Part One – the Road to Zion
Through the clouds I could see the snow covering the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada in California. From above the mountains looked more like large glacial cirques with rims of rock rather than high jagged peaks. On the eastern side the clouds thinned and soon all but gave up their air space. Below a parched landscape of fluvial sediments and up-thrust stratified rock dominated the visible view in all directions.
I had been fortunate to get a window seat on the flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas and I was deeply engaged in my study of the landscape from the air. In a small valley I spotted a grey amoeboid shape that was a small lake of sand dunes. There were no roads leading in. Had anyone ever gone there to photograph? (I later found the dunes on GoogleEarth and they are the Armagosa Dunes in Armagosa Valley. It seems the dunes are popular for dune buggies and Wikipedia has an article about the history of the valley). Then came three small cinder cones, black and red lava rock composing their pimple-like mounds and skirts. I craned my neck and tried to look for signs of other volcanic landmarks but found none. The most perfectly formed cone had road access and what looked like a ranch house or visitor centre at its southern base. I made a mental note to search GoogleEarth later for it. (And I did, finding them easily just NNE of the Amargosa Dunes. But no information was provided on GoogleEarth.) Then at last the grey rock of the desert dropped away and was replaced by the dust-tinted Bavarian cream and wine red cliffs of Red Rock Canyon. Below the cliffs emerged two outcroppings of red sandstone that strikingly contrasted with the dull tones of the surrounding desert.
And then there was Vegas. It was larger than I had imagined. The Strip was barely a pocket zipper of tall buildings on a jacket of sprawling suburbia. How the houses covered the valley floor. The sheer size of the city’s surface area dwarfed the famous landmarks of downtown. And almost every home came with a swimming pool, a tree, and a desiccated garden of clay, rock, and sun-scorched grass. Viva Las Vegas!
I met up with my sister and her fiancé and my parents at carousel 13. Our planes had all conveniently landed around 12:30 pm. After getting our rental cars organized and my parents and I stowed our baggage at the World Mark resort, the three of us headed out for a quick inspection of the route to Red Rock Canyon. The afternoon sun was hanging over the cliffs I had spotted from the plane and the shadows were getting longer. We stopped outside the park gates and debated about going in. My father was ready to drive in and pay the $7 entrance fee but I said we should come back on Saturday when we had more time to look and explore. We were expected to meet my sister and her fiancé for dinner and did not have much time. We snapped a few touristy shots of us by a boulder of pink sandstone with Red Rock Canyon engraved in it and I grabbed a shot or two with the compact digital of a Joshua tree before we headed back to our resort. Dinner was very good and we got back and into bed perhaps a little later than expected. The following day was going to have a relatively early start and we were heading to Bryce and Zion Canyons.
We got on the road at 7:30 am and took I-15 out of Vegas, heading toward Salt Lake City. Once out of the city the landscape stretched away on either side of the highway with very little sign of human activity. The mountains in the distance looked devoid of vegetation from the road, and the hills and surrounding land supported only sparse and scrubby desert vegetation. It was dry out here but not as dry as the landscapes I had seen heading from Lima to Huaraz in Peru or in the Taklimakan Desert of China. Those places were blasted clean of any obvious signs of life by the furnace of the sun. Southern Nevada was by comparison supporting a wealthy biosphere.
Though the best was by far yet to come, as we drove on toward a small corner of Arizona I kept glancing out the window at the mounds and tables of faded-brown clay and felt sparks of excitement when a canyon of pinkish mixed sediments appeared at either side of the highway. The mountains drew nearer and I saw their rugged peaks give way to smooth gently-sloping skirts of washout materials around their bases. For how many millions of years had these ancient sea beds been exposed to the patient wearing and tearing of erosion by water and had their stone pulverised and spread out below them in smooth, tilted planes of clay?
The highway entered the Virgin River Gorge, a slice through the strata of the mountains. We stopped to peer down at a chocolate milk river charging through a sharply twisted and rocky channel. Grey cliffs soared above us. Round the next bend the landscape became even more interesting. Here sandstone layers were exposed and different colours from different eras in the earth’s history were eroded into shapes congruent with their hardness. The dark red/brown cliffs cut neatly into tall straight walls; the red and Bavarian cream-coloured cliffs formed smooth rounded hulks with cavities of an almost organic appearance; and the light brown rocks broke away in cubes and steps. I felt I recognized all these rocks from the photographs I had studied in books by Eliot Porter and Philip Hyde, and yet none of their photographs had been from the Virgin River Gorge. Were the rocks of places like Canyon Lands and Glen Canyon the same that were exposed here? It was an interesting thought to consider.
Leaving the gorge, the highway took us over to St. George, and as we descended to the western edge of town I could see in the distance a great broad-shouldered mountain of pale rock with a reddish cap like a short, flat head. I recognized immediately the Western Temple of Zion National Park, though I had only ever seen it in photographs and always from the other side. North of this massive landmark of sandstone were pointed and flat-topped peaks of the same white rock. I pointed to the distant view and said to my parents, “That’s Zion out there!”