GLEN CANYON BEFORE & AFTER THE DELUGE OF LAKE POWELL
Special Note To Readers
The four diaries in this series called IT WASN'T NICE TO DROWN A CANYON LADY were reconstructed extrapolations from a larger tome entitled “BEAUTY LOST.” If interested reading/commenting on same, those URL can be found by clicking here. This original, and much larger, narrative was written in three parts: “Before” (meaning what it implies); “During” (the retrofit of a dam and the forming of Lake Powell), and “After” (the disparity of Glen Canyon’s ghostly remains). The title of my (as yet unpublished) tome is taken from George Steck’s 1959 rafting excursion through Glen Canyon. (For more background about George, here is a website dedicated to his personhood and achievements): http://www.google.com/...
George was a celebrated author of hiking books written exclusively for the Grand Canyon. He called the homespun 8mm relic movie Beauty Lost, which I later inherited and had reformatted into, first, a VHS, and afterward, a DVD. I am honored for a long-standing friendship with this consummate hiker, author and professor. Eventually, I donated George's film-legacy to Northern Arizona University (Kline Library). The movie was silent (because cameras in those days had no sound capability). For some thirty minutes the main star was Glen Canyon in all her regal and natural veneer from rim to river. Later, George made a special rendition for me, a voice over version, where he narrated the trip. This copy I kept for myself.
When I relate how hiking in this canyon scion cut and carved by the Colorado River was the most pristine of all the canyons anywhere in the Southwest, perhaps even the world, I intend no aggrandizement seasoned with unfounded rhetoric. Moreover, if angels took time out from whatever angels do and looked for a placid desert sanctuary to rest their wings, then here was the place where they came.
What follows in this diary compliments the previous diaries. This supplement especially shares a vision of what the real Glen Canyon was before part of her domain was subjected to inundation, all for the sake of basin storage and recreation on a monumental scale.
That being said, if this subject matter appeals to some of you, and I hope that it does, grab a thermos of coffee or tea and join me on this final installment, a virtual excursion, of that other Glen Canyon most people are unfamiliar with. . . her topography, her ambience, her splendor.
The idea for this addendum following on the heels of the last diary sort of came out of the blue. I also owe a special thanks to a rather inviting and convincing email from someone in the Daily Kos audience requesting me to write something specifically geared for the erstwhile (she called it) canyon she never knew (meaning before the deluge). She also asked if I had experience hiking here before the lake covered all the best features. To address that question, yes I did, though not as much as I would have liked. After mulling over the suggestion I decided to share a more personal story in the guise of taking a tour to an enchanting locale unlike no other.
Like so many other commentators I have heard from these past four or five weeks, most people in the Daily KOS audience had no familiarity with Glen Canyon’s former appearance. For over fifty years the attitude of most people was accepting the so-called lake addition and retrofit, and mainly for the reason it was the only Glen Canyon people were accustomed to seeing, either in person or photographs. My diaries, especially today's contribution, have revealed a story of an entirely other landscape, look and feel––touted by the commonly mentioned phrase the place no one really knew. Other than the fact there were few roads in this region before the dam building began in earnest there was another rationale why Glen Canyon was seldom visited: from a distance the predominant beige tinctured facade did not suggest the splendor of numerous and wondrous Eden-like haunts hidden in the Glen’s interior. You would have had to float down the languid Colorado, either invited to join a private rafting expedition or pay a relatively cheap fare to a commercial outfitter, then laze in the sun while partaking in the visual stimulation and serenity of the canyon’s main corridor. Headed down-river there were also many opportune stops for hiking excursions to inviting destinations, all masterful creations of erosion. From rim to river, access points were relatively easy to get to, that is, compared to other places where canyon hiking is usually more arduous and sometimes difficult to find a route. But not here. The so-called backcountry of Glen Canyon is much easier––was much easier to explore.
And for those of you who commented about my undivided and requited passion for the Glen, you were spot on. I also think it is possible to fall in love with Nature, to feel a sense of oneness with Her munificence, and something, say, comparable to a transcendental state of mind and spirit à la Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson (to mention only a few of my favorite Transcendentalist authors). There is. . . there was. . . no other place on this planet that has affected me so profoundly and viscerally. Before the 1960s, Glen Canyon was not a sunken world––an Atlantis of sandstone fabrication. Given her native habitat, this ranging canyon complex was a milieu of cathedral-like retreats inviting hikers and river rats to come stretch their legs and lose one’s self (in that other sense) inside spellbinding niches and recesses of all sizes and shapes. Those scarce and providential visitors who came to explore these idyllic and sculpted facets did not just stumble on Glen Canyon's secrets. Whomever entered this modest appearing canyon likely knew what most people ignored (or were not aware of in those years). Within the nearly 200-mile-long canyon were well over one hundred side canyons, and most were astonishingly beautiful beyond compare. (Which is why I think it was mainly word of mouth that got around and beckoned amateurs and professionals alike to hike and raft here.)
