Category Archives: 2017 Trip to Southwest USA

Bryce National Park: “Poetry in Stone”

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has been described as “Poetry in Stone.” I loved that description.  Each of us who visits Bryce has to remember that the landscape is never static. It is always dynamic and changing. Change is the only constant. The forces of weathering never get fatigued and exert a relentless force on the rock. Bryce Canyon consists of a series of deep amphitheaters filled with a variety of colored rock formations. Some of them are called hoodoos and they are what Bryce Canyon is most famous for.   Hoodoos are eroded columns of sandstone.  They were formed when wind, rain, and ice eroded “fins” of harder rock that eventually being columns and then further eroded into strangely shaped hoodoos. When those windows grow larger, their tops eventually collapse.  Everyone wonders why do they appear here and not in many other places of the world, though I have seen them in Alberta. Frank Decourten wrote a book called Shadow of Timeabout Bryce and its hoodoos “the grand icons of erosion.’ He also pointed out that “Hoodoos are ephemeral–new columns form while older ones are destroyed–and erosion is both their creator and, eventually, their executioner.”  They are created by differential erosion, the cap is harder and does not erode as fast, protecting the column underneath.


We loved the views at the various look offs. Each was spectacular in its own unique way. The spires of pink, orange, and red spires were breathtaking. The Paiute Indians who used to hunt here described them as “red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped recess.” The image above is a panorama. That means I combined a number of photos into one image. If you click on it, I hope it gets bigger.


Of course in the world of geography nothing is forever. As Decourten said, “Inevitably, even the pillars, protected to some degree by dripstone and caprock , succumb to the relentless attack of the elements and the hoodoos begin to crumble.”   Bryce really is a phantasmagorical funhouse made of stone. Bryce is one of the few places where people notice–really notice–the rock. That is because it is so strange. There is no place like it. But they are not only beautiful, they are fascinating if you dig into the geology of Bryce. As Decourten pointed out, “The vibrant colors, the intricate patterns of erosion, and the infinite variations in the surface textures of these rocks are both enchanting and mystifying.”


If you look closely at this picture of me you might be able to see Fear.

Bryce was affected by the Cretaceous Period is one of the most interesting periods in the history of our planet. It lasted approximately 79 million years145.5 million years ago 65.5 million years ago when the dinosaur disappeared. Decourten said “The Cretaceous was perhaps nature’s greatest excursion into mayhem. It was a time when the gradual, steady, geological processes of the planet went haywire.  For example, the slow spreading of the ocean basins which results in continental drift was proceeding at a rate up to three times greater than the rate at which such spreading occurs today!  During the Cretaceous, the plates of the Earth’s brittle crust were dashing around the planet at a geologically reckless speed–as much as 8 inches per year–about five times faster than your fingernails grow (the normal speed of the tectonic plates). Partly as a result of the high rate of seafloor spreading, great quantities of magma were produced and volcanoes erupted on an unprecedented scale with astonishing intensity.  More igneous rock formed worldwide during Cretaceous time than in any other period of geologic history (except perhaps the period just after the formation of the Earth). Ash and gases erupting from the Cretaceous volcanoes seem to have created a natural “greenhouse effect” which profoundly changed the global climate. It was warm 100 million years ago, very warm.  Tropical forests grew as far north as Alaska. The arctic zones disappeared and temperate conditions at eh poles caused the icecaps to melt. Water released during this great thaw lifted the world’s oceans onto the low borderlands of all the Cretaceous continents.

On land and in the swollen seas, a riot of evolution, induced by the rapid and profound environmental changes, produced bizarre life forms: giant seagoing lizards (mosasaurs); flying reptiles the size of small jet aircraft; the horned, armored, and duck-billed types of dinosaurs (not to mention the fearsome predators, such as Tyrannosaurus, which fed on them); tree-sized ferns and other primitive plants. Finally, there is some good evidence the Cretaceous might have been punctuated, 66 million years ago, by a collision between the Earth and an asteroid, an appropriately violent end to a turbulent period. A great extinction followed this event resulting in the extinction of vast amounts of life on earth, including, the dinosaurs.  Much of that ancient history is told in the rocks and fossils of Bryce. The story is endlessly fascinating.


