Four Corners, Part IV

Red Rock Canyon * Zion * Bryce Canyon * Capitol Reef * Arches * Mesa Verde * Monument Valley * Grand Canyon

Being the visually oriented birder I am, most of my birding is done with the use of light.  Without it, much of my knowledge of field marks is useless, so I try to make it a point never to bird when the birds are roughly the same color as the sky, trees, and ground.

I made an exception on the morning of March 8th, however, because I was pretty sure the bird-shaped shadow on the trunk of the tree just beyond our hotel room's balcony was a lifer.  I did not determine this through some keen technological advancement like infra-red goggles, or even through something more basic like ears.  (The bird wasn't making any noise anyway, nor was much of anything else; Green River, Utah, is not an especially boisterous place before dawn.) 

No, I made this determination through an old logical exercise called the "process of elimination," which is not a gastrointestinal process (though the results can sometimes be similar).  The bird's presence on the trunk indicated that it was a woodpecker, and the tree's presence on the bank of the Green River in southern Utah indicated that the woodpecker was almost certainly a species new to me.  Only two members of the Picidae family in the region were on my life list: the Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker, both of which are smallish and possessed of large white patches on their backs.  This bird, whatever else it was, was far too big--nearly twice the size of a Downy and at least half again as big as a Hairy.  Moreover, as I could see in the gradually increasing light, it had no white patch on its back.

For that matter, it had no field marks of any kind, at least as far as I could see, so I sat patiently, staring out over the river, waiting for the light.  I was hoping for a Lewis's Woodpecker, a strange forest-green and rosy-pink bird with a certain crowlike quality, but after a seeming eternity I was able to make out a hint of red near the bill and the faint trace of scalloping on the back.  The overall bird seemed determined to remain the same dark greyish-brown it had been for some time now, but those two marks were enough:  it was a Northern Flicker, in this case the western race, the "Red-shafted" Flicker, as opposed to the eastern "Yellow-shafted."  Oddly, the male birds' heads are almost negative images of each other: the RSF has a grey head, a brown crown, and a red mustache; the YSF has a brown head, a grey crown, and a black mustache, with a red patch on its nape.  The "shafts" in the names refer to those in the feathers under the wings and tails, a brilliant yellow in the YSF and a salmon pink in the RSF.  The bird soon lifted off from the riverside and vanished into the distance, but I could see nothing else about it.  I'm not sure I've ever seen less detail on a bird that I could actually identify.

We soon departed ourselves, once again opting to stay close to the hotel.  In fact, we were staying IN the hotel, and for once, our laziness proved fruitful.  Yes, the Best Western in Green River has one rockin' breakfast.  Chef Ben served me up a delicious ham & cheese omelet, a sausage patty the size of a juke-box 45, hash browns, OJ, and coffee.  I was ready to retire sated when our waiter informed us that Ben's homemade biscotti were available next to the coffee... and they were perhaps the best I've ever had.  The homemade cinnamon roll that I was forced--forced!--to complete the meal with left me with by far the best feeling I'd had yet about Utah's food service offerings, though admittedly I could have probably gotten a microwave biscuit at the 7-11 and cleared that particular bar.

In only a half-hour or so, we were at the gates of Arches National Park, which boasts perhaps the most impressive natural defenses of any park I've visited.  Even if you get past the rangers' withering crossbow fire from the visitor's center, you'll have to make it up a narrow switchback road leading up a cliff, opening yourself up for all sorts of abuse from the defenders atop the wall--a sandstone wall that stands several hundred feet above the parking lot, and one down which boiling oil, molten lead, and not a few chunks of loose sandstone could easily be poured down on the attackers.  If you're absolutely compelled to conquer a piece of federal property, I'm inclined to suggest something more manageable--maybe a Civil War battlefield park or something.  They're even pre-conquered!

Once you make it into the park proper, though, you're treated to scenery that seems better suited to the imagination of Chuck Jones or Dr. Seuss than to real life: mesas, buttes, walls, cliffs, upthrusts, holes, and of course arches.  Our only regret--a mild one--was that the gorgeous clear weather we'd enjoyed at Red Rock Canyon, Zion, and Bryce had finally given way to a milky cloud cover, dulling the colors of the rocky shapes around us, but happily doing nothing to affect their astonishing shapes.

Thus, as we approached the site of Balanced Rock, we were staring up at it against a pearly sky, but it was still like seeing an onion balanced on a stalk of celery, a sight so bizarre that the background color was utterly unimportant.  The rock stands 128 feet high, a testament to the creative powers of erosion.  In fact, the site testifies quite clearly that even rock is mutable; a smaller balanced rock, known as "The Chip Off the Old Block" stood in the big one's shadow for generations, but collapsed in the mid-Seventies.

The Jonesian architecture was matched by movement in the scrub, and I turned my binoculars onto it and began advancing around the rock.  For a moment I dared to hope for a Road Runner, though they apparently don't venture into Utah's eastern half, but the bird soon hopped up from the ground and revealed itself in a flash of blue: a Scrub Jay.  I kept moving, however, trying to get a better look, and then I saw something else moving at a trot behind the bushes I was scanning.  It was low and pale, and when its enormous ears appeared over a bit of low growth, I thought for a moment it was a gigantic rabbit--also appropriate in a Jones-based environment--but I soon realized it was the one Jones creature I hadn't expected:  I was enjoying a glimpse of my first coyote.