Such activity was not vogue as it later became, say, starting in the 1970s.
Before The Hike Begins
Apart from Eliot Porter’s celebrated book of photography, The Place No One Knew, such texts were not standard publications available on the market. Private photographs of others, like Tad Nichols and Katie Lee, were not yet in circulation. Even rustic photographs taken during Major John Wesley Powell’s second expedition (1871-72) were relegated to historical obscurity, at least back then. As for other historical accounts written about Glen Canyon’s locality, most of these academic and private publications were found in libraries and universities.
In short, to corroborate the above remarks here was an undistinguished canyon that was never advertised outside relatively small circles formed by Glen Canyon aficionados who knew where the best backcountry icons waited for discovery. They all realized this other Glen Canyon in her time before the swamping was an imbued essence of tranquility personified to the Nth degree. Most assuredly here was one of those rare and remarkable places that people could not directly drive to the rim, then get out of the vehicle and take in the view (such as happens at the Grand Canyon). If you drove to this sector of southeast Utah, then you came out of your way to get here. But there was no modern bridge crossing the Colorado River above Lees Ferry. Neither was there a town or city (like Page). To the north, there was only primitive ferry service to cross the canyon. Any roads that penetrated this convoluted terrain were utterly secondary or tertiary. Hence, typical four-wheel-drive primitive routes.
Still, some people found a way to penetrate Glen Canyon's rugged geography. Once inside this all-sandstone frontier she also did most of the communicating. I mean, there was a sense of animism here; call it a spirit-being presence of some kind that was ineffable to explain, yet profoundly and decidedly personal. Thus a phenomenal connection that was grasped and understood at some arcane level. Being here also meant you got this place and she got you.
Now let me introduce you to the canyon lady most people never knew or experienced.
The Main Feature Subject Matter
The destination I've chosen to chronicle this nostalgic tour-de-force is the celebrated Cathedral In The Desert (not to be confused with Cathedral Canyon). This locale on the west side of the Colorado River is in the Escalante River neighborhood. Arguably, the Cathedral, as it is more popularly known, is considered Glen Canyon's most cherished exhibition. I think people who came to its capacious chancel honed in the Glen's sandstone domain would also agree with my choice.
The Cathedral in the Desert is located inside Clear Creek Canyon, which is a tributary of the Escalante River. From the dam the lake mileage marker is buoy number 68. About 2.5 miles into Clear Creek’s fissure the trail comes to an end. With one exception (see Postscript remarks), since Lake Powell’s forming boaters launching from Bullfrog Marina could motor some 23 miles down lake and view the upper parapets of the Cathedral. Otherwise, and obviously, its foundation and opening was hundreds of feet below the surface. The GPS Lake Powell waypoints taken from the Mouth of Clear Creek Canyon are N 37º 18.050; W 110º 54.464 and the mouth of the Cathedral are N 37º 17.410’; W 110º 54.860’.
And now that you know where this literary excursion is going, I want to take you on a virtual tour. So, for the time it takes to read this diary you are about to become a time traveler and experience (by words and description) the majesty of a canyon truly like no other.
Summoning A Literary Time Machine
To simulate an experience the Cathedral in the Desert (hereafter, “the Cathedral”) entails going back in time before that damn dam was built. Thus invoking a time machine effect to conjure the experience by way of visualization and imagery. Let's pretend (by way of a guided tour) we are in the present, though with the contradiction of also being in the 1950s. The Colorado is flowing its usual indolent pace through the canyon. About the only muscle it has is to stir up a few ripples here and there. Hence, there is no whitewater in this long stretch between two other whitewater canyons, the shorter and rougher Cataract and the longer Grand. But not here in the Glen. It's as though the canyon lady wants visitors to really notice her features by slowing down the current. (Besides, why do you think Major Powell dubbed this province Glen Canyon?)
Our sojourn starts from the Colorado, thence to the Escalante River, and finally we will enter into a fissure-hallway of rock (Clear Creek Canyon). Here the perpendicular walls rise high above our heads, the pathway slender and sinuous. Due to the closeness of the walls the frequent twists and turns are intricately interwoven in places, and in some sectors crisscrossed to the point paltry patches of skylight are nearly shut out. Utterly mesmerizing. Like so many other tributaries in this canyon estate, tendrils reaching toward the river devise a natural light trap made entirely out of towering sandstone walls. What the diffused effect does illuminate is caused by a ricochet effect of glancing sunlight reaching down hundreds of feet below the rim. Sometimes it's like being in prolonged twilight––passageways can be that dusky in places.
Each step builds anticipation partnered with elation. Both nouns describe the onset of exhilaration most people feel when entering Clear Creek's gateway. It’s quiet in this fissure; even sporadic and desultory bird notes cascading from the rim does not disturb the tranquility. You should also know the Cathedral’s reputation, as a quintessential masterpiece of weathering over millions of years, precedes its viewing for the first time. Thus the lure to its threshold.
