Forty Years Later
“…we must preserve it—not for the beauty,
biology or God and country, but so we can always
know the place we dream of being, the place we cannot belong. The place for our yearning.” Chuck Bowden, author Inferno
How many times in forty years have I heard these words, “Wouldn’t you rather have Glen Canyon safe under water where nobody could get to it?” and thought…
Maybe so. Only one of a ton of them would appreciate the fluted canyons, amphitheatres, temples, cathedrasl, cataracts, potholes, ruins and granaries; much less, where they were, or treasure the magic they looked upon. But, no–other thoughts quickly surfaced–our time here is nothing; river time will eventually consume us, leaving the planet, in one form or another, for nature’s next spoilers. So, in the meantime, what? There has to be a better plan for our wilderness-loving hunger than letting a magnificent Glen Canyon dissolve and crumble under toxic man-made waters, thus obliterating the sensuous, wind-and-river-formed dune-shapes from our eyes and desires for centuries to come.
I’m quite realistic about what is visible now, what is not, and what is likely to remain invisible down through political time and blind human folly; realistic about the certainty that Powell Reservoir will never be full again, about a lengthy time before the wall-to-wall-puddle is completely empty, and realistic about the necessity to prove that the River should be allowed to reclaim its Canyon and all that goes with it. At this point, and farther down the line as more side canyons are revealed, there needs to be a change in custody as well as in terminology–I’ve said this before–from Recreational Area to River-Canyon Preserve, Bio-Reserve, something not yet classified, a protected place—more so than a National Forest Service “Land of Many Abuses” or a concession-happy, railing, rope, bridge, path, sign, painted-on-footprints, trail-marker, parking lot, gas station, pay station, National Park. Yet, in our panic to save the rose we may have to grab the stem—Glen Canyon National Park?
My blood freezes to hear those words in tandem! Surely, there must be something better. National Parks are for anyone at anytime. Glen Canyon is not. Invite a herd of buffalo into your rose garden and you’ll know why. Glen deserves protection from us. It’s ecosystem was, and is, intricate, fecund, seminal, and above all, fragile. Protection, not annihilation by bootprint, graffiti and camp sprawl, is its due as the reservoir drops. Between the protective walls of Glen Canyon was the cradle, the nursery, an almost two hundred mile, quiet-river-breeding-ground for a diverse ecosystem that once fed Grand Canyon—a river canyon now sick and starving without those healthful nutrients, or the life-giving silt for its multiform beaches.
This is not to say that no one should be allowed in Glen Canyon; but it isn’t Times Square. Let’s imagine now a revealed, but unprotected, Grotto Canyon in the Secret Heart of Glen, and compare 1950’s one hundred hikers per season with 2006’s one thousand a week, walking between its narrow, fern-decked walls, wading or swimming the chain-linked pools, climbing the crumbling (since immersion) crossbedded sandstone. And we will call this a gentle invasion, next to the growing army of fat-gutted, four-wheeled apes, toting cases of beer, farting fumes and ripping tread across the slickrock cap. Glen Canyon wants heavy protection, belting out heavy fines for looters and fixing strict regulations to keep the hordes from coming off the Staircase, the Navajo Reservation, out of southern Utah and Plague, Arizona—the fattest betrayer of them all. And this protection will have to come from—god, I hate to say it–our National Government, because the two states, Arizona and Utah, couldn’t give a flying fart about this place except for the bucks they can bleed from it.
The present is a horror movie beside our past in Grotto, when within a year’s passing, the side canyons were able to flush away all traces of human passage and change themselves enough for us to ask if we’d been there at all. They spoke in “déjà vu” until we saw a rock pattern, tree or archway, something familiar to recall their names–in so doing, they made hundred and twenty side canyons into fifty more new and different ones. It was a joy not to see our imprint left there; to understand that human traces are ephemeral, no matter what they be; that no engineer can out-build Nature, no artist out-dream Her, no politic outlast Her. But like the lady who went for ice cream and came back with hot chocolate, we have to take what our government allows unless we speak out for the river-canyon’s survival. Even if it burns our tongues, we must holler out loud for changes not too radical, or so impractical, that our representatives stuff their ears and keep serving us hot chocolate.