From there we circled down to Double Arch, where my long-suppressed desire to climb on rocks finally burst forth.  You can't be a rock climber and NOT want to climb up inside the arches of Double Arch, where two rock bridges meet at a single pillar of stone.  The front arch is much bigger than the back one, so it's possiible to scramble up the slope from the bottom of the former to the rim of the latter, and I was determined to do it.  Dad's knee was giving him a bit of trouble, especially on stairs, but he agreed to hike the short distance to the arch (though not to climb into it.)  At the bottom we discovered a block of white stone so soft that it could be scored with a finger--not just a nail, but the actual pad of a finger.  I took a moment to slide my official NPS brochure into my back pocket, tuck my camera and binoculars inside the zipper of my jacket, and tighten my bootlaces.  Then, with my hands free, I scrambled up.

I'd classify the climb as more bouldering than actual climbing--certainly I wasn't tied into anything, and the angle wasn't steep enough to let me fall; if I slipped, I'd just scrape myself thoroughly for forty or fifty feet.  Nonetheless, the invigoration of climbing has a lot more to do with the motion than the hardware, and the view when I reached a comfy spot below the back arch was stunning.  Dad was a minute figure far below me--I hadn't reckoned on the slope from the end of the path to the base of the front arch--and I could do little more than grin.  The sky was beginning to clear, I had grit on my hands, and my Arches pamphlet was now pocked and scored from dragging my butt across sandstone.  Who couldn't grin at such a moment?

We took to the road again, driving deeper into the park, past the Fiery Furnace area, which offered a beautiful view of the areas many-colored dirt.  Dirt in Utah comes in quite a few shades; in that valley alone I saw it in red, white, grey, pink, orange, yellow, brown, and even green.  We didn't spy any blue dirt, but I'm no longer prepared to consider it an impossibility.

The end of the Arches road puts you at the start of a hiking trail into the so-called Devil's Garden, a series of rock formations that includes the two most famous structures in the park:  Delicate Arch, which stood a bit too far for Dad's tastes, and the beautiful Landscape Arch, roughly a half-mile up the trail.  En route we passed dozens of enormous planes of rock carved by the prevailing winds into "fins."  At times, it was as if we were walking down the back of a gigantic stegosaurus, marveling at the huge back plates on either side of us.  We caught a glimpse of a small rodent-like animal--ground squirrel or something--and were happy to see larger and larger swaths of blue sky to the north and west, though the increasing heat led me to strip off my jacket.  We finally came in sight of Landscape Arch, but from our angle the rocks behind it were obscuring the arch itself--you couldn't see the sky through it.  I pushed ahead, hoping for a better view, but Dad opted to stay where he was and rest his leg.  It wasn't long before I came to a spot where I could see sky underneath the rock--lots of sky.

Landscape Arch is 306 feet long, according to the NPS; other measurements have put it closer to 290 feet.  Regardless of who you believe, this is an arch roughly as long as a football field (if you don't count the end zones).  It leans impossibly out from the rocks on the left, stretching, almost yearning to connect with something, and sure enough, there's an equally improbable rock leaning just as hard over on the right.  Their meeting is a thing of beauty, as evidenced by Landscape Arch's presence on the cover of the NPS guide for Arches, and its a beauty that is increasingly seen as transitory.  Since 1991, several slabs of rock have fallen from the underside of the arch, and the trail beneath it has been closed for safety's sake.  All things considered, I'm glad I took the trip to see it, and not just because Dad and I spotted a second coyote dashing across the trail and along one of the fins on our way back to the truck.

We left Arches and decided it was time to put some miles behind us.  We had to reach Cortez, Colorado, and we had to do it by 7:00 p.m. Mountain Time; that was when ESPN's telecast of the UNC-Duke game would begin.  Dad took his turn behind the wheel, leading us back to the highway and down through Moab (where a half-marathon had been held that morning, the event which had forced us to stay in Green River) and into the increasingly snowy Abajo Mountains.  Soon the long, lonely peak of Ute Mountain appeared, its silhouette resembling a sleeping giant, and we crawled into Cortez in time to grab a bite to eat at the Shiloh Steakhouse, where Dad was finally able to get Utah's puritanism out of his system with a glass of chardonnay and I indulged in a slice of cheesecake.

It was a good night:  UNC 76, Duke 68.  In the process, Carolina ruined Duke's senior night, became the undisputed ACC regular-season champions, and earned the top seed in the ACC Tournament.  We turned out the lights and went to bed reveling in the fact that Tyler Hansbrough and his classmates remain undefeated at Cameron Indoor Stadium.  We didn't even mind that the Tar Heels had not acknowledged our trip by using the Four Corners offense.

IN OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT: "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?"  Don Knotts in feathers!  The Temple of the Sun!  Big Nothing!  And the REAL Four Corners offense!

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 2, 2008 8:32 PM.

Four Corners, Part III was the previous entry in this blog.

Four Corners, Part V is the next entry in this blog.

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