An inland sea divided North America east to west 90 million years ago (‘mya’). During this time sediments were deposited at the bottom of that sea, forming the oldest rocks in the park. Before the canyon was filled with hoodoos it was filled with water. I am particularly interested for some reason in the fact that much of North America was at one time split by an ocean seaway. How can that possibly be? How weird is that desert regions like the American southwest were at one time inundated by this interior seaway? This has been called the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway. When this interior seaway covered much of North America, including Manitoba, coal, sandstone, and mudstone accumulated along the western edge of this seaway. If it had accumulated on the eastern edge we might be richer here in Manitoba today. What a pity. During this time what we now call the Gulf of Mexico penetrated north across the low plains of central North America and joined the waters that were advancing from the northern Arctic Ocean. This incredible seaway in time submerged the entire region where the Rocky Mountains are now found (though they were not in existence yet at that time). This great interior seaway divided North America into two island continents!

Between 55 and 40 mya years ago much of Utah was a basin of water encircled by mountains.  That seems impossible now because it is so dry. Yet for millions of years rivers deposited sediments –mainly dissolved limestone—into a system of large lakes at the top of the Plateau . 20 mya ago, as the Colorado Plateaubegan to be uplifted the lakes dried up and their mixtures of sediments became the muddy limestone that geologists now refer to as the Claron Formation. Then massive tectonic plate activity from 20 to 15 mya began to push up an incredible part of the Earth’s crust. Eventually this uplifted the region by an astonishing 2 miles, creating the 130,00 sq. mile Colorado Plateau that I have come to know a little bit and love a lot.

If one stand on the rim of one of the amphitheaters in Bryce Canyon and thinks about things like this one’s mind is expanded to near stretching limits. The world is and has been a very strange place and much of that strangeness can be detected right here at Bryce.  This ancient world has been recorded in stone. That stone of course was subject to what Decourten called “Water, wind, gravity—nature’s wrecking crew—worked in concert to efface and obscure. He also said, The erosion which removed much of the younger layers created this glorious shrine to the dynamic artistry of geologic processes. Whatever else Bryce Canyon National Park may be, it is certainly a monument to erosion.

What we saw today was the product of massive rock layers that had been uplifted and fractured over millions of years and then submitted to the relentless never-ending forces of erosion. Those forces are not at sleep today. They never sleep. What we see tomorrow will also be the product of those same forces.


I have fallen in love with geology the study of how these forces have shaped our wonderful planet.  That is to me an astonishing admission. I would never have dreamed this were possible when I was a liberal arts student as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba. I despised all science. I was enamoured of the arts and humanities. Science was irrelevant. Now I know how foolish I was. Science is critically important to understanding our world. If we understand it, even if we don’t solve all of its mysteries, we can’t help but love it and if we love it we will try to care for it. That is why science—just like arts and humanities—is vitally important.


Our next stop was one of my favourite—i.e. Natural Bridge formed through the erosion of rock by streams or rivers. This window or arch formed from a combination of processes. First, frost wedging, which is the expanding of cracks in rock as water turns to ice, weakened the rock. Then over time, dissolution occurred as a result of chemical dissolving of the rock by rainwater that cut away at the top and sides of this wall of rock. Over time the relentless force of gravity pulled loose the weakened pieces of rock at the center and that created a hole in the wall that we could clearly see and photograph today. That is why the “bridges” of Bryce Canyon, such as Natural Bridge, are spectacular examples of arches that, like the hoodoos, are constantly at risk of destruction as the never ending forces of erosion chip away at the rock. Nothing stands in the way of time. Everything changes.

Zion Canyon: And some people thought I would never make it to heaven


Last year we visited 2 of Utah’s 5 National Park. Zion Canyon lies at the heart of Zion National Park. It might be the most popular of Utah’s wonders. It certainly was on the day we visited last year, but partly that was because it was Easter and entrance to the park was free. We loved that, though we loved the crowds less.

At thee visitor center I noticed a poster with a quotation from one of my heroes–Edward Abbey.  It said, “Wilderness is not a luxury. It is one of the necessaries of life.” I agree.

We stopped at a few lookouts to take photographs of the mountains from beside the road. We were allowed to drive through the park, but to explore the canyon area we had to take the shuttle. The buses came by frequently so this was no burden. In fact it relieved us of the burden of driving. It made numerous stops and we could easily hop on the next bus. I loved the park; I loved the transportation system. It was another example of the commons!

Zion Canyon was carved by the Virgin River. That seemed impossible for it was such a gentle shallow stream, but appearances can be deceiving. Mountain streams can turn nasty during heavy rainfalls. No doubt over eons that is what carved this wondrous canyon. John Wesley Powell described this well: “All of this is the music of waters.” In a desert the great sculpting force has been water. Go figure.

