Delicate Arch, early March 2018, 3 p.m. My wife and oldest daughter are resting with their backs to a boulder of reddish-pink Entrada sandstone, a few yards from the east pillar of the rock formation known to early residents of Grand County, Utah, as the Ladies’ Bloomers. Standing next to the arch is a woman differently attired in a tasteful, full-length wedding dress. She sheds the flipflops she walked in with and dons black pumps, while her fiancée gets the rings ready. A photographer hovers nearby, trying out camera angles around the arch. In a few minutes they will tie the knot underneath the iconic span, to the applause of us and several dozen other onlookers, none of whom they know. It’s just another afternoon at Arches National Park’s best-known attraction.
Not wanting to be caught up in the festivities, I’ve taken a seat against the north wall of the slickrock amphitheater which frames the arch. In front of me a half-dozen college students on spring break are lounging and chatting, while out on the bare expanse of sandstone an Asian mom and dad encourage their young and obviously fearful child to make his way across the slope. Two ravens perch on the arch, also surveying the crowd. Perhaps they expect to clean up after we humans leave, but that will be quite a while yet; already photographers are assembling along the stone parapet beside me, setting up their equipment and waiting for the setting sun to cast its carmine glow on the whole scene.
As many as two thousand people make the hike to Delicate Arch on a nice spring day. My adult daughter is seeing it for the first time; a flatlander, she was pretty nervous as we walked the last bit of trail, which is an exposed catwalk above a sheer dropoff. But she was determined to see the arch, and now she can savor memories of this amazing piece of natural sculpture. Meanwhile I relax and enjoy the laughter and amazement of the others around me, many of whom also appear to be seeing the arch for the first time. Parks are for people, the saying goes, and I, like the ravens, contemplate the curious admixture of geologic and human spectacle on display here.
My own introduction to Arches came more than forty years ago at the Devils Garden campground, a few miles northwest of Delicate Arch. It was a cold evening in December and few others were around. After making dinner I watched, enthralled, as a full moon rose over the distant Uncompahgre Plateau, illuminating a strange territory of mesas, canyons and sandstone fins. I remember the excited feeling of having discovered a special place. Do others experience that today? Perhaps, but they’re sharing their find with a mass of humanity. Some may prefer it that way. Crowds lend a kind of safety to strange places such as this. Being with others reassures us that if something happens, we’re not alone.
One who didn’t relish the crowds was the writer Edward Abbey, who served as seasonal park ranger here in 1956 and 1957, when the only road access was a sandy, often impassable track leading in from the west to Balanced Rock. His ranger residence was a drafty government trailer close by the rock; the site has become a place of pilgrimage for Abbey’s legion of admirers. Abbey drew from the extensive journals he kept during his two seasons at the monument (it didn’t become a national park until 1971) to craft his best-known work, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, which appeared in print fifty years ago--“on a dark night in the dead of winter,” the author recalled in the preface to the 1988 edition. The book took time to catch on, but after Earth Day 1970 many young seekers of the wild were drawn to this unusual work with its provocative message, distilled in an oft-cited chapter titled “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks.” In it Abbey presented his argument against letting the automobile roam freely within the national parks.
Abbey’s opposition to “windshield tourism” stemmed from two concerns: that paved roads diminished the national park environment, and that seeing the parks from behind a wheel impoverished the viewer. During Abbey’s time at Arches, the National Park Service, under its Mission 66 program, was laying ribbons of asphalt into formerly wild reaches of Arches, Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, Capitol Reef and other national parks and monuments in the Southwest, shrinking distances and displacing the solitude that so entranced him. But the chief victims of this modernization program, according to Abbey, were the tourists themselves. No one could see, hear, or learn anything through a car window, he argued, and the sheer numbers of people that would stream into Arches on its new access road appalled him. “Why is the Park Service generally so anxious to accommodate that other crowd, the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner of the national parks?” he fumed.
Always one to take an argument to its extreme, Abbey favored banning autos entirely in the national parks. Let people enjoy the scenery on foot, he insisted; let them “rediscover the pleasure of actually operating their own limbs and senses in a varied, spontaneous, voluntary style.” Besides putting tourists in closer contact with nature, it would jolt them out of their middle-class suburban torpor and possibly kindle “the fires of revolt . . . which means hope for us all.” Here Abbey is touching on another favorite theme: the wilderness as refuge of the rebel against society. But despite Abbey’s frequent anarchistic rantings, and he issued many, Desert Solitaire is in many ways a romance of the Old West--or what remained of it in 1950s Utah. He spins stories of uranium prospectors and grizzled cowhands, searches for a lost horse and a dead hiker, climbs a nearby mountain peak, and takes us down the Colorado River in soon-to-be-drowned Glen Canyon.