I’m one of the few people still above ground who has seen a live Cathedral in the Desert. So when the media hauled me back there, it was to ask if the Cathedral looked the same as before the deluge—if so, wasn’t this proof of Glen Canyon’s emergence? We had to ride the killer’s back (Powell Reservoir) to see it; thirty-five miles of pure hatred over stinking, dead water. And when I saw what my gut had already told me, I thanked the river gods for tears to cloud a scene I have no wish to remember. The poor, bleached-out hollow was water-filled to fifty feet above its original floor and devoid of the inexplicable aura once swirling beneath the dome. It’s ghosts, long since departed, had taken with them their vivid shawls, sandals and necklaces, along with bracelets, perfumed wreaths, and wallflowers that made a live Cathedral in the Desert pulse and breathe with the flicker of sun on a ribbon of flowing water.
I learned something from that blunt, cacophonous experience. No matter what I said, they didn’t get it—probably couldn’t hear it–screeching motors and wakes and waves banging off the crusted canyon walls, speed, wind-blasted ears and jet skis being the order of the day. It meant nothing when I reminded them Cathedral in the Desert is not in Glen Canyon proper; but nests in the middle of Clear Creek, a tributary of the Escalante River, which in turn, is a tributary of the Colorado that flowed through Glen Canyon, and therefore, is far more accessible, being several hundred feet above the wild, secret heart of the main canyon. Even at low pool, one hundred and twenty feet of drawdown in the heart of Glen reveals nothing of the thousand foot cliffs beneath with many cathedrals, amphitheatres, shrines, cloisters, and other hallowed retreats. I am one of a fortunate few to have seen it all– and know how lucky I’ve been—whereas, they hardly saw the tip of the iceberg, and no hint at all of the river’s home drowned-under.
No. Glen Canyon is not emerging—not yet.
Why do you suppose a Glen of the fifties, you read about in this book, was a paradise relatively untouched? The world was not so plugged with us then, nor did we dream it ever would be. In the early fifties it was difficult to find people engaged in such hardy pursuits as running a river, or walking fifty miles through canyons packing a vacation on their backs. We knew that if our equipment cracked up, or if we injured ourselves, got lost (most unlikely) or ran out of food, we were on our own. No one would talk to us, airlift us out, track us down, or even know about us until our appointed TOA–a week, two, three weeks afterward. This was the carrot: the reason we went, the challenge, the uncertainty, the mysteries contained in those canyons–it served us, visually, spiritually, emotionally. If our need to know–to get to the end of every side canyon–had outstripped our desire to wonder and be amazed, we’d have left the Glen with no pounding heart for that place, and less desire to return and find out more.
So, while we humans are greedily taking the planet apart, I bang the gong one more time for a few sanctuaries to escape the madness—a theme prominent in every book and magazine I read. Everyone I know feels a tension just under the surface; waves in the ether, something we can’t find words to say what it is, or get a hook into. I think that word is fear. Jammed together like too many rats in a cage, we feel each other’s fear of the pressing, the lack of elbow room, and yearn for space around us—a clearing in which to reason, to create, to act as individuals, not as a ratpack.
What really needs changing is us—not the canyons, not the legal status or accessibility, but us. With so many people in Mother Earth’s face, knocking on her door, getting into her drawers, our children will miss the opportunity to wonder and be amazed at the magic in canyons and far flung desert trails; of a black night sky dense with stars; of mountain vistas uncluttered by humans. The more we insist upon multiplying, the fewer our sanctuaries become.
Glen Canyon was one of those sanctuaries. I was there. I know.
It should become one again. Katie Lee, 2004
“There is no way to square our plans with our numbers and no way to corral our appetites within the tiny borders of our ideals.”—Chuck Bowden, author Inferno