Since this is a virtual tour I suggest forgetting the Buddhist exhortation Expect nothing! Besides, where you end up is nothing less than mind-blowing. All that you need to know at this time is how the Cathedral's environs are at the end of a lengthy serpentine makeshift corridor, a waiting surprise. In places, the route is partially lined with redbuds––a deciduous dark-barked tree with showy magenta flowers during its all too brief blooming. Like most other similar fissures making up the whole of the Glen, sectors of Clear Creek Canyon are riparian (relating to a stream or river). Redbuds also only flower in the spring marking the time of year for our tour.
Wherever water flows commonly seen desert-canyon verdure decorates the, otherwise, naked canyon walls and pavement: scouring rushes, lichen and mosses, scarlet monkey flowers, white or yellow columbine and the so-called sacred datura (otherwise known as jimsonweed). Toxic death camus and an assortment of cryptogamic plants also appear and shelter petite mushrooms (and obviously not to be eaten). If the light is just right (and depending on the time of the day), smooth-polished plunge-pools intermittently show up, each tending to fuse a sorrel or sepia pigmentation of the impinging walls. At times, standing or running water tends to mirror a cerulean streak beaming down hundreds of feet through a mere chink above your head. As a consequence, the monolithic walls open and close attenuated light from the outside world. Of course, this aisle carved into solid rock seldom sees direct sunlight.
Notice the lamination of the powdery walls is smoothly fluted from millions of years of flash flooding. All of the canyon’s fissures show similar signs of this master element of erosion: water. In case you’re wondering, Clear Creek's drainage is somewhat similar to other sectors, such as Dungeon or Mystery Canyon, yet no two places are ever the same. The terminus for the Cathedral's path verifies this claim, for soon you will witness another kind of cathedral that suggests both an ending and a beginning. (You will also understand the implication for this teasing paradox, and perhaps a koan to quiet the intellect.)
Eliot Porter’s previously mentioned tome comes to mind, where he wrote in the introduction words that have stayed with me all these years. He articulately describes a living canyon, and obviously in contrast with a dead canyon by way of Lake Powell’s entombment of Glen Canyon's lower features. His opening words (on page 9) I have committed to memory, sort of the way some people memorize verses from the Bible or illuminating lines from the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Tao Te Ching:
The architect, the life-giver, and the moderator of Glen Canyon is the Colorado River. It slips along serenely, riffled only in the few places where boulder-filled narrows confine it, for nearly two hundred miles. For all the serenity, the first canyon experience is too overwhelming to let you take in more than the broadest features and boldest strokes. The eye is numbed by vastness and magnificence, and passes over the fine details, ignoring them in a defense against surfeit. The big features, the massive walls and towers, the shimmering vistas, the enveloping light, are all hypnotizing, shutting out awareness of the particular.
Later you begin to focus on the smaller, more familiar, more comprehensible objects which, when finally seen in the context of the whole, are endowed with a wonder no less than the total. It is from them that the greatest rewards come. Then you see for the first time the velvety lawns of young tamarisks sprouting on the wet sandbars just retreating flood, or notice how the swirling surface of the green, opaque river converts light reflected from rocks and trees and sky into a moire of interlacing lines and coils of color, or observe the festooned, evocative designs etched into the walls by water and lichens.
It is an intimate canyon. . . .
Keep his stirring description in mind as the tour continues, thus depicting Glen Canyon when she was only a canyon.
Of course, Porter got it right. So do hikers and rafters who write or speak about their experiences here. As previously mentioned, this canyon really could speak to you and you could speak to her. Well, I should say for those who commune with Nature this odd assertion is credible.
Before The Drowning Of The Canyon Lady
Here is something else to keep in mind as we pace ourselves on the tour. All the finger-like fissures pointed toward the Colorado are indeed wholly distinct. By this, I mean each tendril has its own rapture of unprecedented fabrication, enhancement, and bucolic exhibition in store for those who wander and wonder into these sectors. For instance, Music Temple (buoy marker 55) in its time (dry and approachable) was so acoustically perfect a person could stand in the center of its chamber and hum a one-second note, then ten or eleven seconds later it would still be resonating. Although not an ideal setting to hear an opera recital, its gaping amphitheater was perfectly suited for yodeling and the like! The following picture is likely a colored-over print of this very setting made famous by John Wesley Powell's first expedition (in 1869), where the men tested the acoustics with their voices and singing:
The World's Greatest Showcase Of Geology
As an educator traipsing about the Colorado Plateau over many years, and mainly teaching geology, natural and human history, I relish such topics, though I readily admit to having rocks in my head. Glen Canyon’s geology is therefore due its credit and a brief explanation of what these multiple layers of varying geologic periods represent. In a word, the layered terrestrial and marine depositions are ancient, each environment formed from the Mesozoic Era’s Glen Canyon Group roughly laid down somewhere between 250 to 65 million years ago. There are four main formations making up the whole. From the oldest (stacked at the bottom) to the youngest are the Wingate, Moenave, Kayenta and Navajo. All the layers are sedimentary and mostly sandstone, which absorbs heat and tends to radiate high temperature. This is also arid desert terrain and it can get hot as a furnace for part of the year (but it's a dry heat and therefore more tolerable compared to humid climate). And here's a hiker's and rafter's windfall about this canyon: most of the deeply incised chasms criss-crossing the canyon's turf provide abundant shade and many have running water. In places, there are clear deep pools that must be gotten around, either by swimming, wading or climbing higher (if possible to go higher). Typically, most of the meandering routes abruptly end where a massive facade of rock suddenly rises at the end of the corridor, and always a delightful surprise and quixotic tease for hikers. There’s no way out except the way you came in.