Each of these accounts conforms to conventions of the Western novel, in which a lone, upright American male seeks salvation in the arid wastes. Abbey’s tropes are almost identical to Zane Grey’s, though expressed in a modern idiom: the honest, hardworking yet deluded ranchers and settlers who try to wrest a living from the overgrazed range, the avaricious proto-capitalist who exploits the work of others, the Easterner who arrives in the desert to search for his destiny and find redemption through bold action.
Abbey even dreams of finding that fabled refuge in the red rocks which so captivated Grey--some Edenic spot behind a wall of red rock where a hero and heroine could spend the rest of their days, living a life untainted by the common cares of the world. For him Glen Canyon was such a place. “A man could live out his life in this place, once he had adjusted his nervous system to the awful quietude, the fearful tranquility,” he muses while floating down the Colorado with his companion Ralph Newcomb.
In Abbey’s imagining, humans in their ideal state would live in small bands close to the land, independent of each other and with plenty of space between them. He had only contempt for modern mass culture. “Man is a gregarious creature, we are told, a social being,” he wrote in Desert Solitaire. “Does it mean he is also a herd animal? I don’t believe it.” Given Abbey’s desire for solitude, it was no surprise that the National Park Service’s plan to modernize Arches with a paved road, a new campground, comfort stations and parking lots enraged him and motivated his rant against industrial tourism.
The road was built, however, despite Abbey supposedly going out at night and pulling up the road surveyor’s stakes, which had been planted clear from Balanced Rock to park headquarters. By 1958 the paved road was extended to the Windows section of the park and tourists were arriving en masse--forty thousand of them that year, more than a hundred thousand just four years later--a “serpentine stream of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer,” Abbey lamented. Arches was now on the family vacation map, no more a forgotten holdover from the West of the 1930s.
Every time I drive the main park road in Arches, I think about Ed Abbey and his rage against the machine, in this case the “big and glassy” automobiles that he urged visitors to dispatch with a rock through the windshield. (Never mind that he liked to drive big old trucks and even owned a Cadillac--just another contradiction in this paradoxical writer’s life.) Ed died in 1989, when the annual visitation to Arches exceeded half a million; last year three times that many people entered the park, clogging parking lots and backing up traffic onto Highway 191. Only in the depths of winter is there any promise of solitude on the park’s main trails.
Cactus Ed was fighting the inevitable when it came to cars in the national parks. From their beginnings in Yellowstone and Yosemite, our parks were meant to be refuges for people to enjoy. The 1872 law establishing Yellowstone defined it as "a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Large parts of the parks would remain free of roads, but park advocates and leaders such as Stephen Mather and Horace Albright understood that without a strong constituency, national parks would wither under a parsimonious Congress. That constituency is now stronger than ever, as congressmen keep discovering whenever they try to choke off funding for these popular vacation sites. Americans want to see their land heritage, and they’ve been joined in recent years by unprecedented numbers of international visitors. In a time when much that our government does is hated or feared worldwide, the national parks remain our best ambassadors.
It’s true that Ed Abbey’s detested pavement has brought unseemly throngs to our national parks. Too many people crowd into places that once breathed silence and solitude. But the roads are there and the parks are incredibly popular. Sitting in my little sandstone nook next to Delicate Arch, I watch as kids, parents, college students, the elderly, the desert-wise and the excited newbie all enjoy the scene. While they’re not exactly out in the boonies--at least by the standards of modern adventurers--they have gotten away from their cars, as Abbey urged us to do. These happy folks are out in the sunlight and wind, experiencing a mild degree of freedom, self-reliance, and perhaps even a little fear. For some, Delicate Arch may bring about feelings of wonder--at least in between shutter clicks. Although most will go home with little more than another mark on their bucket list, perhaps their perspective will have been subtly changed, and they will be a little more open to the idea of leaving a few bits of the earth alone. They may become more aware that there is, indeed, an Earth out there beyond their screens and windshields.
As popular as they have become, our national parks and monuments have become a prime venue for some much-needed education in responsible outdoor behavior. This includes promoting better awareness of the natural values of our parks, something that the Park Service does well and should do more of. As Congress considers whether to allot more money to the agency for needed infrastructure improvements, it should also fund a healthy increase in the number of interpretive rangers the Park Service employs. These women and men are the parks’ best face. Every one I’ve met is deeply committed to sharing scientific knowledge with visitors. They are a front line in the most desperate battle of all, the struggle to educate Americans about the worth of the planet they live on.
The national parks of today may be a long way from Cactus Ed’s notion of a free, leaderless society of independent, upright and capable dwellers in the land, but they offer a better vision than much of what we see in the modern West, especially here in the land of Moab. The Arches that this ornery, intransigent author fell in love with a half century ago is gone for good, but his sandstone monuments still stand, open for all to visit, marvel at, and take away whatever lessons they hold.
Delicate Arch (photo by Bessann Swanson)