The Virgin River is the driving force behind the wonders of Zion National Park.  Looking at that gentle stream this seems inconceivable, but it is true.  The flowing waters over millions of years cause the cliffs to disintegrate. When the canyons deepen forested highlands and lowland deserts are established. A wide array of plants and animals follow. The water creates green oases of lush plants in an otherwise red desert.



People have enjoyed the canyon for thousands of years. From early on people saw it as a sanctuary in the desert. The very name, “Zion” refers to the “Promised Land.” I thought that apt. And some people thought I would never make it into heaven!


It is difficult to fathom that in this desert landscape, water is the force behind everything that we see. North of Zion, rain falling in the highlands of the Colorado Plateau races downhill and carves the relatively soft layers of rock into the magnificent shapes that we saw today. Of course, that work of sculpturing is never over. Nature is never satisfied with its creation. It refines and amends relentlessly without ever stopping.

Millions of years ago streams, oceans, volcanoes, and deserts deposited thousands of feet of mud, lime, sand, and ash. The immense pressure of that pile of debris and sediment and the heat created by the accumulating layers of sediment turned lower layers into stone. Later underground geological forces raised up the Colorado Plateau creating a 130,000 sq. miles of uplifting rock 10,000 feet above sea level. Rain and the streams and rivers worked its way into the cracks in the rock, loosening grains of sand and widening those fractures especially when the water froze in those cracks and widened them by the force of its expansion as ice.  The forces of erosion created the wonderful canyons we saw today.

Of course these processes continue to this day. Rivers still deposit sediment that still turn to stone. From time to time earthquakes punctuate the Plateau’s upward journey. Erosion then continues to pry pieces of rock, some of them huge, from the cliffs.  Whether we like it or not, this canyon someday will melt it away.  Like all creations of nature it is doomed. The only constant is change.


At one of the stops of the shuttle we saw some mountain climbers climbing up what appeared to me to be a sheer cliff. I was scared just watching them.  We were told that the climb ordinarily took 2 days, but one intrepid climber had climbed solo without ropes in half a day. That man must be mad. I took a number of photographs of them and even with my 300 mm zoom lens, the climbers looked like tiny specks. One climber I realized when I saw the images on my computer was standing at the top waiting for his buddies to get up to join him.


On the way out of the park we stopped for more photographs. I never get enough in such a magnificent place.  We saw a mule deeralong the way as well as Bighorn Sheep. In fact we saw a small herd of sheep coming up and down the mountain right beside the road. I noticed that the female sheep had horns.

I took a lot of photographs today. In other words I had a fantastic time.  It was another of those days, like last year in Arches National Park, like the time we visited the Grand Canyon, like the time we visited Monument Valley, and others, where I was enthralled by the natural world around me and I tried as best as I could to capture it in photographic images. I know I am too poor a photographer to do that, but it is sure is fun trying. This was a fantastic day. It was an experience of a lifetime. It was almost heaven.


All American Road: Scenic Byway 12



We woke up and ate breakfast in our hotel and stopped briefly in town to take a couple of photos from Kanab. Then we headed north along highway 89, continuing our exploration of the extravagant Colorado Plateau. Driving in the morning was an exquisite pleasure.  Driving I have decided, while looking at mountain creeks and forests is the perfect place for happy little clouds and happy little thoughts. It was clearly a place to do what DeWitt Jones says we should do: “celebrate what’s right with the world.” Here that was easy.  I thought of Azar Nafisi and her two wonderful books, Reading Lolita in Tehran and Republic of Imagination which I read. One last year; one this year. Brilliant and inspiring. I thought of Marilyn Robinson in her Gilead trilogy. Minsters in a small Iowa town bringing much-needed gentleness to religion. If I had read this series before I lost my faith who knows how different my life might have been. But above all I thought about what a beautiful day it was. A beautiful day in the neighbourhood as Mr. Rogers might say.


Highway 12 connects Highway 89 with Capitol Reef National Park about miles away. According to my guide book, “This road boast what may be the most spectacular and diverse array of landscapes found along any road in the country.” This, I found, was no exaggeration.

The road starts south of Panguitch where Highway 89 intersected with highway 12. Our first stop just a couple of miles into the journey was at Red Canyon State Park immediately beside the road. I have already posted photos from there.             Red Canyon State Park is cut into the fantastic red mountains of the Paunsaugunt Plateau sprinkled with dark green coniferous trees. It has weirdly carved erosional rock forms that form a stunning array of turrets, hoodoos, pinnacles, or spires. Such features are found at many places along this magical road, but perhaps most sensationally right at the beginning of the road (from the west) or near the end (from the east). I took many photographs of this amazing place. It was very difficult for me to tear myself away while there was still room left on my camera’s memory cards.

