50@50 – Moab UT; …beneath our feet
During our month long migration from Texas, we spent about a week in Utah. Like everywhere else this summer, it was uber hot! As always, I hear my environment as much as see it, and the southwest is such a different sound world. While hardly a stellar student in aural physics, I do know that dry air carries sound differently than wet air. Calls of hawks bounced off of canyon walls. The frequency of the wind was virtually unaccompanied by trees and grasses. Hiking in the canyons, the range and breadth of the bird songs was a symphonic chorus in itself! My point is that landscape isn’t just seen, it’s heard, smelled, felt – experienced.
On our third day in Utah, we traveled south on Hwy 12. The landscape continuously evolves. This area is called the Grande Staircase and the passage through it is considered one of the most beautiful in the country. Driving west to east, one can plainly see the various geological epochs and the effects of erosion over time. The changing rocks seem almost fluid – like a filmstrip of geological change, as one drives by. Along the way we passed an RV park entirely made up of silver airstreams – so cool. About 12 miles south, the nearly shoulderless highway loses virtually any boundary. Beyond a couple of yards, both sides totally drop off. In other words, the highway becomes a tiny ribbon on top of a cliff. Any small error in judgment would mean certain death – scary and thrilling at the same time!!
Just north of Torry, we stopped at Calf Creek Falls Recreation Area and hiked three miles, hot, beach-sandy miles, to Calf Creek Falls, surrounded by stunningly beautiful Navajo sandstone. The vegetation, sparse at first, thicker as we proceeded teemed with the sounds of birds, frogs and insects! The treat of this hike is a rare waterfall at the end, with surprisingly COLD water pooled at its base! Little kids didn’t seem to notice the frigid temperature. They just dropped all the way in. BRRRR!
Highway 279, outside of Moab winds along the Colorado River with petroglyphs on its cliffs – we never could see the drawings, but along the way, we found a nice shady picnic spot. We saw mining on our way up, stripping row upon row of to access phosphoresce fertilizer ingredients. Much of the work is hidden by hills of discarded debris. The drive was nevertheless beautiful! This path is old and winds for miles on a dirt road all the way down to the Green River. After 16 miles, we arrive in the “town” of Potash, which is little more than a mining facility with high earthen walls and a big fence. A sign reads, “end of paved road”; at which the pavement widens for people to turn around.
Two days later, traveling north toward Flaming Gorge straddling the Wyoming border, we again noticed a LOT of mining. Nearly 80% of Utah is public land managed by federal and state agencies and parks. I’m thinking preservation, archeology, recreation, environmentalism, etc., so seeing this much evidence of mining – much of it strip mining – surprised me. A couple of company names, I didn’t recognize, but I did one big oil company. At mile marker 367 on Hwy 191, an overlook provided interpretive information describing the geology, the mining and how companies attempt post-mining reclamation of the land. We had noticed this further south as well, but not on a scale like this! Every few miles we spotted platforms of equipment that looked like storage tanks, accompanied by tubing and “stuff”. The small sites didn’t look like oil wells, but perhaps it’s part of the controversial oil sands extraction that’s recently moved here. I don’t know. All of this jarred my awareness that a critical part of the landscape, culturally as well as environmentally is far below the surface.
Imagine a piece of paper pivoted on top of the Empire State Building. That’s what we see, the rest is beneath it. Native Americans mined minerals such as copper, turquoise, obsidian, silver, even uranium for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Mormon settlers in the late 1840s initially quarried stone to build, coal, iron and lead for heat, tools and bullets. The general population didn’t trust the Mormons and in 1862, during the Civil War, one Colonel Patrick Conner was sent to Utah to protect the mail and keep an eye on them. He figured where there are minerals, there’s bound to be gold…if he found gold he could start a rush into Mormon territory. Many of his volunteers were experienced prospectors and he sent them out into the canyons to search for gold and silver. It worked. In addition to gold, Utah was found to be one of the richest mineral and stone states in the country.
Mining companies needed labor, and with the aid of expanding railroads, people came by the thousands. The social dynamics of the immigrants, first the Irish, Welsh, and Cornish, followed by southern and eastern Europeans, Japanese, and Mexicans, their interactions, and communities were intertwined with the mining, and became inseparable from the industry itself. People began mining for Uranium, in the 1870’s for use in ceramics, dyes and glass manufacturing, and with the advent of the cold war, uranium became a giant in the 1950s.
With motorized drilling machinery, the rate of extraction, and corresponding refuse grew exponentially. The water table (distance from the surface to water) has dropped leagues, not feet in the past 150 years. And what happens when all the deposits of fuels and ore are depleted and gaping holes are left underground? Collapse is imminent. In some places, it’s already happening. It’s called SLUMPING – my new vocabulary word on this trip. This is a rather dark musing, but my sense of place feels out of whack when I drive through these picturesque mountain landscapes marred by technological machinery. This sounds like the ranting of an extreme conservative and I’m NOT. Then I have to laugh. I think that the Native Americans must have reacted the same way when they saw gleaming metal windmills on settlers’ homesteads. I digress, but this is how my mind works. Today, out of 29 counties in Utah, 24 have current mining activities, many visible near or enroute to recreational areas. Out of the 75 economic minerals mined in the state, 14 contribute to make the state a major mineral producer on the national and global scale: Copper, coal, gold, silver, uranium, iron, lead, zinc, molybdenum, phosphate, salt, potash, beryllium, and gilsonite. I have NEVER heard of three of these things! It just goes to show how much our lives are affected by the landscape underground. We have a dichotomous relationship with mining. We recoil in horror at its devastation while we rely on the availability of its gifts. In our aspirational culture, just selecting a countertop surface can present a moral ecological dilemma!
We arrived at Flaming Gorge in Northeastern Utah, and discovered that all the stunning images did not prepare us for its beauty. Similar conceptually to Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge looks and feels totally different. The color beneath the vegetation is Navajo Sandstone; perhaps because of climate differences, or the underground landscape, the cliffs crack and erode differently from is southern brother. From the vistor center, we hiked the Red Canyon Rim trail for two miles and then drove past the dam to hike the Lost Hole Trail along the Green River (yes, the same Green River that flows through the Canyonlands). Tomorrow, Wyoming.