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Hiking Happenings September 2006

On the Edge
by Rory Tyler

Mill Creek

Lately I’ve been hanging out on the edge. In this case, on the edge of Mill Creek Canyon. A phrase like ‘on the edge’ seems to have been created by the Department of Poetic Licenses specifically so writers can allude to something like ‘survival’ or ‘enlightenment’. But, after rummaging a while through the Yard Sale of Accumulated Folly that serves me for a memory, no precarious existential phase comes into focus as an apt simile for the simmple act of strollling to the Mill Creek Rim and being overwhelmed by beauty.

This precipice is a special place. A sheer-walled sandstone canyon hundreds of feet deep, its walls covered with desert varnish abstracts, streaked lichen, intricate cracks and fissures, and filled with lush cottonwood groves. The entire scene is framed by the stone-cut horizons of the Moab Rim and the La Sal Mountains. It’s not a large area, but what it lacks in breadth it makes up for in intensity. With your feer solidly on the slickrock, and oblivion only inches away, there are the invetible fantasies of flying. Alas! Ground-bound plodders that we are, the best we can do is hang our feet over the edge of a the cliff and jealously exercise our overactive imaginations while the ravens soar and the swallows whistle past.

The Mill Creek Rim is a quintessential slickrock archetype composed entirely of Navajo Sandstone. For me, the Navajo is the most interesting and attractive of Moab’s ancient desert remains. Here, the inexorable forces of erosion reveal the edges of ancient, wind-lain sand dunes - fragile ridges of rocke etching the graceful, rolling shoulders of golden stone. Each declivity is filled with exotic, bonsai-like cryptogamic gardens. The slopes and walls are spattered everywhere with multi-colored lichens. These remarkable organisms are symbiotic cooperatives of bacteria and fungi that thrive on naked rock. The bacteria digest the stone, which provides nutrients for the fungi. The fungi use the nutrients for photosynthesis, which provides fuel for the bacteria to do their work. And so on. In some species the process starts in a single spot, then expands out in ring-like colonies that, when the lichen finally dies, leave circular scars on the surface. The conflation of color and shape, the intermix of all these geological and biological elements, is one of the things that makes it so delightful to amble in the Navajo.

The eroding slopes and and symbiotic gardens also make it incumbent on hikers to be particularly careful where they put their feet. The sidebar on this page describes cryptogamic soil and the ‘why and how’ of conscientious locomotion. Less obvious, however, is the damage that can be done to the stone itself. The delilcate veneer of wind-spun ridges that often limn these stony contours cannot sustain the slightest bit of weight. In a splilt second an unconsidered footfall can crush what it took Nature untold centuries to reveal. It might seem that a few crumbled flakes of stone can’t amount to much, but consider the possible impact from decades of unenlightened plodding. As my experience grows, I am ever more embarrassed when I feel the snap of a stone beneath my feet.

The best way to get to the Mill Creek Rim is from Campsite Cluster E on the Sand Flats Rode, about three miles from its junction with Mill Creek Drive. Cluster E is also the trailhead for the four-wheel drive track known as ‘Fins ‘n Things’. You’ll recognize it as a dark, sooty smudge across the tawny terrain. Here, only the blackened scars of the lichen remain and the slickrock is covered with a loose, chaotic crumble of crushed stone. Thank goodness group like the Sand Flats Team, BLM, Grand County, and Red-Rock Four-Wheelers got together years ago to keep this situation from getting out of hand and devastating the entire area. (The Sand Flats model is an excellent example of a successful multi-use strategy for high-impact recreation areas.)

You can easily get to the Rim on the ‘Fins ‘n Things’ trail, but it’s a little depressing. I prefer to start at Campsite #5, cross the sandstone hump there to the wash on the other side, go up the wash and cross the ridge, then down to the edge of the canyon. It’s about three-quarters of a mile. There is no trail, but if you keep the pyramid shape of Mount Tukhanikivats at the 10 o’clock position you’ll be fine. Use extreme caution. A few years ago a young mountain lion fell to its death from this precipice and I’ll bet it had more experience than you or I, not to mention twice as many feet.

Rory Tyler is available for cowboy poetry/campfire song gatherings which include lore, science, history and lies of the Moab area. (Suitable for all age groups). Rates are negotiable. Give Rory a call at 435-260-8496.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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