We also drove through Cannonvillea quaint Bryce Valley town. It was settled by Mormons in 1876 and named after one of those settlers George Q. Cannon. They have an annual Old Time Fiddlers and Bear Festival. Now that is a strange combination. Fiddlers and bears?


There are constants in this country: red stone, flawless silence, impossible blue skies, and beauty without end. It often looks lifeless. But if there is water, there is life.

Sadly, this is one of the National Monuments that Donald Trump wants to desecrate. He says it is too big. So he wants to cut it down to size. 20% is all that will be left. This is national disgrace, but that won’t stop Trump.

A short drive off of Scenic Byway 12 took us to another special place—Kodachrome Basin State Park. I hesitated about driving 9 miles out of the way from Cannonville past the sign at a forsaken gas station that read, “Too Pooped to Pump”. How foolish that would have been not to take that diversion. I would have missed the splendour of this astonishing park. One of the little gems of Utah, often missed by those in pursuit of the “Big 5.”  Just like tourists in Africa often miss out on Africa in pursuit of their Big 5.

Not only that, but once we arrived we considered not going into the park since we had to pay the park fee even though we would be here just a short time. I think it cost us $15 or something like that. We were about to drive back when Chris, ever the wise one, said “lets pay”. It would have been criminally negligent to have gone. It was astoundingly beautiful, like so much in Utah on the Colorado Plateau.

Kodachrome was named in the 1940s after a revolutionary slide film prepared by Kodak. Some people think it is stupid to name a park after a film. As a photographer who loved to shoot Kodachrome for years, until its supremacy was dethroned by Velvia produced by Fuji. What is wrong with naming a park after a brilliant film? Maybe nothing.


Visitors to the park are drawn to it by it unusual geological forms such as a series of upright cylindrical forms. There is a series of them called sand pipes. They vary in height from 6 to 170 feet.  More than 60 of them have been identified in the park and we had a picnic very near to one of them.

Geologists are not in agreement about how the pipes were created. One theory goes sort of like this: What is certain is the pipes provided a unique landscape that we enjoyed immensely, especially as we had a lovely picnic. A stellar jay came to visit us, expecting we might be willing to hand out food to a poor supplicant. Sadly, when it perched on a branch right beside our table, like an incompetent photographer, I scared it away when I went to get my camera from the car, much to Chris’s disappointment. She had her camera ready, but it was gone. A competent photographer, like Chris, would have had the camera at the ready. Nonetheless we had a wonderful picnic and Chris did not maim me for my ignorant stumbling away from grace.


The story of the park is the story of geology which is the story of the earth. The one thing that is constant with the earth is change. That sounds paradoxical but it is not. Nothing stays the same; even massive rock. Everything changes and over time reveals the secrets of its history to observant seekers. Each layer of rock is like a new chapter of a book. Some layers tell a story of when the land was covered by a large inland sea. Other layers speak of raging rivers long since becalmed. Some layers speak of the unspeakable—immensely violent forces of nature that often seem so benign. Each layer tells the story of relentless forces of erosion—wind and water that can carve the hardest surface. All they need is time and gravity and then nothing can stand in their way. And this story never ends. New pages are added literally every day. We just have to learn to read those fascinating pages.

The towering chimneys of Kodachrome Basin change in color with the day’s changing moods. Against a clear blue sky like today, they look tinged with red, like so much of the American southwest. This contrast led the National Geographic Society to get the permission of Kodak to name the park after their film.

The stone sand pipes protrude from the surrounding sandstone out of which they have been carved like one  of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures that we saw in Florence. They seem to stand like guards over the park. It was indeed a great day in the neighbourhood.


Utah: Life elevated

I love Utah. This is natural–in more ways than one. Utah has more national parks than any other state. It also has many national monuments. All of that is because it is such a spectacular place. I have found heaven—it is Utah.


Utah abounds in gorgeous.Utah is famous for its “Big Five” National Parks.  It has more national parks than any other state. There is good reason for that. Yet, some of the state parks are also sensational.

These photos are all from a tiny state park, called Red Canyon. Named, of course, for its wonderful, red rocks


In  particular I love the spectacular red rocks on the Colorado Plateau that covers much of Utah.


Life elevated” is the state motto.  They also say, “linger longer.” I can see why.

Land ownership by the government in both Arizona and Utah is extremely controversial. Partly that is because federal and state governments own so much of the land. Nearly 80% of all land in Utah is owned by the federal and state governments. That drives conservatives crazy! Conservatives think this land should be privately owned. Liberals think it should be owned publicly for the benefit of all. I agree with the liberals.



