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TrekWest Blog 32: Nearing the Top of the Stairs

Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments  -Early May, 2013

“… sand is quickly accumulating in my trembling tent as I write, on a rim high above Buckskin Gulch …”

The Arizona Strip and southern Utah Canyon Country extend the grandeur and geology of the Grand Canyon well to the north, and are key parts of a once and future Western Wildway.  Cores in two of the Southwest’s great wildlands complexes, Grand Canyon National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, are linked – though not as solidly as they should be – by the Paunsaugunt wildlife corridor.

For wildlife and trekkers, Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments are as challenging as they are beautiful.  North of the Colorado River, water becomes again hard to find, and winds can sandblast you beyond hope (sand is quickly accumulating in my trembling tent as I write, on a rim high above Buckskin Gulch).  Rather than one Grand Canyon into which all others feed, the Arizona Strip and southern Utah have innumerable canyons of all sizes and obstacles, still feeding the Colorado River but more circuitously than side canyons within Grand Canyon National Park.

As workers of the world recognized May Day, I reluctantly left the care and guidance of Grand Canyon Wildlands Council – a model grassroots conservation group, and a bunch of good friends – but welcomed for Leg 3 of TrekWest the expert direction of Wild Utah Project.  I cycled north to my meeting place with Wild Utah Project director Jim Catlin (pictured below) two days early, so as to have time to climb some of the high vantage points.  Lacking detailed maps, I’m not sure what I climbed, but I attained several of the highest points in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and looked out upon lands of sparse vegetation but shapely colorful rock.  Some of the formations are ancient dunes turned to rock, some are capped with active sand dunes, others have been carved by water into narrow sinuous canyons.  Southern Utah deserves its reputation as one of Earth’s most sensual landscapes.

The Grand Staircase takes its name from a metaphor dating back to the geologic team of the great explorer John Wesley Powell in the late 19th century.  Powell recognized that rock layers stack upon one another in regular progression from the Vishnu schist at the bottom of Grand Canyon to the Claron sandstone at the top of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, as visible in what is now Bryce Canyon National Park.  My eye for Colorado Plateau geology is even dimmer than my eye for shrublands botany, but I could clearly see that southern Utah’s canyons and plateaus comprise another of the great wildlands complexes of the Southwest.  In imagining continental wildways, Dave Foreman has taught us, think about reconnecting big wild blocks of habitat. So far in this trek, that obviously includes linking the Sky Islands of Sonora and Arizona with the Gila wildlands complex, thence along the Mogollon Rim, a wildlife corridor, to the Grand Canyon wildlands complex and north through the Paunsaugunt wildlife corridor into these great Utah monuments.

The biota, not just the geology, is rich here in southern Utah, too, but in much subtler ways.  Lizards kept disappearing into sage bushes or rocks as I rambled past or scrambled up.  Ravens flew over to see who I was (a friend and fellow explorer, I told them).  Gnatcatchers, wrens, warblers, sparrows, swallows, and swifts darted about (but not many butterflies, in these gusty winds).  Three tall rocks resolved themselves into browsing bighorn sheep.  Perhaps seeing I bore no gun, or even realizing that they were in an area off-limits to shooting, they relaxed after a moment of nervously watching me, and lay down to rest on their feeding ledges.  A peregrine falcon flew past me at eye level, a thousand feet or so above the slot canyons, with an air of superiority not to be gainsaid.  Were I to slip from this cliff-top, I’d die; were the falcon to dive, she might achieve a speed of 200 mph and a swallow or other avian meal.

Jim Catlin quickly expanded my understanding of Utah monuments.  Jim is a self-described “recovering engineer” who has devoted the second half of his long life to preserving, restoring and reconnecting the places he loves.  Jim practices and teaches citizen science so effectively, land management agencies with anything to hide – as, unfortunately, several do – have come to fear him.  Jim affirmed that Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments have largely secured some of America’s wildest and most spectacular lands, and saved huge areas from strip-mining for coal.  He showed me on the ground, however, that damage from livestock grazing permits continues in some places, including chaining down across hundreds of public acres of pinion and juniper trees to leave more room for forage for cows.  On a hike into a geologic wonderland known as The Dive, we found cow-pies littering the Navajo sandstone canyon rim and bare eroding ground where should be bunchgrasses and cryptogamic crusts.  Jim cautioned that sagebrush is beautiful and native but probably unnaturally dominant these days here, because cows have eaten other preferred plants.  I could scarcely imagine how a cow (an animal adapted for moist European pastures) could even survive in this arid, sparse environment.

Then, as Jim hiked out and left me to wander a couple days, the rain came, pools in the rock filled, the cows’ most reliable watering holes became evident; and I went far from these, threw my grimy clothes over shrubs and tree branches, and took my first shower in days, as rain also washed the sand off my clothes.   I also filled my water bottles from these fleetingly full pools.  So this is how you make it in arid lands, I realized; you live carefully and frugally, and then take advantage of every available drop when the scarce rains arrive.

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All Photos were taken by esteemed photographer, Ray Wheeler/Earth Restoration Network. Thank you, Ray!

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