Friday, October 24, 2008

American Idyll 5: Zion’s Towers, 72 Murders, a Massacre & Great Basin’s Bristlecones

Beware great expectations, Jan often cautions. But given all I have read about Zion National Park keeping expectations trimmed wasn’t easy. Suffice to say Zion exceeds expectations however great they might be. Sheer three-thousand-foot sandstone cliffs of many colours, canyons so narrow and deep sunlight is scarce seen at the bottom. We climbed 1,500’ along a razor ridge to astonishing views of Zion Canyon. Brave Jan defied her fear of heights and revelled. Look at our Flickr photos and you’ll see why.

From Zion’s geographic glory we headed west, seeking out the site of an 1857 massacre of 120 emigrant men, women and children by Mormon militia acting on orders from church leaders. Thence, drawn by more small red print in the Wal-Mart mapbook, we landed at a Nevada state park tantalizingly named Cathedral Gorge. The unique and remarkable geography we found there was equal to the name. We stopped at the nearby town of Pioche, which experienced a bonanza of silver and lawlessness in the early 1870s. It is claimed 72 men died by gunshot and stabbings before Pioche’s Boot Hill cemetery accommodated its first interment from natural causes.

Twenty years ago I traveled in May to Mount Wheeler in Great Basin National Park to see some of Earth’s oldest living things, bristlecone pines growing above 11,000’. Alas, May is not a good time: I was foiled by armpit-deep snow. October proved superior. The snow and ice were navigable and we communed with the ancient pines, some of them three thousand years old.

Think of Nevada as a great washboard inclined more or less north-south. Long jagged mountain ranges alternate with high desert valleys. We drove Highway 50, billed the ‘Loneliest Road in America’, across the middle of the state. Only a few communities dot the landscape of mountains and vast expanses of sagebrush. Driving west into the afternoon sun, we crossed thirteen mountain ranges before losing count. Cross the summit of one range and you see three more against the horizon, the first dark smoky blue, the others progressively paler in the distance. When I first drove Highway 50 two decades ago Tom Waits seemed my appropriate musical companion. This time Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen and David Francey provided the counterpoint.

Having a long way to go before our Saturday rendezvous with cousin Terri and Ed in southern Oregon, we drove well past nightfall. With little light contamination along most of its length Highway 50 provides a fine dark night sky. Venus blazed low over yet another mountain range, Jupiter higher behind it, only slightly less resplendent.


1 comment:

KAM said...

With the world economy going to hell in a hand basket, our chances of ever seeing these places seem more remote than ever. Thanks for providing a vicarious adventure.