Incidentally, the Colorado Plateau's myriad scenic icons validate the claim of this province's greatest showcase of geology. Bar none!
The Delights & Dangers Of Hiking Through Fissures
Commonly seen in these high-walled places are threads of shallow streams reflecting painted walls with a red or brown tincture, and sometimes a golden or bronze sheen depending on the light of day. In places where the walls open wider, an emerald green phalanx of cottonwoods and box-elder trees contrasts nicely with a window of blue sky. With the usual beige to buff-colored backdrop, the color scheme is typical and tantalizing to the senses. Many drainages average about one mile (the length measured from the river). But there are some that take many S-turning twists for four, five or more miles. Porter mentions one such place, Twilight Canyon (buoy marker 51) that he and his son had followed for fifty-seven turns without coming close to the end.
Like all narrow drainages, particularly slot canyons (significantly deeper than wide), these are the kind of places hikers must avoid when flash floods rip and roar through confining and potentially lethal traps. Indeed, there are natural warning signs to hikers, usually tree branches and similar debris lodged tightly into crevices. Fifteen to twenty feet above the pathway is common, thereby indicating high water marks.
Given the usual topographic layout of Glen Canyon’s fractal terrain, what evokes perception when hiking here is the aforementioned peculiarity of lighting. In a word, ethereal. Always the effect is alluring to the eye and gladdening to the soul. Again to quote Porter’s prose he writes––
In somber, rocky caverns of purple and ocher stone into which the sun rarely strikes, shallow pools glitter brassily from sunlit cliffs high overhead. Wherever there is a damp cleft, maidenhair fern and scarlet lobelia and white columbine grow. Their drooping leaves turn a dusky cyan-green in the blue shadows, creating a subdued, almost funeral atmosphere. (p. 10)
That's a WOW passage to contemplate, don't you think?
Gathering Momentum To Advocate The Environment & Open Spaces
It is not without a purpose and a ploy how David Brower and the Sierra Club promoted and praised Porter’s entrancing photographic images. And it wasn’t so much a commercial fostering to hawk the printed portfolio to potential buyers. Instead, it was a pressing means to get people in that time to come together and form a larger coalition by standing up for the environment. But the main intent was to stop the Bureau of Reclamation from plundering another masterpiece of nature––that penultimate shrine of the ages: the Grand Canyon. In Brower’s eyes, and here using my own words, damming all three canyons in this Upper Colorado River region was scandalous and a sacrilege. (At the time Marble Canyon, which was the first targeted dam site, at Tiger Wash, was not yet part of Grand Canyon National Park.) Personally, the bureau’s ardor for dam building via partial canyon erasure, thus filling in the void, was like taking the Musée d'Orsay (my favorite museum in Paris’ assembly) and flooding the lower third of its edifice, thereby defacing all the art work and other treasure trove artifacts. Carrying over the analogy to canyons, damming these geologic estates, while leaving only the higher tiers, literally short-changed the optimum view. (On this note, I think Dominy’s astrological symbol must have been water, because he appeared to have a wonton distaste for canyons and desert terrain.)
Validating his abhorrence to the bureau's typical mindset in those days, David Brower writes an eloquent and evocative foreword in Porter’s oeuvre of exquisite photography. He begins his epistle of atonement with the sobering and somber words,
Glen Canyon died in 1963 and I was partly responsible for its needless death. So were you. Neither you nor I, nor anyone else, knew it well enough to insist that at all costs it should endure. (p. 5)
Let’s ponder another passage from Eliot’s assembly of photographs that did in fact finally turn hearts and minds toward the conservationist’s stance, and therefore beget a changing attitude that was anathema to Dominy’s proposed damming of this region’s trinity of canyons (with one already inundated):
It is reflection that imparts magic to the waters of the Glen Canyon and its tributaries. Every pool and rill, every sheet of flowing water, every wet rock and seep––these mirror with enameled luster the world above. Small puddles, like shining eyes, fuse the colors of pink rocks and cerulean sky, and wet ripples of mud may do the same thing. In the changing light nothing remains the same from year to year or hour to hour. Flood and drouth, heat and cold, life and death alter the finer details incessantly, but they leave unchanged the grand plan with the enchanting quality of the Colorado’s masterwork. (p.11)
Of course, Porter knew everything the Glen had honed to perfection in view of describing the main features that would take all the prose and poetry ever written about this outback frontier, then strike out each word with bold strokes of water.
