab is now drawing in millions of people from all over the world every year. It is a force that not even a government shutdown can keep at bay.