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Hiking Happenings May 2005

Amble On...
by Rory Tyler

The 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.

To 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!



Cryptobiotic soil garden


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