The arch as an architectural feature gained popularity during the Roman Empire. Evidence of their fascination and love of the arch can still be experienced in Rome, Italy today by walking through the maze of cobblestone streets lining the centro of Roma. The arch, as an architectural structure, is extremely stable once the final piece, the keystone is put into place, and is impressive, regal almost, in its aesthetic appeal. But, long before the white-robbed, gold-leaf crowned roman senatus was commissioning away tax profits for the furtherance of the grandiose city of Rome, the powers that be above were making their own arches.
One of the best examples of the metamorphosis of Earth over millions of years is Arches National Park. Located several miles outside the main downtown district of Moab, Utah, this national park is riddled with arches and rock formations in various stages of growth and decay. The park is situated on top of a massive salt bed, formed 300 million years ago when a sea filled this area then dried up. Putting the serious issue of ancient “global warming” aside, over the course of the next several million years sediment and other debris collect on top of the salt bed. The salt below had a distinct characteristic that would make this debris covered area more than just a plateau somewhere in Utah.
This salt bed, like many people in our society today, I fear, was unstable. It ached and groaned, buckling and shifting, liquefying and repositioning itself and, in the process, pushing the debris layers on top of it upward. Huge cavities formed as the salt moved deep within the Earth and sections of the upper debris layers tumbled downwards, filling these voids. While the debris layers were getting attacked from below by salt, they faced an equally vicious assailant from above: wind and water.
After millions of years of war in which the debris layers slowly, but perpetually, faced erosion and an unsettling under layer the national park looks as it does today. In the case of nature, slow and steady really is fast, and it’s hard to believe that the arches you see today, their perfect half circles and stumpy sides, have been millions of years in the making.
The ancient Greek Heraclitus philosophized that life constantly changes, like a flowing river. You can step in the same spot twice and experience the river in two different states because of its constant movement. Arches is an example of how our world is ever-changing; the rock bed of our lives is a constant shifting and rearranging, sometimes collapsing and rebuilding, that gives credence to Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” But, amidst the world’s, and our live’s, physical impermanence there does appear to be something greater, something objective that you can grasp. In Moab, it exists when you hike through the arches, or hiking trails that lead through red cliffs and forested areas. This tangible permanence is found while golfing on a course flowing through the contours of the cliffs that surround the holes, and even in the sport shops and boutiques that line either side of downtown Moab.
Despite all of the nature’s and man’s change the constant is material. Nature may bring the arches crumbling to their knees over time, like it did several years ago when part of the landscape arch partially collapsed on tourists (luckily no one was killed), but all that really happens is material changes form. Material exists, and always will, while its form varies. Rock becomes sand, the sand becomes our concrete and the basis of our boutiques and sport shops. Everything in this world is reused over and over again, recycled for another purpose.
Today, $10.00 will get you past the park ranger manning the park entrance and into a fascinating world filled with red rock and sand, and formations that sometimes look like they were made out of clay by a seven year old in art class. Arches National Park has a 52 site campground, running water, hiking trails, a drivable route through the rock gardens, and even the option to camp in the back country with the right permit. Stop at the visitor’s center when you first enter the park, it’ll be on your right. There you can read more about how the park came to be, and, if you timed it right, join a guided tour through certain sections of the park. Leaving the visitor’s center, with map in hand of course, head up the only road possible and take in the views. The rock formations, and the sharply contrasting rich green plants and bright red rocks, are magnificent. This road was built for enjoyment, and pull off areas are scattered throughout the drive. Take advantage of them. Take the ride slow, soak it all in, or try to, and enjoy the work of mother nature and several million years.
If you stay left on the road you’ll end up driving until the road circles around and the campground begins, about 18 miles one way. There are two main detours along the way, one at about 9 miles and the other a mile after that. These are secondary roads that lead to different sections of the park, like the Windows Section, or Wolfe Ranch, an old farm worked by a disabled civil war Veteran. In addition, along the 18 mile stretch of road you will have the chance to stop at quite a few viewpoints and overlooks.
If the sun is shining and you have two workable legs I recommend walking some of the available hiking trails, which vary in difficulty from easy to difficult. Once you step away from that capsule known as your automobile you find yourself becoming more immersed in, and experiencing on a deeper level, the grandeur of the arches and rock formations. Walk to the North and South windows and look through the gaping holes in an otherwise solid rock and onto the La Sal mountains beyond.
Whether it’s watching the clouds pass by on a hillside with a bottle of wine, watching the stars above you while sitting at a campfire, or hiking through and looking at rock formations on a sunny afternoon in Moab the concept is the same. I’ve found that the only rock formation I actually see identically as the namer is “balancing rock,” because, well, it’s easy to see a boulder balancing on the precipice of a rock. But, things get a little messy when you start looking at things like the Fiery Furnace Viewpoint, The Organ, Sheep Rock, or the Tower of Babel. Sometimes I wonder how these rock formations gained such names. Maybe it was named by a man who stumbled upon it after spending all day in the hot sun without water. Regardless, everyone comes at a thing from a different perspective. Some see a dragon dancing in the sky and a Eye of the Whale Arch, and others see a sailboat and just an arch. But, the variance in perception doesn’t take away from the beauty of the experience, and, in the end, we’re all just trying to define something that is beyond words.
This article was published in our Fall 2013 Ezine.