To continue the intended and vicarious excursion into the marrow of the Cathedral. . .
Taking The Trip To Bountiful. . .That Other Bountiful
One does not hurry on sojourns to nature’s immaculate conceptions born from sandstone and erosion (or one shouldn't). When going to the Cathedral, either by way of the river or the longer and more difficult approach coming down from the famed Hole-in-the-Rock road (though best left to mountaineering types), the destination does indeed define the journey. It’s a simulated Zen attitude that helps keep the mind still, even knowing the contradiction of one’s enlivened senses (i.e., the celebrated empty Zen state of mind) tends to corrupt Zen's purest tenor. Still, nothing in the world of space and time exists in such a rarefied state of consciousness except being right where you are from nanosecond to nanosecond. Thus the adage: Wherever I go, that’s where I am! Hiking in the Glen Canyon of the past had that kind of rousing influence silencing the usual chatty mind reports and commentary.
Now we are further into the Clear Creek Canyon's depths, yet the enclosure of its corridor doesn’t generate a feeling of being hemmed in, so much as one feels embraced. Traipsing toward the Cathedral’s doorway keeps you in a state of expectancy and euphoria until the final destination presents itself. The circumscribed path and crepuscular lighting also abets the imagination of a tantalizing childhood dreamscape, where no nightmares dare interrupt such reverie. Thus an ideal place and time to free the inner child from its usual restricted life as an adult.
Balmy scents of plants and flowers and random background sounds (mostly melodious bird notes) are part of the joyful experience (so I hope your mind conjures up such fragrance and sound). There is one audible report in particular that you will hear on today's tour: a canyon wren’s dulcet glissando of semiquavers. This speckled little bird with the big mouth usual territorial signature call is intended for other avians, even humans: descending minor third intervals, each trilling note in precise notation. Other avian species frequenting the inner canyon are swifts and swallows, either seen darting crazily through the heavens or else resting in honeycombed walls caused by weathering (mainly the wind). And there is my favorite bird, those raucous, comical and acrobatic ravens mated for life. For me, these aptly named trickster birds, as many Native American tribal people have dubbed their species, are like reincarnated beings from another time long ago, only now more superior. Ringtail cats (related to raccoons, only more cunning), kit and grey fox, bobcats and pumas, deer and a host of other mammals. . .they’re all here, as well.
In this sparsely lush habitat where we are, springtime’s orchestral arrangement is alive with inflected utterances. Indeed, spring and fall are ideal months to come and hike and lose one’s self in an overall maze-like setting (though no one really gets lost in that other sense due to the canyon's usual and straightforward trails). Sometimes it’s necessary to squeeze past boulder-sized chockstones (rocks tightly wedged between the walls) or negotiate chest-high water for short stretches, then continue the journey. Remember how most of these canyon tendrils leading into the interior abruptly end where an enormous flank of sheer rock cannot be climbed unless one totes the necessary gear (climbing ropes and related equipment). At the end of the corridor we're following (about 2.5 miles) the view is solid, linear and ascending.
We're here! Finally, and just after the last corner is turned, the floor of Clear Creek Canyon spreads out and the Cathedral’s antechamber is ahead. Beaming saffron-colored glare forms a puddle of light at your feet, marking the early afternoon tract of the sun. Now stand still! Keep quiet! Observe! Be! A soaring oxidized stained enclosure, the big backdrop, seem almost like a matte painting; certainly mythical. You begin to feel diminutive given such largeness of dimension. Indeed, you are absolutely vertically challenged by a colossal facade looming on all sides. There is also another feeling that overwhelms you; sort of like being a parishioner standing before a great altar of rock. That’s because it feels like you have just entered into a hallowed arena of time and erosion, a special place to venerate nature’s finest artistry.
And then it finally hits you––that striking moment where you wake from the dream, yet enter another state of mind. And so, which is more real––the waking or the dream?
But still you linger and dare not enter into this globular foyer. For most visitors, the usual verbal response amounts to a curt and common vernacular
Oh. . . my. . . God!
Another way to put it is sine qua non, for there can be no other place like it on the face of the Earth. Actually, a more appropriate mantra is called for, say, Om mani padme hum. . . denoting a Jewel-Lotus, only here comprised of lithified clastic particles of sand formed and compacted millions of years ago.
There is also something else peculiar about this even more peculiar relic of Nature: an awareness of a pervading abstruse presence, perhaps something akin to Immanuel Kant’s noumenon––that unknowable thing in itself. Rustic and rife in all respects, your mind reacts to scrutiny. The analysis is also natural. Go with it. You note how the Cathedral’s finely chiseled interior and plumb wall backdrop describes a tableau vivant the way any masterful painting depicts a subject and scene (though in this sense implying without people). Thus all the parts make up the whole, where some aspects (of the painting) are more outstanding in a quiet or dynamic way.
