Thursday, October 18, 2012

Crossing Mesa Arch

Every trip seems to have its defining moment, the one detail that's remembered long after everything else has become a blur. It might be a close encounter with a bobcat, or my first glimpse of a rare species. Or it could be a memorable quote from a local character, like the waitress in Montana who had lived in a tent for three years: "It was the seventies, I thought I was Sacagawea." Or Sam, the tow truck driver near Baker: "I been out in this desert twenty-five years and ain't seen one God-damn flyin' saucer." In Canyonlands National Park, it was Laurie.

Even if you've never heard of Mesa Arch, chances are you've seen a photo of it. It's not the tall, flat-topped one that's pictured on Utah's license plates – that's Delicate Arch. Mesa Arch is long and low, and curves gracefully out over the canyon below. What makes it unique – and attracts a crowd of photographers every morning, each of them planning the perfect shot – is the way the rising sun lights up the underside of the arch.

As a Californian, I've grown accustomed to having my wilderness experience punctuated by warning signs and guard rails, the result of too many people in too little space. But the parks in Utah are different, and nowhere is that difference more apparent than at Mesa Arch. There might be a caution sign at the trailhead, but once you get to the arch you're on your own. You're expected to know what gravity is, and how to avoid getting too much of it.

The arch is located at the edge of the mesa, on a cliff that would make Wile E. Coyote nervous. On my topographic map of the area, all the contour lines between about 5,000 and 6,000 feet are squished together into one solid band. In other words, if you were to stand at the edge and drop a rock held out at arm's length, it looks like that rock would fall about 400 feet before hitting anything, and then roll for another 600 vertical feet before finally coming to rest a thousand feet below you – and still less than a quarter mile away horizontally.

Now that I think about it, if you were to stand at the edge for any reason I'd have to congratulate you, because that's something I wasn't able to do. I've never thought of myself as being afraid of heights – I've scrambled up and down some pretty steep slopes – but whenever the distance from my feet to the edge of the cliff was roughly equal to my height, my legs would just quit working. The only way I could look over the side was to lie on my belly, keeping my feet as far from the edge as they would reach.

Geologically speaking, it's a pothole arch – a piece of rock that is eroding away from the rest of the mountain, and will eventually land in a pile of rubble at the base of the cliff. The south end looks like it's barely holding on, an illusion created by the way it attaches to the cliff face about twenty feet below the edge, leaving a four-foot gap at "ground level." The north end, on the other hand, appears firmly attached, and in fact a person could walk from there right out onto the arch – that is, if a person really wanted to walk across a narrow, uneven strip of slippery rock with a thousand-foot drop on either side.

And that's where we met Laurie.

My cousin Jeff and I had shot a few photos and were mostly just enjoying the grandeur of it all, when suddenly we saw her. She walked from the north end, moving with long, confident steps, neither hesitating nor hurrying. At the center of the arch she paused to look over her shoulder at her boyfriend, and then continued to the south end, where she turned around and walked back. As she turned around, Jeff turned away, saying he just couldn't watch. Meanwhile, I was in emergency shooting mode, running and crouching here and there, looking for the best angle and background for a moving subject. In less than a minute, she was back on solid ground.

Well, what could we say? She was either the bravest or dumbest person we had ever seen, so the least we could do was show her the photo on my camera's monitor (and ask her to sign a release, of course). And for the rest of the trip, whenever our hiking brought us to a particularly challenging situation, we asked ourselves, "What would Laurie do?"

We already knew the answer: She'd go for it.


  1. Dan, your writing just gets better and better. And then there are your photographs...

  2. Thank you, Jan and Angel! I'm working on a couple of new stories, but not sure when they'll be done.