President Obama ordered the Land Management Bureau, which manages the public land for the benefit of all, to stop issuing coal mining leases. Just this year, the new President, Trump, unsurprisingly cancelled that order.  Trump does not care about the environment. He cares about appearingto do all he can to encourage American jobs. I know jobs are important.

I just don’t believe we need to abandon efforts to fight climate change to do that. Jobs don’t trump the environment. Trump trumps the environment. Coal mining does not provide a lot of jobs and it does provide the means to increase greenhouse gases enormously, just when we ought to be cutting back. Added to that, it is highly unlikely that those coal-mining jobs will ever come back. Robots are not going away anytime soon. Robots, not government regulations have taken most coal mining jobs. People want cleaner power. Even the Chinese want cleaners power.

Utah is certainly worth protecting.


I am not sure there is any more beautiful place in the world than Utah.



Wild, Wild Horses


On a exploration of the Tonto National Forest by car, we stopped at Butcher Jones Road where we were surprised by a herd of wild horses walking through the picnic area and beach. Many, including us, ambled up to them trying to take photographs. I counted 13 horses in the herd. It is amazing to see wild horses. One onlooker explained to me that this was the only place the horses could access water so they came almost every day for a drink. We watched carefully to make sure we were not trampled. Apparently no one has ever got hurt by them though he recommended standing close to a tree since they never ran into trees.

Another photographer explained to me that he was part of a conservation group that successfully pleaded with the governor to halt efforts to send them to a glue factory. For now at least their tenure is secure. I applauded him for his efforts. We took many photographs of them today. How could we not?

The  volunteer group called the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (‘SRWHMG”) has made the protection of these wild horses their mandate. They believe that the horses and their ancestors have been roaming free along the lower Salt River in Arizona, for centuries. Arizona’s State Archives hold historic evidence of their existence in the Salt River Valley, dating all the way back to the 1800’s when they were already referred to as “native stock”.  But in 2015 they were threatened with total removal.

SRWHMG monitors daily the horses and keeps records of them. Sometimes they rescue and rehabilitate suffering and injured Salt River wild horses. Part of the problem is that the horses wander onto highways. As a result this group maintains and repairs miles of fencing along Bush Highway and recreation areas. They want to keep a small piece of “wild” for future generations to come.

The mustangs may be descendants of Spanish or Iberian horses that were brought to the Americas by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The name “mustang” was derived from the Spanish word mustengo, which means “ownerless beast.” Today the word “mustang” and “wild horse” are used interchangeably.

In 1687 one of the first European explorers of the region, Missionary Father Eusebio Keno journeyed to Southern Arizona (then part of the Mexican Sonora). Due to his efforts, missions and stockyards were developed. He reportedly left hundreds of horses and cattle at each mission. His many expeditions on horseback covered over 50,000 square miles. He had 6 successful missions in Arizona including in Phoenix and Tubac.

By the 1800s wild horse herds were found all over the western plains and were noticed by many settlers and explorers. For example, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark saw them on their historic exploratory expedition from 1804-1806. Sadly, the horses were treated like the bison. Mass extermination started around 1850 because wild horses were considered competition for cattle. Many were shot or poisoned. The United States Forest Services (“USFS “) and ranchers organized roundups to shoot them. Even as late as 1908 the Forest Service put out a standing order to kill every wild horse on sight in Lander County. The wonderful animals were considered “worthless.” In the Phoenix area they were slaughtered in the thousands. The Bureau of Land Management now believes that there are about 500 left in Arizona.

The USFS  believes that they are not wild, but are escaped “livestock.” They did not want to be responsible for their management. They were not able to find any wild horses when they went looking, but  SRWHMG today believes they did not look very hard. SRWHMG suggests that they based their analysis on only one faulty outing. Yet as a result the USFS said they intended to sell the horses unless someone claimed them. In 2015 they issued a “notice to impound” to the public, but no one came to claim ownership. Even the Native American tribes did not claim them. The SRWHMG therefore takes the position that they are not truly feral or stray livestock. What is clear is that the horses are indeed wild and unowned. The SRWHMG believes that they are part of Arizona history and ought to be preserved. As a result they are doing their best to protect them from possible destruction by the USFS. For the time being it appears that they are safe, but this protected status is fragile. Ironically, the wild horses now rely on the advocacy efforts of humans, their long time foes. In the world of wild life conservation this is a frequent anomaly. Life is strange.