The Mighty Five: Day 3

IMG_1644The trip from Grand Junction to Moab took about two hours, allowing us to arrive at the Moab KOA, get checked in and completely set up by early afternoon. We then made our way to the first of our Mighty 5: Arches National Park, home to the densest concentration of natural stone arches on Earth. The red rock landscape is unlike anything we’ve experienced before. In fact, it felt as though we had arrived on another planet, filled not only with arches, but also towers, pinnacles, and balanced rocks.

Bordered by the Colorado River in the southeast, Arches is renowned for having more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches within its boundaries. The massive Delicate Arch in the east is probably best known, thanks to its being featured on the Utah licence plate and the Arches National Park quarter. Other arches of note include Skyline Arch, pictured here, which changed suddenly and dramatically, in 1940, when a large boulder suddenly fell out of it, roughly doubling the size of its opening to a span of 71 feet.

Other geological formations include Balanced Rock, towering over the desert landscape, and the Fiery Furnace, a labyrinth of vertical rock walls (called “fins”), in the middle of the park. Contrary to its name, the Fiery Furnace is not a hot place, but actually a maze of cool, shady canyons between towering sandstone walls. Instead, it was named for the warm glow seen on the rocks in the late afternoon,

Devil’s Garden, to the north, is where visitors can view the crown jewel of the park, Landscape Arch, the longest arch in North America with an opening of 306 feet. This awe-inspiring expanse is only 6 feet in diameter at its narrowest. Large segments of the arch came crashing down in the 1990s – proof that the park’s landscape can change in an instant. Although other arches have fallen, Landscape Arch still hangs on by a relatively thin stone thread.

In Devil’s Garden, we hiked a gravel trail to get up close and personal with Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch. Along the way, we witnessed many visitors ignoring the park’s signs to stay on established trails. Apparently, it’s better to get the perfect picture than to protect park soils. Biological soil crust, one of the oldest known life forms, is a living ground cover that forms the foundation of high desert plant life. These crusts trap and store water, nutrients, and organic matter to support the desert ecosystem. But these fragile organisms can also be easily damaged or destroyed by human activity, which is why visitors are told to walk only on trails, rocks, or along sandy washes.

Overall, Arches enabled us to contemplate our place in the cosmos. The American astronomer Carl Sagan, when referring to our planet, said it’s nothing more than “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” In other words, humanity occupies a very small place in an unfathomably vast universe. Even if we were able to travel at the speed of light – 671 million miles per hour – it would take us 100,000 years to cross our own Milky Way galaxy. But the Milky Way is just one of 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe, and the region of space that they occupy spans at least 90 billion light-years. If you imagine Earth shrunk down to the size of a single grain of sand, and you imagine the size of that grain of sand relative to the entirety of the Sahara Desert, you are still nowhere near to comprehending how infinitesimally small a position we occupy in space.

Places like Arches help us focus on how very, very small we are and, by extension, how very, very small our successes and failures, our anxieties and joys, our ambitions and labors and dreams are. But lest we allow ourselves to get mired in our cosmic insignificance, we try to remember the importance of making a positive difference in our lives, no matter how small…to do, as Saint Teresa of Calcutta once said, “small things with great love.” Or, as the late John McCain put it, “to serve a cause greater than self.” In other words, to make our universe better by simply being in it.

During our visit, we learned a few things worth sharing:

  1. The trail distances depicted on park signage in no way correspond to reality.
  2. A skunk’s spray odor is as repugnant in Utah as it is in Colorado.
  3. People can be weird or wonderful, depending on what they wear and how they comport themselves.