Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Legend of the Bowlegged Half Cowboy, which I just made up (an adventure of sorts, Part IV)

So I survived my first big day of Serious Jeep Road Exploration, and was comfortably checked into a motel in Moab, complete with pool, air conditioning, and civilized food and drink just down the street. Since I still had much of the afternoon left, I decided to explore some things in the Moab area, notably Arches National Park and some of the "Island in the Sky" section of the Canyonlands.

Arches National Park features just that: hundreds of wind-sculpted natural sandstone arches. In 1981, all but one of the major named arches could be reached by paved roads. Oddly enough, the one that required a few miles of unpaved road was also the one that's sort of the park's trademark, probably the best-known of all natural arches, and the only one to have been featured on a license plate--the so-called "Delicate Arch."

There are two ways to reach Delicate Arch: go about halfway down the unpaved road and then hike about two miles each way to see the arch up close and personal. That's what the people clustered around its leg in this photo did. If you're lazy, you can drive or ride another mile down the road, make a short hike and see the arch from an overlook. But you'd better have a long lens on your camera, because this overlook is a good half-mile or more from the arch.

To me, Delicate Arch has always looked kind of like a bow-legged cowboy in chaps who was for some reason cut off at the waist. And so I propose we start circulating a legend: that Delicate Arch isn't a natural formation at all, but rather a piece of ancient statuary (perhaps carved with space alien technology), whose top half was removed by some great catastrophe.

Sad thing is, there's probably somebody in the world who'll take this explanation seriously...

After seeing Delicate Arch, I headed back to "Island in the Sky" section of Canyonlands National Park. The "Island" is a plateau, flat on top and surrounded by sheer cliffs up to a thousand feet high. It gets its name from the fact that at its narrowest point, where the "Island" is joined to the larger uplands to the north, the top of the plateau is barely wide enough to accommodate a two-lane road. Ranchers used to drive herds of cattle onto the Island, fence off the forty feet or so of the narrow spot, and rest assured that the herds would neither escape nor be attacked by predators, as nothing could get in or out except by going across the narrow spot.

If you look very carefully at this picture (taken close to the narrowest point), you'll see a little curve of road in the distance, almost directly above the motorcycle seat, peeking out from behind the sheer sandstone cliff. That's a bit of the Shaefer Jeep Road, a one-way two-track path that is the only other way off the Island. It's narrow, twisty, and (in the words of one Park Service brochure) "not for the squeamish."

While the Shaefer road is not particularly rough or loose--a high-clearance two-wheel-drive vehicle can handle it pretty easily--it's not the place to be if you're afraid of heights and sharp dropoffs. This Google Earth image does a pretty good job of showing what the road would look like if you were in a blimp a mile or so to the northeast. As the picture shows, the gravel road claws its way down something like a thousand feet from the "Island" plateau to the White Rim (about halfway down to the Colorado River). Much of the way, the road's right on the edge of a sheer sandstone cliff.

By the way, if you start up Google Earth and go to those coordinates: latitude 38.451 north, longitude 109.818 west, eye altitude about 2km, eye looking west-southwest, you can get a really amazing experience of "flying" through the canyon.

As impressive as the view from the Google Blimp might be, the view from the top of the road is even more amazing. This shot, spliced together from several pictures, gives some idea of what you're looking at when you first turn onto the Shaefer Road.

Given the enormous amount of rock that had to be blasted and piled up and shaped to make a road up this sheer cliff, I have to wonder: why did anyone do it? True, the Shaefer road does provide a sort of short cut from Island in the Sky to Moab, but it's not the kind of shortcut that ranchers could have used to haul cattle to market. The Moab area went through a period of oil exploration in the 50s and 60s, but by then I think the Island area was part of a national monument... so the reason for building this insane road remains a mystery. To me, anyway, and if some good people in Moab know the answer, they haven't bothered to post it on the internet.

Here's another view from the top of the cliff. The road starts out along that shelf just above the big drop, and then winds down through all the switchbacks, and eventually makes it onto the debris slope at the base of the cliff. From there it continues along the White Rim--which is still only halfway down to the Colorado River itself.

I snapped this picture during the family vacation in 1980, from the safety of an overlook, as the Significant Other took one look at where the Shaefer Road went, how close it came to the edge, and promptly vetoed my proposal to explore it in our rented Scout.

On that particular day, there were a couple bikers working their way down the trail. You can just barely see them in this photo, which is an enlargement of the area surrounded by the rectangle in the larger shot. They were on full-dress touring bikes, not dirt bikes; as I've said, the road itself isn't particularly technical, just scary. Seeing a couple human beings in this landscape gives a real sense of just how huge these rock formations are.

Once I got down to the bottom of the hill, there was the minor matter of figuring out how to get to Moab. There are a lot of four-wheel-drive roads down on the White Rim, and once you're outside the park most of them seem to dead-end into potash processing facilities surrounded by barbed-wire fences and threatening signs warning about what will happen to trespassers. I was starting to get just a bit nervous about where I was when I noticed a small--make that tiny--sign alongside the trail. Couldn't have been more than one by two feet, but it carried these reassuring words: PUBLIC ROAD. Darn good thing to know.

Past the potash processing district, the road picked up pavement and passed some other interesting sights, most notably a big rock cliff that seemed to have been equipped with a handle, so Paul Bunyan (whose "Potty" is said to be a pothole arch in the Needles section of the park, where I'd be headed next) could pick it up easily. There were also some roadside petroglyphs and what were said to be fossilized dinosaur tracks, but these things refused to be photographed. Kinda like Hollywood stars.

Wow. What a day. Did I really start in a campground in Colorado, get stuck in the mud in the mountains, negotiate the Cane Creek Road and the Shafer Rim Road all in one day? I guess... one really long day.

Next: I Never Found The Airplane

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