by Tori Peters
I must admit that I have never been a geology enthusiast. During my undergraduate years, I was required to take an earth science course. I chose geology; I can’t remember why. Maybe because the time for the course fit into my schedule better than the geography class. This is where I confess that I earned a “D” grade in that class because I refused to memorize the rocks. As an English major more interested in literature and writing than rocks, I figured if I really wanted to know a rock’s name or what it was composed of I would buy a field guide to help me. Age and travel have a way of tricking me back to geology. Rock names don’t interest me but weathering, anticline, synclines, tectonic forces do.
When Jo, Tom, and Lois, California friends, suggested that we take a road trip to include visits to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon National Parks. I jumped at the opportunity. Jo and Lois set the itinerary and made reservations. Tom would be doing most of the driving. I bought Your Guide to the National Parks by Michael Joseph Oswald so that I could educate myself on what we could do and see at each park. In the chapter about Grand Canyon, I read about the Grand Staircase. Oh, that is interesting I thought. What exactly does this mean?
Millions and millions of years ago as Earth tried to figure out her role in the universe and after a high mountain range as high as the Himalayas eroded away, deposits of sedimentary materials from the ever changing landscape in this area that we know as Utah and Arizona, layered one on top of another. Earth’s fractured crust, like most humans, does not sit still. It bumps into one another pushing, pulling apart, and sliding. The land tilts up, folds under, or slides one way or the other. These actions cause the layers of collected sediment to look like a layered cake that has slipped around on runny frosting. I have felt earthquakes, I know how this can be both fascinating and scary. Imagine then the Colorado River and her tributaries eating their way through the layers. The waters carry sedimentary rock down river as they dig deeper and deeper into the earth. Canyons are formed. I wish it were this simple but it isn’t.
I read that Clarence Dutton, an American geologist and Captain in the Army, traveled with the John Wesley Powell expedition to explore the Colorado Plateau. As he looked north from the Grand Canyon, he noticed that the geological landscape formed a geological staircase. The top layer, the top step, he called the “Pink Cliffs” and first step. This became Bryce Canyon National Park. The bottom geological layer at Bryce is the top layer at Zion National Park, and he called it “Grey Cliffs”. The third step, the White Cliffs, is the bottom geological layer at Zion and the top layer at Grand Canyon National Park. I have to admit that I had to think about this for a long time. I understood the words that I read, and I could picture the staircase in my head. Did I really understand?
We did not plan the trip with the idea of the geological Grand Staircase. We drove to Zion first. It was probably on our way to Zion that I mentioned the Grand Staircase to my friends. They thought it an interesting concept, but travel experiences and politics dominated our conversation. At Zion National Park, I was more interested in hiking to Angel’s Landing and astonished at the different colors, so different than Western Washington, then the geology of the canyon. Because I thought it might help us understand the sights that brought forth “oohs and ahs,” I bought a book at the gift store titled Geology Unfolded: An illustrated Guide to the Geology of Utah’s National Parks. The book explained the Grand Staircase and Hoodoos. Don’t you love saying that word, “Hoodoo?” It cries to be the subject of a song. A hoodoo is the result of varied sedimentary material layering one on top of the other, forces of plate tectonics stressing the layers, and climate and water eroding those layers. The finished product, “hoodoo,” named for its strange human or goblin shapes, create a rare and beautiful nature sculptured landscape
We became Hoodoo paparazzi before we even entered Bryce Canyon. Our camera’s clicked at any rock sculpture that looked like a Hoodoo. At Bryce I had to remind myself to stop taking pictures and to experience the beauty around me. The fact that we were walking on the top stair of the staircase entered our minds, but the hoodoos had our attention. Every once in a while one of the four of us would mention the staircase or ask to read the Utah geology book to try and take in the information.
The geological variation on the long drive from Mesa Verde to the Grand Canyon entertained our imaginations. We arrived at the eastern end of the South Rim around 3:00 P.M. At our first stop, Desert View, we explored “Indian Watchtower” designed in 1932 by one of America’s early women architects, Mary Colter. From the terrace and the tower, we had our first sight of the Grand Canyon. I was not disappointed with Mary Colter’s Watchtower but with the view: hazy sky, massive landscape, crowded, and not as intimate as Zion and Bryce.
The next morning, we hiked a section of the Bright Angel Trail. The shadows of dark threatening rain clouds chased each other across the canyon walls. Walking down the trail looking at the colored rock layers that made up the cliff faces, I thought about the Grand Staircase and the geological layers. Like a private library with books piled on top of each other these layers contained stories of wild weather, earthquakes, and of life itself evolving. A vision of my childhood visits to my grandmother’s came into my head. I loved pulling out the few photo albums that she kept on an old oval oak table in the living room. I would carefully study the pictures looking for familiar resemblances and trying to make meaning out of this business of life. As the first drops of an historic rain storm (Apparently it never rains in Arizona in June.) touched my hand and then my arm, I thought, “Ah, these geological layers are like my grandmother’s photo albums.” Piled one upon the other, they hold the mysteries and secrets that Earth has been collecting since her creation. At that moment I wished for the knowledge and the time to read the layers of the geological Grand Staircase and the three parks that are keepers of Earth’s stories in that part of our world.
© Copyright 2017 Tori Peters