About 200 km northwest of Las Vegas lies the Death Valley, the hottest place on earth. About 75 km northeast of the city lies the Valley of Fire, a vast expanse of bright red Aztec sandstones from the Jurassic period. And at about 375 km further ahead in that direction begins the Grand Staircase, a sequence of sedimentary rocks stretching south, starting from Bryce Canyon at the top, Zion Canyon in between, and Grand Canyon at the bottom. To travel through these lands is to witness a snapshot of nature’s long dance that continuously shapes and reshapes the flying rock we call home. In these lands, swathes of earth get bent, lifted, tilted, carved, and eroded over millions of years to form mountains, cliffs, basins, canyons, valleys, ridges, plateaus, mesas, deserts, badlands, and every other phrase in geology that humans have coined in their attempts to comprehend the mystery and grand spectacle of physical existence. Wind operates as the conductor of this grand orchestra, moving earth and sand into shapes and patterns that inspire awe, and compacting them into rocks that stay to tell the story. Water flows and meanders through rivers that drain out plateaus; streams that cut through mountains like sandpaper; waterfalls that churn silt, sand, and cobbles sending them downstream; abrasive narrows that carve rocks into canyons; lakes that feed life as we know it; and snow that wedges apart rocks as it forms in its crevices, and caps everything at the top to complete nature’s perfection. Fire appears, once in a while, spewing out the innards of the planet, bedazzling the landscape with new colors, shapes, and patterns that will keep redefining these lands that represent ‘forever’ more meaningfully than anything humans ever accomplished. And all these elements – earth, wind, water, fire – at the inconsequential moment of human observation, come together to reveal more than 200 million years of the planet’s history meticulously stored layer by layer in the rocks – a timespan that dwarfs the existence of humans by a distance and some more. This region in the southwestern United States is one of the finest productions of nature’s drama. Its extremes of climate and geography make it the ultimate showcase of our insignificance in space and time, and our absurd attempts at ‘reality distortion’. Being here proffers something priceless to us: perspective (a word that, ironically, betrays our sense of self-importance).
Death Valley, straddling the California-Nevada border, is the largest US National Park outside Alaska and is a land of striking contrast and extremes. Despite its forbidding and gloomy name, there are parts of the valley with lush green oases teeming with mammals and birds and reptiles, fields of wildflowers, peaks frosted with snow, occasional rainstorms, and a tremendous diversity of life. There are mountains as high as 3300 meters, deep and winding canyons, and rolling sand dunes. And there are barren salt flats, devoid of soil and vegetation, and covered largely with table salt (along with calcite, gypsum, and borax). A drive from the aptly named Furnace Creek Visitor Center to the Badwater Basin (and nearby Devils Golf Course, and Salt Creek) transports one to the second-lowest point in the western hemisphere at 86 m below sea level. Air trapped in this basin surrounded by the mountains recirculates the heat without being able to escape and sucking out most humidity. A colloquial story of the basin’s naming is about a surveyor’s mule refusing to drink the ‘bad water’ – high in salinity – from the spring-fed pool near the present-day boardwalk. The basin must have had ancient names, presumably vanished amidst the prejudice of recorded history and its narrators.
(Image courtesy: NPS)
At a slightly higher altitude in the Death Valley, short walks from the Zabriskie Point towards the Golden Canyon seem easy at first, but quickly remind one about the fragility of human bodies to withstand the forces of nature. Unforgiving terrain in this part of the valley, mostly made of yellow and brown stripped hills shaped by water, offers no shade and makes walking difficult. Humans have, nonetheless, lived here for thousands of years and sophisticated native American cultures have hunted and gathered in these lands. The first European descendants arriving in this area were lost travelers originally headed towards the California Gold Rush, who might also have lent the valley its present name – rather harsh for a land that accommodates such diversity of life. Motorable roads within the valley form a surprisingly dense network to access its different parts, and a pleasant drive to the Dantes View is a great way to soak-in the panorama of the swirling white salt flats and surrounding mountains from 1700 meters above the ground. Arguably, the most scenic drive in the valley is the Artist’s Drive where the generosity of creation is resplendent in the colorful rocks. Presence of different compounds (iron oxides and chlorite from volcanic deposits) adorns the hills with diverse hues – shades of red, orange, yellow, blue, pink, green, and grey – perhaps prompting the name of the road. For visitors with more time at hand, there are several locations to explore where Star Wars was filmed, and the mysterious Racetrack playa (a dry lakebed) to see, which is known for its strange moving rocks that seem to have been dragged across the ground.
Death Valley is a masterclass in adaptation: of bushes and mesquite plants that survive with long roots, beautiful Joshua trees that grow in the desert, bighorn sheep that can eat almost any plant, toughened snails and pickleweed plants that survive even the hostile salt flats, and generations of humans who thrived through vertical migration patterns moving from valley bottoms in winter to higher altitudes in summers. There is a stark and lonely vastness in this valley – a place that juxtaposes scenic views, multiple climates, insignificance of life, and yet, life’s sheer tenacity.
