After more than a month on the arid high plateaus of southern Utah, my eyesight has changed.
Like wearing a pair of tinted glasses, everything I see is filtered through a dusty, amber-hued atmosphere. Without competition from other colors on the spectrum, the distinctions between brown, burnt sienna, and cinnamon become as stark as the differences between blue, red, and yellow. With that adjustment I’ve grown to appreciate the sparse and rugged beauty of what would have seemed uninhabitable a few weeks ago.
The grandeur of the landscape helps. As I appreciate the massive scale and impossible shapes of the rocks here, I also cannot help but marvel at the life that’s found its footing in such a hostile environment.
Small lizards abound, though I cannot imagine what they eat to sustain their great numbers. Perhaps each other, since there are no insects to speak of here. Aside from the brash ravens stationed in pairs at each imposing, desolate place we visit, birds are so rare that even the drabbest sparrow is made precious by its scarcity.
Defiant sage brushes clinging to, and even thriving in, their immovable homes along the perpendicular rockfaces earn my deepest respect. But the casual, surefooted bighorn sheep scaling the cliff ledges to nibble on those same prickly branches are just a source of dismay. Unlike their rooted meal targets, they at least can move.
Why aren’t they someplace else? Someplace green?
Of Orchards and Petroglyphs
True to the objective of our trek along Haven’s Path, we evaluate each place we visit for its potential to become our forever home.
While we feel privileged to have taken in so many unique and incredible sights of southern Utah, Glenn and I swiftly concluded that the dry southwestern United States is not for us. We now know for sure that Haven will be someplace green.
Alas, having reached that early conclusion, we still have weeks more to go in the waterless southwest as we trek toward the west coast to accept its kind offer of a mild winter near the sea. There we hope to enjoy greener vistas – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Still in Utah, and resigned to our parched fate over the coming weeks, we drove into Capitol Reef National Park determined to re-summon our wonder at the continued parade of awesome-but-dry stone arches, bridges, canyons, castles, caves, chimneys, cliffs, domes, dry washes, honeycombs, hoodoos, mesas, monoliths, peaks, plateaus, valleys, and windows.
Instead … surprise gave way to giddiness as we found ourselves driving along field after field of lush orchards.
Drinking in the iridescence of the green grass and leaves, our eyes were bathed in this new verdant palette. What a difference water makes! The calm, generous flow of the Fremont River makes its mark here, painting with green splashes along its banks.
The vertical backdrop of the brown and orange surrounding cliffs remained, and seemed even more mingy next to such iconic examples of nature’s bounty.
This juxtaposed setting was where we spent four days exploring, winding our way between the rocky, desolate heights and the fertile river valley below.
The orchards, it turns out, are vestiges of the Mormon pioneers who made a settlement here called Fruita. Starting around 1890 and until the 1950’s there were roughly 10 (large) families living here. Practicing self-sufficiency in relative isolation, they sold what fruits of their labor they didn’t store for winter, working hard to make a modest living. Gradually, as part of the national park movement, the US government purchased and preserved the “town.” Today, the NPS maintains the orchards using the traditional techniques of their original cultivators, even preserving the trenched irrigation system that diverts water from the river to the fields. At harvest time, park visitors can come to pick and eat these heritage fruits.
Before the Fruita settlement, this was part of the rough passage west for Mormon pioneers. A section of their course passed through a high, dry wash called Capitol Gorge. Today, its canyon walls serve as a memorial for their journey with countless names and dates of their uncertain travels etched into the red sandstone.
The reverence afforded this humble graffiti made me wonder at what point defacement become history. Yet, history it is.
Even older graffiti exists here.
People inhabited this lush landscape for thousands of years. Ancient Puebloans thrived here for centuries, farming maize, beans and squash in the rich glens. Around 1300, signs of their civilization here indicate an end of some kind. This coincides with a major drought, so that could have been the cause. The circumstances must have been dire as I cannot imagine anyone wanting to leave this paradise after seeing the unforgiving lands surrounding it.
Before leaving, however, these people also left their own marks in the same sandstone: petroglyphs of mysterious forms and meanings. The distinct style of these forms are found near other ruins in the region. For me, knowing that hundreds of years ago someone stood in the exact spot where I was standing to carve these figures excited my imagination. What did they signify to the artist? Were they tributes or prayers of some kind? Or were they too the simplest kind of graffiti: an “I was here” declaration?
What a deeply human sentiment: striving to make our mark – literally or figuratively – on this world. Between tidy orchards, printed inscriptions, and ancient pictures, the people who came to this place certainly made theirs.
Whatever else they did, they got something right in my book – they did it in someplace green.