Walk Softly In The Wilderness
Tapping into a collaborative effort of many other personal accounts, these recorded testimonies from the B.D. past (before the dam) reiterate similar musings mentioned throughout today's tour. Each has described analogous words that make a noble attempt to factually, poetically, and sometimes emotionally, help explain the sight and sensation of the Cathedral. Yet, and like Kant’s aforementioned thing in itself concept (in German, Das ding an sich), such an object remains independent of the mind as opposed to a phenomenon. I also think this metaphysical slant helps explain the totality of a part of Glen Canyon’s inner realm, her numerous tabernacles that Lake Powell has kept in cold storage for well over a half century. In short, words ultimately fail, even elegiac chronicles, that attempt to portray what erosion over time has patiently and meticulously fashioned. And here I will quote another famous photographer, the aforementioned Tad Nichols, who wrote about the Cathedral,
You can’t do justice to that place by talking, even by pictures. You had to stand there and see it and feel it. I’m sorry most people couldn’t do that. (From his black and white opus of photographs and commentary, GLEN CANYON: Images of a Lost World.)
Walk softly in the wilderness, indeed!
Framing The Overall Picture––It’s All Navajo
The unit formation of Glen Canyon’s geology is part of what makes the Cathedral’s locale so engaging––the cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone. Formed by ancient sand dunes that were later petrified and congealed, wind erosion is the primary sculptor. Upon closer inspection the lamination seen in the curving walls represents a finer and grittier sandstone. Later came rushing water, mainly flash flooding over the eons. Water is therefore the secondary element of erosion responsible for the fluted and gnarled look and feel of this immensely thick deposition. Like frozen waves seemingly moving through graduating bands of sandstone, the tan, wan and pinkish-white color scheme creates an aesthetic and complimentary contrast. Enhancing the eloquence are florid patterns of patina highlighting some panels. Each stained surface is an astonishing tapestry of blue-black pinstriping created by plant life and oxidation. Some are wet and shiny, while others are dry and drab green striations painted on the walls. Hanging gardens in higher alcoves nourish birds and butterflies from fountain-like seeps that bleed through the porous walls.
A Chance Meeting
I purposely digress when I relate a brief meeting in the early 1970s with a man who was very familiar with Glen Canyon, both before and after the dam years. This celebrated photographer was besieged by a small crowd of people near the dam's visitor center and I stopped to eavesdrop on what he had to say to an obvious admiring public. After the gathering broke up I approached and asked about his Cathedral in the Desert hiking and photographic experience. (I had recently heard about its famed reputation and wanted to get a firsthand account.) At the time, I was also studying photography with Jim Milmoe, at the University of Colorado), who once studied under Ansel Adams. (I purposely did some name dropping, just because.) My out of the proverbial blue question instantly earned me a private audience. Apparently, the query triggered nostalgia. After a brief pause he told me it was like going to see the Wizard of Oz, only the wizard who lived in the Cathedral was Nature, Herself. He then related how its great vacuum was overwhelming in every aspect, particularly how the largeness of its design made him feel manifestly, small. We chatted briefly about other places, too, and how each facet of the canyon was not only distinctive, but also (he emphasized) a hologram made out of sandstone. I never quite understood what he meant by this remark, though I remember his closing words as though we spoke only yesterday. He said what Nature had orchestrated here over hundreds of millions of years mankind had destroyed in a mere few years after the dam was built.
To Oz indeed, sir! The unassuming photographer’s fantasy description was not the stuff of mawkish fantasy. He spoke, instead, of a rare gift of reality that sometimes meshes with the underside world of Elysium or some such. I also never forgot his reverence for the Glen, much less his brief and running narrative of a prose-like description about the Cathedral. His name was Philip Hyde, one of Glen Canyon's chroniclers by way of extraordinary black and white photography.
Describing The Seemingly Indescribable
Standing below the aperture of sky, we are almost dead center over the Cathedral's opening, where sharp shafts of sunlight spotlight a segment of the sandy floor. The beacon is stationary for as long as the sun centers its eye over this fissure. For most people, it is difficult to know just where to look at any time: up, down or sideways. But everywhere one sets his or her focus bliss tends to stimulate the lacrimal ducts. When gazing upward, the eyes (wet or dry) effortlessly follow a threshold of vaulting walls that form two symmetrical and overhanging parabolas, much like a canopy hemming in the far recesses below. The upright panorama is encompassing, though not crowding. I think most will agree this particular abbey in the rocks is not only awe-inspiring, but tends to unhinge one's mental works. Again to mention it, descriptive words are rendered useless. Instead, it's merely a taut silence that suggests conceded plaudits.
We now enter the chamber! Be prepared for an emotional and visual orgasm.
Pouring into this auditorium of exacting graving and finesse, there is a slim waterfall about sixty feet high that cascades its monotone, unwavering sound; a becalming white noise effect complimenting the stillness and quiet’s quiet. Its pellucid veil is about one-foot in diameter. Here also, and higher above, suspended green beards (a/k/a hanging gardens) flourish in scores of grottoes inscribed in the buff-colored balcony sector. Some of these recesses have grown huge over time, though each alcove has been finely chiseled into a greater context of the Cathedral’s much larger opening. Some of these notches take on the shape of etched, shallow bandshells, where intermittent songs of staccato and cryptic bird notes compose a lyrical fanfare, almost anticipatory in such a place as this. How fitting!
