Happenings May 2005
by Rory Tyler
dictionary defines “amble” as “a
leisurely walking pace”. But, as is often the case
with dictionary definitions, this is a rudimentary introduction
to a complex concept that reveals new characteristics with
each examination. For me, ambling is also a state a mind;
a meditation, an exploration, a celebration and more. Its
seeming aimlessness is actually a demanding discipline
ideally suited for discovering the beauty, complexity,
and interrelated intricacies of geology and life on the
Colorado Plateau. It’s a Way for a conscientious
walker to approach a personal understanding of the benevolent
Creation that blessed each of us with life and gave us
the opportunity and faculty to be awed and amazed by the
wondrous and improbable anomalies of the canyon lands.
A good amble isn’t just a leisurely stroll. It’s
a seminar on desert ecology, an exercise in advanced consciousness,
an opportunity to confront and analyze our own conventions
and anxieties, a party and a prayer.
Our culture conditions us to desire some goal or another
to such a degree that something as sedate and unfocused
as a good amble can seem like a waste of time. We look
at a little map, see that such-and-such an arch is
over here and such-and-such an arch is over there,
and start creating a schedule…just like home. But did you travel all this way because
it’s like home? You come to see new landscapes, but to experience
them you have to leave your habitual state of mind behind, too. This
can be difficult, even uncomfortable. We think we’ve got to get
somewhere. We’ve got to see something. Fact is, we are somewhere.
We are seeing something. And this country is so strange, so rich, so
intense, and so alien to all the other landscapes of our lives that it
can confuse, confound, intimidate, even threaten the comforting constructs
that we typically rely on; things like goals, destinations, and schedules.
test my little theory, I recently went for a hard amble
in one of Moab’s
most loved, most accessible canyons, Negro Bill. As you
may have guessed, it wasn’t always called Negro Bill
Canyon. Its title was amended in the due course of the
politically correct 1960’s, but is still, in my opinion,
somewhat demeaning. It was the black cowboy, Bill Granstaff,
who ran his cattle here in the 1870’s and 80’s,
so why not name it Granstaff Canyon? Go figure. It has
also been suggested that the location be renamed ‘Afro-American
William Canyon’, but I believe this to be more of
a facetious and exaggerated social comment than an actual
campaign to correct an expression of historically condescending
nomenclature. At least I hope so.
To get to Negro Bill Canyon drive north on Highway 191,
then turn right on Highway 128 just before the Colorado
River Bridge. There is a parking lot at the mouth of the
canyon, three miles from the turn. It is one of the most
people-friendly, kid-friendly, dog-friendly places around.
The walking is easy, the trail unmistakable. The steep canyon walls make
it nearly impossible to get lost. There is a year-round, crystal clear,
spring-fed stream running through the bottom and ample shade all along.
If you need a destination the beautiful Morning Glory Natural Bridge
is 2 miles from the trailhead. The only drawbacks to this canyon are
the occasional patches of poison ivy, particularly at Morning Glory.
I suggest you refrain from petting anybody else’s dog.
I’ve been to Negro Bill numerous times, but I was really surprised
by how much I saw and how much I learned when I slowed down to the pace
of an insurance adjustor settling a personal injury claim. I’ve
always been impressed by the way Nature has painted the walls of this
canyon with mineral seeps, lichen curtains, and the mysterious black
sheen of the bacterial deposits known as desert varnish. But today I
was more than impressed. I was astounded. I’d been taking these
miraculous paintings for granted for too long, as though I’d had
a Van Gogh hanging in the hallway and had hardly glanced at it for ages.
My next surprise came about a quarter mile upstream at a huge alcove
on the left. Part way up the alcove wall is a horizontal seep line that
nurtures one of the most prolific hanging gardens of maidenhair fern
and columbine I know of. After all these years of walking right past
it in my rush to get up-canyon, I was really quite embarrassed to realize
what a treasure I’d been ignoring.
I also noticed, for the first time, the bulldozer cut across the canyon
from the trail. This scar was created by a group of self-styled “Sagebrush
Rebels” back in the 1980’s. Encouraged by the provocative
machismo of Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, and the environmentally
retrogressive rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, they took it upon themselves
to demonstrate that even a jewel like Negro Bill Canyon was not immune
to the depredations of petrochemical hubris. How quaint it all seems
today! But, lest you think that this particular strain of Homo Jeepanderthalis
is now extinct, you merely have to cross the county line to discover
thriving colonies of these industrious hominids hard at work, making
the desert amenable to every wheeled contrivance imaginable.
My last revelation occurred about a mile from the start, where the canyon
takes a hard left turn. Instead of continuing on the trail, I crossed
the stream and climbed up to the bench above it. I’d noticed this
bench before, but was always in too much of a hurry to explore it…to
my lasting shame. One of my favorite pastimes is walking on pure slickrock
and, as it turns out, this bench is one of the most extravagant expressions
of unadulterated stone around. Step up on this bench and you are now
millions of miles away from your well-known earthly home, traipsing across
a landscape as disconcertingly alien as any ever conceived by George
Lucas…or James Watt.
Then it was time to head home. I had covered a grand total of two miles
in four hours. I was thirsty, hungry, and happy. I’m ready to go
back and do it again. I can think of two or three odd little declivities
that I didn’t have time for and which might reward me in ways that
more than compensate for energy expended. And I think I’ll bring
a book of poetry, too. Amble on!