A worthy detour while driving northeast from Las Vegas towards Zion is the Valley of Fire – a place where time appears to stand still, with the past and present fused under the beating heart of the sun. Located in the Mojave Desert, its name derives from 150 million years old brilliant rock formations that illuminate the sky with a fiery red color. These Aztec sandstones with their rough floors and jagged walls are what’s left after the compaction and extensive erosion of sand dunes – a constant process of natural transformation over an incomprehensible timescale. The Valley of Fire Road traversing through the park – yet another example of America’s focus on automobiles to reach the inaccessible – takes one through some of the most famous rock formations such as the elephant rock, arch rock, and the fire wave. Humans inhabited this region too, and there is rock art (petroglyphs) by the ancient peoples that can be seen at the Atlatl Rock. Witnessing this juxtaposition of humankind’s eternal quest to mark ‘we were here’, and the nature’s slow but assured dominance over it, is humbling.
Driving northeast for another 2.5 hours from the Valley of Fire gets one to Zion, the middle layer of the Grand Staircase and arguably, its finest composition for human exploration. Zion is charming, spectacular, imposing, and domineering, all at once. It offers something for everyone – leisurely strolls, moderate to strenuous climbs, cliffs and rivers and waterfalls, vivid imagery, plants and wildlife, and fascinating stories of the land and its people. The story of Zion’s topography, and of most of the Grand Staircase, is extraordinary. A long time ago, when dinosaurs were evolving, Zion was a flat basin near sea level. Over time, streams in surrounding mountains deposited so much sand, gravel, and mud eroded from those mountains, that the entire basin sunk. More layers of sediments continued to be deposited and solidified into rocks. At some point, the earth very slowly pushed the entire surface up, hoisting huge blocks of the crust creating the Colorado Plateau and mountains as high as 3000 meters, and giving speed to rivers that flowed rapidly down a steep gradient, cutting through rock layers, and forming deep and narrow canyons. The layers of rock across the Grand Staircase today are a magnificent tableau documenting the fascinating story of these geological processes that are still underway amidst the stunning but transient landscape of the region. Grasping the passage of geological time with the perception of a human mind is futile, and reinforces, yet again, how miniscule our lives are amidst the extravaganza of the universe.
The term Zion was used by Mormons who settled in this region only during the mid-nineteenth century, even though the land has been inhabited since more than 8000 years. The last of native tribes, the Paiute Indians, receive a share of recognition today through odd jobs in managing the national park, even though most of their culture appears to be largely lost. This recent history of substitution of cultures, mostly described as ‘exploration by European American fur trappers’, ‘pioneers settling into the area’, and ‘increased economic activity’ is perhaps the familiar archetype of the complex human conflicts and power struggles that have existed around the world for centuries and narrated by those who survived to tell the story, and yet inconsequential and frivolous when viewed from the prism of nature’s endurance.
A lot of breathtaking scenery of the Zion National Park today is accessible through motorable roads that lead to several trailheads for hikes and climbs and canyoneering, campgrounds that allow spending time in the wilderness, accommodation both inside the park and the town of Springdale just outside, and facilities for river trips and use of stock animals for exploring trails. One of the oldest sections of these roads – the Zion Mount Carmel Highway connecting Springdale with the east side of the park – consists of a 1.8 km tunnel with six large windows cut through massive sandstone cliffs to provide light and ventilation through the canyon wall. Constructed more than ninety years ago, a drive through this engineering marvel is a showcase of human ambition that blasted through rocks and made way, however temporarily, in the grand scheme of things. A few kms north of the tunnel lies one of Zion’s star attractions – “Angels Landing” – a 9-km roundtrip hike that gets one to the top where, as put by a Methodist Minister a century ago, only an angel could land. The last 1 km of the hike requires a permit, though the non-permit parts allow equally majestic views. Shorter jaunts from the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, such as to the Weeping Rock, or the riverside walk, divulge more of nature’s artistry and interplay of imposing cliffs and glistening rivers. Zion, the middle child in the Grand Staircase, and closer to the earth’s surface than other two, is a happy place; somewhere where the fickle human heart doesn’t feel lost and forlorn amidst the vastness of nature, but is more at ease in the latter’s abundance.
At the top of the Grand Staircase lies the Bryce Canyon National Park, famous for its surreal hoodoos, the red spindly rock formations collectively creating the park’s ‘Amphitheater’. The story behind the creation of hoodoos as narrated by the native Indians is more refreshing than the tedious geological explanation. Once upon a time, before the Paiute people, lived the to-when-an-ung-wa, the Legend People, who took too much from the land and used to drink all the streams and rivers in spring. They were punished by the coyote God of the Paiute, the Sinawava, and turned into stones. When the sun shines on these red, snow-capped formations casting long shadows, the Legend People appear to look back at us, creatures of dust ourselves, with a calm serenity, telling us a story. At the bottom of the Staircase, is the Grand Canyon, the more acclaimed of the three layers. Standing at the rim during the day, the canyon below is a vast tapestry of colors, patterns, rocks, and water smelting into each other on earth, stretching infinitely in time. At night, the spectacle is reversed, twinkling as stars overhead, a vast tapestry of colors, patterns, rocks, and unknown elements smelting into each other in the sky, stretching infinitely in time.
There is no perspective, other than the cold hard truth of the eternal existence of space and time, and of life that flickers in it like fireflies.