Where there is running water, there are sometimes standing pools. One such oasis is before you. Like this clear pool, these askew or round springs are like feigned mirrors reflecting dark light upward. The visual effect compliments integrated hues of the Cathedral's overall framework. Garnished by shadows and variegated mid-afternoon light (denoting the optimum time to see and experience this showcase), the aura is overwhelming. Such equanimity! As a reminder, visitors probing the Cathedral's innermost sanctuary tend to keep comments private. Ergo, purposely refraining from well-intended laurels for fear of intrusion with such a sanctified solitude. I venture to say the atmosphere is almost church-like, though, again, the reference is not intended in any theological sense. Indeed, this finely fashioned setting harbors only nature’s pleasantries and essentials, and not the stuff of human ego and pretense.
Realizing the truth of what Tad Nichols mentioned about not doing justice with any attempt to describe the Cathedral and its backdrop, still, one wants to make the attempt. Then again, doing so tends to limit the ambience and articulate portraiture so depicted, while resorting to mere cliches and hackneyed prose. Certainly my own. I also suppose such praise and testimony typically ends up being too prosaic given the dream-like impression of the Cathedral's environs.
A Microcosm Within The Macrocosm
A variety of plant life, such as those mentioned earlier in the tour, slightly alter the damp-smelling fragrance inside this intimate oval cavity. In the Cathedral's ostensible nature’s womb of sandstone, patches of flower bouquets and greenery adhere to weeping walls (otherwise known as perennial seeps). Above, a modest shower of waxing afternoon golden light highlights the organic patina overhead, each artistically stained surface exhibiting exhaustively animate details. What would Impressionists think if they came to study and paint here?
You could spend a lifetime in this place, steadily drawn into the Cathedral's boundless cosmos. But it’s time go. Remember: Leave only footprints, taking only your memories.
Before leaving, listen to the waterfall sliding against the slippery face of the polished furrow it has meticulously formed over millions of years. The sound is meditative and will help reinforce your cognitive memory about today's adventure. Next, reach into the pool below the waterfall and feel the small, rounded pebbles. The sense of touch augments a neurolinguistic technique to instant recall. Your visual senses are already overloaded.
Now back out the corridor you go, passing seep flowers, small lawns where white watercress and emerald green moss grow. Black and dark green splotches of cryptogamic clumps appear here and there. Take note how each segment is a living part of a long and complex growth process that created these amazing colonies of life-sustaining environments. Please do not tread on their turf.
By this time, piercing shafts of golden light mark the shift toward late-afternoon. It’s also strange how the return always seems to go by much quicker than the coming. Then before you know it the muddy Escalante enters the equally muddy main channel. You are once again fully immersed in the space-time continuum. It’s time to get back in the boat and motor upstream. Still, there is no need to hurry. After all, you have just left Atlantis in a sandstone Eden. You also realize there is more of its open frontier to relish. It’s too bad you can’t go the other way to the end of Glen Canyon’s southwestern portal. So you think of other spellbinding places you would love to visit some other day: Hidden Passage (mile 55.5), Music Temple (mile 55), Anasazi (now named Mystery) Canyon (mile 52), Twilight Canyon (mile 51), Forbidding and Bridge canyons (mile 49), Little Arch Canyon (mile 45 Wetherill Canyon (mile 39.5), Grotto Canyon (mile 39), Dungeon Canyon (mile 38), West Canyon Creek (mile 28.5) . .and so many inviting others up and down the river. There are enough attractions here to spend a lifetime wandering and wondering through the Glen's labyrinthian hallways, her most intimate secrets of the interior.
And the worst of it is the fact part of you begin to realize how all of these paragons of erosional beauty beyond compare will one day be entombed by water before the 1960s are over. Unquestionably, yes, this Atlantis of canyons will mostly be hidden from the view. Finally, it hits you and you feel cheated by what happened here; you feel the worst mistake and environmental sin was made by erecting the dam and forcing this very river you’re motoring on to do its worst by creating the reprehensible coverup of the Glen’s most attributable assets––the Cathedral in the Desert and all the rest of similar icons denoting a lost world beneath deep water. Beauty lost, indeed!
Conclusion & A Hopeful Resurrection Some Day Soon
This diary’s rendition and admitted prolix may sound like too much opulence and hyperbole to some, but not for me. Perusing the Cathedral in the Desert, either reading about its magisterial environs or viewing photographs that I sometimes feel I could jump into and stay there is the usual panacea for boosting my spirits. It’s like falling in love all over again, and for a time it’s the gushing muse within that keeps me in touch with the Glen’s pulse and spirits. Although it’s difficult to say which sector is more comely or more engaging to the eye, which I have often been asked this question by students and clients (when I owned an ecotourism company), I have to say the Cathedral is my favorite.
