In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all that is all wretched and useless.
They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants. Why then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory? Why have not the still more level, the greener and more fertile Pampas, which are serviceable to mankind, produced an equal impression?
The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely passable, and hence unknown; they bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there seems no limit to their duration through future time. If, as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look to these last boundaries to man's knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations
--Charles Darwin "The Voyage of the Beagle," 1836
Island in the Sky
The Spring on the canyon floor is fringed with reeds and tall grass. After a long dry spell it shrinks to little more than a patch of wet sand. Over the past few months, however, the rains have been plentiful and the spring now lies at the bottom of a broad, shallow pool. So much water is bubbling up out of the ground that the surface of the pool seems to shimmer and dance. At the far end it slides over a rounded ledge of sandstone,joining the narrow stream that winds through the floor of the canyon toward the Colorado River some five miles away.
Water is valuable in the desert, and the sand near the spring is covered with tracks: the footprints of coyotes and mule deer that roam the desert at night. At midday the canyon seems almost lifeless. The stillness is broken only by scattered, solitary sounds: the croak of a raven flying overhead, the brittle rustle of dry grass and old weeds, the clatter of loose stones kicked up by a desert bighorn sheep traversing a scree slope near the canyon rim some five hundred feet above.
It is late fall, and the air is still and dry. Down in the canyons among the walls of red and cream-colored rocks the leaves on the cottonwood trees are bright gold. Up above, the sky is the color of turquoise and laced with thin, white ribbonlike clouds. Nights are clear and cold, illuminated by the soft, blue light of the moon. Mornings I walk down from my camp on a sandy ledge in a nearby side canyon to find the spring rimmed with ice. In three days the high desert will be covered with more than five inches of snow.
Up on the canyon rim you can lean against the twisted trunk of a juniper tree and look out across a surreal landscape of spires, fins, and arches of rock that stretches for miles in every direction. Here and there domes of smooth, worn rock rise up out of the ground like giant waves, colored in shades of red, pink, and white. The air is so sharp and clear that you can see the tops of high, snow-covered peaks more than seventy miles away.
The high desert is a landscape of sharp contrasts. Although the ground here is more than a mile high, it is not rich and green like the alpine reaches of the Rockies or the Sierras, but dry and bare. While summer temperatures frequently climb above a hundred degrees, in winter it can plunge to more than twenty below zero. Two months of dry, rainless heat can be broken by a late-summer thunderstorm that drops more than four inches of rain in an hour. Flash floods fill dry washes with five- and ten-foot-high surges of water that disappear almost as quickly as they come. Other storms drift across the landscape without leaving a drop: purple and black thunderheads twenty to thirty thousand feet high with silver and gray curtains of rain trailing beneath them that evaporate without even reaching the ground.
At first glance the land here seems almost uninhabitable. Mesa tops and canyon rims are covered by scrubby forests of pinyon and juniper. Elsewhere the ground is poor and supportsonly a few tough, weedlike plants: pale green clumps of sagebrush, snakeweed, and four-winged saltbush. There is almost no soil. Much of it is bare rock. Yet walk through the canyons that weave through the desert and you will find groves of cottonwood trees and pockets of green grass. Hanging gardens of ferns and small flowers lie hidden in grottoes and seeps in the canyon walls. Turn a corner in a nameless side canyon and you will find that the rocks are suddenly covered with drawings--pictographs and petroglyphs of giant, ghostlike figures in headdresses and kilts more than ten feet high, surrounded by images of antelopes and salamanders that scurry across the stones in shades of red, brown, and tan. Elsewhere the deserts are littered with the remains of abandoned villages and towns: the ruins of pueblos, kivas, and towers, the leavings of prehistoric people like the Fremont and Anasazi, who lived here more than seven hundred years ago. Here and there pieces of broken pottery and charred kernels of corn litter the ground--as if they had been abandoned only a few weeks before.
This world of slickrock canyons and abandoned cliff dwellings is all part of the Colorado Plateau, a vast, high desert that sprawls over four western states. Centered over a region known as the Four Corners, the place where the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah all come together, it is geologically, biologically, and culturally distinct from the high mountains and low deserts that surround it. It stretches all the way from the western edge of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and New Mexico to the eastern edge of the Basin and Range country of Utah and Arizona. From north to south it reaches allthe way from the Uinta Mountains in northern Utah near the Wyoming border to the Mogollon Rim in the volcanic highlands of central Arizona and New Mexico. Although it covers an area larger than New England, its total population is measured in thousands, not millions.
Its name is deceptive because the Colorado Plateau is not actually a single plateau but a broad belt of several dozen that spreads across the Four Corners region like a series of flat-topped tables. Their names are almost as colorful as the rocks themselves: Kaibab, Kaiparowits, Chaco, Wasatch, Tavaputs, Roan, Aquarius, and several others. In between them are broad desert valleys and high, solitary peaks, a landscape unlike any other in the western United States.
Here near the center of the Colorado Plateau the converging drainages of the Green and Colorado rivers have carved such an intricate network of canyons that the larger details of the landscape are almost impossible to see. Its surface seems almost entirely vertical: divided by successive walls of sheer smooth rock. It is only from t
Kenneth A. Brown's work has appeared in Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor, and Discover. He lives in Kettering, OH.