Meanwhile, back to reality. This is about as close as anyone gets to the Cathedral since the lake's forming:
When the archetypal Glen Canyon was traded for an artificial basin, her habitat was sorely changed and a large roster of animal and avian life vanished: mammals, reptiles and insects that could not find a way out of the canyon’s depths were all drowned; other species, including avians, vacated their homeland territory and went elsewhere. Only the typical camp robbers remained (jays, sparrows and ravens). Whenever and wherever humans amass by the millions, all creatures great and small tend to keep their distance, preferring the quiet of their own routine and existence. A traffic of motorized craft and reveling people also tends to erase a quiescent atmosphere. Today's Glen Canyon is really a chimera compared to yesterday's reality.
Some years ago an elderly field institute student told me about her Glen Canyon travels as a much younger and fit lady, and of course she had visited the Cathedral many times. She thought its throne room (she described it that way) was holy and hushed, and whenever she hiked into its realm felt compelled to kneel down before the Cathedral’s reliquary. I was particularly intrigued when she told our gathering of fellow institute backpackers of an experience where a beguiling beam of light had singularly centered over her head, as though something or someone high above watched over her in that deadfall moment and silence. Wow! I thought to myself; I had a similar visceral experience on a Glen Canyon hiking venture. And she was right: visiting this sacrosanct tabernacle of the canyon lady is just that––holy and hushed.
Although the Cathedral in the Desert has long since become a catacomb on the canyon floor, it nonetheless remains a master template of creation, and some of us still feel the allure of Glen Canyon’s domain. From this approximate one-acre throne room the tremor of the canyon’s pulse is still felt today, at least for those sensitive enough to feel it.
These many years later I still remember all the aforementioned descriptive scenes so described: the winsome ambience and ambrosial or dank-smelling scents, a medley of bird calls, the quiet commotion of animals pursuing each other and following their natures. . .these and other tangibles stir my memories as though it was just yesterday or the day before when I had stopped by and immersed my spirit into that other Glen Canyon hardly anyone ever knew. Sadly, all of that expressive sculpturing was covered over and put to sleep by the blue sedative of Lake Powell. For the present, and likely into the near future, the only way to see the myriad marvels of Glen Canyon is to turn the pages of books published by authors and photographers. Verily, building this dam, and the basin that all too quickly had formed behind its walls, was no way to have treated this canyon lady, whose only fault was the fact the Glen never had the protection of a national park or national monument status.
The previously mentioned exception was an inimitable and incredible happenstance in 2005 when Lake Powell’s drought had worsened and dropped an amazing 145 feet (msl). That stunning event happened in March. For the first time in some forty years, the Cathedral’s portal was opened to visitors. The low water lasted well into April and for about a few weeks and it was possible to float into this sector via the Escalante. From there, visitors could get out of the boat and stand on a solid and soggy pavement. Being there was like experiencing the rapture of a pilgrimage, only entirely dedicated to Nature. Nay, it was a break of a lifetime, a gift of time for the relative few who took advantage of this rare window of opportunity. With the water drained so low, from the vestibule to a high and narrow band of pale supernal light the cavernous amphitheater was still dripping wet, though nonetheless released from the heavy weight of its prisoner-basin. A shallow, green glint of a pool collected a thread of water that sliced through a tapered slot of sandstone, a sort of miniature waterfall. The backdrop flank of rock was a tritone tincture, starting with a broad reddish-brown swath at the bottom, an equally broad and bluish swath in the middle, and a variation of tan and brown veneer all the way to the rim.
Because the chamber was newly dried out, or nearly dry, there were no flowers or moss or lichen growth that once was the usual decorative plant life gracing the view. Dulcet bird notes were also manifestly absent in the quiet and moist stillness. Yet there it was––Glen Canyon’s Cathedral. In its commodious chamber, some visitors tested the acoustics in diverse modulated pitches and tones. Indeed, the utterance of a single word resonated for five or six seconds and lifted skyward. Even the cathedral at Notre Dame could not compete with such natural resonance.
For a time, the Cathedral would remain dry until the lake rose some fifty feet (by summer), though in increments of about two inches per day. The drought was not over but was only interrupted by an unusually wet winter and spring season that slaked the thirst of the parched Rockies. The vigor of spring runoff would thus inundate this part of the Glen once more, her aquatic captor covering up the evidence of Glen Canyon’s complete exposure. For some, it seemed as though Nature had planned and provided a preview of what would one day become a dry canyon environs, and perhaps a hopeful sign not too far into the near future. One also takes what one can get given such a gift of Nature for part of that early spring.
So, adieu fair canyon lady until your next appearance at low water. . . or when you are forever free of your Lake Powell camouflage.
As always, your positive comments are welcomed.
P. S. The historic black and white photos are from a collection of Phillip Hyde's portfolio (used by permission, because the diary and photos are not for commercial gain; just enlightenment).